by Gerald J. Mast
The Messiah has already arrived, the messianic event has already happened, but its presence contains within itself another time, which stretches its parousia, not in order to defer it, but, on the contrary, to make it graspable.
—Giorgio Agamben, 71
Fifteen years ago, I published an essay in the Mennonite Quarterly Review that described the conflict over “homosexuality” in the Mennonite Church during the eighties and nineties in terms of the struggle to maintain or reduce complexity in the church’s public discourse (April 1998). Complexity-maintaining arguments seek to include opposing viewpoints and experiences as part of the social group with which the audience is identified (i.e. the Mennonite Church). Complexity-reducing arguments seek to exclude opponents from the social group with which the audience is identified.
Both sides of the argument over homosexuality used complexity-reducing arguments, according to my analysis. Those arguing for inclusion judged their opponents as homophobic and therefore hateful while those arguing against inclusion claimed that homosexuality was sinful and therefore immoral. At the same time, people on both sides of the debate also offered complexity-maintaining arguments, acknowledging that genuine Christians had honest differences of opinion about the matter and seeking to maintain discussion among differing perspectives.
The official position on gay and lesbian sexuality that emerged within the denominations that became Mennonite Church USA was a traditionalist complexity-maintaining position, as I read it. The membership guidelines for the denomination held the “teaching position” of the church to be that: 1) sexual intimacy is reserved for heterosexual marriage (a traditionalist perspective) and 2) the church should be in dialogue with those who hold differing views about this matter (a complexity- maintaining position). If my characterization is correct here, the official public position of Mennonite Church USA has been to include the opponents of the church’s official position within the church as partners in dialogue—an interpretation of the official position that was confirmed by Dick Thomas’s acknowledgement during the Phoenix demonstration that he is the moderator of the whole church and that Pink Menno is part of that church.
During the past several decades and throughout the denomination there have been repeated efforts by various groups within the church to reduce the complexity of the denomination’s position. On the one hand, there have been many moves to discipline and exclude congregations from Mennonite Church conferences based on the first part of the teaching position stated in the membership guidelines, which is focused on maintaining traditional marriage. And, on the other hand, these practices of exclusion have been condemned by others based on the second part of the teaching position that is focused on dialogue.
The desire of many to reduce or subvert complexity should not surprise us, based on what we know about how social identity works. Since social identity is symbolic, and symbolic action is based in binary oppositions, it is very difficult to know who I am without making assumptions about what I am not. For example, racial identity is based on the opposition between whiteness and blackness; gender identity is based on male/female polarity; religious identity assumes a contrast between believers and unbelievers; sexual identity is grounded in the distinction between “straight” and “queer,” conservatives know they are not liberals, and so on. The American rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke puts this principle of identity very simply in his book The Rhetoric of Motives: “Identification is affirmed precisely because there is division” (22). Burke explains that in either pure identification or complete separation from the other, there is no conflict because in either case the other is no threat.
However, as Burke also points out, when you “put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins,” you have a rhetorical situation—one that is open to persuasion and transformation (25). The preponderance of recent social theory, particularly those lines of inquiry shaped by thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Žižek, and Judith Butler, asserts that in fact social identity is always unstable and under threat exactly because the social self is dependent for self understanding on that from which it is divided. Butler, in particular, has emphasized how the Other that poses a threat to me is necessary for my own social/symbolic existence. I cannot know who I am as a man except for the woman; I cannot know who I am as a European-American without the African-American. There is, in other words, no such thing as pure identification or separation. All identity is what Žižek calls a “fragile absolute”—partial and temporal and therefore susceptible to change and challenge.
This brief excursion into social theory has a purpose. It explains the magnitude of the rhetorical and structural obstacles faced by Pink Menno and other GLBTQ support groups in Mennonite Church USA conferences and institutions. And it also explains how what seems impossible (the full inclusion of GLBTQ people in the life of the church) is also ultimately a likely outcome—especially if advocacy groups continue to pursue the rhetorical strategies undertaken thus far by Pink Menno.
Here’s the challenge. Mennonite Church USA was founded in what René Girard might call an act of collective violence: the official exclusion of GLBTQ people from full participation in the church. At the time the denomination was formed, GLBTQ activism was seen as one of the greatest strategic threats to the church’s viability; hence, an entire separate section of the membership guidelines was devoted to “clarification of some issues related to homosexuality and membership,” a clarification that concluded by forbidding Mennonite Church USA pastors from performing same sex covenant ceremonies. This section in the membership guidelines appears to have been offered as a concession to conservative area conferences and constituencies that were regarded as necessary to the formation of the denomination. Hence, the denomination at its founding made GLBTQ people and communities a kind of sacrificial scapegoat for all of the fears about denominational faithlessness and decline that threatened to thwart support for the new denomination. “We’ll show that we are morally serious by forbidding same-sex ceremonies,” the leadership seemed to be saying in the membership guidelines.
This rhetoric of scapegoating, once unleashed, proved ubiquitous. In recent years, church leaders and members have been urged to show moral seriousness about such sins as racism and xenophobia by continuing to exclude GLBTQ people and communities from full participation. Such an appeal is powerful precisely because the Mennonite Church has been and continues to be guilty of racism and xenophobia, and the calls for repentance on these fronts are urgent. In such a context the rhetoric of scapegoating offers a persuasive complexity-reducing discourse: otherwise competing or conflicting subgroups or conferences within the church (for example, privileged white conservative communities and some racial/ethnic churches and leaders) can find solidarity and identification with one another in common opposition to GLBTQ sexuality and membership. Because Pink Menno signifies largely as a white middle class “birthright” Mennonite group, it struggles for credibility to challenge this scapegoating rhetoric; perhaps especially because even though it is officially excluded from full participation in the denomination, it nevertheless informally benefits from privileges that attach to its class, race, and ethnic location within the church.
But here’s the good news for Pink Menno, and for the whole church. As already noted, the membership guidelines upon which the denomination was founded also require the church to be in dialogue with those who hold differing views. In other words, the church recognizes the possibility, at least as a subtext, that its exclusion of GLBTQ people is wrong and that—as the Purdue/Saskatoon statements on human sexuality cited by the membership guidelines explicitly grant—“the Holy Spirit may lead us to further truth and repentance.”
While earlier forms of GLBTQ protest rightly spoke to the church largely from a position outside the church dictated by the church’s teaching position on homosexuality (and by the repeated excommunications of welcoming congregations from denominational conferences), Pink Menno has addressed the church primarily from a location inside the church assumed by the church’s teaching position requiring dialogue with GLBTQ people. Rather than be limited by the church’s refusal to grant official sanction to GLBTQ supportive organizations, Pink Menno has found ways to make GLBTQ people and their allies visible within the denominational gatherings and networks of the Mennonite Church. By wearing pink, Pink Menno activists and supporters signify as church members and delegates who are already inside the church, already claiming a place at the table, already offering leadership, already pastoring and ministering and offering God’s grace to the world.
There is much that is hopeful and promising about Pink Menno’s emerging forms of public communication and witness within the Mennonite Church. This promise is amplified by attentiveness to the enormous challenges and dead ends described thus far. To reiterate, complexity-reducing rhetoric, which is always a temptation, leads to a social identity based on two sides, us versus them, an identity based on the exclusion or vilification of the enemy. Complexity-maintaining rhetoric, as in the church’s official position, typically trends toward a social identity based in tolerance, where the Other is rendered as simply different or separate and therefore not relevant to my life. While complexity-reducing rhetoric leads to zealotry, complexity-maintaining rhetoric leads to individualism. Furthermore, as most modern social movements have discovered, the demand for justice by one group is often experienced as a threat to the advancement of other groups who share some version of the margin. For example, already in the 19th century, American middle-class women who participated in the abolition movement were positioned as needing to choose between advancing the suffrage of white women or that of black men.
How can the church or any social/political community break out of these traps on which social identity founders and is founded? How can our advocacy for inclusion be posed in a way that neither judges nor absolves, that neither threatens nor capitulates? How can our desire for justice for one community or people be framed in a way that is not posed against the hopes and aspirations of other communities and peoples? How can a community offer its members an identity that is based neither on exclusion nor on individualism? These are questions that are also being asked by numerous political and social theorists in the wake of the limits experienced by movements for social change originating in the sixties and seventies. Many of these theorists, such as Slavoj Žižek, Giorgio Agamben, and Alain Badiou, have turned to the New Testament, especially the Pauline epistles, as a source of renewal and strategic hope.
Paul faced many of the same challenges that postmodern social justice movements face. He struggled to incorporate Gentile sinners into the Jewish people, without undermining the gifts of Jewish ethnicity and law, and while respecting Gentile ethnicity and customs. The emergence of Jewish Christian communities also ended up challenging other conventions of identity, including male/female role distinctions and master/slave relations, each of which were not only matters of identity but also questions of justice.
The basis of Paul’s advocacy, as we know, was a renouncing of the human point of view (II Corinthians 5:16) in order to become identified with Jesus Christ and with Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. The human point of view is the point of view that is trapped in the symbolic world of threat and dependency, needing the Other from whom you are nevertheless necessarily alienated in order to socially exist. The Mennonite Church feels threatened by the GLBTQ people who it nonetheless needs in order to define what it is not; this is a human point of view. GLBTQ people feel threatened by an exclusionary church whose inclusion they seek, yet whose exclusion defines them; this is a human point of view. GLBTQ advocacy is posed against anti-racism; this is a human point of view.
In Pauline rhetoric, Jew/Greek, male/female, and master/slave polarities have been relativized through identification with Christ—the God who suffered on the cross, absorbing the sin and division of humanity, and reconciling “both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Ephesians 2:16). The resulting household of faith through Jesus Christ abolishes the law and its commandments, welcomes strangers and aliens, and gives birth to a new humanity, based on the embrace of all who are otherwise rejected in the exclusionary societies of the fallen and failing world. The church is therefore a community of the left out and the left behind; a gathering of the lost and the last and the least; a dwelling place for God.
Of course, the church continues to fail in its mission to be this community of those with no community, this people who had not previously been a people (I Peter 2:10). The practice and proclamation of the liberating and saving and reconciling Word of God that is the church’s mission sometimes bears more fruit in the world beyond the church than in the life of the church itself. Yet, despite its tendency to absorb the world’s divisions and anxieties, the church from time to time exceeds itself and ends up making visible the unsurpassable love of God displayed in the life of Jesus Christ. Giorgio Agamben defines such manifestations as the arrival of the messianic event, in which what Christ has accomplished reaches into our own time and transforms that time into an experience of eternity—when the peaceable reign of God actually grasps us and reconciles us with one another.
So, when the members of Pink Menno presented themselves quietly in the assembly of Mennonites gathered in Phoenix, carrying on their bodies the images of those who had been excluded from full participation in the life of the church, they offered the Mennonite Church an opportunity to be reconciled with its constitutive enemy, an invitation to renounce a human point of view—if only for that moment, and to receive with gratitude the gifts of counsel and witness and presence that GLBTQ people offer the church. At Phoenix, for a few miraculous and Spirit-saturated moments, the Mennonite Church accepted this offer, with silence and prayers and tears. And the Messiah appeared in our time and place, took on flesh and dwelled among us, thanks be to God.
Agamben, Giorgio. The Time That Remains. Stanford University Press, 2005.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
Mast, Gerald J. “Mennonite Public Discourse and the Conflicts Over Homosexuality,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 72.2 (April 1998), 275-300.
Zizek, Slavoj. The Fragile Absolute—or Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? London: Verson, 2000.