Archive for June, 2014

Most politicians are willing to kill to get elected and stay in office. I note this now because of the rhetoric coming from the Republican gubernatorial candidates here in Colorado. But it is by no means a partisan sentiment. Politicians both Democrat and Republican support the death penalty. They do so, perhaps because it is what is true for them.

They may also do so because we the people support it, in the majority. We citizens also are willing to kill – not only willing, but at least in some cases righteous and eager to mete out death as a cure and answer to criminality. This is understandable. We want to lash out with great ferocity against disgusting and appalling killings, especially when they have so brutally ended the lives of our dear ones.

There are people who are so dangerous, who have committed such horrors, killing young and old, children, women, and men, that they need to be stopped in their tracks. But the death penalty is not a matter of stopping. That can be done with prison. The death penalty is considered a deterrent. And it is offered as a path to closure and even revenge to families, friends, and loved ones of the victims of the most horrible murders (phrases are used such as “they will pay for their crime”). Neither of these, however, is well-supported by any study of the matter. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. It is not a deterrent. And while it may bring revenge (is this what we want for our society?), it does not bring closure. (There is evidence that what does bring closure is work like addressing trauma and doing restorative justice.)

In addition, the death penalty is not courageous. It is one thing to kill someone in open combat, or when they are immediately threatening your life. I do not support that kind of killing either (it is another discussion), but it makes more sense then the death penalty. Here we have a person “in a cage” of prison and then we slowly and bureaucratically work toward killing them, and finally in some cases actually kill them. How demeaning this must be for the participants, to spend their days in such work and mindset. What is the meditation of the heart required to slowly kill someone through legislative process? What does this do to the human spirit?

This is all apart from the reality that more and more death convictions have proved to be faulty and even completely false.

The death penalty seems to me to be a kind of addiction. We’re used to it, we think it feels good or satisfying, but it leaves us empty and strung out as the years go by. It is full of false promise. In the end, it is simply adding killing to killing. Rather let us consider how we may remove killing from our social practice altogether. May we step our way out of this addiction and into something more satisfactory and substantial for dealing with the most horrifying of crimes among us.

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Mennonite sanctions?

Sanctions in the Mennonite way

June 3, 2014

As is the case during most church conflicts, there has been talk about the denomination creating sanctions around our conference’s action to license Theda Good toward ordination. I have often said that excommunication is the Mennonite movement’s “original sin”. It’s something we definitely inherited from the Roman Catholic church. The idea of dissociating with the “unredeemed” is already in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527. An entire article is devoted to the practice of the “ban.”

It is understandable that we don’t want to associate with people who are doing things we deem destructive or undermining of our life together. But my impression is (unscientific and anecdotal!) that exercising the ban or excommunication or other sanctions has not generally enriched and strengthened the life of the church or made us more grace-filled and joyful. Rather, it has pretty consistently been a short-circuit for a conversation that really needed to be had, a conversation that perhaps the Holy Spirit was inviting us into! This does not mean we never ask or require people to stop behaviors, even including attendance or participation in church. Sometimes there may be behavior that is so immediately egregious and destructive that it simply will not work to let the person be among us. But in my experience, that is an extraordinarily rare circumstance.

Far more common are differences, and I would say honest differences, in Biblical and theological interpretation. It is not a matter of simply disruptive behavior, but a debate of life and ethics and shared faith. Here I think the Ban, etc., has served us extremely poorly. Here is where conversations that might have been had and understandings that might have been deepened are simply cut off because of lack of emotional and social capacity to carry on a difficult conversation.

These conversations often have as their underpinning the question about “who are we” as a church? Are we a peace church that does not go to war? Are we a church of Jesus Christ? Are we a church that reads the Bible? Are we a church of radical and caring community? Those definitions seem to go to the heart of what it means to be Mennonite. We probably will find our way to some sense of agreement and collaboration around these questions or we simply won’t feel “Mennonite” anymore. But questions of Sunday School and insurance and divorce and the sex of leaders and the sexuality of leaders may not go to the very core of who we are. In fact, in retrospect, many of these arguments look like they erupted more from the anxiety of their time rather than the wisdom of their time. So extensive conversation over a long period of time often may be desirable, and may make us stronger. I think in the cases of many “topics of the day” long conversation and deep listening is far preferable to the cut-off of the Ban or something like it.

There are sanctions I do accept in my life. But they are not at all motivated by the Ban or anything like it. When I come to recognize that I have conspired with a system or institution in the process of my own diminishment, it is so important and wonderful to have that brought home to me. Diminish no more! Have courage and love! Am I living my life divided from that which I know in some way to be the truth of Christ for my life? Am I letting fear or ambition or peer pressure keep me from the expression of that deep, resonant Christ-self? If so, I live divided from the very thing that would give me life – the great fountain of joy of Jesus Christ in my heart! Having that brought home to me so that I realize it is so lovely and important.

But how are these lessons learned? In my experience, the great teaching does not happen by way of official sanctions of various sorts. Rather, what generates true growth and change is a deeper and better quality of listening and conversation. These practices create a space for my soul to “show up” in ways that are more honest and open.

(Thanks to Parker Palmer for some of the key understandings in this article, especially the ideas of diminishment of self, living divided, and of the soul showing up.)

CMCL trip 1-05 005


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