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The Phoenix Decision: a catalyst for something new to rise?

posted by Tim Nafziger on 01/10/11 at 01:09 PM

 

On Jan. 8, the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board decided to hold Mennonite Church USA’s 2013 convention in Phoenix, thus saving the $300,000 deposit that otherwise would have been lost. Any delegates who feel unsafe (or uncomfortable) meeting in Phoenix due to Arizona's targeting of the Latino community will be shepherded to a "satellite" gathering at an unspecified location. Thus, their marginalization will move from the realm of metaphor to a literal, physical fact. The decision is a real triumph of institutional logic.

As I read the news in my inbox this morning, I felt something inside me drop. I realized that I had let myself hope that the Executive Board might listen to the clear message from Iglesia Mennonita Hispana and many others. I had let myself hope that this decision would be different from the decision to move ahead with the building in Elkhart, Ind., last year. I let myself hope that the institution could remember itself as the beloved community and take a prophetic stand with a real cost.

If you're looking for a further critique and de-construction of the decision, I recommend, Andy Alexis-Baker's piece Becoming Anabaptist: A Protest to the Mennonite Church. I want to focus elsewhere in the remainder of this piece.

What now?

In processing this decision, I notice a shift in myself and already heard a similar sentiment from others. Last year, many of us put a lot of energy and time into trying to convince Mennonite Church USA institutions to shift as part of the Spark Renewal movement. As I sit with the Phoenix decision and read some of the response, I feel a sense of release where I did not expect it. Perhaps it is time to stop focusing on trying to change or influence the Mennonite institutional structures and focus instead on building an alternative community outside of the shell of the old.

Trying to affect the institutions of Mennonite Church USA feels to me increasingly like a path to burn out and cynicism. Instead, focusing our energy on building an Anabaptist network outside of traditional denominational structures is a hopeful and life-giving alternative.

Over the last month, Mennonite Weekly Review has had a series of four blog posts responding to an article from Myron Augsburger calling for a non-institutional Anabaptist alliance. Augburger's vision is big and sweeping, including all existing Mennonite denominations from Old Order Mennonites to Church of the Brethren. While this sort of grand alliance is exciting, I find the focus on those denominational structures is distracting. We can't wait for these structures to yield themselves up in some scheme of grand unification. Rather, as ">Mark van Steenwyk suggests, let us notice the myriad small ways in which this network is already happening.

I've been dreaming in this direction ever since I worked with the Anabaptist Network in the UK, a group that consciously names its goal of not becoming another institution. Over the past four years, I've seen the filaments of a similar network here in the United States begin to coalesce, interweave and cross-pollinate. Neo-Anabaptism is increasingly independent and outside of the traditional Anabaptist denominations. It challenges not only imperial Christianity, but the structures that go with it. In envisioning what this new creation looks like, I am reminded of Ched Myers and Elaine Enns reading of 2 Corinthians 5:16-17:

The flesh (Gk. sarx) does not refer to our bodies or our sexual passions, the widespread misunderstanding of Christian pietism. Rather it is one of Paul's favorite metaphors for the deeply rooted, socially conditioned world- view we inherit from our upbringing. It is the sum total of personal and political constructs and conventions that define what it means to be a member of a given culture--in other words, the way most folk think and act. from Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Vol 1. p. 10 (emphasis in the original)

How much of our institutional logic is part of this sarx? Certainly the early Anabaptists had a clear sense of what they were being called out of. What can we learn from their critiques of the society around them? In the midst of the assimilation of traditional Mennonites, can we listen to the voices of non-cradle Mennonites calling us to a new creation? Today is the second day of "Hope for Change ... Hope for the Future", an unprecedented meeting of Mennonite racial/ethnic leaders in the United States. Let's listen carefully to what hope they offer. The Phoenix decision is a clarion call for Anabaptists committed to prophetic witness to shift our focus from the institutions to the new community that is rising up.

Nafziger_tim_2_thumbnail Tim Nafziger is passionate about gathering people with shared values to work together for change in our communities and our world. One such space is Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) where he works as interim assistant director. Tim lives with his wife Charletta in the Ojai Valley in southern California where they connect with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministires. Tim has written chapters in Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship; Fear or Freedom?: Why a Warring Church Must Change; and 118 Days: Christian Peacemaker Teams Held Hostage in Iraq. His photo portfolio is at timnafziger.com. You can follow Tim on Twitter at @tim_nafziger

Reader Comments

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  • Posted by marpeck at Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 03:46 PM

    Do you know who voted which way on Board of Directors?

  • Posted by timjn at Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 05:25 PM

    Marpeck, the original article here lists those who voted against, but not for:

     

    http://www.themennonite.org/issues/14-01/articles/Convention_2013_will_be_held_in_Phoenix

     

    There are requests in the comments on that article to list the names of those who voted for the decision as well.

  • Posted by aaron.kauffman at Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 07:55 PM

    I also see potential value in some kind of Anabaptist alliance/network here in North America. But I wonder about your criticism of "institutions." Any movement that takes on some form of organization and exists across time becomes an institution of sorts, regardless of its members' intentions. Would a North American Neo-Anabaptist network be morally superior to the structures of MCUSA? Maybe so, maybe not. The desire to abandon MCUSA in search of some purer form of Neo-Anabaptism follows the same logic that has led to the splintered Anabaptist groups Myron Augsburger is trying to unite today. The schismatic tendencies of our Anabaptist forebears are a feature I hope we choose not to emulate. I would encourage you to be a bit more insistent on representing the views of your opponents fairly, a bit more patient in your efforts to reform Mennonite institutions, and a bit more reticent to claim the mantle of early Anabaptism.

  • Posted by timjn at Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 04:44 PM

    Aaron,

     

    I believe that there is increasingly hope and opportunity for networks that are not as centered around bureaucracy as Mennonite institutions have become. I'm sure they would have their own moral failings and I wouldn't use the term "purity" to describe my hopes. If you're interested in reading more about where I'm coming from on this, my blog post here goes into greater detail:

     

    Bureaucracy, Resurrection, and Mennonite Church USA

     

    As far as the schismatic history of Mennonites goes, I responded to a blog post with a similar sentiment to yours here: http://emu.edu/blog/work-and-hope/2011/01/11/when-the-enemy-is-within/#comment-1496. Here's a relevant paragraphs from it:

     

    I think your reminder of the fractious tendency in the Mennonite church’s history is an important one. It is a legacy that I reflect on often, especially in relation to similar tendencies on the political left. I can see how you read my blog post as a continuation of that polarization given the sentences you quote. So let me be clear: I’m deeply committed to staying in relationship with my fellow Mennonites. I hope that any experimentation in new ways of being Anabaptist together can co-exist with existing structures. Many of the Anabaptist experiments I’ve already been part of in the last few years have drawn strength, resources and inspiration from existing Mennonite organizations, including the Anabaptist Network in the UK.

  • Posted by dhwert at Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 09:05 PM

    Hi Tim, as usual I am challenged and inspired by your passionate and articulate writings. (First, though, I should point out that two of your weblinks (bloggers) are dead.)

    I find an interesting irony in your desire to "build the new in the shell of the old" Mennonite Church. Where did you learn about that quasi-Anabaptist idea, I wonder? A Mennonite institution? (I certainly did.) But to be more serious, I don't really think this represents much of a change for you. Spark Renewal was already doing this (building an alternative community on the outside). As I did during those discussions, I want to challenge you to do the hard work of getting involved *in* the “institutions” you dislike so much. Until you do that, I find it hard to take your critiques seriously, because you are speaking of what you do not know firsthand.

    Having been a young activist who raged at the machine as well as a member of that machine (conference board chair), I have experienced both sides. Until I lived in the role of "church leader", I couldn't know the kinds of challenges it really involved. For one, it’s hard to lead when no one follows. Most of the time, it’s just apathy and busy-ness that keeps people from getting involved. But once you make a decision that ticks people off, they’re more than happy to complain (but still not get involved).

    If you really want to be counter-cultural in this day and age, get involved in an organization and stick with it, helping move it (often slowly and painfully, ‘tis true) the direction you want it to go. Of course, now I’m writing more for the others who may read this page, since I know you already do this with CPT. For that, I applaud you. But I also think that MC USA and/or your area conference could use you, too. Your gifts and passion are in high demand. If you lived in the PNMC, I’d (try to) get you on some sort of leadership committee ASAP!

    Still, though, I find your lauding of Neo-Anabaptist communities as superior to institutional denominations to be faulty on a number of levels:

    1) MC USA has a clear leadership and accountability structure. Anyone can find out who the leaders are, contact them, share their thoughts, complain, etc. The leadership is very transparent. The Leadership Discernment Committee is always looking for people to fill the roles; it’s not like these are powerful positions that everyone is clamoring for and no one can get! They are mostly time-consuming, thankless roles that are difficult to fill.

    The same cannot be said for a fluid, “leader-less” network. There is often little transparency and less accountability. Just because the organization is a loosely-connected network railing against “the Powers” doesn’t mean it doesn’t have power that needs to be used carefully. At least in MC USA, this is done with a high degree of visibility and accountability.

    2) From observing organizations through the years, I have come to believe that most of the difference between a loosely-connected network and a bureaucratic institution is the number of years it has been functioning and/or its size. A group of humans working together toward any goal is an endangered species at some level. It’s just hard to keep imperfect people together over time. To do so, we come to agreements on how to behave so we don’t mistreat each other or abuse our power (policies, guidelines, and laws), we set up ongoing leadership structures so the organization doesn’t fall apart when leaders burn out or leave or die and we make them shared in structure so one person doesn’t have too much power or responsibility (committees, boards, legislatures, etc.), and when the group grows successful and the amount of things that the group is doing gets too large for one person or committee to keep track of, we form structures to help facilitate the management of these activities and keep them operating within the mission of the original organization (staff management structures, bureaucracies, etc.).

    Okay, that got long, but the point is, even a “network” is going to face the same challenges that every other organization faces, and I, for one, don’t think it’s automatically “selling out” or “losing its focus” if this network, over time, becomes more “institutional” or “bureaucratic”. In fact, I think that good institutions probably do more good work in the world than loosely-connected networks. There’s certainly a place for the networks (I’m involved with a few), but I don’t think they’re inherently better.

    3) There are *already* plenty of “Neo-Anabaptist” networks, and most of them wouldn’t welcome you or me to come near them, thanks to some of our more progressive views. Have you seen the Mennonite Church Directory, Christian Light Publications? It’s a directory of all the “true” Mennos, I guess, since it doesn’t include MC USA. (But it does include 23 other groups and conferences.) If you leave MC USA, you just become one of 24 other “Anabaptist” groups, each one feeling it’s more correct than the rest.

    4) Any time someone describes Anabaptism as a unitary thing, either historically or in the present, I have to wonder what they’re trying to sell me. Precisely because it is not an institution, “Anabaptism” can be defined by anyone in whatever way suits their fancy, like “organic” before it got institutionalized (which was a good thing for consumers). Thus, if you are claiming that Anabaptists were anti-institutional , *in general*, you’ll have to substantiate this with more than a vague assertion.

    Finally, Tim, I simply disagree with your final assertion, as if the only way to be an “Anabaptist committed to prophetic witness” is to boycott Phoenix 2013 rather than to do something creative and prophetic *in* Babylon (i.e., Arizona). The Phoenix decision neither precludes nor requires prophetic witness. Thankfully, that’s not up to the Executive Board; that’s up to you and me and thousands of other Mennonites. -Dave Hockman-Wert, Corvallis, Ore.

  • Posted by timjn at Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 03:50 PM

    dhwert,

     

    I appreciate your clear naming of two particular trends:

     

    Our involvement in institutions shape the way we view institutional decision making

     

    I agree, If I spent many years working within Mennonite Church USA, I would become more sympathetic the decisions made by the organization. Institutions shape those within them in very strong ways. You paint a very good autobiographical portrait of of the powerful force that institutions exert on those within them. The classic Stanford Prison experiment is another example . I've certainly been shaped in many ways by the three years I've spent working as part of the staff of Christian Peacemaker Teams.

     

    However, I don't agree with you that the institutional shaping of individuals who are a part of it is something to be unquestioningly embraced. It has its benefits, but it also has its problems. The critique of someone who has been embedded in an organization for 10 years is not automatically more valid then someone on the outside.

     

    On top of this, Mennonite institutions in the United States were built almost exclusively by white, middle class men. They have stretched to accommodate women and people of color over time, but they must accommodate themselves to the culture of these institution. Perhaps, over time, the institutional culture will shift by their presence, but at this point the pressure towards assimilation is much stronger.

     

    Tendency of loose networks to become institutions

     

    I agree, in our culture and our time, there is a strong pressure on loose networks to become institutions. I don't think this is human nature, but it is certainly the current nature of Western civilization. Institutions are necessary for those who want to accomplish certain tasks in today's society. My problem is the with the unexamined drift in this direction: the assumption that this drift is always necessary and always good. This has been the trend in the Mennonite Church for the last hundred years or so and I've rarely heard serious questioning of this trend. I'll be writing more about this in future blog posts.

  • Posted by joseph.penner at Friday, January 21, 2011 at 05:15 PM

    I don’t think it’s helpful to suggest a commonality between the Stanford Prison Experiment and the experience of working as a leader in MCUSA. Dhwert’s lesson is not that the institution shaped him or caused him to enter some kind of separate moral universe. The lesson is simply that by getting involved you come to see that leading a diverse group is inherently difficult and also that the institutional checks and balances have important value, even if they keep it from being as nimble or prophetic as “loose networks.” I doubt that guards from the Stanford Prison Experiment are going around defending and justifying the types of institutional structures that legitimize amoral behavior. So I think a more proper statement would be that “Our involvement in *particular* institutions *informs* the way we view that particular institution’s decision-making.” In any case, I do think it’s healthy for an institution to have people on the fringes challenging leadership and advocating for particular causes. But it should be done in a way that respects the fact that leaders must listen to people on both sides.

  • Posted by dhwert at Friday, January 21, 2011 at 05:56 PM

    Hi Tim,

    I never said *anything* should be “unquestioningly embraced.” Those are mighty big words to put in someone's mouth. I’d be happy for you to tell me where I said that. Likewise, I didn’t say you have to spend “many years” working within MC USA, nor that it would make you automatically more sympathetic to the decisions made there.

    I merely meant that having experience in any group (network, institution, what have you), gives a person more context and understanding about that group than if they don't have that experience. Do you really think I should have as much say about CPT, for example, as Carol Rose or Doug Pritchard, even though I have no experience with CPT other than as a supporter? Sorry, I don’t believe that my critique is just as valid as theirs. Yes, Doug or Carol’s critiques may not be *automatically* or a priori better than mine, but since my critique will be made without the level of context and understanding that they have about the organization, it might be well-meaning, but unless I do a lot of homework about the organization’s history and culture and the specific dynamics of whatever difficult decision they are facing, it probably won’t be very meaningful.

    Thus, I will concede that it is theoretically possible that an outsider’s critique could be more relevant than an insider’s, but I think it is generally unlikely, especially if the outsider hasn’t taken the time to learn about how the organization functions and claims there is no need to do so.

    (As a brief aside, this is exactly why I encouraged Spark Renewal to do the hard work necessary to make a practical counter-proposal, because I gave you all enough credit to think you could get involved in the process meaningfully without having to be MC USA or MMN employees. However, since SR chose not to do that, I could not support its critique, because it did not address the relevant issues in a practical way.)

    Finally, just as I don’t support unquestioning embraces, neither do I support “unexamined drift” (not that you said I did). Examine away! My point in raising questions about the questions that you raise is twofold: 1) whether you realize it or not, your job as blogger on themennonite.org gives you a lot of power (e.g., yours is the only voice discussing “institutions”, so you are the one that gets to define the terms and scope of that discussion), and my questions and critiques are an attempt to hold you accountable for how you wield that power (i.e., what you write), and 2) I feel that some of your critiques are founded on shaky ground, not because your values and/or logic aren’t strong (they are!), but because sometimes you don’t seem to understand or appreciate the particular dynamics that MC USA leaders are facing.

    So that you don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying I expect you to *agree* with or even be “sympathetic to” the decisions that MC USA leaders make. (Ask folks involved in the “one Board” proposal how sympathetic I was to *that* proposal, if you think I’m some kind of sycophant.) In fact, what I’m trying to say is that I think you’ll be able to challenge and change MC USA’s institutions much more effectively if you have more understanding and appreciation of the particular challenges involved in leading MC USA. If you don’t have the interest or patience to do that, I don’t blame you. After “doing my time,” I’m not so sure I do either. But I’ll be a lot slower to criticize those who do make the effort, since I’m not sure I would want to be in their shoes.

    Thanks for the conversation.

    Shalom, Dave

  • Posted by dhwert at Friday, January 21, 2011 at 06:00 PM

    On a side note, I apologize for the long, unbroken paragraphs. I keep experimenting with the use of HTML tags, but they are not having the desired effect. Tim, please clue me in on how you add the line spacing. -- Thanks, Dave

  • Posted by dchristner at Wednesday, February 09, 2011 at 07:24 PM

    I am from Phoenix. I was raised Mennonite. I am saddened that you believe everything the media exploits! We do NOT target Latinos!!!! That is bunk!

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