Expand the conversation on human sexuality
Leadership: A word from Mennonite Church USA leadersby Richard Thomas
It is increasingly clear that we see the world and read the Bible through the lens of our life. These musings come from the lens of my reading and life experience during the past year.
I live in Lancaster, Pa., where human sexuality is in the local newspaper on a daily basis. This newspaper recently made news by deciding to print same-sex engagements to bring it into alignment with changing community standards. It included stories of President Obama supporting same-sex marriage and Exodus International announcing its move away from reparative therapy. The Episcopal Church adopted a blessing for same-sex unions, and by a narrow vote Presbyterian Church USA maintained its current definition of marriage.
But the bigger news here has been sexual abuse. The Monsignor of the Catholic Diocese of Philadelphia was found guilty for not taking appropriate action to protect victims of sexual abuse. The biggest story has been about Penn State University covering up sexual abuse for 14 years, allowing more boys to become victims.
At a personal level, I serve as superintendent of Lancaster Mennonite School (LMS), and we faced our own sexual misconduct crisis during the past year. An assistant high school principal was fired for sexually abusing several international students who were living in his home. Also, we have worked with primary school-age children who are filled with rage because of sexual abuse, often by a relative, such as a grandfather.
These LMS experiences make the stories of sexual abuse more real to me than just reading about them in the newspaper. Also, my conversations with friends who are sexually attracted to people of the same sex make LGBT questions more than abstract discussions for me.
As a result of the LMS experience, quite a few people have shared their own stories with me regarding sexual abuse they experienced. Based on this sharing, I have no doubt it is true that 25 percent of women and 15 percent of men in our congregations have experienced some form of sexual abuse.
It seems clear that sexual abuse can be decreased if we own what is happening, implement policies to maintain sexual boundaries and develop a culture where there is openness about human sexuality rather than silence and shame. This change will require us to focus on helping and protecting victims rather than quickly working to restore the perpetrator.
From my lens, we as a church have been too silent on sexual issues that impact many in our midst and instead have talked past each other on LGBT questions. My experience calls us to focus more broadly on human sexuality, of which same-sex attraction is just one important question.
Our lenses differ, and because of the complexity of the issue of same-sex attraction and biblical interpretation, we are not likely to quickly achieve consensus on that question. However, we must be clear that we will not tolerate homophobic attitudes and that, in spite of our differences, we will demonstrate the power of Christian love and biblical faithfulness by remaining in loving conversation and discernment rather than splintering and separating.
Regardless of our lens on life, we can agree that sexual abuse by anyone is sin, and we are called by the power of the Spirit to cultivate communities of openness and accountability in our local congregations, schools and other institutions. Such communities are crucial in creating a positive environment for faith formation.
I am encouraged by efforts to make our churches safe places, especially for our children. Many congregations are reviewing and updating their child protection policies. Mennonite Church USA offers resources to empower and equip faith communities to keep children and youth safe at www.dovesnest.net.
Excellent resources from MennoMedia and Mennonite Central Committee are also available, and there are many gifted people across the church who are providing wise counsel. Two such people in the LMS setting were Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz of MCC and Jim S. Amstutz, pastor of Akron (Pa.) Mennonite Church.
All this movement in our church is encouraging to me and increases our capacity to be people of healing and hope.
Dick Thomas is moderator of Mennonite Church USA and a graduate of Penn State University.
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