There was a 1980s cult film about a man who finds a pair of sunglasses which allows him to see subliminal messages in mass media. In this science fiction movie, “They Live,” the protagonist learns that world is run by aliens, along with human collaborators, who use billboards and television to control the population. The protagonist, now that he is awakened to this truth, goes on a mission to free people.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever watched the entire movie. It was before my time. But, from the bits and pieces that I’ve seen, it is basically a commentary on our mind-numbing American consumerism and political propaganda. It is trying to show how mass media is used by social elites to manipulate and manage people.
Anyhow, for a moment, yesterday, I thought somehow I had landed in that movie and posted the following on social media to describe the experience:
“Was out on the road today and saw a billboard with the word “Obey” in large print. I thought, for a moment, that I was in the 1980s movie, “They Live,” in which the protagonist finds special glasses that allow him to see what really is. In the film the world is controlled by aliens who manipulate people to conform. As it turns out this was not my new vision that could see through the propaganda, but was a Christian Aid Ministries (Mennonite) evangelism effort aimed at professing Christians that do not live to their standards.”
Now, given that much of my friends list is still conservative Mennonite, who live mostly in their own religious cloister, I knew the risk of some missing the meaning and intended humor of the cultural reference. However, what I had not expected was the personal attacks against me and bizarre accusations of bashing CAM for stating the plain truth. What led to this severe reaction? Apparently, that last sentence, that this message was “aimed at professing Christians that do not live their standards,” which offended.
Standards are a sore subject for conservative Mennonites and most especially for the neo-Anabaptist types. Perhaps, had I used the word “doctrines” the howls of protest may have been more muted. Why? Well, the word “standards” is often associated with that multitude of extra-Biblical rules that some argue aren’t a matter of salvation and yet, despite this claim, are somehow important enough to be the cause of their countless church splits. But the bizarre part is that I didn’t say anything about their extra-Biblical standards and that’s what made the boisterous denials so interesting.
What does “Real Christians” actually mean?
The billboard proclaimed “Real Christians OBEY Jesus’ teachings,” citing Luke 6:46 as a reference. At face value that is the goal of all Christians, to obey Jesus, right? But it is this qualifying word “real” that indicates this is a loaded statement and more than just a reminder to be good Christians. The writer doesn’t want you to just be any kind of Christian. No, they want you to be a “real Christians” and quite obviously, unless this writer is at odds with themselves, it means to be like them.
There’s nothing wrong with that sentiment, St. Paul urged, “follow me as I follow Christ,” (1 Corinthians 11:1) and that would certainly mean to be a part of the same church body as him. It shouldn’t be a big controversy, when a Mennonite puts up a sign saying to be a “real Christian” they mean to be more like them, an Anabaptist. This would not even be a question if a billboard, with a similar message, were put up by a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness organization. So it is beyond disingenuous to insist that this use of “real Christian” has nothing to do with being more like Mennonites.
As someone who has spent decades of their own life amongst conservative Mennonites and other Anabaptist types, this notion that “we’re the real Christian” oozes out. And, more precisely, when they say “obey Jesus” what this ultimately means is agreeing with their Mennonite ‘doctrines’ of “non-conformity” and “non-resistance.” To them, this is just Biblical teaching, the clear extension of the commands of Jesus and, therefore, the most essential part of what it means to be real Christians.
So why deny it?
Why do some get up in arms over someone speaking this truth?
Why not be Mennonite and own it?
The real issue goes deeper. Mennonites, for various reasons, do not like to be identified as Mennonites. The term turns them into an ethnic tribe or mere subculture rather than the purer form. Whereas they would rather see themselves as simply being the only genuine Christians. The Holdeman Mennonites, calling themselves the Church of God in Christ, were more forthright in this regard and believed themselves to be the only true church. Other Mennonites aren’t as bold as to outright say that they’re the remnant church, but also do not fully embrace their common denominational label either.
The worst of the deniers try to discard the word “Mennonite” completely, despite this being their religious, cultural, and ethnic heritage. Modify the veil a little, ditch the capedress for another style of conservative dress, change the language, and suddenly they’re now the more authentic ‘Anabaptist’ who arrived at this particular emphasis by their own study of Scripture. This faux conversion is something born of insecurity from knowing that their own religious form is inherited. And yet, despite this, holding to a dogma of “Believer’s baptism” that causes cognitive dissonance if their being Mennonite isn’t completely a choice.
There’s also another possible reason why someone might deny their religious heritage and that is to fool their potential converts. In other words, a bait-and-switch tactic: 1) Tell inquirers that the group is all about following the example of Jesus, 2) shower them with attention and get them invested in the local fellowship, then 3) slowly shoulder them with those expectations that aren’t explicitly stated and yet required to be in Communion with them. This way they can use the established emotional connection as a tool for manipulation to later bring the new person into full compliance.
Let’s talk about those Mennonite doctrines…
What was most striking, and absolutely disturbing, about this recent encounter on social media, was how completely willing some were to question my faith and even to bear false witness to my face. For my infraction of saying that Mennonites are what they are, that they generally promote keeping their standards as being the definition of what it means to be a true Christian—for being an ex-Mennonite—one of their number went as far as to question if I was even a brother in Christ.
This, of course, is the grandest of ironies and starkly illustrates the disconnect between what adherents claim versus the reality of the practice.
First, they (two or more) wrongly interpreted my post as bashing CAM. But, instead of show love or turning the other cheek (as would be truly obeying what Jesus, right?), they attacked me personally and lied. Rather than address me directly and honestly, they would attempt to knock down strawman versions of what I said and pigeonhole me. Which is another reason why I don’t buy into the Mennonite ‘doctrine’ of non-resistant. It seems almost entirely about avoiding military service, giving them something to hold over other believers, and not all that practical or sincere.
In response to this empty non-resistance, it would be better to be the Roman Centurion that Jesus commended for his “great faith” than be the person who is a “conscientious objector” as a matter of cultural inheritance or convenience. It is noteworthy that Jesus, in the “Sermon on the Mount,” says not a word about wars between nations or about police doing their work, the examples given are what amount to insults and it seems to be about how we respond to our own personal enemies. So how this gets reversed, as part of Mennonite ‘doctrine,’ is strange.
And, so far as “non-conformity,” taken from St Paul’s “be not conformed to the world,” (Romans 12) the rest of the context does not at all support the most common ‘Anabaptist’ interpretation or application. In that context, there is no mention of clothing or style, but rather what this means is summed up in the second half of the verse where he says “but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” He goes on in the chapter to define this further, describing what this looks like in practice. It is about looking intentionally different or in-your-face billboards.
The Truth sets free!
The fictional “They Live” speaks of the reality that is hidden beneath political messaging and commercial advertising. It is almost routine now that the name of a new piece of legislation or branch of government is nearly the opposite of what it does. For example, the Defense Department leads the absolutely most aggressive military in the world. The Inflation Reduction Act has nothing to do with reducing inflation and will likely only increase costs as all subsidies tend to do. The ‘right’ words are always manipulation and cover their agenda.
But the reality is, most of us, and especially those brought up in a religious home and community, have great difficulty telling the truth. No, it is not that we set out to lie or mislead people, rather it is we have difficulty fully comprehending how corrupted our own hearts can be. We tend to see ourselves as being righteous and forget that even our Sunday best is filthy rags by comparison to true Holiness. We do not realize how much we are bound to our own confirmation bias and prejudices. This could be why Jesus said we leave behind even our families to follow Him:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26 NIV)
Taken literally this would be a contradiction with the many admonitions to love found in Scripture and the Gospels. I’m pretty sure the “hate” means to not be encumbered by or unable to see beyond our own heritage and most familiar to us. This means accepting that we may ourselves have an incorrect understanding of the Biblical texts. When Jesus spoke of those who cry “Lord Lord,” he isn’t speaking to those other “nominal Christians,” but to those who are sure that they represent His truth and do not.
Jesus said, in John 8:32, “the truth will set you free.” And, for this reason, it would be far better that Mennonite-borns embrace, rather than deny, the influence of their culture and tradition so far as the Christ that they are able to see. In doing this, in our understanding that what we received in doctrine or practice is not plain unadulterated Christianity, there is a far greater possibility of discovering our own blindspots and growing in faith. It is more comfortable to assume that we’re the real Christians. It is much harder to deal with our pride and repent.
Maybe you haven’t heard about the latest visual and verbal contrivance that has been bestowed upon us by the meme lords?
If not, White Boy Summer, has been making an appearance on my news feed, especially popular amongst the disenfranchised right of center males. It is mostly in fun, a poke at the color tribe obsessed, that started with a post by Chet Hanx, and has since evolved into a sort of pushback campaign against divisive identity politics with some actual white supremacist types joining in on the action. It is mostly just the typical alt-right silliness the feeds off far-left identity politics outrage.
As for myself, I’m still principled enough, in my opposition to color identity politics, to not to join in. No, that’s not at all to say I’m any better than those less idealistic and more open to this kind of humor. However, I can’t help but believe this is exactly what far-left fringe elements of the political spectrum had in mind when they started to affix “white” or “black” to various terms. Even as a joke it is reinforcing of their divisive narratives.
The Identity Politics Dilemma
That feedback loop is the insidious part of identity politics and tribalism. When one group of people starts to gang up, then others need to do the same or risk fighting a mob alone. A person doesn’t have to care one bit about skin color to not want to be the next Reginald Denny, a man beaten by four strangers because they hated people who looked like him. So we go down this spiral of increasing mistrust and polarization often leading to an escalation of hostilities.
In my own life time I’ve watched the tension grow between ‘white’ and ‘black’ people. It feels as if we have taken steps back, more people see relations deteriorating, most likely due largely to the intentionally divisive framing of news stories, and yet perception becomes reality as we react to this by being more conscious of color. Those who push racial or other identity division do it cynically, as part of their divide and conquer strategy, winding the two sides up to play them off each other while they use the ensuring chaos to take more power.
White and black should not be identities. It is superficial. It confuses culture with color and goes directly against everything gained in the Civil Rights era. I’m sorry, but a person only needs to be the slightest bit aware and marginally intelligent to realize that there are vast differences between individuals in these too generalized color categories. As someone born into the working class and a small religious subculture, I probably have more in common with most racial minorities than I do the American mainstream.
Call Me Stephanie
Stephanie is a wonderfully energetic and comedic person. She’s the receptionist and all around badass, in heels, employee for the place where I go for physical therapy and friend. Being my inquisitive self, knowing that she’s a cool person who laughs about her love for fried chicken, I had to ask her a little about what it is like for her (as a black woman) growing up in rural Pennsylvania.
The most significant thing that came from that conversation was her answer to the annoying (yet well meaning) questions she fields about her preferences regarding her identity. In other words, does she want to be called “black” or is “African-American” her preference? To which her witty response is “call me Stephanie.”
As a conservative Mennonite kid in a public school, who also had to field dozens of such ‘micro-aggressions’ or ignorant assumptions that undermined my individuality, I wanted to give her a hug. I also admire her for taking such things in stride. I’ll admit, I have not always handled similar things as graciously and let people get under my skin rather than just blow them off as ignorant. And for this reason I love Stephanie, she’s just a great person and all around good example.
To be honest, what she expressed is a big part of my own identity. When classmates tried to pigeonhole, bringing up my then side parted hair as being “Mennonite” style, I would resist their categories and changed to a different hairstyle. Despite my love for my strange religious denomination, I didn’t want to fit their stereotype for Mennonites and allow them to minimize my own uniqueness in the process. I may have been Mennonite, but I was also Joel and had my own mind separate from their generalizations.
Stop Coloring Everything!
There are some who, unlike Stephanie, love to wallow in their assigned categories. They both choose to be and then simultaneously resent being categorized. In other words, if something bad happens to someone who is superficially like them they’ll tribalize around that person and yet also not own the many reasons for differences of outcomes that are less than politically expedient.
Why should a college educated, reasonably law-abiding and responsible person ever see a drug addict or convicted rapist as being their own peer or clan?
That’s what drives me crazy about all of this color division, those who truly have more in common with me or even enjoying privileges that I do not, are so easily bamboozled into believing that our many similarities are less important than the color of our skin. The more troubling part being that to do that they have to ‘other’ me and not accept my own lived experience as equal to their’s. It is the very definition of dehumanization and ends any possibility of finding common ground that transcends our most obvious (most truly meaningless) difference.
I mean, does my exterior veneer actually make my own suffering, my many losses and disappointments, any less valid than that of someone else?
It isn’t fragility to reject the divisive color framing intended to keep us at odds. And, no, taking responsibility for our own future, two-parent homes and a work ethic are not indications of white privilege, rather it is the most probable and proven path out of poverty and laying the foundation for the success of future generations. That’s the big lie of divisive color terms. People, no matter their skin color, are not fundamentally different and those who try to convince us otherwise are only trying exploit our insecurities to keep us trapped under their games.
Conflict is everywhere, anywhere there are two are more gathered there is potential for conflict. We currently watch the lingering hostilities between the West and Russia unfold into open war in Ukraine, between people of a common Kyivan Rus’ religious and cultural heritage. The reasons are complex (watch this video for a deeper dive) and beyond the scope here.
Nevertheless, the same things that cause wars between nations also lead to schism and splits in the church, and despite the exhortation of St. Paul to make every effort to maintain unity:
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
(Ephesians 4:2-4 NIV)
If we would ask most who profess Christ, they would probably agree that the Church should be united, there should not be rifts or denominations, yet that’s probably where the agreement would end. The body of believers has split hundreds of different ways, over matters of theology, history, structure, worship style, politics, or personalities.
But, before we get to the broader conflicts and division within Christianity, I’ll confess that I’m currently in my own conflict. This is why I am both the right and the wrong person to write about this topic. I am the wrong person because the impasse has not been resolved yet despite a small gesture on the part of the other person. My anger has exasperated the issue. And yet I’m also still wanting to find peace with this other person and honest resolution.
Conflict is Nothing New or Unexpected
If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshipers.
(Psalms 55:12-14 NIV)
I believe we can all identify with the text above. We expect an enemy to do us harm and will find ways to maintain distance. However, when someone that we trust acts in a deliberately hurtful way, exploiting our vulnerabilities, the betrayal of a friend is the worst kind of pain. It is hard to come back to the table when someone professing Christ, who worshipped with us, seemingly close in spirit, totally destroys our trust.
That said, restoration of what is broken is part and parcel of Christianity. Indeed, we’re told that if we can’t forgive a person who owes us, then we will not be forgiven by God. (Matthew 6:4,5) This is something that Jesus expounded on in the parable of the unforgiving servant, a man who begs for mercy for a vast sum of money he owed, is forgiven, and then turns around to demand from a fellow servant.
And yet, no teaching of Jesus should be taken out of context either. Jesus was not, I repeat, was not telling us to sweep sin under a rug or not hold people accountable for their abuses. This certainly was not unilateral and unconditional forgiveness without repentance:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17 NIV)
So many conflicts within the Church could be solved if we would go directly to the other person who had caused our offense. This process above is prescriptive and may keep a mere misunderstanding from blowing up into something that leads to separation or divides a congregation. First, before consulting anyone else, we should try to settle the issue amongst ourselves. Then, if that doesn’t work, it is time to seek the counsel of others and confront together. And, if that fails, if they refuse collective council, we should part ways.
It is similar to this explicit command from St. Paul:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
(1 Corinthians 5:9-13 NIV)
Forgiveness is not the same thing as tolerance for unrepentant sin. The church cannot be a hospital if we let the infection of sin to spread, like a superbug, untreated and ignored. The antiseptic is to confront the issue, to give opportunity for confession and repentance to begin the healing process. But, if the limb refuses treatment, then (as an absolute last resort) it must be amputated to save the body, as St. Paul had asked rhetorically in the lead up to the verses above: “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?”
In cases of actual unrepentant sin, conflict is entirely appropriate. The church cannot be allowed to become an incubator for sin. The toxicity can quickly spread and destroy the fellowship and health of a congregation. It takes proactive pastoral involvement, like that of St. Paul, to keep things from spiraling out of control. Yes, we should pray about all things. Sure, we should not judge without mercy and willingness to forgive the repentant. Still, we must confront sin, endure the discomfort of effective conflict resolution, and not simply resign to fate.
Not All Separation is Sin
Too many seem to skip over the book of Acts and miss the opportunity to see how Christianity played out in the early church:
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.
(Acts 15:36-40 NIV)
This seemed like an amicable separation between Paul and Barnabas. Nevertheless, it was an unresolved conflict and they parted ways over it. There is no indication that either of the men was harboring an unforgiving spirit or in the wrong for this and, in the end, it probably helped the Gospel to reach more people than if they had stuck together. That is why with my own current conflict I may simply move on rather than make an effort to settle things. It is sometimes not worth the energy to continue with someone that does not see things the way we do.
Going separate ways, rather than trying to push through a conflict, may serve a greater purpose. At the very least, as with Abraham and Lot who parted ways over the turf wars between their respective herdsmen, we’ll gain a little peace. The key is that we don’t harbor ill-will or bring any hostilities with us Note that Paul and Barnabas did not go out and start competing church groups. They stayed within the same body of faith, carried on the same tradition, and simply moved in a different direction.
Is Ecumenicalism the Answer?
A church unified in teaching and mission should be the desire of all Christians. Some achieve this by declaring themselves the remnant and carrying on the great tradition of Diotrephes who turned away even the Apostles:
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.
(3 John 1:9-10 NIV)
Declaring yourself to be the true church and everyone else imposters is certainly convenient and yet not really employing be completely humble. I mean, sure, when I was Mennonite I wanted a church unity built around the doctrines that I was taught. It is easy to assume that the ground that we stand on is sacred simply because we’re standing on it. However, that is not an attitude or spirit that will ever overcome our existing conflicts.
Many are tempted to see ecumenicalism as the better alternative. Let’s all just give up on the particulars, find our common ground in Jesus, sing kumbaya while holding hands together, and move on, right?
But this is a race to the lowest common denominator, we would need to throw out almost everything to reach some kind of consensus. We would end up with a vague picture of the real Jesus and only end up creating one more faction. That’s the grand irony of universalist, non-denominational or ecumenical efforts, they never do actually solve the divisions and only end up creating another group of those willing to compromise for sake of creating a kind of unity that doesn’t really amount to much.
Eccumenticalism tends to be a denial of the reasons why the conflicts exist. It glosses over serious differences in theology and practice. It appeals to a “can’t we all just get along” sentiment, it is modeled off of the democratic process that many in our time embrace rather than the Gospel, and is not the way of the early church.
How Did the Early Church Settle Disputes?
The early church was not conflict-free. And had a fair amount of heretical teachings and false prophets that needed to be addressed. But one of the big disputes was between the Judiazers, those of Jewish background who wished to impose Jewish law on all new converts, and those who did not see this as necessary:
Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: “ ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’— things known from long ago. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
(Acts 15:1-19 NIV)
This conflict was not solved by democracy or popular vote. No, it was decided by a council of elders and Apostles, who then told the rest of the Church what the right approach would be. It also went against a strict interpretation and application of Scripture. It was both hierarchical and required submission. We might not like that this dispute was decided from the top down. We can question the authority of this council or those that followed after, nevertheless, this was how conflicts over theology and practice were settled.
This is the strength of Orthodoxy; Orthodoxy centers on the Orthodoxy rather than hierarchy and that does mean the tradition of the Apostles, passed on “by word of mouth or by letter,” (2 Thess. 2:15) a canon of teachings (including Scripture) that have been established as authentic through councils of the Church, and has been held fast by the faithful throughout the centuries.
So Orthodoxy is the Answer to Conflict?
Many Orthodox Christians will tout their unbroken lineage all that way back to the Apostles. Our way of worship goes back over a millennium, the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom celebrated from the 5th Century on and is unrivaled in terms of the beauty of the content and structure. We are the ancient Church tradition and, indeed, Holy Communion is a mystical experience when in the presence of all those through the centuries who have participated. Such unity!
We’ll talk about the Great Schism and do some of that necessary handwringing about the literally thousands of divisions within Protestantism. I mean, judge for yourself, is there any civilization more divided against itself than the West? Even Roman Catholicism, with its progressive Pope and sex abuse scandals, is quite at odds with itself despite having a defined hierarchical structure.
Had I entered Orthodoxy with blind idealism, expecting the perfect church, I would probably have left even before getting started. The Orthodox may have the richest of Christian traditions, it is certainly a treasure trove for those who appreciate history and want to participate in a Christianity recognizable to those in the early Church. There is also a defined hierarchy to settle disputes. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? And yet the same conflicts of personalities and politics happen here as much as anywhere else.
Pretty much simultaneous to my entering the fold, the Ukrainian Schism took place. The gist of the dispute was that the Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew decided unilaterally to grant autocephaly (or independence) to the Ukrainian church. The problem was that this overstepped canonical law and violated the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. For sake of context, Bartholomew is pretty much the patriarch of a city that no longer exists, is supported by American churches, and is acting outside of his authority in a way reminiscent of the very Papal abuse that led to the Great Schism between East and West in 1054.
And then there were those families that left my own parish, led by a homeschooling mom from a Protestant background, who made some vicious (and completely unfounded, I was on the council and reviewed the books) accusations against the new priest. This woman, one of those pious and outwardly perfect types, the kind that can fool all of the frivolous old ladies, sends up all of the red flags of a classic manipulator. Things didn’t go her way and, therefore, that was proof of abuse and fraud. I tried to be her friend. I don’t completely connect with our new priest myself, and yet she’s way out of line.
Of course, I come from a Mennonite background, where no dispute is too petty to divide over. We would part ways over hairstyles.
The most disappointing fissure, however, other than my own personal conflict with someone that I thought was a real friend, is that between Abbott Tryphon and Ancient Faith Ministries. Tryphon, a convert to Orthodoxy, is a great writer and a favorite of my parish priest. I follow him on social media. He had a falling out with Ancient Faith over his more overtly political content. Of course, the accusations fly between sides, some say that one side has been compromised, has connections to this industry, or that, while the other would say it was over someone getting too entangled in worldly politics.
In other words, both sides are making essentially the same claim about the other and it probably does stem from both sides holding slightly different partisan perspectives. I can understand the perspectives that both sides have. I do not see worldly politics as being a good mix with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and yet I also see that a prophetic voice must speak to the issues relevant to the time. Still, Tryphon, though very eloquent, seems the more butt-hurt of the two parties and even alienated some of his own audience with his lashing out.
I would actually side against Tryphon, based on his visible conduct, if it weren’t for one thing and that thing being that I’m just like him when hurt. He’s a passionate man, someone who speaks with conviction, a bit black and white, and completely like me.
Division Makes Us All Weak
There is no religious system or culture that can prevent conflicts. We can go through all of the correct motions, speak all of the right words, have a perfect understanding of Christianity at a theoretical level, and yet totally fail to resolve conflicts.
Returning to the passage from Ephesians, from the start of the blog, the “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” is preceded by “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” That’s the hard part. When hurt or offended we don’t want to wait, we want to speak out rashly and let them feel a little of our own anguish.
And yet St Paul does not tell us to bury our grievances in the name of keeping unity and peace either:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
(Ephesians 4-14-16 NIV)
We should not lose our sensitivity:
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.
(Ephesians 4:17-25 NIV)
Instead, we need to find a way to navigate through conflicts, to speak truthfully and reject falsehood, while still being completely gentle, humble, and patient at the same time. It is both prayerful and proactive. The potential growth of the church is stunted both by those aggressively confrontational and overly passive in their approach. Again, what good is a hospital that only ever talks about infection without ever treating it? Likewise, who would go to a hospital where they a browbeaten and belittled constantly?
Having the right spirit is the start to resolving (or even completely avoiding) conflicts. There is a need for open and direct communication. We should also not let things stretch out too long, where we let things stew, as Ephesians 4:26-27 says: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” The more that I think about something the more upset I can become. I tend to soften up very quickly when face-to-face with someone, it is harder to hold on to the grievance.
Oh No, Here We Go Again!
When I entered Orthodoxy, trying to put the deep disappointments behind me, and already having the romance question answered by Charlotte, I was determined to remain friendly, and yet aloof and impersonal enough not to get hurt. The people were nice at the small parish, a good mix of ages, coffee hour conversations could go deep and I very quickly warmed up to most of the regular attenders.
In the intervening years, there has been some change and conflict. The long-serving Fr. Dan, who helped to build the parish, retired (his last service my Chrismation) and the search was on for a new rector. Unfortunately, not everyone was happy with the choice and almost immediately set to undermine the new priest. I tried to steer clear of those politics, choosing to remain faithful to the parish community despite my own personality conflicts with the burly bearded Harley riding Baptist convert. He’s a gruff man with a golden heart.
It was in the midst of the pandemic, after that initial quarantine phase in the spring of 2020, that a new person started to attend. She looked like someone who could be cradle Orthodox, with dark curly hair, and her veil with a long dress reminded me of the traditional Mennonite style that I loved. So I pretty much had to introduce myself and make them feel welcomed. I can’t really remember how that went, she was reserved and a little standoffish, and yet Orthodoxy provided a bond that allowed us to develop what seemed to be an authentic brotherly and sisterly relationship.
We spent a fair amount of time talking about our long-distance love interests, we became a sort of two-person support group for those waiting on their significant other to arrive, comforting and encouraging each other, and I found the greatest joy when her tall handsome man arrived one evening for vespers. I was so excited, in fact, that I offered to play the part of the photographer to make sure that this moment was captured.
I didn’t realize then that this would be the high point of the relationship. Uriah’s death meant I needed some space to process and mourn. I pulled back. And pulled back even more after a sarcastic remark was directed at me. It wasn’t meanspirited or meant to hurt, but I simply didn’t have the emotional armor for it and decided to let her be with her new nihilistic Ortho-bro Millennial buddies. A church isn’t supposed to be a social club or clique of cool kids snickering at everyone else, I could find more neutral company until I got my feet under me again, and that’s what I did.
It was mutual avoidance at this point. I wanted space, she never really loved me anyway (later revealing that our friendship was fake when I did try to reconcile) and this was fine.
However, eventually, this arrangement started to wear thin for me. It seemed dishonest or out of sorts with the loving claims we made with our mouths during worship together. It was too reminiscent of those cold shoulders Mennonite girls give when they want the pudgy less than hygienic misfit to get the hint and not Christian. So I did what I thought I do well, wrote an email, shelved that one, and wrote another less emotionally charged version that I sent.
Unfortunately, the signals that I got back were not conciliatory and some of the comments seemed to be very intentionally aimed at my known vulnerabilities, I was falsely accused of being romantically interested (100% not the case) and pretty much had everything thrown back in my face. It was at this point some of my past started to bubble back up, seeing her would trigger severe discomfort and a flight reflex. She did gesture to try to make it right and try I have not seen much evidence of a change of heart either.
Rather than reconcile with me directly and be honest, she seems determined to maintain the distance by getting intermediaries involved. And my initial anxiety attacks have morphed into intense feelings of anger from what feels like a betrayal and lies. I don’t trust her anymore and I don’t trust anyone to mediate. I can’t see platitudes or empty motions as being a way forward and would rather stick to the avoidance strategy. So the one triumph for true brotherhood in Christ ends in a messy quagmire.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The truth is that my interpersonal conflict, like all in the Church, is a problem with me as much (or more) than it is them. I have trust issues and an impossible ideal, the initial estrangement was my fault, she has her own baggage to deal with and is now moving to protect herself from me. In her mind, and in the mind of her allies, I am the unstable and manipulative party in this conflict. She is, no doubt, being encouraged to write me off and move on. I’ve given her reason (like telling her “stay away from me”) to never talk to me again.
So, what is my reason for spilling my guts in a blog once again?
Maybe so that someone reading can offer a solution or that those who are prayer warriors can help by begging God to remove those blinders from our eyes and free us from the bindings of fear. I had initially loved this person because they appeared to be sincere and that (during a sermon about martyrs and contemplating my own weakness of faith) I decided it would be worth dying beside her rather than leaving her to face death alone. It is tragic that we should end up dying now in opposition to each other due to our past. Please pray for me, a sinner, that I can learn humility and live a life of repentance.
This brings me to the final point and another reason why I’m sharing this openly: We cannot solve those broader schisms and divisions within the Church if we can’t even love those who are right in front of us enough to lower our defensive posture or give a second chance to those undeserving. Healing, within the body of Christ, can only be accomplished by working locally to resolve our own conflicts with humility, gentleness, and patience. We cannot conquer the world for the Kingdom when we’re at war with ourselves.
Furthermore, it takes being at peace with who we are as individuals, petty, unworthy, afraid and broken, to solve our own inner conflicts, before we’re going to do much good in our communities. My own insecurities, no doubt, are what cloud my judgment and lead to the wrong kind of response. The Gordian knot that I project onto this situation is less an external reality and more a reflection of my internal state. I am frustrated with my lack of progress. I did find great comfort in this friend who is complex and conflicted like me.
Now my true character has been revealed. I’m not this wonderful even-keeled guy. My emotions do get the best of me. I’m not at peace with myself all of the time and sometimes do look outward for a resolution to this inner battle. Unfortunately, looking to others for security and stability, will leave us further hurt. They have their baggage too, they respond wrong, misunderstand, misrepresent, manipulate, lie and will otherwise disappoint. That’s why spiritual healing has to start with me—with getting my own conflicted heart right.
Years ago, in the parking lot of the Mennonite church, one of the cool youth guys told one of the pretty teenage girls to do something. I’m not sure the exact lead-in, he probably suggested it was impossible to do, but he instructed her to simultaneously grab her ankles and spell the word run three times.
To my horror, this young woman, my first real crush, in traditional Mennonite dress, voluntarily did exactly as he said. She bent over, and with her dainty ankles in hand, actually spelled out “R-U-N, R-U-N, R-U-N!”
At the time I had regarded her as a completely innocent party and being exploited. It has to do with this notion, especially popular in patriarchal purity cultures, that men are more sexually interested and women simply wanting of emotional support. Therefore it was not possible that she would consent to this sort of activity knowing what his actual intention was, right?
This heroic offense that, no doubt, my reserved conservative Mennonite male readers will likely take on her behalf is trust misplaced.
In retrospect, given the various activities that she would later quite willingly participate in, even after marriage, some that included the jokester from the story above, my own assessment of what was truly going on there has changed. I mean, had he not been an athletic six-foot built, I’m pretty sure she would have decided to be a little more aware of his intentions. But the reality is that she was enjoying the attention whether or not she knew exactly what game was being played.
Beauty and Godliness
Many men (and women) confuse feminine beauty for godly character. One of those shattering realizations was that the virtue that I saw in conservative Mennonite women was one of mere outward appearance and not really an indication of their being truly different under the surface. Sure, those of us raised in this culture are better trained, our lusts are hidden under more layers of religious garb, but this demure and righteous front conceals passions that are no different from those found in all people.
In ‘worldly’ hookup culture, it is all about the physical. It is blatantly superficial and makes no attempt at hiding this. Sure it is discriminatory, sayings like “must be 5′-10″ or over to ride” are common, only the hottest guys and girls are going to be especially successful, but it is also honest. It is a meat market and that’s what you should expect going in.
But, raised in the sub-culture that I was in, there was this idea that character mattered most and what was being sought after. Some of us believed that.
My first crush, the girl in the account above, was someone that I had assumed was of impeccable character. Compared to those high school girls, like those cheerleader friends who (while at McDonald’s sitting with this blushing Mennonite kid) had fun taking turns saying the word “penis” a little louder each time, she was a saint and basically sinless. Or so I had thought. However, as it turns out, those ‘bad’ girls went on to be faithful to their partners, and the girl that had left me feeling unworthy ended up being fondled by that R-U-N guy a few years down the road—despite both of them being married.
I had assumed that my crush was of better character because of my bias towards those who dressed and acted a particular way. I had her, so pretty and pristine, high upon a pedestal. She had no dirty thoughts like me. She would love me for my heart rather than my stature or appearance. And yet my doubts began to grow, she had become unapproachable to me, too good, too pure and too perfect, how could someone with my stumbling words, painfully awkward, ever add up compared to this angelic being? It is easy to see why my effort was doomed from the start and especially since she was as horny and completely carnally minded as any other young person her age.
Men, at least those in traditional cultures, want to defend the damsel in distress. So, women, in turn, will play that part. They are agreeable, they will accentuate their vulnerability and it is all part of the game to attract a mate. Maintaining an appearance of ‘godliness’ is a part of this trying to be desirable in cultures where such things are valued.
And that’s not to say it is knowingly a pretense either. It is simply how we frame the experience. We don’t need to admit to the sexual motivations like the crass (yet wonderfully truthful) young ‘worldly’ women—like those schoolmates who had delightfully, with giggles, defied my own teenage expectations as far as propriety and appropriateness. Us born into religious subcultures, especially a purity culture, confuse our merely following the rules for actual righteousness. It is virtue signaling. We hang onto that wonderful image, because it is valuable, a social advantage, and yet are as superficial as our ‘worldly’ counterparts when it comes to the true motivation behind our choices.
I’ve learned since that I was lying to myself, this Mennonite girl was a complete knockout no matter how ‘modestly’ she dressed at that time. That physical beauty most definitely played a part in my attraction and the virtue that had been projected onto her physical frame. And, while being genuinely horrified during the parking lot incident, there was also that fascination about what was happening, a curiosity like how we can’t take our eyes off of a trainwreck. Yes, I might have even enjoyed it in a weird way, so was I actually any better than the instigator?
Seeing Through My Own Projections
The “R-U-N” crush was never a saint to begin with. I had projected my own ideas of her purity onto her, assumed that her inner composition matched her flawless exterior, and thus had turned her into more of an idol than a real person. Not excusing her eventual infidelity and recent divorce, but would it really be any surprise if some do break under this pressure to perform and be her daddy’s perfect daughter?
My disappointment with things not being as they appeared to have long since worn off, I’ve come to accept that even the ‘good’ girls (even those who would never dare cheat on their husbands or even say anything out of turn) aren’t as spiritually oriented as their outward show would have many believe. Their faith is often shallow and a means to stay relevant or appear as righteous to their religious peers. I mean, it isn’t all for show either, we’re always a mixed bag of motivation in even our best moments, but ultimately they are as flawed as anyone else and as oriented towards that strapping physique as much as their hook-up culture counterparts.
Still, it was this realization that left me feeling betrayed by my idealism and needing to let go of this falsehood of their loftiness compared to my own shortcomings. They were no different from me—not better, not worse.
This sinless young woman myth is as harmful and as completely patriarchal as the idea that a woman being ‘undefiled’ is her only value. Being beautiful, not being openly aggressive or disagreeable, does not make an outwardly well-behaved woman a better person. And, truly, at this point, I would rather deal with the ‘slut’ that is real than the ‘saint’ that is only skin deep and fake. It is much better to start with the baseline that all have sinned and fallen short of divine glory than to treat anyone as somehow above or beyond. Religious women may not sin in the same ways or as openly as their male or secular counterparts, but they still do.
People certainly looks at the outward appearance, but Jesus said this concerning the deception of those who kept up appearances:
You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
(Matthew 23:27b-28 NIV)
What I’ve found about myself and others raised in a culture with high expectations is that we tend to keep two sets of books. One to keep up the prescribed cultural standard and impress our peers, and another hidden account book that contains our more carnal imaginations and base desires. Pretty on the outside does not mean a pure heart. It could simply be manipulation or a way to benefit from the protection provided to those who conform and not evidence of good character.
Character Is More Than Skin Deep
So, anyhow, once burned, twice shy, right? And, having learned that exteriors do not always match interiors, when stumbled across Charlotte’s profile, saw this shy and adorable looking woman beautiful amongst the flowers, I asked: “Are you as beautiful on the inside as you are on the outside?”
Not much of a pick-up line, right?
Nevertheless, it was exactly the right question for someone struggling. It signaled to her that I actually cared about more than her physical form and wanted to know about her as a whole person. Of course, her beauty is indeed more than skin deep. And, although she confesses that I’m a good person while she’s my “imperfect bhest,” she’s golden. Her humility alone, in realizing that she is flawed and admitting it, is proof of her beautiful godly character. And, as our relationship progressed, it was her soul that I wanted to protect and not merely some projected cultural ideal.
Charlotte, for her part, is also well aware that I’m not the epitome of manliness. She knows that I show my emotions, sees me as a little soft compared to those stoic Igorot men, and had to make some adjustments to my dress style in Taiwan so I didn’t look as much like a dweeb. There’s very little pretense with her. Maybe she’s more plainspoken being that English is a second language? But it’s also cultural. Or, rather, a lack of the cultural facade where people have learned to say the right things and yet lack actual substance. She is refreshingly real and appreciates me for my character rather than care too much about my missing-in-action six-pack abs.
I’m not flashy enough to attract the Tinder date nor the goody-two-shoes who conceals her carnal appetites under layers of sanctimonious bullshit. And yet do have enough of something to keep from giving up on true love despite the painful distance and wait. I’m not her perfect bhest, but I do love that she is more concerned with my faith than my physical perfection.
The irony is that these moralizing finger-waggers, blinded by their arrogance like those self-righteous religious elites whom Jesus mocked in Matthew 23 (“If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood…”), are unwittingly aligning themselves with the modern variant of fascism. Their simple minds apparently cannot comprehend that the same evil, to avoid detection, can be dressed differently and that this time it is their turn to enable the tyrants and true fascists.
Real Fascists Please Stand Up
Fascism is a hard word to define, many dictionary definitions are insufficient or too narrow and do not give a sufficient description. The following quote (from an article, “What Is Fascism?”) gives a better picture of what the term is referring to and why some of us see this emerging in the current corporate and government institutional regime:
Mussolini coined the term “fascism” in 1919. The word “fascism” comes from the Italian “fascio,” meaning a bundle or group, and is considered a term for a militant brotherhood. The word “fasces” means an ax tightly bound with sticks, an image that became a symbol of the fascist movement, according to the History Department at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
How is fascism defined? Robert Paxton, a professor emeritus of social science at Columbia University in New York, who is widely considered the father of fascism studies, told Live Science that fascism is “a form of political practice distinctive to the 20th century that arouses popular enthusiasm by sophisticated propaganda techniques.
Two common themes of fascism that Paxton lists “anti-liberalism, rejecting individual rights, civil liberties, free enterprise and democracy,” also “exclusion of certain groups, often through violence,” and I’ll add that fascists have tended to have an obsession with what they consider to be impurities. A particular German leader saw certain groups as being vectors of disease and thus justified their elimination.
So, the two primary elements of fascism, distilling this down, are this obsession with contaminates and the merger (or bundling) of power. The only real difference between fascism and Socialism is that the latter had been more concerned with class distinctions and the prior with racial difference. But, in the modern era, when the ‘Socialist’ left regularly uses skin color to divide people, and seem fine using corporate power to advance their social agenda, and are the masters of propaganda, it is basically a distinction without a difference.
Sure, they can call themselves “anti-fascists” or “Antifa” and claim that they’re only assaulting Nazis. But, come on people, a guy at the mall can wear a red suit, black boots, and call himself Santa—he’s still not going to come down your chimney with Christmas goodies. And look who is behind most of the violence across this country in the past few years.
Hint: It is not those individuals, totally unarmed, many of them military veterans, who entered the Capital Building on January 6th.
Not defending that either, they should be held accountable, but the difference is that these rioters do not have the corporate media shilling for them nor free reign of the college campus with their demands or sympathetic prosecutors who look the other way at their criminal behavior.
Like it or not, Trump supporters are not anti-democratic, not in the least, and simply wanted allegations of fraud and abuse to be heard. I mean, isn’t it is a little strange that the most well-armed part of our population would go into January 6th planning to take over the government and forget their entire arsenal at home? If it truly was an “insurrection,” as our totally fair and unbiased political establishment would have us believe, why did they not bring any weapons with them?
Night after night a Federal building, a court house, was attacked by far-leftists in Portland. In Seattle we had a whole section of the city taken over and declared an “autonomous zone” in defiance of the government. Over two billion dollars of damages, dozens murdered, in a summer of violence that our corporate media called “mostly peaceful protests” and yet we’re only talking about the wrongness of this one outburst? Propaganda much?
But I do digress.
Fascism is “anti-liberalism, rejecting individual rights, civil liberties, free enterprise and democracy,” and basically Marxism on steroids. In other words, fascism is authoritarian, collectivist, my tribe versus yours, willing to close private business (or churches) and undermine the democratic process to achieve their ends. So, ask yourself, who was asking for mail-in ballots that are an invitation for fraud banned in most countries? Who is asking for collective judgment (or pardon) of people based only on their skin color? Who was creating the dictatorial mandates, in name of keeping us pure of disease, at the expense of our freedom?
Those Who Defend “Papers Please” Are Fascists
My reason for writing this is the response to the meme below by some exceedingly ignorant people from my own Mennonite tribe:
The first response, a virtue signal about those dying in India, a total whataboutism, was completely insensitive to those suffering under the current nonsense. I’m pretty sure this smug individual won’t bother to watch this video nor ever question approved content they spew on social media. They can’t, they were raised in and remain in a religious cloister that taught them, “go along with the group” and “do as your told.” They might eventually drop the cultural costume some day, and yet they have not demonstrated any ability in our brief conversation to think independently or beyond the narrative being pushed.
So now that we’re talking about vaccine passports and literally forcing people to get an injection that has little or not value, that should not be necessary for those who have natural immunity through infection, and comes with the unknown long-term risks of any experimental new product, they still don’t see the problem?
I’m sorry, but only a fascist would be okay with this, because only a fascist is okay with “exclusion of certain groups” and take no heed of the individual rights or civil liberties of those who wish only to travel freely without harassment. To see the religious elites of the Mennonites not only tolerate, but enthusiastically endorse such policies, should send a chill up the spine of those moderate or apolitical in their ranks. These ‘educated’ nitwits don’t seem to get that the Nazi party came to power and won Germans over with the good they were doing—the Holocaust came later.
‘Tis the season for conservative Mennonites to preen on social media about their apolitical “kingdom Christian” stance. These Biblical fundamentalists, with an Anabaptisty twist, talk about worldly politics more than many in the voting public do and never miss an opportunity to distinguish themselves with their rude apologetics.
Any more I try to ignore this noxious grandstanding display of religious elitism. But then I saw a video post, with a title proclaiming a change of mind about voting and featuring someone that I’ve run into on various occasions in my travels and as part of an online Mennonite discussion forum. I’m quite familiar with his long-held positions and this claim of transformation astonished me.
Perhaps he had voted in a mock election in grade school or something?
Anyhow, starting in general…
The Utterly Non-Revolutionary Act of Not Voting
Mennonites, like other Anabaptists, have built entire religious doctrines around cherry-picked Biblical phrases. The words “be not conformed to this world,” lifted from Romans 12:2, is used to justify everything from not driving motorized vehicles and dressing like it is still the 1800s to condemning military service and not voting in elections. That is standard fare for all traditional or Old Order Anabaptists.
But Fundamentalized Mennonites, unlike their Amish and Old Order Mennonite cousins, feel this unquenchable need to broadcast and announce all that they do. Ignoring the not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing advice that Jesus gave, while slamming hypocrites. Mennonite fundamentalists, taking their cues from Protestant fundamentalists, are all about political influence and religious apologetics.
The disdainful retort of a Mennonite gentleman to those who dared to talk about voting in his presence, “I vote on my knees!” This sanctimonious announcement, alluding to prayer rather than direct involvement in the political process, was met appropriately with humorous remark to the effect that crawling to the ballot box being an odd way to vote. But it does also describe the strange dichotomy, or rather the inconsistent application, of non-conformity rules.
The grand irony is that this kind of political non-participation does not make someone unique from ‘the world’ as religious separatists claim.
Well, voting or not voting is a habit, they do not believe that their vote matters, or simply do not care about the outcome one way or another. So this idea that not participating in elections is some sort of notable stand or great sacrifice is pure delusion. Not voting is literally as much like ‘the world’ as you can get. It is not revolutionary. It is a nihilistic cultural default, a bit Gnostic, and requires doing nothing. However, unlike most non-voters who have no need to explain their apathy for the democracitic process, conservative Mennonite fundamentalists have a great need to spiritualize and broadcast their decisions.
Sure, unlike other fundamentalists, who do vote and promote political involvement, the conservative Mennonite variety proudly distinguishes themselves in other ways. But they still go to universities like Bob Jones or Liberty University, fundamentalist bastions, and pick up the Evangelical attitude to apply to their Anabaptist doctrinal defaults. So, rather than simply live out their faith, like their forbearers, they must be “in your face” about their views, constantly propagandizing and promoting their supposedly ‘Anabaptist’ or purportedly ‘kingdom’ perspectives, and otherwise making sure that you notice them. If it seems self-aggrandizing and obnoxious, then it most certainly is. Worse, they are completely arbitrary and inconsistent in how they apply these supposed “Biblical principles” that justify positions they’ve inherited, never seriously reconsidered, and want to ram down your throat.
How do I know?
I was one of them. I would argue my Mennonite fundamentalism confidently with my teachers in high school. In college, I wrote a position paper to explain my inherited non-resistance dogma, thinking that my take would be fresh. But, for my efforts, ended up with a classroom more fully unconvinced of non-resistence than they would be had I said nothing at all.
Anyhow, while most from my own religious communities lean towards conservative politics. A few got out of this Mennonite intellectual ghetto long enough to read a little Karl Marx, meet some Socialists. And, now, armed with this new knowledge, come back to their conservative peers with a superior attitude and a whole new set of empty platitudes, borrowed from ‘the world’ they claim to stand apart from, that require nothing of them. They proclaim themselves to be different, imagine themselves to be the revolutionary thinkers, yet are really nothing but a new blend of the same old political ideologies, tired religious dogmas, and general nonsense.
It was one such story of a ‘transformation’ that caught my eye because I actually knew the guy and know him too well to be bamboozled by his slickly packaged testimonial.
The Completely Non-Transformative Transformation
I’m not going to reveal the source. More clicks will only encourage them. But it did not take long into the apologetics video to reveal that the title a bit deceptive, when this conservative Mennonite apologist confessed, “the truth is I’ve never actually voted.”
So, I guess a more upfront and honest title, such as “Mennonite-born Confirms His Confirmation Bias,” isn’t propaganda-ish enough to sell the point?
Anyhow, to be clear, he never changed his mind, he might have momentarily been slightly more open to the idea of political involvement before reverting back to the Mennonite default position. And, sure, his political positions may have evolved slightly from right-wing anarchist and anti-government to being slightly more left-wing anarchist, definitely anti-conservative and even more anti-government. But, in the decades that I’ve known him, he’s always had this smug sounding “voting only encourages them” signature line.
What is truly interesting is that this particular individual?
Simultaneous to his decrying the violent and coercive means of the state, he had also worked as a government employee and profited by these means for many years. That’s right. This man who claims that voting is some big moral quandary, because government uses force and threats, had no issues with taking money obtained by those means for years.
And yet, somehow, to merely cast a ballot is too much for them to stomach?
If voting is wrong, if political solutions are wrong, then how isn’t his taking through this system is extremely wrong?
If he really believes that the government is illegitimate, that we should not participate so much as to cast a ballot, then he ought to do as Zacchaeus did. He should return all of his ill-gotten gains, he should pay it all back with interest to us who paid his salary, and put his money where his fundamentalist Mennonite mouth is.
But what is, by far, the most disturbing thing about this video is the shameless promotional for progressive politics it contained. While claiming to be apolitical. He pushed the far-left social justice agenda as if this is what Jesus taught. Confusing what we should do as individuals, as a church, with the obligations of a nation. How disengious an argument. How heretical a theological position. How contradictory with his own religious tradition.
In short, the kingdom of heaven, especially their conservative Mennonite version, does not have open borders and will turn people away for falling short of requirements. Scripture lists whole long lists of who will and will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (false teachers one of them) and this studious fellow would certainly be aware. And, no, it is not cruelty or indifference that keeps some out. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Kingdom has borders to keep unrepentant murderers, rapists and other abusers away from those whom they exploited. So this criticism of nations for enforcement of reasonable border policies, for the protection of the nation and those trying to escape horrendous conditions, is asinine.
Imagine that, a conservative Mennonite, part of a denomination known for their strict standards for entry (oftentimes over the slightest minutia of application) taking issue with a nation for taking some precaution and vetting immigrants.
I mean, as one practically engaged to a woman who needs to navigate our immigration system, I have every reason in the world to want the current system to be made easier. And, despite that, despite my own personal struggle waiting on the cumbersome process, I still completely understand and appreciate that we have civil authorities to protect citizens and promote peace. I love her, and my neighbors, enough to want to keep evildoers out. Her uncle was murdered in her home country, as was her grandpa, both good men, it would be absolutely immoral for me to open the flood gates so that their murderers could follow her in.
Ultimately, had this fundamentalist Mennonite commentator stayed politically neutral (rather than parrot a leftist ideological position while falsely claiming to be apolitical) I may have let the duplicitous transformation claim slide.
I’m completely okay with someone being apolitical and not voting if they believe that is what their religious beliefs require of them. But I am completely not okay with? I’m completely not okay with misleading testimonials and phony claims of being apolitical while promoting a political position. I’m especially not okay with the hypocrisy of saying the government is violent, therefore we must not cooperate so much as to vote, while also being on the take end and unrepentant about it.
This one was a little more personal because I knew the character making the claim and it was so typical of the fundamentalist tainted brand of Mennonitism that I came from. Mennonite Evangelicals love to distinguish themselves from other Evangelicals, both products of Fundamentalism, by pointing to their Anabaptist doctrines (namely non-resistance and non-conformity) as if it is something revolutionary when, in fact, they are often religious promoters of progressive politics who oddly also decide they are also above voting.
Voting bad, taxes good…
Drinking the Kool-Aid of Evangelical Humanism
It started so wonderfully, a charismatic young leader blended concern for the poor and racial inequality with a Gospel message. Eventually this “Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ” moved from Indiana to sunny California where this social justice preacher, James Warren Jones, found a more receptive and racially diverse audience. He grew his following to a few thousand members, enough to gain the attention of left-wing political leaders, and hired an African-American preacher to further the social justice message.
Jones and his so-called “Peoples Temple” moved progressively in the direction of openly displaying their true Marxist intentions. Their home for senior citizens directly quoted Karl Marx, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” and drew parallels between this political ideology and Christian teachings. Jones became increasingly divisive, increasingly open with his far-left rhetoric, and increasingly controlling as time went on. Jones, the cult leader, preying on the urban poor and minorities, now pushed an idea of “religious communalism” and used various passages of Scripture to justify this aggressive push towards Socialism.
Of course, maybe some of you already know how this story ends, at Jonestown, where Jim Jones, the leader of this nasty narcissistic polygamous mess, ordered his followers to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. The infamous Jonestown Massacre, in the Socialist paradise (or rather a hellhole) in Guyana, totaled 909 dead, either by suicide or murdered outright, including a Congressman sent to investigate allegations of abuse. Jones was always only a wolf in sheep’s clothing, he was merely using a twisted version of Biblical texts for his political and personal ends. He was able, with this heretical blend, to lead hundreds of people to their deaths. And sadly, despite this sobering example, many still “drink the Kool-Aid” of social justice and end up spiritually dead having jettisoned the true Gospel.
Those who fall for the social justice ‘Gospel’ have indeed traded their birthright for a bowl of pottage. They, like Judas, have interpreted the words of Jesus through the lens of their worldly aims. They, like the betrayer of Christ, take the instruction of Christ, “sell all and give to the poor” as some kind of end in itself and not in the context of divine pursuit. It is not because they are far from Jesus. No, in fact, there is only a subtle difference. Judas may well have been the best of the disciples, trusted with the common purse, and able to quote the words of Jesus concerning the poor right back at him. And he was not alone in his confusion about the words of Jesus either. All of the disciples seemed to have worldly power and prestige in mind. They did not anticipate the life of suffering and sacrifice.
The close counterfeit is the most dangerous. Many warn of the crude caricatures and obviously flawed copies of the truth. However, when they encounter something that appears, on the surface, to be the genuine article, what do they do? They let down their guard, may even praise the effort, and never realize the missing substance behind the effort. The substance, of course, being that the purpose of everything a Christian does is worship. True, following after the instruction to give to the poor, in the context of Christian faith, will create a better world. However, when turned into some legalistic prescription and for the intention of political end, like social justice, it very quickly becomes abusive.
But Jim Jones wasn’t the first to start to push a brand of Socialism and defiance against ordained authority, there was an Anabaptist cult with similar views. The Münster Anabaptists were the true radicals of the so-called “radical reformation” and are the likely cause of the eventual crackdown on all Anabaptists. They too promised ‘the kingdom’ siding with the poor and the peasants, but their “new Jerusalem” very quickly ended up a polygamous nightmare. This disaster is why the “non-resistent” theology won out. This is why conservative Mennonites and Amish have remained relatively apolitical.
Returning to the Vomit of Münster
Modern Mennonites, of all stripes, share a similar antipathy towards authority. Those on the ‘conservative’ end of the spectrum are defiant towards things like Covid-19 restrictions or anything that interferes with their own agenda, while those on the ‘progressive’ side stand against everything from the punishment of evildoers and even national borders. The only significant difference is that the conservatives, like most other conservatives, mostly want to be left alone to practice their religion. While the progressives would be happy to use government to enforce social obligations on their neighbors. Where the conservatives can be neglectful of their neighbors, the progressives (like their worldly counterparts) are enthusiastically abusive.
I’ve noticed many privileged Mennonites, raised in conservative Evangelical/fundamentalist churches, in reaction to their own former ignorance, veer hard to the left.
They were raised in Mennonite homes, lived in Mennonite communities, went to Mennonite schools and a few finished their education in fundamentalist institutions. Most of their lives, unlike my own, they spent in this Mennonite cloister, then they go to the big city somewhere and find out other people see a different perspective from the only one that they knew existed. But rather than apply a grain of salt, or show any spiritual discernment whatsoever, they swallow the newly discovered grievance narratives lock, stock and barrel. They cheer on, from their ivory towers, the “people power” of those disrupting their neighbors, ignore or justify the violence of those destroying cities, and think their support for Barrabus is doing the Lord’s work.
They are blind guides, more misguided than the Mennonite traditionalists whom they frequently condemn, condescend and criticize, and yet imagine themselves to be the true standard-bearers for Anabaptism. And they are, but Anabaptist in the same way as Münsterites and of the same spirit as those religious elites whom Jesus taunted in this passage:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
(Matthew 23:29-32 NIV)
I mean, woe…
Leftward aligned, and “kingdom Christians” are less committed than their Anabaptist predecessors and yet making the same mistakes. They claim to be above the politics of this age, apolitical even, and pose as the enlightened minds, but are really lacking in introspection and this:
These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.” If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.”
(2 Peter 2:17-22 NIV)
Few Mennonites actually read the writings of Menno Simons, but many are familiar with his poem, “True Evangelical Faith,” a presentation that orients the reader towards the earthy and practical ministries of the church, and some of the reason he is described as an “evangelical humanist” by various sources. No, he would certainly not support the leftist policies of our day nor was he completely aligned with the Anabaptist comrades in Münster. But this understanding of the words of Jesus too easily transforms into left-wing anarchist politics and is very often misconstrued as an endorsement of Socialism.
Couple this with the Zwinglian denial of spiritual and mystical aspects of what Jesus taught, common to all Anabaptists, along with the political ambitions of the historical Anabaptist leftists, who in their zealousness, overthrew the ordained government of a German city named Münster, and you can know where this ‘kingdom’ is headed.
The contempt for authority is already there, the loss of a truly divine orientation is already there as well, and now they align themselves with those rebellious against all authority and acting out in violence.
This turn towards left-wing politics, those doing apologetics for grievance culture, are urging the faithful to take a big gulp of the same Kool-Aid that was passed around Jonestown. It is the same spirit that led to the horrendous violence of the Münster Rebellion. It is not remotely Christian even if it uses the words of Christ as justification.
Judas too used the words of Jesus. He deceptively used the words of Jesus, “sell all and give to the poor,” as a means to admonished a faithful woman for her impracticality worship of pouring out perfume on the feet of the Lord. He, like a Marx-inspired fundamentalist calling ornate houses of worship a waste, told this woman that she should have sold the perfume to give to the poor. He used his position, as follower of Jesus and disciple, an advocate of the ‘kingdom’ as he understood it, to hide his actual political ambitions. For this smug comment he earned the sharp rebuke of Jesus.
Those lapping up the radical leftist vomit of Münster Anabaptists, in modern forms, will be worse off than their more-traditional Mennonite counterparts. Marxist philosophy is not compatible with the message of the cross nor is this ‘kingdom’ opposition to the established government Christian. They might be sincere. Many are misled by them. But there is no reason for me to suspect that Judas, or others like him who betrayed Christ and the church, were insincere. Had Judas been only a fraud, why would he have despairingly taken his own life?
Oh proud Anabaptist. Oh fundamentalist with all of the answers and no actual wisdom. Oh you Evangelicals who are all talk and very little understanding, who flail to the right or to the left every time, desperate to be relevant. Oh you closeted Marxists, with worldly ambitions, posing as agents of the kingdom. Repent now, before it is too late!
Turn Not to the Right or the Left
Every so often a quote pops up, at the right exact time, so poignant, that it appears to be a gift from God. And such was the case when this quote was shared on my news feed while contemplating politics and examining my own stance as far as ideological positions. I tend to be right-wing. I do believe that the role of government is to set some basic boundaries, look out for the “common good,” and stay completely out of my personal business. But I also see the folly of individualism, the need of communities and voluntary cooperation between people.
I see both right and left-wing extremes, both totalitarianism and anarchism, as unChristian and dangerous. But never had succinct words to describe why this is, at least not before reading this quote:
There are two kinds of ‘atheism’: the atheism of the right, which professes to love God and ignores neighbor; and the atheism of the left, which professes to love neighbor and ignores God.
This quote hits the problems of both sides squarely on the head. The ‘right’ frequently takes their independence too far, they become neglectful in regards to loving their neighbors and in this have rejected God. The ‘left’ on the other hand, professes their compassion for the oppressed and downtrodden, but this often is nothing but human effort that neglects worship. Both the right and left are motivated by selfishness. Both, at different levels, are looking for freedom or control. However, the left is much better at hiding their lust for power and true atheism under a veil of altruism.
It is interesting that frequently, in Scripture, we see passages warning against veering right or left, like this one:
Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.
(Joshua 1:7 NIV)
My guess is that partisan alignments, rightward or leftwards, take our focus off of the divine. Instead of being focused on Jesus, and theosis, we become mired in political controversy and tribes. It is true, we cannot serve two masters. And political ideologies, on a horizontal plane, will distract us from the vertical alignment. No, we do not stop eating worldly food or drinking physical water as ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven. Nor do we cease to choose McDonald’s rather than Burger King. But, as the Divine Liturgy reminds the faithful, “put not your trust in princess and sons of man in whom there is no salvation.”
A Christian Perspective of Government
There is a vast difference between the glutton, who looks to food as an end unto itself, and the traveler on the path of repentance who eats to be nourished enough for the days work. Political involvement, preferring candidate A over candidate B, is not sinful anymore than eating or any other choice. We are in the world, even if not of the world, and it is silly to pretend to be aloof from it all. But when politics becomes an obsession, when ideologies become idols, when we veer too much the right or the left, the look out. We imperil our own salvation when we turn to the political philosophy and economic systems of men for our help rather than God.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not a rival to any earthly kingdom. No, it is on an entirely different plane from any worldly government and those saying otherwise are false teachers. Sure, yes, the political and religious leaders of the time saw Jesus as a threat to their power, they were confused about the Kingdom as much as the disciples. But never did Jesus show any interest in overthrowing them. Instead, he acknowledged the authority of those who “sit in the seat of Moses” (Matthew 23:21) and told his followers to do what they instructed.
Jesus and those who followed him never once questioned the legitimately applied authority of Rome. St. Paul, even despite enduring brutal mistreatment at the hands of Roman authorities, having every reason to be scornful of them, instructed thusly:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
(Romans 13:1-7 NIV)
It cannot be spelled out any more clear than that. The authorities, in their capacity to punish evildoers, are divinely ordained, acting on behalf of God, and not to be resisted. To rebel against them, we are told, is to rebel against God.
Of course, this is where some smarmy Anabaptist ‘kingdom’ pusher will interject, to excuse their own topic and rebellious spirit, by saying “Well, America was started by a rebellion,” or “occupies stolen land” and go on to suggest this excuses or exempts them from applying St. Paul’s instruction. They, in their woeful arrogance, have appointed themselves to be the judge of nations rather than simply pray for their leaders and obey Jesus as they ought. And this is because they, like Judas before them, are duplicitous and truly more obsessed with worldly power than they let on. For them, the ‘kingdom’ is merely a front for political ambitions, it is so they can feel righteous in their contempt for what is ordained by God.
The idea of “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NIV) and the refusal of Jesus to even stand up to the miscarriage of justice, should put to rest this notion that there should be a rivalry between the Christians and civil authorities. If Jesus even refused to stand up to their abuses, how much more should we be willing to respect and submit to what is truly part of their God-ordained mission?
Both the church, and government, are ordained authorities. One is established for our own good as those traveling through this world and the other is a Kingdom that transcends everything in the world. I have no problem with those who do not vote because they do not believe worldly governance is the right place for a Christian. But it is incredible hypocrisy that those won’t so much as vote will turn the teachings of Jesus into a political message and use this in confrontation with civil authorities. Who are we to judge another man’s servants?
Instead of competition with God’s ordained authorities, snide remarks or violent protests, try this instead:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
(1 Timothy 2:1-4 NIV)
In conclusion, those so delusional that they can’t fathom God using imperfect men probably should not vote. In their arrogance and delusion of their own righteousness they would be incapable of making a sound decision. Again, I have absolutely no problem with anyone who chooses to abstain from political involvement. The further along we are in our faith the more we will trust the means of prayer and leave our worldly concerns behind. But, that said, I likewise do not stand in condemnation of those who, out of love for their own families and neighbors, appreciation for their nation, participate in the most peaceable manner possible.
I suppose it is a bit impolite, especially in the age of the telephone, to drop in unannounced?
Oh well, I had already made my way down the long drive flanked by soybeans, to the old farmhouse behind the barn, entered through the little gate of the white picket fence, and was currently deciding what to do after ringing the doorbell twice with no response.
Earlier, this bright sunny September day, on my way from Sunday liturgy to coffee hour, I had received a text message from Lilian, my younger sister, inviting me to a fellowship meal at my old church. She told me about a special service to honor two elderly couples, both ordained leaders from my youth, and this presented a bit of a dilemma—do I go or not?
Since becoming an Orthodox Christian I had made as clean a break as I could from my conservative Mennonite past. In fact, the last regular service I’ve attended was several years ago. The circumstances of my leaving were not the most pleasant and I’ve avoided returning for various reasons. But, in this case, my loyalties overruled my trepidation, I had been invited and wanted to show my appreciation.
However, by the time I had arrived only one of the two couples remained. Pastor Sam and his wife Donna had already left for home.
I had missed the opportunity to wish them well.
Or, perhaps not?
My mother suggested what I was already thinking: I could go visit them at their home a few miles away from the church, take a couple of minutes to chat, express my gratitude and then be on my way again. So, after making my rounds, greeting the other couple, I headed down the road.
Anyhow, I’m at the door of the house, waiting, nobody answered the doorbell. So, while being bold, I decided to continue on with boldness. The door was unlocked (not unusual for rural Pennsylvania), I poked my head into the entry, cautiously ventured down the hall, “hello?”
They must’ve heard the doorbell. I was just inside the door when Donna came out from the back of the house and greeted me with a warm smile.
She told me she would get Sam and left me in the living room. I looked around. I debated where to sit. The old wingback chairs or antique couch? The furniture and decor remained largely unchanged from my last visit a few years ago, by appearances, which is comforting for someone like me who is oftentimes overwhelmed by the pace of change.
But one thing was different, that being the whirring sound of a compressor, which was plugged in near the door of the room, with an oxygen tank on top and various air tubes radiating out from the device.
Sam’s health, according to my mother, had declined precipitously since our last interaction.
He has had an ongoing heart issue and, more recently, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a lung ailment that does not come with a good prognosis. I had last seen him a few months earlier in his barbershop of sixty years, “Masters Style Shop,” (where his son and a grandson worked beside him for many years) and didn’t know what to expect.
He was out of breath and labored to talk.
But, despite his difficulties, his good humor and the mischievous smile remained.
I had to think of those times, decades before, where he would turn on the overhead projector, slap down the transparency with lyrics, and confidently, in his distinctive baritone voice, lead the congregation in a familiar song, “I’m so glad to be part of the family of God!” It was a sad day when he had retired. The character of the church, those founding couples, was fading into my childhood.
Sam had a way of speaking, a charisma, that captivated me and reminded me of the late Billy Graham.
Sam had always taken a special interest in everyone, including me. We would always talk about the high school football score in the fall. He knew that I had played, we would chat a little, and something of his demeanor always left me feeling cared about.
He had been born in the very room that we were sitting in. The farm had been in the family that long. Sam, and his wife Donna, are fixtures in the community, the kind of people who can be relied upon. They were Lutheran before finding a place in the Mennonite church, people of devout and sincere faith. Sam also served in the military as a young man.
The short visit Sunday turned into a couple of hours, their home a very hospitable place and there was little doubt that this may be my last chance to spend time with this venerable man. I would have probably stayed later, but could no longer keep Charlotte waiting and knew that it would be selfish to stay much longer. So, after introducing Charlotte (on the other side of the world) through video call, we said our goodbyes.
It is hard to believe that another decade has already come and gone. This past decade has been one of many transitions for me, from the launch of this blog in 2014 to a big change in career a few years later and, on top of all that, a departure from the only religious identity I had ever known for another.
It was a decade marked by an extreme of faith, the high-water mark of my spiritual life, leading to the most profound of disappointments and suicidal despair, all followed by a rise again from the ashes. If there is such a thing as living a second life, a life after death, then I am living proof of that concept despite the scars.
Delusion, Disappointment and Divine Humor
This blog was started, mid-decade, to be a record of my journey and also a story of the triumph of faith within a Mennonite context. However, things did not go as anticipated, my enthusiasm was not shared by those who had the power to make a difference, and my misplaced faith ended up being fully exposed by the end of it all. That was the lowest of lows for me.
However, even in my lowest moments, in the midst of that, there was a moment of levity where my sharing my disgruntlement with the impossible Mennonite marriageability expectations went viral. That remains my most viewed and shared Irregular Ideation blog to date (and recently vastly eclipsed by a blog on another blog I curate) and my proof that God does indeed have a sense of humor.
It would be hard to give that up. And I knew the newfound popularity of my blog would likely suffer once I formally announced my departure from Anabaptism—which does seem to be the case as traffic has diminished since then—but that is also the kind of sacrifice that a Christian commitment requires:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26 NIV)
For the first time in my life, I had left the comfort of the Anabaptist fishbowl for something bigger. Who knows what that will bring?
Dramatic Changes and Delicious Ironies
The move to Orthodoxy has been part of a huge paradigm shift and was pretty much the only option that I had left. It was a refuge to preserve the little faith that survived the collision with a terrible reality of my misplaced hopes. I certainly didn’t go to replace what had been devastated in me. And there are all of the problems found in every group of Christians from those recorded in the book of Acts onward—all of the silly squabbles and turf wars included.
Nevertheless, the beauty of Orthodox worship, the focus on Scripture and glorifying God in our song (rather than human emotion, etc) along with a simple (and timeless) Gospel message, helped me to move forward. Orthodox worship centers on our Communion together with God and (unlike the traditions I was most familiar with as a Protestant) they do not attempt to explain the explainable. At some point, we need to let go of our own understanding and embrace the mysteries beyond our comprehension.
Moving on from religion to real estate and other miscellaneous items, I started the decade paying down my debt for my first home and driving cars that probably belonged in a scrapyard. But then, in 2014, spurred by my other and disappointments, I bought my first new car, paid cash for a handsome black Ford Focus—my best purchase to date. In fact, I was so pleased with that purchase that I sold my prized (but high mileage) Jaguar XJR and bought a brand new Shelby GT-350 two years later when they first came out—an extravagant purchase which also led to some very meaningful friendships.
Anyhow, having reached the pinnacle of automotive excellence (at least for a working man’s salary) it was time to rest comfortably, save my money and relax a bit. Or, rather, that had been the plan…
But somehow (possibly working in an office with a bunch of restless Amish investors rubbing off on me?) I ended up buying a second property with the thought (at the time of purchase) that I would move in to and sell my old place in Milton. But suddenly that plan didn’t make sense anymore, why not rent the new house and build some equity instead? Needless to say, my ideas for a comfortable existence went out the window and, only two years later, now I’m working on house number three. Not exactly a business empire, yet more than calculated risk than I’ve ever taken on before.
In the time since my blinding hopes ran into a young Mennonite woman’s all-consuming ambitions, my feet have landed in three different countries (read more here and here) and all on the opposite side of the world. As it turns out, despite my self-doubts, all that I really needed was a good enough reason to go. I had started the decade thinking that I was incapable of finding my own direction in life, that I needed to hitch myself to someone else’s ambitions to get anywhere, and yet here I am moving on. Yes, very soon, echoing the central complaint of the young woman who rejected my offer of the impossible love, I will no longer be thirty years old living in Milton.
Where False Devotion Fails, True Love Prevails
I was wrong to hope to find the kind of love that is only possible with faith within the Mennonite context.*
That said, I was right about one thing: It is only that kind of love could ever motivate me to do anything worthwhile with my life.
Truly I did nothing, over the past few years, on the strength of my own effort. No, I’ve needed physical therapists, family, spiritual fathers, sisters, and brothers. Not to mention those friends on the road who made my loneliness bearable, also those who know my name at the various establishments that I frequent, my generous current employer and the many others who have positively impacted my life over the past decade. To all those people I owe a debt of gratitude.
However, there is one who has been there for me unlike any other, the one who didn’t lose hope in me despite my delusions and attachments to Mennonite dogma; the one who told to be strong for her, to get out of bed and go to church again. Everything I’ve done over the past few years would not have been possible apart from the investment of faith that she has made in me. She, as a person who has experienced her own personal misfortune, showed more love for me than those who claim to travel the world as a display of their Christian love.
In this coming decade, I plan to spend far less time trying to please the falsely pious and proud, who can’t be pleased and are obsessed with their own image, and more time with the downtrodden and truly humble.
That is the vision behind FACT, an organization of one, so far, that has already given me some hope that my seemingly divergent strengths and interests can finally be combined into something useful and good. I hope the vision of FACT will soon grow into concrete steps towards truly meaningful actions and compassionate solutions for OFWs and their families. But that, of course, will take more than my own personal efforts and I hope there will be others willing to put aside their doubts and help those who are already doing all they can do to better themselves.
*Mennonites, like people of all established religious traditions, are really good at carrying out their own particular programs and denominational prescriptions. Similar to their Anabaptist cousins more known for their barn-raisings, Mennonites love to help in disaster relief projects. They will also dutifully staff and fund their own private schools (or homeschool if they are more trendy) and now even travel the world as missionaries. All good things, I suppose. But all those things do not require any real faith on the part of Mennonite individuals, they are a cultural inheritance, a good way to find a romantic partner, an acceptable path to rise through the ranks, and are not truly sacrificial acts of faith or love.
Entering Into A Strange New World
In the past decade, my plans got turned upside down. I gave up on old dreams and, from the wreckage of my hopes, found some new vision. Had anyone said, ten years ago, that I would have three properties, traveled to the opposite side of the world, and converted to Orthodoxy, I would have probably laughed at them. But here I am, having started a journey to the impossibility and ended up here, perplexed.
We started the decade with a president who would seem more comfortable in a lecture hall and ended it with a persona built for professional wrestling, reality television, and trolling on Twitter. Yet, contrary to popular opinion or at least in contrast to the fears of half the population, the earth has not fallen from orbit nor has the moon disappeared from the night sky, life has gone on. Albeit, my assumptions, the idea that our political decisions are rationally based, had to change overnight. Scott Adams has persuaded me.
Over the same time, I’ve been processing the battle with cancer of a younger cousin and good friend, who just finished college and plans to marry soon, who already sacrificed a leg (in the past year) and now has new growths in his lungs.
So the fight will continue for him as it does for all of us.
One day at a time.
None of us knows what trials we will face in the next decade and yet need to continue to live in faith. I hope to be done with my inventory taking, soon break free of the transitional time I am presently still in, and finally have some of those long-awaited triumphs that have eluded me in certain areas of my life. But, at the end of it all, I can’t really tell you what this next decade will hold, whether Trump will win in 2020 or if there will even be a year 2030.
There is no point in getting stressed out about what we can’t know. Our life is a vapor, it appears for a little and then it is gone. So make the best of the time you have and don’t worry about tomorrow!
There was, one hundred years ago, a Mennonite family with four sons. They lived near a small rural village on the outskirts of a bustling city, with their three sisters, and two parents. Life was simple. They would get up early, milk the cows, then clean the stalls, before heading in for a hearty breakfast at mom’s dining room table, then out for the fieldwork or to cut firewood. The seasons of planting and harvesting were busy times, but there was always plenty of work year-round. There were community events, almost always involving donated labor, to raise a barn or help some struggling neighbor harvest their crops, but life revolved around the daily chores, tending to the animals, the repetitive cycles of the crops, occasional trips to town and church attendance.
In their spare time, evenings before going to bed or after dinnertime on the slower seasons, these boys would read. They had a keen interested in history and current events. The books gave them a window into the world beyond the horizon, beyond the slow pace of his agricultural lifestyle, where great men made important decisions, tales of war, of how his Anabaptist ancestors had suffered intensely for their faith, stories of missionaries traveling to exotic locations, reports the new technology that promised to change everything, and all of this captivated these young men. Their 8th-grade education and sheltered agrarian lifestyle may have left them in wide-eyed wonderment—like the first time they saw that WW1 surplus Jenny JN-4 biplane flying over the family farm—but this did not make them ignorant or lacking in intelligence.
The eldest son, Joseph, was the spitting image of his father, he had seen the farm grow, had participated in the hard work and toil right from the beginning, this simple lifestyle was as ingrained in his heart as the dirt was ground into his calloused hands. He had his dad’s work ethic, would never complain about physical labor, and he had that wiry strength common to farm boys. It is said that once, as a teenager, one of the town boys seeing this naive Mennonite, tried to pick a fight, even landing a blow, before John gave his antagonist a big bear hug, repeated “I don’t want to fight” and then put the stunned bully down. That bully would go on to be the mill owner, a friend, who would always tell that story, but John would laugh and claim that it was exaggerated, a tall tale. John, who had basically inherited his father’s farm, would continue to implement new techniques, was very successful, a respected member of the local community, married his sweetheart and they faithfully attended the church of his childhood.
The second oldest, the ever-inventive Henry, found a way to improve a farm implement, he started manufacturing in the shop on his dad’s farm, but soon outgrew the shop and purchased some land nearer to the city where he built his first factory. By following his passion for business, employing his hardworking heritage, he became very wealthy and could afford to treat his child to luxuries he could not have even imagined at their age. His life was always full of activities, parties, baby showers, vacations (his wife loved the beach, how could he say no?) and, of course, the daily grind of running an industrial production schedule. His life was dominated by the clock, by the calendar of events, the sports teams, politics, etc. He loved technology and one day brought home a brand new cabinet radio/record player that he had purchased at Sears. But, as busy as they were, and despite leaving his father’s old-fashioned church behind, religion still played an important role in the life of his family and he did his best to instill conservative values, his charitable giving (not for attention) made him a noteworthy character and admired amongst those in need.
Hudson was the third of the sons, said to be named after the famed Protestant missionary to China (although it may have been the automobile of the same name), was the more earnest of the four sons. One day an evangelist came to town, despite attendance being discouraged by the church elders, he (with his brothers) was in the audience. The message tugged at his sensitive heart, he rose to his feet shaking, walked the sawdust trail, and had a “born again” experience. Now, truth be told, he had never really been that rebellious, he had had some terrible guilt about seeing some female peers taking a dip in the pond and spending an extra moment observing, but he had always been thoughtful, considerate, and conscientious sort. But now, freedom from his sin, he was determined to serve. He taught at the newly formed Mennonite high school, eventually became a founding member of Mennonite World Aid, an outreach of the conference created to appease those longing to be missionaries, and even did a stint in post-WW2 Europe. He raised his large family to be Anabaptist (although he saturated them with fundamentalist literature) and was followed everywhere by his adoring perpetually pregnant wife.
Then there was Clyde. Clyde was the black sheep of the family, saw John as naive, not too interested in technology like Henry (other than his camera) and certainly far more cynical than Hudson. He didn’t have much appreciation for the farm life. He soon realized that his church was taught by ignorant rubes who got their “ordination” by seeming sincere enough to nominate and then picking up the right Bible. He at first decide to do the Mennonite missionary thing, but he was more or less there to observe and take pictures, and then headed off to university to satiate his hunger for knowledge. Yet, beneath all of this ‘liberal’ smugness, was a compassionate and caring heart. He would go on to write books, people loving to hear about his experience growing up as a traditional Mennonite (although things had really changed significantly before he was old enough to remember) and he was eventually hired as the pastor of the big conference church. Unlike his forebearers, he used his pulpit to spread about social issues, encouraging diversity, reprimanding the “ethnic church” for not caring enough about minorities, the poor, victims, etc.
All of the sons remained Mennonite. And yet all, besides John, had dramatically changed what it meant to be Mennonite. Even John’s life became more chaotic and cluttered than that of his father’s, some of his sons gave up farming (land was too expensive) and worked at his brother Henry’s factory, others (also smitten by an emotional ‘revival’ preacher” carried out Hudson’s vision, but all remained active in their congregations. Henry’s sons embraced the comforts of modern life, they drove muscle cars, listened to popular music and were a little wild before settling down. Of course, Hudson’s sons, all home-schooled (a necessity on the mission field) were a mixture of sheltered and exposed, they all thought of their father as sort of saintly character and were determined to spread ‘Anabaptism’ to the corners of the world. Then there was Clyde’s only child, an avowed feminist, decrying the patriarchy, privilege, police brutality, and basically indistinguishable from the other trust-fund babies who shared his far-leftist views—to him Jesus was basically a political tool, a means to shame his more practical cousins, and a philosopher superseded by Karl Marx.
Nothing about the new generation was the same as their grandfathers. Horses had been long replaced by tractors, the suburbs had encroached on the farmland inheritance and the influence of the ‘liberal’ cousins was having an impact on Joe’s old Mennonite orthodoxy that had been unquestioned for decades, more and more switched from farming to carpentry or manufacturing as economic realities pressed into their communities. More of Henry and Hudson’s descendants (who still crossed paths as conservative Mennonites) became disenchanted with the status quo, some looking for a more lively worship experience, others being disillusioned by the Protestant influence started to question the foundation of their religious tradition, some were angry about hidden abuses, and there were special conferences held to discuss the “Anabaptist identity” crisis. The trappings of modern life had slowly but surely crept into their lifestyle, smartphones were prevalent, pornography caused anxiety amongst many and the austerity of the past would have been appealing if they had the time to stop and think about it.
Those born into decent homes and immersed in a particular ideology have no reason to question what they’ve been taught. I was no exception in this regard, as one raised in a functional Mennonite home, and had believed the whole “we-aren’t-perfect-but-are-better-than-the-alternatives” (a self-congratulatory mantra repeated when anything bad comes up as to prevent a full examination of our fundamental assumptions) until that paradigm became untenable for me.
This assumption of being right in our foundation, even if the details are not quite right, is not only something true of Mennonites. No, it is a feature of those indoctrinated into religious systems or political ideologies of all types. The college educated ‘progressive’ is not any more free of bias than the average Amishman—both reflect the cultural institutions that created them and, if anything, the ‘smarter’ of the two is likely more subject to bias than the humbler or that is what the current research indicates. At very least, nobody is completely free of bias and oftentimes our most base assumptions are the most difficult to honestly examine—most difficult because we have so much invested in them emotionally or otherwise.
My ‘Rational’ Foundation
Of these foundational assumptions, in Western culture there is one assumption that stands out above the rest and produces the strongest reactions when challenged. It is an assumption that is especially hard to root out of the most intelligent and knowledgeable people. It is a sincerely held belief about the nature of reality that is so prevalent that it underlies the most secular ‘progressive’ or religiously conservative and fundamentalist thinking of our times—from those espousing climate change and those pushing flat-earth theories, both share this same underlying assumption in common.
This assumption being the idea that we (either individually or as humanity collectively) are rational creatures, able to determine truth for ourselves and can essentially save ourselves through our capacity for logic and reason.
If you would have asked me, as a Mennonite, what my foundation was I would have likely answered by saying, “Jesus Christ, of course!” That, after all, is the theologically correct answer to give, something easily reference in the Bible, and a reasonable conclusion based on the available evidence, right? Of course, as an adherent to Anabaptist “believer’s baptism” and Arminianism, I would insist that my church membership was a choice. It couldn’t be any other way, could it? I mean, it couldn’t possibly have been because I was raised in a Mennonite home, born in a nation where most people identified as Christian and was fully immersed in a culture where even non-believers affirm Christian values, right?
Nah, it had to be my own careful consideration of the evidence that led to an inevitable conclusion and from that I made a rational choice to believe that man, born two millennia ago in some Palestinian backwater to a teenage virgin mother, who was actually the creator of the entire universe, allowed himself to be brutally murdered, offering himself as a means to spare us from his own wrath and then, according to those most invested in his teachings, rose from the dead and that not believing this is a one way ticket to eternal torment.
And I believe all this for reasons… [Insert circular reasoning here]
When Christian apologetics fail to provide satisfactory answers, which they inevitably do for anyone beyond the intellect of an adolescent, those steeped in rationalism must either abandon the enterprise of faith entirely or live in denial and ignore the cognitive dissonance.
For example, there is no way to prove the resurrection account in Scripture through rational scientific means, it is completely irrational and yet the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ rests on this miraculous event being true. How does one reconcile such an extraordinary claim with science? By a reasonable standard this is impossible to believe, right?
Is Christianity Rational?
Some, like St Thomas, who would not believe until he saw the risen Christ in the flesh, doubt until they have personal experience and thus choose what is entirely rational. Many others, however, are content to compartmentalize, they partition the miraculous to another time and place (to history or the future) and try to have things both ways.
Truth be told, the resurrection of the dead is not a rational proposition and never will be, it is logically, reasonably and scientifically impossible and thus is, by definition, totally irrational. There is nothing rational about the central premise of Christianity, where a man who is actually God’s son is born of a virgin woman to save the world from sin, and you did not acquire this belief through rational means either. No, according to Scripture, the means used are irrational in terms of material reality and from a normal human logical perspective.
Faith, according to Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus, originates from an immaterial spiritual source and does not follow our own rules of logic and reason:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? (John 3:3-12 NIV)
Nicodemus is being entirely rational and rightly perplexed. Jesus presents a riddle, he tells Nicodemus he “must be born again” (in reference to a spiritual second birth) but then tells him the Spirit is like the wind and goes wherever it pleases. However, earlier in the passage Jesus does tie the work of the Spirit to being “born of water” or Baptism.
So, does entering the kingdom start as something rational—as the product of a human choice to believe something they’ve been told—or does it originate from a source inexplicable as the wind and as involuntary as our physical birth?
For years I believed what I was taught, that Christianity started as an intellectual acceptance of a particular proposition, that one should recite the “sinner’s prayer” (often in a moment of emotional upheaval) and later, upon their confession of faith, would be Baptized. There was no reason for me to question this indoctrination, it made sense to me, I mean how else does someone change except they make a deliberate choice? And how else do we make a choice besides through the faculties of logic and reason?
Unfortunately for me (and others from my fundamentalist/Evangelical background), that’s not what the Gospels tell us. For example, when Peter reveals the identity of Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” he is told directly, “this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 16:16-17) If the true identity of Jesus was revealed to Peter through normal or rational means, why do we expect anything different for ourselves?
Or, explain why the unborn John the Baptist “leaped” in the womb when his mother Elizabeth first encountered Mary who held the incarnate Logos within her own body as we read at the beginning of St Luke’s Gospel—Was that response a rational choice, this leap of joy due to John’s careful study of the available evidence and coming to a reasonable conclusion? Of course not! The unborn do not have the freedom or cognitive ability to weigh the evidence and make a rational choice.
This assumption that Christian faith is something of rational origin simply does not comport with what we see recorded in Scripture nor does the idea that conversion is the product of an adult choice to believe. It goes completely contrary to what Jesus said about those who would and would not enter the kingdom:
Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. (Luke 18:16; NIV)
We believe we are motivated through rational means of the mind, that is a foundational assumption of modern thought, and have turned Christianity into something it was never intended to be: merely an intellectual proposition. But this is wrong, the human mind is never described as the prime mover, the choice to follow Jesus is never said to be an adult decision or even something born of human will. Yes, certainly we are to participants in our own salvation or St Paul would not urge Christians to “work out” their salvation with due seriousness in Philippians 2:12, but there is something about it all that goes beyond all human rationality and this is a truth not hidden in Scripture.
A Fundamentally Flawed Perspective of Faith
Many Protestant fundamentalists seem to see themselves as a fusion of rationality with faith, they paint themselves as objective and their religion as something a reasonable person should accept but are neither rational nor faithful. No, they are compromised and inconsistent. They do not strictly follow the scientific method, having arrived at their conclusions well in advance of their studies, nor are they faithful for trying to prove something beyond the realm of science with their extra-Biblical theories. They show, with their actions, that they do not actually comprehend science or the rational nor do they truly accept spiritual and supernatural things.
Fundamentalism is, in essence, the bastard child of modernism and the Protestant religion. Both modernism and fundamentalism are products of the Enlightenment and Age of Reason (so-called) that arose from Roman Catholic Scholasticism. And this Scholasticism, much like modern Protestant fundamentalism, started as a means of “articulating and defending dogma in an increasingly pluralistic context” or, in other words, is an appeal to a person’s intellect and mind rather than their heart or soul. It has since developed into what amounts to a denial of the latter things that becomes completely absurd in the Christian context.
While there is little doubt that the turn towards science and reason has led to the development of technology and understanding of the physical world, we can be thankful for modern medicine based in experimentation for extending our life, this shift has done absolutely nothing for spiritual well-being or our pre-rational human needs. A gaze into the night sky through a telescope, for example, could be awe-inspiring and yet it can’t answer those existential questions of meaning and purpose. And, unfortunately, rather than stick to the means of love or the “greater things” that Jesus promised to the faithful, fundamentalists try to compete (albeit fail miserably) with their secular counterparts in the realm of science and reason.
Fundamentalists, as Protestants, have put all of their eggs in the Bible basket and also—as knee-jerk conservatives—cling to an untenable version of literalism that puts their religious dogma in direct conflict with modern scientific observation. But, as an end around to their paradigm being made obsolete, they turn to pseudoscience and apologetics that barely keep their own children let alone convince anyone outside of their circles. They have no choice, they’ve painted themselves into a corner, they believe that the Bible must be completely reliable, but in the same way as a scientific textbook rather than reliable for spiritual truths, and try to rationalize around the many obvious problems with that perspective.
Meanwhile, while insisting on a young Earth and six days literal days of Creation despite the mountain evidence to the contrary, these same fundamentalists become dismissive when speaking of things like sacraments. This, unfortunately, is a tradition that dates back around five hundred years to a man named Huldrych Zwingli and others who with him lowered the status of such things as Baptism and Communion to mere symbols—reasoning that things of spiritual import originate in the mind, as intellectual acceptance, and with this completely reasoned away possibilities beyond their rational capabilities.
The difference between a fundamentalist and an irreligious secularist is that one has taken their logic the full way to a reasonable conclusion while the other thinks they can have it both ways—accepting the irrational over the rational when it suits them and their personal agenda. Then, simultaneously, rejecting what they cannot comprehend, like their secular counterparts, simply because it goes against their own experience and cannot be scientifically proven. They take Jesus literally only when it is convenient for them or when it makes sense them from their own rational perspective and then reject literalism when it goes against their own religious indoctrination.
Here are some cases to consider…
1) What Saves, Preaching or Baptism?
While writing this blog I ran across an article, “The Sacrament of Preaching,” that addressed a glaring blindspot of many in the Protestant fundamentalist world, and amongst Revivalists and Evangelicals in particular, and it shows in what is emphasized in their tradition. In the church that I grew up in, for example, the order of the service centered on the preaching, often an affair intended to provoke, guilt-trip or convict. There’s a reason why Evangelical churches tend to have venues like lecture halls and that’s because preaching, an appeal to the mind or emotions, is perceived as the primary means of bringing salvation to the lost.
There is little doubt that preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ is important.
After all, didn’t St Paul tell us as much?
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14 NIV)
Yet that passage is in the context of a lament about those who have heard and yet did not accept the message of the Gospel, here is that missing context:
But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Again I ask: Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says, “I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.” And Isaiah boldly says, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened, as it is written: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.” (Romans 10:16-21,11:1-8 NIV)
If preaching saved in and of itself, then why didn’t the people who heard simply believe? Why did others, according to the quote of Isaiah in the passage above, believe through revelation despite not seeking it and never having been preached to?
St Paul makes it clear that it is only through the grace of God, not by preaching or through human understanding, that anyone is saved.
It is a rationalist’s delusion that preaching is the only way that someone can possibly be saved. Unfortunately, that is an idea that has been pounded into Protestant heads for centuries now and this comes at the expense of the other means of grace used by God and described in Scripture. In fact, many ‘great’ Revivalist preachers, in contradiction to Scripture and the reality that preaching is as physical a means as any other sacrament, basically mocked the idea that anything besides means of the mind could bring someone to salvation.
But it is St Peter whom they mock, who clearly likens Baptism to the waters surrounding Noah’s ark in 1 Peter 3:21, “this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.” Like king Naaman having to dip in the river Jordan seven times to be healed, we are also told that Baptism washes sins away, brings forgiveness and new life (Acts 2:38, 22:16, Col. 2:11-12), which is to make these acts as much of a means of salvation as accepting the words spoken by a man about Jesus Christ.
Part of the problem here is the soteriology of fundamentalist “Evangelicals” who typically portray salvation as a once and done event. This confusion is the result of salvation being thought of something in the future only, as in salvation from death, and not also salvation from sin in the present. But Scripture describes salvation both in terms of having been saved (Titus 3:4-5), also in being saved (2 Cor. 2:15) and will be saved (Rom 5:9-10) which suggests something a little different from the “born again” sinner’s prayer form of salvation preached by some.
In other words, our salvation is not this moment or that experience, our salvation is rather a continuing work of God’s grace that comes to us through preaching, revelation, Baptism, the prayers of the faithful, and the many other ways that the work of the Holy Spirit is made manifest. In a sense, nobody is saved through the visible means themselves, nevertheless, these things are the necessary physical expressions of the spiritual work of grace and thus inseparable. Yes, the prime mover is always God and yet there is always evidence of this moving in hearts that takes physical form.
2) Communion, True Presence or Mere Symbolism?
It is very strange, a year or so ago a fundamentalist friend, a sort of logically minded sort, got very emotional and angry when I refused to back down from taking Jesus at his word. Mind you, as far as I know, this is a man who would not question Ken Ham’s interpretation of the Genesis account nor the resurrection of the dead and yet ended up blocking me for suggesting that the words of Jesus could be understood without needing to be rationalized away their literal meaning or any additional explanation.
The discussion was about partaking of the body and blood of Jesus Christ (or Holy Communion) and how this was one of the sacraments downplayed and reinvented as ordinances by Anabaptists under the Zwinglian influence. But the curious part was how a rationally minded guy would get so emotionally bent out of shape over simply taking Jesus at face value or as a child would. He insisted, despite Biblical description completely to contrary to his position, that there was no sacramental value to Holy Communion, that it was merely symbolic and to say otherwise was ridiculous. In his mind, Jesus had to be speaking metaphorically and there was no convincing him otherwise.
This is what Jesus said:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. (John 6:51-67 NIV)
Many of the rational folks in the crowd evidently had enough hearing Jesus double-down on this bizarre-sounding claim. Had Jesus been speaking figuratively why would he have let so many walk away without stopping them and saying with a chuckle, “Oh, you guys think I’m being literal! Come on now, it’s all just a big metaphor!” But Jesus did not. When the eyebrows raised and murmurs began, he repeated himself all the more emphatically and lets the chips fall as they may rather than back down from this “hard teaching” and, rather than explain his words as being anything but literal. he even asked the disciples if they were going to abandon him as well.
If it weren’t clear enough in John, this is the account of the “Last Supper” and first partaking of Holy Communion:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29 NIV)
Is this mere symbolism?
Again, the words do not hint to metaphor. No, they are words of substance as much as his command, “Lazarus, come forth!” was received by dead flesh causing it to reanimate and Lazarus to be resurrected. I mean, if you can’t take Jesus at his word as far as his body and blood, why believe that God could speak anything into existence—let alone literally form mankind out of dust as is claimed in the Genesis creation narrative?
From a perspective of human logic and understanding, one of those events is no more rational than the others, a rotting corpse does not come back to life, our flesh is not the same as dust, and bread is bread is bread. Again, there is nothing rational about the claims foundational to Christianity and it is rather odd that anyone would insist otherwise. I mean, at very least, one might want to consider the serious physical and spiritual consequences of partaking casually of what is supposedly only a symbol:
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 11:27-30 NIV)
It is interesting that many from my own Protestant roots take the first half of that chapter concerning the veiling of women quite literally, not once expressing doubt of the spiritual significance of a piece of cloth being draped on a woman’s head, and then have their eyes glaze over when the mystical significance of Holy Communion is discussed in the latter part of the chapter quoted above. You would think that the same sects that require women to cover their heads all of their waking hours would want to partake of the body and blood more than once or twice a year, and yet they strain on one while swallowing the other.
Anyhow, is it any wonder we are weak and not seeing the promises of “greater things” (John 14:12) fulfilled in us when we are too ‘rational’ to take Jesus seriously about his own body and blood?
Rational or Faithful, the Choice is Yours!
Obviously, we are given an ability to use logic and reason. We should not waste or neglect this rational ability in the name of faith either. However, it would be wise to realize the limits of our rationality and at least entertain the possibility that there are things of true substance beyond what our minds are able to comprehend. One may want to consider that God, being God, does not need to be rational according to our own rules.
In fact, even for a complete non-believer, at the edge of reality as we know it there is a realm where things do not act accordingly to our rational intuitions based in time and space. For those who have gone down the rabbit hole of Quantum Mechanics, it is quite clear that matter does not behave in the manner would expect it to and becomes irrational from a normal human perspective. The discoveries of the past century have basically turned the concreteness of the physical world, as we know it, into a mere wave of probabilities and a place where particles may very well pop into and out of existence.
So, in short, this is absolutely the wrong time in history to double down on rationalism at the expense of transcending spiritual truth. This idea that things must make rational sense, from a human perspective, is to undermine the very substance that faith rests on, one committed to that might as well end the farce and go the full way to denying everything outside of the realm of material science. However, a person who goes that route is truly only lacking in the humility to know their own limitations. Your inability to wrap your head around something does not make it any less true.
In a time when secular scientists are even beginning to see the end of their own abilities to comprehend, many fundamentalists are still stuck in a watered down modernist paradigm they’ve inherited and rely on a horribly convoluted/inconsistent/selective rationalism rather than simply accept Jesus at his word. In their insistence on their fundamentals and understanding of things, they are like one who has traded his birthright for a bowl of stew—are you still stuck in a rationalist’s delusion, unknowingly governed by emotions or confirmation bias, and missing out on true spiritual sustenance?