Be careful what you wish for…

I just got back from the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, and I find myself swimming in reflections about the shape of the church in that gathering. Here is one of those:

I often find myself among feminist and liberationist colleagues in Boston, and in those theologies there is an emphasis on egalitarian community in which all have a voice. In the Church of the Brethren, we maintain Paul’s understanding that anyone who is present within the church as it discusses is to be given a voice. Early Anabaptists called this “Sitzrecht,” translating to something like “the right of the seated.” In principle this sounds like an amazing thing — no domination, no oppressive hierarchy, no silencing of anyone, no matter their education level, their socioeconomic status, their race, or any other demographic or personality feature. We then endeavor to discern the Spirit (not our own agendas!) in the spaces between the words.

And it is an amazing thing.

But make no mistake, it takes a whole lot of faith to listen not only to those who disagree with you, but also to those who have wounded or discounted you, even to those whom you believe are just plain wrong. It takes a whole lot of faith in the God who works in mysterious ways and the Spirit who stirs creativity out of chaos when her people gather… because sometimes, in practice, it just looks like an unholy free-for-all.

This year a resolution on climate change came before the delegate body. Several of the speakers who came to the mics were people who advocated against it, who saw salvation of souls as more important than the saving of the earth, who spoke from a denial of human complicity in the wounding of the earth. This debate, more than any other this year, saddened me. And it has stayed with me.

But the more I think about it, the more I think there is hope in this. This is what true, honest, human disagreement looks like. This is the outcome of egalitarianism in practice, the result of striving to seek out and listen for that of God in every brother and sister. And this is holy because God is working in the midst of it. God never coerces us to love, because God knows that that kind of “love” wouldn’t, in fact, be love. We always have the choice to accept or reject Jesus and Jesus’ in-breaking realm. Likewise, we must allow that in other people.

This is not to say that we don’t continue to try to find the Truth and proclaim it as fully as we know how. This is also not to say that we give up the ability to lovingly hold one another accountable to Jesus-following. But it is to say that a measure of patience is required in our dealings with one another to make sure that we are not coercing one another, dragging one another along by sheer willpower or political stratagems, no matter how subtle. Hearts and minds converted by love, actions that are the result of true repentance, can never have their birth in coercion or fear.

So, as much as I would sometimes like to grab my brothers and sisters by the lapels and shake them when they don’t believe something I believe deep in my soul — to shake them until they submit — in my better moments, I know that to do so would be to do violence to the body, to deny the unsearchable wisdom of God, and to set myself up as God.

Instead, by the Spirit’s help and Jesus’ example, I will search for the voice of God in the midst of this messy egalitarianism, I will proclaim and witness to the truth I think I have glimpsed, and I will seek to open my heart, even in the midst of discussions that make me cringe. Because perhaps my sister or brother who does not agree with me will be the vehicle of my own conversion toward love. Perhaps, ultimately, we will save each other, and in doing so, carefully, faithfully, and obediently in Christ, God might use us together to heal the world.

5 thoughts on “Be careful what you wish for…”

  1. Reblogged this on My Blog and commented:
    Laura Stone, sister in faith and can articulate beautifully how to hold onto one’s faith and be strengthen by it when still holding with love, those that hold different opinions.

  2. Hi Miss Stone,

    Thanks for sharing your experience at Annual Conference. I’m glad to hear the church is working to create language around the denominations stance on a pressing issue like Climate Change. I’m also inspired to read that you were able to re-frame your thinking around people’s responses to this often divisive issue.

    It sounds like the conversations around the issue centered around saving the planet. I’m curious if anyone talked about a different way of seeing the issues? Did anyone toss out the idea that the planet may exist long after and may have existed long before any humans set foot upon God green earth?

  3. Part of the impetus for the above post was that it felt like a very polarized discussion with people talking past each other in jargon and already-defined and mutually exclusive categories, as often happens in many contexts with this topic. In reality, it was not a very long discussion — not nearly long enough to get really creative. But the discussion was also not particularly creative in ways of framing the problem because people on both sides were invested in getting their desired outcome and pretty emotionally charged (as one can certainly expect in such an important matter). The proposed statement itself was very clear and creative and well considered from many angles. (Also, because the point of including the climate change example was to illustrate the larger issue of how we cherish and work with those with whom we disagree, I didn’t characterize the discussion in its fullness above. To do that would take its own post, I think.) Thank you for asking the question.

  4. Hi Laura, In my better moments I see what you are saying, but I also struggle with dealing with those who disagree with me, especially when nefarious arguments carry the day. My biggest problem with the whole debate, was that there wasn’t one. As you said the discussion was way too short. The question being placed at the very end of conference when you can count on a shortened discussion time (everyone wants to go home and not call for the question ever loses in the last day) seemed to guarantee that from the time the agenda was announced. Thought the idea of conference being egalitarian and everyone having a voice is in principle true, we do have our own hierarchies. I think Standing Committee has become way too powerful in recent years, it is more like conference does standing committee’s bidding rather than the other way around. Thanks for bringing me back again to look at our process and to be thankful for how good it really is, even when it doesn’t yield the outcome I would have liked.

    1. Yes! Thanks for this comment… You’ve pointed out the “on the other hand” part of this whole thing. I’m not on the inside enough to know about all the things that go on, but the fallenness of systems and the unspoken hierarchies are certainly part of the church. Sometimes I think the imbalance can become more extreme and powerful when we pretend that there are absolutely no hierarchies — then they cannot be held accountable to just dealings. So, with this other side of reality, in the midst of our seeking an egalitarian ethos and the discernment of the body, the question becomes one of how we overcome or redeem those fallen systems with love. I don’t think this is incompatible with listening to our “adversaries,” because power dynamics are often self-perpetuating and fear-based. But you’re absolutely right to point out that there’s a systemic dimension of this whole thing that we need, as a denomination, to keep ourselves actively aware of. Have you found ways, for yourself, of reconciling the things about the initial post that resonated with you, alongside the need to confront power imbalances that are systemic and seem intentional?

      I also am aware that part of why I can appreciate the beauty is that I have been geographically away from the center of Church of the Brethren politics, even as my heart has remained with the Church of the Brethren. This means that I come back to the CoB having seen many other ways of doing things, having seen the various flaws that are in various expressions of church, and not having been particularly hurt by the internal struggle in the last few years. I am in contact with many who are much more exhausted by this struggle, so I know of the politics. I hear in so many devoted CoBers a deep weariness and sadness, and I do not want to diminish that. I hear you perhaps expressing some of that in your thoughtful comment. I have thought much about this dynamic, and I don’t think I am being naive about it, but I do realize that I have a different and, in some ways, privileged view from the outside. Given that, though, I choose intentionally to lead with the beauty for many reasons, not least of which is that there remains so much of beauty in the Church of the Brethren, and my ability to see it, thanks to my situation, is a perspective I can offer. Likewise, our being able to articulate the beauty together, even if we do not manifest it completely all the time, holds the seed, I think, of a gift that the CoB can offer the rest of the world. And perhaps finding beauty in the rough and celebrating it will provide a splash of cool, healing water, maybe even inspiring us to polish it a little more.
      What’s your sense of the needs of the denomination in regard to the difficulty you named?
      Thank you for responding, brother.

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