by Berry Friesen
I cannot imagine life without clear reference points of good and bad. Best I can tell, this comes from the moral training I received as a child. I feel no inclination to criticize this orientation, which is deeply rooted in scripture.
Yet it’s abundantly clear that a principled orientation to life can be highly destructive when applied in a strictly dualistic manner. As peacemakers, we must be able to recognize and avoid this error.
What is dualistic thinking? As I’m using the phrase here, it’s the tendency to interpret life’s many experiences as right or wrong, good or bad, friend or enemy. Dualistic thinkers have only two boxes to fit life into; they are continually assessing which is the appropriate box for this or that.
Consider the book John K. Stoner and I wrote, If Not Empire, What? It takes the position that YHWH, the god of the Hebrews, opposes empire. Empire is bad, in other words. Yet the title of our book is a question and the cover image is a question mark. Though an important principle is articulated, the follow-up to that principle remains relatively open-ended.
My Mennonite church often follows a similar approach. Based on scripture, it declares (for example) shared prosperity and economic balance to be good. Implementation of this principle is relatively open-ended and nuanced. My church would never say that wealth is bad, or that a wealthy person is damned. Instead, it carefully addresses the myriad ways the question of economic justice arises. In this way, the moral power of the biblical principle remains and the rich among us are drawn toward a creative expression of shared prosperity and economic balance.
A second positive example is the principle of loving one’s enemy. Again, my church is highly adept at applying this in a nuanced way. It recognizes that much of Christianity views military service as self-sacrifice and a way to love one’s neighbor. So my church would never say that those who serve in the military are bad or are damned. Instead, it addresses such persons carefully and case-by-case, again drawing them toward a creative expression of enemy love.
A less positive example is my church’s application of the principle of man-woman marriage as the wisdom and justice of God. It recognizes some people are unable to follow this pattern for living. But in contrast to the previous two examples, in this instance the church sometimes calls such people bad and excludes them. The approach is categorical and dualistic; no space is recognized for creative expression of the basic principle.
When this inconsistency is discussed, it often is justified in the name of biblical authority. But biblical principles do not require dualistic applications. As we have seen, the church is capable of affirming biblical teaching while avoiding a categorical approach to implementation. It does this by speaking the truth and applying it with grace. In practical terms, this means living with one another’s imperfections while encouraging each individual to embody the biblical teaching.
All of this is highly relevant to the current crisis in Mennonite Church USA over membership of gay and lesbian individuals and couples in our congregations. Each side to the conflict vigorously defends a dualistic approach to implementation of a core principle. For traditionalists, this means keeping their distance from persons whose sexuality does not reflect the biblical model. For progressives, it means keeping their distance from congregations that do not make equality an overriding principle.
But if traditionalists and progressives follow the tried and true path of the church, they will find a way to make peace with one another. Congregations can make space for gay and lesbian individuals and couples, even while affirming male-female marriage as the wisdom and justice of God. Congregations can live their way into equality through the formation of mutually-supporting relationships, even while holding equality as a secondary value.
This is the loving way we see in Jesus and in the early church. They embraced the prophetic tradition and boldly articulated what justice and righteousness required. Yet they were generous with those who fell short, encouraging and empowering them to find creative ways to express biblical values. Because of their faith in God, they were able to be principled and gentle at the same time.
Wow, two things at once! May it also be so with us.
Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. He blogs at www.bible-and-empire.net