Published: July, 1995
Mennonot recently attended the "Quiet in the Land?" conference in Millersville, Pennsylvania. We became quite agitated when we read on Fridays program that one of the speakers was Tina Mast Burnett of Mennonite Control Committee. After some serious investigative reporting and much discernment, however, we discovered that this was indeed a typo and that MCC had not changed its mission from serving the poor and oppressed to making sure weve got our collective fly zipped, if you know what I mean.
But then we got to thinking and discerning. Shouldnt there, in reality, be a Mennonite Control Committee? Sure, the social welfare system in this country is fast being dismantled, plunging thousands if not millions of people into desperation and poverty. Sure, legions of angry, white working-class men are forming militias, while boards of angry, white upper-class men decimate affirmative action programs. And dont even mention those Mexican babies being born without any brains in maquiladoras because their mothers drink water laced with chemicals from U.S. manufacturing plants. Everyone knows the most pressing problem facing Mennonites is church purity. Conservatives of the Sword & Trumpet ilk have always known this is the most crucial issue for the church, but we here at Mennonot are glad to see that the moderates are realizing this, too, after they finally started doing some discerning.
Purity begins with leaders who aren't afraid to wear the pants in the church family, as we all know. As a recent article in a conference newsletter states, Pastors must lead, and overseers must lead, and not in a wimpy way. The conference has a key role in processing the credentials of church leaders and disciplining them when necessary. We were ecstatic, therefore, when we read that the Eastern District Conference (GC) in May discerned and then passed a statement denying leadership credentials to people who advocate or practice homosexual, premarital or extramarital sexual conduct. Need we mention also our delight at all those conferences compassionately kicking out churches with gay and lesbian members?
Of course, if any of our pastors and overseers, after much discernment, started leading us to deal prayerfully and prophetically with the issues raised above (you know, poverty and desperation), wed have to kick them out. Or maybe just ignore them. When we say purity, we're not talking about rooting out the seeds of avarice, pride, apathy, hard-heartedness, consumerism, racism, sexism and classism among us. We all know what were really talking about. Do I have to come right out and say it? You know. . . our naughty parts, and what we do with them.
We also all know the most loving thing we can can do for the impure sinner is to discern and then kick them out of communion. Make sure we never actually have to sit down and break bread with them. We know this is the way of Jesus the four Gospels and that story about not throwing the first stone notwithstanding. In fact, we have reversed our earlier position and discerned that the four Gospels are not a part of the canon. If some feminazis can declare that Shakespeare doesnt belong in the literary canon, we can assert that the Gospels dont belong in the scriptural canon. In fact, we have discerned that the only inerrant parts of the Bible are the book of Leviticus and that verse about stoning kids who dont obey their parents.
This is all to say that, true to the best in our Anabaptist tradition, we believe a small group of people should be controlling everybody else. So, why dont you discern, take out your pen and nominate someone for the Mennonite Control Committee today? Send your names, plus statement of support, to Mennonot. Who would you like controlling your faith, beliefs and sexuality? Dont delay, discern today!
Seriously, folks, it's time for all of youespecially the heterosexuals among uswho think the purging of certain congregations is wrong, wrong, wrong to speak up. (That's why we were so delighted at the "open letter" published recentlysee page 14.) Mennonot has hammered on this point before, and we will again because we're just so doggone mad. One of the best things you can do is write a letter to the editor of the Gospel Herald and The Mennonite. Don't worry about penning a theologically correct treatise, just write a beautifully brief note saying you don't like what's happening. As my friend Sharon Heath told me, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." If you wait until you get "it" (i.e. the letter, your theological justification, etc.) perfect, you'll never speak out. Reject passivity!
I was prepared to be surprised by David Kline. Here was an Amish man living and farming only a few miles from my hometown in Holmes County, Ohio who had published a book of natural history essays with a well-respected press, and who was good friends with Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets...
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Kline is the grace with which he seems to negotiate the polarities in his life. Both traditional and modern, he farms with horses but writes with a battery-powered word processor. Most notably, Kline is a writer and a member of a community that has not traditionally encouraged that form of individual expression.
Kline visited the Bay area in 1988 when noted agricultural activist Wes Jackson invited him along on a speaking tour. It was on that tour that the seed for Klines book, Great Possessions: An Amish Farmer's Journal (North Point Press, 1990), was planted. Originally published in the Amish magazine Family Life, the essays in Great Possessions meticulously document and describe Klines observations of the life buzzing, sprouting, flying and burrowing about him on the farm. In doing so, he like his friend Wendell Berry asks us to radically re-examine our own lives. What do we truly value? What is progress? How can we live more sanely, more humanely?
One of the other things that surprised, and delighted, me about Kline was his love for books. I have rarely encountered such unabashed enthusiasm for the power and beauty of words. I wish there could be a soundtrack to this interview with Kline, so that you could hear his whoops of laughter when he talks about a book he really enjoyed, or when he recites a sentence by Gretel Ehrlich or Edward Abbey so perfectly descriptive that he wishes he had written it himself. He reminded me of why literature is important: because it enlarges the heart, because it asks us to pay attention to beauty, because it makes us realize that life is exciting and terrible and grand.
~ Sheri Hostetler
Mennonot: How did you begin to write?
Kline: I have always liked to write. I guess it was almost on a dare. Id say to (my wife) Elsie, Some day Im going to write, and shed say, Oh David, you never will. I said, Ha, I will. So I did. It goes back farther than that, though. Even in grade school, I kept diaries. Somewhere along the line, I just fell in love with the English language, even though we speak Pennsylvania Dutch.
I think one of the reasons I also began writing is because I stutter. I had a fairly severe problem with it into adulthood and still have a slight problem with it. Finally, when I could laugh at myself, when I could thank God for my handicap so that I could be more sensitive to other people, I got over it mostly.
Mennonot: When did you first start publishing?
Kline: I think I had my first writing published in the early 1980s.
Mennonot: Was that in Family Life?
Kline: No, it was in National Wildlife. That was the only magazine I ever sent a query letter proposing an article to. That was the dare (from my wife). I sent a query, and within a week they replied, Yes, we want it. And then (moan), I had to write it.
Then I wrote several nature essays and sent them to Family Life. The editor said he had been looking for someone to write nature articles. So I started doing a column for five or six years. Then after the book was published, I went into relapse. I didnt write for two or three years.
Mennonot: Really? Why?
Kline: Well, I had this intense fear of writing. One writer I read said that in the back of writers block is depression. Its terrible. When I didnt write, I just felt I was sinking into a void that eventually would eat me. I did write a few articles. I never quit writing completely. But in the last year and a half, I think I have written more than I have ever written before.
Mennonot: Is most of your writing still journaling and from that you get your essays?
Kline: Yes, partly. Also for the nature articles Im writing right now, I just watch. Like today in the fields I just kept my eyes open. Its actually exciting. You know, when you sit down to write, youre never quite sure whats going to happen. Its like E.B. White said, when he was asked to update William Strunks The Elements of Style. He said something like, I do not know the finer points of grammar. I write by ear. And Im never quite sure whats going on under the hood. I think thats true of many writers. We sort of have an idea of what we want to write, but when you actually sit down, and the juices are really flowing, its exciting. You never know whats going on under the hood.
Mennonot: Who are some of your influences?
Kline: Edward Abbey. The book of his that really got to me was Desert Solitaire. I cant explain it, but that book I carried it with me in the fields. While the horses rested up, Id read it and take notes.
Then of course, Wendell Berry. When I came out of service and went back to the farm, I came back in body but maybe not in spirit for a few years. I had problems with why do we farm the way we do? Why plainness? So I started reading a lot of Anabaptist history. What really helped me was Robert Friedmans Mennonite Piety through the Centuries. That explained a lot to me.
And of course on the farming angle, I discovered Wendell Berry. We had a sort of 60s radical-type bee inspector at that time. I guess Im a 60s radical, too. I was very obviously influenced by the 60s. I was drafted in 1965. So naturally I was influenced by it. I still think it was a nice decade. Anyway, this bee inspector and I were talking, and he detected my views and told me, You should read Wendell Berry. And I just couldnt get over it when I started reading The Unsettling of America. I underlined everything. Of course, it just reinforced my way of life. So then I could see why were doing this.
Then theres Wes Jackson, Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich.
Mennonot: Do all Amish farm the same and would that be similar to the way Berry and you farm?
Kline: All spring, all the work we did, all the plowing and planting all that was done on solar power. Yesterday, I started mowing hay. It was the first time I used fossil fuels all spring.
Mennonot: Solar power?
Kline: Oats for the horses. Grows from the sun. Yesterday I started mowing hay, and then we used the diesel engine. Everything went wrong. The hays thick, a belt broke, a bearing went out. We needed parts. Its like a friend said, you spell part backward and what is it? Trap. (Laughs) So we finally did find the belt. There are Amish neighbors here who dont use a hay baler yet. They are basically sun powered even for the hay.
Mennonot: Does every Amish person farm organically?
Kline: No. Its like Wendell Berry said, they may use pesticides, but the way they farm, the need is so much smaller. Even this year, the organic farmers had to spray the corn because it was too wet to get in to cultivate, and the weeds just grew like crazy in this cool, wet weather. So we had to go in there and use some herbicides. Its a terrible feeling.
Mennonot: Obviously Amish farms are thriving in an era when family farms have been going down the drain. Wendell Berry and perhaps you, too would say thats testament to the fact that this way of farming works.
Kline: Well, we still need markets. The last year, the hogs hit the lowest point in 30 years and that caused hardship for many small farms. The milk prices arent too good, and the dairy cow is still the backbone of the family farm.
What is hurting the Amish farmers the young farmers is the high price of land here. Its crazy. You cannot afford to pay a quarter of a million dollars for 80 acres and pay that off with farming. It has now reached the point where, when a non-Amish farm comes up for sale, it cannot be bought.
Mennonot: When do you find the time to write?
Kline: (Laughs) Rainy days. Im a foul weather writer. Rainy days and nights. I try to write every day. I prefer to write mornings. Your mind is clear; I feel youre more creative. You have a desire to do it. Evenings you have to force yourself.
Mennonot: I assume you get up early to do the chores around here, so do you get up even earlier to write?
Kline: No. I get up 5 a.m. and do the chores, eat breakfast, and have some time to write. And then its nice if it starts raining. (Laughs)
Mennonot: Are you an Amishnot?
Kline: Im happy to be Amish. Im probably in some sense a culture straddler. I always thought I had the best of two worlds. I had the contacts with other writers and other nature writers, plus I had the security of the community.
Mennonot: Are there any questions I did not cover?
Kline: I should mention my schoolteacher, who was a tremendous influence on me. He was a Mennonite, Clarence Zuercher. He taught at a one-room public country school up here. He taught me for seven years, from the second to the eighth grade. And he taught my Dad about 39 or 40 years before he taught me. We had a wonderful, wild school.
Mennonot: Its not what you imagine when you think about a one-room country schoolhouse.
Kline: No. Mr. Zuercher never worried about getting to the textbooks. We did a lot of nature hikes and walking and softball playing. Its like someone said, you have to create an atmosphere where people want to learn, and I think thats what he did. He instilled in us a love for reading and a sense of wonder for nature. Theres always something around that next corner thats interesting and exciting.
Mennonot: Is that sense of wonder something that needs to be instilled in people even such as yourself, who live out here in the country and work the land?
Kline: Yes, I think we need to be taught it. Then well be able to see more. Its always surprising what we dont see.
~ Scott Holland
[Web page editor's note: Due to space restrictions we are not going to publish Scott Holland's article here on the web site. Instead, we are including Scott's introduction to the article along with his four main theses. For the complete article, well, send us $3.00 for a back-issue of #5].
Several years ago, I was walking with an elderly member of my congregation on his farm near Louisville, Ohio. Hey preacher, he said. Why cant the strange feelings of the barn and field ever enter the meetinghouse? He continued, It seems there is church talk and then there is everything else.
I wrote this paper in response to the old brothers playful yet earnest question. My friend experienced intuitively what I had been trying to articulate and develop theoretically. In our Anabaptist tradition, the controlling metaphor of the Body of Christ and its attending communal hermeneutics effectively shield us from the ambiguity of our own embodiment and from the mystery of the world as Gods body. If the word can indeed become flesh in the sanctuary, then we must also invite the flesh to become word.
This article is an abridged version of a paper (originally titled Communal Hermeneutics as Body Politics or Dis-Embodied Theology? The Erotic and Ecological Failures and Possibilities of the Anabaptist Vision) that was warmly received by the audience at the Anabaptist Vision(s) Conference at Goshen College last October. Since the Goshen event, I have received dozens of requests for photocopies of the complete manuscript, often followed by interesting and engaging letters offering personal commentary, confession and critique. However, mainstream Mennonite editors have chosen not to publish this article. They find it too disturbing. I hope readers see in my work not a mere attempt to disturb the peace but an invitation to love God and this blessed fallen world in and through our carnal bodies.
I MUST BEGIN with loose definitions of the terms erotic and ecological as I am using them here. The erotic is more than mere copulation or sex in the missionary position, and the ecological is more than remembering to separate the recyclables before Tuesday mornings garbage pickup.
Parting company with the classic theological study by Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros which pries apart agape and eros like a cherrystone clam and calls the faithful Christian to flee eros and embrace agape I am following Paul Tillichs understanding of eros toward the world. Eros, writes Tillich, is the driving force behind all cultural creativity and in all mysticism (Love, Power and Justice, p. 117). (It is not surprising, therefore, that contemporary Anabaptists who fear cultural creativity and the arts also despise the mystic, for the mystic and the artist drink from the same well.) For Tillich, eros includes the ecstacy of sex, but it is more than sex. Creative eros is manifested in all human experiences in which there is a deep desire for authentic, satisfying encounter and connection with the Other and a drive towards reunion of the separated (p. 25). Eros drives the mystic and the artist, the poet and the preacher, to enter and explore the complicated but inseparable cosmic relationships of God-soul-world-body. Theologian Carter Heyward declares that the experience of the erotic is, in fact, the experience of God. For thinkers as diverse as Tillich and Heyward, the eros that makes good sex also makes good poetry, prose, art, culture, religion, relationships, children and gardens.
The ecological is closely related to the erotic. With Vanderbilt theologian Sallie McFague, I define the ecological as a worldview that acknowledges the interconnection of all life in a holistic, evolutionary understanding of reality that rejects the neat dualisms of spirit/flesh, subject/object, self/other, male/female, mind/body. This world picture boldly asserts that God loves bodies and that the world is indeed Gods body. The metaphor of the Body of Christ has become so disembodied and clean. Yet God loves fleshly, sweating, lubricating, menstruating, urinating, defecating, climaxing, coming bodies. God loves this blessed fallen world.
Let me now turn to four abridged theses: two on the erotic and ecological failures and two on the erotic and ecological possibilities of the Anabaptist Vision in its use in the church, theology and common life. These theoretical reflections are only suggestive of my work on a larger project toward an Anabaptist erotics of culture and religion.
Thesis One: Gordon Kaufman has often warned us that we Anabaptists are tempted to make an idol out of community. The community or the church is thus viewed as the privileged and the only proper theological reality. The world becomes an object of theological description and prophetic critique, rarely a rich source for imaginative and revisionary theological thought and writing. The church precedes the world. The disciple precedes the human. There is no salvation outside the community.
Thesis Two: Benders almost exclusive attention to Swiss Anabaptism in the composition of his Vision, and his suspicion of other Anabaptist radicals who failed to neatly embody the evangelical ideals of community, discipleship and nonresistance, has cut some of our most interesting ancestors from the family tree.
Thesis Three: The Anabaptist theological tradition has consistently argued that the sacraments must be understood as social process rather than otherworldly signs. The holy is historicized. The word must become flesh. Therefore, a theology of our churchly rites, rituals and practices proper to the sacred must always follow them from the meetinghouse to their embodiment in the common life from which they emerge.
Thesis Four: Anabaptism is an incarnational mode of being in the world. Anabaptism was born in passionate hearts and bodies and demands an embodied hermeneutics, or it will become either a dead ideology or, worse, a totalitarian bad fiction. I believe our Mennonite and Brethren artists, poets and creative writers have more to teach us than our theologians and preachers about the ambiguity of desire, the enigma of the flesh, the deceitfulness of the heart, the goodness of grace and the mystery of God in the world.
As an ordained Mennonite minister for the past 15 years, Scott Holland has preached the gospel, written and taught theology, baptized saints, communed with sinners, visited the sick, comforted the broken-hearted, married young lovers, dedicated their babies and buried their dead. Holland is currently a narrative theologian and a preacher in the Church of the Brethren.
The complete paper is available from Scott Holland at 1423 Carnegie Ave., McKeesport, PA 15132; 412-664-7681
~ Mitchell Brown
I might begin with a question. What was Jesus purpose? Why did he come to this world? We all know the answer. He came to save the world. Thats the key: salvation of the world. Not, you will notice, to start a church.
Look at the world into which Jesus came. A mature Jewish religion. Arguably the most important religious development of all time. Consider Judaism. Here was a moral religion. Worship of God was lived out in love of fellow humans. The two were inseparable, two sides of the same coin: Love God and thy neighbor as thyself. You will remember that this was precisely how Jesus summed up the faith that nurtured him (Matt. 22:34-40).
But there was a problem with this faith, a problem that still confronts us in our day. Such a faith was exclusive. There were the ins and the outs; those who lived the decent moral lives, and those who did not.
The minute that religion begins, you will have this separation. Indeed, the Priestly writer of the Old Testament writes such separation into the very creation of the cosmos (Genesis 1, note use of the Hebrew root BDL). This, if you will, is the defining mark of the church. Right? The church lives a certain way. It is a community of love, a separated community. Define it how you will, but the church is this group, like us right here, that lives and believes in a certain way. This fundamental division between good and evil is what we are all about. This is the church.
And now we can begin to see why Jesus hates the church.
For it is just this division of reality that Jesus attacks. He doesnt want a church; he wants the world. Thats what salvation is all aboutthe kingdom of God is here. That is the language of salvation that Jesus used. To put this another way: Jesus came at the end of time. Now that is something that we have trouble with today. After all, its 2,000 years later, and time seems to still be here. But think of this another way. When Jesus said the kingdom of God is at hand, he meant that the world as we know it was coming to an end. What world is that? The world as we know it: the world of good and evil, of separation, of human valuation. The world of organized church groups. To all this, Jesus said No! Not the kingdom of man but the kingdom of God is at hand. What then is this?
It is the destruction of all such divisions. Everybody must come in. There isnt any us versus them, good versus bad guys. God wants all her creatures. Until the last sheep comes in, until that one pearl is found, the kingdom is not here.
In short, Jesus came to destroy the church. The kingdom of God and the church are opposite things. The church is a human invention, the kingdom is Gods saving gift. Jesus never wanted a church. Yet that is what he got.
WHAT ARE WE TO DO? After all, the church does many wonderful things. And we celebrate it, as we should. But we must remember what the church does not do: It does not save. Salvation that word again. The church is a wonderful institution, but it is a human institution, no better and no worse than a variety of other human institutions. It does good, but so do a variety of other groups. We are no better or no worse. We do what we are supposed to do. We do what good humans have always done, what good Jews did in Jesus day, what good Buddhists do. We act morally.
Thats what the church does, and there is nothing wrong with that except that we must remember that this has nothing to do with salvation. This was Martin Luthers brilliant insight: Works do not save.
Works are human. We do what we should. Salvation is something else again. It assumes that we do good, but then it moves on. The church will always be a human institution. It will always do good, but it will never save. And in doing its good, it will always represent a temptation a temptation to self-righteousness, to believe that in doing good, we are somehow better, somehow chosen.
So Jesus hates the church because inevitably the church will become self-righteous. It will become exclusive. It will say that there are those of us who are good and saved, and there are those outside.
But Jesus wont let us do that. Jesus came to a churchly world, and he attacked it in the name of Gods love for all, but particularly those cast out by the church. He didnt do this to just start another church so that a new group of ins and outs developed (unfortunately, that is just what happened). No, Jesus came in the fullness of time to destroy the church, to destroy a religion that structured itself upon rules and precise definitions of who is good and who is not. The kingdom of God denies all such separations. Think back to Genesis 1 and all its separation, and we can say that the kingdom of God deconstructs the world.
And as such, it asks of us who would be Jesus followers a difficult task. It asks us to go out and be his people without the comfort of a saved community, without the happy knowledge that we are Gods special people. We must go out there knowing that we are no more saved than the bum in Omars alley who breaks his bottle, causing a big pain to all of us. In Gods eyes, he is no different than those of us in this church.
THIS IS THE KINGDOM that Jesus calls us to. A kingdom with no visible support. A kingdom that asks the impossible, that asks us to be more than human. Its hard. . . mysterious. That is why Jesus parables of the kingdom are so strange. We dont understand, but we have faith. Like the disciples, we cannot understand the master. He speaks in parables. What do parables do? Like Zen sayings that disturb us, they force us out of our cozy self-righteous situations and into the world of salvation, into the kingdom of God. They force us outside the church.
Hear the witness from the book of Hebrews: The high priest carries the blood of animals into the most holy place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore (13:11-13).
This article was first a sermon delivered by Mitchell Brown at Evanston Mennonite Church in Illinois. Brown is pastor at the church and a Jewish Mennonite -- definitely a Menno on the margins.
Click on the above to read Ross L. Bender's column in this issue.
Ross L. Bender is a regular columnist for Mennonot. Ross lives in Philly, teaches ESL at Penn, and attends the West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship. The title of Bender's column comes from a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne: Pleasure with pain for leaven, summer with flowers that fell, remembrance fallen from heaven, and madness risen from hell. You can email Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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