Letter to the editor

CL's new policies send powerful message

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Photo: Getty Images

I was deeply disappointed by the recent change in the Christian Leaders publication policies. I’ve read the magazine for more than 60 years; it has published a number of my articles, one going back more than five decades. The January/February 2021 issue on racism was probably the single best and most consequential that the Leader has ever produced.

The authors of the articles wrote kindly, gently and personally. They spoke about issues that are tearing our society apart, things we see around us and that some of our brothers and sisters experience every day.  I was grateful to the Leader for calling us to reflection and pointing us to resources and examples for how we can become agents of reconciliation in a broken world.

The negative reactions of some readers to that issue and an earlier letter to the editor apparently led the U.S. MB Church to modify the Leader’s publication policies. This suggests we are unwilling (or afraid) to openly discuss the biggest challenges of our day—racism, injustice, inequality, privilege, white nationalism, climate change or the position of LGBTQ+ in society. And let’s not forget, many of us grew up on land taken from the indigenous population and sold to our Mennonite ancestors.  These all raise questions that will not be going away.

During his ministry on earth, Jesus not only called people to belief but also to repentance for their treatment of the poor, the disenfranchised, the stranger and the oppressed. Jesus’ witness to God’s love included healing the broken, restoring the lost, bringing hope to the alienated and addressing injustice in society. We all memorized John 3:16, the “salvation verse,” but seem to have missed what followed directly. In The Message, verse 17 reads: “God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.”

That seems like a reasonable agenda for the church today.

Instead of viewing the issues facing society through the lens of their faith, too many Christians appear to be viewing faith through the lens of their politics. They’re aligning themselves with those who mix far-right politics, patriarchy and American nationalism with their faith. That seems to be happening in the U.S. Mennonite Brethren church. We have lost our historical Anabaptist values such as reconciliation, community discernment and engaging with the problems facing our world.

People are quick to announce, “This is what the Bible says.” Maybe. Maybe not. Could we talk about it? I see us making too many either/or distinctions (Biblical/non-Biblical; right-views/wrong-views; with-the-Confession/against-the-Confession) where things are often not that black and white. Unfortunately, there seems to be little room for other interpretations or space for conversation in the MB Church.

Let’s spend more time listening to other voices and tamping down the passions.  Let’s see the issues we face in all their complexity, not as simplistic opposites. Let’s spend less time building fences of certitude that shut down conversation, thereby denying people the opportunity to engage, and perhaps even change their minds.

The Christian Leader’s new policies sent several powerful messages: We will not listen to those who call us to repentance if they make us feel uncomfortable. We will silence ideas and perspectives if some people object loudly enough. Instead of honoring the Anabaptist values of decision-making through community discernment, decisions are being imposed in the neo-reformed tradition. The most devastating signal, however, is that we don’t trust our institutions or their leaders. By installing this system of top-down censorship, I believe the denomination has traded the Christian Leader’s prophetic voice for the lowest and least controversial denominator. It may bring peace for the moment, but it comes at the cost of relevance and speaking truth.

The late Rachel Held Evans commented: “Most young adults I know aren’t looking for a religion that answers all their questions, but rather a community of faith in which they feel safe to ask them.”  It’s not only the young who feel that way. The actions you have taken suggest that the MB Church is no longer a safe place for these conversations. The denomination has set up what are essentially political boundaries to limit which ideas and perspectives are considered acceptable. This does not feel like a welcoming place for people who might otherwise be open to hearing the good news of Jesus.

Merrill Ewert

Topeka, Kansas

11 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you to Dr Ewert for this excellent letter. I agree with his assessment of the church’s agenda as well as his call to hear each other’s viewpoints. I share Ewert’s concern that the changes made in CL publication policies seem to aim at silencing some of the voices from within the USMB rather than encouraging open discussion.

    • Merrill Ewert nails it. I’m grateful he voiced so articulately what many of us do not have the platform to share. And bravo to the CL staff, a conscientious, credible, and award winning journalistic team.

  2. Every point Ewert makes is spot on. The church that, often under the guise of unity, rejects difference, diversity, and healthy conflict, sets itself up for what it fears most — division, strife, brokenness, and pain. USMB need to do better in the name of Christ.

  3. “Conversations about” and “conversations with.” I know I am skirting the issue at hand, but I think you will soon see why.

    I am a hospital chaplain. A number of years ago I was called to the room of a pregnant mother whose child was not expected to live following birth. I greeted her and expressed my sadness for what she was facing. To her left, I then noticed another female. I soon learned they were in a relationship. Both were devastated by the imminent death of their baby. I silently wept with them.

    As always I sought to bring the God of comfort into the equation. We conversed about unfulfilled wishes, anticipatory grief, and God’s sovereignty in the midst of grief and loss. The question of gay rights never surfaced. Perhaps had I prompted them they would have shared their thoughts; especially when learning I was an Evangelical pastor. But none of that. There were more urgent emotional needs at hand. I felt connected to them even though our unspoken understanding of human sexuality was very different.

    I prayed with them and let them know a chaplain was available to return and provide continuing emotional and spiritual support and a prayer of blessing after the death of their baby. As I walked back to the chaplains’ office I thought they most likely would not request our presence again since they knew who I was. But they did. And I was blessed. I felt affirmed by this grieving couple in my attempt to bring solace to their broken hearts.

    I was one of the contributors to the “conversation about” racism and the church in the above-mentioned January/February 2021 CL. I suspect those who agreed with my thoughts were moved by my words, perhaps even saying “amen,” but I am doubtful if I impacted anybody of contrary persuasion.

    Frankly, I am not sure how much I impact many of my patients, especially those I have a “conversation with” at a mental health facility where I also serve as a chaplain. Many of these patients, I suppose, are victims, both directly and indirectly, of “racism, injustice, inequality, privilege, white nationalism, climate change or the position of LGBTQ+ in society.” To these social challenges, I would also add abortion, fatherless homes, pornography, domestic violence, out-of-wedlock births, adverse childhood experiences, immigration, STDs, gangs, sexual exploitation and trafficking, etc.

    I question my impact because I normally only have one visit of no more than an hour in duration with my patients. In the end, I make every attempt to remind them of their preciousness as a person, and point them to Jesus and a local ministry and/or congregation where deeper “conversations with” can be experienced.

    I suspect there might even be some perpetrators of the above-mentioned social ills that are also my patients. In any case, all of them, victim and victor alike, have in common one or more of the following conditions: personal loneliness, hopelessness, suicidal ideations, lack of purpose in life, depression, brokenness, panic attacks, family dysfunction, a search for something more in life, etc.

    Except for two patients who wanted to “go political” with me regarding racial and LGBTQ+ issues, most of the hundreds of patients I have seen only desire emotional relief. And this requires a prompt and biblical response communicated in a sensitive way.

    Believers and churches alike tend to move in one of two directions regarding these social challenges: maintain “conversations about” or “conversations with”. There are those believers and churches that are gifted in maintaining both. (I make no judgment as to where Dr. Ewert and his church community may be regarding these preferences and realities. I simply don’t know.)

    I am grateful though, for the many believers and local churches that are involved in “healing the broken, restoring the lost, bringing hope to the alienated, and addressing injustice in society.”

    Personally, I point my patients to Jesus who is inviting them to follow Him, spend time with Him, become like Him, and proclaim Him (Mark 1:17, 3:14-15). Such is his plan for you and for me I believe. The church community Mary and I belong to also follows this vision and provides ministries to help the broken-hearted; and yes, we too have been on the healing end of these ministries.

    Society changes when we as members change. I believe this radical transformation best happens from the inside out and not top-down. Such I believe was Jesus’ modus operandi during His sojourn on earth and today.

    We need both conversations. But if we don’t prioritize our “conversations with” and present an accompanying biblical plan designed for greater emotional and relational health, our “conversation about” will be of little benefit.

  4. While I’m in the minority here on replying to this post… I assure you that this is the case for large portions of our denomination.

    “Instead of honoring the Anabaptist values of decision-making through community discernment, decisions are being imposed in the neo-reformed tradition.”

    That was the tell tale sign this author had lost the plot. The irony of making that statement while the CL is now being led by a community represented by the various corners is not lost on me.

  5. It appears that what may have been lost, based on your response, is that the new policies put in place seem to be more for community censorship as opposed to community discernment. Not to mention, what is not lost on me is the fact that the editors of the CL are women. Would there be the same response by the USMB leaders if men were editors?
    I wholeheartedly agree with Dr Ewert and with Dunn’s response on what prioritizing unity over healthy discussion could lead to within the MB conference.
    I applaud the CL for being bold enough to bring issues to its readers that are thought-provoking and relevant. I hope that the CL will be able to keep challenging us in the future to look beyond ourselves.

  6. Well, I just have to comment here. It amazes me that people have made self-determinations about what the CL Editorial Committee is designed to do. So, let me help to set the record straight. It is NOT an attempt to silence voices. As Aaron Garza, a CL Editorial Committee member says, it is all about how we as MBs seek to do things – through community dynamic. So, we developed a committee, with a wide range of people, ages, and viewpoints to wrestle with how we can best do that for our denomination through the CL. To come up with helpful ideas for themes and articles that will stimulate healthy dialogue among our MB constituency. To think about who might be a good author or to make sure that various viewpoints about a subject are offered. But, some people have just decided: well, “they developed an editorial committee because they are old white guys who just want to maintain the status quo and to maintain control,” when in reality this committee was established to help us do the opposite of that.
    The committee has just recently worked with the CL editors for developing two new themes for the next issues of the CL, helped to determine good articles for those themes and recommended authors. It is designed to assist the editors, not to overrule them. It is designed for dialogue and brainstorming, not for censorship. It is designed to help us flesh out our MB Confession of Faith so that we can all better understand how to implement the principles and tenets we have agreed upon for our daily faith-walk. These are smart people who have a desire to be of assistance for making CL better and more valuable for our denomination, not to squelch it. I hope this makes sense and helps us all to understand why this committee was created and the value it has for us. – Don Morris

    • “…building fences of certitude that shut down conversation…”

      Don, is it possible your response to Merrill’s critique simply reinforces the point he was making? Your voice as our national leader is needed rather to increase conversations, to promote grace, and to help us all celebrate the variety of gifts and voices God has brought together in this national family of faith.
      Someone taught me to respond to criticism by saying, “You may be right. Let me think/pray about that.” I haven’t always wanted to say or do that, and I didn’t read it in your response. So what if Merrill’s right? Even a little bit right? How is the editorial committee designed NOT to do what Merrill and other responders perceive it will? What new ideas does Merrill’s letter prompt for consideration by the committee or those who created it and set its value for us?

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