An amicable divorce for Mennonite Church USA?

The last few weeks have been tough in Mennonite Church USA. A lot of long-standing issues have reached a boiling point of contention, including the role of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bixsexual and transgendered) people in the church, biblical hermeneutics and the delicate balance of power between a national denomination, regional conferences, local congregations and individual consciences.

While some are calling for a way forward that keeps us all united (allowing space for the exercise of different understandings of conscience), there are other voices calling for division, by way of the exercise of power. Recent announcements by the leadership and members of some regional Mennonite conferences (Lancaster, Ohio, Franconia, Virginia, New York and others) seems to indicate that some of the regional conferences may leave the denomination unless changes are made to the polity, so that dissenting groups and individuals are thrown out.

I do think miracles are possible and that is not in vain to pray for a unity that right now seems impossible (one bit of encouraging news was the expressions of unity that arose a recent church-wide meeting). But I also think that we should be thoughtful in considering the issues at stake. Unity may be difficult if not impossible to achieve (absent of course divine intervention in the hearts of the women and men involved).

The big issue (or at least the one that is forcing all of the other issues) is that there are two camps of people who hold to strong convictions on the issue of LGBT inclusion. One camp believes that homosexuality is sinful and that the toleration of sin in the church is poisonous. For these folks the issue of inclusion is more than an issue of “life and death” but rather an issue with eternal consequences. This of course makes compromise nearly impossible.

The second camp (which I am, admittedly, a part of), believes that excluding our LGBT brothers and sisters from the church in sin, and that it is our call to prophetically speak out against this oppression, not only in society but also in the church. The issue is important because it goes to the very heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Selling out on this issue is unimaginable.

Speaking only for myself here (and not for all inclusion-minded folks) this is a tough spot to be in. While I want to find a way to promote unity in the church, I must say that I also do not want to be complicit in oppression. I don’t to be part of a church that actively promotes oppression (be it the exclusion of women from the pulpit, a teaching of the necessity of racial segregation, or the exclusion of LGBT folks from the full life of the church). The only way that I can imagine staying involved in such a church, would be if I were staying as part of a continued prophetic witness against that evil.

Considering both camps and our collective desire to both follow our consciences, there may only be three options left for us: (1) maintain the discomfort of the status quo (with both camps trying to persuade the other camp to change its position), (2) part disagreeably with lots of bitter conflict (something Anabaptists have a long history of doing), or (3) part amicably, seeking to find points of connection despite our institutional separation.

These three options are the same options that many struggling married couples find themselves in. After lots of bitter tears and attempts to make things work, couples can be left with the options of (1) “keeping up the front” of marriage to the outside world but growing further and further apart, (2) going through a bitter and ugly divorce, or (3) deciding to have an amicable divorce, with the intent of preserving some level of relationship for the sake of the children or another common purpose.

The third option is hard, but it can work. I have seen this option in action in the lives of my loved ones and friends, folks who were once married (and went through a lot of pain in their marriages), but now have decided to get along, to be kind to each other, and to work together to raise their kid as co-parents.

What would such a “divorce” look like for MCUSA? I would argue that we first have to ask “who are the children,” or to put it another way, what are the common causes that unite us and that transcend our differences? I think one obvious example is MCC (Mennonite Central Committee). Currently several denominations from across the Anabaptist perspectve (including the various branches of the Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, Brethren and Amish traditions) unite together to do the MCC relief sales and to do world relief work around the world. These groups disagree on many issues but they are united by their belief in the importance of feeding hungry people and caring for those on the margins.

There are other examples — Mennonite Disaster Services and Mennonite World Conference — both come to mind. The point is that we can work together in these areas without staying tied together as a single denomination.

Yet, by separating into separate denominations, both groups can maintain the integrity of their convictions. Each group can make their own collective decisions on issues like church polity, ordination and marriage.

I see merit with this approach but there would also be terrible costs. Existing institutions (colleges, seminaries, camps, denominational offices, mission efforts, etc.) would have to find ways to exist with possibly diminished funding or be shut down. Some congregations would be geographically isolated from other congregations of the same denomination. Arguably the witness to the world of Mennonites being a “people of peace” would be hindered by a split, a little over a decade after the two major Mennonite denominations merged. And most importantly, relationships would be hurt. Ideally individuals and congregations would find ways to stay connected but this won’t always happen. These costs are not ones to be paid lightly.

I don’t know if we are at the place of “no return” in the denominational marriage of MCUSA, and so I will keep praying for a way for us to stay united. But I also will now be praying for what might happen if we have to part ways, that we can find the heart and will to be loving in our parting, and to stay united in our “co-parenting” of the common causes of our churches, no matter what happens.

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Posted in Blog, LGBT Issues, Mennonite News

My cultural heremeneutics term paper on The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games: Dystopian inspiration for resistance or just more “bread and circuses”? – by James M. Branum, March 2014 paper for Cultural Hermeneutics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

I also have a video to supplement the paper (part of an oral presentation we did in class):

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Posted in Blog

Why I am endorsing Ed Shadid for OKC Mayor

I have, for reasons for conscience and pragmatism moved away from most electoral activist work. I respect those who do this work, but for the most part I’m not comfortable with the incessant compromises one must make to do this kind of activism and have instead decided to focus my energy on direct action with causes and organizations I believe in as well as focus on work in the religious peace community.

But I’m making an exception for one unusual candidate, Ed Shadid. Much of the reason for this exception is that I know him and count him as a friend, and know very well how much his life has changed over the last few years.

Dr. Ed Shadid for OKC Mayor

Dr. Ed Shadid for OKC Mayor

A few years ago, I took a call from Ed. He had just a near death experience during the terrible tornados of May 2010. He told me he was a very busy and successful doctor, but that his experience in the tornado convinced him that he had to make his life about more than professional success. He asked for my help with a campaign for state House (I was active in the Oklahoma Green Party in those days) and so I jumped in and helped him. He was incredibly eager and determined to make a change but ended up losing in a heart-breaking 3-way race.

I learned a lot about Ed during his first campaign, most notably about how he could listen to those who disagreed. I remember a couple of times that he and I had spirited conversations on some topic or another that I didn’t agree with him on. While I didn’t change his mind on the particular topic at hand, I was impressed by the fact that he really heard me and cared what I thought, but also wasn’t afraid to tell me that he thought I was wrong. This is so different than what most politicians are like.

During those days I saw Ed struggle to balance his life in activism and his medical practice, and I frankly assumed that he would probably give up on activism after the race and return to his previous fast pace of lucrative medical practice. Who could blame him? He did his part to make a change. It would have been easy to walk from it all and back to regular life. He told me he wanted to keep working for change, but I just didn’t think he would do it.

But I was wrong. Instead Ed plunged in deeper into activism. He made lots of connections in the activist community, among folks doing good work for important causes. And then he ran for City Council and won.

It would have been easy for Ed to then just sit on his laurels. All he had to do was to show up at City Council chambers and cast his votes and then go back to regular life. But he didn’t do that. Instead he plunged into becoming one of the most active and engaged councilors in OKC City council history. And he dared to take on some sacred cows — things like a poorly thought out mass transit program in Map3 that neglected most of the city, or a stupid law that outlawed raising urban hens. Throughout all of these fights, he kept being shot down by our obstructionist Mayor, Mick Cornett, who is good at looking good on TV and for gaining corporate pork for downtown, but a failure at representing all of OKC.

So Ed decided to run for Mayor, which of course scared the powers that be, unleashing possibly the ugliest smear job in local political history by Mick Cornett’s lackeys at The Oklahoman (aka The Daily Disappointment). And yet Ed stood strong. He didn’t back down.

Ed’s life has changed. He still practices medicine but does a lot less of it so he can focus on a life of activism. This is the kind person I want as my mayor. He frankly has been an inspiration to me and a reminder that we all can make big changes in our life, whether it be his recovery from drug addiction or his bold vocational changes.

So get out and vote for Ed Shadid on March 4th. Vote as if your health and well-being (and that of your family and neighborhood) depend on it, because frankly I think it does depend on it. We need a livable sustainable city that is fair to all. Ed is the person who can help make these changes.

Posted in OKC Local Politics, Politics

My response to Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, Mennonite Church USA Moderator

This blog post is a response to A letter to Mennonite Church USA from the Moderator – by Elizabeth Soto Albrecht

I am deeply disappointed and hurt by your statement published on the MCUSA website today. While I share your desire for an active, missional and united Mennonite church, I do not believe that our gay brothers and sisters should be thrown under the bus to achieve this aspiration.

Yes, the Mennonite Church faces many different issues in different places, but the issue of homosexuality is present everywhere, whether we want to believe it or not. Statistics vary (based on the difficulties in getting accurate statistics about something as sensitive as human sexuality) but the best numbers have found say that likely 3.8% of the American Adult population identify themselves as being LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender), with likely many more not being willing to be open about their orientation and/or are not sure about their orientation.

This means that LGBT folks are everywhere. Even in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (where you claim your home church – Laurel Street Mennonite Church doesn’t have this as an issue), there are gay people. The question is — are they welcome in the church or not?

Inclusion is not an ancillary issue, but rather is central to the gospel message. ALL are welcome in the Kingdom of God. Certainly it is good to be (as you said of your home church), “preoccupied with keeping our ministries going and on growing as a church community” but one should not be so preoccupied by these good things to realize that there are people being oppressed by the church.

Here’s one example from the comments of your original post on the MCUSA website

A few years ago, I was looking into buying a house around the corner from Laurel Street. I had emailed the church and asked if they would welcome a gay Christian into their community. I eventually got a reply stating that it might be best if I find another church as Laurel was not engaged with that issue at the moment. Here it is 4 years later, and they are still not engaged with it.

This “one issue” is part of God’s purposeful plan in growing a “church community “.

The reality is that refusing to be “engaged” with this issue is actively choosing to discriminate. It is actively choosing to embrace bigotry and to reject the Kingdom of God.

I don’t want to give up on the Mennonite Church. It was a lifeline to me to discover the Mennonites when I had been floundering, looking for a church community that actually tried to live out the teachings of Jesus. But I can’t help but wonder if my involvement with our homophobic church structure is in fact a form of complicity with evil.

I will keep hoping and praying that we can find a way forward but right now I’m having a hard time having the faith necessary to keep praying these prayers.

I have one parting thought… we know that the suicide and attempted suicide rate for LGBT youth is significantly higher than that of straight youth. This is an issue with life and death consequences, particularly since we know that that institutional policies that push LGBT discrimination often lead to upticks in the suicide rate. Mennonites in the past have been a powerful voice on mental health issues (such as through the Fierce Goodbye documentary). Our national church leadership should not be burying their heads in the sand right now. Inclusion is an issue facing all of the church. The question is, how will we respond?

- James M. Branum
Minister of Peace & Justice, Joy Mennonite Church, Oklahoma City

Posted in LGBT Issues, Mennonite News

A New Year

I always get self-reflective at New Year’s (even more so now that NYE is my wedding anniversary – yesterday was our 2nd anniversary!), thinking about the previous year and years.

This year was a little different though, mostly because I had spent my last semester of seminary doing that through some of the writing assignments in my Human Development and Christian Formation class. I had to write my life story, but also discuss my personality, my faith development and my vocational understanding. And so I do have a wealth of understanding that I did not have a year ago.

What did I learn about myself? A lot more than I can tell (or want to tell) in a blog post. But probably the most helpful thing was this bit that I wrote in one of these assignments:

I also think part of my journey in the years to come is to learn the lesson of balance. I think God wants me to be a good minister, but I am also called to be a husband, a father, and just a human being. I need to learn not only how to be busy but also how to live. Right now I am doing better than I have in the past, but I am not doing well. I am often not happy, despite the circumstances of my life being pretty good. I have a wonderful wife who loves me. I have a son, who despite my novice status as a father, loves me very much. We have plenty to eat, and enough money in the bank, and a nice home to live in. We are reasonably healthy. All of these things should be enough to make me incredibly happy, but there is still a lot of stuff from the past that is bubbling up under the surface. I believe that dealing with these unresolved issues will be my most important work in the coming years.

Over the last few weeks I’ve given a lot of thought to this question: why am I often unhappy?

A few possible answers come to mind:

1. Depression (which admittedly has a biological component)
2. Excessive busyness
3. Being spread too thin between too many different areas of responsibility
4. My continuing uneasiness with the legal profession
5. the normal strains of adjusting to life as a new husband and father
6. unresolved issues from the past (particularly with regards to secondary trauma from my 7 years of practicing law serving troubled active-duty servicemembers and veterans)
7. a feeling of disconnection between my daily life and the earth and the rest of humankind.

I think the truth is a mix of all of these things. And so I do all of the things that I should do to try deal with these issues. I go see my counselor. I take an antidepressant. I continue to sort through my vocational issues (mostly through the context of my seminary classes). I take downtime to focus on my family (and to disconnect from other, less important responsibilities). I continue to practice the art of saying “no” more often when good causes call for my attention. I do all of these things imperfectly, but I just have to keep trying.

But there is one component of unhappiness that is still screaming out at me, and it is the last one on my list. I have tried to alleviate this sense of disconnection (mostly through bike riding and failed attempts at gardening) but I can’t deny that much of my life feels very disconnected. Our food occasionally comes from the farmer’s market but more often comes from far away corporations. I don’t know my neighbors here in suburbia and the only real sense of community outside of family that I feel is on Sundays at church and online. And when I think about the values I want to impart to my son, I can’t help but feel like I’m failing. He is in a wonderful holistic school (that combines technology, nature and creativity in amazing ways), but much of this time away from school is immersed in consumer culture.

These thoughts have been bouncing around in my head over the last few weeks, but yesterday I gained a new place of clarity thanks to our city council here in Oklahoma City which voted 7-2 to NOT allow residents to raise chickens in their backyard.

In the aftermath of this vote, I read this words on Ed Shadid’s (OKC City council member and candidate for mayor) campaign facebook page:

7-2 vote on urban hens was a blow to private property rights, public health and efforts to promote self-sufficiency among OKC’s large population living in poverty. The OKC Council is showing not just indifference to the poor but hostility. Making those who take Greyhound now be dropped off at Reno/MLK where they must pay for a taxi because there is no connecting transit service, the steadfast refusal to protect the thousands of daily transit riders with adequate bus shelters, the lack of nighttime and Sunday bus service, spending $150,000 out of a $1billion budget on social programs and now telling the thousands of families suffering from hunger and poor nutrition that they cannot have six hens which would produce six eggs/day healthier than anything they could buy in a grocery store if there was one within miles of them are examples of our indifference. Today, we lost this round, but this is not the end of the effort.

Ed is right. This is an issue of basic social justice, but it is more. It is about the corporate powers of our city (and state and nation) who want to keep us enslaved to the money economy, who want to ensure that we can’t dare to not buy our eggs from them (to say nothing all of the other things we need to live). And it is about the corporate powers who want us to be forbidden by law from having the power to raise and grow our own food and provide our energy, either by ourselves or in cooperation with others. (outlawing chickens is only one part of this equation)

My first impulse is to think about the electoral system (either running for city council or finding others to run for city council), but I don’t really think that is the answer. Or maybe it is just little piece of the answer (certainly I will be voting for Ed in March and doing my part to let others know that there is an alternative to a corporate-controlled puppet mayor (Mick Cornett) in the upcoming election), but the bigger answer is direct action. Instead of lobbying our government to do the right thing, we need to focus most of our energy in doing the right thing, right now, whether the government officially “allows” us to do so or not.

The problem is that I often don’t know what to do or how to do it. I’ve tried to do the right thing. I’ve planted many gardens over the years. I’ve tried to bicycle commute at times. But most of the time the “real life” keeps me from it, or else my lack of energy after trying to do all of the other things in life that need to be done (which is why my gardens normally are overgrown with weeds by August). Certainly there are areas where I am more successful (my eating has been much better since getting married, thanks to my wife’s love of home cooking and healthy living) but I am still frustrated by the many areas of improved sustainability that are left undone.

I think the problem is that my efforts have not actually been rooted in praxis. – Praxis, is a word that I’ve learned from Bob Waldrop’s Ipermie book that means “Action coupled with contemplation and reflection and observance of feedback.” I have at times taken action (sometimes with thought beforehand), but I haven’t spent much time observing the outcome or reflecting on it.

So, this will be my new resolution for the year, to learn how to do praxis when it comes to our family’s way of living. I’m going to start by studying Bob’s book ipermie! How to permaculture your urban lifestyle., but then seek to bring others into the conversation and then to start taking some action on what I’m reading.

I don’t know if this will answer everything but it might at least be a start. Maybe I will write some about the process on this blog?

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Posted in Blog, Personal, Social Justice

What to do if you are questioned by the local police, FBI, etc. about community activism

I am writing this post for members and friends of the Oklahoma chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. Please feel free to share this elsewhere. I think it may be timely given recent overreaction of OKC police to peaceful protest activities against the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Things to remember when being questioned by the police

NLG Logo

1. It is legal for the police to lie to you to get you to talk. The cops will often tell people that “we are just trying to help your friend. If you can tell us what you know, your friend won’t get in trouble.” Don’t believe it.

2. But, it is illegal for you to lie to the police. And yes they can and will prosecute you for this (even though they can lie to you with impunity).

3. Thankfully it is legal to refuse to talk to the police.

4. If the police come to your door and do not have a warrant, you do not have to let them. The best thing to do is not even open the door.

5. If the police are insistent that you talk to them, tell them you need to talk to your attorney first. Ask for their business card and tell them you will have your attorney contact them. And then contact us at the Oklahoma NLG for assistance in finding an attorney.

A more detailed discussion of these issues can be found in the National Lawyers Guild brochure – You have the right to remain silent

Posted in Constitutional/Human Rights Law, Oklahoma

Hanukkah Songs – Day 8

Fountainheads – I got a feeling

Don’t miss it! The Once in a Lifetime Thanksgivukkah Party in Oklahoma City

Posted in Judaism

Hanukkah Songs – Day 7

Woody Guthrie – Hanukkah Dance

Don’t miss it! The Once in a Lifetime Thanksgivukkah Party in Oklahoma City

Posted in Judaism

Hanukkah Songs – Day 6

The Maccabeats – Miracle

Don’t miss it! The Once in a Lifetime Thanksgivukkah Party in Oklahoma City

Posted in Judaism

Hanukkah Songs – Day 5

Standfour – Eight Nights

Don’t miss it! The Once in a Lifetime Thanksgivukkah Party in Oklahoma City

Posted in Judaism