An initial response to The Mennonite Quarterly Review’s discussion of John Howard Yoder

Updated with some grammar/spelling fixes as well as some additional material (particularly in the conclusion) on 1-13-2015:

Today I bought the latest issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review. Yes, this is THE issue, the one that gives in-depth discussion of the case of serial sexual abuser John Howard Yoder, and the issue of sexual misconduct in the church generally.

Before moving on, I should mention that a review of this issue can be found in The Mennonite magazine and the actual full issue (200+ pages) can be bought here.

This evening I ended up reading three of the articles in the issue. There is so much that I want and need to say, but for now I want to make a few comments while the pain of reading this is fresh.

First, Rachel Waltner Goossen’s article “‘Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse” is a disturbing but very thoroughly researched account of the nature of Yoder’s history of abuse. While most of the Mennonite world has been aware in some way of this abuse, this article tells a great deal which had not previously come to light. Some of these key revelations include:

1. Yoder used his position of power and influence to coerce female students into sexual acts. (this was not just a matter of harassment, as it has been framed sometimes in the past)
2. Yoder created an environment at both AMBS and at Notre Dame that was hostile and dangerous to women.
3. Yoder actually exploited the female student-led campus feminist movement to pursue his agenda of abuse, often co-opting feminist language as part of his persuasive rhetoric.
4. Yoder abused women not only at his schools, but also at conferences and other settings, including overseas in multiple countries.
5. Contrary to the way that the story has been spun by the Mennonite Church over the years, Yoder never repented. At best he apologized for “misunderstanding” the desires/intentions of the women he was pursuing. Also his “restitution” that was supposed to help victims with the costs of counseling was a very small amount ($1000). And little if any of this money ever went to help those victimized by Yoder.
6. In 1995, Yoder actually sought to sever ties with the Mennonite Church (asking that his membership be transferred from his Mennonite congregation in Elkhart to a local Lutheran church. He made this request DURING the process of the discipline while his ministerial credentials were suspended. Yet the church chose to effectively ignore his request, presumably so that he could still be claimed as a celebrity Mennonite theologian. (Page 64-65)
7. Stanley Hauerwas (who previously urged Yoder to cooperate with the process of accountability before his conference – page 59) pressured the Indiana-Michigan conference to hurry up the process, so that Yoder could be fully restored to ministry (page 62). The conference agreed to do this by way of a public statement in 1996. The conference hoped Yoder would make a public statement of apology. He did not do this.
8. AMBS administrators knew about Yoder’s abuses for years (since at least the late 1970’s). While there were repeated attempts to reign in Yoder’s conduct, Yoder was not actually pressured to resign from AMBS until 1984.
9. Yoder continued to teach at Notre Dame after his resignation from AMBS. Yet he continued for some time to have a key to AMBS campus buildings and often was on campus.
10. Yoder was actually asked to come back and teach a guest class on campus in 1997, which he did in the fall.
11. Yoder died a few weeks after that class ended, but a week before his death, he wrote a letter to a woman seeking to engage in a “confidential conversation” about his issues. The language in the letter used the same rhetorical pattern as was seen in his previous sexual harassing communications to women in the 1970’s and 1980’s). – page 79
14. Mennonite Church USA Archives has a box of materials on Yoder’s case that is restricted from access until 2047. As far as we know, no one knows what is really in this box.

Beyond these revelations, I want to mention that I appreciate the author’s strong refutation of the idea that Yoder’s misconduct was fueled by the awkwardness of an un-diagnosed case of Aspergers’s Syndrome (page 77). As an aspergistic person myself, I appreciate this clarification.

The second article I read was Jamie Pitts’ “Anabaptist Re-Vision: On John Howard Yoder’s Misrecognized Sexual Politics.” I appreciated this article partially because I know Jamie (he was my professor in my Theology I class that I just completed) but also because he gave powerful expression to where I hope that the Mennonite academic world is, or at least, should be moving towards:

(In the last twenty years) few male Anabaptist-Mennonite theologians have allowed our vision to be significantly re-envisioned by feminism. John Howard Yoder . . . has remained the public face of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology during that time. His relationship to feminism is problematic, to say the least. Until recently, when new attention to the non-radicalness of Yoder’s personal life has forced the issue, male scholars of Yoder’s work, such as myself, have mostly avoided explicit, sustained reflection on feminist perspectives and concerns. . . Our vision must be revisited.

Lastly, I read Paul Martens and David Cramer’s article “By what criteria does a ‘Grand Noble Experiment’ fail? What the case of John Howard Yoder reveals about the Mennonite Church.” I began this article with a hopeful attitude, hoping that the authors might shed light on how Yoder’s ideas on experimenting with alternative ideals on sexual ethics were flawed from the start by his failure to engage frankly and honestly with those he was in a covenant relationship with (including his wife, the schools he taught at, and his church), as well as to explore the ways that Yoder failed to recognize his own power imbalance, as it relates to the women he pursued.

Instead, Martens and Cramer gave their readers something different, a terribly constructed attempt at comparing Yoder’s “experiment” with the efforts of conscience-led Mennonites of today to seek LGBTQ equality in our church. Certainly the authors gave lip service to some of the ways the two controversies are different, yet did not really get to the heart of the matter, leaving the comparison hanging in the air as if it were valid.

I strongly disagree. Yoder framed his sexual misconduct as a kind of “noble experiment,” but in reality it was something else. I think that Yoder could have ethically explored and even tried out some of his alternative ideas about sexuality and singleness, but only after doing the right thing, by either divorcing his wife or making a consensual agreement with her that they were going to have an open marriage. Instead Yoder wanted to “have his cake and eat it too.” And so he stayed married.

Yoder also abused his position of authority on campus and in the academic world, using his rhetoric of his “noble experiment” as his justification, but in practice keeping the “experiment” secret. His language of “experiment” was really just a justification for his pattern of abusive behavior towards women.

For LGBTQ individuals who are seeking to serve in ministry openly in the church, there is not the same kind secrecy involved. Rather these individuals are being called by congregations for service and then having their credentials considered by regional Mennonite conferences. One such case is Theda Good from First Mennonite Church in Denver. (discussion of her case is found beginning at page 186 of this article). Theda has not hidden her sexual orientation. Neither has our congregation or her conference. Rather Theda, her congregation and her conference are acting in obedience to their respective and collective consciences. Yes, I suppose one could frame this move as an “experiment” but this is not an insane double-talk secret style Yoderian experiment, rather it one that is open and done in the context of Christian community.

This applies as well to issues of marriage, and church membership. Advocates of LGBTQ equality (including myself) are very open about what we are about. Yes, this is in some ways a theological innovation but it is rooted in our views of scripture, our conscience, and our understanding of the call of Jesus to love our neighbor.

I am beyond livid that the authors that this comparison was a fair one to make and I don’t understand why the MQR thought this article was worth of inclusion.

That said, I am appreciative of one part of this article:

At this point, we hope it is clear that the claims that Yoder’s actions are little more than expressions of social awkwardness, Asperger’s Syndrome, or a mild case of autism, are only relevant – if they are relevant at all – in rationalizing Yoder’s awkward performance of experimental sexual relations… An appeal to these conditions simply cannot explain Yoder’s careful narrations of marital and non-marital relations or the larger framework within which they function. – (footnote 57, page 185)


I will be doing a lot of praying and thinking in the coming days, but my initial feelings about both the aftermath of Yoder’s abuse and the complete failure of the Mennonite Church’s denominational institutions to protect women for so many years leaves me feeling very, very disloyal to Mennonite Church USA. I’m glad that the light of truth is being shined in the dark places of the institutional church (and can personally testify to the ways that AMBS has changed — which I think now has a majority female student body). Yet, it is hard to feel very invested in an organization that has been, until very recently, painfully negligent.

And I will have to also admit my own culpability here. I argued just a few months ago that “it is possible to respect Yoder’s ideas and not respect his actions.” Now though that I’m questioning this. I don’t know if I can ever read Yoder again, or at least not without constantly hearing the internal inconsistency of this beliefs, as the great modern theologian of nonviolence was in fact a serial sexual abuser.

And I must admit that the article by Martens and Cramer doesn’t help matters much. Using the case of Yoder as an excuse to attack Theda Good and other advocates of LGBTQ equality is not appropriate and further solidifies my belief that church hierarchy all too often is willing to throw oppressed people under the bus for the sake of appearances. In Yoder’s day it was young female students. Today it is LGBTQ folks. I would rather the denominational structure die than see it continue to perpetuate oppression.

So those are my thoughts for tonight.

Actually I have a few more thoughts…

1. Given the serious nature of the contents of this issue of MQR, I think Mennonite Quarterly Review should consider publishing the entire issue for free online. It is too important to be buried in church and academic libraries.

2. Probably the statute of limitations is long past, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if one of the survivors of Yoder’s abuse could sue Mennonite Church USA and then subpoena the sealed box, described as “The John Howard Yoder Papers at the Mennonite Church USA Archives-Goshen, ‘Sexual Harassment Charges and Conference Discipline’ documents in box 240, restricted until 2047 (50 years after Yoder’s death)”?

3. As difficult and costly as it might be, Mennonite institutions need to be ready to make financial reparations to women victimized by Yoder. While I realize that budgets are strapped, the costs of the ongoing damage done by Yoder should not be the responsibility of those victimized by Yoder.

Thinking creatively — what if every congregation of MCUSA took up a special offering on a given Sunday to be given to a perpetual fund to provide funding for counseling and other needs of those who were abused by Yoder? Such a special offering could be taken at special services of lament for the collective sins of the Mennonite Church in covering up the sins of Yoder, as well as discussing the work still to be done to undoing gender-based oppression.

Becoming Jewish – a bi-religious journey

Note: I edited the last portion of this post on September 26, 2014 to include links to the different books and resources I was citing.

I have been engaged in recent months with the self-study program for adoption (an alternate term used in lieu of “conversion”) by the Society of Humanistic Judaism.

As part of my final assignment, I have written an essay that explains my decision to become Jewish, while also maintaining my identity as a Mennonite. I have decided to share it here, because it is a pretty big step in my life (and today is Rosh Hoshanah – the Jewish New Year – so it feels like the right time to step into a new stage of life).

Here is my essay…

A Short Essay on why I want to be identified with Humanistic Judaism

by James M. Branum

I have struggled with writing this essay for several months. Every time I decided to sit down and write it, I would convince myself that I just needed to study more and that I didn’t really understand what to say to such a huge question: Why do I want to be a Jew? –- But as the Jewish calendar has been approaching the mile marker of another Rosh Hoshana, I decided that this was the time for me to make my commitment and move forward on the process of adoption into the Jewish community.

Rosh Hoshana is significant to me, partly because of the powerful symbolism of a fresh start with a new year, but also because it was Rosh Hoshana that was my first real introduction to Jewish ritual practices. My wife has written about our first Rosh Hoshana more eloquently than I can at, but in short I can say that the powerful connection between the anniversary of her cancer diagnosis and Rosh Hoshana falling at the same time, was one that we wanted to celebrate.

And so we read up on Rosh Hoshana and celebrated it in a simple way at home. The experience meant a lot to us, particularly since it was a moment of deep connection for us as a fairly new family unit (my wife and I married nine months previous, which meant that I was also a newly minted step-dad to a tjen six-year old).

The experience was so powerful that we decided to start celebrating other Jewish holidays, especially Shabbat. We decided early on that we would give ourselves permission to adopt those practices that were life-affirming and helpful and discard those practices that felt dry, lifeless or just not helpful to us in our context, and so we started with Shabbat suppers on Friday nights. Later on we added other holidays, our favorites being Sukkot (yes, I did build a shack in the backyard where we ate some meals), Haunakah, and Purim. In all of these holidays, we did this with a spirit of playfulness, seeking to make these times joyful for us but also kid-friendly.

During this time the issue of identity started to pop up. We had read some books and resources on the Jewish holidays that tried to “christianize” the holidays with new meanings, but this just didn’t feel right to us. While we were willing to pick and choose specific practices we engaged in, we didn’t feel it was appropriate to try to give the practices we were doing a new meaning.

At the same, my wife and I were (and still are) active in a small very open-minded urban Mennonite church, and I am a part-time seminary student (through the distance learning program of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary). We love the community we are a part of, many of whom I work alongside on a regular basis in peace and social justice activism. I couldn’t imagine leaving that community, but thankfully this group does not seem to be threatened by us having a bi-religious identity. In fact we are known as a church that is ok with agnostic members who are stirred by the ethical teachings of Jesus, even if they are not sure if they believe in God.

My son also picked up on the issue. One day he came from school, asking his mom “Are we Joes?” We then asked him what he meant, and he said, “you know, the people that Esther saved on Purim. One of the kids at school asked me, and I didn’t know.” In this moment, it was clear to me that my son was frankly gaining more from our home observance of Judaism than he was from the experience of going to church. (again my wife has written about this incident much more eloquently than I did here. )

And then finally there was the issue of cultural misappropriation. One of my close friends expressed concern about this, in that he thought it was inappropriate and even offensive for a Christian to adopt Jewish spiritual practices. At first I was offended by the question, but in time I came to see that he had a point. There is a big difference between choosing to adopt another culture’s practices and actively joining another community and becoming a part of.

In light of this, I decided that I wanted to find a way to be Jewish without abandoning my current community. This led me to a process of reading and study, as well as reaching out to different Jewish communities, both locally and online. It quickly became clear to me that for almost all Jewish communities, that it would be unacceptable for me to retain my ties to the Mennonite Church while also adopting Judaism. Some communities were somewhat ok with interfaith families participating in their worship, but it was also very clear that the delineation between who is a Jew, and who is not a Jew, was pretty ironclad. This hostility (while understandable give the long history of anti-semitism in many parts of Christendom), still felt pretty hurtful, especially given the fact many Jews do in fact practice more than one religion (my favorite being Sylvia Boorstein, a Buddhist teacher and author who is also a practicing Jew). I did not want to choose to being either/or.

Some friends suggested that the obvious solution was to affiliate with a Messianic Jewish community, but this was not a real possibility for me, as I am not “christian” enough in my theology for them. –- In short, I waver between agnosticism, deism and Unitarian theism. I also see Jesus as a great ethical teacher and prophet, but not as a substitute blood sacrifice to appease an angry God (which is the primary concern of so-called Messianic Judaism).

I of course also considered the possibility of just self-identifying as a Jew and leaving it at that, but I felt that this would also be disrespectful to the value of community and cultural identity of Judaism. To try to keep some kind of connection, I participated in online worship services of several Jewish communities, but I still felt a sense of distance. I wanted to know that I was a real Jew, and not just a curious outsider.

From my explorations, I narrowed my consideration to the Jewish Universalists of Sim Shalom and the Society for Humanistic Judaism, both of whom were welcoming of individuals who identified with more than one religious identity. The SHJ was in the end the best fit, because of its humanistic orientation.

I probably am more “religious” than most other members of the SHJ (i.e. I pray) but I find common ground with the humanistic approach that focuses the individual’s and community’s attention on the human-centered values that we hold in common.

So going back to the original question – I want to be a Jew, because I want to participate in the ritual life, culture, history and traditions of Judaism, as a participant, not as an observer.

And I want to be a Humanistic Jew, because I think that Judaism only makes sense through the lens of universal human values, that affirms those parts of the tradition that good and life affirming and discards those parts (such as homophobia, genocide, patriarchy, etc.) that are not.

In writing this essay I commit myself to the ongoing journey of living a Jewish life, understanding that it will often be messy and complicated. I acknowledge that my journey will be even more complicated than most, in that I am choosing to be connected to two spiritual/cultural communities, but I believe that this is part of what it means to be human. All of us have to spend our lives bridging cultural differences. As hard as it might be, this process can be a good and life-affirming one.

A list of some of the readings I did in my process of self-study
note: Some of these books I studied in detail, others were more of a quick read, and some I am still working my way through (most notably A Provocative People).

Continuing adventures in Judaism, fitness and evolving religious identity

I have had this blog post percolating for awhile in my head but today seems like a good day to write it. It will be long and meandering so it will probably only be of interest to close friends. That’s ok because this is my blog and I write it mostly for myself.

For those of you who know me, I’m a free-thinking Mennonite, drawn to the tradition’s emphasis on Jesus’ radical teachings on nonviolence and social justice. I’m also a seminary student and work part-time at my church in peace ministry.

But I also have lots of doubts about the Bible and orthodox Christianity, especially regarding the issue of atonement and hell. In fact, I should rephrase that. I don’t have doubts anymore, I just don’t believe that way. I do not think that God has an insatiable blood thirst to kill and torture sinners that is only quenched by a substitute human sacrifice of his own son.

I remain committed to my church and faith tradition because I believe in the power of community and Mennonite ethics (as I discussed in a previous blog post) but I have felt a longing for a spirituality that I have not found there (or in any other Christian tradition).

Explorations in Judaism

My wife and I have fallen in love with Jewish faith practice over the last couple of years (something she has written about on the website here and here). We love the tradition’s orientation of having most of the rituals and holidays centered on the family and home, but also we love the tradition’s embrace of free-thinking and even disagreement. We began our observance with Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) two years ago, then we started celebrating shabbat (sabbath) with joyful Friday-night shabbat dinners and at least an attempt to maintain our restfulness into Saturday. Then we started doing other holidays – Sukkot, Tu Bishvat, Haunakah, Passover, Purim, and Yom Kippur. We tried to be faithful to the traditions by reading heavily from a mix of Jewish authors, but also adapted some elements to our family’s context. And then we took it a bit further by adding a nightly singing of the Shema Yisrael to our bedtime routines. And I’m working on learning Hebrew.

We of course aren’t observant in every way. We haven’t made any attempt to do kashrut (kosher) and are taking a more liberal approach to some of the prayers. And we have adopted some services which are traditionally done in a synagogue for home observance. — But this is part of the tradition too. Many liberal Jews (especially from the Reform and Reconstructionist traditions) pick and choose those mitzvot that are life-affirming and meaningful to keep, while not following those mitvot that are not life affirming. I like to think of this as being creatively observant.

It has been a joy doing these things. There of course are moments of tension — times when I wonder if our borrowing of another culture’s faith practices is a kind of cultural misappropriation or not, and times when I wonder if we are just attracted to the exotic and different (rather than the mundane aspects of the Christian traditions we grew up in). But most of the time I feel clarity that these faith practices are in fact transforming me and that God is at work in this.

Spiritual practice brings physical transformation

A recent example of this transformation is going on as we speak. It began shortly before Passover. I told my wife that I was wanting to get serious about getting in shape and losing weight (I am diabetic so this is always a struggle), so she suggested that I begin my diet during passover, by keeping the traditional rules which forbid the eating of chametz (fermented grain products like bread and beer) during the 8 day passover festival. So I decided to do this. I quickly ended up turning this practice into a low-carb diet, in which I ate lots of meat, veggies and dairy but no carbs except those in veggies and those in Matzah (unleavened bread). I also started working out most days of the week.

And then a miraculous (at least in my eyes) thing happened. My yo-yo-ing blood sugar levels evened out. My moods stabilized. I became much less irritable and generally was just happier. Certainly the better diet was a part of it, but I think part of it was also that I was really committing to life-giving spiritual practices, and that this was doing very good things to me.

When Passover ended last week, my wife made another suggestion. Traditionally Jews Count the Omer, a 49 day time of expectancy and waiting for the Torah to come. Many observant Jews refrain from certain actions during this season (not listening to music, attending weddings, etc.) as a way of making this time sacred and a time of mourning for great losses. So my wife said that I should maybe just continue my diet as my way of counting the Omer.

I decided to do this (except that I’m now just eating a limited number of carbs per day — I’m shooting for no more than 80 grams per day, rather than avoiding chametz). I’m also trying to do the daily prayer for the season and maintaining my exercise routine. I make mistakes along the way (I had one bad day when I was depressed and broke down and ate a donut) but I am resolved to keep trying. Obviously this is about my physical health, but I also do believe that our bodies and souls are intertwined and that this will do good in other ways as well.

Questions of Religious Identity

I have been thinking a lot lately about the issue of religious identity (see my previous blog post on my celebrating 10 years at Joy Mennonite Church). I feel very committed to my local congregation. It is faith community that is open to all and that has chosen to maintain its identity as being centered on a commitment to the nonviolent way of Jesus’ teachings. This is something that I can strongly affirm.

At the same time, I’m not sure that I’m a Christian, at least in the way it is often defined. Most people say that a Christian is someone who agrees with the historic creeds of the church and I don’t. I have too many issues with creeds, partly that I’m agnostic on the subjects of Jesus’ supposed virgin birth and resurrection, but also that the creeds pay no attention to the most important part of Jesus’ life: what he taught and how he lived. And most daming of all, I don’t believe that Jesus “died to save us from our sins.” Rather I believe Jesus allowed himself to be martyred (as others have in history) to show us how far one should go for one’s deepest beliefs.

In some ways I think would be more comfortable in the Jewish tradition (seeing Jesus as a great rabbi and teacher but not as a savior) but that leaves me with another problem. The Jewish conversion rituals are all very exclusivistic. So far every school of conversion that I’m aware of asks this question (with some variations in wording) of converts: “Do you renounce all beliefs you may once have held in any other religion?” (examples: here and here) This is not something I am comfortable with.

Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to forget the ethical (and arguably Jewish) teachings of the historic Jesus?

Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to renounce my understanding of the Buddha’s teachings on the way to end suffering?

Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to leave the spiritual community that has made my life so rich and full?

I don’t think so.

And so I will continue to feel more and more Jewish every day, and yet not really be Jewish. I’m praying that someday there might be a way possible for someone like me to find a universalist Jewish community of some kind to connect with. (or else that I am able to someday find that I have Jewish roots somewhere in my family tree) But I want to make this connection without severing the other God-given connections in my life.

Thank you for staying with me in this long and meandering read.

Ten Years at Joy Mennonite

Today, Easter Sunday 2014, was a joyful day at Joy Mennonite Church, in that we welcomed 12 people as new members of our church.

Easter Sunday 2014 at Joy Mennonite Church

But today also was especially joyful for me, because I joined Joy Mennonite Church on Easter Sunday 2004 (ten years ago).

Other than my decision to marry my wife, joining Joy was one of the best decisions of my life. Much of who I am today is because of this church, so I wanted to reflect back a bit about why I chose to join Joy in the first place, but also what my experience in the JMC community has been like over the last ten years.

Ten Years ago

I first started attending Joy in November 2003. I was a very unhappy second year law student, but I was also a recently fired part-time minister.

A bit of background might be in order here – I grew up in the Churches of Christ (the legalistic, acapella-only music wing of the tradition) but began to question many of the core ideas of the tradition in late high school and early college. I earned a bachelor’s degree in Bible from a COC-affiliated theological college but continued to explore my faith, which led me to a faith walk that emphasized Jesus’ life and teachings (which in time led me towards Christian pacifism) but also the power of Christian community as illustrated by the accounts of the early church in the book of Acts. My desire for deeper community led me to being part of several charismatic-evangelical churches (Hope Chapel and then Hope in the City in Austin and late Shekinah Fellowship in Oklahoma City) but felt increasing discomfort with the growing practice of mixing patriotism and faith in the evangelical tradition. I finally wound up back in the COC, in the congregation I grew up in, Newcastle Heights Church of Christ, about the same time I was starting law school.

Newcastle Height Church of Christ

During my first year of law school I was asked to serve as the congregation’s interim minister. This was a challenging experience, made especially difficult by the experience of being a full-time law student (and also experiencing significant depression), but I made the best of it. I focused my energy on preaching sermons that taught about the life and teachings of Jesus. By the end of my first year of service in the church, there began to be bubblings of tension in the congregation and finally a decision was made to hire another minister who had more of a heart for “evangelism” (a concept I increasingly struggled to believe in).

I was given another month of time to serve, but I ended up leaving the position earlier than planned as I had reached my breaking point. I couldn’t muster up the energy to keep preaching two times each week in that church. I needed to be in a church where I could be honest and frank about my faith journey.

Meeting Sadie Mast

Towards the end of my time at the COC, I met Sadie. I met her standing on a street corner protesting during the early days of the Iraq war. She and I talked for a long time about peace and faith. I expressed interest in her church and told her I wasn’t sure I was in the right place, but she told me that I should “grow where I was planted” and not leave. Still a connection was made and I was even invited to come speak at Joy as a guest speaker.

Sadie Mast at Death penalty protest

So, when a few months had passed and my time was ending at Newcastle, I wanted to go back to Joy. I was considering other churches but I felt a tug towards Joy so that’s where I began attending.

Becoming a Member

During my early days at Joy, the congregation was tiny. Most Sundays we had 8-12 people in attendance. There were very few children and no young adults (except for a college student in the area who started coming occasionally not long after I was a regular). But I liked the group nonetheless. They were accepting and friendly and encouraging to me in my faith journey. They also immediately let me serve, by letting me preach and lead singing occasionally.

Over the next few months I considered membership. Our pastor at the time, Moses (husband of Sadie), talked quite a bit with me about the decision. He explained that the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition took membership to be a very high thing and the choice was not to be made lightly. I read through the Mennonite Confession of Faith and did other reading in Anabaptist history, but primarily I learned about the Mennonites from Moses & Sadie.

Moses and Sadie Mast

One particular conversation stands out in my memory. We were eating at a cheap Chinese restaurant one Sunday after church, talking about the questions I had about the church. I told Moses that I didn’t think I believed in hell as a literal place anymore and asked him if that would be a problem? Moses’s answer was very reassuring: “I’m not sure I do either!”

And so on Easter Sunday 2004, I joined the church (along with Shirley Hughes, an elderly lady who has now passed on). I took the decision to join the church very seriously. I had been a part of many churches before but I knew something was different about my decision to join Joy.

Years of Growth

The next few years were tremendous days of growth for me. I began to live at the building of Joy Mennonite Church (we met and still meet in an old house in Northeast OKC. Our house has space for renters both upstairs and in a garage apartment) which introduced me into a deeper level of community. And I was given the chance (with a group of others in and out of the church) to form the Center for Conscience in Action, an organization that would be central in my activist life in the coming years.

2011-01-17 15.15.32

2011-01-17 15.17.00

During this time period Moses began to consider retiring as our pastor, so when the position opened, our congregation decided to hire two ministers, a pastor (who would do most of the pastoral and preaching work of the church) and a minister of peace & Justice (who would help to do some of the preaching, but also coordinate the congregation’s peace & social justice work). I stepped into the second role, while another member of our church, Norman (a former Baptist pastor), became our new pastor.

2008 Commissioning Service

2008 Commissioning service

The next three years of service were challenging. There were some early tensions between the methods of the new pastor and our congregation, but in time things got better. The new pastor and I often did not see eye-to-eye (he was theologically evangelical, while I was theologically universalist) but we had enough common ground to work ok together.

And our congregation started to grow. First it was through Mennonite college students and recent graduates who were moving to our area who wanted to maintain church involvement, but later it was from refugees from other faith traditions who were drawn to Anabaptist practices and our non-traditional church community. It was a good time.

A time of crisis

And then the crisis came: by way of a fire that hit the church’s garage (and my upstairs garage apartment). This fire, for reasons I still don’t understand, set in motion a bubbling-over of tensions which had been dormant in the church. Our pastor decided that I needed to leave the church (as well as some of the other younger members who dared to think for themselves) because we had bad theology and/or weren’t willing to live up to unspoken standards of behavior that he had set. The nitty gritty account of these days is too painful to write even today, but I can say that it was a testing point for our church, and one that we barely survived.

Finally I submitted my resignation to the church, believing that I could no longer be a part of the congregation in its present state, however, the congregation instead voted to not accept my resignation. Norman instead left the church and formed another Mennonite church in the area with some of our members.

The rift in our church was deep and painful and the wound might have been lethal, but thankfully God had another plan in mind. It began at Zach and Britney’s house, when they provided me and the other displaced tenants of Joy Mennonite a place to live temporarily.

After things got bad in our congregation, Zach and Britney continued to provide a place of support for us through the times of trial. And so when our church was left pastor-less, it was obvious to us that Zach should be our next pastor.

Zach Gleason preaching at Joy

And things have continued to evolve since then. Some folks have moved due to jobs and school needs, but others have joined us. We have grown in new areas of ministry, such as our gardens and our children’s programs, but also have deepened our involvement in other areas (most notably our music program). And I’m especially proud of the fact that our congregation has members who are actively engaged in the struggle against the Keystone XL Pipeline.


And even more recently our congregation has taken the stand of welcoming all to the table, including LGBT people. This was not an easy decision for our community to process through, but I’m very proud that we did it.

Our future is uncertain. We are a small church with a big mission. We don’t have enough resources and not that many people. And yet we keep going. I think the one thing we can count on is that we are not alone in this journey of doing our imperfect best to follow the difficult way of Jesus.

What Joy has meant to me

When I reflect on these last ten years, I have to think about what kind of person I might have become if I had not found Joy when I did. In 2004 I was discouraged and battered from my experience at the COC I grew up in. I was struggling to maintain my faith and didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. I frankly do not know if I could have maintained my faith without Joy.

I am certain that I would not have had the life of activism that I have had (practicing law in support of war resisters and conscientious objectors for the last 7+ years) if it weren’t for Joy. Joy gave me the encouragement to go for it, to seek to be a lawyer in an area that few practice in. I did have support and encouragement from other sources (most notably from the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild) but the drive and inspiration to do the work came primarily from my church.

Most of my closest friends today come from my church. I’ve kept a few friends over the years from other times and places (and am very grateful for those friends), but it was my Joy friends who have provided me my primary place of belonging and connection, particularly during the last few years. These are folks who accept me and like me for who I am, quirks and all. That is a powerful thing.


And it was Joy that prepared me for marriage and fatherhood. Partly it came from seeing the examples of married couples like Moses & Sadie (partners in activism and in life), but also from an unexpected source. Back in I think 2008, our then pastor Norman (yes, the same minister I later had conflict with) counseled me that I should get a dog as a way of treating my depression (to supplement the other things I was doing). At the time I thought my life was too busy to get a dog but he was insistent and finally gave me a dog! The experience of dog ownership for me (this was the famous but now-departed Sandy the Peace Dog for those who knew her) was a transformative thing. It did help me with my depression but it also cracked the door open for me to be more open to relationships and even parenthood. I can’t help but think that our old pastor and that dog helped me to be ready for marriage.

Sandy the Peace Dog

And frankly that dog also was a loyal companion for me during some dark days of struggle, times when I was taking on too much work for the cause of peace. I was burning out but as it sounds that dog kept me from giving up. Having her with me on the road for my cases was a wonderful thing.

Free Victor Agosto

And so I have a lot to be thankful for. I’m thankful for my Joy friends but especially for Moses and Sadie (who I now think of as my adopted grandparents) and for Zach and Britney (for pulling us together as a community when we most needed it).

And I’m grateful to be part of a church that is not scared of questions, that is ok with my doubts and my explorations of other faith traditions. It is this freedom that fundamentally keep me plugged into this creative faith community.

And I’m thankful for God who is always at work, even when we aren’t expecting it.

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.

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

My past and future conversion experiences

Updated: 1:22 pm CST – I forgot to mention a prior blog post that I wrote on this same subject. It can be found here.

I have been thinking a lot about the idea of religious conversion lately especially as to how it relates to my own journey.

Part of me is stirred by the idea of awakening, of enlightenment, of realizing that one should be on a different path and then choosing that path.

Another part of me is put off by the idea of conversion as being the rejection of one’s roots, even as one awakens to new level of understandings.

I can think of several possible points when I went through something of a conversation process…

1. At age 9, I decided to be baptized. This was formally the point of initiation into the Church of Christ (the tradition I grew up in). It is see as the moment when one choses to follow the path of Jesus and take on the spiritual responsibilities of adulthood. I took this idea very, very seriously. At the same time it wasn’t exactly a “conversion” since I had grown up in the tradition. In theory I chose it for myself, but it was really not a choice at all, since no other religious paths were really open to me (i.e. my parents would not have allowed me to join another church or to be initiated into another faith tradition).

2. In college I began to be awakened to the idea that the exclusivistic ideas of the Church of Christ were not right for me. I later joined Hope Chapel (a non-denominational semi-charismatic church in Austin, TX) and was even baptized there (I decided to be rebaptized as a symbol of my commitment to the path of Jesus and my rejection of my previous exclusivitist beliefs). And I came to experience what I believe was the baptism of the Holy Spirit (glossolalia and other phenomena that I thought were supernatural in nature). Yet, I never really left the Church of Christ. It was still in my spiritual DNA.

3. In Austin, I also began to have stirring towards pacifism. I eventually came to believe that Jesus’ teachings were both non-violent and communalistic in nature. (the story of how I got there will have to wait for another blog post)

4. I eventually did find my way back to the Churches of Christ for awhile, even serving as an interim minister in my home church for a year during law school. Yet, I never really lost my “conversions” towards charismaticism and nonviolence.

5. Not long after this I found my way to an open-minded urban Mennonite Church, where I am now serving in bivocational ministry. This was another significant point of conversion for me. But at the same time I was also exploring the ways that God spoke through other faith traditions, most notably the Catholic contemplative tradition and the Buddhist/Taoist traditions. This led me in time to involvement in the Quaker tradition (but I did not leave the Mennonite Tradition during this conversion).

6. And then since marriage, I have plunged headfirst into the practice of the Jewish faith tradition. My wife and I chose to do this mostly because we found the Jewish practice of Shabbot (Sabbath) and the holidays was more meaningful to us than was the Christian calendar, but also because the Jewish faith tradition is so centered on the home. We have a shabbot supper each week (and often try to carry over at least some kind of shabbot observance into the next day). We do almost all of the Jewish holidays. And lately we have been singing the Shema at night as a family before bed. – By way, if you are interested my wife talks about these practices quite a bit on her blog, Our Last Homely House.

So where does that leave me? I’m not sure. Of late I have even felt the stirring to want to formally connect with the Jewish tradition. I love the history of the Jewish people and would love to be connected to that history (as a genealogist I keep hoping I can find some Jewish ancestry so I can claim this heritage without conversion, but as of yet I have found not definitive proof other than a passing reference to a French Huguenot ancestor in the 1600’s who married a “German Jewess” – but this doesn’t seem like much, especially since I don’t even know her name).

But every conversion ritual I’ve read about requires that one completely abandon their old faith traditions and practice Judaism alone. That is not something I am willing to do.

Interestingly enough though, there is a long tradition of Jews who practice other religions, often without abandoning their religion of birth. The most notable such case I can think of is the Buddhist teacher and writer Sylvia Boorstein. Sylvia’s writing makes it clear that she is very Jewish AND very Buddhist. She is both. So why can a Jew-by-birth choose to practice more than one tradition, but a Jew-by-choice is not allowed to do this?

At the same time I can also understand the concern of Jews (and people of other faiths) who fear that a cafeteria-style kind of faith waters down the tradition to the point of meaninglessness. That’s a fair concern. And yet sometimes this anxiety seems to come out in strange ways, often articulated the loudest by those who only have a tenuous relationship to the tradition that they are trying to preserve.

So I want to be both. I want to practice the radical teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, but interpret those teachings through a questioning Jewish lens. I want to pray the shema but also sit in Buddhist meditation. And I want community, but not at the cost of exclusion.

I did hear one more hopeful thought, from a Rabbi writing on the website interfaith family who argues that:

Those who choose Judaism as their path and Jews as their people serve as bridges. They are links to our non-Jewish families and inspirations to Jews by birth, who so often fail to see the richness and profundity of their own tradition. Nor is there a need for new Jews to deny their families of origin. Instead, there is a new opportunity to bring a tolerant and respectful Judaism into the homes of our non-Jewish relatives. Remember that our tradition has always claimed to believe that “the righteous of all the nations have a share in the world to come.” What a wonderful moment this is when we can actually practice this teaching, learning to model a strong commitment to Judaism while recognizing the beauty and depth of other traditions and paths at the same time.

The end of this particular part of my own journey was to stop using the term “conversion” to describe this process and ritual. In the days when it was impossible for a person who chose Judaism to continue interacting with his or her family of origin, perhaps it made sense to speak of a conversion. Now, however, a person who chooses Judaism both can and should continue to be connected to his or her family of origin. Further, since Judaism has never laid claim to sole possession of “truth,” there is no need to use this word “conversion” any longer and I have come to prefer “initiation.” Full initiation into Judaism and the Jewish family means the conferring of all the benefits and responsibilities of membership in our people. These include financial commitments, being included in a minyan (the count of 10 people needed for public worship), and being called to the Torah. Today, there are many non-Jews who like to be around Jews and synagogues. Without initiating, however, we usually don’t include them in a minyan or ask them to come up to the Torah and say the blessings (“who has chosen us…and given us the Torah”). To decide to “take the plunge” and be immersed in the living waters of the mikvah, is to become an initiate, one who is a full participant in all the rituals, joys, and responsibilities of this wonderful people.

While I’m not interested in an exclusivistic kind of conversion, I do yearn for the chance to be initiated in this kind of way. Maybe one day I can do this. But for now I think I’m ok being a fellow traveler at least, even if I am not a Jew.

Sermon Amos 5 and the challenge of sustainable activism

I’m sharing this sermon preached at Joy Mennonite Church on October 13, 2013. I’m proud to say that I found ways to mention Private Manning and Edward Snowden in this message.

Sermon on Amos 5 and the challenge of sustainable activism (Audio Download – AAC Format)

Sermon on Amos 5 and the challenge of sustainable activism (PDF Download)

Here are two excerpts from the message…

Amos 5 has three key themes. The first theme is that Israel is condemned because it has failed to live up to the community standards of social justice (as articulated by the Torah). As discussed earlier, Amos 5 (particularly in its third pericope) speaks clearly and specifically about the social sins of Israel. These sins are not abstract in nature but rather are grounded in the basic shema principles22 that were supposed to undergird the covenant relationship of the children of Israel with each other and with God.
The second theme is that the LORD will bring destruction to Israel for its failure to practice justice. This coming destruction is both and horrible. There is hope that God might be gracious to a remnant23 but the time is long past for God to show mercy on the nation as a whole. The horrors of captivity are near.24

The final theme of the chapter is that the LORD hates rituals and sacrifice that are divorced from righteous living; it is better for the nation to neglect the rituals (as Amos said the nation did during its wilderness wanderings) than to neglect basic justice to the poor.

Excerpt #2…

1. How are we treating radical truthtellers and whistleblowers? Are we prosecuting those who tell us painful truth or are we listening to them? Why is Private Manning in prison? And why is Edward Snowden in exile?
2. How are we treating the poor? Are they receiving fare wages for their labor? Do they have access to basic health services? Are the schools in poor neighborhoods as good as those in rich neighborhoods? These are all questions we must ask.
3. What about justice system? How are people treated? Is it fair? Do poor people get the same access to legal services that rich people and corporations get?

Beware Mennonite Investors — MMA Praxis Mutual Funds invests in evil: Fox News, payday lenders, private prisons, and more

I currently have a very small amount of investments with the MMA Praxis mutual funds, but I don’t think I will for much longer.

For my non-Mennonite readers, I should say that MMA is rooted in the mutual aid tradition, the idea that members of the faith community should take care of each other. But like a lot of good ideas, it got institutionalized and then its values got diluted.

MMA today offers a bunch of different products – insurance, investments, credit union, etc. And the profits of MMA fund lots of good stuff. But I’ve found out some things that have made me question the whole company, in particular the investing strategy of the Praxis funds.

Continue reading “Beware Mennonite Investors — MMA Praxis Mutual Funds invests in evil: Fox News, payday lenders, private prisons, and more”

Part 1- My decision to be both a Quaker and a Mennonite

I wanted to update my regular readers on a change in my personal life.

I’m in the process of becoming a dual-member of the Oklahoma City Friends Meeting (the Quakers), while maintaining my membership and ministry work at Joy Mennonite Church.

It’s hard to begin in explaining this decision, but the short version is that both faith traditions speak to me and I feel a great deal of kinship and connection with both communities. I spent a lot of time praying and thinking about this decision, and spoke to several friends about the decision, and I am now at peace with my decision to embrace both faith traditions. (for those who don’t know, I became a Mennonite I think in 2003, and I’ve been attending the OKC friends meeting since the spring of this year)

What I love about the Mennonite tradition is the strong emphasis on the teachings of Jesus (including his teachings on non-violence), their radical belief in the separation of Church and State (the Anabaptist movement which the Mennos are a part of, were some of the first to argue for this seperation — more than 200 years before the US Constitution was drafted), and the traditional emphasis on simplicity and solidarity with the poor.

What I love about the Quaker tradition is the emphasis on mostly silent worship (that enables a deep connection with the divine), the tradition’s unique decision making processes (not just consensus, but seeking unity), and at least for the part of Quakerism I feel drawn to, a strong belief in Universalism (and that the Divine cannot be constrained by the language we use to explain it).

And what I really dig is that both faith traditions complement and deepen the experience of living out the other tradition. Or to say it another way, being a Quaker helps me to be a better Mennonite (and vice-versa).

Also it is not just about two broad traditions but rather two local communities. Neither community is perfect, but both communities have a center that is focused on love.

To tell the longer version of the story, I’ll need to go back a little bit and recount some of my faith journey to date.
Continue reading “Part 1- My decision to be both a Quaker and a Mennonite”