Friday, June 17, 2011

Brethren ethnicity, Brethren confession, and naming abused privilege

by Parker Thompson

So I got a message that there was an interesting conversation going on in the interwebs among some intellectually engaged individuals about the Church of the Brethren, culture, and confession. After reading several lengthy, engaging posts and many interesting comments, I have felt called to articulate these thoughts.

In my engagement with the conversation, I would like to introduce myself as an infiltrating outsider to the Church of the Brethren. This status, after four years of heavy, delightful engagement with the denomination at the local congregation level, at Bethany Theological Seminary, and at the national level, generally seems to be slipping away as I have become more and more acculturated and welcomed into the “community.” But if my experience and conversations are any indicator of future experience, I will probably always have a sense of being an outsider.

The first piece of the conversation, and most central, that I would like to engage is the topic of cultural Brethrenism that both Josh and Carl have been so eloquently parsing. While the dialectic between culture and theology is a favorite interest of mine, I think more specifically that the issue creeping below this entire conversation is that of Brethren ethnicity. It is the key challenge and gift of the denomination. Are you born Brethren? If you are, you are of a higher class in this crew. Deny that statement all you like in the sense of what should be, or what confessed ideal is desired, but I have experienced and witnessed this deeply embedded privilege manifest in more than one situation. It is the experienced reality in comparison to the stated/desired ideal.

It would be a sloppy reductionist approach to bifurcate the ethnic Brethrenism from the confessional Brethrenism. So instead, I embrace the muddling. The blessing of ethnic Brethrenism is that is does provide, what speculatively appears to be a strong acculturation draw for many born into ethnic Brethrenism to comprehend and take on the discipleship and confessions (what ever variation that might be).

The curse of this reality is, I think, what Josh is prodding in his questioning of the difference between “only culturally Brethren” and a “practicing Brethren” (my synthetic phrases, for the moment). A danger of the privilege of cradle Brethren is to lift the Brethren ethnic heritage and confuse it or conflate it with the religious faith confession/seekings initiated by the eight and carried on, explored, practiced, and expanded by three centuries of believers. I think the Pietist influences that launched this adventure are an important heritage to bring into conversation with conflating ethnicity with confession. The whole Pietist movement was about doing examined theology and choosing to believe in that examined theology, and then continuing to work through that ever-evolving faith with mind, body and soul (and in community depending on the root community). This challenging task is done in varying degrees by different seekers and believers, but it is the challenge set forth by our Pietistic forbearers and is a common thread in the antipedobaptism that we share with our Anabaptist brethren.

It all arises out of a double bind that all faith traditions arrive at (at least ones that believe in sex, procreational sex at least). One of the easiest ways, at times, to maintain or even grow your group’s numbers is to make a bunch of babies. The baby boom becomes an evangelical captive market. At the very least the status quo of staying in the tradition of origin has, depending on cultural context, a relatively high success rate at adding to numbers. On the flip side, this approach can be too easy for Christian formation, leaving large groups of a population with a limited set of embedded theology because it looks right and does not require a lot of work. But this lazy evangelism can, not always, but can make for lazy Christians, and in these circles lazy Brethren. Unfortunately, these lazy Brethren wander around with a sense of entitlement that they have been in since birth and therefore have a “special” sense of ownership.

I think that is all I have at the moment. It seems the style around here to leave something unsaid for later, since this is more of a conversation than a more formal publication. I hope that this is received as a well-spirited offering to conversation. I have written these care and tenderness in my heart for this big messy community of the Church of the Brethren, but know that quick writings can have sharp edges. Some of this playfulness is definitely springing from my minds summer stir-craziness that is beginning (despite being very busy in the midst of a summer ministry placement). May these words find a touch of God’s grace as others wrestle with them.

1 comment:

Brian R. Gumm said...

Thanks for adding your voice to this distributed conversation, Parker. I resonate with your self-identification as an outsider. In many ways, I feel the same even though I've been Brethren my whole life. How is this possible?

I think the "ethnic Brethren" world which you describe has a certain geographical center of gravity, namely anywhere east of Illinois, north of North Carolina, and south of New York state. I grew up in Iowa where the Brethren are scattered few and far between in my home district, which spans three or four large states. I'll never forget the feeling of smallness I experienced for the first time when at NYC in 1994, I saw the busses from Pennsylvania and Virginia start rolling up. And kept rolling up. And kept rolling up. My entire three-state district fit on one bus!!

This feeling of outsiderness has continued and diversified as I've been in a Mennonite institution for three years yet happily maintained my Brethren-ness. During this process, though, I've begun to make social inroads to the "center" of Brethrendom and am seeing things I never saw before.

One gift of outsiderness that I think you and I can offer to the church is a lovingly critical awareness that can hopefully bring some light into those pockets of Brethrendom that have closer to the center of traditional culture, which always makes it hard to see "outside."

Thanks again, Parker, for your reflections. Looking forward to more conversation!