Sunday, August 12, 2012

Holding Dignity in the Community of Faith

          At the end of March, I participated in the annual Henry C. Smith Oratorial Contest in which participants from the different Mennonite schools get the chance to give a speech that incorporates the Mennonite value of peacemaking and a current world issue. I gave my speech on dignity in the church and ended up getting second at EMU. Below is the printed version of my speech for any of those who might be interested on reading some of my thoughts.

          Dignity, “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.”[1] Most people would say they understand the word dignity, but fail to recognize dignity as more than respect, but a birthright all humans have as Donna Hicks explains in her book Dignity. The book lays out  ten essential elements of dignity:  acceptance of identity, inclusion, safety, acknowledgment, recognition, fairness, benefit of the doubt, understanding, independence, and accountability.[2] When one of these ten elements is violated, anger and withdrawal often occur. Since dignity is essential for all humans, it needs to be demonstrated within the community of faith. Today, I want to share with you two experiences of mine, which have led me to a new concept of what peace can look like within the church and how the concept of dignity can transform the way we live in relationship as a community of faith.
      My first story comes from the congregation I was a member of from middle school until high school graduation. This large congregation had a wide range of strongly differing theological beliefs and doctrine. Many people in the congregation believed that theologically there were very little gray areas and if you questioned their beliefs, you were seen as wrong for even raising questions. These differing beliefs, although they had always been present, had often been shoved under a mat and were rarely discussed. However, halfway through my junior year in high school these differences were brought to the forefront as a new pastor came into the congregation. Meetings were held about the direction that community of faith should be taking. Instead of productive conversation and deep listening to each other about the different opinions and doctrines, people literally yelled their beliefs to the whole congregation and refused to listen to those who spoke from a different point of view. People tried to get their point and agenda across without any respect to whom they were hurting in the process. I was confused and angry. I could not understand how people who were supposed to be my faith family could treat their fellow church members so badly. I was hurt and broken by the experience and for a time lost all hope in the church. 
            After high school graduation, my family moved to a different state, left that congregation, and I came to my university. Then last spring I needed a summer job and also wanted to use the summer to reconnect and find a different version of church than that which I had experienced. I decided to participate in the Ministry Inquiry Program. Through the Ministry Inquiry Program, I ended up in a large city in Texas, at a congregation of about 75 attendees. I had never been to Texas before and knew very little about the church before going. However, I talked on the phone with the pastor and learned that the congregation was not experiencing conflict and was open to different theologies; the two essential elements to my search of possible placements.
Once in Texas, the pastor explained to me how as the only Mennonite church in the area, it attracted many different people who would not normally worship together if they lived in an area such as Harrisonburg, VA, which has a large variety of Mennonite churches.  I am not going to pretend that there were no problems in at the church with regard to the differing theologies, but instead of destructive conflict like in my previous congregation, I experienced something completely different.
Near the beginning of my summer I became a part of a small group of women from the congregation who were reading The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg. For those who are not familiar with the book, Borg presents a liberal theological reading of Jesus and the Bible. Some in the book study related very closely with this theology, while others were in complete opposition to some of the ideas expressed in the book. With a wide range of opinions, I expected people to become defensive, especially those whose beliefs were being questioned by the author of the book.
However, this did not happen. Instead of becoming defensive, this group of women opened up with each other and me as they expressed their feelings and beliefs, while being open to hearing a new point of view. At the end of the book, they agreed to disagree with each other, but all felt closer to each other and had a greater understanding and respect of their differing beliefs. They demonstrated that fostering a good relationship with each other and respecting different beliefs was more important than trying to persuade and change each other’s views.
This group of women was not the exception in this Texas congregation. Throughout the entire church I found a deep respect for one another and all different types of views. For the attendees of the church, having a correct doctrine and being theologically correct was not the most important thing. Instead, for them, they believed to be Christ’s true body and live in close community with one another meant living in right relationships. I believe it was because of this attitude that there was not much conflict and instead of spending energy on fighting, people were able to get engaged in church life and the surrounding community, working to spread peace around the world.
So what was the difference between the Texas congregation and my church growing up? Why was one able to create peace, while in the other conflict just festered and grew? I believe one answer to this question comes from the intentionality that existed in Texas. The Texas church was a smaller community that spent a lot of time with each other inside of church and outside. I spent many evenings going to member’s houses for parties and informal get-togethers. In many ways they reminded me of the early church body from Acts. Acts 2: 42-47 says,
They devoted themselves to the apostles; teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. .. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.[3]
This is how the church in Texas acted. Every time I met with people, I felt their sincere hearts and truly joyful praise. Their intentionality about spending time together, praying together, often sharing meals together, serving the poor and needy together and even figuring out the finances of the church together led to a body that knew each other extremely well and was able to see each other’s humanity in able to work out differences better, leading to a more peaceful community despite the differences that existed.
In Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book, New Monasticism, he describes how the early church in Acts also had divisive issues. Throughout the New Testament you see divisions such as Jew and Gentile. However, this early church was able to find unity despite these differences. Hartgrove writes, “Unity across dividing lines was what distinguished the early church—so much so that they require a new name.”[4] The name Christian was a new word that this new body of believers decided to call themselves. Being intentional about being the church despite differences is what being Christian is all about.
Looking back on my two experiences, I believe dignity is the difference. In my old church, people did not respect each other’s dignity. I know I felt my own dignity violated. I did not feel my identity being accepted, I did not feel included, safe, acknowledged or even recognized. I most definitely did not feel understood. And when one person’s dignity was violated, often in response, in their anger and frustration, people violated someone else’s dignity. The people in the church were not bad people, and I do not believe they meant to harm each other in the way they did. However, the church did not understand dignity and how dignity is essential to all humans, and especially when attempting to be a community of Christ.
Texas was different because through their intentionality they were able to hold each other’s dignity. Within their conversations and actions, the congregation was able to embrace one another and respect the essential elements of dignity. By holding each other’s dignity, I believe the church can be transformed and be the place of peace God meant for it to be. In the end, I believe that taking care of one another and loving each other to protect dignity is more important than having the correct doctrine or theology. When we hold each other’s dignity, we truly become the body of Christ.

[1]             “dignity.”, 2012,,  retrieved  12 March 2012.
[2]             Hicks, Donna, Dignity: the essential role it plays in resolving conflict, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.
[3]              Acts 2:42-27 (Today’s New International Version).
[4]             Hartgrove, Jonathan, New monasticism: what it has to say to today's church, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2008.

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