When the Truth Threatens Our Way of Life

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Recently I was asked what books were formative for me. Two books immediately came to mind. The first being F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, “The Great Gatsby,” a tragic tale of a man who got ever so close to his dreams that had haunted me since high school as it seemed to be a repeat story in my own life. The second book, written by Peter Hoover and far less known outside of a particular religious circle, compared modern-day Mennonites to their Anabaptist forebearers.

Hoover’s book, “The Secret of the Strength,” drew an interesting parallel between the disruptive and defiant (and, dare I say, irrational?) early Anabaptists and the Old Testament character of Samson. This exploration of the secret of their strength lay dormant in me for years, but eventually helped define my longing for more than the conservative Mennonite status quo (including the doubled down version of the same old Mennonite priorities rebranded as “Anabaptist” by some) and this put me on a collision course with the religious culture that had been my identity since birth.

Anyhow, my own religious radicalization aside, I’m fascinated by patterns and especially when it comes to Biblical types. These patterns and types can be easily missed by the casual reader and yet are unmistakable once discovered. And, if we look closely enough, we may even see ourselves and our own patterns in these various characters. As you read, consider your own life, what defines your experience? Are you defining the future with your faith that goes beyond the status quo or are you simply defending a way of life?

Two Men Who Threatened the Status Quo

One thing interesting about Samson is how his story so similar to that of Jesus. These two men, as different as they appear at first blush, have many intriguing parallels. Their births were announced by angels, they were sanctified in the womb, they were deliverers of Israel (old and new, respectively) and free their people of oppression, and the list goes on (click here if you want to learn more), but there is one parallel in particular that I would like to explore and that is how their religious peers responded to their exploits.

First up is the account of Samson and those who decided to confront this Hebrew Hercules:

Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?” He answered, “I merely did to them what they did to me.” They said to him, “We’ve come to tie you up and hand you over to the Philistines.” (Judges 15:11-17a NIV)

Here we have Samson running roughshod over the Philistines. And yet, these three thousand men of Judah, rather than join him in overthrowing their oppressors, decided to capture Samson and turn him over to their enemies. By their faithless reasoning, Samson was a greater threat for “rocking the boat” than the occupiers who had corrupted them with ungodly fear and turned them into cowards.

This reasoning in regards to Samson closely mirrors the discussion about Jesus, in the Gospel of John, and the threat he represented to the established order:

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:47-50 NIV)

The discussion above takes place directly after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Can you imagine that? A man is literally bringing people back to life, they claim to believe in a God that defeated powerful Egypt, and yet their concern is with what the Romans may think?

The men who turned Samson over to Philistines and the leaders who conspired against Jesus were both guilty of moral cowardice. In both cases, the concern was about the fallout. They feared what others may think, anxiously fretting over the potential for negative repercussions, and that fear led to a moral compromise. The three thousand who went to capture Samson were willing to side with the enemy for sake of political expediency. Likewise, the religious leaders who would eventually have Jesus put to death were more willing to sacrifice a little truth for an imagined greater good.

Samson and Jesus both presented a dangerous threat to the status quo. These moral cowards, more imprisoned by their own inner fear than they were by external oppressors, reasoned that it was better to hand over the heroes of faith, the very men who offered both them and their people a path to salvation, rather than to risk losing their own lives or privileged positions.

We like to think about them as the bad guys. But be honest, what of your cherished positions or most treasured things would you willingly sacrifice without carefully considering the consequences? Would you truly put your own Issac on the altar, the one thing that you value most in the world, and trust God or would you cling to your own reasoning and come up with an excuse for moral compromise?

Good Stewardship or Love of Money and Moral Cowardice?

The failure of Christian Aid Ministries (CAM) to act appropriately in response to sexual abuse caused me to think anew about my own experience.

This organization is basically the flagship of the conservative Anabaptist missionary effort. It is one institution that represents all stripes of conservative Anabaptist more than any other—with their shared German work ethic and careful management of resources.

From early reports, the primary concern seemed about “good stewardship” as it pertained to finances. Faith that does the right thing no matter the cost, apparently, in these initial discussions, taking a back seat to the advice of a lawyer and protecting their image and material assets.

This sort of damage control approach is not unusual in worldly institutions. However, it feels completely out of place for an organization that is supposed to represent a religious tradition of those who would rather face torturous death than to compromise ever so slightly in their commitment.

Indeed, it was Jesus who said, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26a) Does an approach focused on avoid liability, punctuated by fear of consequences, the response one would expect of a political campaign, really represent Jesus Christ?

Whatever happened to “let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (Matt. 5:37 KJV) and simply telling the truth regardless of cost?

One defining characteristic of CAM’s response is that it is reasonable and not unlike that organization’s general approach to missions. Unlike the disciples, whom Jesus sent out with nothing besides the shirts on their backs and the Spirit of God, they go in on the power of their own resources. It is a reflection of modern-day Anabaptist culture. They are reasonable and rational, not at all radical. Sure, some of their youth might be risk-taking and adventurous, but as a reflection of modern thrill-seeking culture. However, when it comes to really taking a step out in faith, doing what is right even if it means giving up everything, most retreat back to their comfortable religious lifestyles and token sacrifices.

It is really no surprise, then, that there is a tendency towards moral cowardice and “circle the wagons” when a leader needs to step up and take personal responsibility for the mess. I mean, these are men with families, the reputation of something they’ve built over many years to protect, they have something to lose and it is perfectly reasonable that they may hesitate to be open in a way that could expose them legally. Don’t most of us act the same when it comes right down to it? Is there anyone in our time who would actually volunteer to be hung up by their thumbs. It is really easy to advocate doing the right thing when it comes at no personal cost.

So there is definitely some sympathy to be had for those three thousand men from Judah who decided to hand over Samson. It is also reasonable that the religious leaders would choose to sacrifice one man to spare their nation from potential Roman destruction. Samson and Jesus were a threat to the established order in the same way as those who bring hidden sins into the open in our own time. There are many today who would rather “kill the messenger” and bury the prophets so they can continue on as they always have and remain in denial of their own hypocrisy and faithlessness.

Finding Faith Where It Is Least Expected

My blogging over the past couple years (although less so recently) has focused on the failure of the religious culture I was born into. But that had not been my intention for the start. My writing in this blog had started in anticipation, as a means to share how faith had triumphed within the conservative Mennonite culture.

However, that is not what happened.

What happened is that my friends, my family, and those whom I had admired most, decided to side with what was most rational and sane over my delusional hopes. My hope against hope could not overcome their cold calculation and cynicism. How could it be that people who claimed to take the Bible literally and that Jesus walked on water suddenly turn to statistics and rational arguments as an answer to my pursuit of impossibility and faith? Do they really believe that “all things are possible” as it says in the verses they recite?

They travel around the world, earnestly trying to convert others to their Mennonite understanding, and then revert to “it is what it is” fatalism and insist that hearts can’t change when something comes up that threatened their own status quo. It was this double-mindedness that tortured me for those few years—the impossibility herself recited, “with God all things are possible,” (the theme of my faithful pursuit of a beautiful vision that nobody else could see) while she walked past my discouraged husk one evening and, when I was about to give up, actually gave me the reason to keep on in my quixotic pursuit of true expectations-defying faith in the Mennonite context.

In the end, I was betrayed, like Samson and Jesus, by those whom I most dearly loved. Also, like those two men, my own bride will come from outside of my birth religious culture. Samson, by divine plan, married a Philistine. Jesus married to his bride, the Gentile church… because there was more faith found among them than where it would have been reasonably expected. Like Jesus finding no greater faith in Israel than that of a Roman Centurion, I had to go outside my denominational understanding to find a Christian tradition not mired in modern rationalism and fear of change. Mennonite love could not span prejudice and preference.

The Christian tradition I now am a part of, while not free of the problems of other churches, has provided a fresh (albeit ancient) perspective of faith and, despite the defamatory caricatures I’ve heard in warnings against them by ever defensive Biblical fundamentalist Protestants, have as much vibrancy to their worship and signs of true spiritual life as I’ve found anywhere else. In fact, if it wasn’t for one of them my faith would have foundered—crushed forever against that unforgiving brick wall of Mennonite cultural expectations.

Those Who Try To Keep Their Life…

Speak the truth and you will be maligned. Be truly radical and you will be resisted by all, treated as a threat by those who should be strong allies, betrayed by those whom you trusted as dear friends, and abandoned by the crowds seeking their own ease in your hour of most desperate need.

The same patterns and types exist today as they did in Biblical times, (albeit in a different form) and we need to choose to live in faith and for truth rather by our own understanding and in our own strength. We must stand strong even when those supposed to be our leaders shrink back in fear and urge reasonable compromise.

So, anyhow, whatever did become of Samson?

Samson, after getting an agreement from the fear-fueled Judeans that they wouldn’t kill him themselves, allowed them to restrain him to be brought to the Philistines:

So they bound him with two new ropes and led him up from the rock. As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands. Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men. (Judges 15:13b‭-‬15 NIV)

Samson, even in being handed over to the enemy by his supposed allies, saw an opportunity and seized upon it. He snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, literally, using a jawbone, and (filled with the Spirit) singlehandedly dispatches one thousand Philistines. Those men from Judah had to feel a bit silly after that, they had clearly picked the wrong side, the moral cowards that they were, and missed the opportunity to share in the victory with courageous Samson.

Likewise, those who condemned Jesus to death been a bit more courageous, as a group, they might have saved their cherished temple and their beloved identity as a nation. Instead, through their faithless choice, they actually brought the “or else” of Malachi 4:6 upon themselves. The destruction of Jerusalem came as a direct result of the religious leaders picking their course of action based on fear of Rome rather than faith in God. However, the effort of these morally corrupt leaders to save their way of life by killing Jesus clearly did not pan out.

Faithless leaders end up destroying the way of life they so desperately try to preserve through their own diligent efforts. Religious cowards miss the chance for real and lasting success. As Jesus said, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33 NIV) That’s a paradox of faith and pattern of Scripture, those who courageously face down giants end up winning despite the odds against them and those whose cowardice leads to moral compromise end up losing everything in the end.

Jesus, like Samson, turned what appeared to be terrible defeat into a stunning victory and made fools of these religious experts who condemned him for going against their customs. Those who rejected Jesus, despite their rational calculations and reasonable compromises, lost everything they were fighting for and missed out on something much better than the lifestyle they clung to so bitterly in their faithless ignorance. They thought they were wise and were really only fools blinded by their own prejudices and preferences.

The good news is that it is never too late to repent, step out from underneath the false security of cultural conditioning and live in the light of the true substance of faith. Change is inevitable and death too. So, live recklessly, selfless, in love for those who need it most, as one with nothing to lose and everything to gain, because that is what praying “on earth as it is in heaven” is all about! Faith means leaving behind the prison of our fears and breaking the bonds of love-limiting expectations.

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A Modest Proposal and Petition to the Anabaptist Faithful—Will You Take a Clear Stand Against Sexual Abuse?

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As one baptized in the Mennonite church, having been a part of that denomination for over three decades, the revelation of the grotesque abuses of children by a man claiming to be a representative of Christ felt very personal to me. That man, a known pedophile, was allowed to continue as a missionary in Haiti by an organization that many conservative Anabaptists have trusted with their time and resources.

However, rather than join in one voice against the abuse and call for accountability for those who enabled it, some have instead attacked the messenger and accused those upset of gossiping for speaking out against this awful exploitation of innocent Haiti boys over a period of many years. They, like Mennonite leaders who shielded a confessed pedophile from criminal prosecution, seem less concerned about this man’s so-called “moral indiscretions” and more about saving the reputation of organizations.

It is for this reason that I wish to give those who find this abhorrent to make a clear stand against the abuse and apologetics on behalf of those who failed to act in a timely and appropriate manner. Please read the following statement and join the petition by adding your name (with your location) to the post on social media and the comments below. Consider this to be a template for statements to be brought before your own congregations and conferences:

As a follower of Christ, I abhor all evil and especially evil perpetrated by those who claim to be Christians and do not turn from their wicked ways. Yes, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but as the apostle Paul commanded “expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13) we also affirm our commitment to do the same. Furthermore, we believe that leaders in the church should be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2) and have put away dark and deceitful ways.

We hereby renounce the sin of sexual abuse and, citing clear instruction of Scripture, refuse to associate ourselves with any leader, congregation or religious organization that shelters sexual abusers from facing civil authorities. For, as it is written:

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Romans 13:1‭-‬5 NIV)

It is on the basis of Scripture that we stand opposed to those who claim to be believers yet, through their actions and words, usurp God’s authority and rebel against what has been instituted by God for their good. It is clear we are to submit to the authorities when they serve their role to punish the wrongdoer as a matter of Christian conscience. Therefore to do otherwise is an act of rebellion against God’s design and a sign of an unrepentant spirit.

We will not tolerate sexual abusers nor enablers of sexual abuse who use forgiveness incorrectly as a means to escape accountability or manipulate. Instead, we will call out these wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15), implore them to repent, turn from their wicked ways and face the consequences of their sins—as true repentance requires. For, as our Lord and Savior said: It is better they have a millstone put around their necks and have them thrown in the sea than they offend little ones.

We stand with the Jesus who stood up to the sanctimonious and self-righteous hypocrites and “blind guides” who would “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:24) We oppose them even if they profess Christ because we are told that in the last judgment there will be many who will plea, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” And Jesus will say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:22‭-‬23 NIV)

We agree that sexual abuse should not be given shelter in our midst and also that forgiveness should never be turned into a tool of manipulation of the abused or for enabling abusers to continue in their sinful lifestyle. We will not be unequally yoked with those who claim to be Christian and show the fruit of corruption rather than that of humility, repentance, and submission to what God has ordained.

Some Monday Musings About Missionaries and Exploitation

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Trudy Metzger has been a warrior shedding light on sexual abuse within the Anabaptist context and has once again reported on something that has been concealed from many of us. Her latest blog about a confessed pedophile, associated with Christian Aid Ministries, and the consequences of his actions being visited upon a hapless Haitian pastor, really did hit a raw nerve with me.

You can read her blog: “Haitian Commissioner Orders Christian Aid Ministries (CAM) to appear in court with offender

The CAM organization has enjoyed a reputation of having relatively low overhead and for promoting conservative Mennonite values both here in the United States and abroad. I have some friends and family associated with the organization, good people, who I’m guessing are as outraged by this situation in Haiti as I am. It is sad, their work should not be discredited on the account of a few corrupt individuals and yet there must be a robust response on the part of current CAM leadership or these good people will have some tough decisions to make.

Full disclosure: I’ve long been a critic of short-term missions, which seem to be exploitative by nature even if well-intentioned. My own experience, on a trip to Haiti, was enough to convince me of that, when a few dozen youths can travel to an impoverished country for a week or two, at great expense to those who donated to our fundraising efforts and accomplish so little of real value. Meanwhile, we could have employed the Haitian man, like the one who begged me for work while we painted the church, for months and gotten much more accomplished.

That is my general complaint with what passes as missionary service. It too often involves a bunch of young people, out for a religious culturally sanctioned adventure, and bears very little resemblance to anything we find in Scripture. For one, Jesus sends his disciples (adults) without funding, they went on faith and only the shirts on their backs. By contrast, what passes for missionary service today is too often a bunch of privileged youths, living in compounds and being catered to, doing a couple dogooder projects while spouse shopping the other volunteers.

That said, CAM seemed to be making a far more substantial effort. Yes, well-funded by the many deep pockets in the conservative Anabaptist sphere, but with many very committed and completely blameless individuals. Still, if their organization is being used as shelter by sexual predators, then this needs to be fully exposed. Like I’ve said in a social media post, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Those who support the work of CAM really do need to hear everything—the good, bad and the ugly—because there are certainly many other ways to serve the cause of Christ with their resources they might otherwise donate to CAM.

It is my hope that CAM comes completely clean as far as all allegations regarding their staff or the families of their staff members. I’m not saying that the innocent who are falsely accused should have their names drug in the mud either, that is an abuse in and of itself, but certainly, those who have confessed to sexual abuse and other crimes while associated with CAM. Of course, this sort of thing is embarrassing, it is always easy to hide behind the idea that the greater good will somehow be served by silence, yet what is done is done and it must be handled openly rather than concealed:

“Stories surface stating there were more crimes in other countries, by other CAM staff members. Not all informants feel comfortable sharing names of alleged offenders, but some names and details by various informants begin to fill the gaps left by others. An orphanage. Three offenders.”

My questions:

1. How many cases like this have there been before?

2. What, if anything, was done to address this immoral and criminal behavior?

3. What steps will be taken to protect against this sort of sexual abuse from reoccurring in the future?