Mennonite Public Discourse and the Conflicts over Homosexuality

By Biesecker-Mast, Gerald J. | Mennonite Quarterly Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Mennonite Public Discourse and the Conflicts over Homosexuality


Biesecker-Mast, Gerald J., Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: Contemporary arguments among Mennonites regarding the status of gay and lesbian unions illustrate the maintenance and transformation of human communities through the rhetorical constitution of conflict. Such arguments can be classified according to the symbolic practices by which they shape the social sphere, as described by social theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Arguments organized according to a logic of difference maintain the complexity of the social sphere through the establishment of distinctive and unrelated symbolic objects; whereas, arguments framed through a logic of equivalence simplify the social sphere by dividing it up into two opposing and mutually exclusive arenas whose separate contents receive symbolic meaning primarily through the antagonism between the two arenas. An analysis of articles and letters on the subject of homosexuality in the Mennonite Church's periodical, Gospel Herald, demonstrates the specific rhetorical shapes of arguments based on both difference and equivalence. Public discourses organized according to a logic of qualified difference offer the greatest hope for a dialogical practice of vulnerability and genuine openness to transformation.

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If contemporary social theory has taught us anything, it is that the comfort of community is deeply haunted by the terror of disunity, not only at its outer frontier but also at its very center. (1) Indeed, the fundamental category of the modern community--the self-sufficient individual subject--may well be a productive but illusory and often destructive fiction invented to prop up the Enlightenment projects of emancipation and mastery. (2) The question now arises everywhere: How can the social contract be honored when its contractors cannot be trusted with final control over their own agency? Or put religiously: How shall we live with one another when we are unable "to make one hair black or white" or to "change the smallest part of ourselves" and, thus, are unable to "perform what is promised in swearing"? (3) The self and the other, bound in history by contingent relations of mutual dependence, cannot establish that absolute ground of universal reason that is required if social relations are to be individually and collectively beneficial. (4)

This precarious contingency of human communities is illustrated quite clearly by the struggles of North American Mennonite churches to resolve differences of understanding about sexual ethics, struggles in which the goals of loving unity and biblical faithfulness seem often to appear mutually exclusive. As they struggle to find a common ground of conviction that can mend the rift between those who reject and those who affirm the legitimacy of monogamous homosexual covenants, Mennonite churches provide a compelling case study of the relationship between the exercise of practical reason in religious arguments and the shape of conflict in community life during a time when the once confident premises of the Enlightenment, whether constituted through a liberal modernism or through a restrictive fundamentalism, strain credulity. A number of questions ought to be asked and provisionally answered in such a case study. First, what rhetorical practices and contexts have been used by Mennonites to mediate the church conflicts over homosexuality? Second, what rhetorical and dialogical commonplaces have emerged in these practices and what might be the effects of those commonplaces? Third, does or should Anabaptist/Mennonite public exchange differ from secular public discourse? Insofar as these questions focus our attention on the communication practices of Mennonites during the ongoing conflicts over homosexuality, seeking answers to these questions could help Mennonites become more self-conscious about how they participate in such church conflicts.

Before we answer these questions, however, let us consider for a moment why homosexuality is such a difficult issue for Mennonite discussions and whether the theoretical categories in the cultural conflict paradigm established by Kniss and Ainlay elsewhere in this volume can contribute to a rhetorical analysis of the Mennonite conflicts over homosexuality. …

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