Justice Should not be Accidental

Glen Guyton is chief operating officer for Mennonite Church USA.

As we prepare to gather in Orlando, the leadership of Mennonite Church USA finds itself dealing once again with the question of justice related to the suspended appointment of Doug Basinger, a gay man. The rumblings on social media are calling for members of the LGBTQ community and their allies to show a rally of support for inclusion efforts. On many levels the outcry is justified and understandable, but one question that comes up for me in the midst of this bad situation is,

“Should justice be accidental?”

The Executive Board acknowledges in its statement that there were “some missteps in the process that resulted in an uninformed decision to appoint Doug Basinger” to serve on the Leadership Discernment Committee. This is disappointing for a number of reasons. I can’t speak for Doug or the LGBTQ community, but I would never want my gifts and talents to be overshadowed by a cloud of confusion. If the Executive Board or our delegates decide to change denominational practices and move toward inclusion, I hope that decision is wholly owned and fully informed at all levels of leadership in our church.

For me this situation raises question about procedural justice and systemic oppression. Missteps don’t bring about lasting change.

Missteps bring about pain and confusion — they distract us from the intentional bridges that have been built. Missteps derail intentional and strategic actions.

We owe it to Doug to not only get this appointment right, but we also have to get the process right for our community moving forward.

As a staff person for the Executive Board, my responsibility is supporting the work of the board and advising them when we don’t have clear, just and equitable guidelines and policies in place. This symbiosis is important as leadership appointments are made. We have to ensure consistency when questions arise during the vetting process.

  • We need to ensure that we have a system where power and privilege can’t supersede procedural justice. This is where clarity of process and transparency of information are needed.
  • We need to applaud the Executive Board anytime it pulls back from an uninformed decision that has the potential to impact the church for years to come. True justice does not arise from a single outcome or decision, and it should not be applied based solely on ethnic heritage or family ties. True justice is ingrained into the policies, procedures and culture of an organization.
  • Our fight for justice should be grounded in some basic principles:
    • Treating people with dignity and respect. Who do we value?
    • Giving voice to members of the community. Who is a part of the community?
    • Being equitable in decision making. Whose voices are we esteeming?
    • Trustworthy motives. Are we seeking the greater good?

The Executive Board said it “recognized that the appointment was made through the routine approval of a consent agenda, when the decision did not in fact reflect the informed consent of the board.” If I am ever selected or appointed to a position, I would want to lead without looking over my shoulder. I would want to know that I served with the support and trust of those that selected me. It would be unfair to Mr. Basinger and our constituency to, after the fact, use his sexuality to diminish the authority of both the LDC position and the process which selected him.

Justice deserves to be done right and with integrity of forethought.

True justice must be intentional and honest. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Negros can still march down the path of nonviolence and interracial amity if white America will meet them with honest determination to rid society of its inequality and its inhumanity.” The church needs “honest determination” from our Executive Board. As an African-American I need assurance that our board does not privilege the actions of white leaders over that of our Latino or African-American leaders. Justice should not come solely based on ethnic heritage or familial ties.

When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, even he suggested that prophetic revelation ought to be done with decency and order, “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace — as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (1 Corinthian 14:29-33).

We serve a people of order and we serve a God of order. Bad processes lead to distrust and chaos, and will ultimately distract us from achieving true justice and right alignment in our governance.

Change is happening in our church. It may be too slow for some and too fast for others. It is sad that as change happens, innocent people like Mr. Basinger get swept up in the madness. At the end of the day, the fight for justice — whether it be racial, economic, gender-based or identity-based — is bigger than any of us.

The Executive Board needs the chance to make an informed decision, not because it deserves another chance, but because we as the people of Mennonite Church USA deserve informed, sustainable justice, absent of excuses, systemic oppression or doubt of intention.

A friend of mine asked, “Why can’t justice be accidental?” My response is the Greek term hamartia — a word that covers a broad spectrum of meanings that include ignorance, error or accidental wrongdoing. Hamartia is the fatal flaw that is the downfall of many a hero. We can’t just misstep into justice, because we can just as easily misstep back into injustice or oppression — that is why establishing, evaluating and following just processes is so important.

For some the appointment of Mr. Basinger was the right call, but the reality is that the uninformed process the board followed constituted a misuse of institutional power that needed to be corrected. As much as we might want to use our power to further our own agenda, denominational leaders must also be careful to act with integrity, and with awareness of both our privilege and our limits. We all have blinders, and structural processes are in place to keep leaders accountable. When leaders fail, or when the system itself breaks down, good leaders own their mistakes and move forward to do the hard work of revising, transforming or rebuilding the system through intentional and mutual discernment.

The delegates voted for forbearance in 2015. Incidents like this one, related to the appointment of Doug Basinger, are challenging us to more clearly define what that actually means.

The work of discerning true justice should not be haphazard, secretive or unspoken.

Our decision to follow Jesus requires intentional choices and actions. Romans 10: 9-10 suggests that belief and confession go hand in hand — we are not accidental Christians. We are a church of believers who have decided that even in faith, we have to make a conscious choice. Why would we require less of our acts of justice?

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9 thoughts on “Justice Should not be Accidental

  1. It isn’t clear here whether Doug’s appointment was any different, or less intentional, than any of the other appointments. Were they also routine approvals of consent agenda? If so, according to this logic, the whole group of appointees must be set aside for a more intentional process. I agree with Glen that we want intentional justice, rather than accidental justice, but on all counts, not only Doug’s. And above all, we want justice, including justice for Doug.

  2. Your argument would have been more convincing if you had applied the same logic to the Kratz situation. He was allowed to quietly resign rather than being removed. Apparently we need informed decisions about some subjects but not others.

    1. Wes, I can’t speak to the process for appointing Clyde. While both are appointments are board decisions, the staff is not involved in the selection of the Executive Director or that process. You can’t hire your own boss. (I’m staff not board). Believe it or not there are separations of authority. At the end of the day, Clyde resigned. He won’t be a part of the process. I am not sure it was quiet, it was released by our communications department just like the info about Doug. But, Doug can still be appointed by the Executive Board in September. The LDC doesn’t even start its work until October. I totally agree, we need informed decisions for all our appointments and we (delegates) need to examine our rules. Change them, follow them or get rid of them. If you think things need to change I encourage you to write the Executive Board directly. I do when I disagree with them.

  3. Try as I might, I cannot imagine this happening through mistake or inadvertence. Somewhere, there was a deliberate breach of required communications. See Hannah Heinzekehr’s report at The Mennonite for important details.

    Nor am I able to imagine “confusion” to have been a factor. Just two years ago, MCUSA delegates affirmed that “Pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same- sex covenant ceremony.” Only a few months ago, the MCUSA Executive Board reasonably applied this policy administratively, deciding that the resumes of pastors who are partners in a same-sex marriage will not be distributed routinely by MCUSA staff.

    Framing this all as “a justice issue” strikes me as a dodge. High in the leadership ranks of MCUSA are one or more individuals who have not accepted the authority of the delegates, but instead are using the power of position to pursue a private agenda. Thankfully, a narrow majority of the Executive Board is trying to correct this.

  4. If anyone is still wondering why individuals, congregations, and conferences are leaving MC-USA in unprecedented numbers, all they have to do is observe the actions and read the words of those defending the inclusion of same-sex people in the life and leadership of the church. While a person may not choose their orientation, they can choose their lifestyle. When that lifestyle choice violates the clear teaching of Scripture, they forfeit their right to consideration for leadership.

    1. We disagree on what violates the “clear teaching of Scripture,” profoundly so. A number of years ago in seminary I learned that nearly all of the negative comments about same sex relationships when critically analyzed, did not in fact mean what people normally thought they meant. For example, the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, while often interpreted as punishment for homosexual activity, was instead a condemnation of inhospitality. The Bible itself refers to the story as one of inhospitality.

      From my take on things, MC-USA currently manifests prejudice and discrimination, Its policies result in divisiveness, hurt, and anger, all attributable to what I consider forces of evil at play. The sooner these policies of discrimination are ended, the better for all of us.

  5. I find Glen Guyton”s very helpful and hope we can all hear clearly what he has written. Thanks Glen for your very helpful and instightful coments. We have some important work to do as the Body of Christ! Thanks for your insights and for you sharing. David Helmuth, retired pastor, missionary , educator !

  6. To me the issue isn’t whether Doug’s appointment was “accidental justice.” The issue is that systemic oppression and exclusion of LGBTQ people is NO accident; it is the unofficial, unacknowledged position of the MC USA Executive Board. This “accident” exposed that injustice, and the time is always right to do the right and just thing. That’s why many of us are calling this out and demanding justice for Doug and all other queer people whose gifts are shunned.
    – Karl Shelly, pastor

    1. Karl, Doug can actually still be appointed and if the EB does not clarify its policies then Doug could just become a token, a one and done decision. The final outcome is not a fait accompli. It is my understanding the Executive Board will discuss this in more detail during the September meeting. At that time a final decision will be made. In 2015 the delegates voted for Forbearance, but there was not adequate discussion of what that looks like in practice. The EB did clarify somethings: “We will not take punitive action against congregations or area conferences at variance with our church positions on the one hand,” the statement says. “On the other, we expect national staff to administrate our church programs according to the standards, values and beliefs identified in documents of the church.” I want justice also Karl. In September, we can both judge if we think justice has been served.

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