Separate Together

Published by Trevor Bechtel on

Trevor Bechtel

Almost 25 years ago, Susan and I lived in England for a year. We knew we were only going to be there for a year so we were very deliberate about seeing something, and usually seeing something different, every weekend. We had lived in Chicago for about five years when we left for London. This time of being deliberate about paying attention where we lived and what we could do there was work, it took a lot of planning. But it was also work for Susan who taught all week long work to get up on Saturdays and do something rather than just relax at home. It was also a lot of fun, and created many fond memories. Who knows, we might go back sometime; but it was a good enough trip that we might not need to. One of the things that we realized upon returning to Chicago was that we now knew London better than we had ever known Chicago. So in the years to come we bought memberships at the Art Institute of Chicago, attended more concerts, and threw ourselves more deliberately into the city. I’m grateful to London not just for being a pretty good place to live for a year, but also for pushing me to get to know Chicago better. I still feel at home when I go back to Chicago, and I have London to thank for that.

One of the things that I did that year was get Alan Krieder to sponsor me for a membership to the British Library. I was a graduate student so every 10 days or so I’d go to the library and spend the day reading. I would buy lunch at one of those local cafes with just a few tables which followed the very un-American custom of having people who didn’t know each other share tables at lunch. One day I was talking to a pleasant enough man in a bowtie about 15 years my senior and he asked what I was working on. I said that I was a Mennonite theologian. He didn’t know what that was. Somehow thinking I would clarify things, I said I was an Anabaptist. He responded, oh you mean the separatists who believe in sexual communion? No, I said. I think you’ve got something wrong there.

I’m used to people not quite knowing what I believe. I’m used to this when I name my belief as Mennonite, or Anabaptist. I expect it when I name myself as Christian given how many beliefs that stands in for these days. And, I’m also used to it when I actual share the explanations of my beliefs. When I share that I’m a pacifist, people know that I’m committed to non-violence, but they don’t assume that I want all guns everywhere destroyed, including the ones the police have. When I talk about animals, most people assume that I’m a vegetarian, and they are surprised when I suggest that my concern for animals is one of the reasons why I eat meat. And when I talk about the ways that the church is a public and political institution, they don’t assume that I mean that the church is always calling the state to reform politics so that they are in closer alignment with the church’s vision for how the world should life together, or that the true definition of public is the one created when people voluntarily choose to ally themselves in worship.

My pleasant enough English friend was right that I’m a separatist, in that I believe in a strong separation of church and state. And he was right to infer this from my saying that I was an Anabaptist; this is the traditional position held by Brethren, Mennonites and all other Anabaptists. I have always believed that holding to this separation brings a certain clarity of conviction, allowing me to depend on the church for guidance in how to life my life. The easy example is pacifism: I don’t spend time worrying about whether or not any use of violence by the state is justified. I know that all of it is not, even when it’s done to protect me. There can be an easy moral clarity to a position which others find extreme. This is one of the gifts of Anabaptist ways of thinking to the rest of the world. A recognition that some of the questions that others make into moral quandaries do not need our attention. You can see Paul thinking this way in Romans 13; don’t worry about the authorities, God put them in place. Give God what God deserves and the authorities what the authorities deserve. Read with a separatist lens this advice allows the authorities to exist and function, but limits their authority.

However, there is no system from radical positions. A radical position on church and state works, and it works particularly when the state considers going to war. However, there are other areas of life where it works less well.

Now is one of those times; although no approach to morality works particularly well in a pandemic. But you can almost see the confusion dripping off people trying to think about how to safely reopen public spaces, like churches, after a shut down like the one we’ve experienced this spring.

The most stunning example of this for me in the last two weeks has been in the writing of Rusty Reno. Some of you remember that name from our Easter sermon last year, when I referenced, approvingly, his ideas about the ruins of the church. That our vocation is to dwell within the ruins of the Church. That in Christ we are not called to love strength and power and beauty. That ruins are not unfit for human habitation.

Reno is now the editor at First Things and his recent writing leaves much to be desired. But last week he wrote an horrible post about traveling around New York City and being sneaked by a friend into a hospital where he walked around without a mask, because masks are for cowards. He then doubled down on this position on Twitter. He was called out. And then, in a surprising move, he deleted his Twitter account and issued a full public apology. In all of this I am most struck by Reno’s confusion as he tilts further and further to the right and then spontaneously explodes and then realizes it.

Reno is the most stunning example of this confusion for me, but not the only one. Some churches haven’t stopped meeting in person, others are clamoring to reopen their builidings. Others wonder what’s next, and still others have closed their buildings for the foreseeable future. Part of the confusion here is that while we all think of our churches as central in our lives and worship the most important thing we do, many of us also recognize worship does not only happy on Sunday morning, or in a church building. Sunday morning gatherings have importance but after home, and work, church is a third thing in terms of time spent and that increases the danger of being physically together.

The part of worship that I do miss, like many of you, is singing together. And this is something, that we have lost, not just for now, but probably for a long time. We expect that singing is one of the most dangerous things you can do in this pandemic. It produces smaller droplets that are propelled farther away. There are some horrible stories of choirs who sang before the shut down experiencing very high infection rates. We can’t know if it is the singing or the proximity that made so many people sick, but until we do know, singing hymns is the new riding your motorcycle without a helmet, in the rain, on a thawing lake.

The authorities are just as confused.

President Trump called on friday for the opening of houses of worship as essential services. Here in Michigan our governor has extended the stay at home order until June 12. In Wisconsin the Supreme Court overturned the governor’s stay at home order. Bars and restaurants filled. A week later Wisconsin experienced its highest single day of new cases.

Amidst all this confusion, I wonder, “Just what authorities am I supposed to separate from? What authorities are trying to protect me? Who in the church are we allied with as we bring hope to the world? What is that hope?

The idea that connects Reno and me, and I imagine many of you is the idea that the church is a special place, even an essential place. This radical idea is upended when I hear it in the

President’s mouth. Of course part of why this idea is nonsense when the President gives voice to it is that the essential role that the President wants the church to place is one of fitting into a state that he has authority over, not calling that state to account. The essential role that the leader of an empire has for the church is exactly the reason I am a separatist.

But I also recognize in all of this that the kind of radical thinking that makes the church it’s own authority doesn’t work particularly well in a pandemic. And the pattern of thinking that dissents from authority feels more and more like a bad habit.

I have heard from many people that in the last two weeks the staying home has gotten much more difficult. This time is affecting us all differently, as Brianne and Kyle this morning, and others over the last few weeks have related. Carrie Martens writes,

“One person must go to work while others desperately wish they could. One person’s business is booming and they’re exhausted while another’s has tanked. One person is swamped and overwhelmed surrounded by family and another longs for contact with family. One is busier than ever and another is at total loose ends with nothing to do at all. And so I just wonder, how we care for each other well. How do we listen to each other? How do we have empathy? How do we not play comparison games?” There is a time for everything as the writer of Eccelsiates states, but time is all jumbled up right now and everything and nothing is happening all at once.

This time is affecting us all differently, but because we are social animals who are depriving ourselves of much of our sociality our bodies are going to rebel. Weak ties, those short interactions with acquaintances or strangers at the coffee shop or the grocery store are either absent or strained. We are all like someone who is going without eating a favorite food but looking at a picture of it. Our brains process both kinds of deprivations–food and human contact–in the same way.

So we have lost a great deal, enough that we feel it in our bodies. We are confused about what’s next. We are anxious that our ways of thinking, reliable in other situations might not be serving us well right now. The church is essential in these times, but not the church building, and not even any particular congregation. The church is the fugitive body of Christ, set up wherever the ruins of what has come before provides some shelter. Our hope is guaranteed even when everything else shuts down.

As Christians we are called to practice this hope. Cinda told CLC a story this week about a meeting in which the agenda included having everyone say something that they were glad for in this time. Cinda found that she really appreciated the meeting, that she needed to be pushed to think about what she was enjoying and encouraged us to do the same.

What are the things you appreciate about this time. I encourage you to type them in the chat for this meeting or share them during our sharing. I’ll collect them this week and send them back out to everyone.

There is a time for recognizing what we have lost but also a time for being grateful for what we are being given. This time of being deliberate about paying attention to how we are living and what is successful will take work. These times take a lot of planning. And, regardless of who we are we have been working hard. But let us take stock together of the things we have been enjoying. At best, when we take these things together, like weekend trips in a foreign country, we might learn own home desires, relationships, families, and communities in a new way, so that when we return to society where we can again touch each other, we have an even deeper sense of being together. Amen

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