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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Consensual Governance

Daughters of Zelophehad, courtesy
    I have come to look forward not only to the old favorite Scripture readings in church, but often even more to the more esoteric ones I would otherwise be inclined to skip or gloss over.  Rev. Joetta Schlabach of Faith Mennonite in Minneapolis, Minnesota, delivered one such offering in her examination of the text Numbers 27: 1-11, Those Audacious Daughters of Zelophehad. 
    In summary, as the nation of Israel was preparing to enter the Promised Land, a census had been taken in order to divide up the land amongst the male-headed households.  The daughters of the deceased Zelophehad were to find themselves disinherited from an equal portion of the land due to their father’s death and appealed to Moses that despite being female, they should in fact be allocated the proper portion due to their deceased father who had died faithful to the Lord.
    For our purposes, Schlabach’s sermon also contains three major observations pertinent to traditional Mennonite cultural organization and self-governance (though not necessarily unique only to the Anabaptists). 

This story … teaches an important and enduring lesson about law:  it is not permanently fixed but grows and changes along with the growth of God’s people and in response to the call for justice.  This doesn’t mean that anyone can change the law as they wish.  There was a clear process here:  the daughters of Z raised a concern within their community.  The leaders (in this case Moses) consulted God and received a preliminary ruling.   Later additional concerns were raised, calling for additional discernment.  Together the community shaped the new law that they would live by (Schlabach, 17 June 2012).
    Schlabach is indicating an important Pietist understanding of communal consensus government.  The daughters of Z had a request / complaint / petition for the community to address.  They brought their concern before Moses and the elders.  Moses did not handle the situation like a “king,” “pope,” or “Spirit-anointed Evangelist.”  Nor did Moses hear the petition alone – but rather the women brought their case before Moses and the elders and the clergy (priests) – it was a matter for the people, the community, to hear and resolve:
  So the five sisters stood up publicly in front of Moses, the priest, the leaders, and all the people to state their cause.  They presented their case, not simply as a matter of justice for them, but also as a matter of the legacy for their father’s name [… and of import to the well-being of their tribe…].
  … Moses found their case compelling and agreed to consult God.  And God’s response was positive:  yes, give these women an inheritance! (Schlabach).
    While there is nothing odd or different regarding the traditional forms and norms of consensual, “tribal” or traditional gemeinde governance as presented in the first part of this process, what is somewhat different is the fact that Moses reached beyond the consensual governance of the elders and his own understanding of the Law to inquire directly of God – both a Pietist impulse and a Pietist understanding of the source of truth.  Moses reached beyond the elders to appeal directly to the highest authority.  At the same time, Moses communicated back to, within and in the context of the consensus-building body of the priests and elders.  He did not speak as one with a unique access to God or as the possessor of a uniquely ordained gift, inscrutable to the reason and judgment of others.  He did not speak ex cathedra or from the Papal throne, but rather within the context of tradition, the established governing mechanisms and as part of an open process.  This is an important characteristic of traditional Anabaptist ethnic and church governance.
    Schlabach’s second observation regards the dual nature of a community’s rules and laws – that they exist for the good or sake of both the individual and the community:
  None of these accounts … suggest that laws aren’t needed.  Instead they affirm that laws serve both the good of individuals and the community.  The two must always be held together in a positive tension, whether we are talking about the distribution of goods in our society (such as the land, as in the story from Numbers) or about questions of personal morality including sexuality (as in Luke’s [14] account of the case of adultery).
  We must confess that we don’t do very well as a society or a church, in holding the individual and communal in balance.  Our society is highly individualistic and tends to place individual rights above all else… (Schlabach).
    In this, Schlabach indicates that she is speaking of the qualifier to the women’s inheritance.  The women’s case was heard and addressed by God and therefore the community but in granting an inheritance to the women, their clan or tribe faced the potential loss of that land to the tribes of their eventual husbands.  In order to protect against this, the Lord balanced out their individual needs and those of the tribe – the women could have their inheritance but they would be required to marry within their hereditary tribe to preserve the community’s interests as well.  In other words, the rights and needs of the individual were met yet mitigated by the need to preserve the common good or the community’s best self-interest.  In humility, the women seem to have acquiesced.
    So Schlabach’s sermon identifies two challenges – the first being to be “vigilant for people or groups within our society [i.e. individuals] who are not served by our current laws or traditional practices.”  Schlabach’s second challenge is community focused – “to stay engaged in processes of discernment with all levels of our church as we seek to build more just communities.”
    Quite usefully, Schlabach identifies the structure of this communal consensual spiritual governance:
In this process of discernment we need everyone:
·         we need the audacious daughters of Z who raise their voices to point out an injustice;
·         we need leaders who will listen, pray, and create avenues for authentic conversation and discernment, and
·         we need diverse members:  some to help us recall our history and others to help us thoughtfully anticipate the ways that the community will be affected by modifications to current laws and customs.  We cannot know all the unintended consequences of change, some of which might raise the need for further modifications.
    Again, returning to the Pietist aspect of Mennonite consensual governance, Schlabach continues to include the highest participation, “… we trust this is the work of God.  This is the work we are called to do, now and in this place.  As we seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we believe we will be led into truth.”  God is the ultimate source of truth, law and custom and God is part of the process, responding to our inquiries and prayers for guidance and direction.  God has ordained the consensus-building process of the Church and yet faithfully responds to all “appeals.”  Traditional ethnic Mennonites (and evangelical Mennonites) would seem to sincerely and faithfully pursue that ordained ethnic and church understanding.
    That being said, Schlabach found that “Moses found their case compelling and agreed to consult God.  And God’s response was positive:  yes, give these women an inheritance!” 
    Moses did not turn to the tablets of law, the old traditions of the Biblical Levant, the new traditions of the newly formed Hebrew nation or even the studied notions of the elders of Israel.  In humility, he sought further guidance and understanding from God directly.
Pope John XXIII (1958), (c) wiki images
    This reminds me of an anecdote regarding Pope John XXIII:
  [Pope John XXIII] made no secret of the fact that he did not consider himself a theologian but rather a pastor of souls.  He assured a Protestant minister received in private audience that, although as head of the Church he was infallible when proclaiming matters of faith and morals, it was another matter when it came to abstruse theological questions.  Then, said the pope, he had to consult his official theologian (Rynne, p 4).  
    The cultural and spiritual lesson could be that in humility, sometimes we just need to be open to the fact that despite all our understanding, despite all of our authority, despite all of our traditions, politics and principles, we need to look beyond ourselves to seek a higher perspective than our own too often limited, if well-intentioned understanding.  Humility and openness – those are the keys to melding individual effectiveness with communal organization.  Both humility and openness are also understood components of the Mennonite and Amish traditional gelessenheit.
    Of additional cultural and sociological interest to Schlabach’s sermon would be a comparison of inheritance laws between those from Schlabach’s reading in Numbers 27, those of the Russian colonies in Chortitza and Molotschna, inheritance law in the early Canadian Mennonite Reserves of southern Manitoba and possibly contemporary practice amongst the Amish of North America and the traditional Russian Mennonites of Mexico and Paraguay.  Similarities should be noted and attempts should be made to account for any differences and to identify their ultimate cultural source.  Note that comparisons between Old Testament precedent, Early Church history and historic Anabaptist practice are directly pertinent to both the historical experience and historic self-identity of the Anabaptists.
    A further area for study would be the extent to how the traditional ethnic and religious Mennonite self-governance was both inspired by Biblical examples such as the Numbers 27 example and whether or not Numbers is determined to be a source or model, how closely Anabaptist governance corresponds or differs from the Old Testament models.  Note that comparisons and contrasts with both contemporary Orthodox Jewish practice and traditional norms from the Eastern European shtetles might also be of interest to the larger Mennonite diaspora.
    Far from being boring, arcane or easy to gloss over, the story of Zelophehad’s daughters actually opens a wide range of conversation and points for further research, study and notation both spiritually and as a practical study of the nature, impact and operation of proper customary consensual community or gemeinde governance applicable to the ancient Israeli experience, that of the Mennonite Anabaptists and likely many other ethnic and cultural groups.

Rynne, Xavier, Vatican Council II, Farrar, Straus & Giraux, New York, NY, 1968, p. 596.
Schlabach, Rev. Joetta, Those Audacious Daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27: 1-11), sermon, Faith Mennonite Church, Minneapolis, Minn., 17 June, 2012.

Joetta Schlabach, Law, Inheritance, Women’s Rights, Consensus, Elders, Bible Study

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