On Being an Academic Mennonite Woman

Sitting at Statue by Ruth Orkin

Sitting at Statue by Ruth Orkin

A few weeks ago I was at the AAR meeting in Baltimore.  I was at a reception with two of my colleagues (who are young, white, men – also exceptional scholars and great friends!) when a young man approached us. He introduced himself to my colleague, shook his hand enthusiastically, and before I could introduce myself he launched into some scholarly soliloquy (I don’t even remember what they talked about).  My colleague took notice and interrupted his self-important networking speech introducing me as his colleague. The young man paused, glanced at me, and promptly continued speaking with my colleague. Needless to say, this awkward interaction didn’t last long, considering neither my colleague nor I  were all that impressed with this character. This interaction reminded of how often women experience this kind of treatment, and much worse. (Don’t believe me? Go read this blog on being a woman in philosophy -or any male dominated discipline in the academy).

I also reflected on how isolated these kinds of experiences have been for me, realizing that most of the push-back I’ve encountered as a woman academic has been less in the academy than it has been in the church – specifically, among Mennonite churches. Continue reading


New Book! Imagining the Ethics of Diaspora

Theory Printers has kindly published my honours thesis.


From the preface (by David Driedger who bl0gs over at the de-scribe):

“Melanie Kampen’s book is an exploration on the possibilities of peace and conflict.  Using the images of exile and diaspora Kampen is clear that this sort of exploration cannot happen abstractly, with a view ‘from nowhere’. Both conflict and theory are situated in particular places and discourses.  ….Her three main conversation partners are writers who have caused no little interference within their own disciplines – but more than that, these writers also represent separate disciplines which are still often patrolled so as to keep from interfering with each other. And despite or, perhaps better, through their interferences these thinkers approach the question of peace and conflict. In the area of theology John Howard Yoder has attempted to interfere with the dominant paradigm of what he calls constantinian Christianity. In the area of sociology John Paul Lederach has interfered with dominant paradigm of analytic conflict resolution. And finally in the area of philosophy Jacques Derrida has interfered with the logocentric bias of traditional Western thinkers. Imagining wagers on the possibility that giving attention and even multiplying these interferences may be the way to yield new ways of imagining peace.”

A print edition is forthcoming soon. In the meantime, you can download it here.


Rethinking pacifism with Agamben’s remnant

In his commentary on Romans, Giorgio Agamben writes that the remnant (in Israel’s history) “is precisely what prevents divisions from being exhaustive and excludes the parts and the all from the possibility of coinciding with themselves.  The remnant is not so much the object of salvation as its instrument, that which properly makes salvation possible. In Romans 2:11-26 Paul describes the remnant’s soteriological dialectic with clarity. The “dimunition” (hettema) that makes Israel a “part” and a remnant is produced for the salvation of the ethne, the non-Jews, and foreshadows its pleroma, its fullness as the all, since, in the end, when the pleroma of the people will have come, then “all of Israel will be saved.” The remnant is therefore both an excess of the all with regard to the part, and of the part with regard to the all.  It functions as a peculiar kind of soteriological machine. As such, it only concerns messianic time and only exists therein.  In the telos, when God will be “all in all,” the messianic remnant will not harbor any particular privilege and will have exhausted its meaning in losing itself in the pleroma (1 Thess. 4:15: “we, who remain alive, unto the coming of the Lord shall not overtake then which are asleep”). But in the time of the now, the only real time, there is nothing other than the remnant. This does not properly belong either to an eschatology of ruin or salvation, but rather, to use Benjamin’s words, it belongs to an unredeemable, the perception of which allows us to reach salvation.” (Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 56.

How does this notion of the remnant, of messianic time in relation to the eschaton and salvation affect how we think about the work of the church?  One must note here that when Agamben employs the terms “instrument” and “soteriological machine” (above) we are not to think of means and ends logic.  The remnant is not that which somehow moves history forward towards salvation.  What do instruments and machines do? They play and compose music, they produce something.  What do they produce? A remnant, remnant relations. The remnant, for Agamben, is a relation, a way of relating to others that does not coincide with itself.  It maintains an inherent antagonism to any identitarian establishment, territorialization, or domination.  “This “remnant” is not any kind of numeric portion or substantial positive residue.”(Agamben, 50) But if we think of the Christian church as emptied of its identitarian contents, its propositions of belief, how do we speak of something characteristically Christian? Or, to put it differently, what then is the work of the church if not to bring about the the Kingdom of God on earth as inaugurated by the Messiah? A remnant-church does not empty us from all work, but reconfigures the way we think about what constitutes Christian work.  Insofar as we can talk about Christian practices, we must think of them as contingent rather than as content-actions or a prescriptive list to adhere to.

Let us take the example of pacifism.  Most of the Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage takes this to be a position inherent to the practice of Christianity, discipleship to Jesus.  But is this a definitively Christian concern?  Is pacifism or non-violence, if you prefer, an inherently Christian belief?  Does Christianity specifically contain certain practices and not others? With Agamben in the background, I submit that pacifism or non-violence is not a position, a place from which we stand, from which we see the world. Pacifism is a practice, and as such it names a way of relating to others. Pacifism and non-violence are often understood as propositions or categories of things we believe in. But pacifism must be thought of as enemy-love, a term that shows the inherently relational quality of the concept (which is really not a concept at all).  Enemy-love is a way of relating to others, not an objective action.  Practices must be thought of as relational/relations, and insofar as they are remnant, insofar as they maintain their non-coincidence with themselves, their antagonism towards sovereignty, they are Christian practices.  Therefore, something like war, violence, colonialism, will be excluded from Christian practice, not on doctrinal grounds but because of how these relate to others.  Non-violence can be called a Christian practice insofar as it renounces its own sovereignty (read: establishment/domination) and any sovereignty.

The original Italian title of Agamben’s book is Il tempo che resta, The tempo that remains, or The tempo of the remnant.  It is not by chance that the word tempo is also a musical term connoting rhythm and movement alongside time.

Cosmopolitan Mennonites; Cosmopolitan Homelessness

This is a lecture I was asked to give at a Mennofolk event on Jan. 28th at Sam’s Place Cafe and Bookstore in Winnipeg. The theme for the event was “A Song Away from Home,” and the evening featured several up and coming Winnipeg artists with Mennonite roots as well as this lecture. The following is a critique of an increasing cosmopolitan Mennonite existence, developing diaspora as an alternative, non-colonial, way of relating to our cosmopolitan neighbours by asking the questions: In what ways are we not at home in the world? In Winnipeg? How does our strangeness, our diasporic existence in a cosmopolitan landscape change our ethics, how we relate to others?

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV

I want to do three things in the next 15-20 minutes.  First, I want to suggest that although Mennonites have become cosmopolitan and settled in North American cities, there are several ways in which we are still strangers or foreigners in this context.  Second, I want to outline Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s work on Old Testament diaspora or exile as a source for thinking about this strangeness.  Thirdly, I will explore a relatively recent Mennonite Church Manitoba initiative as a way of incarnating the Jeremian call, a way of seeking the welfare of the city.

Cosmopolitan Mennonites; Cosmopolitan Homelessness

To begin, then, my lecture tonight is entitled “Cosmopolitan Mennonites; Cosmopolitan Homelessness.”  What I mean to call attention to in this two part title is first, the increasingly cosmopolitan existence of Mennonites in Canada– the progressive move of rural Mennonites to urban centers, especially as 2nd, 3rd, 4th generations who no longer face persecution have settled in the land.  Over the generations,Canada,Manitoba,Winnipeg, have become dwelling places for Mennonites; we consider ourselves very much at home here.  With the second part of the title I want to suggest that we also need to consider that certain kinds of settled-ness can lead to apathy on the one hand, and a desire to seize power and control on the other.  I want to suggest that although we have settled in cities, we need to think about the ways in which we are not completely at home in them; hence, the term cosmopolitan homelessness.  If this is confusing, not to worry. I will continue to work out what I mean by this throughout the lecture.

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The context for this exhortation is Jeremiah’s prophetic counsel for the people of God living in exile, as foreigners in another city.  Living in exile is perhaps an unimaginable notion for much of western Christianity, though perhaps more present in our Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage.  As Christians living in the west we tend to think ourselves quite at home in the world, relegating, as a result, the prophetic word above to its particular place in history; while acknowledging it as part of our Christian story, it is clearly irrelevant for us today.  But on what grounds, really, can we consider ourselves anything other than strangers in the world?  Our North American cities are built on land that belongs to people who lived here long before us.  We were guests, foreigners, whose domiciliary relationship with this land is a result of war, conquest, and colonization.  This names our historical strangeness.  Another way in which we are strangers in the world is theological; it has to do with the eschatological tension in which the church lives.  We believe that the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ has already inaugurated a new world order but that it has not yet fully arrived.  We live in this world in anticipation for a transformed and new creation.  In a sense, then, we are not at home in this world because things are not the way they should be, or will be.

Our ways of living at home in this world have proven destructive, violent, and at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus we profess to follow.  By making ourselves at home, by seeking to overcome our exile, our strangeness, we have habituated what one might call a colonial ethic.  We have often convinced ourselves that our welfare – our peace, freedom, and well being – is secured through domination, control, and coercion.  Where we were first guests and foreigners in a country, who used the hospitality offered to us for our own ends and own advantage, we have now become hostages to our habits of thought and life.  I say this not to elicit guilt or fear, but simply that we might recognize our complicity in the violent colonization ofNorth America, and our broken relationship with indigenous peoples.  I also want to suggest that the exilic character of the people of God, the Christian church, has important resources for thinking about ethics – how we ought to live in the world.  Attending to the Jeremian call is a way for us to move forward instead of becoming paralyzed by our complicity in injustice. 

Continue reading

The Harmony Resolution vs. The Schleitheim Confession

As I write this, Mennonite Church Canada is having its national Assembly in Waterloo, Ontario. One resolution that has been proposed for this gathering (though it may yet be withdrawn) was drawn up by the group Harmony, which bills itself as “Mennonites for LGBT Inclusion”. The text of the resolution [link updated July 10/11] can be found at Harmony’s website. In brief, the resolution says that past statements issued by the predecessors to MC Canada have caused various forms of suffering among LGBTQ people in Mennonite congregations, and that the churches ought to openly acknowledge and welcome non-heterosexuals in their midst and expedite MC Canada’s discernment process regarding homosexuality.

What particularly struck me about the resolution was its insistence on the absolute openness of Christian fellowship. Consider the following statements taken from the resolution.

“And whereas the intent of the Saskatoon Resolution never was to exclude from the fellowship of Christ’s table, nor the discipleship of the Church, any person who confesses Jesus as Lord in the context of an Anabaptist perspective, but rather to articulate the then-current understanding of MC Canada that certain kinds of sexual activity were to be regarded as sinful…”

This paragraph disconnects “activity … regarded as sinful” from “the fellowship of Christ’s table … [and] the discipleship of the Church”.

“And whereas the church is a body formed by those who ‘have sinned and come short of the glory of God’, and there is no mandate for the Church to exclude from its fellowship, those whom Jesus invites to His table…”

This statement appears to be predicated on the unspoken assumption that the call of Jesus is for everyone (a sound belief, in my view) and that nobody therefore ought to be excluded from Christian fellowship. This explains why the following paragraph from the resolution functions as an implicit condemnation of the current state of affairs within Mennonite Church Canada:

“And whereas the way the Saskatoon Resolution has been applied … has led to schisms, withdrawals and disciplinary action for individuals, for their families, and for congregations within MC Canada…”

That the various disruptions in Christian fellowship described above are presumed to be self-evidently bad things, in and of themselves, betrays a departure from traditional Anabaptist views on the subject. Specifically, the Harmony resolution, and particularly the paragraphs cited above, are at odds with Articles II and III of the Schleitheim Confession, the earliest confessional document of the Anabaptist Swiss Brethren, ratified in 1527.

Article II concerns the use of the ban (variously also called excommunication or disfellowshipping). It states that baptized church members who have fallen into sin ought to be warned twice in private, and then admonished in public before the congregation. It goes on to state that this ought to happen before the breaking of bread, so that there may be unity in the bread and in the cup. Participation in church fellowship, then, was understood to involve being subject to the judgment of the church. The exercise of discernment by the church, then, was not understood to be inherently bad, but rather a healthy practice that preserved the unity of the church from being compromised by sin.

Article III states that participation in the Lord’s Table, on account of its unifying function, ought to be restricted to those who share in the unity of the church, and its beliefs and practices. This article reinforces and elaborates upon the content of Article II, similarly qualifying who can properly partake of the Lord’s Supper.

The practice of the ban to ensure the unity of the church clearly dates back to the very origins of the Anabaptist movement, and has been a characteristic of most of the churches that trace their lineage to 16th-century Anabaptism. However, the Harmony resolution implicitly renounces this element of the Anabaptist heritage in its assumptions that the practices of church discipline are inherently bad, and that Christian fellowship is fundamentally characterized by openness.

This departure from Anabaptist tradition appears to be an extension of the policies and attitudes present in the General Conference Mennonite Church since its founding in 1860. (An essay on the topic can be found here.) The first GC’s were concerned about the overuse and abuse of the ban, and from their foundation they worked to tighten up the grounds on which a person could be disfellowshipped, while setting down an institutional tolerance for variations in belief and practice on “non-essential” matters.

The signatories to the Harmony resolution who identified their home congregations within MC Canada hail overwhelmingly from congregations that were part of the General Conference prior to the merger of the General Conference with the (Old) Mennonite Church to form MC Canada; only ten signatories out of 243, or about four percent, were from churches that used to belong to the (Old) Mennonite Church. Several of those were or are students at Canadian Mennonite University, which has roots in the General Conference but not the (Old) Mennonite Church.

The Harmony resolution, with its emphasis on open fellowship and negative view of church discipline, goes further than the official positions held by the General Conference Mennonite Church or Mennonite Church Canada, and is at odds with the Schleitheim Confession and historic Anabaptism. Nevertheless, it is based on an extended form of the ideals of the General Conference Mennonite Church. In light of this, I make two predictions.

First, MC Canada congregations and members who were formerly part of the General Conference will support the Harmony resolution and similar ideas in higher proportions than those with roots in the (Old) Mennonite Church. I do not believe the (Old) MC’s ever shared the level of discomfort with church discipline present among GC’s.

Second, Mennonite Church Canada will be more receptive to these sorts of ideas than Mennonite Church USA. In MC Canada, the proportion of former GC’s to former (Old) MC’s is roughly equal. In the US, the (Old) Mennonite Church was several times larger than the General Conference of Mennonite Churches.

My Conflict with Believer’s Baptism Part II

Absent in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, most recently published in 1995, is the early Anabaptist rhetoric of knowledge of faith before baptism that I have been wrestling with. It also pushes beyond a purely symbolic understanding of baptism as outer symbol of an inner transformation/faith (a dualism I also don’t like). In the commentary on Article 14 on Baptism one reads: “Some churches refer to baptism and the Lord’s Supper as symbols, sacraments, or ordinances. In this confession of faith, these ceremonies are called signs, a biblical term rich in meanings.  Sign is, first of all, an act of God: signs are wonders in Egypt (Exod. 1-:1; Num. 14:11), signs to prophets (Isa. 7:14; 55:13), and Jesus’ performance of signs (John 2:11; 12:37; 20:30). John 2:18-22 sees Jesus’ death and resurrection as a sign.  A sign is not only an act of God but a human action as well: eating unleavened bread at Passover (Exod. 13:9), binding the commandments to oneself (Deut. 6:8), keeping the Sabbath (Exod. 31:13; Ezek. 20:20).  Likewise, baptism is a sign, representing both God’s action in delivering us from sin and death and the action of the one who is baptized, who pledges to God to follow Jesus Christ within the context of Christ’s body, the church.”

In summary, such an understanding of baptism as a sign blurs the lines between two conflicting theologies: a) a public sacrament that informs and transforms the inner self, and b) an inner transformation that precedes its outer symbolization. The latter theology can easily turn the ritual of baptism into a virtual reality of sorts, what Derrida calls “the errant play of signs…[where] God is dead, there is no transcendental signified, nothing outside the image.” (“On the Gift” in John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon, eds, God, The Gift and Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 16.)  This can, of course, go one of two ways: either the pointless signification as such becomes the point, or like the Anabaptist spiritualists did, you get rid of any public practice.

John Howard Yoder (surprise!) offers an account of baptism that is congruent with the Confession’s sign-ificant understanding, but pushes the early Anabaptist inner faith precedes mere outer symbol theology:

If the idea is that baptism intellectually signifies the new birth as an outward symbol representing an inward individual experience, which the one baptized can “confess,” then it is obvious logically why we should disavow administering it coercively or to infants. Yet still that “Baptist” view does not naturally imply egalitarianism because what it is trying to explain is a symbolic behaviour rather than a social one. It does not make the world new. On the other hand, we might be able to resurrect what might be called a “sacramental” realism.[which is here closer to our use of signs than the Catholic understanding of sacrament] In that understanding, just as we saw in an earlier chapter that breaking bread together is an economic act, so baptism is the formation of a new people whose newness and togetherness explicitly relativize prior stratifications and classification.  Then we need no path, no line of argument, and no arbitrary statement (e.g., “Let us say that this symbol ‘x’ means…”) to get from there to [ethics and politics], either in the church or beyond.  We start with a ritual act whose first, ordinary meaning is [ethical and political].” (John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World,” (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2001), 33).

Thus, with the end of reading week ends the intentional reflection on my own believer’s baptism conflict.  Though I’m pretty sure I haven’t resolved anything I have had the opportunity to trace some theologically shifts from the radical reformation to contemporary European Mennonite theology on baptism.  I’m usually not one who has a lot of time or energy for “doctrinal debates” for the sole reason that they tend to be abstract from ethics and politics (which is the only thing I actually care about) but because of what this week of mining my history has revealed, I have to say that I am pretty satisfied with the turn to the ethical and political vis a vis baptism.  My conflict is not nearly resolved, nor was that the goal of my endeavour, but some things have been clarified and the terms of the infant/believer’s debate have been somewhat reconfigured. Hopefully towards fruitfulness.

To remember is to work for peace

On Remembrance Day this year I have the Israel/Palestine conflict on my heart. The following pictures were taken in May 2010 during my pilgrimage/study tour to the Holy Land.

The Wailing Wall

The Dome of the Rock

The “undulations of the snake” and Panopticon
(Deleuze & Foucault ref.)

The “security” wall from the West Bank side in Bethlehem

Olive wood nativity set with “security” wall

Israeli soldiers/security asking for ID and questioning Palestinians
for no apparent reason in the old city of Jerusalem.

Peace mural at Mar Elias (Elias Chacour – author of Blood Brothers) school in Ibillin

Famous mural in Bethlehem

Mennonite Central Committee’s alternative to the poppy


Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur
Our Lamb has conquered; him let us follow