Generous Orthodoxy with Malcolm Gladwell | E9/S1: Revisionist History Podcast (Transcript)

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Generous Orthodoxy with Malcolm Gladwell

Episode 9| Season 1| Revisionist History
Length: 33 min | Released: August 10, 2016

Malcolm Gladwell: I grew up in South Western Ontario, farming country, in a place called Waterloo County. Waterloo County is home to one of the largest population of Mennonites in the world. I grew up among Mennonites, went to school with them. They’re Anabaptists, which is one of the oldest Protestant denominations. Mennonites are small in number, industrious, close knit, came to North America after they were persecuted in Russia. The joke is they’re basically “Jews who farm.” So I went home to see my parents not long ago and everyone was talking about something online called An Open Letter to My Beloved Church. It’s a long letter touching on family and devotion and faith in scripture. A Mennonite pastor wrote it. Actually, I should say an ex-Mennonite pastor, a man named Chester Wenger. I read the letter and I was so taken by it that I went to see him, drove 4.5 hours on one cold January day.

Chester Wenger: Oh my, just every day 3, 4, 5 people say, “We just like your letter, we like your letter, we like your letter.”

MG: The letter has been read more than 230,000 times on Mennonite.org. To put that in perspective, there are only 800,000 Mennonites in North America. It’s been liked and shared all over Facebook. #ChesterWenger is a thing. I asked Wenger if he anticipated any of his words going viral.

CW: I didn’t even know, didn’t even know what viral meant. The letter went viral, it’s, ooh, what’s that mean? It’s like a virus, it just spread. I was, I was shocked.

MG: My name is Malcolm Gladwell. This is Revisionist History, my podcast about things misunderstood and overlooked. This week’s episode is about Chester Wenger and about an idea called Generous Orthodoxy. That phrase, Generous Orthodoxy, comes from a theologian named Hans Frei. It’s an oxymoron, of course. To be orthodox is to be committed to tradition. To be generous, as Frei defines it, is to be open to change. But Frei thought the best way to live our lives was to find the middle ground because orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness and generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty. One of the hardest things in the world is to find that balance. Not just for those pursuing a life of faith but for anyone interested in making their world better. I think Chester Wenger shows us the way.

CW: I wanted to study Bible and I got, first, a Bachelor of Arts and then I got a Bachelor of Theology. I was very interested in getting all the training I could.

MG: Wenger lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, another Mennonite enclave, in a little house just off the turnpike where he and his wife Sarah Jane brought up their 8 children. Wenger has a barrel chest, straight back, real handshake, big head of white hair. He looks a little like a cross between Colonel Sanders and an NFL linebacker. He’s 98 years old. This is the part of the evening that I remember the most, at the very end of several hours in his tiny living room. It nearly brought me to tears.

CW: I had a verse that I thought I wanted to read from Romans, it’s very familiar, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ Jesus, it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” Notice how broad that is.

MG: Let me start with a few more words about Mennonites because what Wenger did makes no sense unless you understand the world that he inhabits. The theologian Palmer Becker has a lovely phrase to describe the Mennonite way, “Jesus is the center of our faith, community is the center of our lives, reconciliation is the center of our work.”

It’s hard to explain to an outsider how seriously the Mennonites take these three things: Jesus, community, and reconciliation. They don’t use the word “community,” for example, in the metaphorical way like most of us do. You know, “I’m a member of the journalist community.” To Mennonites, community is a much more serious thing. Listen to my friend Jim Loepp Thiessen, who’s a Mennonite pastor.

JLT: In my dad’s church growing up it was, uh, very strict. He told me, at one point, that if people didn’t believe you were giving 10% of your income to the church, they have the right to audit your books and he said that without any recrimination or any condemnation and even a bit of humor. He was like, “And so my books got audited twice,” by his good friend and neighbor up the road.

MG: How did it, how on earth, what did that conversation happen? The treasurer came to him and said, “We don’t think you’re giving enough“?

JLT: Absolutely. And, and I have a really high view of the church, uh, and, you know, you speak on behalf of the church and we’ve all submitted to this so it’s not like I’m submitting to something that you haven’t, so we’re all in this together.

MG: Yeah.

JLT: And we’re all trying to be as faithful as we can be.

MG: That business of auditing each other’s books, that’s from 50 or 60 years ago, a different era, but I think it gives you a flavor of what Mennonites mean when they say, “We’re all in this together.” When I was a kid, just after we moved to Canada from England, we heard about a barn raising not far from us. When a Mennonite farmer’s barn burns down, the people from church gather as soon as they can, bring food and building materials and anything else to replace what was lost, and they build a new barn. Frame it up one day, put it up the next.

My parents were Presbyterians, but my father found the idea of a barn raising incredibly impressive, so he crashed it. You have to understand that these were what were called Old Order Mennonites, like the Amish. They drove horses and buggies and lived without electricity. My dad was a college professor in a rusty Peugeot, with an impenetrable English accent and a shirt and a tie. They’d never seen him or anything like him before. They just put him to work, no questions asked. “We’re all in this together.” Eventually, my parents would join the Mennonite church and my brother would marry a Mennonite pastor and I suspect that sense of community is why. There’s something beautiful about that kind of belonging.

One more Mennonite story from my friend Jim Loepp Thiessen, this might even be the quintessential Mennonite story. About a guy who buys a house from another Mennonite whom, of course, he trusted.

JLT: He bought the house and find out that, in fact, he’d been lied to. So, on either side of this man were two men from a Mennonite church. One of them said to him, “Did he tell you that the septic system was in good shape?” And he said, “Yes, he did.” He said, “And you have to fix it?” He said, “Yeah, I have to replace it completely.” It was $12,000 or something.

MG: A septic system, one of the most expensive things in a house.

JLT: He said, “Well, here’s $4000 for that. What he did wasn’t right and he goes to our church,” and the guy on the other side said, hum, “I’ll pay whatever he didn’t pay.” So they, together, covered it. He said, “He goes to our church and that isn’t right.”

MG: This is the world Chester Wenger inhabits. He’s squarely in the middle of it. Wenger’s father was one of the founders of a big Mennonite seminary in Virginia. His daughter, Sarah, is the president of the big Mennonite seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. Wenger lives 17 years in Ethiopia, where he helped to found and build what is now the largest Mennonite church in the world.

MG: So deep ties.

CW: Deep ties.

MG: You guys are Mennonite royalty, basically.

[Laughs]

MG: In Hans Frei’s terms, Wenger is an orthodox Mennonite, a member of the Blossom Hill congregation in Lancaster.
 But there’s another side to him. Mennonites come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. My parent’s church in Ontario was pretty liberal, full of college professors and software engineers and teachers. My mom and her best friend, Lorrain, were doing feminist retreats back in the 70’s. But Lancaster County, where Wenger is from, is much more conservative. The Mennonites there didn’t accept women as ordained ministers until a couple of years ago and that was something that Wenger struggles with because he’s not just orthodox, he’s generous, he’s open to the world. He spent 10 years as pastor of Blossom Hill in the 1980s, so when it came to the prohibition against female pastors, Wenger would do a kind of work around. The rules said women could not be ordained as ministers, meaning they couldn’t be formally recognized as church leaders, but they could still talk on Sunday morning, right?

CW: I used women in the pulpit that weren’t ordained. I, I’d preach and then, next Sunday, I’d have this woman preach, and then I’d have my wife preach. I didn’t want to do all the preaching.

[Laughs]

MG: If no one questions your loyalty, you can get away with that kind of subversion. Chester Wenger walked that fine line, orthodox but also generous, until one day Chester’s son, Philip, comes to him and the line becomes almost impossible to walk at all.

More in a moment, after this break.

Now back to our story.

CW: Growing up, I had no awareness of homosexuality anywhere. I remember, somewhere along the line, maybe when I was early adolescent, they talked about a cousin of mine but I didn’t, I didn’t know what they were talking about.

MG: The question of whether someone might be gay simply never occurred to him. And it goes without saying that a community that did not permit the ordination of woman until quite recently did not have progressive views on homosexuality. But one day, Philip pulled his father aside.

MG: What did he tell you?

CW: I don’t know the words he used but, uh, I, I understood that he had attraction for males instead of females. And I said, “Maybe you can outgrow this.” And, uh, so that’s, that’s where we left it. And about a year later, he came back and said, “Dad, I haven’t outgrown it.” And so, we had this awareness that he’s, that’s who he is.

MG: So Phil goes off to college. He comes home; he brings up the subject again.

Phil: And I came to him and I explained to him ten minutes before I was going to drive back to college in Virginia.

MG: That’s Phil; he’s in the room with me and Chester, sitting across from his father.

Phil: That, “Dad, this is for real. I’m gonna identify as being gay, I’m going to tell other people I’m gay, I’m going to date other guys. And you know, you’re gonna have to get used to this.”

MG: As word got out in Lancaster, the consequences were immediate. Phil had a job with the church, he lost it. He was instructed to come in and confess his sins. He refused. Chester Wenger had a position in the Mennonite administration in Lancaster at the time and attended a local Mennonite church. One Sunday morning, the pastor got up and made an announcement.

CW: He just read off in church one day that Phil Wenger is no longer a member of our congregation and we didn’t know it.

MG: He didn’t approach you first?

CW: We, we didn’t know that he was doing that and Phil hadn’t had contact with him either or him with Phil and I couldn’t believe it.

Phil: It was unilateral and I wasn’t part of the conversation and the deed was already done. And at that point, my faith had pretty much diminished to next to nothing and I was going to proceed with a life outside the traditional church community.

MG: Think about this through Chester Wenger’s eyes. He can accept his son’s sexuality but his own church, the church to which he’s been loyal all his life, that church has now cast his son out. His orthodoxy is in conflict with his generosity and his son is caught in the middle. Can you imagine? Not just the pain but the guilt. He gave his life to a church that said, “We’re all in this together,” and now that church has split his family in two.

CW: I always told Phil that, uh, “Your faith is most important to me.” That, “Don’t give up faith in Jesus.”

MG: Phil went on to start a successful restaurant business. At one point, some years ago, he goes back to his high school reunion and there, some of his old classmates confront him and tell him they would never eat one of his restaurants. Phil tells his mother.

CW: And you told her all this and she said to you, “Don’t give up on Jesus.”

MG: He’s sitting in his chair, straight back, 98 years old, Colonel Sanders meets a linebacker, a man of God. And as Chester Wenger talks about that moment years ago, when he worried that his son’s soul was in jeopardy, he starts to weep.

CW: And I guess there was no expression at that point particularly, but as he went to go out the door, he gave a broad smile that touched her heart and it touched mine, “Don’t give up on Jesus,” and he, he seemed to accept it with a smile. And I, that, that touched us very deeply.

MG: At the beginning of this story, I said that balancing loyalty and conscience is just about the hardest thing to do. Let me give you another example. It’s not as wrenching as Chester Wenger’s story, but it gets at some of the same issues.

It’s from Princeton University, one of the schools that’s been swept up in the recent wave of campus unrest. The controversy is over Woodrow Wilson, who was president of Princeton from 1902 to 1910 and, of course, later went on to serve two terms as president of the United States. Princeton named one of its most prestigious graduate schools after him, The Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Wilson did many remarkable and important things as the head of Princeton and later as president, but he was a racist, and not a mild one, a kind of nasty one. So in the fall of 2015, activists at the school stage a 32-hour sit-in in the office of the Princeton president. They want Wilson’s name off the graduate school.

Wilglory Tanjong: Woodrow Wilson perpetuated an ideology that has led to the continuous genocide of Black people in this country. He is a murderer, we owe him nothing. This university owes us everything […]

MG: Jacob Smith, one of my producers, talked to one of the protestors, a sophomore named Wilglory Tanjong. The promise of Princeton, she argues, is that all its students will feel at home, this campus is for you. But everywhere she goes, she sees pictures of Wilson everywhere.

WT: Even in the most random places. There are rooms that have just all these huge photos of this White man peering down on you, right. So, um, when you see these kind of things, you really feel like, “Was this university meant for me or is it still really meant for White men?”

MG: Now I happen to agree with Tanjong. How do you think Princeton became one of the wealthiest universities in the world? The place is ground zero for rich, White guys. Just walk around campus. There is the Carl Icahn Laboratory, that’s Carl Icahn, rich, White male corporate raider billionaire. There’s the Frick Chemistry Laboratory, that’s Henry Clay Frick, White, male robber baron. The Firestone Library, that’s the rich, White guy who started Firestone Tires. The Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics, you know, the rich, White guy who founded Amazon. Look over there, it’s the Lewis Center for the Arts, that’s Peter Lewis, the White guy who started Progressive Insurance. The John Sculley Center for the Neuroscience of Mind and Behavior, Sculley, a rich, White guy. Not to be confused, by the way, with the other John Sculley, a rich, White guy who used to run Apple. This is the even richer John Sculley who manages billions of dollars on Wall Street. Do I need to go on? Rockefeller Hall, richest White guy ever! Of course, there’s also Emma B. Bloomberg Hall, Emma Bloomberg, not a White guy, except, wait, she’s the daughter of Michael Bloomberg, super, super, like $43 billion, rich, White guy. They don’t hide their identities at Princeton; they put their identities on every single building on campus.

A few weeks after the students’ sit in, there is a town hall meeting on the Princeton campus to discuss whether or not to change the name of the Wilson school.

Protestor: I really hope that people really think about why we are so tied to this name, like, what really changes if we change the name?

MG: It was held at the Richardson Auditorium, lots of dark wood and stone, tapestries on the wall. By the way, a building named in honor of David B. Richardson, class of ’33, usefully described in the Princeton promotional literature as, I quote, “lifelong enthusiast of classical music and a successful lawyer and investor.” Another rich, White guy! Think about it, Princeton literally could not find a single place to discuss the troubled legacy of a rich, White guy that was not named after a rich, White guy. Here’s the first guy who gets up to speak.

Harvey Rothberg: I’m Harvey Rothberg, class of, the great class of 1949. I absolutely believe that the name of Woodrow Wilson should be preserved at the head of the school of public and international affairs.

MG: Rothberg says, “It’s important that everyone know who Wilson was and what the man did.”

HR: There could be a memorial plaque, uh, engraved in bronze and so on, which would detail, in a short paragraph, his great achievements as president of this university and, in a second paragraph, his great achievements as president of the United States and on the international scene as well. But there could also be a final paragraph, uh, short one, which would say something like, “Wilson’s prejudiced views on racial matters were undoubtedly influenced and shaped by his background and his growing up in the postbellum south.”

MG: Then another alum gets up and he agrees.

Unknown: He’s a giant; you can’t just take his name off, uh, schools or colleges, we have to keep them. All people are flawed.

MG: He also likes the plaque idea. But this speaker has a quibble with the short paragraph about prejudice.

Unknown: I think it can’t just say Wilson was influenced by the prevailing mores of the time because a man of his stature should’ve seen beyond that. And I think the plaque has to acknowledge that real harm was caused to real people.

MG: This is what the protesters are up against. I mean, can you believe these guys? When Wilson took office as president, the Federal Civil Service was one of the only institutions in Washington that was integrated; Blacks had jobs next to Whites. One of the first things Wilson does is reverse that policy. Lots of Black federal workers get fired and it becomes really hard for educated African-Americans to get a job in Washington. And when a delegation of Black professionals comes to him to complain, you know what he says to them? “Segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.” This is the guy Princeton venerates. And the thing that the first two speakers are arguing about is the wording of the last paragraph of the plaque they wanna put up, the plaque, as if the whole controversy were really just an exercise in improving signage. For goodness sake, take the man’s name down! If you don’t want to change the school’s stationery, just choose another Wilson. There are lots of Wilsons out there who don’t hate black people. Jackie, Rita, Russell, Flip, Rebel, Owen, how about the Owen Wilson School of Public and International Affairs?

But the only way people like this are going to listen to the protesters is if they think the protestors care about Princeton, care about Princeton the way it is. They’ll accept generosity only if it comes with some orthodoxy. They want some acknowledgement that the protestors appreciate what they’ve been given; some concession that the rich, White guys who make them so uncomfortable also made it possible for them to attend a school that looks like Versailles if Versailles, by some accident of history, had been built not outside of Paris but between Trenton and Newark, New Jersey. But instead, what do they hear?

WT: This university owes us everything. I walk around this campus understanding that this was built on the backs of my people and I owe none of you guys anything. We owe White people nothing. If not for the, for the evilness and of White hatred in this country, we would not have to be fighting for our rights. All of this is mine. My people built this place.

MG: She’s angry, she’s passionate. Maybe right now she regrets her choice of words. When I was an angry young student a generation ago, I ended up regretting my words, but I went to school before every emotional outburst got immortalized on YouTube. And those words are what every crotchety old Princeton alum heard when they went online. “All of this is mine.” How do you think they felt when they heard that, or some version of this?

WT: I don’t feel welcomed. When you walk around this campus and you see the name Woodrow Wilson on the graduate building, right?

MG: Wilglory Tanjong complaining about the privileged White guys peering down on her. But she chose to go to Princeton, ground zero for the privileged White guy. It’s not like the school covered over the names on those buildings when she came for her campus visit. She’s basically saying that, “The school I chose to attend, the school that makes no attempt to hide what it is and what it stands for is not, I suddenly realize, a place that makes me feel comfortable and so I want to change it.” These are not arguments that are going to convince anyone.

I don’t need to tell you what happens. After a decent interval, a few months later, the Wilson legacy review committee comes out with the university’s decision. The head of the committee says, “At the end of the day, what we learned was that Wilson was a complicated and flawed individual, but when you look at the pluses and minuses, we didn’t feel that the minuses were enough to eliminate his name.” A whitewash.

Here’s what the protesters should have done instead. They should have said, “Wilson’s name makes it so uncomfortable that we’re not coming back next semester unless you change it. And we’re gonna tell other prospective Princeton students, minority and otherwise, to do the same.” Instead of talking about what they were owed by Princeton, they should have talked about what they were willing to give up for Princeton. “I am willing to give up my position at the New Jersey Versailles in order to make the school a better place. That’s how much I care about Princeton.” Generosity mixed with orthodoxy.

Now, would that have worked? I have no idea. But the best and brightest standing up and saying, “I’m giving up my place at one of the world’s great universities in order to save it from itself,” certainly has a better shot than a sleepover in the president’s office. Yes, it would have been a costly strategy; it would have required a real sacrifice. That’s why generous orthodoxy is so hard.

When he was 29, Phil Wenger fell in love with a man named Steve. They have been together ever since. Then, about 10 years ago, Gene Robinson became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church and Phil and Steve found themselves a new spiritual home.

Phil: I was confirmed and joined the Episcopal Church and I invited Mom and Dad to come and participate in that service and a couple of other siblings came. And after I rejoined the church, my father could hardly stop weeping his tears of joy.

MG: When the state of Pennsylvania legalized gay marriage in 2014, Phil and Steve raced down to the courthouse to apply for their marriage license. There were the second in line.

Phil: And the couple in front of us offered to let us go first but we let them go first because we knew each other.

MG: Then, they had a big party at the Hamilton Club in downtown Lancaster as they waited for their marriage certificate, invited 400 people. Phil’s Rector, from the St. James Episcopal Church, performed the ceremony. Phil had his father say a blessing at the end.

Phil: But afterward, he shared with me that he sort of was a little bit envious that I had not asked him to actually marry us. So as soon as we got the wedding certificate and as soon as I knew we were gonna get married, I went to Dad. I said, “Would you be willing to do this officially, sign our, our wedding certificate, our marriage certificate and would you be willing to do the vows with the two of us?”

MG: They gathered in Phil’s backyard, Phil, Steve, two witnesses, Chester and his wife, Sarah Jane. I asked Chester Wegner about that day. Why would it matter to him that someone else would officiate at his son’s wedding?

CW: He tell me that the mayor offered to marry him. Well, I was his father and I was an ordained clergy in our church and that… I didn’t say a word, I just waited, waited quietly. And when he asked, I said, “Sure.” So that was appreciated, he let me do that and sign the certificate.

MG: With that act, Chester Wegner made his family whole. He welcomed his son back into the fold of family and religious community. But he knew what that meant. It meant that he had broken the rules of his own church, which do not acknowledge same-sex marriages. There was no work around this time, like when he had women preach in the pulpit at Blossom Hill.

CW: They had the discipline and so they lifted my credentials.

MG: He was no longer a Mennonite pastor.

MG: You had credentials as a clergyman for… How many years?

CW: Since 1948.

MG: How did it you feel to be stripped of them?

CW: It didn’t make any difference to me because I’m, I’m the same person I am, I am a respected in my congregation, I don’t intend to marry anybody else, I don’t intend to be an authority for anyone, I just have a heritage, a life that I’ve lived. So, they took away something that I’ll never use anyway.

Phil: I did think you might wanna marry one of your great grandchildren someday.

[Laughs]

MG: He laughs, but of course it made a difference to him. It made all the difference in the world. He gave up his profession, his position within the church, his identity so he could officiate at the marriage of his son. He sacrificed; he gave something up because his son had been excluded from the world of church and family. For a Mennonite, the most grievous kind of harm.

CW: And he’s my child, he’s my son, precious, precious child.

MG: Then, Chester Wenger wrote his letter. An open letter to the Mennonite church, the letter that went viral, written by the man who wasn’t even sure what viral meant. It’s a long letter but here are the two sentences that struck me the most. “When my wife and I read the Bible with today’s fractured anxious church in mind, we ask, ‘What is Jesus calling us to do with those sons and daughters who are among the most despised people in the world in all races and communities? What would Jesus do with our sons and daughters who are bullied, homeless, sexually abused, and driven to suicide at far higher rates than our heterosexual children?’”

That’s generous Chester Wenger, open to seeing the world in new ways. But there’s no anger in his letter. Alongside the generosity, is orthodoxy, respect for the body he is trying to heal.

He goes on to say that he reported his transgression to the church leadership himself. He told them what he’d done and they responded and these are his words, “With grace-filled pastoral listening.” And then he writes, “I am at peace with their decision and understand their need to take this action.”

Chester Wenger is going to win. Maybe not right away, but he’ll win because he makes plain not just how beautiful generous orthodoxy is, but how powerful, which is something that everyone who stands up in protests needs to remember. You must respect the body you’re trying to heal.

Were you going read something to us, Chester?

CW: I had a verse that I thought I wanted to read from Romans, it’s very familiar, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ Jesus, it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” The gospel is so good. I just think that’s so precious.