I’m Mennonite… and Finally Became Anabaptist: Embracing our Mission to Post-Christian America

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I’m a Mennonite.

Yes, it’s true.  Mennonite even in the “ethnic” sense.  In fact, I often say that I have more of a family wreath than a family tree because both sides of my lineage link to the Mennonite Brethren from Prussia.  I actually broke the wreath by marrying a Russian Molokan turned evangelical – but that’s beside the point.

For most of my life, my Anabaptist Mennonite heritage was more filled with culture than the biblical values that drew this group of radical reformers together in the midst of the Reformation.  Sure, we told stories about our people fleeing peacefully from the persecuting sword in the dark of night, but for most people I interacted with – values like peacemaking, social justice, and empire subversion became the butt of many jokes.  We mostly had become mainstream American Evangelicals, with really good food and stories.  The Anabaptist way seemed outdated.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that this seemingly obsolete perspective on the discipleship way of Jesus began to draw me in.  I’m convinced that my Anabaptist roots offer something to a growing segment of culture that is burnt out on religion and suspicious of the so-called power-brokers of the world.  Interestingly enough, the days of the institutional church being the dominant influence in society is quickly fading (often called “Christendom”).[1]

For many outsiders, the church is seen as oppressive to culture.  Personally, I think that the Anabaptist movement offers a counter-story to the negative aspects of Christianity that have dominated since the days of Constantine, when the church and state married each other. Non-Christians associate Christianity with power, greed, oppression, televangelists, and scandal – but us Anabaptists have a better story to tell!

In Europe, the transition of the church being recognized as a main force in society is about a decade ahead of American culture.  Where we in the States are seeing this transition take place in urbanized regions, this is almost normative throughout the U.K.  The Anabaptist movement is on the rise across the pond, as evidenced by Stuart Murray’s prolific book, The Naked Anabaptist – The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith.  Many people are drawn to our Jesus-centered way of faith as they try to discern what it means to express Christian community as a minority group in their secularized context. New Christians, from what some refer to as “Post-Christian” situations, are drawn toward seven core convictions that reflect our historical story.  Murray summarizes[2] them as:

  1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord.Christ invites us to follow him in all parts of life, by his example as we worship him.
  2. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation.Jesus as revealed in the Scriptures is the center from which all interpretation flows.
  3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era.Culture no longer will be dominated by the church, giving believers an opportunity to evangelize in new ways from the margins of society rather than the center.
  4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness.This is not to say that one cannot be rich and a Christian, but that we can be known for our identification with the poor and suffering of our world.
  5. Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship.In an age of individualism, Anabaptists model a communal faith that fosters spiritual gifts and authentic relationships.
  6. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected.In an age of consumerism, Jesus calls us to simplicity, justice for the poor, and generosity.
  7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel.Nonviolence, as modeled by Jesus, is evidence of the good news of the kingdom.

I want to invite a brief look at the final value of peacemaking and touch on a few others along the way.  As our society becomes more secular and cynical of the institutional church, the nonviolent way of Jesus will be an entry point for those who don’t yet know Christ.  I want to suggest that this single conviction, which Anabaptist Christ-followers are tempted to dismiss as impractical, relates to many people who think the church is hungry for power and supportive of war.  We Anabaptists, have the opportunity to leverage our distinct perspective on violence and power as a catalyst to draw people to the resurrected Christ.

During times of persecution, nonviolent resistance made sense, but in this day of security and prosperity in the USA, many are convinced that violence is sometimes necessary.  Jesus couldn’t have possibly meant that violence is always wrong – he’s too smart for that! We appeal to common sense and in the process read the difficult texts of the New Testament through this grid.  I should know – I grew up believing this logical approach to interpretation.

The pushback goes further: War is inevitable.  People who are innocent need someone to defend them.  Therefore, Jesus’ teachings must be an “ideal” or only talking about self-defense, not the defense of one’s neighbor.  Yet, although we may wish it otherwise, Jesus clearly states that all violence is contrary to his call into discipleship.  Scholarship is now bending in the Anabaptist direction as well.  One translation renders Jesus’ words: “But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil!” (Matthew 5.39).[3] Jesus not only commanded us to live by such a high standard, but modeled these words by carrying a cross, showing us that self-sacrificial love doesn’t cling to the sword.

For most of my life, nonviolence seemed so irrational that I thought: This couldn’t be what Jesus actually meant? This defies all common sense!  In fact, it’s foolishness! After finally embracing my Anabaptist roots, I now realize that accepting nonviolence doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.  Yet believing such may offer something to the world that it’s starving to find, a counter-cultural kingdom community that operates so differently that it’s attractive.  Many in our society, who continue to see the destructive effects of militarism, are ready for an alternative paradigm.  Power leads to corruption; Jesus leads to peacemaking, social equality, justice, and Spirit-led possibilities!  May we with Anabaptism in our blood and those who we would call sisters and brothers choose to carry our cross for the sake of the world.  In the days ahead, we may find that the way of peace, justice, and empire subversion is actually a bridge to leading many in this Post-Christian culture to a relationship with Jesus Christ.

 

*** For a full treatment of Jesus and the New Testament’s perspective on Nonviolence, see “Nonviolence 101.”  On Nationalism, see “Whose Jesus, Which Lord? Jesus and Nationalism.”


[1] Christendom is a term used to describe the church as a dominant and sometimes militant cultural influence.  A simple explanation of Christendom is: the church in the center of society rather than offering an alternative way of life from the margins.  Christendom’s reality began with Constantine and is fading slowing in the West during our time.  This is referred to as “post-Christendom” by missiologists.

[2] See: The Naked Anabaptist, 45-46.  There you will find a fuller treatment of each of these statements.

[3] The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation.  (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011).

  • Mike Ward

    Thanks for this; it is an interesting read.

    You and I have fundamental differences in opinion, but I think these kinds of differences are interesting to think about and discuss.

    My journey is somewhat in the opposite direction. I grew up in an independent Christian Church and a Disciples of Christ church, but joined a non-institutional Church of Christ when I was 18. I now attend a mainline Church of Christ.

    Though I’ve covered the whole spectrum, I’ve always belonged to Restoration Movement churches. Having never left my “heritage” I find myself looking beyond it for the first time.

    Also, even though I was never an absolute pacifists, I was much more strongly pacifistic in my 20′s and was a no-kill pacifist for a long time, but I’ve become more pragmatic over the past decade. My approach to scripture has become more subjective for lack of a better word, and I see things as much less black and white.

    I suppose I’ve gravitated more towards consequentialism and situation ethics, but I hesitate to use those terms because I don’t think either precisely describes me and sometimes once you get a label, people start thinking you believe things you really don’t.

    I would have appriciated the anabaptists perspective a lot more ten (or even 5) years ago. Now, I can be somewhat hostile toward both anabaptist pacifism and separatism.

    I hope I never become unkind. I try to be an agree to disagree kind of guy, but sometimes fundmental philosphical differences lead to very practical points of disagreement. If an anabaptist choses to allow someone to suffer because they cannot stop the suffering without using violence then I cannot help but be angry about that even though intellectually I can appreciate that from the anabaptist perspective the decision not to use violence is not only justifiable but fundamentally good.

  • http://twitter.com/awgonnerman Adam Gonnerman

    Very nice post. My intro to nonviolence came through Walter Wink’s “The Powers That Be,” though I’d really recommend to newcomers his “Jesus and Nonviolence” book, which I’m currently reading. 
    http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Nonviolence-Third-Way-Facets/dp/0800636090

  • http://thesidos.blogspot.com/ Arthur Sido

    Very interesting Kurt. Like Mike Ward, I am coming at this from a different direction, coming from a more traditional evangelical church and coming to appreciate Anabaptism and embrace much of it as a better way than the institutional church of Western evangelicalism.

  • JM

    Great job, Kurt. Of course, I disagree with this comment:

    “Yet, although we may wish it otherwise, Jesus clearly states that all violence is contrary to his call into discipleship.”

    Jesus does not state such a categorical imperative “clearly”…unless you’re going to be consistent and say he “clearly” believes in dismemberment and eye-gouging. He stated that His followers should do those things to deal with sin just as “clearly.” Yet you and other nonviolence proponents surely recognize his use of hyperbole and rhetorical context in such cases.

    Of course recognizing this doesn’t automatically mean that Jesus was a Just-War proponent by any means. But it avoids the absolutism that I think nonviolence proponents err by insisting upon.

    My 2 denarii,
    JM

  • John ED Patton

    Awesome proclamation of reclamation! The Ana-baptist and minority baptists are best in their counter cultural strands! I typically refer to myself as “Barely Baptist,” but it is not catching on yet!

  • http://OurRabbiJesus.com/ Lois Tverberg

    Reading Jesus in light of rabbinic thought, I really don’t think that he should be understood as advocating complete nonviolence any more than he was advocating hating one’s father and mother. (Just posted a blog on the technique of rabbinic exaggeration at OurRabbiJesus.com)

    In The Jewish Book of Ethics, by Joseph Telushkin, he describes how during WW2, Gandhi advocated complete pacifism and wrote an open letter to the people of England advocating their laying down of arms against Hitler. He points out that if the Allies had followed his advice, “the Nazi’s would have defeated the worlds democracies, murdered every Jew alive, and ruled the world.” See his essay, “Who is wise?” at goo.gl/mgVW6.

    David Bivin also has a very good article called, “Jesus’ View of Pacifism” at JerusalemPerspective.com.

    • Mike Ward

      I think this is a very good point.

      Especially considering that Jesus does not say not to use violence in the Sermon on the Mount. He makes the much stronger statement of not using resistance.

      Jesus only singles out “violent” resistance if you use Tom Wright’s translation.

      But even using Wright’s translation, Jesus gives us not one, nor two, but THREE applications which illustrate not merely complete submission, but actually going beyond complete submission to doing more than your oppressor demands: not passive-resistance, not non-resistance, ultra-non-resistance!

      (I’ve seen a very tortuered attempt to explain how turning the other cheek is an act of passive resistance, but I haven’t seen so much as a feeble attempt to interpret walking twice as far as you are told to or giving up twice as much clothing as demanded as acts of resistance.)

      I believe Jesus’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, but I don’t take them to an absolute degree.

      Neo-anabaptist who follow the anabaptist tradition of non-violence but not non-resistance are following part of the message of Matthew 5:38-42 to an absolute degree while ignoring most of it.

      I think the real model for neo-anabaptist pacifism is Gandhi more than Jesus.

      • Mike Ward

        Shut my mouth! I just found really tortured arguments to turn the other two applications into a form of resistance on of all places Wikipedia. I guess I should not be surprised.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      Hi @1e18dea70dd7432db120afbb26a83bc8:disqus … as you know, we agree on lots of things.  On this area… we part ways… which is ok :-)

      I think that you and @52d277c6e69ac196829d230ef4c3a7a2:disqus  bring up the point of rabbinic hyperbole and it is something that should be addressed.  I don’t plan to defend my view here in its entirety… I’ve already done that in a series called “Nonviolence 101″… but have to say that the early church witness is enough to verify Jesus words as more than hyperbolic exaggeration.  For 3 centuries the church of Jesus refused to use violence for self defense or the defense of neighbor, believing that Jesus Paul and the early church writers believed the the New Covenant had indeed ushered in something that the prophets of old had longed for: shalom.

      Also, it should be noted that scholars such as NT Wright, Richard Hays, John Howard Yoder, and Greg Boyd… pay very close attention to Hebraic influence and still come out believing that the significant portions of the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12 (and elsewhere) all use language that points to peacemaking and nonviolent resistance.  Jesus also uses hyperbolic language, but the call to love your enemies and the verses in that section are certainly not part of them. 

      I would add that if we are not careful in how we discern hyperbole, other moral teachings of Jesus in the SoM can become relativized quite quickly.  

      In all honesty, it is a post-Constantinian lens fueled by questions of WWII and American imperialism that cloud our vision on this central component of Jesus’ discipleship call.  A  helpful resource on this is: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/2011/12/30/introducing-christian-nonviolence-two-resources-for-the-interested-and-skeptical/

      Thanks to both JM and Lois for your comments but I just can’t dismiss a non hyperbolic text as hyperbole.  Certainly this device is used, but we can’t simply apply it to the “uncomfortable” passages to justify what seems right to us.  I must kindly agree to disagree… in love.

      • http://OurRabbiJesus.com/ Lois Tverberg

        Thanks for your kind and thoughtful reply, Kurt.

        In our discussion on my blog (http://goo.gl/NtjX0) I explained that to say that a statement contains hyperbole doesn’t mean that we can just ignore it. To the contrary, it shows how strongly Jesus was emphasizing his point. His words here are still in red letters, and I’d put them in bold too.

        I agree completely with commenters who have been pointing out that many attempts have been made to twist “turn the other
        cheek” and its parallels into some kind clever, sneaky way to defeat
        one’s opponent. These explanations always involve a kind of tortured logic. It seems much more reasonable to interpret “turn the other cheek” as an overstatement that emphasizes the idea of returning good for evil, rather than to spin it around to make it say the opposite.

        In Bivin’s article, he interprets Jesus as saying “Do not retaliate against evil” rather than “Do not resist evil.” To not take revenge fits better with Paul’s sermon in Romans 12, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil”… “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Telling us not to retaliate is quite a difficult command in itself. But to not resist evil at all is to let evil run wild, unopposed. It doesn’t just endanger yourself, it endangers everyone around you.

        If every situation was only an isolated attack on me personally, I could agree with the idea of laying down my life to be a peacemaker. But this isn’t often the situation. A mugger who shoots one victim will likely move on to find another. The ethic of nonviolence seems to be based in an individualism that only thinks about evil against oneself, rather than other potential victims. But Leviticus 19:16 says, “Do not stand by when your brother’s blood is being shed.” This means that when another person’s life is endangered, we are obligated to stop an attacker.

        In whatever ways it’s possible to resist evil with non-violence, I wholeheartely agree with you. But I honestly don’t see how Jesus could advocate complete non-resistance to evil any more than he could expect his followers to pluck out a sinful eye.

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    Great stuff Kurt! While I still value my Mennonite heritage, it has been my sorry observation that the Mennonite Church as a whole has split into opposing camps, one that’s abandoned Anabaptist distinctives and the other that’s abandoned Jesus as anything but an inspirational role model. These are caricatures to be sure, but I bet you know what I mean.

    So I consider myself Anabaptist -influenced, but I’m no Mennonite.

  • http://kingdomseeking.wordpress.com/ K. Rex Butts

    I became a disciple of Jesus Christ because I was drawn to a p/t youth minister who I saw as actually taking the life of Jesus seriously in the way he strove to live his own life.  It so happens that that youth minister was studying for a PhD in Christian Ethics at Notre Dame under the late John Howard Yoder.  Since becoming a disciple, I have, among many things, gone from being a strong Patriotic (= nationalist) and war supporter to one who believes the only power suitable for the Christian is the cross (not the sword).

    Ironically, my own tribe, the Churches of Christ and the larger Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, began as a movement that was very Anabaptist in it view of Christianity and civil government.  That, of course, changed during WWI but now that we are a decade into the 21st century, there is a growing trend back towards such Anabaptist roots.

    Any ways, keep preaching and teaching the way of Jesus.  Jesus and his cross is the only means of showing our world the alternative to its darkness.

    Grace and Peace,

    Rex 

  • Ryan Robinson

    I’m completely with you on everything you’ve said, Kurt. I’m not a cultural Mennonite – was raised in the United Church of Canada and mostly still attend there primarily for lack of a good Anabaptist church in my area. About 3 years ago I found myself more and more drawn to the Anabaptist understanding, particularly on non-violence, and for the past year I’ve proudly called myself an Anabaptist. I wrestled with all of the objections seen here in the comments and more and found that as somebody who tries to take the Bible and particularly Jesus seriously, I couldn’t escape the conclusion that Jesus was trying to institute something radically different than the lie of redemptive violence or even the politically-logical Just War Theory. Then I look at those like King and Gandhi and I’m not even convinced that Just War Theory is really all effective as people assume – it’s good at relocating violence onto your enemies or at delaying violence, but I’ve become convinced that you can never really stop violence with violence. I’d particularly recommend “War of the Lamb” by John Howard Yoder et al on the last point but there are a lot of great books debunking Just War Theory.

    • Mike Ward

      What is “the lie of redemptive violence”?

      • Ryan Robinson

        The idea that violence can be redeemed through more violence: if somebody has done something violently wrong, then the way to solve it is to do something violent back.

        • Mike Ward

          In that case everyone I know believes the “lie”.  When someone comments a violent crime we put them in prison which is an act of violence against the criminal. I’m sure there is a small minority of people that believe that criminals should not be incarcerated, but I’ve never met one so I think it is an extremely rare postion.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

        @671e3eae3e90ae08c3a2f1bd39e8dc7d:disqus … part of my series Nonviolence 101 had a post on this.  here it is: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/2011/02/16/nonviolence-101-jesus-is-irrational-2-myths-christian-nation-redemptive-violence-part-7/

        • Mike Ward

          Thanks! I’m working through that series now. So I’ll wait intil I get to his one in order.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @google-739db969c8ed9298abe188347ed3411c:disqus … thanks for your comment… we are quite like minded!

  • Anonymous

    I was baptized catholic, then attended evangelical church for years, then I started reading about anabaptists, mennonites, quakers, christian pacifism, christian anarchism, and the like. I attended a few sundays a mennonite church in Bogotá, and in April 2010 I moved to Buenos Aires (Argentina) where I’ve been participating in a quite liberal-urban (and very small) mennonite church. As you’ll note, I’m not in any way an ethnic mennonite, but for  a long time I’ve liked what the anabaptist heritage has to offer in terms of non-violent action, church-state relation and christian ethics.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @mountainguy:disqus … great comment, thanks!

  • Scott Harris

    Thank you for this, Kurt. Here is a question for you:

    It is election season and both Democrats like our President and almost all of the Republican candidates are clearly devoted to engaging the U.S. in war. What is a Christian devoted to non-violence to do? What should a U.S. Christian devoted to non-violence take into account when voting?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @google-57da132483446fb492250dd732ed9848:disqus … thanks for your comment. In this situation as in every voting season I ask the question: “What will alleviate the most suffering?”  I hate war, but every president on both sides in the last couple decades has had a violent worldview (maybe not in jargon but certainly in actions to one level or another).  And Pres Obama for all his jargon about being a citizen of the global community during the 08 election really has *barely* been less militant than bush.  However, I prefer his domestic policy and his approach to Israel (although not perfect) to the typical conservative (which is all the candidates). 

      Sure, Ron Paul is an exception in one sense (he would pull us out of all wars that are fought on foreign soil) but his domestic policy and his lack of aide to impoverished nations creates a system of social Darwinism.  So, unless I’m convicted otherwise I probably will cast my vote democratic as a “lesser evil” but as the best answer to my foundational question listed above.  Politics in America are kind of a joke, but my little vote to a ‘lesser evil’ seems like the only option outside of not voting at all… which, if given the opportunity I think Christians ought to vote when the governmental system of the day allows us to.

      I have to take into account each time that I’m pro-life consistently… from the womb to the tomb (anti-abortion, anti-violence, pro social justice, pro health care for everyone, pro domestic / foreign aide to the poor, etc.).  That is the grid through which I ask the initial question “What will alleviate the most suffering?”.

      • Scott Harris

        Wow, Kurt, thank you for that very helpful reply–much more than I was hoping for!

        I have been trying to doing similar things with my voting. Your question about what will alleviate the most suffering is similar to my question of what vote will most help in loving my neighbor as myself.

        • Scott Harris

           If you have a moment, one more question for you, Kurt:

          In what ways has Obama’s approach to Israel differed from the typical conservative approach?

      • Mike Ward

        Kurt said, “Sure, Ron Paul is an exception in one sense (he would pull us out of all wars that are fought on foreign soil) but his domestic policy and his lack of aide to impoverished nations creates a system of social Darwinism. So, unless I’m convicted otherwise I probably will cast my vote democratic as a ‘lesser evil’….”

        Hang on a second!

        If you had the opportunity to make a choice that would end US involvement in all wars, but at the cost of significant federal funding for domestic programs and foreign aid, you would chose war as the “lesser evil”!

        So war is never the answer, violence is never the answer, there are no exceptions, not even to prevent a murder or a rape, and those of us who believe that there are exceptions believe “the lie of redemptive violence,” but you get to make an expection and choose WAR over your social programs?

  • Anonymous

    ooo nice
    wctube


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