Gregory Boyd: “Mennonites: they’re in trouble”

A friend just sent me It turns out I’m a Mennonite! from the blog of Greg Boyd, a prominent dissenter in the mega-church movement. In July 2006 he was profiled in the New York Times after he lost 20% of the membership of his mega-church after refusing to endorse conservative political causes. He is author The Myth of a Christian Nation.

This past weekend Boyd was at Hesston College for a conference and found a connection with the Mennonite tradition. He says, “…on a deep level, it kind of felt like coming home.” In many ways his reflections echoes the stories told in Coming Home: Stories of British and Irish Anabaptists in which people from many different Christian traditions share how they connected with Anabaptism. I worked with many of these folks while in England and it was incredible to see the impact the Anabaptist tradition had on their lives. Boyd’s post has that same energy. It’s an energy that I see as critical to the future of Anabaptism, rather than be as part of the Mennonite church or an Anabaptist movement of people from many different denominations (as in the UK).

The difference between Boyd’s story and those of my friends in England is that Boyd also immediately discovered some of the shortcomings of the Mennonite tradition. I remember vividly the disbelief from British friends when I told them that more than half of Mennonites voted for Bush. This made no sense to them based on what they’d discovered as Anabaptist core convictions. Boyd put it this way:

But there was another very interesting thing I learned about the Mennonites: they’re in trouble. I heard this from a number of people, including John Roth. One man literally wept as he told me how he’s been grieved seeing Mennonites abandon their core vision of the Kingdom and core convictions over the last several decades. They’re losing their counter-cultural emphasis and becoming “Americanized” and “mainstreamed” (as various people told me). Consequently, many Mennonite leaders are getting involved in partisan politics in a way that goes against the Mennonite tradition. While Evangelicals tend to be co-opted by Right Wing politics, these leaders are being co-opted by Left Wing politics. They’re basically defining Kingdom social activism as supporting radical democratic policies. Yet, three fourths of Mennonites are Republican. Hence there’s growing tensions between the leadership and the body of the Mennonites.

Boyd’s framing of his concerns is similar to that of John D. Roth’s Speaking to Government: A Proposal for a Sabbatical from Politics. As with Roth’s presentation, I find Boyd’s questions raises very important questions for Mennonites, but it also lacks something when it comes to its description of political action and contrasting it with Mennonite core convictions.

First of all, where are the Mennonite leaders who are defining social activism as supporting radical Democratic policies? (I’m assuming Boyd is talking about the US political party). Are we talking here about people who occasionally sign MoveOn petitions? Are we talking about the Mennonite majority on the city council of Goshen, Indiana (including the editor of The Mennonite)? I’m not suggesting that there aren’t Mennonites jumping on the Democratic bandwagon, but I don’t think they represent the radical wing of the Mennonite church or Anabaptism more broadly.

Most radical Mennonites or Anabaptists I know are not involved with party politics. They are helping young people in Colombia find ways to stand up to the brutal tactics of military, guerrilla and paramilitary recruiters. They are shutting down DESO, a British government branch that subsidizes arms deals in the UK. They are involved in working alongside First Nations and indigenous people in Canada to protect their lands from exploitation from big business. They are working in Iraqi Kurdistan to train local peacemakers.

I guess I don’t see this type of “left wing” political action as incompatible with the core convictions of Mennonitism that Boyd describes. While some of these actions speak to government, none of these Anabaptist radicals are under any illusion that the Kingdom of God is to be found in an earthly kingdom. In his response to responses to his original call for a sabbatical, John Roth says:

…I would like our public witness—in our communities, to our politicians, and to our brothers and sisters around the world—to be framed more clearly within the context of our allegiance to Christ and to the church… and to a logic of social/political/economic transformation that is rooted unabashedly in the cross and resurrection

I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with this statement. In fact I think the most consistently radical actions are those that come when we, like the early Anabaptists, place loyalty to Christ above loyalty to the state. It is spirit of the Resurrection that frees us from the frees us from the fear of imprisonment or death and gives us hope beyond the apparent ineffectiveness of our actions.

Finally, I don’t mean to minimize the divisions within the Mennonite church. I think its important to look at the different streams of Anabaptism. We are not monolithic. Rodney Sawatsky describes four Anabpatist traditions: Separatist Anabaptists, Establishment Anabaptists, Reformist Anabaptists and Tranformationist Anabaptist. I hope to elaborate more on these streams soon in another blog post. Rather than folks from one stream writing another one off, we do need to have the conversations that Roth suggests. And we need folks like Gregory Boyd and many others drawn to Anabaptism to come alongside us in that discussion.

Comments (26)

  1. ST

    Thanks for this post. I’m looking forward to the one about the four types of Anabaptism. Those delineations are new to me.

    I’ve heard from many people in Mennonite leadership that there is a growing division between church attendees and leadership. One pastor from Canada, who had recently graduated from AMBS found herself asking these questions, among others: “If most of my congregation did not go to college and experience the 4-year rigor of critical thinking, is the church’s responsibility to provide a space for congregants to think critical?

    For this pastor, her attempts at encouraging critical thinking and discussion about the Bible, church, and other themes have been mostly resisted. “What am I to do?” She wondered out loud. “I feel called to this congregation and this area. How do I preach a liberating gospel to a group of people who wish not to be liberated in anything more than a personal salvation?

    On another note…there was a great dialog between John Roth (Goshen College) and Daryl Byler (former director of MCC Washington Office) at Charlotte 2005 MCUSA convention that outlined perspectives for involvement or sabbaticals from politics. Tim, I want to second your shout-outs to those Anabaptists around the world helping to create radical change. Yeah!

    Reply
  2. j alan meyer

    Thanks, Tim and ST. Tim’s link to the original piece by John Roth, the responses to that, and Roth’s response to his critics were all fascinating. I wanted to add that the dialogue ST refers to between John Roth and Daryl Byler can be found here.

    Reply
  3. Lora

    I was discussing this post with a friend, who said that her problem isn’t the growing divide (perceived or otherwise) between the political leanings of those in the pew versus leadership. Rather, it’s that we’re allowing that to define and separate us.

    I’ve been concerned about the broader issue Boyd raises for several years now, but haven’t come to any good sense of what to do about. I have no problems with the fact that three-quarters of the Mennonite church is Republican; I do have a problem when we’re allowing our political identities to take over our core commitment to what it means to be the body of Christ. And I’ll happily condemn both the left and the right on that point.

    But I resonate with the words of the pastor ST mentions. In the congregation in which I was raised, there are a number of people who are bitterly afraid of having women in leadership. When you live in a small, safe community and radio orthodoxy has taught you that Christianity does equal mostly personal salvation, then I can see why these things matter so much. I don’t know how to begin to cross these divides, especially when my gender and political views are strikes one and two against me.

    Reply
  4. RonL

    I think this is a crucial point and an important topic for discussion. Here is my 2 cents.

    Anabaptists originated the concept of separation of church and state. Christians are foreigners- our real citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. Traditionally, Mennonites did not even vote, hold public office, or work for the government. This has changed in recent decades. Yes, we have become more mainstream in many ways. This includes our participation in politics and government.

    I have real concerns about churches being associated with one political persuasion or the other. I realize that most people would say that they are advocating for political issues, not for political parties, however those issues are endorsed by and are associated with political parties. It is a very fine line we are trying to tread and it is easy to go over the line, or to give the appearance of going over the line.

    The other point I would like to make is that these political solutions are the “big way” of dealing with issues- not the “little way” of helping individuals. Anabaptists have traditionally preferred the little way- service.

    I have a concern that we are abandoning service in favor of political activity. We want the state to act in a more Christian manner, when it is not Christian and never will be. We give away our power when we say that the politicians hold the solutions to problems instead of just trying to lead lives of service. We feel that all we can do is write our congressman and vote a certain way and that is fulfilling our Christian duty. Instead, we can commit our lives to service.

    I had the experience of growing up in a Quaker meeting in Langley, Virginia. Everyone would read the Washington Post before coming to meeting and the news would be fresh on their minds. So, the meeting became very politically-oriented. I felt that it detracted from the spiritual nature of worship.

    I have retreated to the Mennonite Church in hopes of having a spiritual, rather than a political experience. But perhaps, there is no retreat from it- politics invades everywhere. I was hoping to find some rest from it in church, but it keeps cropping up.

    I think that in our social gospel message, we may have missed the point somewhat. When the rich man asked Jesus what he needed to do to enter the Kingdom, Jesus asked to give all he had to the poor and to come and follow him. In other words, the rich man had to give up everything that was important to him and not have any earthly attachments.

    This wasn’t really for the benefit of the poor- that is missing the point. It was for the spiritual benefit of the rich man. He was too attached to his riches to enter the Kingdom. It was his attachment to worldly things that was the problem, not poverty.

    So, what I am saying is that Jesus isn’t really calling us to solve these social problems by telling the secular government what to do. Jesus is calling us to give up our worldly attachments and to follow him. It means being willing to give up everything to serve others and follow Christ.

    I am interested in what others think and an active discussion of this topic.

    Reply
  5. DevanD

    Ron,

    I think you have delineated a divide that is very often perceived and that stalls a lot of action: the divide between politics and service.

    I currently serve as a full-time volunteer. I spent many years advocating for political issues, storming administrator’s offices and causing ruckus and the like.

    I don’t make any distinction between the two: politics is service and service is political.

    The basic problem is if one thinks one “serves” at a homeless shelter then one is not doing something political. But it says much about one’s priorities and use of time to serve at a homeless shelter rather than auction off junk on eBay to make money (just as an example). It shows political involvement, rather then self-serving involvement

    Then, everyone thinks that those who are protesting outside military recruitment offices or lobbying politicians are not serving anybody. Dead wrong. Those who take a stand against sinful systems of oppression serve those whose voices cannot be heard.

    Too often Jesus gets pigeonholed as someone who “served” but did nothing political. Or someone who was entirely political and service was just a “nice” thing he did along the way.

    Jesus had the most holistic understanding of how to confront evil: cast out demons and cast out the moneychangers. Feed the poor and rebuke the religious authorities who don’t. That’s service, and that’s political, and that’s the kingdom. And we should pray for the Spirit to give us that same guidance.

    Reply
  6. TimN (Post author)

    Thanks to everyone for their comments. This issue isn’t just in the Mennonite church. A friend pointed out a major article in today’s issue of the New York Times looking at the clash over political involvement in a major evangelical church in Wichita, Kansas:

    The Evangelical Crackup

    Reply
  7. Jarrod Saul McKenna

    “Yet, three fourths of Mennonites are Republican.”

    I find it amazing that as so many are looking to the anabaptist tradition as a way forward so many Mennonites are wanting to join the miscellaneous evangelical mush which is held together not ‘in Christ’ but in providing a spirituality for the industrial growth complex dressed in the red, white and blue.

    Reply
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  9. Carl

    I am glad to read all your comments but I’m afraid a lot of the problems in the Mennonite church begins at the top. We need some real Christian leaders whose passion is to lead the church with clear bible truths. We do not need more dialog on issues. We have the truth. We know the truth. But, some like to challange and change the truth to match their itching ears and life styles. We have leaders who are wishy-washy persons. They want to please everyone and end up dividing the church.

    Reply
  10. JUnrau

    “We” don’t have the truth. This is why I have such problems being associated with Christians (though I am and keep coming back to Mennonite agencies). “We” have an approach to the perplexities of existence, an approach I think is pretty good, but it is just an approach Carl. We don’t “know” shit. We’re just as blind and stupid as everyone else.

    Reply
  11. TimN (Post author)

    Carl,

    The idea that dialogue is for the weak is exactly what has led Mennontites to split over ridiculous things like hooks and eyes vs buttons.

    It is also very unbiblical. Jesus had conversations with his opponents. He talked to Nichodemus. He yelled at them sometimes. But he also ultimately forgave them.

    Dialogue also doesn’t mean abandoning our views of truth. In fact, sometimes it can make our understanding of our own views stronger.

    Unfortunately I think there are a lot of Mennonites who hold your view and so I suspect we’ll continue to see Mennonites spending most of their energy on infighting and division over who has the corner on the truth.

    Reply
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  13. David Engel

    I have always been surprised at the divisions that are possible in Christian communities, and the Anabaptist tradition (I am especially thinking of the Mennonites and Amish, with whose history I am most familiar) has had just as many divides as any other secular community might, whether it is over technology, dress, or politics.

    I am a member of a “city” Mennonite church and have performed some volunteered service as part of trips in support of MDS. I have always felt that the majority of people involved, in both my church and volunteer experiences, were liberal biased politcally, counter to my own conservative leanings, but the joy I have is that good works can still be accomplished despite these differences of opinion.

    Reply
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  15. graham

    Great post, Tim.

    This may be one of the most important topics for Mennonites to discuss. I think it’s certainly the mot important post at YAR. But, you don’t think hooks and eyes vs buttons is an important debate?! ;-)

    If I get a chance this afternoon, I’ll post a response from ‘across the pond’.

    Hope you’re well.

    Reply
  16. Keith Swartzendruber

    I am struck with the large number of people from outside the Anabaptist community who have lately been calling Mennonites to task for abandoning their distinctives, especially the importance of peacemaking. The recent membership profile is particularly disturbing and reveals the fact that MCUSA maybe becoming an “historic” historic peace church. Boyd’s outsider status I think lends a certain amount of credibility and authenticity to his observations and John D.’s observations that Mennonites are in trouble. And a lot of this I think can be traced to increased cultural and political assimilation and a loss of the sense that we are to be simultaneously a people set apart and engaged in the world around us. We need a revival and a way of speaking to those elements in the church who have lost the vision of Christ’s call to peacemaking as a way of life and essential to who we are called to be as disciples of Christ.

    Reply
  17. DevanD

    Keith,

    I’m wondering, though, if it’s ok if the Mennonite church is going into the direction of being just another protestant denomination, if that isn’t such a bad thing. Anabaptists and their thinking have already made an impact.

    I’m actually hoping for a day when peacemaking doesn’t get identified as something that “those mennonites, quakers, and radicals do” but instead identified as biblical and central to the call of Christ.

    Reply
  18. Keith Swartzendruber

    Devan,

    I too hope for that day. But at the same time becoming just another protestant denomination is the last thing we need. A lot of work needs to be done to get not only other protestant denominations but Anabaptist denominations to the point where they are in a general sense of agreement that peacemaking is central to being Christian. Many of those protestants are integral parts of the military industrial complex that has now become the single greatest threat to humanity. They are the decisionmakers who vote for increasing military budgets to half a trillion dollars, they are the CEOs who steer corporations toward the quick buck rather than sustainability and equality.

    Reply
  19. SteveK

    I have personally made the choice as John Roth suggested– to opt out of partisan politics, especially voting. Of course, I’ve been doing that for years.

    Nevertheless, I think that it is significant for Mennonites to make a stand politically in a non-partisan, kingdom-oriented way. To do this would not to be a part of voting, or at least to gain success through voting. I think that our political participation should look different, and not fit the normal categories of modern politics.

    What would that look like? I am honestly not certain. But I know that our approach would be sacrificial and God-dependent, even as Jesus’ was, rather than power-feeding and constituant-dependent.

    Steve K

    Reply
  20. Jerry C. Stanaway

    I never vote. I’m pro-life, though, and I wonder why so many people criticize Mennonites for voting Republican. Who should they be supporting instead, the pro-abortion Democratic Party? THe difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party is that the Democratic Party supports abortion and the Democratic Party doesn’t. It’s not as if the Democratic Party is noticeably anti-war or anti-death penalty.

    Reply
  21. Jerry C. Stanaway

    I meant the Republican Party doesn’t.

    Reply
  22. CY

    The article seems to be arguing that there is an inherent problem not only with voting but with voting democratic. As if, by having the church vote Republican the debate would be over.
    Yet it seems only natural that with a Republican party that only helps the rich and a democratic party that makes an effort towards universal health care and welfare for the poor that Mennonites would support such efforts.
    I want to be clear that I believe our allegiance to be to God and his Kingdom and obviously not to our government but that doesn’t mean that we cannot participate in forming what our government does.
    And if I’m going to vote, it certainly isn’t going to be so that we can have more tax cuts for SUVs and the super rich.

    Reply
  23. Skylark

    But there may be other Democratic platform issues a given Mennonite finds more appealing than hoping a Supreme Court justice will die and whichever Republicans are in office will put in a new justice who will rule to overturn Roe v. Wade. Republicans have been campaigning on that for decades… and abortion is still legal.

    Reply
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  26. Virgil Miller

    Christ for me is none political;He show us how to love,forgive and live the law on grace.If we fallow his spritual law and do sand service we have no need for goverment.When the Church becomes prograsive to fast the wont or are pushing out the Old .Is that not wonting or making division?Just because they have a degree how does that make them a more correct thinker.Why is old school though so wrong?Does the Church only live in conflict with its members?Virgil

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