How a guy like me ended up at a Mennonite Convention

by Jason Evans

Jason Evans at San Jose 2007Last year, I was asked to speak at the national convention for the Mennonite Church USA. I had the opportunity to listen to the opinions and concerns of many young adult Anabaptists. I was eager to hear what my fellow Christians–with a heritage of nonviolent theology–had to say. I was anxious to hear their ideas about the future of Anabaptism.

I was surprised to say the least.

My idealistic perception of this tribe did not prepare me for the reality of those that have grown up in this tradition. What I found in the eyes of many young people I saw was disillusionment and frustration with a pacifist gone passive-aggressive system. Sitting there, I wondered what the future is for denominations rooted in the Radical Reformation. And what did that mean for someone like me who came to this tradition out of conviction rather than bloodline? … and how did a guy like me end up at a Mennonite national convention in the first place?!

I was at a rally in downtown San Diego this last week. We cried for a cease in cuts to education budgets. As I walked down the street with my young son over my shoulders, I was amazed at the thought of how much money has been spent on the “war on terror”. All the while, we continue to cut funding for our public schools, the only educational option for the poor who can not afford private schools and can’t afford for a parent to not bring home an income in order to home school their children.

September 11, 2001 has led us into an era of costly violence. We are a broken country, within a broken world

But this isn’t news. It seems that more and more people are beginning to realize this. We see the brokenness in our families, our schools, our environment, our religion, our politics  and our media. We see that violence isn’t working and that conforming to the masses hasn’t worked either. Considering my children and considering our world’s brokenness is what drove me to pick up John Howard Yoder’s, The Politics of Jesus, months after 9/11. I was amazed. Ideas such as non-conformity and non-violence were such that I had only borrowed from punk bands and the secular minds that informed their thinking until I read about Anabaptism. Until then, I was unaware of Christian voices that encouraged this way of living as the Way. And I am not alone.

Many Christians, young and old, are beginning to see the need to re-frame how we think and act upon our theology. And more and more of us are finding a home in a Christian understanding that strongly resembles traditional Anabaptist thought. Whether we perceive this as a move of the Spirit or a response to the times we are in, more and more are beginning to find a home in Anabaptism. But many, if not most, are not affiliated with or actively seeking membership with an Anabaptist denomination. Many of us that did not grow up with this heritage, when convicted by the same values, did not ask for permission to label ourselves “Anabaptist”. We did not wait for someone else to give us this title. Our convictions and our desire to be a peaceful witness to Christ’s kingdom drove us to claim Anabaptism. So, what does this mean for those systems of the same conviction?

Anabaptism is a heritage that is being embraced by followers of Jesus across the globe. The more our world’s leaders prove the inability of violence, the more we as Christians seem drawn towards a theology of nonviolence and radical allegiance to the peaceable kingdom. How will those that carry the torch of an Anabaptist heritage intersect with these new Anabaptists? Is it relational or organizational or both? My hunch is it will be a collection of many approaches. For those from within this tradition, you have the opportunity to help us learn from the mistakes you have seen through your history. Without you, those of us without your history will potentially make the same errors. Even together, we will stumble, but my hope is that we can come together from our variety of perspectives and experiences and learn together, creating the energy to cultivate a movement rooted in nonviolence and radical allegiance to Christ that can stand in opposition to the the political, religious and commercial powers that would distract us from Christ’s cause.

The new energy being brought to this tradition may seem to deafen the cries of those who already feel unheard and misunderstood within this family. For those of us that are excited by our new theological framework, we must still listen to the doubts and fears of those that have been raised by this tradition. There is still so much to be learned about this history, this theology and how it is lived. We must curb our idealism and find common ground in which we can discern together how to not simply impact a denomination but the entire Body of Christ.

While my experience has primarily been with those that are within North America, I confess that I believe this convergence can not be limited to the voices of this continent. Standing at the beginning of the 21st Century, we are also at the end of what the stereotypical white, European male theological perspective can give us. It is increasingly a bankrupt platform. Therefore, we desperately need to listen to the voices of our sisters and brothers that are emerging from other perspectives. The most powerful lessons I’ve learned on non-violence did not come through the books of theologians and activists, but rather the stories told to me by a woman that has lived through the Rwandan genocide and a white housewife. We all need eyes to see, and ears to hear, the unheard and unseen in our midst.

I recognize that Anabaptism is not simply about nonviolence, yet this has been an emphasis of mine. That said, this is certainly a defining characteristic of Anabaptism and a magnetic and animating trait for many of us. This is why I have put an emphasis on theologically-rooted nonviolence. In a world of violent fundamentalism from a variety of faith traditions around the globe, it seems to me that this may be a necessary conviction for any radical, spiritual community to bring about a constructive, sustainable alternative. Therefore, I am convinced that there is great potential for the Anabaptist community to see new energy and a new imagination for the future. Will we be able to dream together? That is yet to be seen.

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9 Responses to “How a guy like me ended up at a Mennonite Convention”

  1. joe Says:

    Many radicals are disappointed when they come to meet the groups that have historically carried the radical message - you are not alone. Personally, there is something inherently bad about institutional Christianity to me - it seems to end up rewarding the rich, fat blokes and pushing the people further from the radical message that Jesus might demand a little more than singing a few choruses on any given Sunday.

  2. j evans Says:

    Joe, my feelings were more of frustration than disappointment. I do believe there is much potential within the Anabaptist institutions I’ve come across so far. A lot of my hope comes meeting those that have grown up around the institutions. I believe young Anabaptists have the opportunity to help re-form those institutions in a way that someone from the outside such as myself can not do. My concern is that people like me can find a way to partner with other young people from within to do just that.

  3. joe Says:

    Good luck with that - I suspect you’re playing on a sticky wicket.

  4. JeremyY Says:

    Jason,

    I appreciate your observations and questions about the future of Anabaptism. I welcome these “new Anabaptists” — I hope they will infuse the “passive-aggressive” Mennonites with new energy and vitality. I don’t think Mennonites are the same group we were twenty years ago – the largest Mennonite denomination in the world is not in North America, but the Pentecostal-influenced Ethiopian church. What it means to be “Mennonite” or “Anabaptist” is changing and I think many of us who are “ethnically Mennonite” are unprepared for these shifts.

    I am about as “ethnic Mennonite” as they come. My father was Amish until age 5 when his parents left for the Conservative Mennonites and both of my parents grew up wearing plain dress. I have mixed feelings about my own heritage – on the one hand I feel proud of where I come from, on the other, I carry significant cultural baggage from a sectarian group that has often not lived up to the ideals it professed.

    I have a number of responses on why I feel that the non-violent Anabaptist stuff is so complicated among those of us who are ethnically Mennonite. As a historically sectarian, ethnic group, we are a complicated landscape (minefield?) for someone to navigate through.

    There’s a broad range and diversity among self-identified Anabaptist groups and people. I remember the shock of one of my Methodist seminary friends when they realized that some Mennonites supported George Bush and the Iraq War. Neither John Howard Yoder or MCUSA represent the experience and beliefs of all Mennonites or Anabaptists.

    There’s a difference between inherited tradition and chosen tradition. You chose Anabaptism; I was born into it. You write that one of the things that attracted you was the emphasis on non-conformity. My own family history has been marked by the trauma of this non-conformity, because while Mennonite communities sought non-conformity with the World, the community themselves were intense systems of conformity.

    For example, the ban (i.e. “shunning”) was developed by the Anabaptists as an alternative to violence – it was better than violence to maintain the community’s boundaries. However, throughout Anabaptist history, the ban has often been cause relational rifts and brokenness. When my grandparents left the Amish, my grandmother’s side of the family refused to talk to my grandparents anymore. There is something about that experience that I think was incredibly traumatic to my father’s family.

    The kind of activist-pacifism Yoder describes is relatively new to Mennonites. Prior to WWII, Swiss-German US Mennonites embraced a concept called “non-resistant pacifism.” They sought to emulate Christ, who did not resist his crucifixion, yet at the same time recognized that the State had the right to use force in order to maintain order. Since the political order has to use violence, Christians should not participate in that order – they should neither vote nor serve in the military.

    After WWII, “mainline Mennonites” (i.e. General Conference and old Mennonite Church) became more politically involved due to a new service ethic that had emerged out of the Alternative Service experience. At some point, many Mennonites felt it was not enough to simply “feed the poor” but also to ask why the “poor were poor.” These kinds of questions are political in nature and led to greater political involvement. Yoder both influenced and was a sign of this shift.

    What’s interesting that even though conservative Mennonite groups (like Conservative Mennonite Conference and the Biblical Mennonite Alliance) claim to embody traditional Mennonite beliefs, they typically do not practice non-resistant pacifism either. I feel it’s one thing to recognize that the State needs to use violence, it’s another to support that violence. Since 9/11, I have seen my conservative relatives enthusiastically support both the Bush administration and the Iraq War.

    There was an interesting article published about a year ago in the Brotherhood Beacon (the denominational magazine of the CMC) that asked “Is CMC Losing Its Peace Theology?” The article interviewed two of my second cousins — we are descendants of a Bender family that helped found the Greenwood Mennonite School in Delaware during the 1920’s after Mennonite children were kicked out of the public school system for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance. The article notes an ambiguity towards pacifism among my relatives and cites cultural pressures and outside influence as the cause.

    Thanks again for your comments. I think that it’s important for those of us who are ethnically Mennonite to no longer be the sole gatekeepers of the Anabaptist tradition. Please continue to talk to us, we do need to hear what you have to say.

  5. j evans Says:

    JeremyY,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story! It is very helpful to hear from people like yourself. I pray we can work together to encourage Anabaptists to return to our historical (and Spirit-filled, I beleive) convictions. It will be interesting to see where the growing sectors of the Anabaptist family in the global south lead the rest of us as well.

    Jason

  6. j evans Says:

    Joe,
    If I knew what a sticky wicket was I would question whether or not I should playing on it. ;) But since I don’t… ignorance is bliss!

    Jason

  7. The Ecclesia Collective » Blog Archive » Submergent Meeting Reflection Says:

    […] denomination. Rather, we are drawn to it. I’ll quote myself again, this time from an article I wrote for the Young Anabaptist Radicals site: … It seems that more and more people are beginning to […]

  8. Melissa Green Says:

    The same Jesus who didn’t resist crucifiction also drove the money changers out of the temple court yard with a whip.

    Shortly after 9/11 happened, a Mormon co-worker discovered the Mennonites and Quakers are pacifists. So, he felt the need to stand in my office door taunting me. He said, “So, I could punch you right in the face and you couldn’t do anything about it?”

    I told him that 1) I could have him fired for creating a hostile work enviroment, 2) I only believe it is unconditionally wrong for Christian to deliberately kill another human being. If we are truly created in the image of God, and we deliberately kill another human, haven’t we struck out at the very image of God? However, I could kick his butt all day long as long as I didn’t kill him. He said he thought I was kidding. I said, “I think you should try me.” He didn’t bother me anymore after that.

  9. TimN Says:

    Melissa,

    What a great story. I think that’s the first time I’ve laughed out loud when reading a comment on YAR.

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