crossposted from As of Yet Untitled
For the last few weeks, I’ve been wrestling with how to respond to Levi Miller’s column on "peacenjustice". My first reaction was one of anger and frustration. No wonder the Mennonite church has had such a hard time integrating peace and justice into our whole denomination! The director of our publishing house mocks it as a buzzword and sees it as a product of "cultural chatterers." Miller seems to see shalom (the bible’s word for peace and justice) as a little more then a worn out fad. It was much loved by the Sandinistas and Sojourners in the ’70s, but it is time to grow up and move on.
Over the weeks, I wrote several paragraphs expounding on my outrage at an old white guy maligning a theology of liberation that challenges the unjust status quo. But then I realized that some day I too will be an old white guy, so I’d best not be too hasty. I was also forgetting what I’ve spent the last 6 years learning, first in the UK and then in Chicago: peace and justice and personal redemption belong together, not on opposite sides of an angry debate.
Through 17 years of U.S. Mennonite education I bought into Miller’s dichotomy. I could either be a peace and justice Christian or I could be an evangelical. It was until I encountered the Anabaptist movement in England that I realized what a disservice I had been doing to myself. I discovered a charismatic vision of shalom that centered on God’s vision for the redemption of all of creation, not just the soul and not just society. I befriended trade justice campaigners who sang classic praise songs. They talked about repentance for personal and social sin as they knelt in prayer outside the government arms trade offices. I heard a lot about God’s heart for justice and shalom. I realized that we in the United States were missing out. Big time.
And so rather than throwing another log on the fire in the Mennonite culture wars, I’d like to suggest that our witness to the world will be stronger when we recognize that peace and justice is at the center of the gospel, right along side "Christian conversion, community, discipleship and hope in the resurrection." Jesus’ invitation to redemption was for all of creation, not just individual souls, but whole communities, whole ecosystems. If we ignore structural sin of the powers and principalities to focus on personal bondage and sin, we do no more justice to God’s invitation to wholeness than when we make the opposite mistake.
Miller is not the only Mennonite leader who sees discussion of peace and justice through the lens of their own experience in the ’60s and ’70s as a flower child. At the Mennonite convention in San Jose in 2007, I sat in on a panel discussion with young Mennonite leaders like Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, Hugo Saucedo and Immanuel Sila. I was sitting near the back and watched two senior leaders in Mennonite Mission Network whispering and giggling to each other through much of the presentation. When I asked them about it afterwards, they said that they’d heard it all before in the ’70s, this talk of egalitarianism and justice. It isn’t practical. It doesn’t work in the real word.
So why doesn’t shalom work? Miller has it all figured out:
However optimistic we peace and justice flower children were as youth, we lost our liberality on babies. The conservatives remained more hopeful, fruitful and multiplied—and eventually those trends influence the church membership and Sunday school attendance.
So basically conservatives "win" because they have hope and productive sex. On the first point, I realize I have to agree with him. Too often a theology overfocused on peace and justice can end up strident and triumphalist. We will shape the future! We will not be silent! We forget that it is God, not us who will save the world. Each time our attempts to shape the future fail or even backfire miserably, we grow a little more brittle and a little more cynical. Its no wonder that after 40 odd years of this cycle, Miller starts calling it "peacenjustice." But conservatives had hope. On this, I’ll turn to Andrew Sullivan, a well-known conservative commentator. In a recent column he says:
Hope is not optimism. We have little reason for optimism given the first decade of the twenty-first century. Hope is a choice (emphasis in the original) As much a choice as faith and love.
Hope grounded in resurrection and Jesus triumph over death will not be so easily swayed by the latest political failures. It recognizes our need for personal liberation is as great as society’s need for redemption. I have learned a lot about this from friends who depend on the redemptive power of Jesus in their lives on a daily basis. I think many Mennonite liberals could do well to learn this too.
Miller’s second claim for the basis of conservative triumph is flawed in a number of ways. Reproduction rather then conversion as the basis of a faith community is the model of the old testament, not Jesus. It may have worked for Mennonites for 400 years, but you don’t have to look much farther then the rapidly rising age of Mennonites to realize it won’t work for the next 400.
So what about conversion? We often associate conversion with personal redemption and those first joining the Christian church, but new Mennonites may also come from other Christian backgrounds. In the ’70s a whole new wave of converts came knocking on the Mennonites’ doors. These are the people Miller derisively calls "Anabaptist camp followers." If this is the attitude of someone who was sympathetic at the time, how much more hostile were older, more traditional communities? Miller blames the new converts for unrealistic expectations. They shouldn’t have expected so much from "home-grown" (in other words, white Swiss-German) Mennonites. I wonder if perhaps the problem wasn’t instead leaders more concerned with envelope licking rather then envelope pushing (thanks, Joe). They were (and are?) more interested in keeping everyone inside the envelope happy than engaging with challenging ideas and people.
Today, we are seeing a new wave of "Anabaptist camp followers". As with the earlier wave, many of them come from evangelical backgrounds looking for the missing peace and justice. I’ve heard many first and second hand stories of young evangelicals walking into Mennonite churches longing for the whole gospel only to find a church doing its best to blend in with all the other Christian churches in town. Will we once again blame them as naive idealists and turn our back on them as we focus on keeping those inside the fold happy? Will the the ecumenical Anabaptist movement and the Mennonite church join, cross-pollinate and thrive together or will merely mingle and then go our separate ways? The choice is ours.
P.S. Inspired by Ben_Jammin, I want to have more photos and illustrations with blog posts here on YAR. If you’ve writing a piece and would be up for including a photo or illustration to publish with it, drop me an email and I’ll help you find something.