From Mennonite to Anabaptist: A Lover’s Quarrel With the MCUSA

This story was originally published over at The Jesus Event. You can click HERE to be a part of the conversation there, or you can post your own thoughts and opinions here at YAR.

Greg Boyd recently spoke about his journey from Oneness towards something else–a story which he highlights in this video entitled “From Baptist to Anabaptist.”

Some of you might remember my recent interview with friend and fellow San Antonian Brian LePort, concerning his journey (very similar to Boyd’s) from Oneness Pentecostalism to a more ecumenical, Anabaptist fellowship. Today, Brian’s blog conversation touches on his ongoing encounter with the Anabaptist movement, and much of what he has to say resonates with those of us who have been recently participating in Anabaptistica as non-ethnic Mennonite/Amish/Beachy/Hutterite/Brethren. While I am personally attracted to Anabaptist theology and praxis (e.g. its Incarnational Christology, emphasis on discipleship in Jesus, holistic implications of the Gospel, etc.), I’m also frustrated with a few things that I truly believe need to be addressed by the “institutional” Anabaptist traditions at large in the United States. FWIW, the reflections I offer below are meant to be taken in the tone of a lover’s quarrel instead of a schismatic diatribe:

Moving Past Ethnicity

The MCUSA is overwhelmingly made up of the same racial, classist, and ethnic demographic. Most of its leadership is male. Most of its colleges and seminaries are too. While the liberal leaning social emphasis many Mennonites are embracing nowadays may be refreshing to those of us who grew up in stifling conservative environments, such a bent is not everything. In many ways, its driving our conversations. Many if not most of the congregants in my local church participate fully in the social justice that the Gospel of Jesus-discipleship entails, yet we still struggle to find persons of color participating within our congregation. (Our pastor is female though!) Although we live and worship in downtown San Antonio, there are hardly any Latinos/as to be found. This, as I have discussed earlier, serves as an indicator of a deeper problem in our American churches regardless of denomination. One of the most beautiful things about the Anabaptist tradition remains their emphasis on being Kingdom people. That is, they are focused on their individual and communal discipleship under Jesus as the one King. I appreciate that, especially since most of my Evangelical upbringing relied upon Jesus as a deus ex machina in the divine narrative of salvation history, conveniently ignoring many ‘red letter’ portions of the gospels where what Jesus had to say and how he lived was of little importance compared to “what he did on the cross.” So why the disconnect? Why, in spite of being a so-called kingdom people focused on social justice and allegiance to Jesus, are we by-and-large homogenous as a group? Why is our leadership overwhelmingly white male? Because of their allegiance to Jesus alone, historical Anabaptist groups have fallen under many intense persecutions from Church/State authorities over hundreds of years, driving them as a group from nation to nation while seeking refuge en masse. And with this flight has come a sort of siege mentality that relies all too much on their identity as ethnicity. In other words, it seems that in rejecting the world’s definitions of identity (ie citizenship in the church/state, infant baptism, military conscription, etc) these groups have been so far removed demographically from the rest of the world that internal intermarriage and interdependence has taken its toll. As cradle Mennonite and pastor Mike Krause recently highlighted during an interview at The Meeting House with Bruxy Cavey (skip to the 19:00 mark), this historical persecution/flight/colonization pattern resulted in a fusion between Mennonite family, culture, and faith as synonymous and protected from outside influence.

Mike Krause–”…my ancestors, the Mennonites, left Poland and then to Russia, and in each instance, they colonized with themselves. They move into the rural wasteland of Poland or Russia or whatever, and live in South Ukraine…and live in this splendid isolation from the rest of the culture. And this was the downfall of the Mennonite movement. …you’re living in social isolation, so think about the primary consequence of living in social isolation–you have no new last names coming into the colony…and so what happens is this community that was formed for theological purposes, becomes over time, an ethnic community... So what ends up happening is that culture and Christianity get woven into the same thing where now, a specific culture is an integral part of my faith.

Bruxy Cavey–”Alright, so in the name of saying ‘alright, we are not going to be influenced by culture” they are usually influenced by the culture they are trying to maintain in the past. So they become the thing they say they are standing opposed to.”

I think some of us continue to encounter this phenomenon inside Anabaptist institutions today–and as this manifesto from a Nigerian Mennonite in 2000 indicates, this conversation is nothing new. I only mean to say that many times this historical conditioning has led ethnic Mennonites into a mistrust of anything outside of their cultural comfort zone–, whether it be exposure to new types of worship, music, or demographic. This is not exactly why other mostly white, middle class Christian groups have experienced such a phenomenon, but the results are similar. Instead of reaching out to other cultural/ethnic forms of worship and participation (dare I say solidarity), Mennonites have gravitated towards fellow Eurocentric expressions of privilege–like volunteerism that fails to address class divisions or like using Taize music while engaging multiculturalism during MLK week!? (Btw, is there anything more Eurocentric than singing a capella cloister music in Latin and French???) Consequently, (whether they know it or not), attending Mennonite liturgy and worship often feels like attending a “middle class Episcopalian” worship service (to turn a phrase from LePort). It seems that the MCUSA has experienced a 19% decline over the last 12 years. But if Scot McKnight, Stanley Hauerwas, Greg Boyd, or the many Neo-Anabaptist church plants are any indicator (and I think they are) Anabaptist theology is currently experiencing a reawakening in the US. But because of many factors, historic Anabaptist institutions seem unready to lead or be led. Not all Anabaptists are limited to ethnic identity and expression. Some Brethren in Christ groups have much in common with other worship manifestations found around the country (and the world). Greg Boyd’s church, currently undergoing a movement towards the MCUSA, have long been leaders in racial reconciliation. Consequently, most of their worship music is Gospel! Try convincing that congregation to sing four part harmonies from Mennonite hymnals. Cradle Mennonites are not all the same by any stretch of the imagination, and those of us who are newbie proselytes have much to learn from them. But by and large the zeitgeist of the MCUSA at large (and individual congregations at small) need to open up to the movement of the Holy Spirit in such a way as it releases us from our dependence upon Anabaptist ethnicity and the elements of privilege it can produce. We need to move past ethnic identity and towards a Spiritual and theological identity as Anabaptists who are truly a Kingdom people.

Getting Back to Scripture

Many Anabaptists I’ve engaged have (like me) been brought up in very conservative environments that depended heavily upon the Scriptures. Historically speaking, Anabaptists have also held a high view of the Bible–and for reasons both good and bad–this view of the Scripture has left its mark. Need I remind anyone that the term “anabaptist” was a pejorative term used by the opponents of those who Baptized adults because the Bible doesn’t prescribe infant baptism? I can certainly understand how the Bible has been used in the past to justify war, violence, hierarchy, patriarchy, homophobia, misogyny, colonialism etc, etc. As a cradle Southern Baptist I certainly understand the fear of Biblicism and the baggage that brings. But when there is a history of using the Bible to prop up powers of privilege, many Christians have a reactionary approach when dealing with how to move forward. As a consequence, many I have talked to speak of the common practice of Mennonites using novels, writings of the Catholic mystics, and social justice materials during Church study instead of using the Scriptures. As a result, many churches seem to communicate a favoritism towards social liberalism over in depth theological discussion or investigation. Combined with the problems of ethnic identity as described above, the end result is a type of bland, middle-class, liberal Eurocentric quagmire. This type of “white activism” leaves our congregations pale and devoid of color in more ways than one. What we need is less of a focus on mystical experience or liberal activism and more of a focus on the Scriptures as if they are pointing us to Jesus (Jesus said they do). You don’t think there is social activism to be found within the Bible? Civil disobedience? Martyrdom? God’s preferential option for the poor? Messianic prophecies concerning non-violence, paxtivism, and resistance? A call to simple living? A call to discipleship? A call to equality for all? If Anabaptist history teaches us anything, it is that our primary purpose of Scripture is to point us to Jesus and towards his character. We need to have the courage to engage, wrestle with, and argue with the Scriptures. We need places where we can be honest about our doubts, as we intellectually engage in the Bible using all of our resources. Instead of interpreting it as legal dictate or science textbook, we need to actively interact with the Scriptures as we look for Jesus. We expect as much from each other, why don’t we expect the same from the Scriptures? Familiarity may breed contempt, so let us not get familiar with the Bible like so many programs (including the “Year of the Bible”) can do. Let us engage with Jesus, the Messiah of the Scriptures! What we don’t need is more Bible centered stuff, we need more Spirit centered engagement. I’m not talking about graduate level seminars during Sunday School, but I am saying we can all benefit from diving into the rich and rewarding practice of searching the Scriptures for Whom it points to.

Anablactivism

There is no Christian theology that is not identified unreservedly with those who are humiliated and abused. In fact, theology ceases to be a theology of the gospel when it fails to arise out of the community of the oppressed. For it is impossible to speak of the God of Israelite history, who is the God revealed in Jesus Christ, without recognizing that God is the God of and for those who labor and are overladen.–James H. Cone

Recently I’ve encountered some exciting growth occurring in this dimension, through Anabaptists who have been influenced by liberation theologies, urban missiology, and praxis. Without a focus upon Jesus as the Liberator and our subsequent call to advance the Kingdom of Heaven in mutuality with the oppressed, our communities of faith will unfortunately remain in their white suburban (even urban) centers of refuge all the while we pat ourselves on the back for how “progressive” we’ve become. And while there are precious few black Anabaptist preachers and pastors, we must be weary of being satisfied with token solidarity. This is a phenomenon I experienced all too well growing up in the Oklahoma Republican party, who held JC Watts as the proverbial “we aren’t racists, look we have a black friend” argument. Now I’m not advocating for political justification or political manifestation, but I am emphasizing that while we may nominally embrace one or two black Anabaptist leaders within our denominational structures, unless and until we have black seminary presidents, black pastors (plural), and at least a 58% demographic of black Anabaptists leading side by side in “our” pews, we aren’t truly Kingdom people–demographically speaking, we aren’t even in keeping with the American variety.

Evangelism

While much needs to be said of the MCC, MVS, and other entities which allow for participation in the social spectrum of the Gospel, I think modern Anabaptists have much to learn from historical Anabaptist evangelism. Even the Matyr’s Synod sent out Anabaptists in pairs to preach and heal the Gospel to the elect around them before the majority of which were arrested and put to death. We need Scriptural, Anabaptist evangelism–not American Evangelicalism. We need Luke 10, Femonite evangelism–not American progressive liberalism. We can be evangelizers while not being Evangelical and baptizers without being Baptists. What are your thoughts on the Neo-Anabaptist reawakening? How do you feel about the current trends in our MCUSA denomination?

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