Theology

A Modest Proposal (or A Post-Yoderian Strategy)

Editor’s Note: 10 years ago, we kicked off this blog. Over the coming months, we’ll be hosting a series of posts reflecting back on the last 10 years. Thanks to Tom Airey, co-editor of our sister blog, RadicalDiscipleship.net for this second post in this series. – Tim Nafziger

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Caption: Tom (right) listening to Ched Myers during a conversation by a stream in California in 2011 with Elaine Enns in background.

by Tom Airey

When Young Anabaptist Radicals launched a decade ago, I was out West reading compelling scholarship from Walter Brueggemann, Brian McLaren, N.T. Wright, Marcus Borg and John Howard Yoder (WGWW: white guys with websites), moved by their mapping of a much needed “post-Evangelical” Christian terrain. I took their ideas at face value: meaning that I yearned to apply many of their convictions to my own ministry, marriage, church and vocation. But I frequently found myself day-dreaming about what these authors are like in real time. Of course, there’s always a gap between word and deed, but I was becoming more and more uncomfortable with my own SCS (Seminary Celebrity Sensationalism). We white male academics are the masters at hero-worshipping our favorite authors, pastors, scholars and philosophers. (more…)

Romans 13 and the State

N.T. Wright recently had a Q and A session on his Facebook page, and he responded to this question:

What would Paul say to a Christian serving in the military?

Wright’s response can best be summarized by these two statements:

This is again straight Romans 13: God wants there to be human authorities, but they are answerable to him.

It is therefore appropriate in principle for a Christian to serve in such a force [the state], basically an extension of police work.

(You can read the full response here.)

In reaction to this, Kurt Willems wrote a response showing where he disagrees. Kurt, in classical Anabaptist fashion, believes that Christians should be nonviolent, but that the state still serves a purpose. There is a separation of church and state, and the state is a necessary evil.  (more…)

A Letter From the Exiles

Douglas Jacobsen in his essay “Anabaptist Autonomy, Evangelical Engulfment” describes a Mennonite ‘diaspora’ in two senses. First is the sense that ideas and movements from other denominations and traditions have gone out from their homes and have settled among the Mennonites. Mennonite churches can feel very different, with charismatic, evangelical and even liturgical influences making their rounds. Second is the sense that Mennonite ideas and movements have gone out and settled among other Christian traditions of all sorts – Evangelical, mainline Protestant and even High Church.

I am part of this strange diaspora. On the one hand the faith communities I have been apart have been formerly Anabaptist. These congregations have come from traditions that at one time were Mennonite or still retain the name but who no longer bear any Anabaptist distinctiveness, having been caught up in the wider Evangelical movement. On the other hand in Bible College I was significantly influenced by Anabaptist ideas, read intensively of Anabaptist writers, with my vision for faith and community coming into close proximity to those that descend from Harold Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision”.

Now when I say “I read intensively of Anabaptist writers” I perhaps am being dishonest. It was really one Anabaptist writer who influenced my thinking and has shaped the way I look at things immensely: John Howard Yoder. As a young evangelical at odds with the social witness of the evangelical tradition I found Yoder’s writings refreshing. Dare I even say life giving. Within my first year of bible college I recall reading at least five of his books. At the same time I observed other young evangelicals becoming excited with missional church writings, or the work of new monastics like Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Anyone familiar with book indexes could easily figure out that Yoder’s shadow has been cast on these writings.

And here’s the thing: it was not just about thinking. It is about how lives are lived. For me Anabaptism as mediated by Yoder opened up doors for a radical discipleship that had only been hinted to in my congregations. For one thing it helped shaped a long-term commitment to a new monastic community in Kitchener-Waterloo I helped found. It helped me engage issues of poverty and injustice in new ways. In reinvigorated a commitment to pacifism, transforming the nonresistance I had inherited from my grandparents into a robust, articulate sense of nonviolence.

During my second year I stumbled upon the story of Yoder’s abusive actions and the Church’s response. Needless to say I was disgusted and disillusioned. (more…)

the UNkingdom of GOD: Embracing The Subversive Power of Repentance by Mark Van Steenwyk – Book Review

(This post was originally posted at http://drewgihart.com/2013/08/28/unkingdombookreview/)

Mark Van Steenwyk has written a thoughtful reflection on the significance of Jesus and his in-breaking Kingdom as an alternative way of being in our society that is marred by evil forces, social structures, death-dealing oppression, and coercive violence. the UNkingdom of God is a subversive and anti-imperial vision for a repentant life concretely following after Jesus, that doesn’t attempt domestication or try to mince words. The book reflects the radicalism of an Anabaptist vision, as well as a liberative and prophetic witness that takes seriously the abandoning of empire while walking humbly in the footsteps and Way of Jesus.

One of the most important things about the UNkingdom of God is the way that he exposes how America and Christianity have merged so profoundly, being so deeply intertwined, that it has merely become an imperial puppet and tool. This is primarily done through personal stories as he retells his own story of being indoctrinated with American Christianity, awaking from it, and then ultimately repenting from it. It is primarily his own lived experience being told, often humorously, that I believe will resonate with many that consider themselves Christian while also a part of the dominant culture. For example he begins in the introduction explaining his infatuation with America and its ‘Dream’, and how he responded when he heard the song “God Bless the USA” as he watched fireworks in the sky. He explains:

At this point, I could no longer sing along. With tears in my eyes and a sob in my throat, I broke down weeping. I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and pride. I wept as the song played out, and I continued to weep as the fireworks began to fill the night sky. It was like a mystical experience.[1]

Clearly, Mark Van Steenwyk understands what it is like to be enthralled with America and American Christianity. However, he didn’t remain there. The goal of the book is to call people to repentance. And this is the particular strength of this book. I am not sure I have read a book that has so clearly and powerfully called people to repentance in a way that resonates with the way that Jesus did so. We are challenged to repent of our Christianity and how we have been unwilling to experience God because we have him figured out already. He names the issue. It is that “We think we are open to learning the way of Jesus, but our cup is already full of our own ideas.”[2] It is something that we are not conscious of, therefore, we go on engaging scripture and sermons as though we are growing in Christ, when in reality our cups are already full, so everything else just spills out. Steenwyk reminds us that “We need to empty our cups. We need to repent of the myths that crowd our imaginations. We need to repent of our Christianity.”[3] Ultimately, Steenwyk describes that we need to even release and let go of our image and understanding of Jesus before we can truly “be the love of Christ in our world.”[4]

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I once was raised a Feminist, but now I’ve found Feminism

This post was originally featured on The Jesus Event, and is part of a series entitled “I once was raised… but now I’ve found…” where some of the author’s favorite writers, bloggers, scholars, and theologians explain the transitions they have encountered along their own faith journey.

Below is an interview with The Jesus Event’s Tyler Tully and the Femonite’s Hannah Heinzekehr

Tyler- There are a lot of misconceptions out there about being a Mennonite and being raised as a Mennonite. You seemed to have been raised by parents who made room for good theological frameworks. How would you explain what it is like being raised as a Mennonite?

Hannah- Well, for me, being raised as a Mennonite didn’t mean looking “outwardly different” at all. For me, what it meant to grow up Mennonite was that there was always an emphasis on Jesus’ story and what that meant for how we lived. And some of the ways that this got expressed were through baptism later in life — baptism occurred when you were old enough to make a conscious choice that you have to make on your own to follow Jesus. It also included an emphasis on peace and nonviolence as part of the way that we were meant to live in the world. For my family, being Mennonite also meant being pacifist and resisting violence in all its many forms. This doesn’t mean that we are passive — I think we also strongly believed that we were meant to protest against injustice in the world — but we weren’t going to use violence to do this work. And the third thing that I often think of is that being Mennonite, for my family, meant being part of a church community that was active in each other’s lives and not just on Sundays.
I think there was a strong emphasis on communal decision making and being willing to give and receive counsel to one another.

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Becoming Franciscan

When my Christian faith first began to radicalize, I became very interested in the Franciscan tradition. The advocacy for radical discipleship, peace, and social and environmental justice that is associated with the ministry of Francis of Assisi naturally appealed to me. At first, I did as many do, and associated the Franciscan tradition with Roman Catholicism, but as I studied more, I found that the Franciscan movement is actually surprisingly diverse.

Back when Francis first started out, there were already a few different sects that identified with his movement, and some were so radical that they were even expelled as heretics. To be honest, I am surprised that Francis was not expelled as a heretic, like so many similar figures were. Even today, there are multiple Franciscan orders in the Roman Catholic Church, and there are numerous Anglican, Lutheran, Old Catholic, and ecumenical Franciscan orders. When I first started investigating the Franciscan tradition, and considered joining it, it was the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans that appealed to me. I actually planned on joining this order. I had spoken with one of their members about it, and even had the application ready to send in, but other events in my life caused me to put that on hold. I started to study other radical traditions, such as the Anabaptists, instead.

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Gelassenheit: Radical Self-surrender

As Anabaptism emerged in 1525, opponents of this new movement described those who became a part of this movement as “radicals.” They even described it as “the Radical Reformation.” Why did they describe this movement as “radical”?

In one way it seems fitting. The early Anabaptists did not seek to reform the church but to restore it to the way of Jesus—the way in which the community of Jesus was gathered and was taught. This way meant taking the teachings and life of Jesus seriously; to live according to his example. For example, given that Jesus was the Prince of Peace, it was a call for his followers to live by this same peace. When Jesus taught to love one’s enemies, it was a call to not seek ways of killing someone. Jesus, the kingdom that he inaugurated, and his invitation to participate in this kingdom is radical. Therefore to live by his example would be very radical!

There were several particular reasons why the Anabaptists were described as “radicals” in the 16th century. One reason was that to follow in the ways of Jesus required one to live according to his example. Menno Simons wrote in 1539 that “Whosoever boasts that he is a Christian, the same must walk as Christ walked.” A follower would need to make a voluntary decision to follow the way of Jesus. Second, was the conviction that to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, meant also being people of peace. This meant practicing nonviolence even if confronted by violence. “Pacifism” is the word used to describe this path of discipleship. They believed that God’s shalom (peace) would not come through violence. Third, the ways of Jesus, his kingdom, and thus the ways of the community—the church—seeking to be faithful to Jesus and the kingdom would lead to practices that would conflict with the principalities and powers. The focus of these principalities and powers was not, and would not be, the pursuit of the kingdom of God. This becomes apparent in that “the powers” normally use a top-down, authoritarian form of ruler-ship and power, whereas the Anabaptist understanding of church assumes a bottom-up, servant attitude towards the other. Also, the state could not depend on these radicals to participate in the call to war and killing. This was revolutionary. The call of the disciple of Jesus was to follow his will even if that put them into conflict with the will and desire of the state.

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Community and Tradition

I was not raised in the Christian religion. Like many from the First World, I was raised in a Christian culture, but I was not raised in the church or with a knowledge of the Christian religion. I spent most of my childhood as an agnostic with some Buddhist flavor, and when I was exposed to the Bible, it was through a children’s storybook. As a result, I associated the Bible with fairy tales. This would eventually come to change as I felt the desire to actually study religion. Part of it due to my brother’s influence.

My brother was like me. He was not raised in Christianity, but later converted to it as a teenager. He originally came to Christ through the Pentecostals, then he became an Evangelical. It was when he was attending an Evangelical Free church that I first came to truly appreciate Christianity again. It was also during this time that I got my first Bible, which was the New Living Translation. I did not believe in Christianity during this time, but it was something interesting to study and do on the weekends.

One thing that I learned from Evangelical Protestantism was that everything is personal and private. We are supposed to have a personal relationship with Jesus. We are supposed to personally convert to Christianity, and salvation was all about personal redemption from sin and death. Even the Bible was to be read and interpreted privately. Even in economics, Evangelicals tend to stress capitalism and enterprise over community and charity. Then, I began to study Catholic theology, and I started to use a New American Bible.

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Our most bitter opponents: the Christians who fought against Dr. King

Warning: This blog post contains some graphic images.

MLK day is day when we appropiately focus a lot on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Christianity and the prophetic witness of the movement he led against racism and white supremacy.

We sometimes forget that most of the white people who Dr. King challenged were Christians. I think it is as important for me as a white person to understand the faith of the segregationists as it is to understand Dr. King’s faith. This is one way I can do my work and understand whiteness in the work of anti-racism.

Let’s start by taking one step back and looking at slaveholder Christianity. Specifically, the faith of white Christians who owned African-American slaves here in the United States. (more…)

Mennonites on the Bowery

Photo of Weaverland Choir by CharlieK

There’s a building boom on the Bowery these days. It’s been happening for a while, but the last couple years have witnessed an escalation in development, turning the neighborhood into a hip destination point.

Fifty years ago the Bowery was the largest skid row in the world. There were gin joints and flophouses on every block. That’s all gone now, thanks to the forces of gentrification. In their place are condos, art galleries and upscale eateries. Only one skid-row relic remains: the Bowery Mission.

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting behind the Mission’s pulpit in the 1960s, looking onto a sea of expectant faces while my father preached. In retrospect I realize the men behind those faces were awaiting the sermon’s conclusion so they could get their grub. (more…)

Grace for donations

Three weeks ago I was at Freakstock, the annual Festival of Jesus Freaks, a German protestant church made up primarily by punks, hippies and other subcultural types. It was a great experience and I’m a bit sad I didn’t go there before. It is exactly this community of alternative and happy Christians my age I’ve been looking for. All the other people I could relate to were either my parents’ generation, non-Christian, or people who lived elsewhere – like the readers of YAR.
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The Alternative Method of God

Being different

One thing that I find so inspiring in South Africa are the countless people who do and participate in miraculous activities day-in-and-day-out as they strive to make their community better. In working for the Anabaptist Network in South Africa, my wife and I have the honour of meeting different people all around the country and listen to the different ways these people, these normal people, do extraordinary things; often risking their own comfort, their own well-being, and their own security in order to help others. They demonstrate day-in-and-day-out an alternative way of being; a way of being that seeks the well-fair of someone else over their own; a way of being that serves others rather than themselves; a way of being that strives towards peace and justice, not just for themselves but for everyone. It is a different way of living.

Why do I say that this is a different way to live or a different way of being? I say this partly because we are regularly encouraged to focus on ourselves, our own well being, and our own happiness, rather than on someone else. We see this regularly portrayed in T.V. commercials where happiness and success is depicted as getting the keys to the car we always wanted, growing one’s business in order to afford the luxurious life, where bigger is better, where success means power, where power means influence, and where influence means progress. The focus tends to be on the self: securing one’s own success, power, and influence.

Throughout the Bible, however, we find God embodying and asking us to embody a different method, one that challenges the assumption that success, influence, and power is gained by focusing on oneself. In fact, God’s method often turns these assumptions upside-down.

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Closer: reflections on the trinity

God created us without us;
but God did not will to save us without us.

~ Augustine of Hippo

I have always found good company with the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans when he writes about the groaning inside all of us: “for we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes with groans too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).

Does it seem a little unholy to start a conversation about the triune nature of God by paying attention to the groaning in our gut? The Trinity doesn’t belong there, right? Shouldn’t we start up in heaven? Isn’t it a bit self-centered to turn a sermon on the Trinity into a sermon about us? Isn’t God supposed to be way over there, or way up there? As the prophet Isaiah says, “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty” (Isa 6:1a).

Now, to be fair to Isaiah’s vision, God isn’t completely distant: “The hem of God’s robe filled the temple” (v. 1b). There is a point of connection between heaven and earth, and that is the Temple. But in Romans, Paul seems to think that God’s presence is even more intimate than that: God is in us, in our groaning, in our sighs, in our prayers, God’s Spirit is a companion with our spirit. Here’s what Paul says: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:15b-16). Through the Spirit, God becomes intimate with us, interior to us, completely familiar, a companion. The Holy Spirit is present in our spirit, groaning with us, crying out with us. And with the groaning we begin to get a sense for the Trinity; we become the site of the work of all three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit. Our bodies become God’s home. God rests with us, and in us, not as some outside power, not as some cosmic clockmaker, not as some bearded old king on a throne in heaven. God isn’t an outsider to our lives. God isn’t like a king or a president who might choose to save us by sending his troops. God doesn’t send others to do the dirty work. God sends God. That’s why we confess that Jesus is God. If Jesus is not God, then we worship a God who refuses to jump into our mess, then we serve a God who doesn’t like to get dirty. If Jesus is not God, then we praise a God who doesn’t want to get too close—a God who refuses intimacy, who refuses the risks that come along with becoming our friend, our companion.

This is why the language of God’s sovereignty sometimes leads us astray. (more…)

The end of the world

In January I saw an article in the Wichita Eagle about a woman who was thoroughly convinced that the rapture and the end of the world would be on May 21, 2011.  At 6pm to be exact.  Well, this Saturday is the fateful day and, as one would expect, the story has been picked up by various news outlets.

Now forgive me if I sound a little cynical, but I know my history.  From the very first moments that Jesus walked the earth people have been predicting his return, and thus the end of the world with it.  So far, no one has been right.

What’s more, I know what happened at Münster.  To recap, a group of Anabaptists violently took over the town of Münster and swiftly began killing people, running around naked and doing a whole bunch of other things all because they were certain that Jesus was coming back right then and there.

That was 477 years ago. (more…)

Active, Effective Theology: A Response to J. Denny Weaver

Recently, J. Denny Weaver spoke of his conversion from “passive” non-resistance and two-kingdom theology to an active stance against evil (reflection: can Mennonites use the term “evil”?) in Wisconsin. http://www.themennonite.org/issues/14-4/articles/Protesting_and_the_reign_of_God
While I approve of his stand, I must disagree with the theological conclusions of his article.

In speaking of two kingdom theology, Professor Weaver emphasizes the passive inaction of the theology. That it has nothing to say to oppression, that God is the God who empowers violence and the non-resistant have nothing to respond to injustice. Perhaps this is the form of two-kingdom theology that Professor Weaver learned, and I can see with a title like “non-resistance”, a theology might be prone to inaction. Certainly passivity is a concern among many who are raised “non-resistant”.

But two-kingdom theology is not about passivity. Certainly there is a passive aspect to it, even as Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would be fighting.” So there are actions that those of Jesus’ kingdom do not take. However, the foundational law of the kingdom of Jesus is active: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love isn’t passive, but active. Like the Samaritan in Jesus story, the one of Jesus’ kingdom cannot look at one hurt in the gutter and not act. (more…)