Global Anabaptism — present reality, realistic goal or hopeful optimism?

I haven’t written into this space for some time now. I apologize for the ways in which that is obvious in what I write below and for the ways it may cheapen my requests from you all. Almost embarrassingly, I’ve been forced to skim over your most recent YAR conversations so that my input doesn’t completely fail to hit some thread of relevancy and interest. Disclaimers…disclaimers… here’s the word I’d like to share:

This is, firstly, a ‘howdy’ from Southeast Asia — northern Laos (Vientiane), at the moment. Secondly, it is a more direct plug for BikeMovement Asia, recently alluded to indirectly on this site by Hinke, Jason and possibly others. Thirdly, it is a suggestion that BikeMovement — in its attempt to draw out individual and collective stories — is one way to approach the theological/social ‘doing’ that is being reckoned with in conversations here. BikeMovement Asia does a lot of talking too. The same sort of talking/analyzing that happens on this sort of site. But we live the stories as well. I don’t know what it means for you all there, experiencing it all in a sort of ‘second-hand’ way, but I would like to invite you to look more closely at what BikeMovement has done and is doing… We have pictures and journals and other information on our website.

Then there’s a question that has come up for me — maybe the most relevant piece in this context. It’s a question about the global Anabaptist church that comes out of my experience with BikeMovement USA last summer and my experience thus far with BikeMovement Asia. Last summer BikeMovement USA raised over $20,000 for AMIGOS — an organization loosely connected to Mennonite World Conference and deeply concerned about connecting Anabaptist communities around the world. My own personal rhetoric, last summer, about the global church — probably as a result of my close relationship to the AMIGOS vision — was fairly inclusive. I talked, along with others on the trip, about the importance of learning new ways of worship from Anabaptists around the world. I wondered how we could claim to know what ‘Anabaptists’ were, in the contemporary context, when the ‘West’ was severely outnumbered in terms of global Anabaptist churches and baptized members. I, mostly indirectly, challenged mid-western Mennonite farmers to go to Paraguay in 2009 and visit with their Anabaptist brothers and sisters from around the world — I figured it would give them something to think about. Essentially, I was at a place where I understood the US American and Canadian Mennonite churches to be an incomplete part of the global Anabaptist community. And I still think that’s a helpful way to frame the discussion.

But there are other ways. My experiences with the church here in Southeast Asia have forced me to develop a more cynical view of the “global Anabaptist community.” I will put it provocatively. I put it in quotation marks because I’m not sure there is, or ever will be, a “global Anabaptist community.” I think I was naïve, last summer, in thinking about this global church as some entity existing similarly to a relatively local church — sharing money, challenging each other politically, spiritually and theologically — thus the global ‘community.’ I imagined a global Anabaptist church that never ultimately shared the same theologies, worship styles, understanding of church hierarchy, etcetera, but a global church that challenged itself toward valuing its internal differences — even to the point of shaping itself as a whole so that the theologies, worship styles, understandings of church hierarchies, etcetera became similar considering the contexts in which each sub-group existed.

My vision was of an overarching, ‘global,’ Anabaptist Church that would help to diversify and standardize more responsible (ethically, theologically, spiritually, historically) global Anabaptist communities. I wanted to call Anabaptist Christians in Indonesia “brothers and sisters” not only because we both appreciate the profundity of the work of Jesus, but because we also remember the work and theological implications of the 16th century Anabaptism and embody Holy Spirit worship through Cambodian-style ‘enthusiasm of the convert.’

This conversation quickly turns into one about Anabaptist identity. Southeast Asia has frustrated me because Anabaptist/Mennonite means ‘good global repute’ (mostly social repute) and has almost nothing to do with a certain set of convictions or standards about the Reign of God. I was sitting with young Mennonites in Phnom Penh two weeks ago and, besides the remarkable young man who translated the Confession of Faith into Khmer, the ‘Mennonites’ were completely silent on issues that I would associate with Mennonite/Anabaptist. And maybe that’s a key to this thing as well. Maybe there’s not a right way to be Anabaptist in the 21st century, but it seems that there are ways that are different enough that we might consider admitting our differences and just getting together for big MWC ‘reunions’ — where we just eat and drink and talk about Mary — and stop pretending that we have much of anything religious in common.

But, at the same time, I still believe the stuff I was saying last summer. I think Mennonites in the US might be better off if they would dabble in some Cambodian worship styles that would raise their heartbeats a bit. I think the Phnom Penh Mennonite church could learn a lot from some theological history — who were the original Anabaptists, should they care? I think that mid-western Mennonite farmers would understand the Reign of God more fully if they would spend time with Mennonite farmers from South America.

-Part of me wants to draft strict standards defining what a Mennonite/Anabaptist is and isn’t — standards we could use to include and exclude people and shape a ‘true’ global Anabaptist community.

-Part of me wants to let post-modernity redefine the title completely, based on all of our individual stories and experiences — redefine completely, so that I forget to get all caught up in the history of our suffering European ancestors.

Part of me knows that what makes most sense is probably somewhere in between.

Words on the global Anabaptist/Mennonite church…?

Comments (5)

  1. j alan meyer

    Good thoughts, Tim. A lot of these same issues came up in my recent Anabaptist/Mennonite History class in Europe, which included a visit to Mennonite World Conference headquarters in Strasbourg. There Larry Miller talked about the “rise of the Global South” in terms of power and numbers within the global Anabaptist (or Mennonite? I’ll probably use the terms interchangeable, even though I shouldn’t) community. This sparked many of the same thoughts you’ve so clearly articulated. And while I think there are no good answers to the questions you’ve raised, I’ll offer some thoughts and observations anyway.

    Some people in my class expressed fear at what the Mennonite Church will look like in 50 years given the current trends toward biblical fundamentalism displayed in many Mennonite communities outside North America. They look at the global Mennonite Church and see a hostile takeover in the works; “our liberal rationalist Mennonitism will soon revert to their evangelical fundamentalist Mennonitism.” I think this is ridiculous, but it’s an important reaction to pay attention to in North American Mennonite circles when the “global Mennonite Church” is discussed.

    In the end, I fall back on what you might describe partially as the effect of post-modernity, but has strong roots in the Anabaptist tradition: a strong discomfort and dislike of Confessions of Faith as our anchors of identity. The Lutherans have the Augsburg Confession, around which they have established a global identity. If you agree with the Augsburg Confession, you’re a Lutheran. If not, you aren’t. In a way, it’d be nice if we had one of those. MWC could use its recently developed “Shared Convictions” as a litmus test for global Mennonites: if you can sign the Shared Convictions, you’re in. If you can’t, you’re not a Mennonite. Boy, that’d be easy.

    Instead, MWC specifically states that those are descriptive convictions, and are not meant to be prescriptive for the global Mennonite Church. Interestingly, the same has been said about our North American Mennonite Confession of Faith. Theoretically, we’re a non-creedal/non-doctrinal church.

    So let’s embrace that. We aren’t identical to Mennonites around the world, but we hopefully have some things in common. Maybe they aren’t the beliefs or values that we think are the most important, but that’s okay. We want to remain in conversation with the global Mennonite Church, and we need to be open to learning as well as teaching. There won’t be a hostile takeover of our theology, but there hopefully will be an increase of Mennonites from the Global South coming to North America as missionaries. They’ll bring the Spirit and their own interpretations of Anabaptism, as well as cultural baggage with which we most likely won’t want to identify.

    The goal of MWC or a global Anabaptist community is not to develop theological doctrines or make decisions for all Mennonites, but to be a place for conversation and communion to celebrate our shared Anabaptist/Mennonite identity (which will mean different things to different people). We have the MWC Shared Convictions as a good description of current Mennonite identity, and it’s okay that it doesn’t encompass all of what I may think it means to be Mennonite. Participation in the global Mennonite community is voluntary and open — if you identify with what you see as Mennonite values, come join us and we’ll be in discussion. One (perhaps negative) outcome of this is that we begin to strongly identify with MC-USA along theological/doctrinal lines, and we should be cautious of this nationalistic division of the Church.

    Also, perhaps our Mennonite missions could be more re-connected with our own understandings of Anabaptist history and what it means to be Mennonite. Today, some Mennonite churches in the Global South are saying, “Hey! You just gave us the Gospel — which is nice — but you left out all this good stuff about peace and community and mutual aid!” Discussion only works if we’re willing to say what we believe, and why we believe it.

    So I’m basically (rambling, and) agreeing with you, Tim, that we can’t always pretend that we agree on basic theological/religious questions of what it means to be Mennonite. I say why I’m a Mennonite, you say why you’re a Mennonite, and we talk about that. That’s the beauty of being a Church centered around community discernment, not a Church centered around a Confession of Faith.

  2. davisagli

    Thanks, Tim and j alan. I’ve been stewing about these matters for the past hour or so trying to figure out how to put my thoughts into words (I was also a participant in the Goshen College Anabaptist History tour), and you’ve summarized them more clearly and with more nuances than I could.

    Our church has a history of schisms and separation. But we also draw from a story, beginning in the Bible, of God welcoming the unwelcomeable and seeking reconciliation between people. Conversation and discernment in a spirit of community with those who disagree with us seems to me to be much more in keeping with that story than does cutting ourselves off from others to protect principles. And unity is more poignant when it is something that is clung to despite differences that make us want to go our separate ways. The challenge facing us is, I think, to maintain both openness and conviction as we engage others.

  3. carl

    there hopefully will be an increase of Mennonites from the Global South coming to North America as missionaries.


    They’ll bring the Spirit and their own interpretations of Anabaptism, as well as cultural baggage with which we most likely won’t want to identify.

    Much like all missionaries throughout history.

  4. j alan meyer

    I just wanted to point out that a very similar (and intriguing) discussion is taking place over on the BikeMovementAsia website (on many topics, not just this one). I encourage you to also check that out if you’re interested.

  5. Lora

    There certainly is a richness that comes out of perceiving ourselves as a part of a global body, and the interactions and exchanges which are birthed from that. But my experience with Mennonite churches in Latin America has given me a similar sort of cynicism to yours, Tim. At best, the Mennonite churches I attended in Bolivia and Guatemala reinforced the norms and power structures of their respective cultures and were indistinguishable from other denominations. At worst, they carried much of the baggage from the missionaries who established the churches in the first place. The exceptions to this, the churches that gave me a lot of hope, were the Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren congregations of Colombia and Guatemala City, and I think this is mostly because they have had to formulate a theology, a living gospel which speaks to the reality of war and suffering in their countries. To be a peace-espousing Christian in such a setting actually demands something of you, unlike most places in the Western hemisphere. I think it probably is hopeful optimism to speak of a global Anabaptist body, but the nuggets I’ve found in that body are worth the effort it takes to build and sustain those relationships.

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