A friend just sent me It turns out I’m a Mennonite! from the blog of Greg Boyd, a prominent dissenter in the mega-church movement. In July 2006 he was profiled in the New York Times after he lost 20% of the membership of his mega-church after refusing to endorse conservative political causes. He is author The Myth of a Christian Nation.
This past weekend Boyd was at Hesston College for a conference and found a connection with the Mennonite tradition. He says, “…on a deep level, it kind of felt like coming home.” In many ways his reflections echoes the stories told in Coming Home: Stories of British and Irish Anabaptists in which people from many different Christian traditions share how they connected with Anabaptism. I worked with many of these folks while in England and it was incredible to see the impact the Anabaptist tradition had on their lives. Boyd’s post has that same energy. It’s an energy that I see as critical to the future of Anabaptism, rather than be as part of the Mennonite church or an Anabaptist movement of people from many different denominations (as in the UK).
The difference between Boyd’s story and those of my friends in England is that Boyd also immediately discovered some of the shortcomings of the Mennonite tradition. I remember vividly the disbelief from British friends when I told them that more than half of Mennonites voted for Bush. This made no sense to them based on what they’d discovered as Anabaptist core convictions. Boyd put it this way:
But there was another very interesting thing I learned about the Mennonites: they’re in trouble. I heard this from a number of people, including John Roth. One man literally wept as he told me how he’s been grieved seeing Mennonites abandon their core vision of the Kingdom and core convictions over the last several decades. They’re losing their counter-cultural emphasis and becoming “Americanized” and “mainstreamed” (as various people told me). Consequently, many Mennonite leaders are getting involved in partisan politics in a way that goes against the Mennonite tradition. While Evangelicals tend to be co-opted by Right Wing politics, these leaders are being co-opted by Left Wing politics. They’re basically defining Kingdom social activism as supporting radical democratic policies. Yet, three fourths of Mennonites are Republican. Hence there’s growing tensions between the leadership and the body of the Mennonites.
Boyd’s framing of his concerns is similar to that of John D. Roth’s Speaking to Government: A Proposal for a Sabbatical from Politics. As with Roth’s presentation, I find Boyd’s questions raises very important questions for Mennonites, but it also lacks something when it comes to its description of political action and contrasting it with Mennonite core convictions.
First of all, where are the Mennonite leaders who are defining social activism as supporting radical Democratic policies? (I’m assuming Boyd is talking about the US political party). Are we talking here about people who occasionally sign MoveOn petitions? Are we talking about the Mennonite majority on the city council of Goshen, Indiana (including the editor of The Mennonite)? I’m not suggesting that there aren’t Mennonites jumping on the Democratic bandwagon, but I don’t think they represent the radical wing of the Mennonite church or Anabaptism more broadly.
Most radical Mennonites or Anabaptists I know are not involved with party politics. They are helping young people in Colombia find ways to stand up to the brutal tactics of military, guerrilla and paramilitary recruiters. They are shutting down DESO, a British government branch that subsidizes arms deals in the UK. They are involved in working alongside First Nations and indigenous people in Canada to protect their lands from exploitation from big business. They are working in Iraqi Kurdistan to train local peacemakers.
I guess I don’t see this type of “left wing” political action as incompatible with the core convictions of Mennonitism that Boyd describes. While some of these actions speak to government, none of these Anabaptist radicals are under any illusion that the Kingdom of God is to be found in an earthly kingdom. In his response to responses to his original call for a sabbatical, John Roth says:
…I would like our public witness–in our communities, to our politicians, and to our brothers and sisters around the world–to be framed more clearly within the context of our allegiance to Christ and to the church… and to a logic of social/political/economic transformation that is rooted unabashedly in the cross and resurrection
I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with this statement. In fact I think the most consistently radical actions are those that come when we, like the early Anabaptists, place loyalty to Christ above loyalty to the state. It is spirit of the Resurrection that frees us from the frees us from the fear of imprisonment or death and gives us hope beyond the apparent ineffectiveness of our actions.
Finally, I don’t mean to minimize the divisions within the Mennonite church. I think its important to look at the different streams of Anabaptism. We are not monolithic. Rodney Sawatsky describes four Anabpatist traditions: Separatist Anabaptists, Establishment Anabaptists, Reformist Anabaptists and Tranformationist Anabaptist. I hope to elaborate more on these streams soon in another blog post. Rather than folks from one stream writing another one off, we do need to have the conversations that Roth suggests. And we need folks like Gregory Boyd and many others drawn to Anabaptism to come alongside us in that discussion.