The Impossible Anabaptist

(x-posted at IndieFaith)

It is a blustery snow day out here in Waterloo County. I, however, snook into the church office before it got too bad . . . we’ll see if I get home. This is my first post here at YAR. And as I understand the tradition I should give a little sketch of myself.
I grew up in the Sommerfeld Mennonite church in southern Manitoba. I essentially stopped attending the church in junior high and after a brief hiatus from church-in-general I was baptized in the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Church just after I graduated from high school. At this time I pulled up stakes a did volunteering and eventually settled into a small non-denominational bible college (where I completed a BA and MDiv). In these years I was married to a former Catholic in the Anglican church while later attending a small house-church and inner-city baptist church. It was only after my academic career was put on hold (or extinguished) that I began thinking again about pastoral ministry. I realized that I could not pastor from nowhere. This eventually led me back to Mennonite church where I am now pastoring within Mennonite Church Canada. All this to say that my sense of Mennonite identity and theology are far from fixed. In my first year of ministry reflecting on what it may mean for me to be (or not to be) Mennonite led me to write the following article, The Impossible Anabaptist.

My name is David Driedger. I am happily married to Chantal Driedger (Lavallee) who grew up French Catholic. Chantal and I were married in the Anglican Church. After we were married I attended a non-denominational seminary at which time I also served at a Baptist church. I enjoy reading Orthodox theologians and the Desert Fathers and Mothers. And as of 2007 I became a pastor at a Mennonite church. I should make two things clear from the beginning. First, I am not new to the Mennonite Church. I grew up in the Russian Mennonite tradition first in the Sommerfelder Mennonite Church and then later in the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Church where I was baptized. Second, I do not offer my story as necessarily unique. Many people inside and outside of my age bracket acquire significant experiences outside of the religious tradition of their upbringing. I simply offer my story as someone who has been confronted directly with the question of whether or not they are Mennonite. The question became acute due to my vocational calling to the pastorate. When I began looking for pastoral opportunities in 2005 I did not assume that I would pastor at a Mennonite church. What I did learn was that I had to pastor from somewhere. Until this point I maintained fluid migration patterns among churches. Sometimes the change was due to a geographical move, sometimes I changed churches due to (what I perceived to be) theological maturing and sometimes due to relational changes (getting married). I carried this sense of independence into my pastoral job search. After pursuing a few opportunities in different denominations I found myself frustrated feeling alone and unsupported. I realized that perhaps I could not both job hunt and church shop at the same time. This process did not seem fair either to me or to the churches I was contacting. The thought emerged that perhaps I needed to commit to something larger before I could find a specific place to minister from. I needed to become a part of one of the families of faith. Mennonite Church Canada was one family that I hoped would have room for both my wife and I.

It did not take long before we were attending The Welcome Inn in Hamilton and began conversations with Mennonite Church Eastern Canada about possible placements. Within the year I was called to serve at Hillcrest Mennonite Church in New Hamburg Ontario. It was in the interview process leading up to this position and the licensing interview following that I needed to explicitly address, perhaps for the first time in my life, the question of being Mennonite or Anabaptist. I knew that I was not a Yoder-reading, conflict resolution major who could not talk about their diner last night without mentioning “social justice” or “community.” I am not knocking Yoder, justice or community I just recognized a sub-culture (with a particular dialect) that I had not been formed within. In the various interviews I awkwardly tried to articulate my commitment to “seek peace and pursue it.” I offered my view that the symbolism of communion may be more “real” than we have often assumed in our tradition. I confessed my ambivalence regarding free-will and predestination. I was challenged and affirmed in the process. I felt good about the decisions that were made but I also anticipated a type of magical, clarifying moment where I would recognize or realize my Mennoniteness. This did not happen though something of equal significance did occur.

In my pursuit of personal and pastoral identity I stumbled across a Mennonite that has captured my imagination as to what is to belong here. I have come to know this Mennonite as the Impossible Anabaptist. The problem is that this individual can be easy to misunderstand. I came across the Impossible Anabaptist in the recent article by Walter Klaassen, “Recovering the Anabaptist Vision” (Canadian Mennonite 11.8). Klaassen warns that it is not an easy or simple matter to be an Anabaptist. He is critical of us when in our cultural accommodation we are unduly “preening ourselves with the bright feathers of a heroic tradition.” In response Klaassen offers three distinct attributes of the Anabaptist. First, in honour of the word’s origin Anabaptists are those who are re-baptized. This initial criterion already levels a fatal blow to most Mennonites seeking a deeper sense of being Anabaptist. Second, Klaassen writes that “what especially characterized 16th century Anabaptists was that they stood consciously against virtually everything their Christian culture took for granted” [emphasis mine]. Anabaptists are what others are not. Finally, modern Anabaptists can also be those “who are being persecuted for their faith by repressive governments.” So in addition to being what others are not we are also what others do to us. I am not re-baptized. I am not sure I can or should define myself purely in opposition to my surrounding culture. I am not being persecuted for my faith. I know that Klaassen would grant me the possibility of being Mennonite but his account renders my Anabaptist identity an impossibility.

Klaassen’s account of the Impossible Anabaptist is not helpful. His image acts as a gate keeper to any would-be Anabaptists. Klaassen’s gate is inappropriately narrow based on moral and social categories derived from a historically constructed image of 16th century Anabaptists. This type of framework results in keeping Anabaptist identity cloistered and controlled. I find it impossible to locate my identity in such a community. I do however maintain that it is the “impossibility” that must remain in some sense central to our faith. I believe our Mennonite/Anabaptist identity is better served when we recognize the impossible possibility of God’s gift and God’s holiness. This calls us to the priestly task (for all believers) of learning to live in relationship with the holy, abundant and elusive presence of God.

I find much more hope for the Impossible Anabaptist in Chris Huebner’s A Precarious Peace. He recognizes that living as Mennonite or Anabaptist has much more to do with the life, death and resurrection of Christ than seeing the 16th century as in some way prescriptive or normative. Huebner characterizes the life of the church as “a body that does not admit to establishment, a truth that does not admit of ownership, and an identity that does not admit of location” (24). Here the Anabaptist identity remains vulnerable, contingent, beyond the grasp of our control. This is a call for the church to separate more completely from the “state” which becomes any centre of power of and control. Though Klaassen rejects our “preening” with the feathers of heroism he does not reject the notion of heroism as such in the Anabaptist identity. It is this sense of heroism that attempts to stabilize the prescriptive nature of Anabaptist identity. A good Anabaptist is one who . . . This creates a centre of power or “state” from which judgments are made and boundaries are policed. In response Huebner identifies with a broader tradition that recognizes the unsettling nature of Christ. He quotes Rowan Williams at length who says that martyrdom (which is effectively what Klaassen is espousing as the ultimate Anabaptist identity) is essentially,

about something other than heroism. It has to do with freedom from the imperatives of violence — a freedom, in this instance, that carries the most dramatic cost imaginable. It is not the drama that matters, however, it is the freedom that is important. If we focus on the drama, if we long for the opportunity of heroism, we are in thrall to another king of violence because we are seeking a secure and morally impregnable place for the self to be. We want to be victims, to enter a world there are clear divisions between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. We want, in fact, to get back to that clear frontier between insiders and outsiders which is so comprehensively unsettled by the trial of Jesus in the Gospels. (200-201)

I see this statement from the Archbishop of the Anglican Church as reflecting to a greater degree the type of vulnerability necessary to address issues of violence (personal and structural), which I imagine comes close to the heart of Anabaptism. Klaassen’s account strikes me as too prone to drama, too prone to bolstering a type of unattainable morality that tends to result in habitual shame and hatred (either projected inward or outward).

My name is David Driedger. I am a pastor at a Mennonite church. My family history comes out of the Mennonite tradition. Am I myself Mennonite or Anabaptist? I find it impossible to nail down and secure just what that is. I also find it disconcerting that my faith and possible development should be limited to the idea of a fixed and static denominational “camp.” That being said I am learning to live in the gift of being Mennonite. Will I always be a Mennonite? I wouldn’t see why not, but it is not for me to say. That ambiguity does not change who I am, in fact this ambiguity must remain a part of my identity. As a follower of Christ I must be prepared to leave whatever is necessary to follow him into places unknown and uncharted. Put this way perhaps I am more Mennonite than I thought.

Comments (7)

  1. SteveK

    Welcome David! Interesting post. I think that many of us– especially those of us who didn’t grow up in the Mennonite tradtion– sometimes wonder whether we are really anabaptist and what being an anabaptist really is. Sometimes I wonder if being a part of the Mennonite Church, with its cultural traditions and Yoder-heads is really what I’m after.

    But when all the dross is set aside, I find that what anabaptism is really all about is taking Jesus’ teaching and life seriously. In my facebook profile, I listed my “religion” as being a Jesus imitator. And with all the disagreements and issues within anabaptism and Mennonitism, in the end we can all agree that we want to obey and be like Jesus, even if we disgree about what that looks like. I guess that’s enough for me.

    Steve K

  2. ST

    The EMMC church is intriguing. I visited their HQ once in Winnipeg. Welcome to the blog. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. That was a super thorough post.

  3. DavidD (Post author)

    It is interesting Steve that not more denominations actually reflect that as coming close to their identity.

    And ST I had a great experience with the EMMC (I attended in Altona, MB). I am not sure it is quite where I am at now, but it offered great formation for me as a young Christian. It was also likely partially from that experience that I went on to attend different churches as their influence was not so much to connect to a Mennonite church but to connect with a meaningful expression of church.

  4. Hinke

    Hi David! Good to “hear” from you again. I always appreciated your articulate responses in our seminary classes. I also read Klassen’s article on recovery of the Anabaptist vision and agree with much of your analysis. As a Mennonite/Anabaptist group, I think we all benefit and grow when we interact with people who come from a diversity of backgrounds or theological understandings. Thanks for your introduction and for your article…is this being published? And I also would like to thank you for your input from the delegate floor at last year’s annual Canadian assembly on the topic of young adults in the church.

  5. DavidD (Post author)

    I have submitted it to Canadian Mennonite . . . we’ll see if it gets through!

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