by Jason Evans
Last year, I was asked to speak at the national convention for the Mennonite Church USA. I had the opportunity to listen to the opinions and concerns of many young adult Anabaptists. I was eager to hear what my fellow Christians—with a heritage of nonviolent theology—had to say. I was anxious to hear their ideas about the future of Anabaptism.
I was surprised to say the least.
My idealistic perception of this tribe did not prepare me for the reality of those that have grown up in this tradition. What I found in the eyes of many young people I saw was disillusionment and frustration with a pacifist gone passive-aggressive system. Sitting there, I wondered what the future is for denominations rooted in the Radical Reformation. And what did that mean for someone like me who came to this tradition out of conviction rather than bloodline? … and how did a guy like me end up at a Mennonite national convention in the first place?!
I was at a rally in downtown San Diego this last week. We cried for a cease in cuts to education budgets. As I walked down the street with my young son over my shoulders, I was amazed at the thought of how much money has been spent on the “war on terror”. All the while, we continue to cut funding for our public schools, the only educational option for the poor who can not afford private schools and can’t afford for a parent to not bring home an income in order to home school their children.
September 11, 2001 has led us into an era of costly violence. We are a broken country, within a broken world
But this isn’t news. It seems that more and more people are beginning to realize this. We see the brokenness in our families, our schools, our environment, our religion, our politicsÂ and our media. We see that violence isn’t working and that conforming to the masses hasn’t worked either. Considering my children and considering our world’s brokenness is what drove me to pick up John Howard Yoder’s, The Politics of Jesus, months after 9/11. I was amazed. Ideas such as non-conformity and non-violence were such that I had only borrowed from punk bands and the secular minds that informed their thinking until I read about Anabaptism. Until then, I was unaware of Christian voices that encouraged this way of living as the Way. And I am not alone.
Many Christians, young and old, are beginning to see the need to re-frame how we think and act upon our theology. And more and more of us are finding a home in a Christian understanding that strongly resembles traditional Anabaptist thought. Whether we perceive this as a move of the Spirit or a response to the times we are in, more and more are beginning to find a home in Anabaptism. But many, if not most, are not affiliated with or actively seeking membership with an Anabaptist denomination. Many of us that did not grow up with this heritage, when convicted by the same values, did not ask for permission to label ourselves “Anabaptist”. We did not wait for someone else to give us this title. Our convictions and our desire to be a peaceful witness to Christ’s kingdom drove us to claim Anabaptism. So, what does this mean for those systems of the same conviction?
Anabaptism is a heritage that is being embraced by followers of Jesus across the globe. The more our world’s leaders prove the inability of violence, the more we as Christians seem drawn towards a theology of nonviolence and radical allegiance to the peaceable kingdom. How will those that carry the torch of an Anabaptist heritage intersect with these new Anabaptists? Is it relational or organizational or both? My hunch is it will be a collection of many approaches. For those from within this tradition, you have the opportunity to help us learn from the mistakes you have seen through your history. Without you, those of us without your history will potentially make the same errors. Even together, we will stumble, but my hope is that we can come together from our variety of perspectives and experiences and learn together, creating the energy to cultivate a movement rooted in nonviolence and radical allegiance to Christ that can stand in opposition to the the political, religious and commercial powers that would distract us from Christ’s cause.
The new energy being brought to this tradition may seem to deafen the cries of those who already feel unheard and misunderstood within this family. For those of us that are excited by our new theological framework, we must still listen to the doubts and fears of those that have been raised by this tradition. There is still so much to be learned about this history, this theology and how it is lived. We must curb our idealism and find common ground in which we can discern together how to not simply impact a denomination but the entire Body of Christ.
While my experience has primarily been with those that are within North America, I confess that I believe this convergence can not be limited to the voices of this continent. Standing at the beginning of the 21st Century, we are also at the end of what the stereotypical white, European male theological perspective can give us. It is increasingly a bankrupt platform. Therefore, we desperately need to listen to the voices of our sisters and brothers that are emerging from other perspectives. The most powerful lessons I’ve learned on non-violence did not come through the books of theologians and activists, but rather the stories told to me by a woman that has lived through the Rwandan genocide and a white housewife. We all need eyes to see, and ears to hear, the unheard and unseen in our midst.
I recognize that Anabaptism is not simply about nonviolence, yet this has been an emphasis of mine. That said, this is certainly a defining characteristic of Anabaptism and a magnetic and animating trait for many of us. This is why I have put an emphasis on theologically-rooted nonviolence. In a world of violent fundamentalism from a variety of faith traditions around the globe, it seems to me that this may be a necessary conviction for any radical, spiritual community to bring about a constructive, sustainable alternative. Therefore, I am convinced that there is great potential for the Anabaptist community to see new energy and a new imagination for the future. Will we be able to dream together? That is yet to be seen.