On Saturday, the Mennonite Church USA executive board decided to hold the MC-USA 2013 convention in Phoenix, thus saving the
$300,000 deposit $460,994 (source: MCUSA staff) that otherwise would have been lost. Any delegates who feel unsafe (or uncomfortable) meeting in Phoenix due to Arizona’s targeting of the Latino community will be shepherded to a “satellite” gathering at an unspecified location. Thus, their marginalization will move from the realm of metaphor to a literal, physical fact. The decision is a real triumph of institutional logic.
As I read the news in my inbox this morning, I felt something inside me drop. I realized that I had let myself hope that the executive board might listen to the clear message from Iglesia Mennonita Hispana and many others. I had let myself hope that this decision would be different from the decision to move ahead with the building in Elkhart last year. I let myself hope that the institution could re-member itself as the beloved community and take a prophetic stand with a real cost.
If you’re looking for a further critique and de-construction of the decision, I recommend, Andy Alexis-Baker’s piece Becoming Anabaptist: A Protest to the Mennonite Church. I want to focus elsewhere in the remainder of this piece.
In processing this decision, I notice a shift in myself and already heard a similar sentiment from others. Last year, many of us put a lot of energy and time into trying to convince Mennonite Church USA institutions to shift as part of the Spark Renewal movement. As I sit with the Phoenix decision and read some of the response, I feel a sense of release where I did not expect it. Perhaps it is time to stop focusing on trying to change or influence the Mennonite institutional structures and focus instead in building an alternative community outside of the shell of the old.
Trying to affect the institutions of Mennonite Church USA feels to me increasingly like a path to burn out and cynicism. Instead, focusing our energy on building an Anabaptist network outside of traditional denominational structures is hopeful and life-giving alternative.
Over the last month, Mennonite Weekly Review has curated a series on its blog responding to an article from from Myron Augsburger in which he called for a new, non-institutional Anabaptist “alliance”. Augburger’s vision is big and sweeping, including all existing Mennonite denominations from Old Order Mennonites to Church of the Brethren. While this sort of grand alliance is exciting, I find the focus on those denominational structures is distracting. We can’t wait for these structures to yield them selves up in some scheme of grand unification. Rather, as “>Mark van Steenwyk suggests, let us notice the myriad small ways in which this network is already happening.
I’ve been dreaming in this direction ever since I worked with the Anabaptist Network in the UK, a group that consciously names its goal of not becoming another institution. Over the past four years, I’ve seen the filaments of a similar network here in the U.S. begin to coalesce, interweave and cross-pollinate. Neo-Anabaptism is increasingly independent and outside of the traditional Anabaptist denominations. It challenges not only imperial Christianity, but the structures that go with it. In envisioning what this new creation looks like, I am reminded of Ched Myers and Elaine Enns reading of 2 Corinthians 5:16-17:
The flesh (Gk. sarx) does not refer to our bodies or our sexual passions, the widespread mi-understanding of Christian pietism. Rather it is one of Paul’s favorite metaphors for the deeply rooted, socially conditioned world- view we inherit from our upbringing. It is the sum total of personal and political constructs and conventions that define what it means to be a member of a given culture–in other words, the way most folk think and act. from Ambassadors of Reonciliation, Vol 1. p. 10 (emphasis in the original)
How much of our institutional logic is part of this sarx? Certainly the early Anabaptists had a clear sense of what they were being called out of. What can we learn from their critiques of the society around them? In the midst of the assimilation of traditional Mennonites can we listen to the voices of non-cradle Mennonites calling us to a new creation? Today is the second day of “Hope for Change … Hope for the Future”, an un-precedented meeting of Mennonite racial/ethnic leaders in the U.S. Let’s listen carefully to what hope they offer.
The Phoenix decision is an clarion call for Anabaptists committed to prophetic witness to to shift our focus from the institutions to the new community that is rising up.
Crossposted from As of Yet Untitled
Photo by Tim Nafziger on Hampstead Heath, London, UK, September 24, 2009