Patterns of this World, part 3: Patriarchy, Pacifism and Powerlessness

Stained Glass at Cathedralis SS. Michaelis et GuduLae

In the first article of this series, I did a broad overview of the bureaucratization trends in the Mennonite Church. In the second article, I looked specifically at the philosophy of institutions put forth by J. Lawrence Burkholder and practiced by James Brenneman and Howard Brenneman as presidents of Goshen (Ind.) College and Mennonite Mutual Aid respectively. In this third part I’ll look at the history of this thought in the Anabaptist tradition as well as Mennonite and feminist critique of Neihbur and Burkholder. I’ll continue to draw heavily from The Limits of Perfection: A Conversation with J. Lawrence Burkholder as well as The Feminist Case against Bureaucracy.

Burkholder and the tradition of Mennonite Niebuhrians

In The Politics of Jesus John Howard Yoder summarizes the position of Neihbur thus:

Love, self-sacrifice and nonviolence provide no basis for taking responsibility in this world … Those who are called to assure the survival and the administration of institutions will accept violence in order, one day, to reduce or eliminate it. They will accept inequality and exploitation with the goal of progressively combating them… While respecting the prophet, the rest of us will choose institutions. (104)

It’s important to note that the position Yoder summarized is not limited to Burkholder, Brenneman and Brenneman. In his comments responding to part two of this series, former director of Mennonite Publishing House Levi Miller claims this position as well. Furthermore, Miller suggests that this approach to institutions long pre-dates Burkholder and Neihbur:

Even a causal reading of Mennontie [sic] history and documents such as the Schleitheim or Dortrecht Confessions [sic] would suggest that most Mennonites were pacifist Niebuhrians (to use your category) long before a a professor Reinhold Niebuhr gave some legitimacy to this point of view. They were pacifist Niebuhrians because they believed this was Christian faithfulness. Visit any traditional Amish or modern Mennonite congregation in Holmes, Ohio, or Lancaster, Pa., or even in Pasadena, Calif., and Winnipeg, Manitoba, and you’ll still find a healthy element of this long Mennonite tradition with which Burkholder sometimes quarreled, but ultimately embraced and enriched. (1)

I’ve written about Miller here before, and while I disagree with him quite strongly in some areas, I find his frankness refreshing. In this case, he reminds us that these tensions between prophet and administrator have always been with us.

Indeed, the very first professional theologian among the Anabaptists, Balthasar Hubmaier, held open the theological space for an Anabaptist state that would “use the sword to protect the innocent and punish the wicked”(Foley). These claims were not simply theoretical. Hubmaier had some opportunity to put these concepts into practice. During the 1525 Peasant’s War, Hubmaier supported the peasants cause and carried weapons. Afterwards, he fled to Nikolsburg in Moravia where he began a top down reformation of the state-supported church. Hubmaier had good relationships with a few nobles and even dedicated his writings to them in “in order to win their favor for Anabaptism” (Loserth). “There is nothing to suggest that the reforms of public worship implemented during Hubmaier’s stay in Nikolsburg resulted from a movement “from below” initiated by local subjects.” According to John Roth and James Stayer, “Rather a group of local clergy under Hubmaier’s leadership became the carriers of the reforms.” (170)

For a brief look at the way these patterns continued among the Russian Mennonites in the Ukraine in the 18th and 19th century see reflections from restorative justice practitioner Elaine Enns: “Pilgrimage to Ukraine: Revisioning History through Restorative Justice.”

Mennonite and feminist critique of Neihbur and company

In The Politics of Jesus, Yoder refuses Neihbur’s division between prophecy and institution. Instead he points to Jesus’ proclamation of jubilee as an alternative institution (104). Yoder goes on to offer a vision of Jesus that redefines politics:

[Jesus] refused to concede that those in power represent an ideal, a logically proper, or even an empirically acceptable definition of what it means to be political. He did not say (as some sectarian pacifists or some pietists might), “you can have your politics and I shall do something else more important”; he said, “your definition of polis, of the social, of the wholeness of being human socially is perverted.” (107)

Jesus, in Yoder’s reading, invites us to radically different politics in his invitation to imitation of the cross. Yoder holds this imitation as the basis for constructing an alternative polis. This is a politics based on the subversion of power and enmity by servanthood and forgiveness (131). In other words, the politics of the cross are a direct threat to the powers and principalities, and they constantly seek to undermine them.

In his essay in The Limits of Perfection: Conversations with J. Lawrence Burkholder, J. Denny Weaver explores a third way that builds on Yoder’s reading. In Weaver’s analysis, Burkholder offers two choices. There is the “withdrawn alternative community,” exemplified by the Mennonite church Burkholder grew up in. They hold to a two kingdom theology in which the church holds to absolute nonresistance while recognizing that the state must use force (89). On the other end of the spectrum is corpus christianum, as exemplified by Neibuhr. The focus for this worldview is the transformation of individuals who then “permeate society and make its institutions more just.” (90)

Weaver suggests a third model for church which he calls the “socially active alternative community.” It is engaged with the world, but does not measure itself using the criteria set up by the powers. It is not simply focused on the transformation of individuals, but is actively working for the transformation of society through the work of the church to bring about the reign of God (91). Weaver accepts Burkholder’s conception of ambiguity, but asserts that it should be used in negotiating between the withdrawn alternative community and the socially active alternative community rather then between the withdrawn alternative community and the corpus christianum.

In “Church-Related Institutions: Signs of God’s Reign?” Mennonite theologian Ted Koontz offers a similar refusal to orient his ethical framework around secular values. For him, Niebuhrian “realism” is that it is not at all realistic if we believe reality is defined by Jesus Christ. He quotes from Douglas Steele’s critique of Niebuhr: “To treat group life as inevitably immoral … and to accept an unbridgeable gulf between personal and group relationships … are for the saints acts of high treason.” (Koontz  428). Koontz challenges Christians to look at reality through the “window of Jesus” Christ rather then to allow the secular order to define our lens (430). Like Ferguson, Koontz recognizes the way that institutions can constrain our imaginations. He names the Holy Spirit as a key to freedom:

One of the Spirit’s greatest contributions to more saintly institutions is that it frees our imaginations from bondage to the legalisms of our age, including what some of our academic disciplines “know” about how institutions “must” be (431).

What is the foundation for this alternative community? If we are serious about looking at institutions through the window of Jesus Christ, as Koontz suggests, it makes sense that in building an alternative we listen to those who have been on the margins of these institutions. Women are one such group. It is only within the last 40 years that women have been allowed to participate at any significant level in the leadership of institutions in the Western world. We need to remind ourselves that most of the institutions we are a part of were created with the understanding that women were inferior to men.

In The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy, Ferguson argues that this outsider’s perspective also gives women an alternative foundation from which to imagine a “non-bureaucratic collective life” (Ferguson 26). Women have been “creators, builders of objects and of relations” and are immersed in a world that gives them identity and meaning outside of institutions (23). Quoting Jesse Bernard, Ferguson articulates the specific elements of this identity that are useful in building a foundation for that non-bureaucratic life:

Women’s domain is characterized by “the kin and locale-based or Gemeinschaft nature of its structure and the love-and/or-duty ethos of its culture.” Women’s responsibilities in anticipating, interpreting, and responding to the needs of others both encourage and require a sensitivity and empathy toward them, an attitude of nurturance and cooperation. (emphasis in orginal) (24-25)

Ferguson acknowledges that this orientation to other carries both a strength and “an enormous weakness.” (25) When we acknowledge our need for others and our connectedness, we open ourselves to betrayal. Ferguson puts this tension at the center of what it means to be human. Like Weaver, she rejects the idea that we must choose between domination and submission. However her critique of institutions goes beyond any of these Mennonite men in naming the reason men fit so easily into institutional roles of power:

[Women’s] condition of powerlessness has been closely bound up in their role as caretaker, so that the latter is distorted by the former. Women’s traditional role is in part intended to prepare theme for, and is easily misshapen by, powerlessness, just as men’s traditional role is in part preparation for, and quickly distorted by, the exercise of power. (26)

White men, in particular, have a special responsibility in deconstructing bureaucratic power because we have grown up saturated with a sense of entitlement. We have grown up knowing at some deep level that we could “grow up to be president.” It’s time to look seriously at the damage we have done to ourselves and our communities in living out that fantasy in our institutional fiefdoms.

I realize that I’ve managed to make the last part in this series the longest of the three. I resisted the urge to add yet another section titled “towards an non-institutional Anabaptist imagination and praxis.” That will have to wait for a future series. In the meantime, I look forward to reading your commments and thoughts.

Works Cited

Ferguson, Kathy E. The Feminist Case against Bureaucracy. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1984.

Foley, Tim. “AT 22: The Anabaptism of Balthasar Hubmaier.” Anabaptism Today. Autumn 1999. Anabaptist Network. March 19, 2011. <>

Koontz, Ted. “Church-Related Institutions: Signs of God’s Reign?” Mennonite Quarterly Review LXXI.3 (1997): 421-38. Web.

Loserth, Johann and Paul Dedic. “Nikolsburg (Jihomoravský kraj, Czech Republic).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. March 19 2011.

Miller, Levi. “Tim Nafziger–You provide a good overview..” [Blog comment.] March 14, 2011 “Patterns of this world, part 2: Breakfast with Burkholder” Tim Nafziger. As of Yet Untitled. The Mennonite. March 6, 2011. <>March 19, 2011.

Roth, John D., and James M. Stayer. A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700. Leiden: Brill, 2007. Web. March 19, 2011

Weaver, J. Denny. “The Socially Active Community: An Alternative Ecclesiology.” The Limits of Perfection: Conversations with J. Lawrence Burkholder. By J. Lawrence Burkholder, Rodney Sawatsky, and Scott Holland. Waterloo, Ont.: Institute of Anabaptist-Mennonite Studies, Conrad Grebel College, 1993. Print.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994. Print.