MCUSA, what keeps us together?

After spending some time visiting some member congregations of Mennonite Church USA (see Life of the Body), I’m trying to think through what unifies the denomination. How do we describe our belonging to the same body of faith, the same Christian tradition?

One way that’s quite popular these days is the essentialist approach. Stuart Murray seems to be the current instantiation of this perspective. In his book, The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010), Murray wants to find an “Anabaptism [that is] stripped down to the bare essentials” (15). He continues: “it is legitimate, and often helpful, to strip back the historical and cultural accretions from traditions that have persisted through the centuries” (44). His work is an “attempt to distill the essence of Anabaptism” (44). Because Stuart thinks he can strip away the husks of contemporary Mennonite communities and get to the Anabaptist kernel, he finds no reason to be in institutional communion with flesh and blood Anabaptists: “I will not become Hutterite, Amish, or Mennonite, but I am grateful that the principles of ‘naked Anabaptism’ are sometimes clothed in Hutterite, Amish, and Mennonite dress” (158-159).

Those who seek to articulate essences and essentials hidden inside so-called cultural wrappings stand in the tradition of Adolf von Harnack, who encouraged Christians to pierce through the transient externals of Jesus and his followers in order to grasp the spiritual universals at the core of Christianity: “[the] highest duty…is to determine what is of permanent value,…to find out what is essential” (What is Christianity?, trans. by Thomas Bailey Saunders [Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986], 13) — “to grasp what is essential in the phenomena, and to distinguish kernel from husk” (12).

This essentialist approach troubles me — and, given the wide-spread support of Murray’s book, it seems like I’m the only one who is troubled by it these days. (For the MCUSA leadership’s promotion of Murray’s work, see the last page of their recent missive: “Desiring God’s Coming Kingdom: A Missional Vision and Purposeful Plan for Mennonite Church USA“). This approach to the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition denudes living witnesses of their encultured expressions of faith. What are most important, according to the essentialists, are the propositions of faith, not the ongoing historical embodiment of faith: and by historical bodies of faith I mean the constant flux and flow of tradition, the passing down of the faith from community to community, and the wisdom found in accretions of historical adjustments, the subtleties of faith revealed through rituals.

No, I cannot dismiss the bodies of witnesses as mere husks within which are hidden the kernels of Anabaptist principles. I decided to throw my lot in with the Mennonite church eight years ago because I believed that Anabaptism begins and ends with bodies — communities of bodies that have given themselves to keeping alive a tradition of Christian nonviolence over the ages, as each generation receives the gift of the past from the hands of those who pass along the memories of the faithful, the legacies of the martyrs. Convictions are displayed through lives of worship which articulate a living Anabaptism; thus, all we can do is locate ourselves within these communities of faith and describe the movements of our bodies as we gather and are sent out, as we preach and pray, as we baptize and eat together, as we sing and share the good news.

In this turn to living communities as irreducible to the passing along of the Anabaptist tradition, I have in mind an insight from Hans-Jurgen Goertz, who calls us to take seriously the “simple religious worship” of the early Anabaptists, and how ordinary Anabaptists “did not always need to appreciate the theological content of Anabaptist ideas, or…have the ability to express them in their own words” (The Anabaptists [London, Uk: Routledge, 1996], 114). While Goertz acknowledges the polygenetic origins of Anabaptism and the heterogeneity of theological convictions of the Anabaptist leaders, he claims that “the way in which it was expressed by its adherents tended to be homogeneous” (ibid).

But here’s trouble for me. While I think the essentialist approach is a dead end for coming up with a Mennonite way forward in our lives of Christian witness, Goertz leads me into a different tension. In our Mennonite church, there isn’t much homogeneity to our daily expressions of Anabaptist faith, and our forms of worship are very different depending on what part of the county we live in and our histories of migration. By no means do I think we should ask some para-congregational body to impose a single worship liturgy and style upon us. If anything, what distinguished Anabaptist worship from the Protestant and Roman varieties was the desire to provide space for ordinary people to be inspired by the Holy Spirit to share revelations from God’s Word. It would be quite un-Anabaptist to homogenize our forms of worship in order to keep our liturgies “simple.”

So, I think I can see the problems with these different attempts to describe authentic Anabaptism. But I am at a loss for coming up with a way to describe what keeps us together as a Mennonite church. The Mennonite church that brought me into the fold looks very different from most of the MCUSA congregations I have visited. My sisters and brothers have welcomed me into the Mennonite family, but I am still trying to understand what makes us a family.

Note: This post was updated on April 23, 2015 to include an updated link to the 2nd edition of Isaac’s essay “Life in the Body: Reflections on Mennonite Church USA”

Comments (5)

  1. Amy Yoder McGloughlin

    Great question, Isaac. I read this on Saturday (instead of writing a sermon, of course), and I’ve been pondering this question ever since.

    Here are my random thoughts:

    I think what complicates the question is that there are several definitions of what “Mennonite” is. Namely, that the various Mennonites that came over back in the day, came over with their own differing understandings of what it meant to be Mennonite. I think this goes back to the radical reformation, where–depending on the early radical one was influences by–there was a different slant to it. Some of the early Anabaptists were scary apocolyptic types, others were doing crazy things like baptizing each other, and others were out there fighting and killing with the peasants in the peasant wars. Even the early parts of our tradition were in disagreement about what it meant to be Anabaptist (and then Mennonite).

    Unfortunately, what has made us Mennonite in many places is what we are not. We are NOT Catholic, we are NOT Protestant. In my experience, Mennonites have a hard time saying what we ARE. That’s why it’s often easier to unite around shoe fly pie and quilts, I think.

    I don’t know what holds us together, or keeps us together, Isaac. I have wondered aloud over the years if it’s even possible. But this story from my church is what gives me hope. Early in Germantown Mennonite Church’s tradition (GMC is where I pastor), the members of the congregation saw this splintering happening–of Mennonites being in disagreement. These GMC’ers, from the Mennonite mother church, would bring to the new world those Mennonites who were suffering in their home countries. The new Mennonites that would come over–while grateful–were horrified to see GMC’s understanding of what it meant to be Mennonite. The Germantown Mennonites were never plain, but were tradespeople, and interacted with other religious traditions (especially Quakers) in their new community. The Mennonites they brought over were plain, farmers, and had a much more conservative view of scripture and of their involvement in the world.

    Leaders at GMC were disturbed by this division, and decided to gather together those Mennonites in the new world to affirm together an old confession (I think it was the Dorshecht confession). In this confession, it says something like–we content ourselves to disagree on many matters, but we can agree on these few things about God.

    I don’t know what can keep us together–is it peace, or social justice, or discipleship, or our view of Jesus? No. Probably not. At this point, I see the congregations in this tradition all struggling to follow Jesus–where they are and with what is there before them. Perhaps–for now–we need to find a way to content ourselves to the places of disagreement, and hold on to each other with grace and love, respecting the genuine struggles we all have to follow in the way of Jesus.

  2. Charlie Kraybill

    The Mennonite Church does seem to have trouble with unity. There are regular splits wherein conservative groups drop out because some liberal innovation was finally the last straw. At the other end of the spectrum, young, disaffected Mennos drop out on the individual level, because they can’t take the fundamentalist/evangelical veneer that has overtaken large segments of the church. Meanwhile, church agencies push buzzwords like “missional” to show they’re hip and relevant, but very little actual proselytizing goes on. At the same time, the non-“missional” anabaptist groups (Amish, Hutterite) grow like kudzu because they do a better job of keeping their own. I think the Mennonite Church should take a sabbatical from this worldly “missionizing” gambit and focus on figuring out why so many people drop out. Better to patch the holes before inviting others to board the sinking ship. Over at the Marginal Mennonite Society we stand ready to welcome any who’ve jumped overboard or been made to walk the plank. (We’re a Facebook page. Search for “Marginal Mennonite Society” and “like” us.)

  3. admin

    Comment from Veronica Zundel (via Facebook): I think Isaac has identified a certain unease I had with Stuart’s book, which was that he seemed to want to be committed to a set of ideas rather than to a community. Not having had much experience of ‘cultural Anabaptism’ in its home setting, I have to guess here, but my feeling is that letting go of cultural accretions is more a matter of updating than it is of trying to create something ‘pure’ and ‘culture-free’. It seems to me to be important that the Mennonite church, for instance, finds expressions of its faith which are contemporary and more universal, but this does not mean becoming entirely without its own ‘customs and rituals’. It’s more a matter of adapting the particular incarnation, rather than seeking something which is not in some sense incarnated in human culture. If that makes sense.

  4. Sam

    This seems like a really fair question. From my perspective, there is no simple answer. Rather, we’re tied together in numerous complicated ways. There are Mennonites connected mainly by tradition and cultural trappings (Zwieback and Verenika in my home), connected to the church because of roots of birth and habit. Others are connected theologically, uncomfortable with the cultural trappings, but united in seeking peace, or honoring simple living, or proclaiming the good news, or committed to reading the Bible seriously. Others still are connected missionally, joining the denomination because of a commitment to mediation and reconciliation, or having met Mennonites working in Africa or Asia and liking what they were about, or through Mennonite Disaster service. It is this complicated web that ties us together. Which is tricky, of course, because that means what connects me most strongly to the Mennonites (culture and our peace and justice theology) may be in conflict with another person in a very different part of the web (say biblical literalism or an anti-political stance). That doesn’t mean we’re not part of the same community-since it is easy to trace the paths along the web connecting any two people. It just means that our larger communities are complicated things, and it’s a delicate balance to keep them together, or moving in the same direction.

  5. IsaacV (Post author)

    So many wonderful responses. Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts and for offering thoughts of your own.

    Veronica, I very much resonate with your comment. There’s no “scratch” to get back to in terms of a pure tradition (this is also to echo Amy’s point above). In other words, it’s clothing all the way down. There’s no “naked” essence to get back to. Again, this is where Goertz is helpful (and exposes some of the errors of Murray’s project). According to Goertz, there was no “original form, an ‘Ur-Anabaptism’, which evolved while almost always preserving its essential qualities, despite the odd transformation or corruption. There was no ‘real’ Anabaptism in this sense” (The Anabaptists, 34). Instead of looking for “bare essentials” (as Murray would have us do), Goertz doesn’t seem to believe that there is an Anabaptist scratch to which we can find our way back. Part of the problem with the essentialist approach is that it assumes a homogeneous theological point of origin for Anabaptism, and proceeds to manufacture a single strand of Anabaptist tradition purified of variety and difference. For Goertz, this approach fails to take seriously the theological heterogeneity of Anabaptists. While there was much diversity in terms of theological convictions, according to Goertz ordinary Anabaptists shared similar forms of spiritual life. In other words, there was no homogeneous theological essence, but there was homogeneity in terms of what faithful worship and a faithful life looked like on the ground — for example, anticlerical worship was central (which, by the way, is not part of Murray’s essentialist vision of Anabaptism; that’s why he is able to imagine an Anabaptist-Roman Catholic).

    Amy, I am completely with you when you note how Mennonites are much better at saying what we are not, rather than affirming our debts to other traditions (this was also a significant weakness in the recent MissioDei booklet by Palmer Becker, What Is An Anabaptist Christian? [MMN, 2008]). I think it would be much more helpful to point to all the ways that Anabaptism flows out of a variety of movements within Medieval Christianity. When we dig down to the roots of Anabaptism we find ourselves getting lost among a multiplicity of Christian traditions. Anabaptism/Mennonism seems to be a movement of creative borrowing that assembles a way of being Christian that affirms what is faithful among sisters and brothers in the church catholic. And what we end up with is a movement that is a revolutionary assemblage, with debts everywhere. In other words, we are mutts. We are the illegitimate children of the Catholics and Protestants — they tried to disown us by calling us heretics, but we grew up and now our faces show that they have to be our mothers and fathers, that our identities and theirs are interwoven.

    Sam, I think you are right: We are bound together in a complicated web of relationships, traditions, practices, and beliefs. Hopefully the entanglements of our Mennonite identities can form a fabric that we can all rest into as we discern what it means to be faithful to the gospel — and that, as Charlie worries about in his comment, we might find room for the marginal Mennonites.

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