Legacy Mennonites and Anabaptist Camp Followers: a conversation

cross-posted from As of Yet Untitled

The other day I had a good conversation with Mark Van Steenwyk, a writer and activist who lives in the Mennonite Worker community in Minneapolis, Minn. The conversation brought me back to concept of Anabaptist camp followers (ACF’s) that I first dealt with in December 2009, in Levi Miller, peace and justice and the Mennonite chattering class, a response to a piece by former Mennonite publish Levi Miller that took a jaded look at “peacenjustice” as a fading marketing ploy and coined the phrase Anabaptist camp followers. In the last paragraph of my article, I offered a challenge to Mennonites to welcome this generation’s ACF’s:

Today, we are seeing a new wave of “Anabaptist camp followers.” As with the earlier wave, many of them come from evangelical backgrounds looking for the missing peace and justice. I’ve heard many first and second hand stories of young evangelicals walking into Mennonite churches longing for the whole gospel only to find a church doing its best to blend in with all the other Christian churches in town. Will we once again blame them as naive idealists and turn our back on them as we focus on keeping those inside the fold happy?

Since then, the importance of ACF’s has become even clearer to me. I was part of the conversation that led to Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship, which is a conversation between ACF’s who have been drawn to the Mennonite church over the past 50 years and cradle Mennonites drawn to radical discipleship. From California to Georgia, the book looks at the seeds that have grown when ACFs have interacted with the Mennonite church.

Unicycle demonstrationUnicycle demonstration at Papa Festival at Plowcreek Fellowship in Tiskilwa, Illinois on June 20, 2008

I talked with Joanna Shenk, editor of Widening the Circle. As someone who grew up with parents who were former Mennonite, she’s embraced the Mennonite church as an adult, and so falls into both the ACF and cradle Mennonite camp. In an interview for this blog post, she said:

And I found that in many cases (but not all), my peers who had grown up Mennonite (“cradle” folks), weren’t that energized by the theology that had given me so much hope. It was just old hat to them… or a reason to be arrogant toward other Christians. That was disappointing.

I think those new to Anabaptism and those who have been around it for awhile need each other as conversation partners–the potential is for all of us to be challenged to look at our faith and commitments in new ways. In what ways have some of us taken the tradition/theology for granted? In what ways have others of us idealized it? What does it mean to learn from the complicated history of Anabaptism and allow it to shape the church/us today? We need each other for those conversations.

Joanna is continuing the conversation through a Widening the Circle mini-series on the Iconocast. She’ll be interviewing chapter authors about their journeys since contributing to Widening the Circle. Her questions include: What has changed? How has their thinking deepened around the themes they wrote about? What do they see happening in the discipleship community movement currently? What is taking shape in their community/organization? What have they let go?

I’ve also come to understand better how inhospitable Mennonites have been to ACF’s. In November of 2011, I wrote here about the cool reception Vincent Harding received when he challenged Mennonites to become more involved in the civil rights movement. Mennonite leaders were dismissive of any responsibility to become involved:

Mennonite voluntary service director Edgar Stoesz compared the civil rights struggle to World War II, in which Mennonites didn’t participate, but showed up afterwards to clean up. Mennonites “decline to participate in the interracial conflict but seek rather to bring reconciliation and goodwill.”

Harding incisively named this clean-up-afterwards strategy as Mennonites commitment to being the rear light rather than the front light.

Conversations at PAPA fest

Leonide Begly talks with Mark Van Steenwyk at a workshop at Papa Festival in Tiskilway, Ilinois on June 21, 2008

This leads me back to my conversation with Mark. In the paper issue of The Mennonite JoannaShenk interviews Mark and he shares both affirmation and critiques of Mennonites. He names the dynamic in which cradle Mennonites make everyone else feel like forever outsiders:

I’ve met folks who have been Mennonites for decades who still feel like outsiders. We welcome folks with our words but often push them away with our actions and cultural hang-ups. To be a Mennonite, for me, means accepting the reality that I’ll never be as Mennonite as other people.

In preparing this blog post, I asked Mark to share further thoughts about the relationship between ACF’s and others in the Mennonite church:

Regarding what Mennonites can learn from ACF’s … I think that newly emerging Anabaptists understand the points of tension between Anabaptist values and cultural trends. Legacy Mennonites, however, are still defined by the tensions of previous generations. For example, Vincent Harding understood the direct conflict between racism and Anabaptism in ways legacy Mennonites did not. They already determined that their role was to helpful stabilizers–because that is a role they had adopted over centuries.

Today, you can see this with younger radicals who see the violence of globalization, banking, sexism, heteronormativity, but Mennonites tend to be so focused on the predefined issues that they tend to be blind. The only reason homosexuality is an issue discussed by Mennonites is that it threatens unity, and is not seen–by many Mennonites–to be an issue of justice.

I look forward to the conversation between ACF’s and cradle/legacy Mennonites continuing.

PAPA Festival was one such space for conversations between ACF’s and Mennonites since it was hosted by a Mennonite community. For more of my photos and thoughts from that gathering, see my blog post from July 2008: PAPA Festival: A Report.

For more on the conversations between Mennonites and the emerging church from YAR see the submergent category archive.

Comments (4)

  1. Brian Bowman

    “Peacenjustice” is especially a “fading marketing ploy” when it crosses into advocacy of delegated government violence to effect “progressive” social change, which is where MCC finds itself today.

    “…doing its best to blend in with all the other Christian churches in town…”

    I think it’s because the church has devolved into a Simulacrum of the whole FOX/CNN TV Culture, with a little Jesus icing.

    Thank you for such a blunt yet truthful post.

  2. greatneighbor

    Just for the record, “Mennonite camp follower” was coined by Stanley Hauerwas in a piece for this book in 2001.

  3. TimN (Post author)

    Greatneighbor, thanks, I didn’t realize that. I guess Levi Miller just swapped in the “Anabaptist.” It looks like Hauerwas first published that essay in Mennonite Quarterly Review in October 200: Confessions of a Mennonite Camp Follower. He gets huge bonus points in my book for opening up with a reference to the greatest forgotten Mennonite book of all time: The Mennonite Starter Kit: A Handy Guide for the New Mennonite

  4. Pingback: Disillusioned conservative evangelicals in Texas drawn to Anabaptism » Young Anabaptist Radicals

Comments are closed.