Made for such a moment as this?: From Fundamentalist to Anabaptist

This week in my seventh post in my ongoing Anabaptist Camp Followers series, I interview Benjamin Corey. He is a retired US Air Force instructor turned Anabaptist speaker and writer. He blogs at Formely Fundie and is author of the upcoming book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

photo of Benjamin L. Corey Can you share about your first encounter with Anabaptist thought and practice?

I first encountered Anabaptism when I was studying church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, but it was only in the context of their role in Church history— we didn’t get much into Anabaptist thought and certainly didn’t delve into the existence of Neo-Anabaptism, so at that time I had no idea how deeply I would connect with it.

As I continued to make my way through seminary I went through a massive paradigm shift as I realized that even though I had been a Christian for more than 20 years, Jesus himself was the missing aspect to my faith. Once I made this realization, I went through a reorientation of my faith not around Christian religion but simply around Jesus— a process that is the topic of my upcoming book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus. During this reorientation, my views on a host of issues changed— I embraced nonviolence, gender equality, rediscovered the need to live out faith in authentic community and a host of other new discoveries.

I had no idea what to call myself anymore- I felt like a misfit in Christianity because I knew I wanted to follow Jesus, but didn’t know where I fit in. One day I picked up the book Naked Anabaptist and started reading about the tenants of the Anabaptist Network and it was a lightbulb moment for my wife and I, because it articulated our new worldview in a way that felt like someone was inside our head. In that process, we realized that Anabaptist ins’t necessarily something you become but something you realize you already became. Being able to "label" who we were was incredibly freeing for us and helped us realize that we weren’t alone anymore.

What are some of the ways you’ve connected with the wider Anabaptist community that have helped you feel like you are not alone?

Once I realized that I had been an Anabaptist all along, I started to seek out others like me and stumbled upon MennoNerds and folks like my friend Kurt Willems. While an online community is often a poor substitute for real-life interpersonal community, the Anabaptist community online is pretty darn good. It’s the first "tribe" that I’ve ever had where I felt like I belonged and like I was accepted— flaws and all. I think what I love about it is that it is diverse enough to allow for a "big tent" feeling yet we all share several core values to our faith that keep us all linked together. It’s something I haven’t quite experienced before— there’s definitely a kinship factor with the Anabaptist community. Ironically, the only other place I’ve ever experienced this was during my ten years in the military.

How would you describe this online Anabaptist "tribe" for someone who hasn’t experienced it themselves? Can you share any stories that show how its touched your life?

In my experience, Anabaptists are the type of people who just seem to find each other. Once I was finally able to understand my Christian identity, I began to see this same identity in others. As I joined a few online groups that went by various names, I began to get to know folks. After a while, a lightbulb would go off in my head as I realized wait a minute, this one’s an Anabaptist! From there, I simply began to gravitate towards others and eventually found the MennoNerds. I’ve always felt like a total outsider on the verge of rejection, but with the MennoNerds I feel strangely safe. Even with the great theological diversity, I see a tremendous amount of love and acceptance that continually affirms for me, yes, I’m an Anabaptist and proudly so.

What insights do you bring with you from that experience that might be useful for Anabaptists who don’t have much contact with people in the military? For example, I have an uncle who is a plain dressing Mennonite and he shares about wearing a uniform while in the army (before he became Mennonite) taught him the value of distinctive clothing.

In dealing with military veterans, I would simply encourage other Anabaptists to continue to teach people to walk in the truth but to also have grace and patience with us. For many like me, we’ve had nationalism drilled into our heads for years on end which is hard to break free from. Many have also been desensitized to violence since the central goal of the military is to "kill people and break their things." For me, realizing the nonviolent teachings of Jesus brought tremendous tension and even turmoil for me as I realized I had spent a decade of my life dedicated to a profession who’s central goal was to kill. There was a lot of emotional baggage that came along with this (some of which I’m still dealing with), so we might need a little extra love from you. However, the ironic truth I’m discovering is that military life actually prepares one well for Anabaptism. In the military, you’re trained to be willing to kill or die for a cause and to be dedicated even in the face of danger, or death. Switching to nonviolence (the kind that faces oppression and injustice aggressively but simply with nonviolent means) actually comes quite natural because we have developed a good mental discipline that steads us well. Embracing nonviolence requires bravery, and the willingness to give your life for a cause (Jesus)— and this is something that was already instilled in us. Switching over simply required that I abandon "violence" from the equation— but "fighting", and even dying for a cause, is at the heart of nonviolence for me, just as it was when I wore the uniform. So, know that we military folks actually would make loyal Anabaptist willing to give their all— we just need folks to help us realize that Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said all that stuff about enemy love.

What face to face networking opportunities would you like to see for Anabaptist communities? Is there a place for Mennonite Church USA?

I would love to see an annual conference in North America that was geared toward all things Anabaptist— something similar to the Justice Conference. I think if you took the 7 themes of the Anabaptist Network and turned them into a really well done conference with top-level speakers, it would be incredibly popular even for those who don’t necessarily identify as Anabaptist. I think there’s a lot of "invisible" Anabaptists who are just like us, but simply don’t know what to call themselves. I’d love the chance to network and be with others who share these same core principles. And yes, of course there’s room for the Mennonite Church USA! Those similar to myself who see themselves as Neo-Anabaptists realize that we are a diverse movement and have grown to appreciate this rich diversity.

Are there particular blog posts you have written that you think would be of interest to readers of The Mennonite? (please include links and one sentence descriptions)

My most popular post was recently written on the Anabaptist Network principle of the "frequent association with wealth is inappropriate for Jesus followers and damages our witness". The post was inspired by my work in India where I am shooting a still documentary on exploitation and modern slavery. As of today, this post has been shared 60,000 times— something that really shocked me since the ultimate goal of the piece was to call us all to repent of how we use our wealth— and lets be honest, the call to repent is never a popular message. The popularity of this post gives me hope that there’s a new generation of believers in the West who are ready to reject our impulse of greed. You can read this post here: "When Pastors Live In Multimillion Dollar Mansions, It’s Not A Sign Of God’s Blessing– But Our Sinfulness"

A second post that may be of interest is one that I wrote as a follow-up to the above piece and is called "5 Steps To A More Radical Christian Life" and is one that I wrote to help give people some tangible things they could do to start living out a more radical faith. These are 5 practices that have dramatically changed my life.

Finally, I’d also recommend a piece I wrote on restorative justice for both my blog and Sojourners. In this piece, I take a look at concepts of retributive and restorative justice in relation to how we understand the cross, and how that may have influenced a justice system in America that is desperately broken and in need of reform. You can find this piece here: Justice Broken: How A Poor Theology Of The Cross Created America’s Broken Justice System.

What word would you like to close with?

In closing, I would just like to encourage other Anabaptists regardless which flavor you most identify with. We are in a period in American Christianity where we are experiencing a tremendous cultural shift as younger Christians search for an expression of Christianity that is more life-giving than the traditional American, nationalistic, pro-violence version. I believe with all my heart, that what people are actually searching for is some form of Anabaptism that reclaims a faith that has actually following Jesus as the central tenant. So, we must press forward in recognition and anticipation that perhaps, just perhaps, we were "made for such a moment as this."

Cross posted from As of Yet Untitled.