Transformationist Anabaptism: the missing fourth stream from the Mennonite Church USA imagination

Arbor Day 2012 tree planting in Camden, New Jersey with community members and Word and World participants

This post was originally published two years ago as MMMMs: Expanding our Churchly imagination in my blog for The Mennonite. Thanks to Hannah Heinzekehr for adding photos to illustrate this piece.

In the wake of this summer’s Mennonite Church USA convention and the pending departure of Lancaster Conference, I am reflecting on the role of “Moderate Mennonite Male Managers” (MMMM’s) in our institutions. This recent essay by John Rempel inspired me to look specifically at a blind spot common among the the “Moderate Mennonite Male Managers” (MMMM’s) of our institutions. For those of you who haven’t read it, this quote summarizes Rempel’s thesis well:

Each type of church brings different gifts to the table. Moderates bring the willingness and capacity for meaningful compromise. Liberals bring the capacity to live with ambiguity and with matters that are presently incapable of solution. Conservatives bring a deep trust in the Bible and the Holy Spirit as sources of clear positions in matters of faith and life.

I resonate with Rempel’s 1 Corinthians 12 inspired vision of the different gifts of the body of Christ that he outlines. However, Rempel’s paradigm, focused around liberals, moderates and conservatives, misses a whole swath of our community and Anabaptist tradition.

To understand more about this missing community, I turn to the model of four streams of Anabaptism that Rodney Sawatsky outlined in 1992. In summary, he traces four contemporary streams of Anabaptism back to our 15th century origins: Separationist, Establishment, Reformist and Transformationist. I will focus in this article on the transformationist, but you can see Sawatsky’s table with all four in my 2007 blog post. These streams do not map perfectly onto Rempel’s model of liberals, moderates and conservatives, but however you slice the cantaloupe, the transformationist stream is glaringly absent.

Understanding the Transformationist stream of Anabaptism

Sawatsky summarizes the emphasis of the transformationist stream of Anabaptists as “political/ideological nonconformity to the political powers.” He names Hans Hut and the Muensterites from the 15th century as the source of this stream. Groups like Christian Peacemaker Teams, the Doctrine of Discovery working group, Roots of Justice and Pink Menno continue this legacy today. They are deeply committed to nonviolence, but share with their apocalyptic ancestors a deep distrust of state power and a strong critique of institutional churchly structures. It was in conversations with activist and scholar Lisa Schirch that we conceived of the the MMMM concept. She sums up a concern that many in the transformationist stream feel strongly: “We have chosen managers to protect Mennonite Church USA institutions rather than leaders who prophetically follow Jesus’ model of challenging powerful institutional interests.”

The transformationist perspective is quite different from the liberal focus on “tolerance, total inclusion and inter-religious peacemaking” that Rempel describes. The transformationist stream finds inspiration throughout the Jesus story, from his Luke 4 manifesto, from his anger at the religious establishment, from the lilies of the field, from deep grief at the violence of the system, from his cleansing of the temple and ultimately from his triumph over death, the final threat of the powers and principalities. It recognizes the subversive economic potential of the early church in Acts 2 and is deeply connected with the wider radical discipleship movement which animator Ched Myers traces all the way back to when Abram and Sarai “bailed out of Ur” in this beat poem and history of said stream.

This stream is willing to be disruptive in a way that makes MMMM’s (and those committed to their project) deeply uncomfortable. In her comment on Rempel’s article, Stephanie Krehbiel points out the

Sarah Augustine

Sarah Augustine

absence of these groups from Rempel’s analysis and cites the way the #BlackLivesMatter movement “puts political disruption at the heart of its praxis.” At Kansas City this summer, Pink Menno used guerilla theater tactics that were met with boos and shouts from a conference minister.

Whereas liberals focus on access to power and doling it out inclusively, those in the transformationist stream focus on the unjustness of the power structure itself. Sarah Augustine’s workshop this summer at the Kansas City convention laid out this alternative paradigm well:

Institutions often offer “access” or inclusion of constituency groups as an ultimate target. However, activists are often discouraged when members of a previously excluded group are “at the table,” yet meaningful change does not occur. This logic causes constituency groups to compete with each other for influence and funding, where prevailing policy structures are empowered by the consent to their authority caused by competition between the groups it seeks to exclude. What would it look like to seek just institutions, rather than inclusion in unjust institutions?

Dr. Felipe Hinojosa

Dr. Felipe Hinojosa

This focus on access has come at a deep cost to many different communities on the margins of Mennonite Church USA. In his article last week for The Mennonite, Felipe Hinojosa makes it clear the costs the MMMM project has for non-white people in our church. He describes 80 years of ignoring, ridiculing and marginalizing Latina/o leaders by Mennonite leaders. The MMMM paradigm prefers to frame this as an ideological or theological problem rather than a justice issue that requires at a look at the white supremacist structures at the center of our denomination.

In an email, longtime Pink Menno leader Luke Miller describes the stakes for marginalized people transformative movement:

“They’re working not for an ideological or theological goal but out of their very lives, indentities, bodies, and survival — and therefore the possibility of some compromise that would disarm them/us with charming language and a small piece of institutional power-pie doesn’t really work.”

The blinders on our imaginations

So why is it that Rempel doesn’t recognize the transformationists? I would hypothesize that it is a failure of the churchly imagination. The bureaucratic structures we operate in deeply shape our imaginations. As Mennonites we often mistake access to and participation in MMN, MVS, MCUSA, MCC or MDS for the life of the body of Christ itself. While all these institutions can support our participation in the body of Christ, they are not themselves the church. Let’s look closely at the moment in our recent history, the drafting of the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, that Rempel highlights as a success to be celebrated:

This [agreement] was thanks to a 10 year process led by Marlin Miller and Helmut Harder, voices for a kind of permeable orthodoxy. I cannot understand why this remarkable anomaly in the trend I am sketching has not been held up as a successful model of holding together essentials (Trinitarian faith, a high view of the Bible, a believer’s church, pacifism) while affirming diversity of interpretation.

In January I wrote about the three waves of transformationist organizing drawing on the excellent work of historian Rachel Waltner Goossen in Mennonite Quarterly Review. For the first round of organizing, Marlin Miller was at the center of that pressure. As Goossen charitably puts it, Miller had a “tendency to protect institutional interests–rather than seeking redress for women reporting sexual violation.” Miller’s project was deeply institutional and this shaped his lens in grappling with Yoder. According to Goossen, he went so far as to expel “Elena,” one of Yoder’s victims. We can get the theology as right as we want while our structures continue to walk on the back of those marginalized by racism, sexism, and heterosexism.

When Rempel holds up Miller’s other institutional organizing work as exemplary, he embodies the unwillingness of MMMM’s to grapple with the deep lessons of the Yoder cover-up. In Schirch’s letter “To the Next Generation of Pacifist Theologians”, she powerfully called out the MMMM institutional project and the way it allows “status, power, or financial interests to guide them through the thicket of sexual violence in the church.” She names the cost of the cover-up of Yoder’s abuse on three generations of Mennonite women at Mennonite institutions and outlines six ideas for restoration and justice.

To understand the cover-up of Yoder is to understand the rot at the heart of the MMMM project. The institutional nature of the MMMM project required institutions and their protectors to minimize or deny John Howard Yoder’s harassment of women up until it couldn’t any more. Since it has burst into the open again, MMMM’s have often tried to control survivors of sexualized violence and use their stories against one another. Public educator and survivor of sexualized violence, Hilary Scarsella described her experience of these dynamics at Kansas City 2015 as “terrible.” In a comment on The Mennonite she said:

“I felt myself being forcibly torn away from fellow survivors against my will. Rather than feeling supported by a church full of people who want desperately to end sexualized violence, I felt that my story and others like mine were being used to silence the stories of my sisters and brothers whose stories are more difficult for church folks to bear.”

This is why the problematic ritual of apology in Kansas City this summer did little to address root issues. Current MMMM in chief Ervin Stutzman made sure of that. From the beginning of his tenure, Ervin Stutzman, Mennonite Church USA executive director, he has had a strange and strained relationship with the transformationist stream. Stutzman’s discomfort clearly shone through early on in his term in 2011, when he turned to the metaphor of the paranormal to describe Pink Menno and its challenge to the MMMM project. His rhetoric then and now is a reminder that those committed to this institutional project would prefer to act like the transformationist stream is not there at all.

Those on the margins of the project have a more useful but related paranormal skill: x-ray vision. As Krehbiel points out in her comments, both “progressive radicals and conservative evangelicals in the pews tend to see right through” the MMMM project, though they reach very different conclusions. My conversation with John Troyer, director of the Evana Network, in April, convinced me that he too is also deeply frustrated by a loyalty that prioritizes institutions over Jesus. In the comments on Rempel’s article, Luke Miller sums up the problem beautifully:

While institutionally-sanctioned documents and language might once have expressed some genuinely shared spiritual enterprise (a point I’ll concede only for the sake of argument), more recent examples such as the “Membership Guidelines” resolution passed in Kansas City 2015 (and the very Mmembership Gguidelines themselves) have devolved into exercises in distraction, obfuscation, and weaving shapes in rhetorical mists.

In her recent analysis of the bureaucratic train wreck of Kansas City, executive director of the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Interests, Carol Wise, counts the cost of the continued MMMM project in no uncertain terms:

Violence that great, with so many victims, requires the careful acquiescence and consent of supporting institutions. Time and time again individuals in positions of power opted to protect Mennonite church institutions over and against the well-being and dignity of women.

Yet even as the church was beating its breast in lament [for these past offenses], it was simultaneously opting for the same tactics of institutional protection, expending yet another group of vulnerable people [LGBTQ individuals]. Sexualized violence carves a deep path in the Mennonite Church.

Rempel does not advocate this expendability of the vulnerable, but his focus on access to the table at the center of his ecclesial imagination misses those underneath it. Jesus made a similar mistake in Mark 7:25-30. When the Syrophoenician woman boldly and courageously called Jesus out on this oversight and points out the puppies dogs beneath the table, he modeled a divine openness to a “multiply-marginalized” person. Not only did he accept her challenge, but he named her challenge as the source of the healing of her daughter. This credit to her words rather than his is nearly unprecedented in the gospels.

Let’s sit with the “awkwardness and embarrassed silence” (as Wise names it) that follows the the failures of this summer’s Delegate Assembly. What can we learn from the overlooked transformationist stream of Anabaptism? How are we called to learn from Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman when they point out our blind spots? All the Anabaptist streams have their place in our tapestry.

Note: For an in-depth analysis of the neo-liberal logic behind the MMMM’s and their institutional project for MCUSA, I highly recommend Stephanie Krehbiel’s doctoral dissertation, “Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in Mennonite Church USA.”

Featured photos at top is by Tim Nafziger of an Arbor Day 2012 tree planting in Camden, New Jersey with community members and participants in the Word and World mentoring program.