How Orthodoxy Might Offer Anabaptists Resources for the Spiritual Journey and Anabaptism Might Counter-Offer Social Justice Passions

As I’ll explore more fully in my main post (Dec. 2021) on how Anabaptist-Mennonites view following Jesus, the fragmentation of my tradition(s) makes it a challenge to discern the most fruitful vantage point from which to write. Not only is Anabaptism embodied in multiple traditions but its expressions in Mennonite Church USA, to which I belong, are increasingly fragmented.

MC USA is currently only about a generation old after being formed in 2002 from the merger of prior Mennonite denominations with their own centuries-long histories of fragmentation. Yet already in the past decade or so, inability to resolve deep differences, not limited to but certainly often revolving around whether and how to welcome LGBTQ participants, has caused MC USA to lose almost half its members. The pre-merger denominations had a total of 130,000-some members, the merged denomination initially 120,000-some, and the current denomination in the 60,000s.

As I’ll touch on again in my December post, each fragmentation sends sub-traditions rippling this direction and that. As I wrestle then with what standpoint to adopt in responding to David Ford’s insightful, inspiring, even moving overview of what it means to follow Jesus in the Orthodox tradition, I find myself drawn to remembering the main emphases, often enough stereotypes, within which I was shaped from boyhood on. Let them provide, helpfully or not, hints of a grid for approaching Orthodoxy and engaging how Ford’s articulations fit or challenge the impressions within which I was formed.

A primal emphasis I imbibed practically from cradle on was that Anabaptism and specifically my Mennonite expression of it had reclaimed the purity of the early church after centuries of corruption. Such Anabaptism was not only a reaction against the historic church, particularly Roman Catholic as experienced in 1500s Europe, but also a Radical Reformation reaction against or at minimum beyond the “establishment” Protestant Reformation. This is why early generations of Anabaptists and Mennonites were often persecuted and killed for their beliefs. I’ll always remember the Church of the Brethren (another Anabaptist tradition) seminary friend who, sitting among our Reformed-tradition friends, told the professor and class he still could hardly fellowship among those whose forebears had drowned, burned, beheaded his ancestors.

Still a core enemy was commonly viewed as the Roman Catholic Church,  casting its thought-to-be-corrupt shadow over the entire church but perhaps more malignantly than Eastern Orthodoxy. The latter seemed almost too distant and different to be meaningfully engaged.

If there was an error particularly linked to Orthodoxy it was perhaps iconography. As a visit to many long-established Mennonite church buildings devoid of sacred imagery will sometimes immediately make clear, Mennonites have long been iconoclasts, sharing with many Protestants the view that icons are idolatrous but in their Radical Reformation way rejecting icons with even greater passion. The distinctive style of Orthodox iconography has sometimes made it seem even more greatly “other.”

A second emphasis was that in contrast to Catholics and Protestants, often viewed as “buying” their salvation through such practices as infant baptism, the Mass/Eucharist, and/or “cheap” grace,” Mennonites embodied the saving power of Christ through literally living out the teachings of Jesus. Hence Mennonites (stemming from the Anabaptists whose name means “rebaptizers,” a label imposed by enemies) viewed infant baptism as not being faithful to the Jesus who invited adults to make a conscious decision to follow him. Even quite conservative Mennonites frequently resisted the state through refusing to take up arms because Jesus taught love of enemies. They resisted swearing oaths because Jesus taught us to let our yea be yea and our nay be nay. And so forth.

Today some branches of Anabaptist-Mennonitism have moved far beyond the more stereotypical aspects of such emphases. Mennonites engage in interfaith dialogues with Roman Catholicism and sometimes Orthodoxy and even become converts. So it would be misleading to suggest that attending appreciatively to David Ford is anomalous. But I do want to underscore—appreciatively indeed!—that Ford does ease the path for respectful conversation. While not minimizing or disrespecting such traditions as my own, he offers an Orthodoxy radiating significant strengths and appeal.

I experienced particularly this paragraph as summarizing Orthodoxy as an integrating tradition ranging across Scripture, theology, liturgy, the historical church from apostolic age on, spiritual practices, and more:

For this endeavor, the Orthodox Church provides many resources for spiritual growth, including daily study of the Holy Scriptures, being guided by the Church’s long-standing interpretation of them; time-honored prayers for many occasions; rich liturgical life, replete with psalmody, and including hymns filled with devotion and sound doctrine; the Sacraments—especially the Eucharist, celebrated at every Divine Liturgy, and the Sacrament of Confession; celebration of the many great holy days (Feasts) of the Church Year; the writings of the Church Fathers; the Lives of the Saints; the doctrinal proclamations and canons of the Ecumenical Councils—especially the Nicene Creed; veneration of the Holy Icons; the sign of the Cross; the connection with one’s Patron Saint and Guardian Angel; and the spiritual direction of one’s spiritual father.

Though no doubt partly due to my own blind spots, particularly my early experiences of Anabaptist-Mennonitism left me feeling that the key requirement of following Jesus was to live correctly, in faithful and even almost slavish embrace of Jesus’ teachings, particularly in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. We were to live in conformity only to Jesus, not the false and pagan practices of “the world.” Sixtysome years later, I can still relive the weeks my my parents forbade my taking part in a first-grade play that included bearing fake weapons. I’ve remained haunted by the near-contemptuous look on my teacher’s face, seeming to say that my family’s values were not only strange but idiotic.

But I had less idea how to nurture a spirituality that would empower such practices. I experienced my tradition as telling me how to live but no so much how to do the living. Ford also emphasizes holy living, at times perhaps echoing a perfectionism I’ve experienced in my own heritage. Yet he also offers a tradition rich in resources for the journey. As for me and my house, we can learn much from that.

We can as well from the “Holy Icons.” For some years I had a Mennonite university colleague who had invested passionately in learning about Orthodox icons and allowing them to inspire his own art. There is a power in visual expressions of holiness sometimes hard to find in traditions focused on words and practices.

When it comes to ethical living, Ford generates two responses for me. First, as a neophyte in encountering Orthodoxy, I was surprised at how strong—and for me stereotype-shattering—the above-introduced emphasis on holy living is. As Ford observes, echoing my own tradition’s commitment to Jesus’ commandments, “Growing in communion with Jesus is accomplished in large measure through keeping His commandments (John 15:10; also 15:14 and 14:15).” Ford relatedly highlights “Endeavoring to surrender our own will to His will (Luke 22:42); this includes surrendering our own will appropriately as we self-sacrificially serve others, placing their needs and desires ahead of our own.”

Second, I did look for Anabaptist-type determination to address the social justice implications of the Sermon on the Mount. I searched for ways Orthodoxy might champion the cruciality of not allowing social, economic, political idols, the nation/state, or the Powers as some might put it, the last word on such matters as, say, how we solve conflicts or share resources, including within and between nations. Or how vital it is to disobey the state if it insists on practices–such as accepting being drafted and sent to war–that violate Jesus’ teachings.

Or seeing major implications for social justice understandings in such calls as Jesus offers in his Luke 4 “inaugural address” proclaiming good news and release to the the poor, captive, blind, bruised. For at least some Mennonites (by no means all amid our many splits but certainly evident in a variety of Mennonite position statements of recent decades) there are resources here for analyzing the troubled state of U.S. creation care, economics, governance, politics, policies, and how to proceed when societies tilt toward the rich, the powerful, those who amass and exploit rather than care for the least of these.

I’d expect that implicit in Orthodoxy as described by Ford are paths for social analysis and justice. At that same time, the explicit focus is particularly on individual, personal, interpersonal, internal spirituality and its nurture and expressions. It seems to me that Orthodoxy would benefit in this area from interaction with Anabaptism.

On the conversation with Orthodoxy could go. And on I hope it will, with my tradition and others, as we share and together find our mutual treasures.

1 reply
  1. David C. Ford
    David C. Ford says:

    Ford, Social justice in the Orthodox tradition

    Thank you very much, Michael (if I can call you Michael), for your very personal, appreciative, and insightful response to my reflections on following Jesus in the Orthodox tradition. I’m delighted that you see the possibility of those in your tradition benefiting from the various resources for spiritual growth that Orthodoxy offers. Of course, none of them is ever meant to become an end in itself, or to become something that’s only done out of obligation, as I hope I’ve implied! They all are offered in the Orthodox tradition as vessels of grace which are always there for the taking, so to speak, offered as they are with the certainty that participating sincerely in them will bring us closer to Christ, as well as help us to live a holy life. And I was heartened to see your affirmation of the importance in your tradition of endeavoring to live a holy life, in accordance with our Lord’s commandments.

    Yes – I could have said more, even despite the word limit for the essay, about the Orthodox tradition’s understanding of involvement in social justice issues, although this is indeed implied in what I did say about “Endeavoring to be engaged in self-sacrificial service to one’s fellow human beings, with deep respect, love, and compassion for each one, all ‘made in the image and likeness of God’ (cf. Gal. 6:2; Romans 12:15).” It is crucially important in the Orthodox tradition to reach out, each of us in his or her own way, to the suffering and the oppressed according to the precepts given by Christ in Matthew 25:31-46. Here’s a great quotation on this theme by St. Basil the Great (4th century) in a collection of his sermons under the title On Social Justice (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press):

    “It seems to me that the passion afflicting this man’s soul [referring to the man ready to pull down his barns to build bigger ones] resembles that of the gluttonous, who would rather burst as a result of over-indulgence than share part of what they have with those in need. O mortal, recognize your Benefactor! Consider yourself, who you are, what resources have been entrusted to you, from Whom you received them, and why you received more than others. You have been made a minister of God’s goodness, a steward for your fellow servants. Do not suppose that all this was furnished for your own gullet! Resolve to treat the things in your possession as belonging to others. After all, they bring pleasure for only a little while, then fade away and disappear, but afterwards a strict accounting of their disbursement will be demanded of you” (p. 61).

    How and when to offer assistance to the poor, the suffering and oppressed, and when to speak out about the need to do so, is left up to each Orthodox Christian, as each one seeks the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. And indeed, such benevolence, such good deeds, are understood to be means, channels, and vessels of grace in themselves. As St. Basil also says, “the grace of good works redounds to those who perform them” (p. 62).

    St. Basil understands the power of personal service to the poor on a societal level, for as he also says, “For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need” (p. 69). What a dramatic encouragement this is towards voluntary redistribution of wealth!

    Of course, it’s also the responsibility of the Church as a whole to speak out publicly with a Christian perspective on various contemporary social issues. This usually occurs in the Orthodox Church through statements issued by synods of bishops. One major example of this is the very lengthy document issued in 2000 by the Synod of Bishops of the Patriarchate of Moscow entitled “The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church,” which can be found here: https://russianorthodoxchurch.ca/en/the-basis-of-the-social-concept-of-the-russian-orthodox-church/2408

    Thanks, Michael, for your reminder of the central importance of such service to suffering humanity, which has always been a special hallmark of your tradition, and which is indeed very important in the Orthodox tradition as well.

    Sincerely, in Christ,

    David

    Reply

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