Mennonites: Resistance as Witness?
When Mennonites, Amish and other Anabaptists are considered in historical perspective, they are classified as radical reformers, a family of dissidents whose relentless criticisms of both church and state shaped an ekklesia that looked nothing like the late medieval Latin church, nor the developing alternatives offered by Lutheran or Reformed Protestants. It was this Anabaptist understanding of the church as a gathering of believers that in part drove the rejection of infant baptism. Infant baptism was no true baptism, since churches along New Testament models are composed of those who make a conscious commitment to follow Christ, even if that meant martyrdom by fire or death by drowning, the mocking mode of execution favored by Zurich authorities in the 1520s.
If sixteenth-century Protestants and Catholics could agree on one thing, it was their hatred (and fear?) of these “heretics,” the Anabaptists. This radical challenge to state power (and to the power of state churches) was dangerous in 16th century Europe, and remains at least potentially dangerous to the principalities and powers of our own day. (And I mean dangerous in the productive sense of resistance.)
How have elements of radical Mennonite spiritual DNA influenced the call to follow Jesus among today’s Mennonites? Dr. King tells us something about that witness, leaving me curious to learn more. Of the five core values that Michael identifies, two seem especially related to the radical resistance of this tradition: God’s kingdom or realm comes first; and, as King puts it, “Anabaptist-Mennonites are committed to love and nonviolence.” In a world that valorizes violence and warfare (spiritual and otherwise), Anabaptist-Mennonite peacemaking witness offers a powerful countercultural pathway by which to follow Jesus. Dr. King provides, by way of example, the work of the Mennonite Central Committee, a service organization that acts for “relief, development, and peace in the name of Christ,” as its website declares. There is nothing more radical and countercultural, as Michael King reminds us, than to live the values expressed in Jesus’ teachings within the Sermon on the Mount, an aspiration for many, including these Young Anabaptist Radicals, who claim the term as part of their identity and mission. Or another case: the abolition curriculum drawn up by a young generation of progressive Mennonites who, in the wake of police attacks against black and brown people, began to wonder about the structures of state violence and what Anabaptists might have to say about it.
There is an irony here, at least to my outsider’s eye. Anabaptist-Mennonite traditions have taken on different and even competing institutional forms, to the point that the peacemakers seem to be engaged in intramural warfare with each other. While I don’t know if the theological and cultural tensions within Anabaptist traditions have extended to physical violence, there seems at least to be spiritual and emotional violence at work among these peacemakers. Dr. King gives a contemporary example of Mennonite schisms over matters of (homo)sexuality — an all-too-common battlefront in contemporary Christian traditions, but once again, especially ironic within a tradition of outsiders whose adherents have suffered so much at the hands of state power.
[By the way, why are the discourses around (homo)sexuality so prominent not only in this intramural fighting among Anabaptists and Mennonites, but also among nearly every Christian group, and not only in U.S. contexts? What are the theologies and values underpinning these skirmishes? To what degree are these sustained and intractable battles inhibiting the church’s witness of God’s love and justice in the world?]
I readily discovered parallels between Anabaptists, as King described his tribe, and early Pentecostalism, arising as a hydra-headed reform movement in the early twentieth century. Some forms of early Pentecostalism challenged state power with their insistence that followers of Jesus ultimately owed allegiance to God’s coming reign, not to worldly powers, not even to so-called “Christian nations.” In our own day, some Pentecostals continue these countercultural affronts to state power as well as to the consumerist regimes of late capitalism, while others cozy up to dictators, baptize their lust for power, and preach a prosperity Gospel that is the antithesis of Jesus’s teachings, at least through my lens. Most Pentecostals share an understanding of the church as gathered out of this world, and they also practice believer’s baptism. So, there are similar ecclesiologies and, perhaps, even similar baptismal theologies.
Finally and less productively, as with some Anabaptists and Mennonites, the call to be set apart from the world exacerbates dualistic tendencies always there within Christian traditions but especially so within Pentecostalism. This sets the children of light against the children of the Devil, where Satan’s hand (I would argue) is mistaken for the slash-and-burn of a relentlessly overbearing secularity.
As this Respectful Conversations project unfolds, I’m struck by the ways in which tendencies to splinter seem to have accelerated in this era of lightning-fast digital communications. Sometimes I wonder if it makes sense any longer to speak of these traditions as coherent entities with shared theological orientations, histories, and systems of value. To recall an argument made way back in 1988 by the Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow in The Restructuring of American Religion, a reshuffling of values, politics, and priorities have made denominational identities in the U.S. less powerful, and affinity group interests spread across denominational lines more prominent. This tendency that Wuthnow noted then has seemed only to accelerate.
In terms of our project, does this mean that a “progressive” Mennonite has more in common with a left-leaning Presbyterian than with a Mennonite with wildly divergent political views, theological orientations, and spiritual values? Is our search for ways of following Jesus within respective Christian traditions helped or hobbled by the frank realities of internal divisions? Within too many forms of Christian thought and practice, including Anabaptists and among my own beloved Pentecostals, the call to follow Jesus is so often drowned out in the seemingly endless flood of intramural bickering and posturing. Lord, help us!
J. Terry Todd, you’ve engaged my post in valuable ways. Often silence will mean consent or that I’m touching on some of your perspectives in my brief responses to you to be published soon in a post offering feedback to all of my respondents.
Here I want to say a bit more, however, about your significant queries regarding Anabaptists and violence. As you mention, “While I don’t know if the theological and cultural tensions within Anabaptist traditions have extended to physical violence, there seems at least to be spiritual and emotional violence at work among these peacemakers. Dr. King gives a contemporary example of Mennonite schisms over matters of (homo)sexuality—an all-too-common battlefront in contemporary Christian traditions, but once again, especially ironic within a tradition of outsiders whose adherents have suffered so much at the hands of state power.”
I’m not a sociologist; I’m not an expert in the quantitative data that might give us more than impressionistic answers. My PhD is in rhetoric and communication, which led me to do my dissertation on Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conversation on Homosexuality (Pandora Press U.S., 2000, a volume in the C. Henry Smith Series). In his foreword to the book, series editor J. Denny Weaver said this:
“In developing the effective history of Franconia Conference, King remarked that in the history that shaped their conversations on homosexuality and their efforts to resolve the conflict, there was virtually no reference to the Mennonite tradition of peace and nonviolence. In other words, being a peace church seems to have had little explicit impact on the conversations that aimed at finding a resolution to a quite impassioned conflict.”
Does this mean the conversations were violent? My book doesn’t explicitly answer, but I do wrestle with Hans-Georg Gadamer’s theories (or sometimes lack thereof) of power. I’d impressionistically lean toward seeing the possibility of violence, broadly defined–particularly when power over another is a primary mechanism for resolving conflict.
Decades ago I also wrote an article suggesting possibly peace-loving Mennonites were at risk of projecting violence on others. This chillingly happens in Walter van Tilburg Clark’s novel, The Ox-Bow Incident. I proposed that here the inability of cowboys to confront their own violent shadows caused them to kill innocent men they had convinced themselves were cattle rustlers. When the article was published, a Mennonite psychologist I respect sent a letter to the editor protesting that data on Mennonites did not support our being more violent or shadow-possessed than non-pacifists.
Anecdotally, I can attest that I’ve observed friends, acquaintances, and myself struggle with what to do with angers and and temptations toward violence amid being taught that we’re to transcend such in the name of peace.
I remain committed to the way of peace Jesus taught. I also believe it’s important for any of us who seek to live Jesus’ teachings to embrace the complexities this entails and the likelihood or at least possibility that for us flawed humans violence in the name of peace is a meaningful danger.