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2017, vol. 71   Special Issue: Why 500 Years?

Critical Engagement – Not Avoidance: A Response to Anabaptism’s Upcoming Anniversary Celebration

by Karl Koop

Karl Koop is professor of history and theology at Canadian Mennonite University and director of the Graduate School of Theology and Ministry. His focus in teaching, research and writing has been in Anabaptist and Mennonite Studies. He has also been active in ecumenical and inter-faith conversations.

Ben Goossen is to be congratulated for initiating an important conversation regarding how Mennonites should be thinking about commemorating the 500th-anniversary celebration of the first Anabaptist baptism. While I am less concerned about his question on whether the Anabaptist tradition is really 500 years old, I do share his worry that Mennonite anniversary celebrations can easily re-inscribe Eurocentric (and I would add North American) understandings of Anabaptism. Indeed, commemorating well means we should not lose sight of the spiritual vitality of Anabaptist Christians living in the global South. As Goossen notes, one important way of celebrating Mennonite World Conference’s “Renewal Decade” is to recognize the evolving and dynamic dimension of Anabaptism that is being reinvented in many places around the world. Along with Goossen, I am persuaded that we must become better equipped to tell the longer Anabaptist story, and that we need to give significant attention to the recent global narrative that includes Anabaptists of color living in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and in our own settings.

I am not entirely convinced, however, that commemorative celebrations should completely ignore Anabaptist stories of origins and early developments. Goossen, a historian of global religious history, clearly does not advocate eclipsing the past, but his sentiments in this particular writing appear to lead readers in that direction. He worries about Mennonites tying their spiritual identity to the bold actions of “long-deceased white men,” fearing that this “harkens to a rather old-fashioned mode of historical narration.” I agree about the need for a new kind of historiography but I have difficulty understanding how avoiding this particular period of history is a healthy approach to “right” remembering.

Critical engagement with the past and remembering rightly – not avoiding the past – should be an integral aspect of our commemorative celebrations. If the problem with the Anabaptist beginnings story lies with an oft-repeated and by now tiresome depiction of some golden era, then we should make sure that the next 10 years become an occasion for telling less heroic and more realistic narratives. If the problem is that the standard accounts seem overtly patriarchal, then we should make sure our commemorations reflect more inclusive narratives that take into consideration the stories of the many extraordinary women in the Anabaptist movement. Perhaps the names of Margaret Hottinger of Zollikon, or Helena von Freyberg of Münichau, or Elisabeth and Hadewijk of Friesland should become just as well-known to us as the names of Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock.

Remembering “rightly” will necessarily mean different things for different communities. Stories about beginnings can reinforce ideals and strengthen community identity. They can also be effectual in leading communities to reflect critically about the past. As I observe various Mennonite communities almost effortlessly dividing over issues related to sexuality, I am reminded that the Mennonite story in the 16th century actually began with a series of brutal church divisions. While the medieval church was surely in need of reform (when is a church not in need of reform?), the result of the Reformation was that Protestants and Catholics broke fellowship with one another, while Anabaptists separated themselves from the others and then proceeded to divide amongst themselves. Menno Simons is often perceived as the great unifier in the Low Countries in bringing various disparate Anabaptist groups together, yet his vision of a pure church, “without spot or wrinkle,” had a devastating (undoubtedly unintended) effect in that it led to a dizzying array of competing church communities.

We tend to think of the 16th-century Reformation as a good story of heroic beginnings. Undoubtedly there is much to applaud about the courageous exemplars of the 16th century – those who were willing, for example, to sacrifice all for the sake of “truth.” But perhaps we should also see the ways in which the Reformation was a tragedy. Theologically speaking, how is the breaking up of the body of Christ anything else but a catastrophe and another instantiation of sin? Could it be that such a legacy of division has lulled Mennonites into thinking that separation from those with whom they disagree is normal, even preferable? As we consider our ecumenical and inter-Mennonite relationships, is there not some usefulness in looking back at the story of origins and early developments in order to recognize an unhealthy pattern that has brought us to where we are now – an era of seemingly unstoppable schisms once again?

In thinking about alternative modes of celebrating our upcoming “Renewal Decade,” there is no question that we should take the opportunity to get to know and learn about the colorful mosaic that now constitutes and characterizes the global Anabaptist family. Ben Goossen has helpfully directed our gaze toward this larger reality. I hope he continues to push the boundaries in this way, especially now that nation states are fortifying their borders and becoming increasingly inward focused. Churches are not immune to wider societal and political trends, and so any chiding words to think more globally are timely. Such laudable efforts that encourage us to see beyond our own ethnicities should be ongoing. But such efforts should not stop us from seeking a useable past in stories about origins. The fear that we might remember badly should not stop us from remembering at all.