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

How and Why We Celebrate our 500th Anabaptist Anniversary

by Bock Ki Kim

Bock Ki Kim is a graduate of Canadian Mennonite Bible College and the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He and his wife Sook Kyoung Park have been Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in South Korea since 2013. He has also served as the Interim Director of Korea Anabaptist Center since November of 2015. He has provided the English to Korean translations of several Anabaptist texts, including Mennonite History, by C. J. Dyck, and Anabaptism: Neither Catholic Nor Protestant, by Walter Klassen.

Celebration for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s revolution has already begun here in South Korea, starting last year. Many Korean churches and public media joyfully prepared to celebrate Luther’s reformation and his brave action of posting the 95 theses on the gate of Wittenberg in 1517. Someone commented that the South Korean church will have the second biggest celebration after Germany, where the torch was originally sparked 500 years ago. In fact, Korean Christianity heavily relies on many of Martin Luther’s teachings such as sola gracias, sola scriptura, sola fide, etc. Most Christians have been taught from their youth the doctrines of original sin, total corruption, predestination, atonement, salvation, and so on. In the midst of this celebration mode in South Korea, it is important to read Goossen’s essay on “Why 500 Years?” and I am very grateful to be able to respond to it.

As a first generation Korean Mennonite, and non-white, neo-Anabaptist or “hyphenated Anabaptist” from a Presbyterian background currently living in South Korea after 20 years of emergent experience under the Mennonite church and academic institutions, I have often struggled with who I am and where to go from here. I also have had many questions about why Anabaptists celebrate Anabaptism’s 500th birthday, as well as why Korean Christians celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s reformation. In addition to me, there are only a handful of Koreans who identify themselves as Mennonite-Anabaptists in South Korea. In this context, it is natural to raise the question “What does it mean to be an Anabaptist or Mennonite in South Korea, where the mainstream church almost never pays attention to Anabaptist-Mennonite history?”

In many respects, I understand Benjamin Goossen’s uneasiness and worries about the assumptions of the project, some of which include: 1) monogenesis; 2) a Euro-centric or white Anabaptist event like the Menno Festival; 3) proclamation of apostolic succession; 4) Mennonite World Conference’s denominational approach; 5) concern about a martyrological renaissance and reformulation of martyr stories in the 20th century; and 6) fear about an “ethnic” Mennonite supremacy. Deeply agreed with him, I fully support his conclusion:

“First, rather than counting our age in earthly time, we could imagine our faith as a kind of trans-historical community..... Second, rather than thinking of Anabaptism as a single tradition, emanating from 16th-century Europe, we could celebrate it as a growing, evolving, and polyvalent entity that is constantly being reinvented in different places around the world.”

I would like to add my thoughts to his essay. First of all, we should keep celebrating the Anabaptist birthday as we trace the singular birth of Anabaptism or the birth of Anabaptism in each region. Whenever I have an opportunity to teach about Anabaptism in Korea, I always share that there are different Anabaptist groups with different dates of birth, such as the Swiss Brethren (January 21, 1525), Hutterites (1529), Mennonites (1536, named in 1545), Amish (1693) and Bruderhof (1920). Goossen’s comment on polygenesis is already mentioned by other scholars (C.J. Dyck, George Williams, David Augsburger) who note that there were many Anabaptist groups in the 16th century since the occurrence of the first Anabaptist event on January 21, 1525.

As we remember the birth of the movement, it is important to expand on its growth into the global movement it is now. Then we can embrace all of our brothers and sisters from around the world. In the North American context, the Anabaptist movement can be seen as a white or Euro-centric one, but when we look on the global map, it is clear that Anabaptism does not belong only to whites and Europeans. As ethnic Anabaptist-Mennonites, Korean Anabaptists do not focus on the ethnicity, color of skin, or the location of the movement’s origin, but rather on the characteristics of the movement that the 16th-century Anabaptists outlined, such as believer’s baptism and church, lay movement, shared leadership, discipleship, peace theology, accountability, and communal interpretation of the Bible.

Concerning apostolic succession, most denominations and sects or even heretic groups identify themselves as the successor of apostles and Jesus’ disciples. It is clear that many church historians and theologians (Harold Bender and his circle, Franklin Little, Donald Durnbaugh, Howard Snyder, William Estep, C.J. Dyck, John D. Roth, along with Stanley Hauerwas, James McClendon, Richard Mouw, Michel Cartwright and many other Protestant scholars) have already reported and proved that the Anabaptist movement has been deeply rooted in 1st-century Christianity and has restored or restituted the lost apostolic tradition in the 16th century.

Goossen commented that MWC founder Christian Neff told “a new creation myth” about the birth of Anabaptism. For a traditional Mennonite, this can be an issue, but not many ethnic Anabaptists know about the Menno Festival or about the historic figure’s detailed information. Whether its anniversary is important or not, it is clear we need to separate its hero’s or historic figure’s date of birth and death from the Anabaptist birthday. If there is no support that the first rebaptism happened on January 21, 1525, how are we to celebrate the date of our faith’s tradition?

Concerning the issue of ethnicity, we must realize that it is one that has been created by human history. The Gospel never identifies an ethnic issue as relevant, for God accepts us as we are. Thus, we must become more aware of the fact that the color of skin doesn’t matter for our faith. Historically, white Anabaptists have had more power, money, and resources, with a long history and heritage. That is the reality, so the obvious question should be how we can share these resources with our brothers and sisters who do not have such advantages. Therefore, our primary focus should be on how we can celebrate the spirit of Anabaptism rather than on the other negative things. I am particularly interested in how we can bring all Anabaptist brothers and sisters to celebrate the 500th anniversary as a whole rather than worrying too much about negative notions such as idolatry, misunderstanding history, or additional effects. Thus the main purpose of the celebration of Anabaptism’s 500th anniversary should be to ask ourselves about who we are and how we can claim this movement in more biblical ways in the 21st century.

Our celebration must not be a channel of making our historic figure an idol, creating another denominational citadel in the 21st century, or of narrowing down our circle, etc. Rather, our celebration can help expand our understanding about the origin of Anabaptism in each group in every country, and embrace more Christians who want to follow Jesus Christ as disciples, being dedicated to him, and practicing our faith using actions.

Facing the 500th anniversary of Anabaptism, we could expand Goossen's alternatives into the following:

1. On the basis of the historical record of the first rebaptism on January 21, 1525, let’s simply celebrate this birthday to appreciate our forefathers’ faith and bold action. In addition, let’s seriously ask ourselves about how we can strengthen our faith and how we can pass our faith onto the next generation. Celebrating a birthday is not making mother or child an idol or hero, nor creating a myth for ourselves, but appreciating a new life and giving thanks to God who has provided a new living being.

2. Let’s challenge ourselves as to whether or not we have idols among us, and whether the action of the first re-baptism has become our myth. Furthermore, we as Anabaptists have to open our eyes to see that there are many faithful Christians in the world. We must be more careful not to sound like only Anabaptists can be a part of a true or faithful church. As we confess our faith, we humbly remember that we are simply the disciples of Jesus Christ, not the heroes of the faith.

3. Let us imagine and create the best ways of celebrating Anabaptism globally. In general, Anabaptists do not know how to celebrate their good traditions and historic events, and often hesitate when they are at the moment of celebration. I assume that it is embedded in a historically tragic experience of pressure, persecution, martyrdom, and spiritual retreat. As a latecomer who joined in the Anabaptist church, I encourage all Anabaptists to freely celebrate what they have already and joyfully expressed in new ways of celebration. In our real lives sometimes, not all children can participate in the parent’s birthday. If all children can take part in the party, that will be the best. Even though some are missing, it is still right to celebrate the parent’s birthday. Remembering someone’s birthday and celebrating it makes a big difference. So the question should be “How can we invite all of God’s children to the celebration?” rather than “Is it meaningful to have the birthday party or not?”

4. I would like to clarify the distinction between Anabaptism’s birthday and MWC’s birthday: MWC has a very important role for global Anabaptist-Mennonites. Mennonite historians need to dig out the historical fact and the intention of when Christian Neff first suggested the MWC meeting. Regardless of the MWC’s historical facts, the Anabaptist movement should be commemorated.

5. The reason we celebrate our birthday is that it is our birthday. If it is the Anabaptist movement’s birthday, let’s just celebrate it, in the same way the Christian church celebrates Pentecost, Easter, and other meaningful events. Even a single congregation often celebrates the anniversary of their opening. Anniversaries give a sense of who we are and why and how we live or exist in the world. We need celebration as we gather around the table. As Jesus calls us to participate in the banquet he’s prepared, we must be unafraid to taste the kingdom of God in advance in the world. I think this fits for Anabaptist theology too. Here we must ask “How can we be joyful together?” and “What is the best way to celebrate the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement?”

6. For many people, it is not so important to know about a single origin or monogenesis in the Anabaptist movement. As I mentioned above, and as many scholars such as C.J. Dyck, George Williams, and David Augsburger say, we know that there were more than 20 different Anabaptist groups in the 16th century. We know that there are more than 40 different Anabaptist groups at present. It is good to expand and deepen our understanding about our origin. However, our birthday itself cannot be changed and erased. The question is not about the celebration itself, but about our attitude to see it. As Goossen stated, we often make an idol (hero or myth) for our sake. Denominationalism and capitalism can be the most dangerous idols in the 21st century. So I hope we can celebrate our anniversary while we share our resources, gifts, and spirits with other brothers and sisters who do not have these.

7. In an ecumenical sense, how can we celebrate with others who have different Christian traditions such as Catholics, Lutherans, Protestants, etc.? In other words, as we celebrate our birthday, how can white, traditional, or European Anabaptists and non-white, non-traditional, or non-European brothers and sisters open their arms for one another? How can we sit together around the table of God as we gather together? This is my response from a corner of a small global village in South Korea. Is there any reason that Anabaptists must not celebrate the 500th anniversary? Aren’t Anabaptists ready to celebrate it?