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

Narrate in Service to the Whole

by Gerald W. Schlabach

Gerald W. Schlabach is professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota and former chair of the Justice and Peace Studies department there. He is currently writing a book on Catholic peace theology titled A Pilgrim People: Becoming a Catholic Peace Church work which has led him into the field of global Christianity.

Ah, history! Ah, incarnation! Such a messy business.

Benjamin Goossen’s provocative and insightful interrogation of what it means for Anabaptist-Mennonites to celebrate their history must ultimately be about theology of history. In other words, it must find resolution in ecclesiology or indeed the doctrine of Incarnation. Is God allowed (conceptually, theologically) to persist in covenant love with a “stiff-necked people,” as Moses convinced the Lord to do in Exodus 32? But if we answer that question one way for ourselves, how can we answer less mercifully for others in Christendom? We would have to tell Jesus to stop trying to gather, as a mother hen, those whose trust in God’s faithfulness is so audacious that they dare to “build the tombs of the prophets whom [their] ancestors killed” (Luke 13:34, 11:47).

As a Roman Catholic reading Goossen from the edge of the Mennonite community that formed me, the source of the dilemma he explicates seems obvious. The question of how to place or even date the movement reflects an ambivalence intrinsic to the Anabaptist-Mennonite stream of history: Just where do its people fit in to “the whole,” the Church catholic, or perhaps even humanity in all its dank yet fertile humus? This is a people that has regularly claimed to be called apart from worldliness, from Constantinianism, from churches that once fell – and implicitly perhaps from the human condition itself. But lo and behold, the very effort to place and date this people conjures realities of patriarchy, ethnocentrism, or even worse. The churchly condition (kirchlichkeit) and the human condition not only turn out to be at work within this people, too. That, after all, is something so unsurprising that no serious Anabaptist theologian or honest Mennonite preacher could really deny it. More subtly and thornily – Goossen seems to be saying – the very act of demarcating this people turns out to replicate sinful and oppressive patterns. Unless...

Unless the very premise of the endeavor is dubious, because Anabaptism cannot be neatly demarked at all. Unless Mennonite identity at its most authentic will only be evident within another frame.

What if God never has called out a particular, distinguishable movement to be its own thing, but only to serve a larger whole? Abraham received a distinct blessing and promise of peoplehood that he and his descendants had reason to celebrate, in gratitude to God. But they could never do so rightly if they lost sight of a larger purpose to which Genesis 12:1-3 hints – that they be a blessing to all the families of the earth. So too with the body of Christ. “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). Having been persecuted for seeking to fulfill their Abrahamic vocation by calling larger Christian wholes to greater faithfulness, Anabaptist-Mennonites may rightly insist on the “greater respect” and “greater honor” that Paul went on to claim for “weaker” yet “indispensable” members of the body (12:22-24a). But to demark their distinctiveness as though they were themselves a whole is to invite Paul’s other gentle rebuke: “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” (12:19).

To commemorate the 500-year anniversary of Anabaptism well and rightly, therefore, Goossen turns to the late African-American theologian and erstwhile Mennonite Vincent Harding for a way to begin putting Anabaptism within a wider and more multihued stream of prophetic movements, thus preventing “self-absorption in the face of global imperialism and racial injustice.” This will mean refusing to tell the story of Anabaptism in the way that previous anniversary celebrations have done, inevitably corralling our attention back to Europe and to stories of heroic white men alone. Choices made about how to celebrate in 2025, Goossen writes, “should be made with full knowledge of what has come before” in previous commemorations that turn out to have partaken far too much in the wider spirit of ethno-European nationalism that he exposes.

But this is only a beginning. My plea is that “full knowledge of what has come before” must also acknowledge what came before 1525 or for that matter 1517, the year Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Following the lead of Walter Klaassen’s 1973 book, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant, recent scholarship has noted ways in which 16th-century Anabaptism not only followed through on the early impulses of Protestant Reformers but was in continuity with Catholic lay movements and monastic reform efforts that had been growing for centuries. Indeed, Klaassen is said to have wished he had instead called his book “Anabaptism: Both Catholic and Protestant.” In that light, Goossen’s welcome call to commemorate 1525 in a way that places Anabaptist-Mennonitism within a wider stream remains disappointingly myopic in its failure to see beyond a Protestant horizon.

An alternative, amply charitable, and more catholic frame would theologically re-narrate the departure of Anabaptist communities from larger churches as tragically necessary prophetic acts that required them to go into a state of exile but not schism. This would call the bluff of those who expelled them by continuing to narrate their purpose not as rivalry but as service. It is especially appropriate, after all, for a people that claims reconciling peace as integral to its identity to name its charism as an offer of healing, for the good of the whole. Such a framing avoids any implication that Protestant churches have no legitimacy or purpose to celebrate in 2017, nor Anabaptist churches in 2025. But it does suppose that the state of a divided Christendom would be healthier if separated churches will narrate their particular identities not over against one another, but as reluctant postures taken for the sake of witness to the catholic whole.

Lest I myself prove myopic in a Roman Catholic way, let me hasten to note the need for greater attention to Pentecostalism in Goossen’s program. Henry P. Van Dusen, John Howard Yoder, and Donald Durnbaugh all suggested years ago that with its grassroots dynamic, unfettered by establishment, and a reliance on the fresh leading of the Holy Spirit that gives Pentecostals great flexibility in reaching out to the poor, the movement offered the clearest 20th-century parallel to 16th-century Radical Reformation (see chapter 7 of Durnbaugh, The Believers’ Church). Now, in the early 21st century, the richly variegated movement that is Pentecostalism is the fastest growing segment of global Christianity. Goossen makes only passing reference to the “rapidly growing contingent of charismatics” within the Mennonite world. Without attending to Anabaptism’s affinity with global Pentecostalism, however, Goossen’s appeal to the revolutionary stream that Vincent Harding spoke for risks another kind of narrowness. Too often liberal Protestants champion “others” in minority communities or in the global South only when they offer sexier versions of liberal Protestantism itself, which means they are not so other after all. Pentecostal theology and practice is all over the map, to be sure. But relationship with global Pentecostals offers another way for Mennonites to develop an ecclesiology that more fully embraces the messiness which God has embraced through Incarnation.

“God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member,” wrote Paul, “that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Corinthians 12:24b-25). There is thus no shame in being “inferior” in the sense of smaller or too long hidden from the view of dominant church historians. The contributions of Anabaptism to Christ’s Church catholic are worthy to be “clothe[d] with greater honor” (1 Corinthians 12:23) through appropriate commemoration in the year 2025. A great tragedy of the 16th century is that persecution arguably left many Anabaptists and their descendants with the sort of inferiority complex that in turn left some of them overcompensating through claims to be the only true Christians, in the one true Church.

Few Mennonites may believe that any more. But that makes 2025 a good occasion to begin telling the Anabaptist story another way, in loving relation to the whole, not over against it. Five centuries is plenty long for an ecclesiology that easily ends up celebrating “dissension within the body” rather than helping to heal the broken body of Christ so that “the members may have the same care for one another” as is visible with a healthy body.