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Anabaptist Ghosts, Part 1: Social advocacy and confrontation

5.9. 2011 Posted By: Tim Nafziger

In this month’s editorial in The Mennonite, editor Everett Thomas quoted Mennonite Church USA executive director Ervin Stutzman as follows:

“The experience of Pink Mennos at Columbus in 2009,” Stutzman said, “introduced a new level of engagement in controversial matters … The techniques of social advocacy and confrontation that we have taught young adults in our schools has come to haunt our church’s most visible gathering, to the end that convention-goers feel immense pressure to take up sides against one another on [homosexuality].”

Mennonite pastor Amy Yoder McGloughlin has already written quite eloquently and diplomatically on how Ervin’s words ignore the real ghosts who haunt the Mennonite convention. So I’d like to focus particularly on Ervin’s use of the term, “haunt,” to refer to the use of social advocacy and confrontation by Pink Mennos. As a Mennonite, I find social advocacy and confrontation at the heart of the gospel and at the roots of my Anabaptist tradition. To suggest that those of us who sought to embody this tradition as Pink Mennos at Colombus were “haunting” the convention is highly problematic.

First of all, it implicitly suggests that social advocacy and confrontation are recent inventions of “our schools” rather than central parts of the Anabaptist and gospel traditions. Perhaps these tools can be tolerated as long as they are focused elsewhere, but not when they are used within the church.

Have we forgotten that in the cleansing of the temple, Jesus aimed his confrontation–his most in-your-face public witness–at his own religious leaders in the middle of the annual religious convention? Make no mistake, his focus was not on the sleazy merchants crowding the temple court. It was on the chief priests and religious leaders who were intent on excluding the foreigner and the eunuch. That’s what he was talking about when he reclaimed the temple as a house of prayer for all nations. Just like Ervin, Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he referenced Isaiah 56:7. Let’s look at the broader message that Jesus was referencing in short hand:

4 For this is what the Lord Says
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD
to minister to him,
to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”
8 The Sovereign LORD declares—
he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
“I will gather still others to them
besides those already gathered.”

No wonder they started plotting to kill him. He was telling them they needed to let in the illegal immigrants and those who didn’t fit gender norms.

It reminds me of something Martin Luther King said in his letter from the Birmingham jail:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

King knew that in situations of power imbalance and injustice, the absence of tension puts the full burden of conflict on the opressed. If Pink Mennos avoid confrontation, as Ervin would prefer, LGBTQ folks will continue to be bullied in Mennonite elementary schools, thrown out of their churchs and ostracized from their families. The straight moderate can continue to promise dialogue and conversation indefinitely, without substantial change.

The early Anabaptists understood this as well. George Blaurock, one of the key Anabaptist leaders, was nicknamed “Strong George” for his confrontational style. He was known for shouting down pastors from the back of churches. Here are two such stories from the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia:

On Sunday, Jan 29, 1525 Blaurock appeared with a group of his followers in the church in Zollikon and stopped the Zwinglian assistant on his way to the pulpit with the question, What are you going to do there. When the preacher answered, “Preach the Word of God,” Blaurock said, “Not you, but I am sent to preach.”

And later that year he arrived before the pastor did and took his place:

8 October found Blaurock again in the Zürich highlands, apparently with Grebel. Before an audience of more than 200 he began to preach from the pulpit of the church in Hinwyl. “Whose is this place? If this place is God’s, where the Word is to be proclaimed, then I am a messenger from the Father to proclaim the Word of God.” When Parson Brennwald arrived he listened patiently until Blaurock began to speak on baptism. Then confusion ensued in the church. Brennwald hastened to Grüningen to report to Berger, the magistrate, and secure his assistance. When the latter arrived with his soldiers Blaurock was still in the pulpit, and was taken.

This Christian tradition of strong and public advocacy for justice was begun by Jesus of Nazareth and continued by Blaurock and King. Pink Mennos embody and continue this stream today as they joyfolly advocate and lovingly confront the inaction of many in the Mennonite community. If we are to sustain a living community of Anabaptist practice, we would do well to make room for them at the table.

Here is part 2: Anabaptist Ghosts, part 2: Dialogue and Conciliation

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