This is the first of seven reflections on leadership and Anabaptist identity that were offered by college students at the 2016 conference, Leading into the common good: An Anabaptist Perspective. We will be publishing additional speeches later this month.
So, how can our Anabaptist identity empower us? I have to admit that I kind of laughed when I was given this question to reflect on, because I’ve been struggling to answer the question of whether or not I identify as Mennonite for a couple of years now.
I go to a Mennonite school, Bethel College, and I go to a Mennonite church: New Creation Fellowship. I hang out with Mennonite students, teachers and preachers, I read Mennonite books, sing Mennonite music, and I even have a Mennonite landlord. But I have to admit that from the time that I’ve found myself in the midst of this community a couple of years ago, I’ve felt like an outsider, a pretender.
I sang a four-part harmony in church for the first time in my early twenties. My grandpa did not have a beard or ride a horse and buggy. My grandma didn’t bake Zweibach or Verenika or New Year’s Cookies [traditional Russian Mennonite foods]. And I’m not a Kauffman, Regier, Voth, Jantzen, or name-another-last-name. I literally lose the Mennonite game.
I found myself in the midst of Mennonites because, as I fell in love with the man that is now my spouse, a man who was considering the idea of Christian Anarchism in the face of the staunch civil religion that had seemingly taken over American Christianity, I sat in the classroom of a Mennonite reverend at Wichita (Kansas) State University, where I was introduced to a tradition and a community that had for centuries wrestled with the questions of how to respond to Christendom, how to answer Jesus’s call to nonviolence, and how to model our lives after the early Christians. We were both in awe and enthralled.
What is an Anabaptist anyway? I often feel like the word Anabaptist is used, both in my community at Bethel and North Newton and at gatherings such as this, synonymously with Mennonite. We put the words next to one another in our institutions and in our conferences and churches, but there is a difference — right?
I’ve taken a course or two in my time at Bethel on the history of Mennonites, both as an extension of my study in theology, and as an attempt to understand the complicated nuances of the community that I am a part of. The story always begins with the Anabaptist movement, with a bunch of German reformation dudes in the 16th century saying: Hey, this whole “let’s not let our following of Christ turn into a government thing” is pretty great, we should take this a step further. We should read the Bible for ourselves and confess a commitment to follow the ways of Jesus. We should take the words of Jesus seriously. Like, maybe we should stop killing people, or really have anything to do with violence, even towards our enemies. Maybe we should stop promising ourselves to humans and save the soul-selling for God. Maybe we should take seriously the call to, you know, look after each other.
So this movement grew and developed and changed. We saw migration, persecution, and yes, splits. Anabaptism now is an umbrella, as I like to describe it to people, that identifies the core tenets and history that tie together the traditions of the Mennonites, the Hutterites and the Amish. And these three traditions, I believe, are more nuanced than simply one set of clearly spelled-out beliefs. They are also about who you are and, as a couple of my fellow speakers have pointed out over the course of this conference, they are tribal. You know it, I know it, the individuals that come across this Mennonite community know it.
I sometimes feel, that if I were to pastor a Mennonite church and raise Mennonite kids and live in a Mennonite community for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t be as Mennonite, or at least not Mennonite, in the same way as some of my peers. And I know that there are strong voices that would question and challenge this. I have leaders and teachers in my community that would argue that that is not at all true or that this isn’t the way it should be. But I’m here to tell you that is my experience.
But that is my experience with my identity as a kind-of-Mennonite. What about Anabaptism? That’s what I’m really supposed to be talking about. That’s the name of this conference.
Well. Honestly? That’s different. Because when I think about Anabaptism, when I think about the history and the umbrella, I don’t think about a specific type of person with a specific type of name and a specific type of food in a specific place. I think about a tradition of ideas. Wild, crazy, revolutionary ideas. I think about the radical notion that I have a right to read Scripture for myself and that I’m invited into the process of interpretation and action. I think about the conscientious objectors and the protestors and peace-sign carrying, flower-toting, loud proud hippies that called for the end to war and the beginning of nuclear disarmament. I think of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Israel and Palestine. I think of intentional communities and house churches and urban farming.
The Mennonite tradition can make me feel alienated, but Anabaptism is a challenge, an invitation, a call to think harder, love deeper, and to go and do.
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