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Liberation, lineage and village: Why I am an Anabaptist

7.27. 2020 Written By: Sarah Nahar

Photo: The author (right) with her mother, Karen Diener Thompson (left) and her grandmother Carrie Yoder Diener. Photo provided by the author

This article comes from the August issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “Why I am an Anabaptist.” Read more reflections here or subscribe here to receive more original features in your inbox each month.

The three major categories that influence why I am an Anabaptist are liberation theology, spiritual and familial lineage and village: local and global.

Liberation theology

I view Anabaptism as a type of liberation theology that connects with the social movement centered on the renewal Jesus was pointing toward, the revelation he embodied and the revolution of values he was calling for. What seemed to be most salient for the early Anabaptists as they read Scripture were themes of justice, choice, peacemaking, testimony, judgement/apocalypse and sharing. It is one of the many Christian liberation theology traditions that highlights God’s concern for and interest in those who are oppressed in human society.

Anabaptism emerged during a time of economic, political, technological and geographic change. It was a time of transition from feudalism to capitalism, from theocracies to secular statehood, from hearing information to reading information, from provincial governance to the era of European colonization. The theologies that sprang up then, encouraging nonallegiance to state power, radical commitment to nonviolent social change, and rejection of oppression, resonate in our time of economic, political, technological and geographic change.

While I also draw from the practices and wisdom of other spiritual traditions, Anabaptist theology anchors my spiritual activism. Its proclivity to question dominant power blends well with Black feminism and ecological justice work, as they are also worldview frameworks that uplift the integrity of all beings and seek to reduce harm and violence. When I examine how I am complicit in violence (interpersonal and structural), and participate in collective efforts to heal and resist harm, I’m not doing it as part of a contemporary trend but as one in a lineage of faithful people that goes back hundreds of years.

While it’s telling how deep patriarchal sin is that there is so much spiritual, emotional, physical and sexual abuse in our church, even though we denounce violence, the resources are also there within the tradition to denounce it. War’s frontlines are not “over there” but on our very bodies. To be a pacifist means to be willing to find alternatives to war wherever violence is showing up.

I experience Anabaptism as a movement connected to the pacifist early church rooted in strands of Judaism and to Mennonite Church USA as a national modern institution in service to the movement. Part of my spiritual practice is to continue to wrestle with how movements and institutions interact today powerfully to support the spiritual journey of those who feel drawn to Christ. Though the wrestling can take a toll, I’m grateful for how my gifts have been received, what I’ve learned and the authenticity I’ve sensed in the practice of giving and receiving counsel.

Spiritual and familial lineage

Although to enjoin oneself with the Anabaptists is an adult faith choice, I was deeply influenced in that choice by how I was raised. My maternal grandmother’s family moved from being Amish to being Mennonite; my maternal grandfather was the son of a Kansas Mennonite bishop. Though I was the first person on my mother’s side of the family not to attend a Mennonite college, I did receive six years of Mennonite education at Bethany Christian in Goshen, Indiana, beginning the first year it opened a middle school.

Lineage is important because it forms who I am. It’s not something I can shake off, even if I leave the beliefs and values aside. I grew up with stories about familial ancestors being attacked for resisting the buying of war bonds, the explanations of why-we-do-it-this-longer-but-better-way that described simple living, and being a kid at my parents’ many meetings to strategize collectively how to sustain alternative lifeways to the broader society.

It’s hard to go against the grain. There’s something about the diligence, willingness, humility and determination of people who have served in ways that provided an alternative to military security that has formed me, and I want to honor that. Anabaptism at its best in the United States goes against the grain of the sins of white supremacy, capitalism and petrochemical violence by declaring that everyone is beloved and has dignity. It was my understanding that if I chose to be baptized, I was committing to extend this lineage as part of my discipleship practice.

As a senior in high school, I did get baptized, and I did so knowing that we all don’t go against the grain in the same way. Although our spiritual ancestors risked their lives and livelihoods for their beliefs, their ways of doing this were diverse from the beginning. Take the contrast between Hans Denck and Margaretha Sattler, for example. Their personal connection with the Divine inspired them to emphasize different aspects of the Trinity and use different tactics to resist violence. Embracing the diversity of ways the Spirit is calling us to show up for Jesus and justice—while doing collective discernment about how we want to move forward as a community—is a practice that’s been with us from the beginning. Their common pacifist commitments, passed on to me, allow me to be bold and passionate about issues without being so certain about them that I would kill for those beliefs.

Village: local and global

I grew up at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana. It is a congregation full of church institutional administrators, so it was no surprise to me that I became an administrator. At age 30, I became the youngest serving executive director of Christian Peacemaker Teams. Throughout my work with CPT and today, I keep congregational members on speed-dial for consultation and prayer-sharing. I visit Greencroft (retirement home in Goshen where many wise elders live) every chance I get to soak in their stories.

Elkhart and Goshen continue to be the place I come home to. Former PSMC pastor Andrew Kreider noticed that “I am on a giant rubber band with the area, and no matter where I go in the world, I will bounce back.” I treasure the sense of place and belonging here. Having the chance to return and work in my local community through various Mennonite service agencies and visionary projects has made it possible to maintain strong ties to the area, even as my life has located me elsewhere. Many of the places I lived in and visited are the result of connections with these agencies and Mennonite World Conference.

Participating with other young adults in the cultivation of our global Anabaptist village gave me immense mentorship, learning and leadership development opportunities. Through them I received a meaningful initiation into global justice and international solidarity work. Over time I’ve also seen how Anabaptist movements and Mennonite institutions can fail, the harm people experience who then leave or get pushed out. These are painful and clarifying moments that prepared me for yet deeper layers of discipleship work. I’m grateful that the Holy Spirit is the protagonist of the story we’re in and that no person who is functioning in leadership is assumed to have the whole truth or to be above accountability. The Incarnate One invites all into relationship with the Divine to help us receive feedback and co-create transformation. Although at times the narrowminded stubbornness within us becomes nearly unbearable, there are resources in Anabaptism and elsewhere that help me breathe through and re-engage. I am looking forward to the future of the Mennonite church and the Anabaptist movement.

Sarah Nahar (neé Thompson) (she/her) is a Ph.D. student in Syracuse, New York (traditional Onondaga Land), in religion and environmental studies.

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