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Tweaking Anabaptism: What Mennonites can learn from Steve Jobs and Vincent Harding

Walking the Labyrinth
11.27. 2011 Posted By: Tim Nafziger

This month Malcom Gladwell had an article in the New Yorker looking at the legacy of Steve Jobs. His central thesis is that Jobs’ gift was not originality, but rather tweaking: the ability to take the inventions of others and refine and improve them dramatically. Gladwell points out that the iPod came out 5 years after the first digital music players and the iPhone more than a decade after the first smart phones hit the market.

Gladwell is building on the work of economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr who used this lens to look at the industrial revolution in Britain. For example, they point out the importance of the many engineers who improved on Samuel Crompton’s original invention of the spinning mule. These "tweakers" dramatically improving its productivity through minor changes.

Likewise, Gladwell says, "Jobs’s sensibility was editorial, not inventive. His gift lay in taking what was in front of him—the tablet with stylus—and ruthlessly refining it." Gladwell makes his point with many episodes from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. Job’s particular way of tweaking made him very difficult to get along with, even as he was dying of cancer:

At one point, the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated … Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked. … He also hated the oxygen monitor they put on his finger. He told them it was ugly and too complex.

Many of the other stories in the article highlight this prideful and brittle tendencies that seem inseparable from Jobs gift for tweaking and editing.

Getting to the Point

So now you may be wondering: what’s happened to Tim? What in the world can Mennonites learn from this ultra-wealthy baron of consumer electronics? This man— whose sweatshops in China drove eighteen workers to suicide in 14 days, whose embrace of planned obsolescence has clogged our landfills with billions of gadgets and toxic batteries and whose walled garden threatens the commons of the internet? Not to mention the hubristic embrace of technological progress that undergirds this all.

In short, I think there are two lessons to learn, one positive and one negative:

  1. We can learn from Jobs the value of tweaks and innovations of the original Anabaptist innovations.
  2. We can learn from Jobs how not to force others into our box the way Apple has.

Mennonites are proud of being the first ones on the block (at least in Europe) to pull off adult baptism, pacifism and the other Anabaptist distinctives, sometimes too proud. This summer I co-led a seminar with Mark Van Steenwyk at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Pittsburgh. He shared the experience of his community in joining Mennonite Chruch USA. While recognizing the richness of the Mennonite tradition, he was frustrated by the pressure he felt to assimilate into "Mennonite-dom." He challenged Mennonites to "hold our Anabaptist story with open hands as we network, work with, and learn from others who have their own Anabaptist stories."

Unfortunately, when Mennonites see innovators outside our community we often label them "Anabaptist camp followers" and judge them by their ability to assimilate into our institutions and Mennonite sub-culture, what we’ll call Mennonitedom. Like Jobs we offer them our way or the highway.

Vincent Harding

The best way to understand this pattern is to look at one example in more depth. Vincent Harding is an innovator who took Anabaptist principles in new directions that Mennonites were not prepared for. In From Fort Peachtree to Atlanta: The Mennonite Story Sarah Kehrberg describes how Harding, already a Mennonite pastor, and his wife Rosemary were invited by Mennonite Central Committee to move to Atlanta, Ga., in October 1961 to organize "Mennonite House" an experiment in integration and reconciliation. Mennonite voluntary service director Edgar Stoesz compared the civil rights struggle to World War II, in which Mennonites didn’t participate, but showed up afterwards to clean up. Mennonites "decline to participate in the interracial conflict but seek rather to bring reconciliation and goodwill."

Kehrberg quotes Harding’s significant tweak to this tradition:

Early on he wrote, "We need somehow to move away from the passivity suggested by our dependence on the phrase ‘nonresistance,’ to a new sense of involvement and participation implied in the term ‘peacemakers.’" He recognized that this meant risk and the danger of "finding ourselves with strange bedfellows (perhaps on a prison floor), or of making common cause with those whose ultimate convictions are not exactly the same as our own."

In his article, Moving Beyond Charisma in Civil Rights Scholarship: Vincent Harding’s Sojourn with the Mennonites, 1958-1966, Tobin Miller Shearer poignantly describes the Harding’s struggle to be heard through the veil of Mennonite passive-aggressiveness in a meeting with the General Conference Board of Christian Service in Dec. 4, 1963:

Harding pled with his fellow Mennonites to speak to him directly, to even get "angry as hell" with him. He admitted to being angry that Mennonites played "games with this issue so often." That anger then turned into biting critique as he lamented that God had to bring about change through the Supreme Court, the Communist Manifesto and the NAACP rather than the church. In the depth of his lament, he asked his cobelievers to become the "front light" to the world rather than the "rear light."

By 1966, Harding had given up on Mennonites, but fortunately his vision of active, prophetic Christian challenge to racism was welcome elsewhere. In 1967, Martin Luther King turned to Harding to write the draft of his pivotal sermon to Riverside church in which he took a strong public stand against the Vietname war. 44 years later, the words of the speech are still a lodestone for the movement for peace and justice in the United States:

When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Today, Harding continues to challenge Christians around the world to become involved in the struggle for nonviolent social change to build the beloved community. Last summer I saw him speak at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. His authority, wisdom and warmth are remarkable. Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship* tells the story of Harding and Van Steenwyk and many other tweakers who have interacted with Mennonites and the Anabaptist tradition over the last five decades. I hope that we can humbly listen to and learn from these voices over the next half century.

*Full Disclosure: I have a chapter about Christian Peacemaker Teams in the book. Special Bonus if you live near Goshen, Ind.

Photo by Tim Nafziger

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