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Wrestling with Mennonite identity: Seeing Anabaptism as more than just ‘hindsight’

2.21. 2018 Posted By: The Mennonite 575 Times read

Andrew Suderman teaches theology, peace and mission at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He also serves as secretary of Mennonite World Conference’s Peace Commission. Andrew and his wife, Karen, served with Mennonite Church Canada as coordinators of the Anabaptist Network in South Africa from 2009 to 2016. They live in Harrisonburg with their two children.

Many institutions within our Mennonite family are wrestling with questions of identity. There are good reasons for this. We want to be contextual, appropriate, relevant and hospitable in our ongoing journey toward faithfulness. What in our journey thus far can we, or should we, affirm? What must we change? How can we more faithfully achieve our aim, vision and calling? What is our aim, vision and calling? Such wrestling is good.

It really should not surprise us that Mennonites are persistently interested in questions of “identity.” This is a logical outcropping of a faith-movement based on personal consciousness. Each generation is confronted with the choice as to whether it will choose to identify with its inherited faith tradition.

Susan Shultz Huxman, in her lecture at the Eastern Mennonite University faculty and staff conference at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, helpfully highlighted three elements that determine identity: a) the importance of hindsight (looking back to learn from our past); b) foresight (looking forward to determine where we want to go); and c) insight (the ways we choose to embody the intersection of hindsight and foresight). Her reminder is important. “Identity” is not static. It is constantly shaped and determined as we walk. The creation of identity is a dynamic process.

Her lecture reminded me of a Colombian proverb that says (roughly): “If you don’t know where you’re coming from, and you don’t know where you’re going, than any bus will do.” Knowing where we are coming from and knowing where we want to go are important elements in determining how we will walk now.

Susan offered new words for a common Anabaptist perspective, namely the essential inter-related triad among Jesus, Kingdom and Church.[1] These are not synonyms, but neither can any one of them be understood without the other. These three aspects of faith serve as three legs of an Anabaptist faith-stool.[2]

  • Kingdom – provides the framework, the vision of God’s dream and purpose for the world. It offers foresight into God’s intentions and strategies. It offers a vision of a fully reconciled world, often referred to as “shalom.”
  • Jesus – provides the incarnational content of God’s Kingdom present in the world. Jesus’ life and example provides the hindsight of what it means to understand the presence of God’s Kingdom Christianly!
  • Church – is designed as an ongoing, incarnational peoplehood that functions as a sign of God’s Kingdom present as understood by (or through) Jesus. It lives on the intersection between hindsight and foresight.

Put negatively:

  • Without Kingdom the church forgets its purpose, and becomes, at best, another social club or political party, or – at worst – is co-opted by other kingdoms that seek or require allegiance. In such cases preaching the “good news” becomes equated with nationalism, particular cultural norms, governing ideologies, capitalism, etc.
  • Without Jesus the character of God’s emancipatory and reconciling strategy is lost. If this happens we may very well pursue the Kingdom in ways that are foreign to the way Jesus understood it and the practices he demonstrated.
  • Without Church faith becomes individualized. The focus inevitably is internalized, personalized, spiritualized, and individualized. Communal life is replaced by individual salvation. A future heaven trumps discipleship and social responsibility.

We recognize, of course, that this community we call “church” has imperfections; it has spots and wrinkles. It is not yet the full vision of shalom that God desires. And yet, as Paul routinely suggests through his use of the word ekklesia (or “the called out ones”), this is an audacious calling! And this continues to feed the church’s identity as it enacts God’s mission and purpose in the world.

What does this lived vocation actually look like? What habits, practices, values and commitments emerge when these three traits come together? Robert Suderman provides a helpful list that begins to explore this:

  • Our focus surpasses national boundaries and interests.
  • Peace is not simply activism; it is the way a community of Jesus lives its life.
  • Discipleship is not simply learning to be a good Christian; it is learning to be a good [community].
  • Community is not simply sharing common things; it is together sharing the mind of Christ as a witness to the world.
  • Simplicity is not simply a matter of economic stewardship; it is demonstrating that as a Body it is possible to trust in God’s provisions for our lives.
  • Baptism is not simply a public witness of our individual decision to accept Christ; it is a commitment to offer our gifts to the life of the Body of Christ, and to be nurtured and discipled by that community.
  • Pacifism and non-violence are not simply ethical choices we make to be better people; they are creating a community that aligns with the path chosen by Jesus [and embodying God’s peaceable kingdom. In this way] we can be worthy of being called [Jesus’] Body.
  • ethics are not simply a code of behaviour; they are a mirror of the habits of God’s people and how they treat each other and learn to live together as a paradigm of reconciliation.
  • non-conformity is not simply difference from the directions of the societies around us; it is a demonstration that there is another empire present in the same territory, and this community marches to the beat of that empire, and has granted it supreme authority over who we are and want to become.
  • the church is not simply other than the state because it has different functions; it is not the state because it recognizes a different Lord as the “head of state.”
  • Salvation is not simply rescuing individual souls from eternal destruction; it is the on-going vigorous presence of a community that invites others to enlist in an alternative cause that has as its agenda the promise of setting things right—the way they were meant to be.
  • evangelism is not simply proclaiming the truths of God; it is living the good news of the presence of the Kingdom and bringing its values into a visible, accessible and tangible reality for others.[3]

This inter-related triad of Jesus, Church and Kingdom was – and continues to be – radical, even revolutionary!

I suspect that what is sketched above is not new for many of us. But I find it interesting, and sometimes concerning, that at times we have rendered this “Anabaptist perspective,” this inter-related triad, as “hindsight.” We may recognize it as part of our history, and simply depict it as such. We fail, in other words, to recognize how such a perspective motivates our present challenge to be faithful.

Interestingly, while in South Africa, we experienced a vibrant community convinced that the genius of Anabaptism is not just its hindsight, but also the insight and foresight it offers in their efforts to be the church. Anabaptism, in other words, is not simply a historical reality; it continues to inform who they want to be.

Often, when we would come back from South Africa, we would speak in churches about “being reminded of an Anabaptist vision.” Whenever there were historians or theologians in the congregation, such talk would inevitably conjure up visions of H.S. Bender and his portrayal of the 16th century “Anabaptist Vision.” We, however, would try to highlight that for many around the world an “Anabaptist vision” is not simply the story of 16th-century Anabaptism, nor Bender’s depiction of it. It is a lived, contemporary, Christian expression of faith and ecclesial discipleship. The emergence of the different Anabaptist networks around the world serve as but a few examples of the contemporary significance of this faith identity. Listen to the words of Mzwandile Nkutha, coordinator of the Anabaptist Network in South Africa (ANiSA):

            Anabaptism… can be juxtaposed with the narrative of the black church under colonialism and apartheid in South Africa. The 16th-century Anabaptism emerged within a context of Protestant Reformation with an attempt to re-imagine the role of the church. Anabaptism has had a small but significant influence in South Africa, particularly among the theological and activist voices during the struggle against apartheid.

            The black church in South Africa sought to decolonize as well as create space for a new imagination beyond the apartheid theology of social, political, racial and economic segregation. Thus, both narratives expressed an ecclesiology distant from state hegemonic power. There is a compelling binary between black liberation theology within the South African context and Anabaptism[’s] nonresistance and nonviolent posture that speaks to the church identity in South Africa.

            Anabaptism provides a theological and ecclesial perspective that refuses to move away from the margins[;] rather [it] speak from the margins. It is this kind of alternative ecclesial and theological politics that attracted me to explore Anabaptism.

This “Anabaptist vision,” or identity, is not only a historical movement. It is not simply hindsight. It is experienced as a current, embodied, liberative – even emancipatory – identity, an identity that is connected with what it means to be “Mennonite,” which many around the world embrace. This identity is intelligible only when we willingly and consciously align ourselves with those on the margins struggling for life, justice and peace. Such contexts provide the necessary perspective and the necessary questions with which we too must wrestle to envision how we can be a community shaped by Jesus’ character, seeking to embody now God’s peaceable kingdom on earth.


[1] This is not a new idea. Robert (Jack) Suderman makes this suggestion in his chapter “Reflections on Anabaptist Ecclesiology” in Re-Imagining the Church (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 31-37. Harry Huebner also explores such a relationship, although Huebner distinguishes between God, Church, and New Kingdom (see his chapter “Moral Agency as Embodiment: How the Church Acts” in Echoes of the Word: Theological Ethics as Rhetorical Practice [Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2005]), 61-83.

[2] Suderman, Re-Imagining the Church, 34.

[3] Suderman, Re-Imagining the Church, 32.

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