But Do We Really Want to Be Hip?

Posted: May 29, 2013 in Theology

Anabaptist Dirk Willems rescues his pursuer an...

Over at the Brethren Life & Thought blog, Joshua Brockway  provided a helpful taxonomy regarding the ongoing conversation which is attempting to distinguish between Neo-Anabaptism and Anabaptism. While his argument surrounds the practice of adult baptism upon confession of faith, he offers another helpful label pertaining to those who reject the categories of modernity (liberal theology: both progressive and fundamentalist). His suggested referent is Post-Liberal Anabaptist. This conversation surrounding theological tradition and identity has been interesting. However, in the midst of it an apparent undercurrent of critical resistance toward newcomers to Anabaptist faith and convictions is occurring.

What is always surprising to me is that for a people who have emerged from such a rich tradition steeped in nonresistance (which then evolved into an evangelistic peace witness) and who tend to be sensitive to issues of justice and inclusion, the ever present desire to be gate-keepers as to who is in and who is outside of their tradition. I’m not sure if this is linked to some form of pride of ancestry or if it has naturally evolved and mutated from the old sectarianism. Regardless of the source it seems contrary to the fabric of a faith tradition which has historically expressed radical hospitality.

The source of my concern comes from some of those sisters and brothers who are relatively new to Anabaptism and have been made to feel as though they are somehow “second class” members of the club. One of the gifts of these “newbies” is the vigor and excitement they bring with them. Having not been raised in the Anabaptist tradition and having been (what I believe to be) led to it by God’s Spirit in my young adulthood, I experienced a liberating revolution of life that felt very much like finding the theological home I had been looking for “for so long.” Having written a postgraduate thesis on Brethren hermeneutics I fell in love with the zealous faith of the early Brethren. I sought licensing in the Church of the Brethren and soon after was ordained. At the first Annual Conference I attended, I noticed that it seemed like everyone was related. In fact many of my first introductions were accompanied by some form of genealogy which seemed to legitimize the person to whom I was introduced. Needless to say it felt very much like an exclusive club into which I was trying to enter.

For the first few years I often felt like I didn’t belong because I didn’t share the genealogical roots of my peers. I have now been part of the Church of the Brethren for 13 years and feel as though I am truly a part of the larger community. However, in the Church of the Brethren (I assume it is similar among Mennonites), sometimes there seems to be those who feel obligated to defend the tradition because of their deep ancestral roots. I have often interpreted such behaviors as a desire to be “gatekeepers.” This particular behavior is one that compromises a radical hospitality that invites the other to share in one’s living space and seeks to assert power over others to control their environment. I guess my primary issue is that there is an assumption that if a newcomer does not have the proper pedigree or has not read or engaged particular writings that they are illegitimate or somehow less legitimate.

Contrary to this, what I find exciting is that these folks who have found a theological home among the Anabaptists reinvigorate the tradition. What is a bit scary is that with this re-invigoration comes change. From a narrative perspective it means that as their story joins the larger story of the the theological tradition that to some degree the tradition necessarily changes. It cannot remain the same. The only time something doesn’t change is if it is dead. The point I’m trying to get at is that the (Neo) Anabaptist tradition is at an exciting point in its life. The witness over the past 5 centuries (or so) has born fruit. The Spirit of God is using this rich tradition to establish the kingdom of God in surprising ways. Instead of being fearful and critical of these newcomers, we should be excited about having new and fresh conversation partners as we seek to live out this radical faith in Jesus together in a world desperately needing God’s kingdom.

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Comments
  1. Great thoughts here Andy. Some may or may not see a similar response in one of my comments on the Brethren Life and Thought blog. So I’ve copied a part of it here:

    “The irony is here, that often because of the sectarian nature of early Anabaptist traditions actual family links became very important. Yet, as a believer’s church tradition, the boundary is technically open for those who would desire baptism- family lineage wasn’t necessary for discipleship.”

  2. danacassell says:

    Thanks for the reminders, Andy. My favorite line from Stuart Murray is that the historical Anabaptist groups now suffer from a “hangover from a history of repression.” I think that fear of being known, “infiltrated” or punished carries on in these kinds of inhospitable ways you’re naming. Maybe that’s one possible downside to being anti-Constantinian…

  3. Interesting post Andy – the irony of the ancestral/gatekeeper/’name gamers’ claiming anabaptism as something other than cultural identifier is particularly rich considering that opposition to the mindset and world view of those primarily concerned with adding links to the daisy chain of faith gave rise to Anabaptisim in the first place.

    I think historically there are life stages of Anabaptist community. In 1524 and 1525 the movement is very different than a century later, and almost a century after that you find a ‘deteriorated’ fire-lacking faith giving rise to the Brethren movement. There is a transition from an almost purely Evangelical movement to a movement focused on survival, to an established community focused primarily on preservation (and establishing a framework of order for that preservation).

    What does that have to do with the situation you describe? I’d go for ‘what is nothing’ Alex. Part of what is happening is some use a term as a faith identifier and others use a term as an ancestral identifier and incorrectly feel people are out to steal their birthright — kind of like the Anti-Dentite episode of Seinfeld when the Dentist converts to Judaism and infuriates Jerry by making Jewish jokes, using Jewish phrases, and talking about the persecution of ‘his people.’

    Outside of the confusion and misunderstanding on all sides that occurs when groups use terms in different contexts – and switch between contexts without warning (hilarity does not ensue when you have some people wanting to tap in to a faith tradition and not wishing their ancestors were from Bern and others not caring about the faith tradition as they dress in their Great-grandparents clothes, put on the fake beards and bonnets, and head to homecoming down at church in their Hummer with the ‘Ask Me About The Masons” bumper sticker) what I see in Neo-Anabaptism (or whatever moniker you want to use) is a similar tension that always happens when the keepers of the flame are told that their flame is either dim or out. When do Anabaptists stop being Anabaptists and start being the established church? Does it make a difference if they continue to call themselves ‘Anabaptists’? Does it matter where their families came from?

    On the other hand, no matter the faith tradition with which one identifies, it doesn’t change ancestry, or family stories, or the pride and respect some feel for the tumult that their ancestors endured. The conundrum is how you allow room for people to own their own heritage and yet all to own the faith tradition with neither group feeling excluded. For many Anabaptists, making the mental distinction between the cultural and faith aspects of the tradition is akin to splitting the atom. It can be done, but not with a hammer..

    • Andrew says:

      Hey Ben. Thanks for your response. I think you are correct, but I also like Evan’s take on it as well. I wonder if some of this is a result of a romanticized memory of a bygone day to which there is little connection apart from genetics. Perhaps even a romanticized perception of portions of the “cultural identifier.”

      • Evan Garber says:

        I think you are right Andrew. And people from persecution (irish, jews, blacks, ect.) definitely hold faster and truer to their ethnic identity than the historical persecutors. Growing up in the South and having a 5th grade Virginia History teacher who attended Virginia Military Institute and had a grandfather who was wounded during Pickett’s Charge, I kept looking unsuccessfully for my ancestors who fought in the noble lost cause. After all, the Southerns felt, and still feel, the sense of persecution and hold tight to their romanticized memories. The more I read about slavery, I switched from being ashamed of my pacifist ancestors of fighting age who fled to the North, and the more I appreciated the ones who were harassed and imprisoned because they preached against slavery during very difficult times. Though I imagine that if I had found a Confederate ancestor, I would probably have rationalized a reason to find pride in his actions. After all the confluence of identity and pride makes for a powerful mixture.

    • Roger Shenk says:

      Thanks Andrew for giving some new language to my thoughts. Very helpful.

      And thanks Ben for asking (stating) this: “When do Anabaptists stop being Anabaptists and start being the established church? Does it make a difference if they continue to call themselves ‘Anabaptists’?”

      I believe the Radical Reformation provided a necessary corrective about what it means to follow Christ. I’m proud to come from a long heritage born of that Spirit-led movement. For those of us who were raised in it, it forms a very natural perspective of what we think Jesus meant. Others have learned this perspective at a later age and contribute a wealth of experience and perspective to the conversation. And in the context of various perspectives about what Jesus meant about stuff, “Anabaptist” can be a useful identifier.

      But it’s a lousy identity.

      It seems like some of us are so enthralled with (or safe in?) our Anabaptist identity that our identity in Christ is nothing without it. That needs to be the other way around.

  4. Wayne Sutton says:

    I have observed this too as one who also found my home in the Church of the Brethren after doing a tour of available Christianities. It is a weakness of our church that ethnic Brethren often value family connections over faithfulness to core teachings. I think that it is also connected with the institutional impulse to become more like the “big boys”. There was a reason that I left the church I was in, to become Brethren. It has been a long frustration of mine to see the Church of the Brethren work so hard to become more and more like the church I left. Of course I do not want to see the Church of the Brethren become fossilized. But I see so many people who are looking for a faithful Anabaptism rather than a respectable and accommodating Protestantism. They don’t know what Anabaptism is but when I hear their critiques of Christianity I quickly realize that what they are looking for is an Anabaptism that has remained faithful to its core. But Brethren have worked hard at becoming respectable, accommodating, protestants so our kids would stay connected to their ethnic heritage. And so just as there are ethnic Jews and there are practicing Jews, today there are ethnic Anabaptists and practicing Anabaptists. It is ironic that as Anabaptists whose primary ecclesiological assertion was once that the church should be comprised only of believers and that one must first “count the cost” before entering a covenantal relationship with other believers we now need to relearn the truth that “God has no grandchildren.” If we really want our kids in the church we should show them with our lives that we have found a pearl hidden in a field and that it is worth the cost of the field- everything.

  5. Matt McKimmy says:

    So at first I wasn’t sure if you were going to question whether being “hip” was in fact a good thing, but I like where you’ve gone with this – questioning whether we really have a desire to grow and expand the movement we’re a part of or want to just keep it to ourselves.

    I’d like to add another possibility to the potential motivations of “gatekeepers”: jealousy. After all, we’ve been trying so hard (or at least we tell ourselves we have) for so long to grow and expand our own churches, our own denomination(s). Now here these outsiders show up on the scene, looking a lot like the church we’ve been trying to be for 300 years, and they’re the ones getting all the attention, new members, book deals, etc.

    As a movement that has seen ourselves as existing on the margins of Christendom culture, when Christendom begins to crumble and new people “discover” the Anabaptist way of being and believing without our help (and sometimes without acknowledgement or conversation with those of us who have been here all along) it feels less like we’re becoming “hip” and more like we’re being superseded or displaced. “These are OUR margins – how dare anyone else try and claim them and not benefit us in the process!”

    Personally, I’m excited by the rising interest in Anabaptism (whether it be Neo- or not) and am glad to extend radical hospitality to newcomers. The question that remains for me, though, is whether the radical, reformative, sectarian spirit of Anabaptism may also manifest itself in these new expressions of Anabaptist community being disinterested in seeking relationship with historical expressions. What incentive is there for newcomers to relate to us has-beens if we’re struggling, declining, and in-fighting and they’re experiencing growth, vitality, and new life? Will the TRUE Anabaptists please stand up?

    For me, this all comes back to where my deepest loyalties lie. Are they to the local community I serve and live alongside? The denomination I’ve been formed by and am part of? The larger Anabaptist movement? The alternative reality Christ proclaimed and that is emerging even now? As much as we may love them, institutions rise and fall, old traditions become memories, and movements move on. The question for all of us is whether we’re following where the Spirit is leading, even if it is beyond who “we” once were.

    • Andrew says:

      Matt thanks for your comment. It is always helpful to get several different perspectives on subjects such as this. As for the question that still remains for you, perhaps the answer lies in building real relationship with these folks. As we enter into conversational relationship these new folks can learn from the rich history grafting into the vine of the radical reformation tradition and we can be reinvigorated by the energy and enthusiasm they bring.

  6. Evan Garber says:

    I really enjoy the wisdom of you comments Ben and Wayne. I identify with and struggle with many of your points, since I am very much an “ethnic Anabaptist” who would disagree with some of the theological conclusions of my ancestors. It does not come from a lack of desire to “count the cost” or a rejection of the pearls of wisdoms of my family, I just come to different conclusions when I try to understand Jesus, Scripture and the world. I have often had the internal struggle that Andy has in reverse; someone who feels like I belong because i am part of the family, even as I feel like and intellectual outsider because I can not affirm what most Anabaptists (though not all) taught about non-resistance. This struggle has led me away from, and now back to the church of my youth. As I have aged I have felt led back to Anabaptism even if I do not affirm important doctrine, because I believe that anabaptism has a lot to offer Christianity.
    Even though they emphasized personal faith and commitment as a prerequisite to baptism, they still saw the dangers of the dogmatic imposition of the Pharisees, and so they also talked about “no compulsion in faith” and “together we have the mind of Christ” and “we have no Creed but the New Testament.” On one hand this reaffirms the need for us to dig deep into the wells of Truth, even as we have respect for those who may conclude different things than ourselves. It also encourages us to listen to people and work to bring consensus into the body. Even though I am not a Pacifist, I feel that it is an important minority voice in Christianity that is too easily dismissed and ignored. I feel that my anabaptist roots help me to hear the voice of Jesus talking about the poor, the broken, and even my enemies, in ways that I do not hear when I listen to other churches or other voices in our culture. Sometimes these roots change my mind, sometimes they alter my mind, but they always inform my mind. Maybe Anabaptist’s do not Need to be “faithful to the core” to be salt and light that can offer powerful additions and corrections to modern Christianity. Maybe we can contribute to the collective “mind of Christ” in ways that have lasting influences that extend beyond the walls of our bible studies.
    There is a great interview between Charlie Rose and Bono from the rock band U2 that transpired in the past couple weeks. In it, Bono discusses how an Irish Rock star became instrumental in helping the United States Congress and President Bush greatly increase our expenditures for HIV/AIDS medication to Africa that has literally saved millions of lives and helped to slow down what was seen as a global pandemic. There were liberals in congress who saw the humanitarian crisis, but conservatives had the power and needed persuasion. In comes Bono, centered by his activist social justice faith, who was able to talk to George Bush and Jesse Helms with the words of Jesus. Bono told of the time when he quoted Matthew 25 to Senator Helms “What you do for the least of these you do unto me.” He reminded the Senator that this was the only time that Jesus offered judgement for action or inaction. The arch-conservative senator on hearing those verses and interpretation had tears in his eyes, and became essential in helping to change the minds of other conservatives. I doubt if Jesse Helms became an anabaptist to the core, but an Anabaptist understanding of Jesus and the gospels changed his mind and changed the world.
    And that is why I feel that I can teach and need to celebrate Anabaptism without having to swallow all of it completely.

    • Andrew says:

      Great point Evan. As one having been raised in a different tradition and having found a home (both theologically and spiritually) among the Brethren, I too would say that I disagree with some of the doctrines of our spiritual ancestors (particularly surrounding the more sectarian ones). Nonresistance is one of those doctrines that has changed over the years. Over the past century his has been (to a large degree) replaced by the more evangelistic “peace witness.” This being said, it is by far not the majority opinion. The part of the Brethren that I truly appreciate is that Jesus is central to interpretation and service. Tony Campolo and Shain Claiborne (Red Letter Revolution) recently published a book that (even thought they are not Brethren) reflects this perspective on the Christian faith.

      • Evan Garber says:

        I agree Andrew very much with the focus on Jesus as being central to interpretation and service. I like the Mennonite phrasing that “We read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, and the New Testament through the lens of Jesus.” One of the great things about the Tony Campolo students is that they not only embrace the Anabaptism of our spiritual ancestors, but also the pietism. After all, the pietists were the ones talking about having a personal relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit testifying to our Human Spirit that we are a child of God, long before the modern Evangelicals did. And for that matter, I am seeing an increasing number of Evangelicals (from Rick Warren to Andy Stanley) who talk as much about mission as they do salvation. So even if they don’t use our root identifiers, I hear them using our language.

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