An Anabaptist Ecclesiology for a Global Pandemic

I’m convinced that the church is the gathered people of God.

In the New Testament, even when the word ekklēsia points beyond local gatherings to the universal church, it still has the idea of “the church that gathers”: followers of Jesus who live together in the world as Christ’s body, God’s family, a new humanity formed by the Spirit. This gathered people of God is together “a holy priesthood”: while some are called to spiritual leadership as “pastors” or “shepherd-teachers,” there are no human mediators between God and individual believers and each one is distinctly gifted by the Spirit of Christ so that together we can be the body of Christ in the world.

This understanding of “church” is part of what makes me “Anabaptist” in my Christian convictions. And this Anabaptist ecclesiology has some direct implications for how we “do church,” to use a modern phrase.

This ecclesiology means worship services are not performances. Worship services are the gathered people of God, gathered to worship God collectively, with everyone contributing in worship.

We don’t speak of a “stage” and an “audience”; we are a “congregation” gathered together in a “sanctuary,” or even, deep in our tradition, simply a “meeting house.” We don’t dim the “audience lights” and throw spotlights on the people “on stage.”

“Worship leaders” are neither priests nor performers. They are not even the “song leaders.” Worship leaders are exactly that: those in any given service (often lay people) who guide the congregation in our collective worship, all aspects of it (not just the music).

The building is closed. The church is still open.

Sermons are neither more nor less important than any other part of the service. Congregational singing, congregational sharing and prayer, sharing our creative gifts, sharing our financial resources, reading Scripture together, intentionally listening together for God’s voice to us as a congregation—these are just as important as, and some weeks more important than, what the preacher shares.

This ecclesiology also means worship services are not all that “church” is. We don’t simply “do church” on Sunday mornings; we “do church”—or better, we are the church—all throughout the week.

Yes, this means we live out our individual and family lives as Christians through the week, striving in the Spirit to follow Jesus in the ordinary everyday. But it also means we continue to be the church, gathering together throughout the week in various ways: in prayer, in learning, in service, and breaking bread together as often as we can around tables in our church building or in our homes.

Sometimes this way of thinking about “church” is considered “low church,” in contrast to “high church” ecclesiologies that include liturgy, sacraments, vestments, icons, candles, bells, and incense. I appreciate the distinction, and I myself love liturgy and worship that engages the senses. But I have to confess I bristle a bit at the idea that an Anabaptist view of church is “low”: we take church as seriously as any other group of Christians, and more seriously than many.

But what happens when “the gathered people of God” can no longer gather? How can we be the church in a pandemic?

In some ways the answer to this is simple: we continue to find creative ways to love our neighbours as ourselves, loving all others (and especially the most vulnerable) in the way of Jesus. There is never any shortage of people who need to be loved.

But this is really an individual Christian response to a pandemic. How do we do this specifically as the church, the gathered people of God? And how do we do all the things that nurture and support the faith and hope that form the root of this love? How do we worship together, pray together, learn together, hear God’s voice to us together, serve together?

How do we sing together? How do we break bread together?

When we dig a little deeper into this question—how can we be the church in a pandemic?—we find the answers aren’t simple and easy at all.

Since there are no simple and easy answers to this, I won’t stand in judgment on any other church or pastor and how they work through this question. (Unless you’ve been given specific guidelines, even orders, by your local health authorities not to gather in large groups, but you still do—then may God have mercy on your souls, and on the bodies of the rest of us who might end up paying for your foolish hubris disguised as “faith.”)

Nevertheless, here are some thoughts roiling around in my brain, circling around this conviction:

The church hasn’t changed. We are still the gathered people of God.

Because of this conviction, I’ll confess I have no appetite for recording or livestreaming a “worship service” of people performing in front of empty pews. I do understand the impulse behind these efforts, and I sympathize with those who have decided to do this. But that’s never been what our worship services are—they’ve never been about the people “on stage” doing something which the people “in the audience” observe.

Since our worship services are more participatory than that, I’m working at finding ways to include as many people as possible in the “virtual worship services” we as a church are providing, and I’m working at finding ways to encourage people to participate in those online worship services. We’re recording various church folks praying and singing and playing music to accompany our hymns, for example, so those gifts can be shared on a Sunday morning.

Also, because of this conviction that the church is still the gathered people of God, I am encouraging our church to lean into the idea that our worship services are not all that “church” is. We may not be able to gather in person, but we are committed to finding ways to “gather” throughout each week for all the reasons we’ve always gathered: in prayer, in learning, in service, and breaking bread together as often as we can around tables in our church building or in our homes. Some of this “breaking bread together” might have to happen as households host one another for a meal via Zoom, but we’ll find a way.

The goal of all this faith- and hope-formation, the fruit we’re hoping to see among us, is still the same: love. Loving each other, loving all others, and especially loving the most vulnerable, in the way of Jesus.

For many of us, for now at least, this “love in the way of Jesus” means being physically separated from others, especially the most vulnerable. That’s counter-intuitive for all of us, but especially Mennonites, who like a hands-on kind of Jesus-love.

Social distancing, Dirk!

For all of us, this “love in the way of Jesus” means finding creative ways to walk in solidarity with those most at-risk and those most affected and afflicted. Following social distancing requirements to the letter, but doing so to help stock the local food bank. Checking in with our elderly and immune compromised church folks, making sure they have the things they need. And more.

All churches are having to find creative ways to “do church” and “be the church” in these days. But for those with strong Anabaptist convictions about church? We’ve got some unique challenges—and opportunities—ahead of us.

How is your church “doing” and “being” the church during COVID-19?

If your church is a Mennonite or other Anabaptist church, how is your church trying to maintain the conviction that the church is “the gathered people of God?”

Most pressing for Mennonites, how in the world are you singing together and breaking bread together? 🙂

I’d love to hear constructive responses!

Note: This post has been edited slightly since its original publication.

Niebuhr or Wink? “The Paradox of Progressive Political Theology,” Yes—But “The Powers Can Be Redeemed”

Richard Beck has written a series of blog posts that have been churning in my thoughts for many days. The essential thrust of his posts is that progressive Christian political theology thinks it is Anabaptist when in actual fact it is Niebuhrian—or perhaps should be. Here’s how he states the paradox:

Rhetorically, the political theology many progressive Christians espouse is Anabaptist. The rhetoric is anti-empire. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.

But in practice, the political theology of many progressive Christians is Niebuhrian. That is, Christians must take and use the power of the state to address our social and international problems. The focus is upon electoral politics and democratic engagement: voting, calling Congress, etc. Jesus may be Lord, but in this unjust world Caesar is how we get stuff done. That’s Niebuhrian realism.

In short, it seems to be that a lot of progressive Christians want to be Anabaptist and Niebuhrian at the same time. Or adjust our position when it suits us. Anti-empire when you need to denounce an administration. Niebuhrian when you need to win an election.

I commend the whole series highly (firstsecondthirdfourthfifth).

I don’t dispute Beck’s central insights. I think Beck is onto something important, and he has stated the matter well, with his usual probity and clarity. Nevertheless, something about the posts hasn’t felt quite right to me, and it’s taken me several days to put my finger on it. The question that has been stirring in my mind is whether he has captured the full range of Anabaptist theology related to political engagement.

I think he has accurately described a common Anabaptist political theology, probably the most common Anabaptist political theology. Essentially, this is the idea of “the church as the locus of life and political witness,” to use Beck’s words. In this common Anabaptist perspective, the church and the world are utterly distinct. The world will do whatever the world does. The church’s call is to bear witness to an alternative political reality shaped around the life and teachings of Jesus.

There are variations on this Anabaptist perspective, though, that have a more positive view of the world and thus a more positive view of political engagement in the world. Some of these might well be an accommodation to non-Anabaptist ideals (Niebuhrian realism, perhaps). However, at least one of these variations grows out of a more distinctly Anabaptist theological framework: Walter Wink’s notion that “the powers can be redeemed.”

Walter Wink has been profoundly influential in Anabaptist circles, in particular for his description of the powers-that-be in the world and how Christians should engage these “principalities and powers,” to use some of the New Testament language. For Wink, this biblical language is not describing independent, personal spiritual beings that mess with our world like malevolent poltergeists. Rather, this biblical language of “powers” is describing the forces at work in our world that seem beyond our control yet have control over us: the systems and structures of power in the world, including the humans who direct them and the internal “spirit” or ethos that drives them. In Wink’s view, three things are equally true about these powers-that-be: 1) they were created good, but 2) they are fallen—yet 3) they can be redeemed.

In Winkian Anabaptism, this is where political processes fit, among these “powers-that-be.” Political processes are intended by God to be forces for good—we need good ways of organizing ourselves as human societies, and that means politics. Our political processes, though, are fallen—they inevitably get abused as people with power are corrupted by that power. However, these political processes, like all the powers-that-be, can be redeemed—they can again become forces for good in human societies.

Wink is clear that we cannot simply use the outer shell of the world’s political structures and systems; the internal spirit that drives these must also be changed. However, Wink holds out real hope that this can happen at least to some extent, and not simply as an ultimate eschatological event or only within the church-as-alternative-society. He speaks, for example, of political systems such as democracy as, in their best forms, reflecting kingdom values. Democracy, he even says, is in principle an outworking of “nonviolence,” a core Jesus-and-kingdom-of-God reality (Engaging the Powers, 171-172).

With Walter Wink we have an Anabaptist approach that is more positive to the world than many other Anabaptist approaches—and, one might say without irony, more “realistic” about the world. It is realistic both in the acknowledgment that every human group, every community, every society, needs structures and systems in order to function, as well as in the recognition that these social structures and systems are always prone to abuse of power. It is positive in the sense that it holds out real hope even within this age for social structures and systems that reflect, at least in part, the upside-down reign of God revealed in Jesus.

All this raises a question for me related to Richard Beck’s “Paradox of Progressive Political Theology”: when does political engagement remain “Winkian Anabaptist,” and when does it cross the line into “Niebuhrian Realism”? To put this another way, using Beck’s own examples, is “voting” and “calling Congress” really Niebuhrian realism, or do these non-violent political actions actually reflect some measure of redemption of the powers-that-be, à la Walter Wink?

Giving Up Lent for Lent?

It’s the first day of Lent today, that season in the church calendar that leads up to Easter.

Which also means it’s the day we all get to hear what particular vice people are giving up for Lent—usually coffee, chocolate, or social media, it seems.

I don’t want to sound cynical. I really don’t.

road-to-the-crossThere is something admirable about giving up a personal pleasure for a time. It can even be a truly good thing to do. That’s especially so if that pleasure is verging on an addiction that is doing damage to your physical or psychological wellbeing or your relationships. By all means, give it up for a time. Give it up forever, if need be. But sometimes that 40 days is just what’s needed, gaining some perspective on what really matters before taking up the particular pleasure once again.

But I do have some problems with the “giving up for Lent” trend.

Sometimes it seems the things we give up are not the things we should really be giving up. Our Lenten fasts can be a smokescreen of sorts, making us think we’re doing something good and sacrificial while the bigger problems, our real vices, go unexamined.

Vices like greed, lived out in our comfortable lifestyles with more than a few of our favourite things.

Vices like bigotry, manifested in our locker room talk and our coffee shop conversation.

Vices like idolatry, seen in all those ways we look for providers or saviours instead of God.

Vices like pride, evident in our look-what-we’ve-done arrogance and our look-down-on-them derision.

These things and more need to be given up—and not just for 40 days. We need to scour our souls regularly for these deeper vices, these more damaging of sins, and strive to give them up all 365 days a year.

Another thing: sometimes it seems this “giving things up for Lent” is being confused for true religion. We may be tempted to think that by doing this we are better Christians, or truly spiritual, or more religious. (See “pride,” above.)

True religion, as the Epistle of James reminds us, “is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” In other words, true religious piety is not about giving up pleasures for a time. It’s about loving others in the way of Jesus, especially the most vulnerable among us, and sticking to Jesus’ narrow way of love no matter what the world around us says or thinks.

I’m not alone, of course, in thinking thoughts like this about “giving up things for Lent.” These are in fact the criticisms of Lent-keepers that many of my Anabaptist forebears have spoken.

However, I still observe the church calendar, including the season of Lent, and I encourage others to do the same—and my reason is thoroughly Anabaptist.

It’s because observing the seasons of the church year can help us to focus our attention on Jesus. The church calendar is, in its essence, an annual re-telling of the story of Jesus.

Here’s how I’ve described this previously:

Every December in Advent we start by entering into ancient Israel’s deep longing for God to act, yearning for God’s kingdom to come. At Christmas, at the world’s darkest hour, we hear the angels and shepherds and Mary and Simeon and more: God has acted, the Messiah has come, Jesus is born!

At Epiphany we watch as Jesus is revealed to the world at his birth and baptism (eastern and western churches differ on this, but in the west these bump together in the first couple weeks of January). Over the next several weeks, through winter’s chill, the days get longer and the light shines brighter as we see Jesus’ life and hear his teachings.

Then Lent arrives in February or March, just as winter’s death attempts its final assault, and we meditate on Jesus’ road to the cross, through Palm Sunday’s celebration of the humble Messiah, to Maundy Thursday’s participation in the Last Supper, to Good Friday’s holy grief and Holy Saturday’s dark vigil. But life conquers death, spring casts off winter’s cloak, and Easter Sunday dawns with joyful celebration: Jesus is risen!

Forty days later, Ascension Day: Jesus returns to the Father. Ten days later, Pentecost: the Spirit of Jesus comes among us as spring hits its stride, and the Church steps out in following Jesus to the ends of the earth. And then we’re in ordinary time, nearly lulled to sleep through summer’s warmth and autumn’s bounty, prodding ourselves awake to watch and wait for the return of Jesus and the fullness of God’s kingdom at Christ the King Sunday, at the end of November.

And then it begins again.

This is very much a northern-hemisphere-centric understanding, of course. You might say it’s a particularly Canadian Anabaptist way of thinking about things, with our peculiar Canadian love-hate relationship to winter. But forget the connection with the northern seasons—the simple mapping of the story of Jesus onto a recurring annual cycle provides a way of keeping Jesus and his life and teachings in the forefront of our consciousness.

Here’s how I put it in that earlier post:

Every year, year after year, our very sense of time is shaped around the birth and baptism, life and teachings, suffering and death, resurrection and return of Christ. In every season of the year, Sunday after resurrection Sunday, the story of Jesus is superimposed upon us, and we’re invited, with a healthy dose of holy imagination, to enter into the story of Jesus—and for it to enter us.

And that’s why this Anabaptist is not giving up Lent for Lent—because I need to be reminded regularly of the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the way of self-giving love for the flourishing of all.

lent

“Turn the Other Cheek” ≠ “Be a Doormat”

This past Sunday I taught our adult Sunday Study class. As always, it turned into a wide-ranging discussion only remotely connected to the topic, in which we noted and immediately solved all the world’s problems. (Just kidding, of course. It took us at least 45 minutes to solve them all.)

Turn Other CheekOne of the things that came up along the way was Jesus’ famous “turn the other cheek” command. It was suggested that maybe this and other commands like it are for an ideal, future “kingdom of God” and aren’t expected to work in the real world right now. Or, maybe these sorts of commands are simply for our individual relationships and not for our wider social relationships.

“Turn the other cheek.” Yep, it’s a hard one. It seems utterly unrealistic, unworkable in the real world of playground bullies or abusive spouses or oppressive regimes or violent extremists.

Here’s the text from Matthew’s Gospel:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matt 5:38-41)

This is immediately followed by another seemingly impossible command:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:43-48)

What do we do with these commands? Is it true that they’re just for our individual relationships, or maybe that they’re simply for some time down the road, when God’s eternal kingdom comes to fruition?

To the idea that these commands are not intended for the real world right now, we have to say an unequivocal “No.” At least, that’s not the way Matthew sees them. The Sermon on the Mount concludes with Jesus’ emphatic declaration that he expects his followers to “hear these words of mine and act on them” (Matt 7:24-29), and the Gospel as a whole concludes with Jesus’ call for his followers to make disciples who will “obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:18-20). Everything. Even the hard bits.

But there’s something else from these teachings themselves that suggests these are not simply for some ideal “heavenly kingdom”: in that ideal kingdom there would be no need for these commands, because no one would strike you on the cheek to begin with. In fact, these commands of Jesus only make sense at the place where the kingdom of God collides with the kingdoms of this world. These commands only make sense in a world where there are oppressive enemies and violent retribution—clashing with a new world in which there are no enemies and there is no vengeance.

How would Jesus’ first disciples have heard these words? Who were their “enemies” who struck their cheeks or made them give up their cloaks or forced them to walk a mile? Probably, as time passed, there were several “enemies” who could be named. But for those first Jesus-followers the “enemies” that would have immediately come to mind were the Romans.

The Romans. Seen by many (by no means all) first-century Jews as godless oppressors, Gentile dogs trampling on God’s holy people all over God’s holy turf. And the immediate, flesh-and-blood symbol of this imperial oppression? The Roman soldier, with the power to knock heads and commandeer cloaks and force burden-bearing marches.

Suddenly Jesus’ commands here take on new meaning. “Turn the other cheek”? “Love your enemies”? This isn’t for some idealized future, nor is it just for our everyday relationships. This is about a clash of empires, a collision of kingdoms, two worlds coming head-to-head—and affecting all our real-world right-now relationships, from individuals to families to communities to societies to nation-states.

Think about this: if someone in a position of power over you “strikes you on the right cheek,” what are your options?

One option is to fight back, to strike them on the cheek, to go all “eye for eye” on them—but they have all that raw power behind them, and this is only going to get ugly fast. Violence, even “justified violence,” always, inevitably, begets violence—on you, on them, on innocent others.

A second option is to back away in abject submission, to be a “doormat.” This is what people typically think Jesus means here—just take your licks and accept your lot in life. But just as Jesus does not say, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, strike them back,” so also Jesus does not say, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, bow down to them in subjection.”

No, Jesus commands a third way, a way that is neither the “return evil with evil” way nor the “passively submit to evil” way. Jesus commands his followers to stand up with dignity, look the oppressor in the eye, and challenge them to expose their injustice and inhumanity by inflicting another gratuitous blow.

In other words, Jesus advocates what Walter Wink calls “defiant vulnerability,” or what Tom Yoder Neufeld perhaps better calls “creative non-violent resistance”: “creative” because giving the extra garment or walking the extra mile are outside the normal rules of enemy engagement (Killing Enmity, 25). Glen Stassen and David Gushee go even further, saying Jesus’ commands here are “transforming initiatives”: they “take a nonviolent initiative that confronts injustice and initiates the possibility of reconciliation” (Kingdom Ethics, 139).

Creative, transforming, non-violent resistance. Just like all those in recent history who, inspired to various degrees by Jesus’ life and teachings, initiated some of the most momentous changes ever seen toward more just societies: Mahatma Gandhi in British colonial India; Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Jim Crow-era southern United States; Lech Wałęsa and Karol Józef Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II) in Soviet Communist Poland; post-imprisonment Nelson Mandela under South Africa’s Apartheid.

It’s counter-intuitive, for sure. But contrary to popular opinion, “redemptive violence” is a myth while “turn the other cheek”—rightly understood—actually works.

It’s important to get this right. This is not a command to an abused wife that she should just stay with her husband and submissively accept the blows, whether physical or otherwise. This is not a command to terrorized Iraqi Christians that they should just accept what’s happening to them as God’s will. This is not a command to the boy being bullied after school that he should just take the black eye and slink away in fear. These kinds of things are most emphatically not what Jesus is saying here.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossIt’s helpful to look to Jesus’ own example. It is clear in Matthew’s Gospel that the many things Jesus commands his followers to do in the Sermon on the Mount, he demonstrates for them as he goes to the cross. Turn the other cheek? Check. Love your enemies? Check. Pray for your persecutors? Check.

But here’s the thing: Jesus does not do these things for himself, but for others. For all the “poor in spirit” who are in “mourning,” for the “meek” who “hunger and thirst for justice” (Matt 5:3-6), Jesus steps into their place as “merciful peacemaker,” “persecuted for justice’s sake” (Matt 5:7-11).

Jesus becomes the champion of the oppressed, taking the blow aimed at them, standing up for them with dignity, looking the oppressor in the eye and exposing their injustice and inhumanity with every gratuitous blow—and this becomes the spark for true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life.

This is what the bullied child, the abused spouse, the oppressed people, need. They need a champion. And not a champion who will strike back blow for blow, and just make the problem worse. They need a champion who will stand up to their oppressor on their behalf, who will expose the oppressor’s injustice and inhumanity and initiate the process toward justice and peace and new life, whatever the cost.

So how do we “turn the other cheek”? Not by being a “doormat,” passively submitting to violence or oppression or abuse over and over again, spiraling downward until all involved are de-humanized and eventually destroyed.

We “turn the other cheek” with creative, transforming, non-violent resistance in the footsteps of Jesus—which means imagining and enacting ways to expose evil and injustice which maintain our dignity, which do not demonize our “enemies” but instead show compassion toward them, and which open the door to possibilities of reconciliation and a better future.

We “turn the other cheek” with creative, transforming, non-violent resistance in the footsteps of Jesus—on our own behalf if there is no one else to take up our cause, and certainly on behalf of others who are beaten down and need a champion.

None of this makes Jesus’ commands to “Turn the other cheek” and “Love your enemies” any easier. If anything it makes them harder—because it commits us to not just speak of justice, not just pray for justice, but to actually step out and work for justice.

Maybe I should go back to solving the world’s problems with my Sunday school class. This “walking in the way of Jesus” thing is way too convicting, way too challenging, way too hard. Kind of like walking on a really narrow way

A special note for abused spouses and children… Please hear this clearly: You are under no obligation to remain with your abusive partner or parent. “Turn the other cheek” does not mean that, neither does “Wives, submit to your husbands” or “Children, respect your parents,” and if someone tells you otherwise they are wrong. Contact an organization like Genesis House that can provide advice and shelter for you and initiate the process of healing for you and any others involved. I know this is easy to say and hard to do, and if you are unable to take this step then I pray you will know God’s sufficient grace through your suffering and God’s power through your weakness—and that you will again consider taking this step if the abuse continues.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

On Being “Mennonite”

Okay, so being “Mennonite” is not as straightforward as it might seem.

For some, the word “Mennonite” brings to mind plain dress and beards, head coverings and communal living. For others, it means having a “Mennonite” name like Friesen or Wiebe or Dyck. For some it involves speaking low German and eating Borscht with Zwieback as you play the “Mennonite game” of finding all the relatives you have in common.

But Menno Simons himself, the very “Menno” in “Mennonite,” didn’t fit most of these cultural descriptions of “Mennonite.” And neither do most of the Mennonites in the world today, as the video above nicely demonstrates.

So what does it mean to be “Mennonite”?

Like all questions of identity, it’s a complicated one, and different people will answer differently. I am a Mennonite by choice, not by birth, and I’ve reflected on this quite a bit for myself in coming to that decision. If I had to boil “being Mennonite” down to three things, here’s what they would be.

First and foremost, being Mennonite means being committed to Jesus. I know, I know: all Christians are committed to Jesus in some sense, either as God worthy of worship, or as Saviour bringing deliverance from sin, or as Healer of our infirmities and diseases, or otherwise. Mennonites agree with these understandings of Jesus. But Mennonites are distinguished by their commitment to Jesus in a particular sense: we strive to take seriously Jesus as Lord, especially in following Jesus’ teachings and way of life as presented in the Gospels.

This particular commitment to Jesus has several implications. One is that we try to read Scripture with Jesus at the centre. Jesus provides the clearest window on God and God’s will, so we read Scripture to know and follow Jesus, which in turn (we hope) makes us better readers of Scripture. Another is that we refuse to give ultimate allegiance to anything or anyone else, whether nations or political systems or economic structures. We are not anarchists, and we do seek to live within the laws of whatever land we find ourselves in, but Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, not any of these “powers of this age.”

A second commitment flows out of this ultimate commitment to Jesus: being Mennonite means being committed to community. Jesus gathered disciples around himself to be with him and learn from him and follow him, so we as disciples of Jesus continue to gather around him for these same reasons. We see the church as God’s family, as brothers and sisters in Christ, caring for each other. We see the church as Christ’s body, united in our diversity to serve each other and continue Jesus’ kingdom work in the world.

Again, I hear you: all Christians are committed to community in some sense. But Mennonites have taken this commitment as seriously as any other Christian tradition and more seriously than most. Sometimes this serious commitment to community has not been healthy, as some Mennonites have insulated and isolated their communities from the world to such an extent they have been unable to obey Jesus’ call to be salt and light in the world. But some of the most caring, most challenging, most encouraging, most welcoming, and most egalitarian communities I have been involved in or have seen have been Mennonite.

A third commitment stands out for Mennonites, again flowing out of our ultimate commitment to Jesus: being Mennonite means being committed to peace. The Mennonite churches are among the historic “peace churches,” those Christian traditions that have particularly emphasized nonviolence and peacemaking.

This means taking Jesus’ teaching seriously, that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, that we are not to resist evil with evil, but with acts of mercy. This means following in Jesus’ path of love and nonviolence: overcoming evil in the world not by violence or aggression, but with self-giving, even suffering, love. This means dedicating ourselves to Jesus’ kingdom vision, seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s justice, yearning and praying and so striving for this kingdom to come on earth: a vision of swords turned into plows, of justice and mercy met together; a vision of good news for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed; a vision of the least being feasted, the last being first, and the lost being found.

Someone might well think what I’ve described is more generally what it means to be “Anabaptist,” not particularly “Mennonite.” Undoubtedly that’s true: these are really Anabaptist commitments. And I’ve known Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, United Church and other folk who hold these commitments in much the same way I do.

To this I would say, “Praise God!”—though in four-part harmony, slowly, a cappella. (Yes, another Mennonite stereotype, which, like Borscht and Zwieback, I happen to like. So sue me—I’ll give you my cloak.)

But I would also say that, while one can be Anabaptist and Anglican, or a kind of Anabaptist-Catholic, or otherwise bring Anabaptist commitments into conversation with other Christian traditions, it is in being Mennonite that I am most comfortable, and most challenged, in my commitment to peace, my commitment to community, and ultimately my commitment to Jesus.

We Mennonites don’t do this perfectly by any means. Sometimes we mess it up badly. But mostly we do it pretty well.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Passive Pacifists?

There are about a zillion misconceptions out there about Mennonites. These include a whole cluster of wrong—or at least very thin—ideas about pacifism. Some of these thin ideas about pacifism even come from Mennonites themselves.

“I’m no pacifist,” I hear people say, with great fervour. “I tell you, if someone was coming after one of my kids with a knife, I wouldn’t be turning the other cheek!”

It’s probably the most visceral objection to pacifism, and it’s certainly a question pacifists need to wrestle with. How would we respond to violent aggression against someone we love?

I’ll get back to the question, but here’s the thing: when we make this our objection to pacifism, it demonstrates we’re thinking about pacifism entirely in the wrong way.

What do I mean by this?

First, the best of Christian pacifism is not just about individuals and each person’s response to violence, but also—in a way, even more—about groups and communities and societies and nations, and our collective attitudes toward violence and use of violence. Yes, collectively we are made up of individuals, and the values we cultivate as individuals will influence or even become the values we insist on as groups. But when we make pacifism into merely a private matter—my own individual response in the face of personal violence against me or mine—we miss the broad scope of the peace God desires for the world.

Turn Other CheekIn fact, Christian pacifists don’t agree on what one should do in our extreme hypothetical scenario above. In saying “Turn the other cheek,” was Jesus speaking only about violence against ourselves? Or would Jesus allow us—or even expect us—to intervene when violence is being committed against someone else? Or, pushing further, in saying “Turn the other cheek,” was Jesus even calling for a passive acceptance of violence against us? Or was this perhaps an illustration of creative resistance—non-violent, yes, but resistance nonetheless—against violent oppressors, taking the sting out of their oppression by maintaining one’s composure, one’s dignity, one’s principled stand, even directly in the face of their attempt at subjugation?

And this leads to a second feature of the best of Christian pacifism: it’s not passive at all, but active. Pacifism is not passive-ism. It is intentionally, creatively, radically active. And it’s not primarily negative—against war, against violence—but positive—it is for peace, it is for justice. The best of Christian pacifism works to create the conditions in which peace and justice can flourish, and it works to resolve conflict and address injustice when peace and justice are floundering. But it does so in the way of Jesus, refusing to play the same game as the oppressors, where coercion and deception and violence are the game’s unwritten rules.

This is no thin view of pacifism. It looks beyond my world to the world around me, encompassing my family, my community, my society, the global village, the entire cosmos. It demands more of me than just a non-response in an extreme situation that, thankfully, few of us in North America will ever have to face. And it reflects much more than just a few red letters of Jesus’ teaching in our Bible—it reflects the larger purposes of God throughout the Scriptures, God’s greater gospel, God’s wider kingdom.

So what would I do if someone was coming after one of my kids with a knife? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can know until they’re faced with this. And none of us can stand in judgment on those who have faced such a situation and acted in a way different than our ideals. But I pray that if possible I would be able to resolve things with no harm done to my child, the aggressor, or myself; and if that is not possible, that I would die protecting my child—one whose angel stands in the presence of God—from harm (Matt 18:1-10).

This response, though, while shaped by my pacifist ideals, is not the sum total of my pacifism. In a way it hardly scratches the surface of my pacifism; in a sense it’s not even the best reflection of it.

It’s only the thin edge of a much larger, much wider, much more comprehensive striving for a greater peace throughout God’s Christ-loved, Spirit-haunted world.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.