The ABC on Anabaptists and Mennonites

Inhabitatio Dei points to a passage in Rowan Williams’ address to the Lutheran World Federation. The LWF is officially repenting for the persecution of Anabaptists by Lutherans in the sixteenth century. Williams said:

One other crucial focus today is, of course, the act of reconciliation with Christians of the Mennonite/Anabaptist tradition.  It is in relation to this tradition that all the ‘historic’ confessional churches have perhaps most to repent, given the commitment of the Mennonite communities to non-violence.  For these churches to receive the penitence of our communities is a particularly grace-filled acknowledgement that they still believe in the Body of Christ that they have need of us; and we have good reason to see how much need we have of them, as we look at a world in which centuries of Christian collusion with violence has left so much unchallenged in the practices of power.  Neither family of believers will be simply capitulating to the other; no-one is saying we should forget our history or abandon our confession.  But in the global Christian community in which we are called to feed one another, to make one another human by the exchange of Christ’s good news, we can still be grateful for each other’s difference and pray to be fed by it.

As a former Mennonite, and as a former scholar of Anabaptism (in particular their treatment by other confessions in the sixteenth century), I have been thankful that it is no longer required of ordinands that we swear our commitment to the 39 Articles, which include in them a strong repudiation of adult baptism and other practices associated with sixteenth-century Anabaptists.

I’m unaware of any similar movement, either within the Episcopal Church or in wider Anglicanism, to address the historical condemnations by our tradition of Anabaptists.

The full text of Williams’ address is here.

Often, the disagreements among Christians that occasionally culminated in violence are now viewed by most contemporary Christians as quaint and misguided. But dismissing them masks the real theological differences that underlay those conflicts, as well as the long-term effects on both sides. As Williams states, the Anabaptist tradition confronts us “as we look at a world in which centuries of Christian collusion with violence has left so much unchallenged in the practices of power.”

Mennonite in a long black robe (i.e. a cassock)

I read Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress recently. It’s not exactly deep but it does have some amusing moments. Several clarifications are in order, however. First, she glosses over the significant distinctions among Mennonites. Her family is descended from Dutch and North German Mennonites who were invited into Russia in the eighteenth century and created thriving communities there that survived until Stalin. Many had already emigrated to North America in the late nineteenth century, especially to Kansas and the Prairie Provinces of Canada. But many more, including Janzen’s grandparents, fled in the 1920s or even later. Up until the late nineteenth century, they had considerable freedom to organize their lives and communities independent of Russian interference and they developed social, political, and economic institutions and become quite wealthy compared to their Russian neighbors.

Most of what she describes of her Mennonite upbringing and relatives relates to that history: the food (zwieback and borscht), the language (low German), and the cultural experience of living in Russia for over a century.

I grew up in a rather different Mennonite tradition–the Swiss and South German Mennonites who emigrated from those places (and in my case from Alsace as well) to the eastern US in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century. My ancestors had very limited freedoms in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and had developed a strategy of separation and quietism. Most were farmers in Europe and remained farmers in North America.

Over the years, as I got to know Mennonites from the Russian tradition, I realized how very different our experiences and our cultures were, even though we shared so much. We looked at the world differently; they were much more open to intellectual and artistic pursuits, less suspicious of the wider culture. There was also a tendency to accept influence from the wider Christian tradition. The Mennonite Brethren, to which Janzen’s parents belonged have been strongly influenced by the North American Evangelical Protestant tradition. The other main branch, what once was called “General Conference” Mennonites and merged with the Mennonite Church in the 1990s, was more open to liberal Protestantism. I suspect that it is difficult now, in the twenty-first century, to detect such theological differences. From what little I know, most contemporary Mennonites look little different from most Evangelicals, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

Perhaps what I liked least in Janzen’s book was the flip, post-modern, ironic tone of so much of the work. I finally extricated myself from the Mennonite Church in my early 30s, but it took great effort, considerable anguish, and some guilt. There are times still when I mourn what I was and could not continue to be; at the same time I have flourished in the years since as I never could have, and most importantly, I have experienced and continue to experience God’s grace and love in my life and in the Episcopal Church today in ways I never could as a Mennonite. And that’s what matters most.

What I really want to read is her memoir of teaching at Hope College, but I suppose that won’t come until she’s safely tenured.

It’s nice to be a by-stander to controversy occasionally

I grew up Mennonite and graduated from Goshen College, a Mennonite school. While Mennonites are most familiar to larger American culture as people who have some strange habits and practices, especially with regard to dress and the like, in fact the branch of the tradition from which I come had abandoned most of those peculiarities by the time I came along. What it hadn’t abandoned was the central conviction that at the heart of the Gospel and Jesus’ ministry was a commitment to his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, especially the commitment to peace. What that meant was that young Mennonite men who were drafted in WWI and refused to bear arms were court-martialed and sentenced to hard labor at Ft. Leavenworth. By WWII, there were alternatives for conscientious objectors and many Mennonites did alternative service in mental hospitals, national parks, and the like. Mennonites have often been vilified by other Americans for their refusal to participate in America’s wars. This was especially true when the enemy was Germany, and many Mennonites still spoke German.

Goshen College recently made public its decision to play the National Anthem at athletic events for the first time in its 114-year history. To outsiders, it may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but in fact Goshen is one of the Mennonite Church’s key institutions and something of a bellwether. You can read about the decision here. There is an online petition here. It is a controversy that goes to the heart of Mennonite self-identity and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

I left the Mennonite Church twenty years ago but retain deep affection for the tradition and have friendships with many Mennonites. My theology is shaped profoundly by the Anabaptist and Mennonite tradition and my teachers at Goshen College. When I return to the church of my childhood and encounter contemporary evangelical style worship, I long for the four-part a capella hymns we used to sing and the simpler ways of forty years ago. In spite of the long journey I’ve traveled, I seem to want the church and college of my past to remain where they were, fixed in time and fixed theologically.

Such feelings are common. People who grew up Episcopalian and may only attend services on Christmas and Easter often tell me that they miss the language and liturgy of the 1928 prayer book. They expect and want the church of their childhood to remain what it was, in the midst of a rapidly changing world.

Baptism of Our Lord

Baptism of our Lord

January 10, 2010

Some of you know that I grew up Mennonite. It’s not something I talk about a lot, if only because I’ve gotten tired of telling the story over the years. For many of you, the term “Mennonite” conjures up people who dress in funny clothes, drive around with horse and buggies, or bring choirs to sing at the Dane County Farmer’s Market. Well, all of those things are true, I suppose, but that doesn’t at all describe my upbringing. The only funny clothes I wore growing up were the clothes we all wore in the 70s and I’ve never driven a horse and buggy. The Mennonite community in which I was raised had abandoned most of its peculiar dress and ways in the first half of the twentieth century and now if you were to visit my mother’s church, the people would look very much like typical Midwesterners.

That is not to say there are not, and were not, oddities about the Mennonite Church and over time, I’m sure I will have more to say about them and Corrie would be happy to share with you her take on them. My journey from the Mennonite Church of my childhood to the Episcopal priesthood was a long and winding road filled with wrong turns, the occasional dead-end, and a few visits to the ditch.

One of the roadblocks for me was infant baptism. The roots of the Mennonite Church lie in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and with a group of people who rejected infant baptism, arguing that only baptism of adults, made after a mature confession of faith, was valid. What I find interesting in my own journey is that while I came to accept the theological arguments in defense of infant baptism relatively quickly, imagining myself baptizing a baby took a very long time. My spiritual forebears had given their lives because of their commitment to adult believer’s baptism, and if you look at the 39 Articles in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, you can read the denunciation there of the practice of adult baptism.

I say all that because today we are baptizing both children and an adult. We don’t often do that in the Episcopal Church, but I suspect that as our culture changes and becomes more secular, we will be doing more and more of it. Jewel Rose will be taking the big step in a few minutes, and with her will be Cade and Phoebe Seep. I will ask all of them if they want to be baptized; during our run-through yesterday, all three of them answered that question for themselves, and I hope they will today, too. But the next set of questions, Jewel will answer for herself, while Cade and Phoebe’s parents and godparents will respond on their behalf.

It is traditional that we baptize on this day, the First Sunday after the Epiphany, because it is on this day, each year, that we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptizer in the River Jordan. It may seem somewhat strange that we do this now, when we have just celebrated Jesus’ birth a little over two weeks ago, Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry, and except for Luke’s mention of Jesus’ visit to the temple when he was twelve, the gospels are completely silent about Jesus’ childhood.

We heard Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism as the gospel today, and well, having taught Bible all those years, I can’t resist pointing out the most interesting piece of Luke’s story. Unfortunately, the lectionary editors left the most interesting part of the story out. You will notice that several verses of chapter 3 were left out of the gospel reading. The reason they were left out was because in them, Luke tells the story of John’s arrest by Herod. In other words, in the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist is arrested before Luke mentions Jesus’ baptism. Now there are good reasons for this. It’s not that Luke doesn’t know that John baptized Jesus; rather it’s because he wants to de-emphasize John. The question I always used to ask my students when they were confused about this was, “Who has more power, the person doing the baptizing, or the one who is baptized?” Of course, in the case of a toddler, the answer to that question may not be obvious.

So we don’t really see John baptizing Jesus in Luke’s gospel. Instead the focus is on something else—the expectations of the crowd, and the question concerning John. We will see this again in the coming weeks, the question of who John was, and whether he was the Messiah, the one people were waiting and hoping for.

It is a question that was asked in the first two chapters of Luke, and it is a question we will hear again as we read through Luke’s gospel this year. But it’s always a matter of just what one expects, and whether one’s expectations are realistic or warranted. In this case, the answer is not quite obvious.

The problem was not just the question of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptizer, the problem was also about the meaning of the baptism itself. The gospels agree that John’s baptism was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and everyone knows that Jesus was without sin, therefore, why did he need to be baptized? That’s the question the gospel writers struggled with, and part of the reason Luke writes the way he does is to downplay the significance of Jesus’ baptism, for his own self-understanding and for his ministry. The lesson from Acts underscores Luke’s interpretation that John’s baptism was ultimately inadequate.

The crowd was filled with expectation and wondering. Baptism is an important celebration in the life of the church. It is an opportunity for us to welcome new members and to remind ourselves of our baptisms and what we committed ourselves to at that point. In fact, it’s helpful for us to watch an adult being baptized. Too often, the questions that are asked during the service, and the vows we make are treated lightly, as if they really don’t mean what they say.

The baptismal covenant lays out our responsibilities as members of the body of Christ. They are what is expected of everyone who takes that step: to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers; to persevere in resisting evil; to proclaim by word and example the good news; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human person.

Those are enormous responsibilities and tasks, and how each of us fulfills them is between us and God. But membership is not about occasionally attending services. Membership is about committing oneself to the body of Christ, using one’s gifts, talents, and resources to build up the community and to reach out to others. We’ve included in the service bulletin one way for you to do that. While many of you already participate in our worship service by serving as acolytes, readers, and the like, we are always in need of others. I encourage you to think about how you might help out with services, fill out the form, and put it in the offering plate. Of course, there are many other ways you can volunteer. The shelter meal which has been organized by Sarah and Sparky Watts for several years, can always use additional volunteers, for example, as can the food pantry.

The prayer book actually views adult baptism as the norm, not the exception as is our practice. That’s a good thing, because the vows that Jewel makes today are vows that we all make together. As we make them, let us make them, not only with our lips, but with our lives, promising to do all that we can, body and soul, to strengthen the body of Christ and serve God’s kingdom.