APPROPRIATING ANABAPTISM IN THE 21ST CENTURY USA

Recently missiologist and church planter Stewart Maury of the Anabaptist network in the U.K wrote a book with a rather controversial title, “The naked Anabaptist.” We all know that there is no such a thing as “the naked Anabaptist” as Stewart himself admits in the book conceding that context matters for any movement. He writes, “Anabaptist values were embodied differently in the Mennonite, Amish, and Hutterite cultures of subsequent generations in Europe and later in North America. These values are worked out in fresh ways in parts of the world where Mennonite missionaries have shared their faith and planted churches. Anabaptism looks different again in post-Christendom societies in which Christians today are reappropriating its values and practices. (Maurey 43). The implication here is that anabaptism in today’s North American context might not look like the 16th century. That said, we must ask ourselves first what constitutes Anabaptism? and how best might it be lived out in the 21st century in a way that makes sense and compels others to want to join the community?

I believe that answers to these questions could be found in a careful reexamining of the convictions that inspired the movement in the 16th century in the first place as well as the shape the movement took in subsequent contexts in the past in order to reapproriate the same in our 21st century USA context. But, before I proceed, in full disclosure, Although I have lived in the United States since 1998, I was not born in the USA. I was born and raised in Kenya East Africa. I am a second generation mennonite whose parents became Mennonites as a result of the hospitality of a Mennonite couple serving with Eastern Mennonite Missions in the 1970s in Kenya. I grew up in the Kenya Mennonite church but I was also shaped to a lesser extent by my one grandmother’s Catholic beliefs and the other grandmother’s Pentecostal/Charismatic beliefs. I was also shaped in high school by the effects of the East African Revival that are still significant in the region.

Having served on a number of cross-cultural mission teams and discipleship training programs with EMM in Baltimore MD and Harrisburg PA as well as various outreach locations in Kenya, I did my seminary studies at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg VA and together with my wife Jessica we taught at a Mennonite college on Tanzania and have been a pastor at a multi-nations/multi-culture/multi-denomination Mennonite church outside of Washington D.C. known as Capital Christian Fellowship for almost six years. In my pastoral work I have continued to pay attention to people from various backgrounds in our congregation as they get to learn about Anabaptist convictions and values. Most recently, the story that impacted our community deeply was the response of the Amish community in the wake of the West Nickel Mines shootings that took young Amish lives in 2006. That community’s response I would say spoke loudly to Anabaptist values and convictions than any book I had read. Mennonite historian John D. Roth in his book “Practices”(Mennonite worship and witness) writes on the Amish story, “In that gesture of forgiveness, the world came face- to- face with the good news of the gospel. This was a powerful form of witness, clearly rooted in Christian faith, but a witness demonstrated rather than argued. To a culture deeply suspicious of the claims of Christianity, the simple clarity and specificity of the Amish response testified to the redemptive power of love, even in the face of violent death.” (pg. 81).

That incident and the Amish community’s response reminded me and our community in Washington D.C suburbs of the truth starkly stated by Stanley Hauerwas that, “Christian ethics would be unintelligible if it did not presuppose the existence and recognizability of communities and corresponding institutions capable of carrying the story of God. The most general name we give that community is Church.” Like Hauerwas, I believe that the church is the community charged with the responsibility of fully embodying the story of God in the world. This is the story of anabaptism. A group of disciples of Jesus in Europe in 16th century concluded that the church as they knew it then was failing to fully carry the story of God in the world. Through their study of scripture and prayer, they decided on a new beginning marked by baptism and their detractor named them derogatorily as “anabaptists” meaning re-baptizers. What might set today’s anabaptists a part that might earn them an unpopular name as their forebears in the 16th century? It is my belief that today’s anabaptists ought to once again look at the church as servant community that fully embodies the story of God in the world through those same convictions and values. How does this look like in our time? I will continue to reflect on this in subsequent posts.

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