Monday, October 22, 2007

It turns out I'm a Mennonite!

Hello internet friends,

I spent the weekend at a conference at Heston College, a small Mennonite college located just outside of Witchita. I and John Roth, a Mennonite historian, held several sessions and participated in workshops on faith and politics.

The Mennonites are heirs of the Anabaptist Reformers (including Menno Simons, from whom they derive their name) in the 16th century. The Mennonites are completely orthodox in all their beliefs, but with a few very noteworthy distinctives. One core aspect of their faith is the conviction that the Kingdom of God is radically different from all versions of the Kingdom of the World. The Kingdom of God is about sacrificially serving others while the Kingdom of the World is always about lording over others. They have held that citizens of the Kingdom of God must be wary of participating too much in, or trusting in, any government or nation. Traditionally Mennonites have refused to say the pledge of the allegiance, since their only allegiance is to Christ. Another core aspect of their faith has been the conviction that followers of Jesus are called to love, bless, pray for, and do good toward their enemies (Lk. 6:27-35). They have thus refused to fight in wars or kill for any reason.

The Anabaptists were the one group everybody loved to hate during the Reformation period. The Anabaptists wouldn't recognize a State Church and would not baptize infants (which was understood to be an initiation into both the Church and State). Consequently, Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, Melancthon and many other Protestant Reformers as well as most Catholic leaders believed they should be imprisoned and executed. Almost all Anabaptist leaders were executed within a decade of when the movement began (roughly 1520). But, to their credit, the Anabaptists never fought back (with the exception of one messianic looney tune who thought he was ushering in the end of the world.)

In any event, I've admired the Mennonites from a distance for years, but this was the first time I'd ever taught among them or fellowshipped with them. And, on a deep level, it kind of felt like coming home. I gave several seminars, based largely on my book The Myth of a Christian Nation, and they were enthusiastically received (though John Roth, who responded to each presentation, offered good critical insights on points that "need further exploration"). They also asked me to lead a discussion on Open Theism, and even that was enthusiastically received. I had eight people (I counted) who told me they'd basically always thought this way but just didn't have a name for it. It confirmed something John Roth had told me: most Mennonites are Open Theists but simply don't know it.

But there was another very interesting thing I learned about the Mennonites: they're in trouble. I heard this from a number of people, including John Roth. One man literally wept as he told me how he's been grieved seeing Mennonites abandon their core vision of the Kingdom and core convictions over the last several decades. They're loosing their counter-cultural emphasis and becoming "Americanized" and "mainstreamed" (as various people told me). Consequently, many Mennonite leaders are getting involved in partisan politics in a way that goes against the Mennonite tradition. While Evangelicals tend to be co-opted by Right Wing politics, these leaders are being co-opted by Left Wing politics. They're basically defining Kingdom social activism as supporting radical democratic policies. Yet, three fourths of Mennonites are Republican. Hence there's growing tensions between the leadership and the body of the Mennonites.

One person told me the reason my talks landed so well was because "we see you passionately running toward the vision of the Kingdom we've always embraced, while many of our own people are either running from it or have grown apathetic about it." Another person told me I was "more Mennonite than most Mennonites today."

My whole time at this Conference had a prophetic quality to it that I hadn't anticipated -- calling Mennonites back to their beautiful, biblical, core convictions. The conference left me excited, because I felt like I found a tribe I could passionately embrace. But it also left me unsettled, seeing that this tribe is in the process of loosing its identity. My heart was strangely warmed and unusually disturbed. I'm going to be praying about what this all means.

Blessings on you!