Our Vision Needs Correction
The Christian church in the United States needs a reformation. White Evangelicalism and Christian Nationalism have long dominated the narrative of what it means to be a Christian in our country. Capitalism, racism, and patriarchy often appear to be more essential practices of the church than are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12). For the church in the United States, the peacemaking way of Jesus has largely become the overpowering way of empire. Our Christian imagination is warped, and our vision for the future needs correction.1 For the church in the United States, the peacemaking way of Jesus has largely become the overpowering way of empire. Our Christian imagination is warped, and our vision for the future needs correction. Click To Tweet
Is there a period in church history similar to our cultural moment that we can reflect upon to recover our collective imagination, and see God’s vision for our world with clarity once more?
During the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, the Anabaptists2 became known as the radical reformers. They rejected the power of the State and sought to faithfully and peacefully follow Jesus without aligning themselves with the Empire. As a Neo-Anabaptist, I contend that our way of following Jesus is still relevant in the twenty-first century context of the United States. However, The Anabaptist Vision has some blind spots in need of correction if Anabaptism is to be a corrective to our broken forms of White Christian Nationalism.3
This two part essay seeks to discover a corrective lens for American Christianity by putting into conversation Mennonite Harold Bender, mystic and theologian Howard Thurman, and theologian and developer of Black Theology, James Cone. Each voice, held in tension together, may offer seeds of the reformation Christianity needs today.
Harold Bender’s Anabaptist Vision
Attempts to define the radical reformation movement of the sixteenth century, commonly known as Anabaptism, will raise natural questions such as “What is Anabaptism?” and “Who defines Anabaptism?” While Michael Sattler’s Schleitheim Confession of Faith, originally written in 1527, provides seven distinctive points of the Swiss Brethren, the broader term Anabaptist is still problematic to define.4 One reason for this challenge is that Anabaptist was not a term of self-identification in the sixteenth century; instead, it was a label placed on this group of Christians who did not follow the way of Christendom. The label of Anabaptist was first given to disparagingly note the group’s high value of believer baptism. This “re-baptizing” was quite controversial. To affirm believer’s baptism was also to imply that the infant baptism into the State church was insufficient. The Anabaptists were thus named because of their anti-establishment baptismal practice that defied the State religion. As is often the case within structures of power, one’s theology is perfectly fine as long as it ‘doesn’t get overtly political’ and challenge those in charge.
Another challenge to defining Anabaptism comes through the various internal groups that identify with this radical reformation movement.5 This wide variety of faith communities with roots in Anabaptism emphasize various distinctions and practices during different time periods.6 Of these multiple streams of Anabaptism, over time, the Mennonites have emerged as the most widely known in North America. While it would be inaccurate to think of the Mennonites as the only Anabaptists, they are a majority voice in what is known as Anabaptism.
A significant Mennonite historian, Harold Bender, provided a way of defining Anabaptism in his 1943 presidential address to the American Society of Church History, which was published later as The Anabaptist Vision.7 While Bender’s Vision is not without shortcomings, it gives us a helpful framework on which to build. As Vincent Harding cleverly said, “At its best, the Anabaptist Vision was something that was good for all of us. Including Anabaptists.”8
Anabaptists have practiced their faith for over 400 years, so Bender’s contribution is not the initial nor the final word on defining Anabaptism.9 As theologian Ted Grimsrud said, “[Bender’s] contribution was most of all rhetorical, providing a language to help present-day descendants of the ‘Anabaptists’ affirm that term and thereby affirm their heritage (and its core theme of discipleship).”10 Instead of the pejorative roots of the term Anabaptist, Bender offered a more comfortable explanation by which a wide variety of Anabaptists could self-identify.
The Anabaptist Vision consists of three concepts or convictions that Bender believed to be defining distinctives of Anabaptism. These three concepts are: 1) Discipleship, 2) Church as “Brotherhood,”11 and 3) Non-Resistance.
The First Concept: Lived Discipleship
Bender began with emphasizing discipleship as key to Anabaptism, arguing that “First and fundamental in the Anabaptist Vision was claiming discipleship as the essence of Christianity.”12 For the Anabaptist, centering our lives around Jesus and walking in his ways will involve a whole life transformation. Jesus changes how we live, not just what we believe. Therefore, Anabaptists see theology as a means to an end but not an end in itself. For this reason, spiritual practices as embodied ways of living are a more accurate measure of faithful Christianity than merely collecting knowledge.
Discipleship is learning to embody with our lives what we believe with our minds. To the Anabaptists, the action of following Jesus was valued above belief. Bender provocatively stated, “To the Anabaptist, follow is an even more important word than faith.”13 The faith affirmed in mind and heart needed to be displayed in outward action. This is a crucial practice of Anabaptism. Discipleship is learning to embody with our lives what we believe with our minds. To the Anabaptists, the action of following Jesus was valued above belief. Click To Tweet
The Anabaptist Vision for Christianity as discipleship countered the common idea of Christianity as intellectual agreement alone. For sixteenth century Anabaptists, Christianity had widely become a right of citizenship and not a way of seeing and living in the world. With the Protestant Reformation, much was reformed in how to think about God, but the Anabaptists did not think the Reformers went far enough with their transformation in how the church lives everyday life. While Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli offered deep reform in how Christians might think about God, they needed further reformation in the lifestyle of people following God – especially in the lives of the clergy. With the Protestant Reformation, much was reformed in how to think about God, but the Anabaptists did not think the Reformers went far enough with their transformation in how the church lives everyday life. Click To Tweet
While risky, the concept of taking the words of Jesus seriously and living them out should have been a familiar practice for followers of Jesus (See the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 as an example of this). Nevertheless, the Anabaptists’ focus on discipleship in life was seen as a radical movement because they sought to live out what others would often only affirm cognitively.
The Second Concept: Church as Peoplehood
According to Bender, “As a second major element in the Anabaptist vision, a new concept of the church was created by the central principle of newness of life and applied Christianity. Voluntary church membership based upon true conversion and involving a commitment to holy living and discipleship was the absolutely essential heart of this concept.”14 This second concept encompasses many potential distinctions of Anabaptism. The overarching concept is that church membership is voluntary, as opposed to compulsory membership of sixteenth century Christendom. In view is the holy living of one’s Christianity rather than merely assumed Christianity with citizenship or intellectual assent. The church practices life together as a family, a peoplehood. This community is entered voluntarily through transformational discipleship in the way of Jesus. Anabaptists see this new peoplehood, the church, as a group distinct from the world. The church practices life together as a family, a peoplehood. This community is entered voluntarily through transformational discipleship in the way of Jesus. Anabaptists see this new peoplehood as a group distinct from the world. Click To Tweet
The church, as a distinct community of love and peoplehood, is made up of those voluntarily choosing not to conform to the ways of the world. A primary outward sign of this inward conviction was the act of baptism. Baptism was the recognition of a transformational experience with Christ and movement into the community of faith. However, in the sixteenth century, believer baptism was also an implied rejection of the paedobaptism of the State church and, therefore, an act of defiance against the State. Anabaptists desired to live out their faith, rejecting the State church practice of infant baptism. The reduction of State church infant baptisms reduced the number of State church members and, therefore, the number of taxable citizens. By following their convictions, the Anabaptists were disrupting the economics of the State.
It is no wonder the Anabaptists were labeled heretical, seditious, and persecuted at the hands of other Christians and the State church. Anabaptists were not only calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus in an embodied way; they were, intentionally or not, interfering with the economics of the Empire. If history reveals anything, it would be that altering the economics of the Empire will always result in paying a high cost. If you mess with the purse, you get the fist. Nevertheless, the Anabaptist commitment to discipleship in the way of Jesus continued despite the tremendous violence brought against them as a community. Anabaptists were, intentionally or not, interfering with the economics of the Empire. History reveals that altering the economics of the Empire will result in paying a high cost. If you mess with the purse, you get the fist. Click To Tweet
The Third Concept: Non-Resistance
Bender states, “The third great element in the Anabaptist vision was the ethic of love and non-resistance as applied to all human relationships. The Brethren understood this to mean complete abandonment of all warfare, strife, and violence, and of the taking of human life.”15 For most early Anabaptists, the call to non-resistance and pacifism was clear from Jesus, who said that those who live by the sword would die by the sword (Mt. 26:52). Furthermore, the life of Jesus appears to be one of absorbing violence in the healing of creation rather than using violence to conquer it. In short, Jesus follows a non-resistance ethic based on love. Anabaptists, seeking to center their lives around the way of Jesus, would follow this same non-resistance ethic of love. The life of Jesus appears to be one of absorbing violence in the healing of creation rather than using violence to conquer it. In short, Jesus follows a non-resistance ethic based on love. Anabaptists follow this same ethic of love. Click To Tweet
While Bender seems to present Anabaptists as unanimously supporting pacifism, we know that is not the case.16 There were some among the early Anabaptist movements that used violent resistance as well. Known predominantly as a peace tradition, Anabaptism has multiple historical streams around non-resistance and pacifism worth investigating.17 This polygenesis model is critical when we are considering non-resistance and oppression. The diversity in Anabaptist non-resistance must be considered within the historical context and particular circumstances in which these variations formed. Theological positions are greatly influenced by historical and social location. The diversity of circumstances out of which the Anabaptist concept of non-resistance grew must be considered. As Bruce Guenther states, “One cannot exclude theological assumptions entirely from historical interpretations, but one can avoid using history primarily as a means for reinforcing one’s already held theological beliefs about Anabaptists and Mennonites.”18 Anabaptists today must continue to discern what resistance and non-resistance looks like amidst the modern forces of oppression rather than hold to a theological conviction rooted in a particular historical context.
Critiques of The Anabaptist Vision
The Anabaptist Vision is helpful and aims toward what could be a beautiful expression of Christianity. While Bender’s codification of Anabaptism helps further the conversation, it is important to understand that it is not the final word for Anabaptism. The Vision was an attempt to systematically clarify the overarching aims of Anabaptism. Prior to Bender, Anabaptists had a long history of being misunderstood. As church historian Bruce Shelley remarked, “the Anabaptist movement lacked cohesiveness [early on]. No single body of doctrine and no unifying organization prevailed among them. Even the name ‘Anabaptist’ was pinned on them by their enemies.”19
Bender’s Vision offers some clarity, and his efforts are commendable. However, Bender’s twentieth century codification of the movement’s sixteenth century practices may lack the needed nuance to help us contextualize Anabaptism today. For example, the practice of believer’s baptism, while disruptive to the economics of the sixteenth century State church, seems to have led to the formation of sectarian religious groups rather than seeking the liberation of those in need. While economic disruption may not have been a goal of sixteenth century Anabaptists, how might Anabaptist practice today lead to economic disruption of oppressive systems? On this, Bender does not elaborate. The Vision does not see that far into the distance.
Additionally, Bender’s social location as a white, cisgender male pastor is worth analyzing as we consider if The Anabaptist Vision sees far enough into the future. What are the issues for BIPOC, women, the LGBTQ community, and others that The Anabaptist Vision does not have in view? Meaningful efforts have been made to expand and enhance the Vision.20 These efforts are needed and helpful.
The often dubiously quoted scripture, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” at the very least emphasizes the value of a group having a vision to follow into the future (Proverbs 29:19). The Anabaptist Vision, like all human projects, was written by a finite human who lacks complete foresight, even if his intentions were admirable. At best, The Anabaptist Vision is incomplete; not accounting for the cultural realities of today. It provides a vision, but for the reasons mentioned above does not see far enough ahead. This nearsightedness is a challenge worth interrogating, not so that we dismiss Bender’s Vision outright, but rather clarify its focus for the future.
Extending the metaphor of sight even further, The Anabaptist Vision represents what is seen through the lens of the dominant culture.21 This single culture’s vision will necessarily have some blind spots. Simply put, the vision is only partial. It is fair to say, riffing on Proverbs 29:19, that where there is only partial vision, some of the people perish. As is often the case, the portion of people at risk of perishing is often those outside the dominant culture, those who are marginalized and oppressed. Therefore, for The Anabaptist Vision to be “good for all of us,” to provide a vision of shalom for more people, the myopia of The Anabaptist Vision needs to be diagnosed, and a corrective lens prescribed.22
In Part 2 of this essay, I will offer a diagnostic for The Anabaptist Vision’s myopia, as well as a possible corrective lens.
*Editorial Note: Part 2 of Gino’s article published on February 2nd. Riffing on Proverbs 29:19, where there is partial vision, some people perish. As is often the case, the portion of people at greatest risk of perishing is those outside the dominant culture, those who are marginalized and oppressed. Click To Tweet
1 Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2010), 6–7.
2 https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-28/1525-anabaptist-movement-begins.html. Accessed January 27th, 2023.
3 Harold Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987).
4 Michael Sattler, The Schleitheim Confession, accessed July 22, 2022 via https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/schleitheim.
5 James M Stayer et al., “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 49, no. 2 (April 1975): 85.
6 For example, The Schleitheim Confession of 1523 was updated in 1963 and moved from seven to 21 distinctives.
7 Ted Grimsrud, “Anabaptism for the Twenty-First Century,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 80, no. 3 (July 2006): 373.
8 Joanna Shenk, ed., Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2011), 29.
9 As previously mentioned, The Schleitheim Confession predates The Anabaptist Vision by more than four hundred years.
10 Grimsrud, “Anabaptism for the Twenty-First Century,” 374.
11 Rather than use the male-focused term “brotherhood,” I prefer to use the more inclusive term “Peoplehood.”
12 Bender, Anabaptist Vision, 20.
13 Ibid., 21.
14 Ibid., 26.
15 Ibid., 31.
16 Grimsrud, “Anabaptism for the Twenty-First Century,” 386.
17 Bruce L Guenther, “The Complicated History of Anabaptist-Mennonite Nonresistance,” Direction 47, no. 2 (Fall 2018): 185–186.
18 Ibid., 202.
19 Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 4th edition. (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 248.
20 Shenk, Widening the Circle; Laura Schmidt Roberts, Paul Martens, and Myron Penner, eds., Recovering From the Anabaptist Vision: New Essays in Anabaptist Identity and Theological Method, 1st ed. (New York: T&T Clark, 2020).
21 In this instance, Harold Bender was a white American male Protestant writing in the 1940s.
22 Shenk, Widening the Circle, 29.