*Editorial Note: Part 1 of Gino’s article, entitled “A Clear Vision for the Future: Re-Examining The Anabaptist Vision for Today” posted on January 31st. We encourage you to return to this piece if you haven’t read it and then continue to Part 2 below.
Part 1 Review: The Partial Sight of The Anabaptist Vision
Extending the metaphor of sight even further, The Anabaptist Vision represents what is seen through the lens of the dominant culture.1 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.2 (Part 1’s conclusion)
For a diagnostic of part of the The Anabaptist Vision’s myopia, we now turn to the work of Howard Thurman and James Cone as a possible corrective lens.
Howard Thurman: The Diagnostic of the Disinherited
Howard Thurman, writing in his 1949 masterwork Jesus and the Disinherited, poses a brilliant question that serves as a helpful diagnostic tool for all religions:
The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life.3
A reading of the Gospels readily demonstrates how Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, would answer Thurman’s question. Jesus begins and ends in solidarity with the poor, disinherited, and discarded. He is God in flesh to show us what God is like (John 1:14; Colossians 1:15). The narrative of Jesus demonstrates that he lives his life for, with, and as the oppressed. Jesus begins and ends in solidarity with the poor, disinherited, and discarded. He is God in flesh to show us what God is like (Jn 1:14; Col 1:15). The narrative of Jesus demonstrates that he lives his life with and as the oppressed. Click To Tweet
Jesus was born into poverty on the margins of society (Luke 2). As a child, he and his family fled their homeland as refugees with their ‘backs against the wall’ as Herod sought to kill him (Matthew 2). Decades later, when Jesus went to the synagogue to announce the beginning of his ministry, he read from Isaiah 61: “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’” (Luke 4:18-19). When Jesus was finished reading, he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Quite clearly in his own words, Jesus came to liberate the poor, the captive, the oppressed.
Throughout his life, Jesus would experience homelessness as one without a stable living environment (Luke 9:58). He stayed in proximity with those on the margins of society and was maligned for it (Matthew 11:19). Consistently, Jesus chose to live in solidarity with those whose backs were against the wall.
When falsely accused and sentenced to death through a State-sanctioned execution, Jesus did not lean into his privilege as Messiah but died in solidarity with and among the disinherited (Luke 23). The life, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return of Jesus speak volumes in response to Thurman’s important question. Jesus has everything to do with addressing the needs and providing hope for those whose backs are against the wall. When falsely accused and sentenced to death through a State-sanctioned execution, Jesus did not lean into his privilege as Messiah but died in solidarity with and among the disinherited (Lk 23). Click To Tweet
If this is so evident of Jesus Christ, why does Thurman’s question seem to serve as a challenge for most modern Christianity? If Jesus was clearly in and for those on the margins of society, it seems his followers would find themselves in solidarity with Jesus, and, therefore, those on the margins. However, that is far too often not the case.
If our Christianity does not speak good news to the disinherited, then our religion is not of Christ. We may be Christian in our beliefs and words, but if we are not Christian in our practices, then we are not walking in the way of Christ. If our Christianity does not speak good news to the disinherited, then our religion is not of Christ. We may be Christian in our beliefs, but if we are not Christian in our practices, then we are not walking in the way of Christ. Click To Tweet
The Anabaptist Vision, with its strong emphasis on living in the way of Jesus, perplexingly often led to a separation from the world rather than actively seeking to bear witness to the world’s need for change. Non-conformity with the world often resulted in less participation with those outside the church. While charity for the poor is at the heart of the Vision, that is not the same as solidarity. Being in solidarity with those whose backs are against the wall is complicated by non-conformity. Indeed, there are various ways Anabaptists engage with those on the margins. However, the Vision seems to call people out of the world rather than to seek justice within it. Non-conformity with the world often resulted in less participation with those outside the church. While charity for the poor is at the heart of the Vision, that is not the same as solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. Click To Tweet
For those whose backs are against the wall, the invitation may sound like joining the church to experience freedom rather than the church seeking to liberate people in the world. This distinction of joining into liberation rather than liberation into joining is worth noting. It is the difference between living in solidarity with the oppressed as a practice of the church versus the oppressed needing to join the church before finding her in solidarity with them. Many Anabaptists lack clarity in this. The result is a lack of clarity as to how the Vision answers Thurman’s question. And that lack of clarity needs focus if it will result in meaningful change for Christianity. To help the Vision find clearer focus, we look to provide a second corrective lens in the theology of James Cone.
James Cone’s Corrective Lens
The theological work of Dr. James Cone appears to spring from a similar question that Howard Thurman asked. Cone begins his powerful book, God of the Oppressed, with this crucial question: “What has the gospel to do with the oppressed of the land and their struggle for liberation? Any theologian who fails to place that question at the center of his or her work has ignored the essence of the gospel.”4 For Cone, like Thurman, if the gospel is not good news for the oppressed and marginalized in our time, then the gospel is not good news.
Cone’s body of work draws on the Black experience in America, looking to see how this gospel is good news for the oppressed, and as a result how it can be a gospel of liberation in light of the oppressive lived experience of generations of Black people in America.5 Therefore, Cone is self-admittedly writing from a particular social location, seeing Jesus and the world through a specific contextual lens. While this has been frequently weaponized against Cone as though his perspective is less valid because it is not the majority perspective, at least two things should be stated in his defense. First, everyone is doing theology from a particular location and through a lens. In Cone’s work, he is honest about naming what that lens is. This naming of the lens through which one sees is not the case for most within the majority perspective. Everyone is doing theology from a particular location and through a lens. Cone is honest about naming what that lens is. This naming of the lens through which one sees is not the case for most within the majority perspective. Click To Tweet
Harold Bender’s Vision assumes a shared location between him and his readers. He also appears to assume a single narrative for all “Anabaptists” in the sixteenth century. In order to make sense of The Anabaptist Vision today, we first need to consider the lens through which the author sees. Naming the lens is what leads me to the second defense of Cone.
Second, it is intellectually dishonest to dismiss Cone’s perspective simply because it is not written from the majority perspective. To do this is, at best, a move to exclude potential correctives to the majority perspective and, at worst, racist. To only consider theologies drawn from the majority culture perspective will perpetuate the shortcomings of that perspective. Because Cone admittedly writes from a perspective outside the majority culture, his perspective should be thoughtfully welcomed by all. To only consider theologies drawn from the majority culture perspective will perpetuate the shortcomings of that perspective. Click To Tweet
An important point of intersection between the Black Theology of Cone and the subject of The Anabaptist Vision is the person and work of Jesus Christ. For Anabaptists, Jesus is the focal point of discipleship that leads to life transformation and hope in a world that seeks to oppress them. For Cone, the subject of Black Theology is Jesus Christ because he is the subject of the hopes and dreams of many black people in America.6 Jesus Christ was the one who came into their history from outside the oppression of the white enslaver and bestowed them with a view of humanity that their oppressors could not destroy.7 Jesus is the liberator from oppression. While both Anabaptism and Black Theology center on Jesus, there are marked differences concerning oppression of either group.
In overly simplistic terms, Anabaptists were oppressed because of their voluntary decision to follow Jesus in a way that put them at odds with the State church. This is quite different from the experience of Black people in America. The systematic oppression of Black people was not in response to any decision they made voluntarily. Because the oppression of Anabaptists and Black people is so different, the response to oppression may need to be different. For the Anabaptists, their oppression could have ended if they renounced their views and conformed to the ways of the State church. Their refusal to conform led to mass persecution and death. Their response to such violence was to normalize suffering. Suffering and martyrdom came to be expected and seen as honorably resisting the Empire in the way of Jesus.8
For enslaved Black people, renouncing their Blackness and being freed was never an option. The commodification of Black bodies resulted in profiteering racist practices which overwhelmed and overpowered Black people. Tragically, the racist legacy of chattel slavery is alive and well in America in different forms today. Much needs to be said about these horrors, but the point of this essay is that, unlike the oppression of Anabaptists, Black people have little agency to choose not to be oppressed. Their oppression is not in response to how they live but how their racist oppressors view them. Resistance to this oppression looks different when you are profiled for who you are rather than how you choose to live.9 Unlike the oppression of Anabaptists, Black people have little agency to not be oppressed. Resistance to this oppression looks different when you are profiled by racist oppressors for who you are rather than how you choose to live. Click To Tweet
The apparent legacy of The Anabaptist Vision for resisting the oppressive systems and structures of the Empire was to create non-conforming communities that lived apart from the world. An alternative sectarian society such as the Amish or some Mennonite communities were the results.
The Anabaptist doctrine of non-conformity comes from a beautiful desire to live holy and peaceful lives apart from the oppression of the Empire. While probably well intended, it is also highly privileged. Not all oppressed people have the means to create such sectarian societies. Additionally, when Black people have attempted to create sectarian societies of liberation and peace amidst the Empire, the oppressors often become increasingly suspicious and violent.10 The Anabaptist doctrine of non-conformity comes from a beautiful desire to live holy and peaceful lives apart from the oppression of the Empire. While probably well intended, it is also highly privileged. Click To Tweet
A corrective that Cone offers through the lens of Black Theology is declaring that God is with the oppressed.11 Jesus is the God of the oppressed. He is with and for those whose backs are against the wall. Looking through the lens of the experience of Black people in the U.S., Cone concludes that Jesus is with the oppressed and the Christian gospel is about liberation.
The Anabaptist Vision, seen through the corrective lens of James Cone’s Black Theology, shows that discipleship in the way of Jesus involves solidarity with those who are marginalized and oppressed. While the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century were oppressed, they often moved away from the systems of oppression and formed communities centered on Jesus. However, if these Jesus-centered communities were not centered around those on the margins, they may not be fully centered on Jesus. If the story of Jesus is one of him aligning with the oppressed and moving to the marginalized in society, those who center their discipleship on Jesus will do the same. Centering on Jesus, who centers on the marginalized, means that we who follow Jesus move to the margins, centering on those who are oppressed and marginalized.
Cone’s emphasis on God being the liberator of the oppressed provides a compelling answer to the question Thurman poses about what our religion has for those whose backs are against the wall. Jesus offers liberation. Cone describes the depth of this liberation:
The Christian gospel is more than a transcendent reality, more than ‘going to heaven when I die, to shout salvation as I fly.’ It is also an immanent reality — a powerful liberating presence among the poor right now in their midst, ‘building them up where they are torn down and propping them up on every leaning side.’ The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice, fighting for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.12
This liberation is not a passive wait-until-Jesus-returns, but rather a future liberation that is enacted in the present through solidarity with the oppressed and bearing witness to the justice of Jesus in an unjust world. Those who have been liberated are set free to join God’s work toward the liberation of others who are oppressed.13 Through the lens of Black Theology, Anabaptists can find a liberation ethic bound up in the Jesus whom they seek to follow.14 To this we say, “Yes! Follow Jesus. Follow him directly to the places he promised to be, among those who were living with their backs against the wall” (See Matthew 25:44).
This compelling call for an Anabaptist vision of liberation is a clear challenge to and corrective for the power-seeking ways of many current forms of American Christianity.
When we bring multiple perspectives (lenses) into a dialogue, we gain a clearer theological vision. May we continue to learn from those who have come before us, listen to all the voices among us, and faithfully follow Jesus in co-creating and reforming Christianity within the United States and beyond. This liberation is not a passive wait-until-Jesus-returns, but rather a future liberation that is enacted in the present through solidarity with the oppressed and bearing witness to the justice of Jesus in an unjust world. Click To Tweet
1 In this instance, Harold Bender was a Protestant American white male writing in the 1940s.
2 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), 29.
3 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996), 13.
4 James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, Rev. ed. (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1997), 9.
5 James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books, 2011), xv–xvi.
6 Cone, God of the Oppressed, 30.
7 Ibid., 31.
8 David Weaver-Zercher, Martyrs Mirror: A Social History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), xi.
9 While beyond the scope of this article, it would be valuable to compare Cone’s views on resistance and violence and the traditional Anabaptist non-violent positions.
10 Consider the May 13, 1985, MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. J.M. Floyd-Thomas, “The Burning of Rebellious Thoughts: MOVE as Revolutionary Black Humanism,” The Black Scholar 32, no. 1 (March 2002): 11.
11 Cone, Oppressed, 65.
12 Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 155.
13 Cone, Oppressed, 213.
14 This compelling call for an Anabaptist vision of liberation is what theologian Drew Hart calls “Anablacktivism.” Anablacktivism, in part, is drawing out the best of The Anabaptist Vision by filtering it through the corrective lens of Black Theology. I am indebted to Dr. Hart for showing this to me.