Voluntarism, Autonomy, and Post-Christendom Anabaptism

Too often voluntary church membership is translated into the right to make up one’s own mind. Accordingly, the church as a disciplined body becomes a community of like-minded individuals who share the conviction that they should respect each other’s right to make up his or her own mind…”Voluntary church membership” was a prophetic challenge against mainstream Christianity, but once Christendom is gone the call for voluntary commitment cannot help but appear as a legitimation of the secular commitment to autonomy. In a Christendom world it took conviction to be a pagan or an Anabaptist, but given the world in which we are now living it is hard to distinguish pagans from Anabaptists … (Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Whose Church? Which Future? Whither the Anabaptist Vision?’ in In Good Company: The Church as Polis (Notre Dame, 1995), pp.71,73.)

For at least partial corroboration in the experience of one Mennonite group, read this quote from a post-Christendom perspective:

A second characteristic of the [General Conference Mennonite Church] was the emphasis on freedom and autonomy—Christian freedom, not license, for the individual, and autonomy for the congregation. Each believer stood before God Himself in faith as a free individual, uncoerced by other believers. Each individual soul, created in the image of God, was competent and responsible to deal directly with God through Christ, without intervention of parent, priest, sacrament, church, or state. This personal responsibility to God was the basis for freedom of conscience. This was true, within limits, in both faith and practice. (Edmund G. Kaufman and Henry Poettcker, “General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/G4647ME.html.)

Anders Behring Breivik and Christian Historiography

Michael Den Tandt has written, in response to the trial of the Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik, a call for Western societies to adopt a strong public secularism to avoid instances of fanatical murder. What I find particular interesting about the piece is its insistence that Christianity is responsible for Breivik’s atrocity in the same way that Islam is responsible for the terrorism of Osama bin Laden. Den Tandt writes that:

Breivik is a mass murderer with explicitly political ends — a Christian-European mirror image, by his own deliberate design, of al-Qaida’s Islamist murderers.

His explanation of this charge, however, demonstrates a very particular understanding how how exactly Christianity was responsible for Breivik’s rampage:

Breivik’s ideology draws on a medievalist, arch-conservative and romanticized view of Christian and Norse mythologies. The iconography and imagery in his turgid, 1,500-word manifesto are explicitly Christian. He uses the term “cultural Christian,” to connote a white citizen of Western Europe, who may or may not practise Christianity.

In other words, Breivik’s Christian inspiration is not lodged in Christian theology or in Christian scripture. Rather, his inspiration is drawn from Christian historiography. It is a relatively common presentation of Christian history that inspires this sort of killing. Specifically, it seems reasonable to think that it is a story that depicts Christianity as the guardian of Western civilization and a bulwark against would-be Muslim invaders of Europe that is appealing to Breivik.

This view of history is, rather plainly, disputable. (For example, consider this piece by Abdal Hakim Murad arguing that the Islamic world as as much or more an inheritor of the Hellenistic legacy as is Europe.) And it is in the disputable nature of this militarized, culturally specific way of telling the history of Christianity that there exists the possibility of making it harder for people like Breivik to draw support from Christianity. For example, an alternative historiography to Breivik’s posits that a series of events in the fourth century, commonly called the Constantinian Shift, allowed a transnational, transcultural church to become captive to the interests of the Roman Empire, and that this shift distorted the church’s original and more authentic beliefs and practices so that it could serve as an official religion for states and societies. As a Mennonite, this sort of historiography is very familiar to me, but it has great potential resonance for the broader world of Protestantism, which is not institutionally bound to defend the actions of the church in the Middle Ages.

In fact, this sort of Christian historiography, or something like it, may may serve as an important  bulwark against advocates of the kind of secularity advocated by Den Tandt, which to me appears to be essentially the same as the strict and religiously stifling contemporary French concept of laïcité. In the words of Den Tandt:

The other remedy, the only rational and desirable one in my view, is to aggressively enforce a secular state, in every sphere — on municipal councils, in provincial legislatures and in the education system — so that religious faith is located impartially in the church, mosque or synagogue, and in the home, and never in forums funded in any way by taxpayers.

If Christians are going to anathematize thinking like that of Breivik, as secular Western society rightly demands that we do if we are to be allowed to continue to practice our faith in public, it cannot be feeble or duplicitous. Strong measures that go straight to the heart of what allows people like Breivik to claim inspiration from Christianity are needed.

Whither human rights?

A couple of things I’ve run across recently have caused me to wonder about the integrity of the belief system known as “human rights.” On the face of it, framing the rights afforded to legal persons as “human rights” is a stroke of brilliance because it affords legal protections on the basis of membership in the human species — something that is far more scientifically objective than other common historical notions of personhood. Moving responsibility for the definition of personhood to a scientific idea, that is, membership in a given species, should help to short-circuit bigoted attempts to deny the personhood and rights of socially despised groups, like Jews in Nazi Germany or Tutsis in early-1990’s Rwanda.

However, there have always been a few wrinkles in the standard Western human rights regime that I have found troubling. The most pronounced of these has to do with the way rights are discussed in the context of abortion law. In North America, at least, the landmark Supreme Court cases that provided all-but-universal access to abortion, R v Morgentaler in Canada and Roe v Wade in the US, decided in favour of expanded access to abortion on the grounds of the mother’s right to privacy. Inherent in these decisions was the view that fetal or embryonic human beings may be destroyed for the sake of alleviating non-life-threatening pressures upon a group of adult human beings, that is, the mothers of the fetal and embryonic humans. In these same countries, the most serious criminal sentences are levied upon those who deliberately kill other human beings who happen to be children, adolescents, or adults. This demonstrates that the critical insight of human rights, that of the universality of rights and privileges conferred upon all human beings, is not active in abortion laws. In fact, it is a far more utilitarian view that guides abortion law in the US and most of Europe, wherein the fetal human’s capacity to suffer and to survive apart from its mother is a determining factor in whether or not that fetal human being may be killed. (Canada places no legal restrictions on abortion.)

This dehumanization of unborn humans has in some areas begun to extend to newborns, for reasons that are simple extensions of the rationale behind abortion. Back in February, a paper written by the ethicists Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argued that infanticide should be permissible and renamed “after-birth abortion.” The authors justify their position on the basis that the population of living human beings is not coterminous with the population of persons entitled with rights, to wit:

The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual… Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’. We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her… [it is] not possible to damage a newborn by preventing her from developing the potentiality to become a person in the morally relevant sense… [W]hat we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

The reasoning here is clear: persons with rights are those who have some sort of self-awareness who place some value on their own continuing sentient existence, rather than human beings per se.

This line of thinking is not, as might be thought, confined to those academic ethicists who are disciples of Peter Singer. Rather, this sort of understanding of the value of human beings is evident in the Canadian justice system. In a sentencing report issued in the case of a young woman who secretly gave birth to a son and strangled him to death, the judge mused:

Canada is one of the very few countries in the world that, for the last nearly 25 years, has had no regulation of abortion, even in relation to the third trimester. At a minimum, this reflects the lack of consensus. In my view, it also reflects the fact that while many Canadians undoubtedly view abortion as a less-than-ideal solution to unprotected sex, to unwanted pregnancy, Canadians generally understand, accept, and sympathize with the onerous demands pregnancy and child birth exact from mothers, especially mothers without support.

In this case, it is clear that the distress of the mother is viewed as being of at least equal consideration to the life of a newborn, never mind a fetus or embryo.

Simply put, the term “human rights” as it is typically applied in the English-speaking world is a misnomer. The determination of who is a legal person and gets to have legal rights is not, in fact, determined by sheer humanity, as the term “human rights” would suggest.

(Updated March 3, 2012 for grammar and clarity.)

A failure of collegiality

In light of some recent posts about defining practices and denominationalism, here’s a very sad story about those two things really working at cross purposes. A majority of the dioceses of the Church of England have rejected the proposed Anglican Covenant, which would have committed Anglican provinces to avoiding unilateral decisions that would be likely to cause discord among Anglicans elsewhere, and to instead consider such matters in broader consultation. The targets of the proposal were most conspicuously the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church USA, which have drawn the ire of Anglicans elsewhere for blessing same-sex unions and consecrating gay bishops, respectively. The North American provinces are out of line with Anglican views on homosexuality in the rest of the world, but believe that their actions in this area are urgent matters of justice that ought not to be forestalled by objections from less enlightened folk. Anglicans elsewhere, meanwhile, have expressed that the North American provinces are denying the Scriptures and are capitulating to cultural pressures.

The Church of England’s rejection of the Anglican Covenant is particularly sad to me because it appears that Anglicanism’s “mother church” is not invested in holding the Anglican Communion together. The Anglican witness to the church has been one of rather successful collegiality for years, wherein the church’s different provinces have expressed much diversity within and among themselves, while remaining in communion with one another. It appears that the Western expressions of Anglicanism do not value communion with their two-thirds world counterparts enough to submit their judgments about appropriate Christian conduct to their consideration, judging by who has accepted the Covenant so far – according to Reuters, that list includes the provinces of Mexico, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, West Indies, Southern Cone, South East Asia, and Southern Africa, all of which are churches of the two-thirds world.

It’s especially sad to see the Anglican Covenant failing to get off the ground in light of Rowan Williams’ pending retirement from the Archbishopric of Canterbury. Williams has worked tremendously hard to hold the Anglican Communion together, and the Anglican Covenant was a tremendous example not only of classic Williams, but also of Christian collegiality.

Dorothy Sayers on Industrialization and Women’s Work

[On Former “Women’s” Jobs]: ” . . . the whole of the spinning industry, the whole of the dyeing industry, the whole of the weaving industry. The whole catering industry and . . . the whole of the nation’s brewing and distilling. All the preserving, pickling, and bottling industry, all the bacon-curing. And (since in those days a man was often absent from home for months together on war or business) a very large share in the management of landed estates. Here are the women’s jobs—and what has become of them? They are all being handled by men. It is all very well to say that a woman’s place is the home—but modern civilisation has taken all these pleasant and profitable activities out of the home, where the women looked after them, and handed them over to big industry, to be directed and organised by men at the head of large factories. Even the dairy-maid in her simple bonnet has gone, to be replaced by a male mechanic in charge of a mechanical milking plant.” (From the essay, “Are Women Human?”)

“It is perfectly idiotic to take away women’s traditional occupations and then complain because she looks for new ones.”

H/T The Wartburg Watch commenter N. W. Clerk

Catechesis and Discipline

Ben Myers has written a marvelous post entitled “On catechesis and catastrophe”. He tells, in his usually brilliant and beautiful way, the story about how his mother received her driver’s licence from a charmed police officer without taking a driving test, and proceeded to wreck two cars that same week. He uses this to illustrate his concern over pastors who administer baptism on a lowest-common-denominator bases, without teaching the would-be baptized about what their faith entails. Just as the policeman should not have given Myers’ mother a licence without the usual examination, he says, so too should the church not baptize people without verifying and strengthening their faith, lest their officially approved faith rot or break from lack of support or understanding.

I find that this resonates very deeply in me, not least because I still have the Harmony resolution rattling around in my thoughts. The proponents of the resolution have outlined a set of beliefs regarding church membership that throw the doors of the church wide open, and promise inclusion and tolerance as cardinal virtues. But in addition to finding such views historically un-Anabaptist, I’ve also been very personally uncomfortable with these particular beliefs. I find it difficult to see how the church could remain strong and robust if it admits to itself members who may be at cross-purposes with the church. I do not see how such a perspective allows for the practices of church discipline outlined in the Gospels and the Epistles. When I read Jesus telling his would-be followers to count the cost of discipleship before beginning, and denying the requests of would-be disciples to say goodbye to family or bury a parent before following Jesus, I can’t help but think we’re doing a disservice to those we vacuum up into the church on the first sign of interest.