Reflections on Anabaptist Mennonite Systematic Theology


After reading the second section of A. James Reimer’s Mennonites and Classical Theology for a class this past term, and after discussing the theme of Anabaptist Mennonite systematic theology, I feel compelled to reflect on the topic in more detail. My intent in the following is to critically engage with the idea of an Anabaptist Mennonite systematic theology (particularly Reimer) in such a way that may raise more questions than it answers. In this way it is more of a general reflection than an in-depth scholarly essay, although I hope to use the themes and directions present in it in the future.

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Cosmopolitan Mennonites; Cosmopolitan Homelessness

This is a lecture I was asked to give at a Mennofolk event on Jan. 28th at Sam’s Place Cafe and Bookstore in Winnipeg. The theme for the event was “A Song Away from Home,” and the evening featured several up and coming Winnipeg artists with Mennonite roots as well as this lecture. The following is a critique of an increasing cosmopolitan Mennonite existence, developing diaspora as an alternative, non-colonial, way of relating to our cosmopolitan neighbours by asking the questions: In what ways are we not at home in the world? In Winnipeg? How does our strangeness, our diasporic existence in a cosmopolitan landscape change our ethics, how we relate to others?

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV

I want to do three things in the next 15-20 minutes.  First, I want to suggest that although Mennonites have become cosmopolitan and settled in North American cities, there are several ways in which we are still strangers or foreigners in this context.  Second, I want to outline Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s work on Old Testament diaspora or exile as a source for thinking about this strangeness.  Thirdly, I will explore a relatively recent Mennonite Church Manitoba initiative as a way of incarnating the Jeremian call, a way of seeking the welfare of the city.

Cosmopolitan Mennonites; Cosmopolitan Homelessness

To begin, then, my lecture tonight is entitled “Cosmopolitan Mennonites; Cosmopolitan Homelessness.”  What I mean to call attention to in this two part title is first, the increasingly cosmopolitan existence of Mennonites in Canada– the progressive move of rural Mennonites to urban centers, especially as 2nd, 3rd, 4th generations who no longer face persecution have settled in the land.  Over the generations,Canada,Manitoba,Winnipeg, have become dwelling places for Mennonites; we consider ourselves very much at home here.  With the second part of the title I want to suggest that we also need to consider that certain kinds of settled-ness can lead to apathy on the one hand, and a desire to seize power and control on the other.  I want to suggest that although we have settled in cities, we need to think about the ways in which we are not completely at home in them; hence, the term cosmopolitan homelessness.  If this is confusing, not to worry. I will continue to work out what I mean by this throughout the lecture.

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The context for this exhortation is Jeremiah’s prophetic counsel for the people of God living in exile, as foreigners in another city.  Living in exile is perhaps an unimaginable notion for much of western Christianity, though perhaps more present in our Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage.  As Christians living in the west we tend to think ourselves quite at home in the world, relegating, as a result, the prophetic word above to its particular place in history; while acknowledging it as part of our Christian story, it is clearly irrelevant for us today.  But on what grounds, really, can we consider ourselves anything other than strangers in the world?  Our North American cities are built on land that belongs to people who lived here long before us.  We were guests, foreigners, whose domiciliary relationship with this land is a result of war, conquest, and colonization.  This names our historical strangeness.  Another way in which we are strangers in the world is theological; it has to do with the eschatological tension in which the church lives.  We believe that the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ has already inaugurated a new world order but that it has not yet fully arrived.  We live in this world in anticipation for a transformed and new creation.  In a sense, then, we are not at home in this world because things are not the way they should be, or will be.

Our ways of living at home in this world have proven destructive, violent, and at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus we profess to follow.  By making ourselves at home, by seeking to overcome our exile, our strangeness, we have habituated what one might call a colonial ethic.  We have often convinced ourselves that our welfare – our peace, freedom, and well being – is secured through domination, control, and coercion.  Where we were first guests and foreigners in a country, who used the hospitality offered to us for our own ends and own advantage, we have now become hostages to our habits of thought and life.  I say this not to elicit guilt or fear, but simply that we might recognize our complicity in the violent colonization ofNorth America, and our broken relationship with indigenous peoples.  I also want to suggest that the exilic character of the people of God, the Christian church, has important resources for thinking about ethics – how we ought to live in the world.  Attending to the Jeremian call is a way for us to move forward instead of becoming paralyzed by our complicity in injustice. 

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On OWS: unity and renunciation

I haven’t paid particularly close attention to OWS but one argument constantly resurfacing in debates caught my interest – because I found it strange.  The argument appeared in many forms but basically ran like this: the people of OWS are all in general against the same thing, but what they are for, the alternatives they have in mind are so diverse and multiplicitous that their protest can never work. The assumption here is that a protest cannot be successful or effective when the unity of the group is negatively founded (i.e. what we are against); rather, there must be a universal goal that they can all be for. I suspect that this is simply another attempt by secularism to assert its claim-to-be-a-universal and I submit that this is epistemologically violent. (See Daniel Colucciello Barber, “Epistemological Violence, Christianity, and the Secular,” for more on the violence of particulars-that-claim-to-be-universals).

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Theology FAIL: Yoder’s mirage

What happens when (some) theologians attempt to use clever similes in their writing?

“The relevance of a transcendental hope may be that of a mirage. If we are speaking of a mirage and not of a hallucination, then what the voyagers see is real. It is not on the immediate horizon where they voyagers see it, but it is truly there. It has that shape and is really off in that direction. They will not be able to reach that goal as soon as it seems that they ought to, but what they see is of the same shape and quality as the reality of their destiny, and it lies in the same direction.”
John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1998), 206.

What?!  No. A mirage is by definition the perception of something that is not real; the oasis in the desert is never reached because it is truly not there.

Yoder on Diaspora and Hospitality

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7, NRSV)

This verse from Jeremiah will be at the heart of my presentation.  As we work through the texts of John Howard Yoder, and as I offer some reflections on what hospitality might have to do with diaspora, we will return to it often.

Yoder’s compelling essay “See How They Go with Their Face to the Sun,” gives an account of Babel that is significantly different from the way contemporary Protestant theology has rendered it.  The people of God constructed the tower of Babel as an act of independence toward their salvation, by trying to “[reach] heaven on their own.”[1]  God responds to this idolatry with the confusion of tongues.  Because the people no longer share a common language, the construction of Babel is interrupted.  God’s people are furthermore dispersed from the land, to live in exile under the Babylonian Empire.

The galuth (literally “scattering”) or diaspora of Israel by God is typically understood as a punishment for Israel’s idolatry.  As a result, the life of the Jewish community in exile is seen as a great loss from their former unity.  Yoder questions this interpretation on “Jeremian grounds.”  The verse from Jeremiah 29:7, he argues, precludes a punitive interpretation of the text: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  It does not sound like an angry admonition.  Something else is going on.

Drawing on Stephan Zweig’s poem-drama Jeremiah, various sources of Jewish historical interpretation, and Jeffrey Stout’s influential book Ethics after Babel, Yoder makes his case that galuth or the diaspora, is in fact the commissioning of God’s people.  When we read the Babel community not as an ideal unified whole but as idolatry, we must read the dispersal not as punishment and a lamentable loss of unity, but as God’s act of liberation from idolatry.

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My Conflict with Believer’s Baptism Part II

Absent in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, most recently published in 1995, is the early Anabaptist rhetoric of knowledge of faith before baptism that I have been wrestling with. It also pushes beyond a purely symbolic understanding of baptism as outer symbol of an inner transformation/faith (a dualism I also don’t like). In the commentary on Article 14 on Baptism one reads: “Some churches refer to baptism and the Lord’s Supper as symbols, sacraments, or ordinances. In this confession of faith, these ceremonies are called signs, a biblical term rich in meanings.  Sign is, first of all, an act of God: signs are wonders in Egypt (Exod. 1-:1; Num. 14:11), signs to prophets (Isa. 7:14; 55:13), and Jesus’ performance of signs (John 2:11; 12:37; 20:30). John 2:18-22 sees Jesus’ death and resurrection as a sign.  A sign is not only an act of God but a human action as well: eating unleavened bread at Passover (Exod. 13:9), binding the commandments to oneself (Deut. 6:8), keeping the Sabbath (Exod. 31:13; Ezek. 20:20).  Likewise, baptism is a sign, representing both God’s action in delivering us from sin and death and the action of the one who is baptized, who pledges to God to follow Jesus Christ within the context of Christ’s body, the church.”

In summary, such an understanding of baptism as a sign blurs the lines between two conflicting theologies: a) a public sacrament that informs and transforms the inner self, and b) an inner transformation that precedes its outer symbolization. The latter theology can easily turn the ritual of baptism into a virtual reality of sorts, what Derrida calls “the errant play of signs…[where] God is dead, there is no transcendental signified, nothing outside the image.” (“On the Gift” in John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon, eds, God, The Gift and Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 16.)  This can, of course, go one of two ways: either the pointless signification as such becomes the point, or like the Anabaptist spiritualists did, you get rid of any public practice.

John Howard Yoder (surprise!) offers an account of baptism that is congruent with the Confession’s sign-ificant understanding, but pushes the early Anabaptist inner faith precedes mere outer symbol theology:

If the idea is that baptism intellectually signifies the new birth as an outward symbol representing an inward individual experience, which the one baptized can “confess,” then it is obvious logically why we should disavow administering it coercively or to infants. Yet still that “Baptist” view does not naturally imply egalitarianism because what it is trying to explain is a symbolic behaviour rather than a social one. It does not make the world new. On the other hand, we might be able to resurrect what might be called a “sacramental” realism.[which is here closer to our use of signs than the Catholic understanding of sacrament] In that understanding, just as we saw in an earlier chapter that breaking bread together is an economic act, so baptism is the formation of a new people whose newness and togetherness explicitly relativize prior stratifications and classification.  Then we need no path, no line of argument, and no arbitrary statement (e.g., “Let us say that this symbol ‘x’ means…”) to get from there to [ethics and politics], either in the church or beyond.  We start with a ritual act whose first, ordinary meaning is [ethical and political].” (John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World,” (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2001), 33).

Thus, with the end of reading week ends the intentional reflection on my own believer’s baptism conflict.  Though I’m pretty sure I haven’t resolved anything I have had the opportunity to trace some theologically shifts from the radical reformation to contemporary European Mennonite theology on baptism.  I’m usually not one who has a lot of time or energy for “doctrinal debates” for the sole reason that they tend to be abstract from ethics and politics (which is the only thing I actually care about) but because of what this week of mining my history has revealed, I have to say that I am pretty satisfied with the turn to the ethical and political vis a vis baptism.  My conflict is not nearly resolved, nor was that the goal of my endeavour, but some things have been clarified and the terms of the infant/believer’s debate have been somewhat reconfigured. Hopefully towards fruitfulness.

Resonance, Receptivity, and Radical Reformation: Romand Coles in Review

This year for our annual Winter Lecture series at CMU we welcomed Dr. Romand Coles.

The Lecture overview can be found HERE

The review, which is also my first paid piece of publication, can be found HERE
Due to publishing rights I can’t post it here only link it, but you should go read it because Coles is a Radical Democrat who reads John Howard Yoder – which is interesting.