My eclectic Anabaptist wardrobe…
I just finished reading Stuart Murray’s book The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. Murray writes as one who has been drawn to the Anabaptist tradition from the post-Christendom British context. He explores both the historical dimensions of the movement and core convictions that have developed as contemporary followers of Jesus in the United Kingdom engage with this tradition. Whether or not you identify yourself as an Anabaptist–it’s a good read.
In the book, Murray identifies four kinds of Anabaptist communities today. Reading The Naked Anabaptist has prompted me to reflect once again on the many ways my story has been shaped by multiple communities expressing the Anabaptist vision in different ways. Here are some reflections on how my life has intersected with the various types of contemporary Anabaptist communities named by Murray.
The descendants of the early Anabaptists: the Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites (Type 1)
Biology and genealogy tell me I am from Swiss-German descent—from Miller and Ehst…Snyder, Souder and Moyer. On my father’s side the lineage goes back to Swiss Brethren via Jakob Ammann’s branch. They first landed in Holmes County, Ohio before the pioneer spirit took them out west to the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
My maternal roots are in the Franconia Conference—in the soil deeded to Mennonite immigrants by William Penn. The Bally farm passed down over eight generations is a testament to the values of faith and hard work that served Mennonites well as they established spiritually, culturally and economically vital communities in a new setting. While I was connected to this community through family ties, we lived at a distance for most of my childhood. This changed my senior year of high school when I would move back to Pennsylvania to attend Christopher Dock Mennonite High School.
I married into a Midwestern expression of this kind of Anabaptist community. My wife’s mother was from the Kansas Mennonites who emigrated from Prussia. Because of this, I have relational ties into places like Hillsboro, Newton and Hesston. We have old photos of Unruh and Bartel family on our mantel. We make and eat peppernuts during the Christmas season. Because of this connection, we know what it is to eat zwieback and verenika.
While my genealogy qualifies me to be a cradle Mennonite, I have not always felt at home in these communities. This likely has much to do with the fact that my earliest memories are as a part of Murray’s third type of Anabaptist community.
New Anabaptist churches in many nations as a result of Mennonite and Brethren missionary activities (Type 3)
I was born in Mexico while my parents were serving the Pacific Conference of the Mennonite Church. This is the earliest place I remember being from. This expression of Anabaptism has shaped me linguistically, culturally and theologically. Before I knew about shoe-fly pie, I knew about tamales. The Anabaptists in northwest Mexico would not have associated their faith story with the European origins of Anabaptism. In fact, the most common way they would have self-identified was as evangelicos.
The only visible sign of Anabaptism might have been the prayer veil worn by the women converts to this movement. Their brown sun-baked skin and black hair told another story—a mestizo story. It was a story of hard work and struggle. Their worn huarache sandals and swept dirt floors had more to do with the struggle of subsistence campo life than an Anabaptist conviction about simplicity.
Bible studies and personal testimonies provided an ongoing narrative theology within which the community bore witness to their experience with God. An experience that had to do with transformed living made possible through a personal encounter with Jesus. The community gathered for vibrant worship with guitars and hand clapping.
My experience as a participant in Youth Evangelism Service and later as an administrator for Latin America with Discipleship Ministries confirms Murray’s observation that each of these communities interprets the Anabaptist tradition in its own way. I have seen these diverse interpretations in places like Puebla, San Pedro Carcha, Cusco and Tegucigalpa. These expressions of Gospel meeting culture flavored with an Anabaptist telling of the story continue to emerge as movements with their own unique gifts to bring to the table.
As I write this I am hosting Beny Krisbianto, an Indonesian pastor from South Philly and fellow student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Beny is a pastor and leader among an emerging network of Indonesian Churches in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Greensburg and New York City. Some are cultivating formal connections with Franconia Mennonite Conference. Are these churches Mennonite? Are they Anabaptist?
These same questions and observations could apply to Sunnyside Mennonite Church–the congregation where I serve as pastor–and Lancaster Mennonite Conference the fellowship of churches we are a part of.
Other denominations that began later but drew inspiration from Anabaptism: various Brethren groups, the Bruderhof movement, and some Baptists (Type 2)
Upon returning from the mission field, my family lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma for seven years. During these years of living in the Bible Belt, my theological wardrobe was influenced by other streams—some that could be situated in this second category of Anabaptism.
We moved from Mexico to Tulsa so my father could take a teaching position at Oral Roberts University. While ORU does not represent this second category of Anabaptism which Murray identifies (imagine a Bruderhof community with a Prayer Tower or City of Faith), we did attend Parkside Mennonite Brethren Church during these years. It was here I learned about potluck meals, singing hymns and church as community. Little did I know at that time that the last names—Pankratz, Unruh, Balzer, Harms, Ratzliff, Wolgemuth—represented a different entry point into the Anabaptist story than Miller. Nevertheless, the theological garb was familiar—if at a subconscious level.
During these years in Oklahoma I had the opportunity to hear John Wimber speak. Wimber told of his journey from being a hippie musician who played with the Righteous Brothers to a dramatically changed follower Jesus. He would become the founding leader of the Vineyard Movement—a movement that attempted to espouse a third way between Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism. Though less overtly Anabaptist, some of the language and vision of this “empowered evangelicalism” would find its way into my theological wardrobe.
4. Neo-Anabaptists, who belong to other traditions but acknowledge the formative influence of Anabaptism
It wasn’t until my thirties that I rediscovered the gifts contained within Anabaptism. It was as I engaged with other traditions that converged with Anabaptist theology that I began to find my own story within this many-layered tradition.
Conversations with emerging Christianity as well as the ancient church tradition as told through Eastern Orthodoxy have provided many rich opportunities to re-examine the Anabaptist way of telling and living the Jesus story. While Orthodoxy does not represent a neo-Anabaptist movement, there are important areas of theological overlap—including salvation as a journey of discipleship within the community of faith.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit Vineyard Central in Cincinnati, Ohio. I had learned about this community through an article which compared this community to the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. I was drawn to visit and see for myself what this urban, neo-monastic community of house churches was like.
Conversations that weekend provided clear evidence of a community that was drawing from a variety of streams including Anabaptism. Reading materials included books by John Howard Yoder and John of the Cross. Spirituality combined inward and outward movement. Hospitality and incarnational presence in an urban neighborhood were as much a part of the communal life as were the contemplative practices of prayer and silence.
It was among this community that I learned to appreciate good ale and the richness of submitting to a communal rule of prayer using The Divine Hours. This community has continued to stimulate vision for what it means to live into a missional vision for church. It was among this community that I began to discover a way of receiving the gifts contained both within the Anabaptist tradition and the broader Christian story.
I am a part of many relationships that increasingly bear witness to the possibility that we are in a time of upheaval and profound transformation in the church and in the world. Old boundaries no longer apply. Many stories are coming together at one grand story-telling table in the Kingdom of God. Diana Butler Bass (One Body, Many Stories) says we need all those stories to be fully Christian. We need the practices and experiences—the gifts of each tradition—to gather at the table so we can hear each other’s tales along the way.
This is the emerging reality in a post-Christendom world. In The Naked Anabaptist, Stuart Murray brings the Anabaptist tradition with its many interpretations to the story table. He offers a vision for Anabaptism which moves us beyond cultural time warps and separatist tendencies.
I am grateful for the way in which Murray brings the Anabaptist tradition to the story telling table. He brings the story to life which refreshing humility–naming both strengths and weaknesses. His way of telling the story acknowledges the multiplicity of interpretations and ways the vision is being lived into. Murray’s way of telling the story makes room for the authenticity of each of these interpretations while calling us beyond Christendom accommodations of purpose driven individualism on the one hand and sectarian visions aimed at preserving cultural time warps on the other. This confessional stance and posture of humility is befitting of our current setting in which we find ourselves gathered together at story-telling tables with Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox Christians. These tables are providing opportunities for confession, healing and renewed possibilities for partnership in mission.
There is a party taking place even as Christendom structures and narratives are deteriorating. I plan on showing up. I think I will wear something from my eclectic Anabaptist wardrobe.