A Living Alternative: Anabaptist Christianity in a Post-Christendom World; Edited by Joanna Harader and A.O. Green (Review)

Who Should Read This Book– Anyone interested in Anabaptist Christian tradition, especially Christians disillusioned with the nationalist bent of the faith and looking for a different tradition rooted in the nonviolent teaching of Jesus.

What’s the Big Takeaway – As the west becomes an increasingly post-Christian culture, the Anabaptist tradition may be uniquely poised to present the best way forward for Christians living as a cultural minority, for Anabaptists have always been a Christian minority. That said, Anabaptism itself is quite diverse which is noted in the essays.

And a Quote – – “What we as the church must be willing to reclaim at all costs is not simply advocacy for the poor, but engagement and transformation with them. We must find ourselves on the side of the poor, as more than advocates, but as family and friends. The prophetic voice of the church is the greatest when she not only identifies with the poor and the marginalized, but is poor and marginalized herself” (Justin Hiebert, “The Ministry of Availability and Community Transformation”)

This book of essays by numerous writers is a good introduction to Anabaptist ideas. It is not a history or theology book, though it includes both history and theology. Instead, like the Anabaptist tradition, it is rooted in the practical. There is something here for everybody, whether you are totally unfamiliar with the Anabaptist tradition or, like me, have lived on the periphery of it your whole life.

I grew up surrounded by Mennonites and one of the first obstacles in learning to drive a car was being aware of the slow-moving Amish buggies that share the road. There was a Brethren in Christ (BIC) church right by my house. But I didn’t know much about Anabaptist (Mennonite, Amish, BIC and others) tradition or theology. Mennonites were just the people whose women wore those little bonnets and whose church softball teams were always dominant.

Mennonites specifically, and Anabaptists in general, are about a lot more than bonnets, farming and being good at church softball. For those curious about the tradition, this would be a helpful book. The essays are divided into three sections – “Rooted in the Past”, “Telling Stories of the Present”, and “Opening Up Toward the Future.” Like any book of essays, the quality is uneven, perhaps even drastically so. Some of these essays offer theological depth and insight while others almost read like undergrad essays or my own poor blog posts (I make no claim to be a good writer by any means, so any criticism of any essays in this book could certainly rebound to me. Fair is fair.).

I’d say the weakest essays are in the first section, covering the past. This is where the impression of a sort of arrogance comes through most clearly. Such arrogance is not unique to Anabaptists, it can be found in pretty much any Christian tradition. Its this idea that “we’ve got this whole Jesus thing figured out and if everyone else just lived like us, the world would be a better place.” I agree that if all Christians practiced nonviolence, for example, the world would be a much better place. Yet a little more humility goes a long way. Its actually quite easy to practice nonviolence if you’re living in privilege and comfort. I live in this exact privilege and comfort, so living a rather nonviolent life is easy for people like me.

This doesn’t mean they (we?) are wrong in our affirmations and principles. But I think James Cone’s work is eye-opening here. I think the book was God of the Oppressed (may have been Cross and the Lynching Tree) where he is critical of Christians who call for nonviolence. He argues, if I recall correctly, that our privilege in society comes from people in the past using violence and it is disingenuous to then stand at the top of society and tell those on the bottom not to use violence. Drew Hart touches on similar themes in his essay, the best in the book, but more on that below.

Another example of where a more balanced, even humble, view could have helped is the very first essay, which was about evangelism. The author is critical of the 16th century Protestants and Roman Catholics for not doing much evangelism. But this begs the question – why would they evangelize if they believed they lived in Christendom? We can criticize Christendom, of course, but it seems misplaced to criticize lack of evangelism when they already believed everyone was Christian.

Along with that, the author writes that “Additionally, they believed that untrained itinerant lay-preachers roaming around would cause numerous complications, since these individuals would lack the ability to handle God’s Word properly, so they could circumvent the goal of the Reformation by teaching erroneous doctrine.” I noted, “were they wrong?” We can celebrate the good of the Reformation, and Anabaptism specifically, but we ought also note the problems and one HUGE problem is the proliferating of denominations. Plenty of philosophers and historians (Charles Taylor, Brad Gregory just to name two) draw a straight line from the Reformation to secularism, with the roots of our post-Christian world in the Reformation. It would have been more fruitful to interact with the negatives of early Anabaptism along with the good.

Speaking of good, even in this first essay there are good ideas. The idea “resocialization” which is when adults unlearn old social roles and learn new ones is helpful.

This first section illustrates the drastically different quality of essays. There is a brilliant essay on the Hebrew roots of scripture and how the way we order the books of the Old Testament shapes our understanding of faith. There is also a strong essay on learning from Francis of Assisi. Counter this with an essay so riddled with basic historic errors, it makes me wonder if the editors did any editing. Its small stuff (the Fourth Crusade sacked Constaninople in 1204, not 1207) but mistakes in the small stuff lends question to the big stuff.

I think the book would have been much better if a few of these essays had simply not been included and the editors had begun, or enlisted a historian, to provide a historical summary of the roots of Anabaptism.

The book really hits its stride in the next two sections. My favorite essay in the stories from the present was “Seeking the Peace of the Farm Town: Anabaptist Mission and Ministry in the Rural Midwest” by Brian Gumm. There was so much practical insight here for building community in our world today. I plan to return to this essay again.

Along with this, Justin Hiebert’s essay on being available in the community was strong (see the above quote). Samuel Wilcock’s essay was incredibly relevant, both as I saw echoes of his own journey in mine. Also reading it during the latest violence in Gaza was jarring. He writes:

“Could it be that my “Christian nation” was actually making life harder for Christians in other parts of the world by supporting Israel without a call to treat the Arabs inside Israel’s borders or her annexed territories with basic human rights and dignity? The answer was clearly: Yes.“

I think this may be the big point for Anabaptism today – resistance to Christian Nationalism. In a Christian culture of flag waving in church, we need Anabaptists to remind us that national flags have no place in worship for we follow Jesus alone. The resistance to Nationalism ties in with an openness to learning from Christians on the margins, which leads into the third section.

Finally, the third section on the future included two of the best essays. First, Drew Hart’s essay titled “Anablacktivism: FOllowing Jesus the Liberator and Peacemaker in the 21st Century” was prophetic fire. He pulls no punches:

“Those that practice and identify with Anabaptism in the 21st century in America tend to be white, privileged, and undeniably situated in dominant culture. If societies—as living mechanisms, inherently having systems of advantage and disadvantage—manage those that participate in them, then it would seem that American Anabaptists are increasingly not only benefiting from societal advantages, but are blind to them all together.“

Hart argues that nonresistance, one of the hallmarks of Anabaptism, can quickly become complicity, especially in a non-hostile culture where Anabaptists were considered white and therefore acceptable.

He goes on:

“Contemporary Anabaptism that is done without engagement with those on the margins is prone to teach an assimilated and domesticated Christian life. It may result in J. Kameron Carter’s description of a death-dealing Christian discourse, turned away from suffering rather than walking alongside those living in pain in the world. If that is the situation, we might do well to read Contemporary Anabaptist work carefully for blind-spots, gaps, and shortcomings because of their lack of dialogue with Black theologians.”

And


“Therefore, my appeal is that those who desire to find inspiration from the Anabaptist legacy, ought to consider and pursue this by also engaging the Black Church, Black theology, all while joining the struggle against White Supremacy and the systemic racial violence that continues to disproportionately devastate Black life in America.“

I found Hart’s essay the most challenging, because as I said above, I am that comfortable and complicit person who is accepted in culture due to my skin color. I think Hart’s essay remedies that “Anabaptist arrogance” I mentioned above, because it reminds us that we still have a lot to learn. We cannot rest on our past tradition, imagining ourselves as the brave 16th century persecuted Anabaptists, criticizing Constantine from afar while we sit comfortably behind our computers (which I admit, is literally what I am doing right now!).

The other essay in the third section that is one of the best in the book is “Charismatic Anabaptism” by Michael Grenholm, connecting the Anabaptist movement to the Pentecostal movement.

Wrapping up, my life was shaken in my twenties as I learned about and from theologians, pastors and writers in the Anabaptist tradition. My prayer is my life will continue to be shaken as in recent years I have made an effort to learn from theologians, pastors and writers in the Black Church tradition (and other traditions as well).

Perhaps this may be the best thing Anabaptists give us – permission to be disciples of Jesus. My evangelical youth was filled with altar calls and worries about being in or out. Jesus functioned as savior, a get-out-of-jail free card. I learned from the Anabaptists that Jesus, while being savior, is also teacher and lord. The cross is not something to believe in, its a way of life – we are, after all, called to take up our cross and follow.

I am a different disciple than I was 20 years ago, or even ten years ago. I imagine another ten or twenty years follow Jesus will shape me more. I’ve learned from lots of amazing people, past and present, and I hope to continue.

We’re all on different places on the journey. Wherever you are, I believe if you desire to be a disciple of Jesus, this book has something for you. Maybe some of the essays I deem “weaker” will be your favorites! That could be the benefit of uneven books – there’s something for everyone.

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