Last week, the Mennonite World Review blog was hopping. Not only did they feature a highly popular discussion on church, but they hosted a conversation about the term “ethnic Mennonite” and Mennonite exclusivity. In one of the posts that started the conversation, Robert Martin and Chris Lenshyn reflected on the question, “Mennonites or Ethnocites?” Lenshyn writes,
Mennonite Anabaptist practice which facilitates a deep radicalism tends to come face-to-face with the ‘way things have been done before’ of ethnicity. It appears that to be an ‘ethnonite’ is to carry an unrelenting commitment to a past that is not informing the present. Rather, it is a past that is losing its grip on the present by carrying on with what Mark Van Steenwyk [in another article by Tim Nafziger] calls, ‘cultural hang-ups…It’s tragic really, to think that in some circles, to not be Mennonite by ethnicity is to be slighted in community. For Mennonites to grow in this particular time and place is to invite all people, no matter what ethnicity, to participate in the practice of Mennonite Anabaptist theology.
This trope is certainly one that has been popular in Mennonite circles over the course of the past few years. Mennonites must take seriously the critique that we have developed ethnic enclaves which have made newcomers to Anabaptist feel unwelcome. That we’ve developed “in group” conversations and knowledge that grow out of a particular ethnic group history. As a denomination with overcoming anti-racism as one of its core institutional priorities and missional as one of the most popular, if ambiguous, “buzz words”, we can’t NOT take these critiques and conversations seriously.
However, there also seems to be an undercurrent within these conversations that what it will take to really achieve good welcome and Anabaptist inclusivity is some sort of “theological nakedness,” or a theology that has been stripped bare of any cultural trappings. These arguments can be seen in many places, but for the sake of this blog, I’ll just highlight a few. Former Trinity Mennonite Church pastor, now a leader at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., Shane Hipps has pointed to culture as the primary barrier to inviting people to take up Anabaptist theology. At a 2008 conference Hipps used the metaphor of a pristine lake to describe Anabaptist beliefs, but noted that the lake was being choked by the weeds of traditional culture. He said, “Your ‘weeds’ are born of the fact that you’ve married your faith and your culture. Parts of your culture have nothing to do with Anabaptism and Jesus.” Another popular proponent of Anabaptist culture, Greg Boyd, offers comments in a similar vein. Boyd says, “Be as scandalously flexible with the cultural non-essentials as you are inflexible with kingdom essentials.” He has urged Mennonites to do away with as many cultural trappings as possible, leaving them free to offer their real “treasure”: a distinct theology and ecclesiology.
This perhaps finds its most clear expression in the popular book, The Naked Anabaptist. Here Stuart Murray suggests that it is important for Anabaptists to be vulnerable – hence the nakedness – (a claim I certainly agree with), and notes that Anabaptist theology will always, in fact, be “clothed in particular cultures.” In short, as my husband Justin Heinzekehr writes, Anabaptism can’t get completely naked even if it tries. However, Murray goes on to identify what he considers “seven core convictions” which get at the “essence of Anabaptism” and are an attempt to “strip back the historical and cultural accretions” that have piled onto Anabaptism. These core convictions include: Jesus as primary example and teacher; Jesus as the focal point of God’s revelation; a rejection of Christendom and its assumptions; a commitment to being communities of disciples; and a sense that peace is at the heart of the gospel message. In a similar vein, author Palmer Becker has tried to distill Anabaptism down to three primary foci in the booklet, What is an Anabaptist Christian. Becker suggests that to be an Anabaptist means to believe that, “(1) Jesus is the center of our faith; (2) community is the center of our lives; and (3) reconciliation is the center of our work.”
These lists are helpful, and there is much that I find to agree with and believe in, too. It is worth noting, however, that the majority of these formulations (and the critiques listed here) have been put forward by white males who have been drawn to Anabaptism. They each bring a unique perspective and cultural lens to bear when they study what it means to be an Anabaptist and a Mennonite. How would these lists of convictions look different if they had been developed by a woman? Or by first-generation immigrants living in Los Angeles? Because that’s the thing, as Murray noted, theology, and even our interpretation of history, can never be completely free from our cultural belonging. And in fact, it is, in some ways, a political act to develop these lists of core beliefs (not that our communities should not still struggle to do so together), and to determine what stays and what is not listed.
It’s not that I’m not on board with the project that Boyd, Hipps and Murray are suggesting: I certainly want us to find ways to be radically welcoming, and I have been challenged by my friends and fellow Mennonites in Los Angeles to broaden my picture of what it means to be Mennonite. I also realize that, as someone who could herself bear the label of an “ethnic Mennonite,” it might get dicey for me to be engaging these conversations. But I’d like to suggest that when we point to finding one shared set of theological assumptions, free from any cultural trappings, as the way to move beyond exclusivism, we are setting ourselves up for failure.
I believe, that theology is inherently wedded to particular cultural constructions, and we should not desire that it not be. It is a beautiful thing to visit a Nigerian congregation and to hear from the leadership that they have been drawn to Anabaptism because of its emphasis on the Holy Spirit and its compatibility with Pentecostalism. This is not something that I would have naturally thought of, but their new reading of Anabaptism has opened this fresh perspective. It is thought-provoking to visit Mennonite congregations who have very different conceptions of leadership than I do, and for whom a flat, non-hierarchical ecclesiology would not work, but who value the message of Jesus and the peace story.
Rather than trying to distill our theology down to some clear cut set of core theological assumptions, or even a set of core practices, I believe that we need to come to peace living with a multiplicity of understandings of what it means to be a Mennonite and an Anabaptist. And we who come from Swiss-German or Dutch traditions, and have borne the label “ethnic Mennonite,” need to let go of some of the power that we have wielded to define who and what an Anabaptist (and an Anabaptist church or community) looks like. If we want to be welcoming, we will need to understand the ways our own theological assumptions have been shaped by our culture, and own that.
Four-part hymn singing, baked goods and relief sales, potlucks and peace activism have been key mechanisms that have shaped my theology: they are not just empty cultural trappings that can be discarded. But I do need make space for other cultural expressions of faith and Anabaptism to enter into my community, congregation, denomination, etc., and I need to celebrate their inbreaking. And I need to be prepared to radically welcome the next person who walks through my “church doors,” figuratively or literally, even if it means that church as I know it will change.