Becoming an Anablacktivist

May 12, 2014 by

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Traveling through Philadelphia last year, I met Drew Hart. He’s a Ph.D. student at Lutheran Theological Seminary, a part-time pastor and professor, and a prophetic voice in Anabaptist circles. What follows is an interview about his research and the Anabaptist movement today.

Shenk

Shenk

You sometimes refer to yourself as an Anablacktivist. Can you unpack that a bit?

An online friend coined the term for me. I immediately loved it and began using it.

There are three components to Anablacktivism. It’s one part Anabaptism, one part blackness (in the theological sense), and one part activism.
It’s all about defining the Christian life through discipleship and living in solidarity with oppressed people as they struggle for liberation. The word itself represents the hybrid nature of two theological streams and traditions but also insists that we live it.

Your Ph.D. studies are bringing together Black liberation theology and Anabaptist theology. How did you decide to pursue this focus? Have other scholars looked at this intersection?

My current research and writing flow out of my life experiences, questions and, most important, my Christian formation from different communities and traditions.

I was raised in a predominately African-American church and was introduced to Anabaptism briefly at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Then I was on the pastoral team of an urban, multiracial Brethren In Christ community for four years. Out of that experience I began to realize the connections between two traditions that initially seemed irreducibly different.

When I began wrestling with the significance of the two theological streams, I wasn’t aware of anyone who had written on the topic. However, that changed when I found Black and Mennonite by Hubert Brown. I can’t overstate how excited I was to read it. Sometimes I carry it with me to remember that I am joining a pre-existing conversation.

Since then I’ve come across other sources. Most are short essays or passing comments in a larger work. And there are two pieces worth mentioning.

First, there’s a chapter written by Nekeisha Alexis-Baker that challenged and stretched John Howard Yoder’s theology through conversation with womanist theologians. It is just one chapter, but it is brilliant work. It points to the blind spots that surface in a dialogue between black/ womanist theology and Anabaptism.

Second, I found a piece by J. Denny Weaver, where he compared James Cone’s and John Howard Yoder’s theological approaches. Weaver pointed to significant common ground between them and mentioned departures. Cone and Yoder were my introductions into academic conversations in Black theology and Anabaptism, so Weaver’s insights were interesting.
My hope is to create more interest, dialogue and sharing of gifts and historical memories between the Black Church and Anabaptist communities.

There is growing interest in Anabaptist history and theology among evangelicals and other Christians in the United States and beyond. What wisdom do you have to share with Mennonites about how we respond?

This trend demonstrates the significance of Anabaptism, which Mennonites don’t always recognize. It’s no surprise to see the interest because many evangelicals have become skeptical of their own traditions.

They see Anabaptism as a faithful alternative as people wrestle with post-Christendom shifts. And many popular evangelical leaders have “come out” as Anabaptist.

While this is certainly worth celebrating, my word of advice is: Don’t get hypnotized by evangelical celebrity culture as you engage with these neo-Anabaptists.

As an African-American, I believe it is clear that the Mennonite church wrestles with social realities like racism and oppression much more than these evangelical Anabaptist groups. There are historical lessons of experimenting with Anabaptism that Mennonites can look back on, that many evangelicals haven’t considered.

Mennonites ought not see themselves as merely pupils to the new kids in town but as a community with a rich and meaningful living history that can be shared as a gift.

Joanna Shenk is on the national staff of Mennonite Church USA and lives in Elkhart, Ind.


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