A critique of Mennonite fanaticism

Sep 26, 2014 by

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If we only listen to the voices of those in positions of power, perhaps we have learned nothing from Christendom.

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Missio Alliance Gathering Sept. 19-20 in Carlisle, Pa. The theme for the weekend was “Church and Post-Christian Culture: Christian Witness in the Way of Jesus,” which focused on the Anabaptist tradition and its potential in the 21st-century church.

I had been anticipating this gathering for some time: who among us Anabaptists wouldn’t? The speakers included some of the most influential and prominent pastors in Anabaptist and neo-Anabaptist circles.

Friday morning I gathered with approximately 400 like-minded individuals to hear from people like Greg Boyd, Bruxy Cavey and Brian Zahnd. It was great to hear these gifted speakers share their journey to Anabaptism. If there is something that we Mennonites like, it is people from other faith traditions who are drawn to Anabaptist theology. We repeatedly heard why traditional Anabaptists need to be embracing their identity as such in a world that is rapidly moving away from a Christendom model where church and state are fused.

I found myself swept up in the excitement of the day, taking pictures of these celebrity pastors and posting them to Facebook. I received a large number of “likes” and comments on these pictures, hearing things like “Mennonites get to have all the fun.”

I was at home with my tribe. But something just didn’t feel right.

I have nothing but respect for the men mentioned above, and I greatly appreciate the work of Missio Alliance to bring together an assorted group of presenters. Sure, the diversity of the presenters was less than ideal, but I was glad to see that an effort had been made to include non-white and female speakers. My critique is not of the lecturers or organizers of the event. My critique is for those of us who call ourselves Anabaptists and yet so quickly fall into the trappings of the broader society.

The celebrity pastors that presented were surely what drew so many to this conference. I know that is why I attended. But as we were reminded in a breakout session with Drew Hart, Anabaptist theology has traditionally been done “from the margins.”

There is something quite problematic with gathering together to hear a celebrity pastor praise Anabaptism in the main sanctuary to 400 people only to be reminded moments later in a Sunday school room of our humble tradition as a peculiar people.

My early unsettled feelings were only made worse as the weekend progressed. Attendance dropped sharply as the presenters’ names became less well known. Without a doubt, this is something to lament. As the conference came to an end, by my estimate, only half of those who hours earlier had packed into the auditorium remained. What they missed was perhaps one of the most powerful messages of the entire weekend. Cherith Fee-Nordling took on the role of the prophet as she presented not only her affirmations for Anabaptism but also a series of helpful critiques.

As much as I loved hearing from the celebrity pastors, I soon realized that I was not being exposed to anything I hadn’t heard before. It was wonderful to simply be in the presence of highly educated and articulate individuals putting into words the feelings that I have been experiencing for so long. And indeed, they provided a fresh perspective and stories that will help to spread not only Anabaptism but also the kingdom of God. But it was those who spoke from the margins, the non-white, non-male voices and bodies that caused me to want to dig deeper and consider more thoroughly this movement and its future in the years to come.

If we only listen to the voices of those in positions of power, perhaps we have learned nothing from Christendom.

I’m just sorry that so many left before they had the chance to hear.

Kevin Gasser is the minister of Staunton (Va.) Mennonite church.

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