Opinion: It’s good to be nobody

Beyond the spiritual rat race — striving to be an activist, united and relevant church — lies the promise of a marginal community

Jun 8, 2015 by

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Amos Hershey Leaman was the first Mennonite at Chicago Theological Seminary. He graduated in 1915, smitten by the vision of good, white Protestants. They taught immigrants, went into cities, spoke out on politics. Their worship sounded relevant. They flattered Leaman, telling him that his Mennonite tribe had much to offer — if only it would be less, well, tribal. Irrelevant.

Leaman urged his tribe to be “united into one large body,” more vocal, more effective. Mennonite activist pioneer M.S. Steiner agreed: “One united band of preachers” was needed.

Good Christians — revivalist evangelicals, social-gospel liberals, or both — had to shape the world. This busyness necessitated and created unity. To be quietist was to be silent, irrelevant, dead. But these busy Christians would use their privilege. They would shape the future. They would not be silent.

Sound familiar yet? It would if you sang “How Can We Be Silent,” No. 61 in the hymnal supplement Sing the Journey.

That century-old grail is as holy as ever. Today, “missional,” liberal and evangelical Mennonites all seek it. A Mennonite Church USA Executive Board resolution encourages delegates to this summer’s convention to get over the “matters that divide us and to focus attention on the missional vision that unites us.” The busier we get, the better we will fix the world and the less we will worry about our own brokenness, boundaries and baggage.

Today’s Mennonite north stars are just as privileged as Leaman’s white Protestantism but more numerous. There is the fiction of an Anabaptist essence without the tribal baggage. There is church-management literature and the amorphous “missional” vernacular. There is the restless cycle of new causes for justice, celebrity activism or evangelical “revival.”

We think of these impulses as playing on a progressive-versus-evangelical divide, but their posture is fundamentally the same: the pressure to use religious and cultural privilege to lecture the world, along with the wish to never be tribal and broken again.

Many find it virtually impossible to imagine a life-giving Anabaptist spirituality without stressing activism and unity. Mainstream Mennonites now mostly function like the culturally white Protestants Leaman once admired — neither tribal nor marginal. Other Christians, we hope, will see us as active, opinionated — and pretty impressive.

Accordingly, the upcoming MC USA convention in Kansas City is often presented as an opportunity to focus on all the great things that can happen if we remain united. Particularism, introspection, loose ends? Not us. We’re busy fixing the world.

Averse to know-it-alls

As Mennonites have become my people over the last few years, I’ve developed a hunch that we’re blessed with a very different kind of opportunity. Our fragmentation brings the chance that we will go, as another early-20th-century restless Mennonite feared, back to “being nobody” — lacking influential strength through unity.

That might not be a bad thing.

Becoming “nobody” might be precisely the most life-giving, liberating spiritual posture that privileged folks with a penchant for world-bettering can offer.

Unity has value, but a freshly broken, newly humbled church might be a much safer space for the broken members of our own body. Those not on the winning side of history or politics. Those whose Sunday worship doesn’t match the glamorous “relevance” of convention. Those whose identity has been labeled an “issue” in the way of unity.

There are ways in which a missional vision can function as a denominational echo chamber. Instead of appearing relevant, we turn off a culture shaped by complexity, fragmentation and a deep aversion to know-it-alls. Instead of being authentically and wisely provincial, we become annoyingly imperial. Instead of becoming nobody to others, we want to become the norm for others.

There are signs of hope. The re-evaluation of theologian John Howard Yoder’s life and work has triggered a critical look at our craving for celebrities the world listens to. Mainline Mennonites are realizing their brand of Anabaptism won’t be the dominant North American paradigm for much longer. Old Order groups, long maligned as irrelevant, are quickly outnumbering us.

Don’t waste the moment

But there is a risk we will waste the moment. At the convention two years ago in Phoe­nix, we marched through the city to let our not-so-little light shine. In Kansas City, feeling threatened by, more than called to, the fragmentation, pain and confusion among us, we will kick into good-hearted overdrive again. A buffet of seminars awaits on how to do and speak out about things. We will lecture Israel. We will tell the world how to conduct its military affairs. We will congratulate ourselves on being together, virtuous, vocal and responsible.

Are there still unique resources of “fringiness” beneath this spiritual rat race? Do we have the courage to decline to use our cultural privilege as well-organized, well-educated, well-meaning Christians? The audacity to make the drumbeat of “we will shape the future” sound a little bit more uncomfortable to our ears? The peace to live with the tribalism and fragmentation that are already all around us?

Philipp Gollner is Ph.D. candidate in religious history at the University of Notre Dame and a fellow at the Louisville Institute. He is a member at Kern Road Mennonite Church in South Bend, Ind., and can be reached at philippgollner.com.


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