Anabaptists and American syncretism

Apr 7, 2016 by

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There is, among many Christians, a general fear of this concept of “syncretism,” and in many cases, they would be right. The adoption of pagan and other religious practices into Christian religious practices without proper discernment of the spiritual implications is certainly something to be concerned about. For example, santeria in the Caribbean is something certainly to be concerned about. But what I don’t think we realize is that we American Christians are just as guilty of this practice of syncretism as the Caribbean descendants of West Africans.

I had the privilege recently to spend an hour and a bit in conversation with a wonderful West African minister in Ghana by the name of Edem Morny. You can watch our conversation here, and we covered a lot of ground. Truthfully, I was greatly pleased to learn a lot of great stuff during our conversation about Mennonite church missionary history in West Africa, how the West African Christian history has played out, and how Anabaptism fits into that context.

Toward the end of our conversation, Edem spent some time expressing the challenging situation where West African tribal religions are becoming a part of the Christian practice in Ghana. Specifically, people who call themselves Christians and generally do all the proper Christian stuff on Sunday morning, the very next day are seen at fetish priests attempting to receive a divination of their destiny and their future plans. Sacrifices are made, rituals are performed… and the very next Sunday those people are back in church, praising Jesus and worshipping as any “normal” Christian would.

We here in the west like to shake our heads and say, effectively, “There but by the grace of God go I… Lord, thank you that I’m not like one of these West Africans.” And then we go to our church with our American flag just behind the pulpit, use the teaching time of the morning to praise or lambaste political candidates and policies, give honor to “God and Country” and basically place the USA on the pedestal of the inheritor of the status of God’s chosen people.

Oh? Think we Anabaptists/Mennonites are any better? Not so fast, because…

We go to our houses and strategize with financial advisors and investment companies to determine how best for us to get that financial security that is the American dream. We buy the latest electronic gizmos as soon as they come out, even going so far as to either pre-order them so we get them before everyone else or we stand in line for days so we can make sure we get exactly what we want. Our children must not only go to college but must make sure that whatever major they aim for will get them that golden ticket to the good life once they graduate. Heck, even we Anabaptists and Mennonites go out and campaign for politicians and political parties, putting our faith in the next great leader to make this country into a nation that will please God and be that city on a hill to light the world.

Now, truthfully, this is painting with a broad brush, and not everyone in these categories is like that. But it’s there. It’s insidiously worming its way into our Christian practices, this American ideal. And it is just as much a practice of idolatry and divination as that Ghanian person seeking out the fetish priest. We’re looking to sources outside of Jesus for our inspiration, for our leadership, for our example of life practice. We do this 6.5 days a week and then we go back to our little church and pretend like we’re just good Christians.

Oh, and guess what… I’m guilty as charged. It really is a hard thing to see, and it sneaks up on you. And once it has you, it’s very hard to get free of it. We’re not better than the West Ghanians, nor are we better than the practitioners of santeria. The names are different and the specifics are different, but it is all the same — we’re guilty of taking the path of Jesus and bringing in other things to somehow make it fit into our society.

This is nothing new. Paul fought against a group of folks called the Gnostics in his day, people who infected Christianity with a Greek philosophical mindset that preached that the material world meant nothing and only the spiritual world was truly holy. For 2,000 years, Christianity has fought the same fight, to preach the narrow way of Christ amid the constant pressures to allow the ways of the culture around us to lead us differently.

So… What do we do? Well, since I’m just as guilty as the next person, I really don’t have much authority to tell folks what to do with their lives. If I did so, I’d be a hypocrite. All I can do is suggest that we American Christians need to take a step back from what we’re doing that we consider “normal life,” head into the accounts of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and really examine our lives in the light of those stories and ask ourselves, honestly, “Are we following the genuine Jesus down the narrow road? Or are we taking the broad path?” And then pray, fervently, for God’s Spirit to come into our lives and show us what we need to change.

Robert Martin blogs thoughts, reflections and stories regarding theology and the Christian walk at Abnormal Anabaptist, where this post originally appeared.


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