How did political progressives think they were Anabaptists?

May 15, 2017 by

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Let me tell you the story about how many politically progressive Christians came to think they were Anabaptists. (I’m mainly talking about post-evangelical progressives rather than traditional mainline progressives.)

To recap, I’ve made the argument that many progressive Christians believe they are Anabaptists when, in fact, they are Niebuhrians. This truth was exposed with the election of Donald Trump. The rise of Trump has politically energized progressive Christians in ways that are hard to reconcile with Anabaptist theology and practice. Again, this is no judgment of Anabaptist theology or of all the political activism of progressive Christians. Not at all. This is just a description of the disjoint between political theology and political praxis.

Most progressive Christians want to be politically engaged. Very much so. Especially with Donald Trump in office. But Anabaptist theology doesn’t provide great theological scaffolding for much of that political activism. Thus my advice: Seek out and embrace a political theology that provides better theological support. To my eye, I think that theology is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism.

But that raises a different question. Why did so many progressive Christians come to embrace Anabaptist theology in the first place?

That’s the story I want to tell you.

The story starts in 2003, with George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. Many progressive Christians mobilized against that war. At the time, social media was just exploding. Blogging was in its Golden Age. Twitter would show up in 2006, just in time for the 2007-2008 Presidential campaign where we debated the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, torture and Guantanamo Bay.

As these debates raged on social media, Anabaptist theology, with its criticisms of nationalism and war, became a powerful theological tool in the hands of progressive Christians to level indictments at the Bush administration.

In addition, emergent and post-evangelical expressions of Christianity were going strong. Many disaffected and disillusioned evangelicals were looking around for theological positions that critiqued how evangelicalism had been co-opted by politics. With its strong criticisms of Constantinianism, Anabaptist theology also fit that bill.

And so it was during these years that many progressive Christians, in using Anabaptist theology so effectively to critique the Bush administration and the politicization of evangelicalism, convinced themselves that they were Anabaptists.

But they weren’t Anabaptists, not really.

Why weren’t progressives Anabaptists? Two reasons.

First, there’s more to Anabaptist theology than its peace witness. Anabaptist theology also espouses a robust ecclesiology, the church as the locus of life and political witness. This aspect of Anabaptist theology doesn’t sit well with many progressive Christians, who would rather work as political activists than invest in the daily life of a local church. To be sure, many post-evangelical progressive Christians harbor nostalgia for the local church, memories of hymn sings, youth camps, vacation Bible school and pot luck casseroles. But at the end of the day, progressive Christians tend to think calling Congress, community organizing and marching in protests are the best ways to make the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Second, the robust ecclesiology of Anabaptist thought and practice works with a strong church-vs.-world distinction. This contrast has been famously captured by Stanley Hauerwas: “The first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.” In Anabaptist thought the church is set apart from the world, its goal to be a witness to the Powers by making a stark contrast between the kingdom of God and Babylon.

That negative view of the world has never sat well with progressives, who, being liberals, tend to have a very favorable view of the world, a view which sits behind their very open, inclusive, cosmopolitan, non-judgmental social ethic. Progressives want to embrace the world, they don’t want to create a community that highlights the darkness and depravity of the world. For many post-evangelical progressives, a negative view of the world smacks of the judgmentalism they are fleeing from.

In short: During the Bush years, progressives used parts of Anabaptist theology to great effect. Progressive Christians denounced the evils of war, empire, nationalism and Constantinian Christianity. Progressive Christians were so effective in this critique that they started to think they actually were Anabaptists. But progressive Christians never really were Anabaptists. They were post-evangelicals who became Democrats.

Richard Beck is professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and MortalityRichard’s area of interest — be it research, writing or blogging — is on the interface of Christian theology and psychology, with a particular focus on how existential issues affect Christian belief and practice. He blogs at Experimental Theology, where this post originally appeared.

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  • Craigory Frantz

    For shame. In addition to painting all those who oppose government as unfaithful; in addition to reducing complicated viewpoints to buzzwords; in addition to throwing out terms like ‘progressives’, ‘liberals’, and ‘democrats’ with a tangible hiss, this author fails to make any salient point. The argument seems to be that one cannot be an anabaptist as well as a protestor. What is the basis for this claim? How can the author personally know every anabaptist in the world who chooses to protest against war and injustice?

    “Since it is a fact that Christ combats his enemies with the sword of His mouth, he smites the earth with the rod of His mouth; He slays the wicked with the breath of His lips; and since we are to be conformed into His image, how can we then fight our enemies with any other sword?”
    -Menno Simons

    • Scott R. Troyer

      Yes. This piece also assumes a static interpretation of Anabaptism rather than one that is multifaceted and ever evolving. What does it mean to oppose the world or offer an alternative? Exactly how much of the world should be shunned? Why is protesting or calling city council members, state representatives, or congress not a part of being engaged with the local faith community? Is anabaptism a call to be separatists, or to engage communities and be active peacemakers? These questions have floated through Anabaptist communities for the past 500 years and have never been authoritatively resolved, in part due to the rejection of authoritiarian/centralized leadership that quickly came to define many branches of the movement (indeed, allowed the existence of multiple branches) as early as the first decade of Anabaptism. It is conceivable, however, that data may show a lack of engagement in local church communities among a large segment of this nebulous group of “progressive Christians” claiming Anabaptism. Such data is missing from this piece, however–granted it is a blog and not a scholarly article, but I can’t help thinking that citing data to support ambiguous and ultimately meaningless descriptions like “many” and “most” would have been far more effective than, say, a short Hauerwas quote.

  • Berry Friesen

    Scott is surely right when he says Anabaptism is “multifaceted and ever evolving.” And he’s right to suggest that reconciling a church-centered strategy of engagement with the imperative of witness to government (see Ephesians 3) has long been difficult for us Mennonites.

    Still, it’s possible to evolve out of an Anabaptist perspective and into a Niebuhrian one. Given the casualness with which congregations and conferences place themselves at variance with broader church teaching, a think a strong argument can be made that parts of MCUSA are doing just that.

    I hope we Mennonites will not flatter ourselves by imagining we speak for Anabaptism, which includes many who have never been associated with anything Mennonite. The Anabaptist strategy of engagement with the world is distinctive and in simplified terms, I think Beck has described it well. When we place huge importance on President Trump, we betray this Anabaptist tradition (though we can still be MennoniteS, of course).

    • Scott R. Troyer

      I would like to respond to the use of “casual” to describe churches and congregations “at variance,” There is hardly anything casual about the process through which congregations and conferences make decisions about their relationship to “broader” church teaching; such decisions have been seriously and prayerfully considered, and have not been taken lightly, just as I assume that all congregations and conferences have seriously scrutinized that which was written down as official church teaching rather than adopting it wholesale simply because someone in a position of denominational power told them to, and that congregations and conferences who have left the denomination have done the same, rather than casually deciding that they could no longer continue to dialogue with communities that have different understandings.
      Secondly, I was attempting to suggest that in its state of fluidity and evolution, Anabaptism does not have an eternally fixed theological definition, and part of that implies that characteristics of Anabaptism are not mutually exclusive with characteristics of other other ways of understanding what it means to be a Christian. The artificial boundary that places political engagement outside the sphere of Anabaptism is just that: artificial, constructed for the sole purpose of theoretically organizing theological positions rather than necessarily accounting for practice. It leans towards the prescriptive rather than the descriptive.
      I also fear that Mennonites or Christians more broadly denying the importance of world leaders weaken their witness to the world, because it is hard to deny the impact that such people have on our lives and of the lives of our neighbors.

      • Berry Friesen

        You are right, Scott; I should not have used the word “casual.”

        My point is that a church that is strongly Anabaptist in orientation would not have acted as MCUSA’s members have acted over the past four years. If the church were still at the center of our understanding of YHWH’s saving work in the world, then district conferences would not have broken covenant with one another over the Membership Guidelines, would not have walked away from the denomination, would not have persisted in violating church teaching even after that teaching was reaffirmed by the delegates in 2015.

        I don’t know what word to use for the attitude these actions reveal. It has been emotionally wrenching, that’s true. Yet these actions also signal a shift in worldview to an understanding that YHWH is at work everywhere in equal measure, and certainly through the powers that be (cultural, political, economic). Thus, though our splits are regrettable, the saving work of YHWH goes on without pause, right? Because the church is just one player among many, and not a key player in any event.

  • Malinda Elizabeth Berry

    I would find it really useful for the bio blurbs about authors and blog contributors to include the writer’s connection to “Mennonites and the global Anabaptist tradition.” While the surname “Beck” may be associated with our faith tradition, I’d like a bit more to go on to understand from whence cometh Richard Beck’s broad and bold statements about Anabaptists and our political theology?

  • Caren Swanson

    I’m not sure how you are defining “progressives” or who you know that identifies as such. I’ve been a Mennonite for a decade now, absolutely drawn by the church’s peace witness, and none of the progressive congregations I’ve been a part of have elevated the roll of political engagement above that of fidelity to the local church. On the contrary, every single “progressive” Mennonite I know comes to their political activism out of their local congregation’s commitment to speaking up on behalf of the “least of these.” It is my marginalized brothers and sisters in my neighborhood and next to me in the pews that compel me to speak against Donald Trump as a middle class white lady with much less to lose. You posit an artificial straw man to make your point that I as a progressive Anabaptist have never encountered in reality. I’m not suggesting that those you have described don’t exist or that you haven’t encountered such people, but I personally find your dismissal of my Anabaptist theological understanding to be condescending and exclusionary.

  • Paul D. Meiss

    This guy just came out of nowhere and signed on to Anabaptist activism 3-years into the Bush era without making the church the locus of his life and political witness. OK. #ripart

  • Evan Knappenberger

    This brings up a whole slew of ethical arguments beginning in antiquity involving proximate goods and pedagogical processes: for example, can there be no tangible spiritual Anabaptist benefit from standing up to the pending fascism of Trumpian politics? Is not a step in the direction of truth for anyone fundamentally a spiritual excercise? (Even if it looks Niebuhrian from the moral highground?) What a miracle it would be if conservatives would stop trying to purify everyone and everything, and actually trust in God’s freedom to act in the world!

    evan knappenberger

    • Berry Friesen

      Evan, we could frame the matter as having to do with ethics; Jesus did that at times (Mark 3:4). And yes, we would benefit by framing this as a matter of “God’s freedom to act in the world.” Still, wouldn’t we need to say that in the Anabaptist understanding, the “body of Christ” is the primary vehicle by which the saving “faithful witness” of Jesus is sustained over time? And that without a faithful church, the world remains clueless about its need for salvation?

  • Aaron Yoder

    Well stated Richard! You summarized the “progressive” Christian movement well by stating that they “tend to think calling Congress, community organizing and marching in protests are the best ways to make the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” I love the passion of those in this movement. However, they tend to falsely believe in the inherent goodness of people – apart from a relationship with God. Jesus, the Apostle Paul and King David all disagree. On our own, humans (including myself) are unrighteous, self-serving and condemned with ‘venom’ under our tongues and pave paths of ruin and misery (see John 3, Romans 3 and Psalm 14). The injustices that we deplore, like racism, slavery, abuse, neglect, abortion (name your cause) all stem from the deplorable human heart and will continue, whether legally or illegally, until individual hearts find forgiveness, healing and freedom through a relationship with Jesus. If my “progressive” Anabaptist brothers and sisters would direct their passion towards relentless, Spirit-led disciple-making, the trends in our culture would change…from the grassroots up. But that’s not just Anabaptist theology. That is the mission of The Church (Matt 28:19-20, Luke 24:47-48, Acts 1:8).

    • Craig Anderson

      Aaron, Usually I find your posts very reasonable and insightful even if I disagree. In this one however (in striking contrast to the three immediately above it on my screen), you exclaim as well-stated the author’s description of “the ‘progressive’ Xn movement.” But don’t we, your sisters and brothers in Christ as well as your interlocutors in substantial disagreement, deserve your charity and the benefit of your doubt? Shouldn’t you (and Richard Beck) allow us so-called progressives to define and explain ourselves? But you have accepted as “well stated” (and with an exclamation mark!) a patronizing, uncharitable and inaccurate description of a group you do not belong to nor (it now seems to me) understand very well. I am very disappointed in your lack of charity. Especially because–based on the many other things you write–I expect much more. What is your rxn to the posts above yours? I do think Beck makes some valid points that should cause some of us to examine our beliefs, motives and actions. It is just his and your “othering” of us that disappoints me.

      • Berry Friesen

        Not to interrupt, Craig, in your so-gentle post, you have used the pejorative “othering” when “disagreeing” would have been more clear and descriptive. Can you explain the difference between your use of the word “othering” and the passive-aggressive speech pattern all too common among Mennonites?

        • Craig Anderson

          Thanks, Berry. I presume your use of “so-gentle” is sarcasm. Touché. I acknowledge that my use of “othering” is indeed meant to accuse. I also acknowledge that I used it in a pejorative sense. Does it have any other?
          I clearly (and I thought, openly) do not think othering is a good thing and I am here accusing (the otherwise generally very loving and reasonable {IMO}) Aaron Yoder of doing it. Isn’t it okay to call out someone when one senses that? Or are you calling me out for doing that in a passive aggressive way? That really was not my intent. Perhaps I have been a Menno too long, though Swedish American Pietists from Minnesota can be pretty natural passive aggressors too. Personally I was hesitant to use the term “othering” because of its trendiness, not because it is pejorative. Sorry for my late response. I am off serving the Lord in faraway lands. :-) Please do respond.

          • Berry Friesen

            Craig, as I perceive it, there is a growing tendency in progressive circles to subjectivize disagreements and thereby heighten the stakes. This tendency is having a very detrimental impact on our society as discussion of controversial topics quickly polarizes and becomes highly charged. Thus, more and more of us live in self-validating “bubbles” where the moral superiority of our respective positions is self-evident.

            I thought your use of the word “othering” reflected this tendency. It serves to shut down the discussion because it attributes to the analyzer bad motives (e.g., exclusion, prejudice, dehumanization).

            Richard Beck is a self-identified progressive Christian professor, blogger and author. In his essay, he critiques his own “tribe.” Aaron Yoder speaks more from the traditional perspective, yet finds Beck’s critique insightful.

            So this is a promising beginning to authentic conversation. It’s counter-productive to shut-it down just because it cuts close to the bone for some of us who tend to bat from the left side of the plate.

          • Craig Anderson

            Thanks, Berry. Say more please about subjectivizing. I may agree but am not sure I understand. I realize that In A SENSE Beck was critiquing a group he has close affinity to. I appreciate his writing. I, too, wrote that much of what he wrote in this piece was helpful. I still thought that Beck was very inaccurate in his analysis and attribution of motives to the neo-anabaptists he was critiquing. Note the comments from same. I was and am more upset by Aaron’s enthusiastic affirmation of the post, not because it hits close to home (I explicitly acknowledged that.) but because for Aaron it is not self-critique but affirming (enthusiastically) an inaccurate portrayal of his opponents.

          • Berry Friesen

            Craig, in recent years we have this emphasis in various settings on “safe spaces” where ideas or positions that “trigger” strongly negative subjective reactions are forbidden. I don’t mean to suggest all instances of “safe spaces” are inappropriate, but many are because they quench dialogue and privilege the reactions of certain parties to the discussion.

            One of the most startling examples (for me) is the characterization of MCUSA’s historic teaching in support of male-female marriage as a form of violence against gay and lesbian persons. It will be interesting to see how this is handled in the table group discussions at the upcoming Future Church Summit MCUSA is sponsoring in Orlando.

            You provided another example when you characterized Beck’s analytical distinction as “othering” politically engaged Christians. All he said to progressive Christians is “Hey, we are not being consistently Anabaptist here.” There may be rhetorical advantages to characterize such words as a personal attack or social threat, but far better is to hear them as simply a call to consistency.

  • Rainer Moeller

    I support Richard Beck in two points.
    First, he doesn’t speak about progressives or liberals within the Mennonite community, but about people who came from different or secular backgrounds and embraced “Anabaptism” enthusiastically without really understanding Anabaptism nor knowing their own mind.
    Secondly , he’s quite right to stress the difference between political activism and separatism (or, as I prefer to say, “withdrawalism”); they are two ways of living which are completely incompatible, and everyone has to make his choice here. Personally, I’m all for separatism: it’s a rare and sweet fruit which may disappear from the world if it disappears from the Mennonites.

  • Connie Shelley

    Mr. Beck, you paint with a very broad brush. I work for justice because I believe that to be the call of Christians. My commitment to my local community is deep and strong; my commitment to MCUSA is deep and strong; Anabaptism is in my veins and has been for 72 years. My daily practice is reading scripture, meditating and journaling, so my commitment as an Anabaptist is not a commitment to the tradition but to the Christ of the tradition. If I am a Jesus centered Anabaptist, how can I not be engaged with the world; how can I not be in proximity with those who have been pushed to the margins by society; how can I not weep over wars, racism, executions? The Good News is that the Kingdom of God is here and it is my responsibility to help it spread.

  • Harvey Yoder

    How does Menno fit into this picture, when he writes, “Love compels us to respectfully and humbly show all high officials what the Word of God commands them, how they should rightfully execute their office to the glory and praise of God… to punish the transgressors and protect the good; to judge rightly between a man and his fellows; to do justice to the widows and orphans and to the poor, to rule cities and countries justly by a good policy and administration, not contrary to God’s Word but to the benefit of the common people.”

    • Aaron Yoder

      The main difference is that Menno’s “high officials” were still joined to the church in some capacity. Even if they did not have a relationship with Jesus, they likely knew what the Bible taught in regards their job description. Since church and state were joined, he was appealing first for the church to be the church. We don’t live in such a context. “High officials” are expected uphold the Constitution, not the Scripture. Menno’s words, although correct, would fall on deaf ears for those who don’t know what God’s Words or have any desire in their spirit to submit to it.

      • Harvey Yoder

        Try telling that to a politician like Mike Pence, just one of many today who profess to actually have a relationship with Jesus, know what the Bible teaches about their job descriptions, and see a very blurred line between church and state.