Showalter: Anabaptist without knowing it

Sep 16, 2019 by

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China and the United States are in a trade war. Yet the real issues at stake are bigger than trade. We might describe it as competing globalizations. (Though globalization does not imply competition, we might be getting there.)

Richard Showalter


I saw this vividly in a conversation with a few of the most experienced, perceptive Anabaptists from the U.S. who know China intimately. Some have lived in China for more than 20 years. Others travel there frequently.

The conversation began with a free-flowing analysis of the nationalism that is increasing around the globe.

“It’s everywhere,” I said. “The United States, Europe, Turkey, India, China — you can almost choose your country.”

“Yes, but there’s a xenophobia which seems especially native to China,” ventured someone. “China has a focus on itself as the center of the world that has persisted for millennia. There’s a reason the Chinese call themselves the Middle Kingdom.”

It was clear to all of us that contemporary China not only aspires to global power but also already has huge influence on every continent. If modern globalization has been intrinsically Western, it is not unimaginable that Chinese civilization could eventually replace it with a new China-based global order.

The Chinese people themselves, whether xenophobic or not, certainly imagine it. Just as civilizations come and go, so might globalizations. “We might be next in line,” say many Chinese.

“On xenophobia, let’s face it,” said the director of an exchange program. “I grew up as an Amish lad. We had just two categories for all the people in the world. One was ‘us’ and the other was ‘them.’ You were either Plain or you were an outsider. If you were an outsider, you belonged to the single important category of ‘other.’ We didn’t distinguish much among the ‘other.’ ”

“Yeah, the Mennonite world I grew up in was pretty much the same,” I said. “And furthermore, most of the people I meet around the world grew up with some similar ‘us/them’ mentality. My tribe, my nation, my people, my family, my civilization — over against all the others. We give that up only gradually.

“What about the totalitarianism of medieval and Reformation Europe? Is there any essential difference between that and today’s China? Remember what our Anabaptist ancestors suffered.”

“There might be a difference,” said a theologian. “Does not the Judeo-Christian faith contain a unique, in-built corrective to all ‘us/ them’ pretensions, which undergird Western culture but not Chinese Confucianism?”

“Yet Judeo-Christian faith was no more ‘native’ to European tribal religion than it is to Han Chinese Confucianism today,” I said.

Remarkably, a Chinese house church leader recently said, “Back in 2009 our fellowship groups came up with four basic principles: following Jesus as our center, keeping ourselves separate from politics, helping people grow spiritually in a healthy way and contributing to society.

“As we began to read about what Anabaptist groups believe, it was nothing really new for us. We are Anabaptist. We just didn’t know it until recently.”

This comes from the heart of the amazing Chinese church.

“We are . . . but we didn’t know it.” I’ve heard that line from diverse Christian communities all over the world. First in Kenya, then in Turkey, then Vietnam and almost everywhere I go, including North America.

Not that there’s anything special about the “Anabaptist” or “Mennonite” names except that 16th-century Anabaptism was a viral and powerful form of New Testament Christianity. Many other names have been given to radical disciples of Jesus. Already in the 1970s a prominent Mennonite theologian named Chinese Christianity as one of the best examples of contemporary “Anabaptism” — though of course Chinese Christians didn’t know that name.

Let’s not quibble over names and traditions. Jesus is Lord. To know him is to both believe and follow him in life — all of life.

And globalization? Whether it stays primarily Western or turns Eastern, no matter. The real global project belongs to Jesus.

Richard Showalter, of Irwin, Ohio, travels as an overseer, mentor, consultant and teacher in the U.S. and global church and is adjunct faculty at Bethany International University in Singapore.

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