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Mister Rogers’ example

By on Dec 3, 2018 in Andres: In the Open Space, Columns, Latest Issue | 0 comments

Captivating might not be the first word to come to mind regarding a documentary about Fred Rogers — creator and host of the long-running children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — but Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is just that.

Carmen Andres

Andres

And more. For me, those 93 minutes were like a year of good therapy, a thick blanket of love and an inspiring testimony reflecting the reason we are here all wrapped in one.

The documentary opens with black-and-white footage of a young, soft-spoken Rogers — who would go on to become an ordained Presbyterian minister — enthralled by the potential of television as a tool to help children through difficulty. It feels like he is ahead of his time, sensing the power of the medium and how we are profoundly affected by (even becoming) what we see and hear from the small screen.

Equipped with an educated understanding of child development and genuine care for children, Rogers started on a journey that resulted in the creation of his Neighborhood, a place where he hoped children would feel safe even when worried or scared. He scripted shows to help children deal with topics rarely addressed in children’s programing, including death, divorce, the Vietnam War, civil rights and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

Rogers believed the space between the television screen and viewer was holy ground. It was his ministry and pulpit — but instead of a collar, as one interviewee puts it, he wore a sweater.

And he preached love.

The real power of this documentary is the persistent flow of testimonies that Rogers — who got up every morning before dawn to pray for anyone who asked — lived and breathed the command to love your neighbor.

Rogers believed everyone has inherent value. That belief was rooted in his faith: Each one of us is a son or daughter of God with worth and significance.

He believed the greatest thing we can do is help someone know he or she is loved and capable of loving. “Love is the root of everything,” he reflects.

He believed loving others could change the world. “We are all called,” he reflects at another point, “to be Tikkun Olam, repairers of creation.”

In the Huffington Post, Francois Clemmons, who performed the role of Officer Clemmons and had a close relationship with Rogers, reflects, “Fred was a very special man, and he gave us something we, as human beings, needed. Not something extraordinary that is rare, but love. And he had it in abundance. He taught us how incredibly available it is. It’s all around us. We just have to make the decision to give love or to give judgment and criticism. He led us to understand how simple and easy it was to make that choice, over and over again. There are so many people who tell the story of how choosing love changed their lives. It certainly changed mine.”

In the documentary, Rogers is described by those who knew him in myriad ways: a surrogate father, incomparable to anyone else they knew, an influence on who they became, a person who made goodness attractive, someone who wanted what was best for you and for you to be true to the best in yourself. “He loved you into loving,” says another.

As the credits scrolled, I couldn’t help but reflect that Rogers incarnated love. He looked like Jesus. That challenges and inspires me to live and breathe in God so I can live and breathe love.

Need a reminder of the power of love to change lives? Put Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in your queue.

Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.

Swallowed by the sea

By on Dec 3, 2018 in Columns, Latest Issue, Various authors: U.N. Witness | 0 comments

During his opening address at the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September, Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sosene Sopoanga implored U.N. member states to hold each other accountable for lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Hershberger

Hershberger

“Climate change is a weapon of mass destruction. It is slaughtering fellow human beings,” he said. “Every single year wasted with no climate change action draws Tuvalu a year closer to its total demise from Earth.”

Evidence of changing climates comes from a wide range of studies and sources, with plenty of content coming from citizens of island nations like Tuvalu. But many global northerners are only just starting to see these countries as their physical borders fade from maps.

Proposed solutions to climate-exacerbated crises often fall under one of two categories: climate mitigation and climate adaptation. Mitigation emphasizes actively reducing climate change and slowing its effects through reducing greenhouse gases. Adaptation involves making adjustments to accommodate the state of the environment or the projected future.

The U.N.’s strategy on climate change incorporates both. To promote international cooperation, U.N. member states formulated the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Seventeen objectives are intended to be achieved by 2030. The goals include affordable and clean energy and sustainable cities and communities. These goals are a groundbreaking example of international solidarity and commitment. But “sustainable development” embodied in actions often differs from ideals.

Climate chaos arrives both suddenly and slowly to Pacific island nations like Tuvalu. Between the tsunamis and hurricanes that blip on Western media, Tuvalu, Kiribati and other small nations are being slowly swallowed by the sea. This has led to discussions about drastic solutions: fortifying islands with layers of cement or transferring rock erosion by building high, heavy sea walls. Former Kiribati President Anote Tong recently purchased about 7.7 square miles of land from Fiji to secure a refuge for Kiribati citizens should their nation be submerged. Japanese company Shimuzu has presented plans to build “floating cities” as an option for island nation citizens permanently displaced. Western writers excitedly debate how the people of Kiribati will retain their cultural and political autonomy if they are forced to relocate.

There is an air of acceptance from the global community that the climate trend is irreversible and the next step is to form partnerships to replace lost earth with innovation. “Sustainable development” is tipping to “corporate development” as companies find ways to build profiles and profits from hurricane rubble.

Mennonite Central Committee is increasing its work regarding climate change. Demanding changes on behalf of MCC’s partners is a responsibility claimed out of the Mennonite call to live simply and promote justice.

We have an opportunity to reroute climate-change conversations back to those who witness its effects more intensely every year. We seek to counter the temptations of corporation-funded development by promoting awareness and insight learned from MCC’s grassroots programs.

The way we care for the Earth reflects the way we care for our fellow humans, as our earthly existence is inseparable from our environment.

Abby Hershberger is program assistant in the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office.

Converts become leaders of growing Garifuna network

By and on Dec 3, 2018 in Latest Issue, News | 0 comments

NEW YORK — When Omar Guzman came from Honduras to New York City the month after 9/11, he was an unbeliever, imprisoned by a lifestyle that brought emptiness and despair.

His wife, Tania, had moved to the city in 1998. To join her, he left a cruise-ship job and the management of a disco and moved to New York City. She was attending Evangelical Garifuna Church, a Mennonite congregation in Bronx.

Pastor Celso Jaime prays for a worshiper at Evangelical Garifuna Church on Oct. 21. — Laurie Oswald Robinson for MWR

Pastor Celso Jaime prays for a worshiper at Evangelical Garifuna Church on Oct. 21. — Laurie Oswald Robinson for MWR

Guzman began going to church with her but was initially turned off by the weeping men who went up for altar calls given by Pastor Celso Jaime. Yet he soon found himself in their ranks as the Holy Spirit reached his soul with the good news of Jesus.

“Celso was preaching that day, and I felt someone, something, calling to me to come up front,” he said. “My heart was beating more than normal as he began praying for me, and I began weep­ing, not knowing what was happening. . . . But as all emptiness in me was being filled, I knew I must give my heart to Jesus.”

Guzman’s heart has not stopped beating in time to the good news that he received and that he is passing on to other Garifuna souls across the United States and Honduras.

The Garifuna share a blend of African and Caribbean ancestry and speak Garifuna and Spanish.

Guzman is one of Jaime’s many sons in the Lord. Jaime is the main driver behind today’s Garifuna church-planting movement. His own conversion was conceived through Eastern Mennonite Missions’ work in his Honduran childhood village. The present-day network is supported by LMC (formerly Lancaster Mennonite Conference) and EMM.

About 100,000 Garifuna have immigrated beyond their homeland of the Caribbean to New York alone. Four of the fast-growing network of 11 congregations have been planted in NYC: two in the Bronx; one in Manhattan; and one in Brooklyn. Other U.S. Garifuna church plants are in Boston, Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Seattle and Los Angeles. The network’s latest church plant is solidifying in Atlanta.

“We work on developing new leaders, and three times a year, we start a new leadership group — teaching, providing formation, walking with them in many common and daily ways,” Guzman said. “It’s not about relating to them within the four walls of a church building.

“I spend one-on-one time with them, visit with them in coffee shops and at their kitchen tables, take them on a trip with me. I let them see what I am doing and have them start moving in that direction. This is exactly what Celso did with me.”

Doing it ‘without money’

As well as being moderator of the New York City Council of Mennonite Churches, Guzman chairs LMC’s church-multiplication network. It hopes to duplicate the passion and method of Jaime and Guzman in other sectors of the conference, said Keith Weaver, LMC moderator.

“The hope of growing multiplying congregations in New York City rather than struggling diminishing congregations is a new source of excitement,” Weaver said. “The amazing thing about it is, they are doing it without money.”

As much as the wider church is grateful for the level of growth, Guzman is not resting from his labors. There is much more work to be done.

“If we don’t establish new disciples, we are not going to have new leaders,” he said. “If we don’t have new leaders, we will not find new pastors and will not be able to plant new churches. . . . It takes a lot of work to identify and reach out to new leaders.”

Nearly two decades ago, Jaime embraced the hard work of tapping the shoulder of a hurting young man who is now helping  to bring the hope and healing of Jesus to their people.

Why so few baptisms?

By on Dec 3, 2018 in Columns, Latest Issue, Watson: Gathering the Stones | 3 comments

When I applied for the pastoral position at my current congregation, during one interview, I asked the search committee when they’d last celebrated a baptism. They thought for a moment. “Years,” they answered.

Hillary Watson

Watson

Many Anabaptist congregations are like my current one, celebrating baptisms only rarely. In five years of ministry, I’ve presided at about one baptism per year, which is more than some of my pastoral peers.

Anabaptist churches are defined by their relationship with baptism: a symbol of voluntary participation, where individuals request a ritual of commitment instead of having one thrust upon them at a mandatory age. Baptism must be a choice, made once, for life.

During the Radical Reformation that birthed Anabaptism, many believers made this choice, renouncing the priest’s baptism they’d received at birth and requesting, like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 9, to be baptized by another believer.

The declining popularity of baptism is linked to the word “choice,” an almost sacred word in secular Western culture. Everyone wants to choose, to have control.

As choice meets pluralism, baptism becomes a weightier decision. Choice now means accounting for all world religions and selecting one spiritual path with total certainty. For many teenagers nearing the traditional Anabaptist age of baptism, choosing baptism feels like a fraught decision requiring absolute certainty of the nature of divine truth.

Baptism has become just one more consumer decision. Framed as a once-in-a-lifetime decision that binds you to a certain relationship with God, it’s nearly impossible for anyone in our fear-of-missing-out culture to confidently request lifetime membership via baptism.

It’s not only adolescents who are wary of baptism. Many Anabaptist adults were raised with an experience of baptism as choice-but-not-a-choice. Youth of a certain age were required to take a baptismal preparation class, and there was heavy social pressure to “choose” baptism. These adults carry a deep fear of denying choice to their children. Choice has become more important than the ritual itself.

This was the church environment I was raised in. The message of our baptism education was “you should never feel pressure to be baptized.” But this implicitly suggests baptism is not important.

We need a way to talk about baptism that balances the weight of choice with the reality of choice paralysis. A way to emphasize the ritual as a symbol of a spiritual journey and not an exclusive membership in one small denomination. A way to see baptism as integrative to spiritual growth instead of a sign of full maturity.

The church’s language for baptism does not match the spiritual dilemmas of modern lives. The broader conviction that the church’s current vocabulary is out of step with the lived experience of its members is central to my call to ministry. My call is to build bridges between the gospel and the unaddressed challenges of modern life. Periodically I find myself needing to restructure my patterns to stay attuned to this call.

For now, that means ending this column as I pay more attention to building these bridges. I’ll continue to write at gatheringthestones.com and continue to read and support MWR. It’s been an honor and a delight to host this column, and I’m grateful for the ministry of MWR.

Hillary Watson pastors at Shalom Community Church in Ann Arbor, Mich. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com.

New York’s new generation

By and on Dec 3, 2018 in Latest Issue, News | 0 comments

NEW YORK — For 39-year-old Moises Angustia, there is no such luxury as coming home from his day job as a social worker to recline in an easy chair. Like many of his ministry peers in their 40s, Angustia does double duty in New York City’s multiracial Mennonite community.

Moises Angustia and his father, Nicholas Angustia. — Laurie Oswald Robinson for MWR

Moises Angustia and his father, Nicholas Angustia. — Laurie Oswald Robinson for MWR

Many work 9-to-5 jobs to make ends meet for their family in an expensive city. On eve­nings and weekends, they care for the families of the 17 congregations that belong to the New York City Council of Mennonite Churches.

That they spend their energy on so many fronts seems born of faithful mentoring, fresh vision and fervent commitment. This triad of forces lights the torches passed to them by earlier generations.

The first urban pioneers from Franconia and Lancaster Mennonite conferences began to break the barrier between country and city in the 1940s. That first wave led to church-planting and another wave of leaders who in turn have become men­tors for the next generation.

Examples of torch-passing include Angustia and his father, Nicholas, who came from the Dominican Republic in the early 1970s and began serving in 1981 as senior pastor at United Revival Mennonite Church in Brooklyn. Moises Angustia, now associate pastor/youth pastor, carries forward his father’s commitment to their 300-member Hispanic church family. Consisting of people from nine Latin American countries, it is NYCCMC’s largest congregation.

“I work in foster care from 9 to 5, and at 5:01 I put on my ministry hat and leave it on until midnight,” Angustia said. “Sometimes work and ministry cross paths, for example, when I travel across Brooklyn during my lunch hour to help a young person who needs help applying for college.

“Finances are so tight that my father is the only one who receives a salary, though there are 12 of us on our ministry team. . . .

“New York City churches could use a lot more lay support from people outside the city who would be willing to come here to walk alongside us on the path the early visionaries came to establish and alongside new leaders.”

Doing a lot with a little

Angustia belongs to a core group of leaders that has been solidifying since the early 2000s. The group includes 45-year-old Omar Guzman, whose people are a blend of African and Caribbean ancestry known as Garifuna. He was mentored and discipled by Celso Jaime, founder and senior leader of the fast-growing Garifuna network of churches in New York City and beyond.

Pastor Celso Jaime, back left, visits with worshipers at Evangelical Garifuna Church in Bronx. A native of Honduras, Jaime has led a church-planting movement among the Garifuna, people with African and Caribbean ancestry. — Laurie Oswald Robinson for MWR

Pastor Celso Jaime, back left, visits with worshipers at Evangelical Garifuna Church in Bronx. A native of Honduras, Jaime has led a church-planting movement among the Garifuna, people with African and Caribbean ancestry. — Laurie Oswald Robinson for MWR

Today, Guzman is pastor of Evangelical Garifuna Church in Manhattan and NYCCMC moderator. In his role as city-wide galvanizer, Guzman helps leaders share God’s good news in a city rife with immigration difficulties, high rents or mortgages for churches, exhausting work and commuting schedules, low incomes and material need.

“We are serving a lot of needy people, and we are often planting and developing our churches without money since our people are not able to contribute much toward finances,” Guzman said. “We basically are working with almost nothing, but we continue to put our faith in Jesus.”

Leadership development multiplies their resources, which requires that he and his cohorts prioritize discipling and mentoring. He is thankful that God recently provided a way for him to leave a day job and focus full-time on ministry.

“Each pastor must develop new pastors, who in most cases are the millennials,” Guzman said. “We need to be discipling and training them, giving them responsibility and authority to do ministry from their perspective, yet from an Anabaptist theological background to stand on.”

From this Anabaptist root each congregation branches out to its own people in NYCCMC’s mini-United Nations. Eight hundred to 1,000 Hispanics, African-Americans, Garifuna and Anglos form the Mennonite tapestry, Guzman said. One congregation, Mennonite Bible Fellowship, is in Connecticut.

Most range from a few to 100-plus members, and all are affiliated with LMC (formerly Lancaster Mennonite Conference) or Mennonite Church USA’s Atlantic Coast Conference.

The wisdom of elders

Since Guzman believes young­er leaders need historical perspective and wisdom, he established a group of advisers for ­NYCCMC. These include Nich­olas Angustia and Monroe Yoder, an 82-year-old former pastor and  LMC bishop who came to New York in 1965.

Another adviser is Ruth Weng­er, pastor of North Bronx Mennonite Church for 23 years. She came to the city in 1971.

“Omar not only invited us to  be advisers but insisted on it,” Weng­er said. “He is an extraordinary young leader who has deep faith, conviction and skills. . . . He and other younger leaders are honoring the context in which our Mennonite communities in NYC were first established and are building upon newer realities.”

Another adviser, Sylvia Shirk, Atlantic Coast Conference minister for New York City, was pastor of Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship for 11 years. She mentors 45-year-old Hyacinth Banks Stevens, pastor of King of Glory Tabernacle in Bronx and project coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee.

The impact of camp

Wenger also affirms the ministry of Ken and Deborah Bontrager, who “some of our young leaders have known all their lives,” she said. She considers them “bridge” leaders on two accounts: their age (mid-50s) and because they have honed leadership development for three dec­ades at Camp Deerpark in upstate New York.

The camp, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2019, is owned by NYCCMC.

Angustia and Stevens are former campers whose gifts were first developed by Bontrager, who has directed the camp for 28 years.

“Camp Deerpark is New York City’s biggest leader-growing factory,” Angustia said. “Many current leaders were either camp counselors or did some job at camp under Ken’s supervision. He has a passion for young people, and the fruit of the seeds he planted is now flourishing. . . .

“New York City did not have nearby Mennonite colleges to draw from for summer staff, and so he developed kids from the city to serve. Ken shaped me to become the leader I am today. I love him for that.”

Another home-grown talent is Stevens, daughter of Michael and Addie Banks, longtime Mennonite leaders in the city. After camping most summers, she held several staff positions and became program director for a time. She and her husband, Ben, are raising four children in West Haven, Conn. She commutes into the city most days.

Jesus’ example of reaching out to those on the margins fires her drive. Her charges are those who by and large grew up in poverty and broken homes and are now leading afterschool groups at church and going to college.

“Jesus didn’t get trapped in the synagogue but went to where the people were,” she said. “I first met many of the young adults I am mentoring today on the street corners outside the church building. A core group of them have been with me for 10 years.

“I strive to walk alongside others with a servant attitude. I want to serve people on their journey so that they can serve people and equip others to carry on God’s work.”

From ‘Tauferkammer’ to Burkina Faso

By on Dec 3, 2018 in Columns, History, Latest Issue, Preheim | 0 comments

In 1743, 275 years ago, the Swiss city of Bern dissolved its Commission for Anabaptist Affairs, or Tauferkammer. It had been established in 1659 to oversee the elimination of the local Anabaptist population. But more than 80 years later, an environment of religious tolerance had begun settling in, prompting the commission’s termination.

Fast-forward to 1993 — 25 years ago — and the Mennonite Church installed Donella Clemens as the first woman to serve as the denomination’s moderator. She become the second woman to lead a North American Mennonite group, after Florence Driedger, who was president of the General Conference Mennonite Church from 1987 to 1992.

In between the Tauferkammer and Clemens are a host of Anabaptist/Mennonite anniversaries in 2018. As the year slips away, these are a few of them to be remembered:

150 years ago (1868)
The Christian Educational Institute of the Mennonite Denomination opened in Wadsworth, Ohio. Commonly known as the Wadsworth Institute, it was operated by the General Conference Mennonite Church and was the first Mennonite higher education initiative in the United States. It closed its doors in 1878.

125 years ago (1893)
Bethel College, the oldest U.S. Mennonite college, held its first classes on Sept. 20 with an enrollment of 98 students. The cornerstone for the first campus building was laid in 1888 about a mile north of Newton, Kan., but a lack of finances hampered construction for several years.

100 years ago (1918)
Anne Allebach, the first American woman ordained by a Mennonite denomination, died April 27 of a heart attack at the age of 43. A native of Green Lane, Pa., she was baptized at Eden Mennonite Church, Schwenksville. While serving as a school principal in East Orange, N.J., Allebach took classes at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She also ministered among the city’s poor, organized religion programs and taught in an Episcopal Sunday school. Allebach was ordained in 1911 at First Mennonite Church, a General Conference Mennonite Church congregation in Philadelphia. She never held a Mennonite pastorate but periodically preached in Mennonite churches, often drawing large crowds. In 1916, she began pastoring at a Reformed congregation on Long  Island, N.Y.

Also that year, the main building at 10-year-old Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kan., was destroyed by fire on April 30. Arson was immediately suspected, as Mennonite pacifism during World War I had resulted in a number of acts of violence against them nationally. The cause of the blaze was never determined. By the next day, $10,000 had been raised toward the construction  of new facilities.

75 years ago (1943)
Residents of Molotschna, the largest Russian Mennonite col­ony, began to evacuate on Sept. 11 as the German army withdrew. Like countless others, the Mennonites suffered from Soviet persecution prior to World War II. When the Germans attacked Russia in 1941, the Soviets ordered all males over age 16 eastward. So the Germanic Mennonites welcomed the German invaders when they arrived in the fall of 1941 and were able to resume some semblance of normal life. In 1943, when the German army was forced to pull back, the Molotschna Mennonites followed them west. Weeks later, Chortitza, the oldest and second-largest settlement, did likewise.

Mennonites on the trek from Ukraine to Germany, 1943. — Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College

Mennonites on the trek from Ukraine to Germany, 1943. — Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College

75 years ago (1943)
Goshen (Ind.) College professor Harold S. Bender presented his influential “The Anabaptist Vision” at the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History in New York City. The address, which Bender made as the society’s president, was published the next year and would become an important articulation of Mennonite identity in the second half of the 20th century.

50 years ago (1968)
As racial strife increased in the United States, the Mennonite Church held a series of conferences in the 1950s and ’60s. That led to the 1968 creation of the Urban Racial Council to better integrate people of color into the denomination. The council initially focused on African-American issues, but by 1970 it had restructured and renamed itself the Minority Ministries Council to better address the concerns of Latino Mennonites. The organization disbanded in 1973.

25 years ago (1993)
Eglise Evangelique Mennonite du Burkina Faso (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso) was recognized by the Burkina Faso government. Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission sent the first Mennonite mission workers to the country in 1978, and the first congregation was formed two years later.
Also that year, Goshen College received a record $28 million bequest from alumni Harold and Wilma Good. Most of the contribution came in the form of stock in the J.M. Smucker Co., the Orr­ville, Ohio-based producer of jelly, jam and other food products. It was founded in 1897 by Wil­ma’s parents, Jerome Monroe and Ellen Smucker.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind. He is working on a history of Woodlawn Amish Mennonite Church.

The cross or the flag?

By on Dec 3, 2018 in Latest Issue, Letters | 3 comments

Do evangelical Christians want to move the needle of government to the point where the cross and the flag are synonymous? The U.S. Constitution promises justice and democracy for all, which on paper looks like the way to go, except when the billionaires have more money and political power than the 99 percenters and the bottom third get the crumbs.

The fear of socialism — an economic system that has gained support due to the financial imbalance in our society — only fuels the falling apart of a balanced democracy. Theoretically, most of us want a balanced democracy, but we undermine it when we let free enterprise and “me first” run rampant and gut justice.

A lot of this problem must be laid at the feet of President Trump. By any measure, Trump doesn’t fit the evangelical mold: his bragging about groping women, his three marriages, his zero tolerance for immigrants, his embrace of voting support from white supremacists and neo-Nazis. He hates the press; they quote him too much. He knows how to manipulate the strings of his evangelical and white-supremacist puppet shows.

The Republican Party is turning its back on the Constitution by losing the concept of justice for all. Evangelicals are losing the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger. Political power is quashing justice, morality, civility and biblical servanthood. Democracy is taking a beating, and the pledge to the flag is drowning out loyalty to the cross.

Evan Oswald
Glendale, Ariz.

Options for youth

By on Dec 3, 2018 in Latest Issue, Letters | 0 comments

Thank you, Tim Huber, for giving the youth of Mennonite Church USA and Canada some good options for youth conventions in the future (“Unconventional Thinking for Youth,” Editorial, Nov. 5). A highlight of my life was attending the Mennonite Youth Fellowship convention in Estes Park, Colo., in 1966. Bunk beds and eating meals outside in a camp setting were delightful for energetic youth, myself included. I hope this will be an option for my grandchildren.

Gretchen Yoder Christopher
West Liberty, Ohio

Book review: ‘The Great Reckoning’

By on Dec 3, 2018 in Book Review, Columns, Latest Issue | 0 comments

In October, the longtime evangelical leader Pat Rob­ertson weighed in on the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi in a Saudi consulate. According to Robertson, the United States needed to tread lightly with the Saudis. After all, he said, we have “$100 billion worth of arms sales” with Saudi Arabia and “cannot alienate our biggest player in the Middle East.”

The Great Reckoning

The Great Reckoning

In other words, the murder might be forgivable in light of more important interests like financial profit and a desire to keep Saudi Arabia well-supplied with U.S.-built weapons.

As a pacifist and a Christian, I found Robertson’s perspective shocking.

Robertson’s comments brought to mind Stephen Mattson’s excellent new book, The Great Reckoning: Surviving a Christianity That Looks Nothing Like Christ. In the opening chapter, Mattson describes being a student at Moody University on 9/11 and how for days after that terrorist attack he and other Moody students pretended to enact vengeance on Muslims, using an old mattress as a stand-in for followers of Islam who deserved their wrath. Mattson and his peers wielding knives on the mattress and punched it with great force.

“With a morbid passion inspired by hate, patriotism and fear,” Mattson writes, “we unleashed violence upon this unnamed Islamic enemy and defended our country — God’s country — from evil forces.” Often, after play-acting such violence, Mattson and his peers would head out into the Chicago streets to evangelize others, presumably directing them to Jesus.

Only much later did Mattson recognize that his fervent desire  to kill a supposed enemy did not reflect the teachings of the Prince of Peace. In this way, Matt­son was like Robertson,  who suggested Saudi leaders might get a pass on murder because of a lucrative military deal. Both beliefs suggest a misunderstanding of the Gospels, colored by nationalism and military might.

Thinking back on the post-9/11 moment at Moody University, Mattson realized he and many other Christians had acted in ways completely against the words of Jesus: “Instead of seeing our world through the lens of Christ, we saw our Christ through the lens of our own religious worldview.”

Mattson considers the many ways contemporary Christians have failed to follow the Christ they purport to serve, arguing that it is time for followers of Jesus to grapple with what has become of Christendom in our current cultural climate.

He defines Christendom as “a form of Christianity that has gained cultural and social and political dominance. [It] blesses and is blessed by the political realm in which it enjoys widespread popularity.”

While Christianity is religious belief founded on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Christendom is something else entirely — a way of life founded on power, privilege and a system of religious and cultural beliefs that contract what Jesus of Nazareth actually preached.

Mattson critiques the Christendom now prominent in the United States and the culture it has produced: Racism and sexism are widespread. Immigrant children are separated from desperate parents at the southern border. Teenagers can no longer feel safe in their schools because a powerful gun lobby has blocked any meaningful legislation that might give them a modicum of protection.

Drawing parallels with the Great Awakening of the 18th century, Mattson calls for a similar revival, save for this difference: the Great Reckoning should be “a time of soul-searching and candid reflection on what we as Christians have allowed Christianity to become.”

The Great Reckoning challenges Christians to consider the harm they have done to different people groups. In a convicting chapter, “Sins of the Church,” Mattson highlights many of the ways churches have sinned against others: women, children, people of color, those with disabilities and mental illness, non-Christians, the poor, gender and sexual minorities. Mattson names how Christians and institutions have caused harm to others. He calls this a confession and a request for forgiveness.

Although some are reticent to participate in such confessions —arguing that they have not sinned individually against marginalized people groups — Mattson rightly argues that this confession needs to be part of Christianity’s great reckoning. If the church is to be transformed, those with power and privilege need to acknowledge specific ways Christians have hurt others, lament the mistakes made by the church and seek transformation.

According to Mattson, Christians cannot authentically share the gospel’s good news if they don’t acknowledge the church’s sin. Jesus’ message loses power when those with power and privilege continue to embrace an institutional culture that marginalizes others.

Given our polarized political climate, some might fear Mattson’s book is merely a partisan polemic. It is not. The Great Reckoning calls out Christians across the political spectrum, arguing that our allegiance as believers should not be to party or country but to the kingdom of God.

When political parties become obsessive in their efforts to woo Christian voters, Mattson writes, they are “sacrificing the kingdom of God for the kingdom of mortals.” The reckoning of Christendom means grappling with the ways politics and Christianity have become linked. Mattson reminds readers of the costs that accompany this marriage. This is an especially important reminder for Anabaptists, for whom allegiance to God, rather than government, is an essential part of our heritage.

Despite its grim view of present-day Christendom, The Great Reckoning is fundamentally a hopeful book. Mattson ends his work by looking toward that hope, suggesting that there are actions Christians can take to heal the church and the people it has too often broken.

He focuses our attention on the Bible’s grand narrative of love, a love that reaches those on the margins, dismantles power and privilege and replaces empty political rhetoric with the teachings of Jesus.

The Great Reckoning challenges the failures of contemporary Christendom, reminding us that following Jesus demands walking a different way.

Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.

Commendation, and warning of compromise

By on Dec 3, 2018 in Latest Issue, Letters | 0 comments

Listening to a sermon on the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in the Book of Revelation, I thought: “What would a letter say if it were written to the Mennonite church today?”

I believe Mennonites would be commended for our acts of service. From January through May, I was in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, under Mennonite Voluntary Service. What a privilege it is for Mennonite young adults to have this life-changing opportunity! My assignment was at Academia Menonita Betania. The kinder­gar­ten teacher I worked with had recently started attending a Mennonite church in Puerto Rico. It was a delight to see her excitement.

But, in Revelation, the letters to all but two of the seven churches start with praise followed by something like, “Nevertheless, I have this against you.” For what would the Mennonite church be reprimanded? The letter to the church in Per­gamum sheds a light on the problem of compromise. Little by little, compromise on homosexuality, and discounting books in the Bible such as Jonah and Esther, are creeping into Mennonite theology.

When did God ever tell us that homosexuality was an acceptable practice? When did loving the sinner include accepting the sin?

The issue of discrediting God’s Word hit home to me at a Mennonite women’s retreat this fall. The speaker said the Book of Esther was a fictitious story. Although the Bible contains parables, they are identified as such. God can use anything, from a whale to a woman, to fulfill his plan, even if it seems improbable. Once you start picking and choosing what is inspired by God, where does one stop? This kind of thinking eventually discredits the whole Bible.

No one in the audience disputed what the speaker said about the invalidity of Esther. God has convicted me that I should have spoken up. Now I challenge myself, along with you, to stand up for God’s Word and to spend time in the Bible to see for yourself what God tells us is right and wrong.

When the teach­­er in Puerto Rico asked if I had always gone to a Mennonite church, I re­plied that I had. As a Mennonite young adult, I wonder what my answer will be a decade from now. If God and his Word come back to be the center of the Mennonite church, I will be honored to be a Mennonite.

Kendra Selzer
Canton, Kan.