The Naked Anabaptist 6: Justice
Well, I am moving at a downright glacial pace to the conclusion of my series on Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist. If anyone’s still following along, I’m on to the the sixth of Stuart Murray’s seven core convictions of Anabaptists:
Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice.
Having just spent the last week at a training conference where Mennonite history and theology were on the menu, this sixth core conviction seems, at first glance, a little out of place. The pursuit of justice does not exactly leap off the pages of most histories of Anabaptism. Indeed, one of the most frequent charges against Anabaptists is that they are “sectarian”—they are content to withdraw from the public world where issues of political and economic justice are front and centre, and live quietly in their “holy huddles,” preserving themselves from contamination from the outside world—or so the story sometimes goes.
And to be fair, a somewhat dualistic approach to the world has often characterized Anabaptists throughout history. This came through loud and clear at the conference last week. Mennonites have often thought about things in fairly stark and binary terms: there was “the world” and there were the disciples of Jesus. Darkness and light. Forbidden and permissible. The sinful and the set apart. The kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. Historically, issues of justice and creation care didn’t seem to get much Anabaptist “air time”—especially on a view of the world which was sometimes characterized by some fairly wild and speculative eschatology! Why worry about worldly things when the end was near? Preservation, not transformation, was the name of the game! Pursuing justice and caring for creation would amount to little more than fiddling while Rome burned.
Of course not all Anabaptists thought like this then, and they certainly don’t today! But calling the pursuit of justice a “core conviction” of Anabaptism seems to be a somewhat creative interpretation of Anabaptist history. With this sixth core conviction, Stuart Murray seems to be moving from the descriptive to the prescriptive. It’s actually pretty hard to read Anabaptists as proto-social justice types or proto-eco-theologians. There might be the odd instance where the shoe might fit, but I’m not sure it has historically been a core conviction of Anabaptists to “work for justice” or “care for creation.”
Of course this is not to say that these shouldn’t be core convictions of Anabaptists as we move forward. I happen to think that issues like justice and creation-care ought to be core convictions of all followers of Jesus, Anabaptist or not. If Murray is simply saying that these kinds of things ought to characterize Anabaptists, or that they ought to be core convictions of Anabaptists, I would enthusiastically add my “amen.” If he is saying that these emphases have always been a part of Anabaptist theology and practice, then I will need some more convincing.
Having said all that, I absolutely think that the Anabaptist traditions of living simply and sharing generously are evident from the beginning of the movement and are wonderful antidotes to the consumerism and individualism of the twenty-first century western culture. Looking back at my childhood, some of the lessons I am most grateful to have been taught as a Mennonite kid (and some of the lessons I most strongly resisted at the time!) are those of responsible use of resources and sharing with those in need. Long before the three R’s were fashionable, I remember having strong models in both my immediate family and church community of an approach to life characterized by responsible stewardship of resources and amazing generosity. It is a legacy to be proud of and to work hard to preserve.
For those interested, I reflected on some of the the themes of this post in an 2008 article for our denominational magazine that can be accessed here.
I thought the same thing when I came to this core conviction. As you say, there is a strong history of Anabaptists living simply& sharing generously, but caring for creation, and working for justice does take some interpretive liberties. I think it might have been better to link/reference the Agrarian theology of Anabaptism in respect to relating to creation, then acknowledge a prescriptive shift towards to creation care. As for justice, it was deeply practiced by the early Anabaptist, except it was largely practice among themselves which, while still wonderful, isn’t what Christ called for in respect to justice.
All this to say, excellent reflection on this point while still remaining affirmative of the intentions and direction of the author.
Thanks Jamie. I agree with you that the agrarian angle might have been a better one to take—more historically accurate, at any rate.
Re: justice within the community, I think some might wonder just how “wonderful” it was :). I think within the Mennonite community, justice was often seen as largely punitive rather than restorative. I think too often, “justice” boiled down to a kind of morality police within the community and often it wasn’t very healthy either in its goals or its administration.
Throughout this little series on Murray’s book I have often said something to the effect of “maybe this is an area where the rest of the church could learn from the Anabaptists.” Perhaps in the area of how to understand things like “justice” or “creation-care” Anabaptists could learn from those parts of the Christian tradition that have historically given more sustained and consistent thought to these matters.
Re: Justice as punitive, that is an excellent point (though there were a few exceptions through history). In fact, I was having this very discussion this morning with a friend. Guilt & fear are all too often used to coerce right behaviour. We wondered what it takes to foster fidelity and love in community without the extremes. In that respect, I think you are right that historical Anabaptism has much to learn. I think, perhaps, in this, Murray was referring to the emerging neo-Anabaptism he is seeing?
I think “creative interpretation” of the past is quite common across Christianity. In addition, even the most liberal churches dedicated to social justice are still “huddles” of like-minded people separate from the world, even while they seek to make the world conform to their beliefs, even while they claim inclusivity and openness. Justice is the modern name they assign to their condemnation of the world and their aggressive aims.
While I agree that the reinterpretation of history is all too common in Christian history, I think your take on justice today is a bit more bleak than I would argue.
Your favorable perception of contemporary Christian justice aims is clear in all you write. Based on what you wrote above, you appear to believe they are something “Christ called for.”
The Jewish concept of justice (which we seem to always translate as righteousness) was deeply tied to the concept of shalom, a holistic commitment to the restoration/redemption of the whole person & all of creation that did not see a divide between so-called spiritual and material needs. Central to the “works of justice” was a commitment to care for the materially poor. Even today Jewish worship often ends with the call for the people to “perfect the world under the sovereignty of God”. This is largely (though not exclusively) linked to the concept of tzedakah, giving/caring for the poor/marginalized.
This isn’t to say that we get it right all the time, but I am convinced we are to work towards such an end. SO much more to say on this, but I will leave it there for now.
Re: “The Jewish concept of justice (which we seem to always translate as righteousness) was deeply tied to the concept of shalom …”
I think the word righteous has been used because it matches the Hebraic emphasis on having right relationship with God found in the Bible, which involves adherence to the covenant. That concept of justice is quite different from the modern one which involves seeking equality. Shalom followed adherence to the covenant, not the pursuit of equality.
Re: “… I am convinced we are to work towards such an end.”
I think missional Christians believe they are emissaries of God. This frightens the rest of us. This belief conflicts with the modern beliefs in democracy and equality. An pragmatist, atheist position like that of Rorty is more compatible with modern justice, especially given that justice is not something one can nail down definitively.
Oops, I meant to attach this to Jamie’s comment in which the quotes appear.
Actually, Ken, the Hebraic concept of righteousness is deeply rooted in both the idea of right relationship with God and right relationship with neighbour. Jesus’ “Great Commandment” was not a new idea to the Jews, but a reiteration of what was always at the heart of their beliefs. Throughout Old & New Testament you find the pairing of the Law and the Prophets, which together reflects this love of God and others that are bound together in the concept of righteousness & justice. Interestingly, my main sources for this come from Jewish scholars and communities, as well as Middle Eastern expressions of Christianity. I should also point out that you used the word “equality”, not me. My concept of justice is not about what people today look at as a pursuit of “equality”, though there might obviously be some cross-over.
I can’t comment on the “missional Christians” reference, as I am not sure what you mean by “emissaries of God” nor who is all included in “the rest of us”. Feel free to clear that up if you want.
My own education in the Bible was in a University of California graduate program in Judaic Studies. I agree that a right relationship with others is regarded as part of a right relationship with God in the Hebrew Bible. This relationship was also elaborated in the Hebrew Bible. I only mean to say that what was considered righteous then is different from what we consider justice today, involving mainly as it does, equality, and that this accounts for the use of the word righteous, rather than justice, in translations.
I used the word equality because it is so critical to modernity’s ideas of justice. I mistakenly assumed that you had in mind this modern idea of justice. Now I understand that you do not.
The expression “emissary of God” refers to Christians who believe God supports their political positions and actions and is acting in some way through their actions or that they are pursuing God’s aims for the world. It referred to those who hold convictions like those you have expressed as in your expressions above, “… I am convinced we are to work towards such an end” and “what Christ called for.” The rest of us are those who don’t have such beliefs.
Thanks for the clarification, Ken. Unfortunately, I think too many in the evangelical world need to relearn Hebraic justice, because their read on the word “righteousness” too often comes down to moral, ethical and even political uprightness (with an emphasis on the “right” in uprightness where politics are concerned). I think we are both advocating for the same idea (more or less) for justice.
I think you might be reading more into my words than are there, perhaps because of how common the interpretation you are referencing is all too common in evangelicalism. Further, those who I would call missional would not fit that completely either. It sounds to me that you are using missional almost interchangeably with evangelical. Would that be right?
As for my statements about that which we are to work towards and what Christ called for, I was speaking in reference to the earlier comments about the call to “perfect the world under the sovereignty of God”. I understand that some use this language to mean something different than what it might have been intended for, but I don’t think that calls for the abandonment of the language. I get the impression that you have some assumptions about me/my beliefs that might be a bit… off. No harm.
While I do not believe that God supports my political positions, I do believe that God is at work in the world and allows us to participate, not in triumphalistic ways, but through humble mutuality, compassion, mercy, etc. God forbid we should try to accomplish this through force, political supremacy, etc. For myself and my community, we are simply trying to follow the teachings of Jesus in our context.
Thank you too, Jamie.
My fear of Christians who believe that God is on their side extends to Christians on the left and right, evangelical and liberal. History contains so many lessons about the terror associated with those who believe God is on their side – those on a mission. Your last paragraph, “While I do not believe…,” assures me that I need not fear you.
As an admirer of Richard Rorty’s critiques, I am perhaps more likely than you to support “calls for the abandonment of the language” even while I retain love for the religious traditions from which the language came.
I say my hope is mercy, rather than justice.
(In a few minutes I am headed into the mountains for a couple of days and may not have internet access until I return. So, in case you post anything else in reply, my silence for a couple of days means nothing.)
Thanks Ken. I share your fear of extremes on left & right as well. I was just saying to someone the other day that Micah 6:8 calls us to do justice, love mercy and walk with humility. The intersection of these three dynamics seem to be critical. Enjoy the mountains!
Very well said Jamie! The intersection of justice, mercy, and humility is where we live… I like that.
(Enjoy the mountains Ken!)
Ryan, while I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment that Murray is guilty of some creative historicity to make Anabaptist look green and socially aware- I do think he is accurately reflecting something that is observable in Mennonite/Anabaptist practice. The number of relief and social justice institutions that have their origins in Anabaptist communities is very impressive. This is the reason why social justice is often linked to Anabaptist theology.
What Murray fails to fully grasp, IMO, is the theology that drives these actions. In the communities with historic connections their action comes from a theology of obedience to Jesus’ instructions rather than a theology of cosmic restoration. Historic Anabaptist theology was very dualistic with the attendant problems but, perhaps ironically, it has produced results that the proponents of cosmic restoration theologies often aspire to.
I don’t think that the fact that the Anabaptist dualism should produce the fruit it does is an accident, however.
James, as you know I have no Anabaptist history of my own. At the same time I think what you have written here connects with my impression of Mennonites through Hauerwas. I think of Hauerwas in this context, although I know he is not Anabaptist. I think of him as an example of how values like those associated with social justice find expression in a community that sees itself as apart from the world, as you put it through seeking “obedience to Jesus’ instructions rather than a theology of cosmic restoration.” I think Hauerwas has sought to explain the irony to which you allude. He certainly admires the Mennonite tradition and has been influenced by it.
You might be interested in a little Mennonite poem that is an insiders’ interpretation of Mennonite theology:
That poem comes from a book about Mennonite Disaster Service, which does a lot of clean-up in the US tornado alley and has recently spent a lot of time in New Orleans. Aside for being quite poignant, IMO, it does capture historic Anabaptism and its relationship to the world- as well. It gives another clue to why certain things, good and bad, come from Anabaptist.
So it is not just a diversion from Ryan’s topic 🙂
Good points James & Ken.
Thanks for bringing up the actual Mennonite track record James. It’s good to be reminded that whatever may or may not have been historically emphasized by Anabaptist formal theology (or lack thereof), organizations like MCC, MDS, MEDA, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, etc are a testimony to the commitment we have shown to providing relief and working for justice.
Of course, not being a very good Mennonite (or biblicist!), I tend to wonder about the theology end of things :). I agree that Mennonites have historically emphasized simple obedience to Jesus rather than any kind of broad theological conception of redemption or transformation, but I wonder if this is worth probing a bit. Do we do the things we do simply because Jesus said so (i.e., if Jesus said to fiddle while Rome burns, then we just do it)? Or do we try to interpret Jesus’ commands in light of the ends to which they would conceivably serve, based on our understanding of the big picture of Scripture, reason, experience, etc?
It seems to me that in a skeptical, post-modern, post-Christian, post-everything context, the inevitable question that follows “because Jesus told us to” is “why did Jesus tell us to?” For me, at least, questions like this are worth thinking about for apologetic reasons, if nothing else.
Absolutely, Ryan. We HAVE to ask those questions too. It is living in that tension between the theology and the practice that we learn the most, I think.
As a Mennonite historian and a historian of Mennonites, I think Mr. Murray’s assessment of justice as a core conviction might be more accurate than you think. Since the 1950s, for example, the broader North American Mennonite community has emphasized social justice and creation care (almost to the point, in some cases, of ignoring the call to faith in Jesus). If you go back further, Anabaptism became a movement as a protest to the unjust use of state force for church purposes. It was very much a justice movement. At the same time, certain strands of Anabaptism (led by Hubmaier and Hut) emphasized the need to share possessions with others. Again, a strong emphasis on justice.
I wonder if Murray’s description seems unfamiliar (and therefore prescriptive) because yours and my Mennonite Brethren tradition has tended to emphasize the need for a personal experience of “peace with God” at the expense of social justice. Just a thought…
Two last thoughts:
1) I would caution us from talking about a “historic Anabaptist theology,” mostly because there is debate as to what that actually is. One of the reasons why Anabaptist-Mennonites have gotten themselves into trouble (being overly passive, or overly punitive in their discipline, or overly dualistic, or overly anti-intellectual, or overly simplistic theologically) is because they have too often tended to make one historical event normative. That is, they have said, “This is the way it was done, and this is how we are supposed to do it from now on. Anyone who doesn’t do this is clearly not Anabaptist/Christian. Amen.”
In other words, A-Ms have often ignored very helpful theological and historical resources within their own tradition. We have been the worse for it.
2) While Stuart Murray’s book is, as far as I can tell, a very helpful survey of/introduction to Anabaptism, I would suggest that C. Arnold Snyder’s book, “Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction” is a must-read if the discussion about Anabaptism is to move from good to great.
Thanks for the clarification, J. I think that, as always, a lot depends on how terms are defined. I suppose when I made my comments about Mennonites and “justice” I had liberation theology type ideas in my head and those didn’t square very well with what I understood about Anabaptist history. Having said that, I appreciate the reminder that there is plenty of evidence from Anabaptist history to support the claim that justice was/is more central than I indicated in the post and subsequent comments. I think you are right— part of its unfamiliarity may be due to the downplaying of these themes that has happened in parts of the MB world.
Re: references to “historic Anabaptist theology,” I see your point. Part of me resists having to endlessly qualify every reference to something like a “historical Anabaptist” position simply because our history and our theology have been so diverse (this is a blog, after all, not a dissertation!), but your words of caution are well taken. The more voices we bring to the discussion of what Anabaptism is (or should be) the better we will understand our past and the better we will be equipped for the future.
I have added the Snyder book to my “to-read” list. Because I’m never satisfied with just “good” :).
I’ve noticed a similar contrast between classic and contemporary Reformed faith. Classic Reformed faith on social justice emphasized submission to the governing authorities, who in turn were to act justly. Contrast this with contemporary Reformed faith, which is much more aggressive and in-your-face on justice issues, or what church leaders perceive as justice issues. It’s a noticable change from the 16th century to now.
I agree churches should be involved in justice issues. The question is always, “Whose justice?” There are different visions. On economic issues, many church leaders are suspicious of capitalism and drawn toward socialism, or to put it another way, they want command economies rather than market economies. But it’s not clear to me how you determine whether one is more just than another.
Very interesting observation, Chris. I think the situation you’ve described mirrors the Mennonite one in many way. While there would have been obvious differences between Anabaptist and Reformed approaches in the 16th century, at the present time there are many similarities. Last year I attended a CRWRC presentation at our church and I was struck by how similar their approach seemed to be with our Mennonite relief agency (MCC).
Re: “whose justice,” well that is the big question isn’t it? I suppose that as in so many other areas, one of the keys is to include a number of voices at the table and actually listen and be willing to learn from each other. Consensus may or may not emerge, but at the very least one would hope that the sharp and dogmatic edges around our various understandings could be smoothed out a bit and we could find common ground to get started on. I think this is already happening, obviously, but it needs to continue.
In my experience within liberal protestantism inside its most liberal political circles, the liberationist circles, the left considers the right to be selfish idiots and bigots. They believe nothing good can be learned from them, and no compromise is possible with what they consider evil. They hate them.
I don’t know from the inside what happens in conservative circles, in evangelical churches. Perhaps there is as much hate there as on the left. I have certainly met some who are hateful and have heard others on the radio. Many on the left migrated from the right.
By justice what they mean is having their way.
I remember a discussion with the leader of a committee in the PCUSA that screened ministry candidates. He explained the means he and others on his committee use to attempt to disqualify candidates with conservative theology or political views. It was important to maintain control of the denomination by the left. I could hear the righteous hatred in his speech and see it in his body. He was a pastor, professor in seminary and denominational leader. Unbelievably, he preached justice and love.
(I have many stories of this kind.)
I don’t think this hatred is inherent in politics of the left. I think of Richard Rorty as fine example of a democratic, tolerant politics of the left. But then, he was an atheist and a pragmatist, not a believer in ideals or gods. Maybe Nietzsche was right – at its heart, Christianity is a religion founded on resentments. Nothing I hear within Christianity seems to contradict that conclusion. Hatred may be inherent in its theology.
Ken, I hope that what you are hearing from those of us who are Christians, does contradict the conclusion that Christianity is founded on resentments. Not to say we haven’t disagreed- but I don’t believe my faith is based on resentment against those I disagree with. Again, I know that there plenty of example of resentful Christians- but I would argue that they are violating the very essence of the faith they claim to follow.
I believe you James. Disagreement is not a problem in itself. It is not the resentments over beliefs of which I was ultimately thinking.
I really only know liberal Christianity well among the contemporary alternatives and it is what I saw within that Christianity, the one of my origin and choice, that has largely shaped my impression. Not only is what I saw a violation of what liberal Christianity holds up as its own standard, it is a violation of what it means to be liberal. And what I have seen in liberal Christianity I see throughout theological writing as far back as the time of the first Christian theologians.
I have been reading about Luther and Erasmus recently. They hated each other. They each thought the other was evil. As I read about the two of them and the polemics in their classic works, I agree with both of them:)
Something so beautiful as grace becomes sullied in the classic affirmation of faith attributed to Luther when that statement is read in its historical context and makes me not ever want to repeat it, and as is the beauty of the humanism sullied by the polemics of Erasmus – how could a humanist think in such terms as are necessary to the see satan in Luther and not his humanity. Similarly, when I read Calvin, the great patriarch of the Presbyterian Church, I found his writing appalling in the way it condemned Roman Catholicism – a hatred still found even in the most liberal circles in the Presbyterian Church, even among those who feel so proud of their ecumenism. My politically and theologically liberal colleagues mentioned Calvin often in support of whatever position they happened to take believing it would add ethos to their own positions. It is quite ironic. (From a distance I sense that something like this in relation to Anabaptist traditions may be happening in Murray’s book – he wants to claim the right to carry that banner.)
I cannot think of any theology, from its very beginnings, that is not better understood as quest for power than as a working out in kindness of heart and mind of what it means to say “God” and what it means to be human. Theology seems less like faith seeking understanding than like aggressive people seeking power. It seems like Anselm understood it less than Nietzsche.
If you find yourself reading the early Anabaptist writings, Ken, you will find plenty of examples of the invectives you rightly loathe. I suppose that the only possible defence is that is that it was the language of the times [hardly sufficient].
That being said, I believe that Christianity is tested one person and one community at a time. Given the fact that you are interacting with people like myself, who call ourselves Christian, my question to you seems reasonable, “What have I said that makes you want to characterize my faith as “founded on resentments”?
My belief is that I and my community are to be the examples of Christ to those around us- including the world of blogs. That is a difficult enough challenge but one which we must accept. What we do and fail to do is the test of our theology.
I have no desire to excuse or rationalize the failing of other people and other communities- but IMO, neither is it appropriate to impugn my faith on the basis of their failures. That is a test no belief system can pass.
Sorry James, for your sake, I wish I did not sound like I am impugning your faith although certainly my critique of theology, or sympathy for the critique of Nietzsche, by implication does just that.
My response could sound like I was personally affronted. I do know that you are not trying to slight me. No offence was taken. This belief system happens to be mine so naturally my radar is more highly tuned. I think you are holding Christianity to a standard that isn’t appropriate. If Nietzsche’s ideas were to be judged by selected followers, I doubt that you would take that lying down.