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.