As an adult follower of Jesus, I joined Albuquerque (N.M.) Mennonite Church twenty years ago. Why did I become a Mennonite, when our culture abounds with so many Christian denominations? Anabaptist values and practices are unique, and are deeply attractive in a disconnected, cynical world. I believe they can offer hopeful guidance as we move into an uncertain future. Anabaptism represents a 500-year old tradition that embodies traits not often found in our culture today.
Let me count the ways:
1. A consistent critique of empire. Since their beginnings, Anabaptists have defined themselves as nonconformists to the world’s values. They’ve displayed a profound dis-ease with dominant culture for almost five hundred years, establishing alternative communities and parallel economies wherever they settle.
2. Integrity in the face of suffering. Anabaptists bear a long history of values-based resistance, combining courage when confronted by power with a willingness to pay the price. How many other religious traditions consider suffering as “the third baptism” and have such a powerful legacy of martyrs to draw from? This longstanding witness is valuable to young people considering a life of discipleship. It’s important for newly emerging countercultural discipleship groups to see, as Ched Myers states, “a people who’ve lived this path for a long time and who’ve paid heavily for it.”
3. Sustained practice of restorative justice and radical forgiveness. It is rare indeed to find a centuries-old organization committed to redemption through relationship, truth and healing. From early on, Anabaptists have sought to restore social wrongs through creative justice rather than punishment, and have sought to resolve disputes through mutual compassion and relational accountability rather than impersonal legal battles. This is indeed a breath of fresh air in an acrimonious, divisive world.
4. A radical commitment to non-violence. From the beginning Anabaptists understood that following Jesus meant laying down the sword and risking peace. And they’ve been consistent about it over the centuries. In the more recent past, Anabaptists worked with Quakers, Church of the Brethren and other historic “Peace Churches” in World War II to develop alternative service options for conscientious objectors. This legacy of providing life-giving service alternatives to forced involvement in the machinery of war continued through the Viet Nam war era. In 2010, Mennonite Church USA (Mennonite Mission Network) became the only faith-based group recognized by the U.S. government to handle placing conscientious objectors in the event of future conscription.
5. Covenant discipleship. Across centuries and continents, Anabaptists aspire to be intentional discipleship communities—bodies of people serious about following the Way of Jesus together. Faith communities dedicated to living lifestyles of conscience—such as the covenant-based fellowship of Albuquerque Mennonite—are islands of inspiration to the modern-day seeker.
6. Priesthood of all believers. The flat polity and decentralized authority at the core of Anabaptism is attractive to many seekers today who are looking for congregations who cultivate bioregional wisdom, collaborative decision-making, listening circles, discernment of gifts, and community deliberation.
7. Economic disciplines to spread the wealth. Anabaptists bring hope to a hungry world by encouraging practices that downplay personal hoarding and conspicuous consumption. Some examples include the More With Less movement, principled household practices such as Sabbath Economics, socially responsible investing through Everence, and supporting micro-economic development efforts through organizations like Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Economic Development Associates. Different Anabaptist denominations maintain long-standing traditions of redistribution to those in need—traditions of both obligation and generosity—that are vibrant alternatives to the culture of unrestrained greed prevalent in dominant society.
8. A body permeated with an attitude of service. A deep, informal ethic of serving and accompanying people in need became formalized in the early 20th century as service programs such as MVS and MCC were put into place both internationally and in the US. In recent years a term of voluntary service, while not a requirement, has been an informal rite of passage in some Anabaptist traditions.
9. Conscious adult spiritual formation. Anabaptists understand that accepting Jesus as Lord as an adult is a first step, but becoming a follower of his Way is an ever-deepening journey of transformation. Attitudes and actions change over time as God-seeking adults continue to learn, explore, risk, resist, grow and let go.
10. Mutual aid and interdependent community. Anabaptist traditions have historically employed alternative systems of economic support and health care provision, inspired by the biblical example of the original church community in Acts that “provided for each according to his or her need.” The mutuality of barn-raisings of a century ago, still practiced by some of our Anabaptist brethren, has inspired newer methods of practicing mutual aid through congregational and national sharing funds and financial services. Fully authentic mutual aid, however, has been very difficult for many Anabaptist congregations to embody in the face of modern economic practices and massive health-care issues. As one employee of the Mennonite Central Committee stated recently, “I think we have a long way to go with this.” Can Anabaptists as a whole regain the ability to provide authentic mutual aid and community-based support systems that are compassionate, affordable alternatives to systems of government and empire? These kinds of structures that affirm kingdom living and abundant economic practices are the kind of witness sorely needed in today’s world.
11. Responsiveness to tragedy. Anabaptists—at regional, national and international levels–are known for responding with emergency relief during critical times for those “slapped around by the universe.” Mennonite Disaster Services, among others, follows the examples set by some of our early Christian brothers and sisters—daring and compassionate people who gave aid to a boatloads of diseased people in Alexandria, Egypt, and others who rescued girls left to die on the dung heaps of Rome. Our consistent and compassionate responsiveness to tragedy is a bright light in a cynical and disconnected world.
12. A legacy of craftsmanship, self-reliant home economics and sustainable land practices. Anabaptist communities have often cultivated skills of stewardship that foster close ties to the land and bioregion: community self-sufficiency; small-scale agriculture; restrained resource use; home economics skills such as preserving food, woodworking, homebuilding, and seed saving; and a sustainable philosophy that could be called a “seventh generation” land ethic. Many modern seekers are looking for a people who embody this way of life in word and deed.
Todd Wynward is an author, public school founder, and wilderness educator who lives with his family in Taos, N.M. He and Ken Gingerich are old friends. His new book, Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God, will be published in Fall 2015 by Herald Press.