As a pastor, i’ve been asking myself, “What is the calling of the church in this moment?” as we re-emerge from a year of sheltering in place and of bearing witness to the brutality of economic disparities and state-sanctioned violence. We cannot go back to normal, since normal is what got us here. Our calling is to the transformation of ourselves, our congregations and our world. In this effort, we need new articulations of our theology and of our political ethic as Mennonites.
Such resources can be found in Liberating the Politics of Jesus: Renewing Peace Theology Through the Wisdom of Women. An anthology authored entirely by women, it centers the voices of those on the margins. The writers de-center interpretations of Jesus that deny his lived experience as a marginalized person. They de-center a peace theology overly focused on war and militarism. They re-center the politics of Jesus in the midst of unjust power imbalances that cause systemic racism, sexism and economic exploitation.
The vision for this project originated with Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, a former moderator of Mennonite Church USA, who edited the book along with Darryl W. Stephens. Soto Albrecht wanted to bring together women to articulate how the church embodies the politics of Jesus today. The focus is not on the theology of John Howard Yoder, writer of The Politics of Jesus, an influential work of theology. But the writers address Yoder’s sexual abuse and how to be accountable in the work of healing.
from biblical scholarship to theological reflection to lived experience and prophetic vision, this collection is a fierce and tenderhearted call to followers of Jesus. As suffering in our world has amplified due to the pandemic, and the rich get even richer, Soto Albrecht reminds us that suffering is a political problem. It is the result of oppressive systems, or sin, that allow for abusive realities, like Amazon workers forced to work long hours with inadequate protective gear and then denied sick leave.
If suffering is a political problem, then our response must be political. The authors call readers to solidarity with those who suffer, making the case that that’s where we encounter God.
Rather than a God who inflicts suffering as punishment or sends Jesus as a sacrifice, God is one who suffers with us. Jesus is murdered on the cross because of the life he lived — heralding release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, liberation for the oppressed and economic redistribution. In her chapter, “Salvation for the Sinned Against,” Linda Gehman Peachey writes: “We are not saved by suffering but rather through God’s solidarity and presence with us in creative resistance to the powers of evil that exploit and enslave us.”
Hilary scarsella articulates this creative resistance as political solidarity with survivors of sexual abuse. Her chapter offers the theological framework desperately needed as survivors bravely come forward and church institutions grapple, and often fail, in their response. Scarsella urges readers to respond to the testimony of survivors with all the political urgency and support we would offer to Jesus.
To these ends, in “Repairing the Moral Canopy After Institutional Betrayal,” Sara Wenger Shenk, retired president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, weaves together her personal narrative with the institutional story of taking responsibility for Yoder’s abuses. She notes the transformation that took place as she and other leaders listened to the victims of sexual violence, confessed institutional complicity and publicly apologized for the harm. “What happened was not perfect,” she writes “nor did it bring full closure, but there was an acknowledged catharsis. . . . Through such acts, the moral canopy begins to be repaired.”
Regina Shands Stoltzfus reflects on the truth-telling that is needed for Mennonites and other Christians to transform the systemic roots of racism. After giving an overview of the origins of the Black church tradition, she offers a history of Mennonite urban missions and the complexities of creating multiracial churches in the midst of denominational and societal racism. The call is to be diverse churches that hold the powerful accountable, ask difficult questions and stand together in uncomfortable spaces. As a peace church, she says, “narratives of racialized violence must be reckoned with if we take seriously the assault on Black bodies as antithetical to God’s vision and call to God’s people of shalom.”
The authors of this anthology speak with the moral authority we need to meet the challenges and possibilities of this transformative moment.
Joanna Lawrence Shenk is associate pastor at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco.