Blood of tribalism vs. water of baptism

Stuck Together: The Hope of Christian Witness in a Polarized World, by J. Nelson Kraybill (Herald Press, 2023)

One thing we can all agree on is that we live in a time of intense disagreement. J. Nelson Kraybill, past president of Mennonite World Conference and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, addresses this polarization in a humble and hopeful way.

He has no illusions about offering easy answers: “This book presents no grand human strategy to save the church or the world from destructive polarization,” he writes. Instead, “Salvation belongs to God, and that is all we need to know to align with God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.” 

Kraybill’s humility shows right from the beginning as he shares a confessional story about firing his dental hygienist for not being vaccinated and not wearing a mask. This leads to a discussion of tribalism and how polarization percolates in family, church and community. One strength of the book is Kraybill’s use of personal stories to illustrate both positive and negative responses to polarization.

Using Scripture and theology to point toward a helpful perspective, Kraybill says we should not diminish “the importance of naming and opposing malevolent forces of racism, economic exploitation and other evils that warp humanity.” Then he refers to Jeremiah’s warning to not say, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” And he quotes Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.” We are called to engage polarized situations with the same courage and love Jesus modeled, showing respect even toward those who would destroy him.

Again, Kraybill employs stories — of his father’s treatment of teens who stole from him, of early Christians’ “patient ferment,” of the moral reflexes of the Amish when a man killed five girls at school — to illustrate the long-term effect of faithful actions. 

Kraybill shows how the Bible pre-sents a range of perspectives on matters of faith and practice. Boundaries are necessary but can polarize. Ezra called for rejecting marriages between Jews and foreigners, while Jonah challenges exclusive nationalism. The story of Ruth transcends ethnic boundaries. 

Polarization among God’s people is not new. Kraybill looks back at the factions among the Jews in Jesus’ day, then looks at factions among North American Christians today. Jesus reached across factional boundaries and built improbable relationships.

One chapter discusses “track-two diplomacy,” which Kraybill describes as “informal and unofficial, conducted by nongovernmental actors who build relationships and explore possible avenues of understanding and collaboration.” He illustrates this with his experience of meeting with a U.S. major general at Princeton Seminary. 

A challenge to polarization is to listen well. Kraybill offers helpful practices and connects them with Matthew 18:15-20, where “Jesus is apparently asking us to approach one another carefully and with direct address if we believe that the other has sinned.” 

Noting that our stories change how we read the Bible, Kraybill draws on Acts 15 to sum up steps early Christians took to decide a divisive question. Arguing that there may be a breadth of Spirit-inspired perspectives today, he writes, “We are wise not to condemn other Christians who undertake careful discernment processes and end up with contrasting pastoral conclusions.” 

Kraybill lifts up Paul as one who bridged the Jew-Gentile polarity, even risking his life to reach across the divide. “In a divided church,” Kraybill writes, “Christians should be slow to judge or condemn.” God may welcome even those with whom we disagree.

He tells the story of Cheyenne Peace Chief and Mennonite pastor Lawrence Hart to illustrate how right remembering can foster healing. He encourages readers to get in touch with their local history and do something in response to injustices of the past.

In a chapter on systemic racism, he tells of the killing of a Black man in the parking lot of his church and what ensued, confessing the church’s failure initially to act justly. He writes that antiracism must move beyond guilt to action and that relationships across economic and social lines can transform lives.

Telling the story of MWC, Kraybill notes the importance of shared convictions, even when disagreeing on certain issues. Grassroots cooperation strengthens relations in the body of Christ, and unity is ultimately a divine gift.

Christians have allowed “the blood of tribalism to flow deeper than the waters of baptism,” Kraybill writes. We need to draw on deep spiritual wells to replenish our hope and make God’s redemptive action our metanarrative.

Stuck Together is a timely book that uses analysis, stories and biblical reflection to address our current polarization. It’s well worth reading. 

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