When teaching classes on Mennonite polity, I say “Gelassenheit is all we have.” In our hyper-individualized world, it’s both risky and countercultural. This gelassenheit — or yieldedness, as it’s mostly been translated — has been, to the best of my understanding, the action that holds Mennonite communities together.
But yieldedness has also yielded oppression. My willingness to abide by the collective wisdom of the community has often meant that those who are not part of the privileged center find themselves marginalized, ignored or silenced.
To yield is to take up the yoke of the community, even when my own preference or opinion might be different. When collective wisdom is discerned by majority rule, minority perspectives can be overrun. Then gelassenheit becomes tyranny. Community becomes yielding not to the will of God but the rule of the majority.
Mennonites talk about the power of a covenant with one another. But when power is unequal, a covenant might not mean very much. For example, my understanding of baptism and ordination includes a willingness to give and receive counsel. Yet my sense of privilege as a white man gets in the way. It leads me to expect to be heard. When I don’t feel heard, I can be pretty quick to walk away.
David Augsburger writes, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” Those of us at the privileged center of communities have to learn to speak differently (and less frequently) and listen intently. As a person of privilege, I have to remind myself to hear what might be revealed about the divine and myself in those conversations. If I won’t listen, this will not be revealed.
Covenanting requires mutuality. Church structures are rarely capable of bearing the weight of the kind of open conversation that allows for mutual transformation. Instead, the majority of today can be upended by the majority of tomorrow, leading to backlash with potentially tragic consequences. We have seen this in current U.S. political realities.
Mutuality becomes foundational for yieldedness. It cannot be simply yielding to the majority. Mutuality is a posture of authentic listening and care that extends both respect and love.
Mutuality cannot be about domination, submission or colonization. Mutuality allows the majority to find themselves again in relationship to the minority. This is the kind of communal transformation that yieldedness might make possible by the power of the Spirit.
In the meantime, we work and hope in systems that are likely to play by majority rules. When the tables are turned, when the last becomes first, the new leaders might invalidate the former ones.
Martin Luther King Jr. suggested the power of redeeming both the oppressed and oppressor. Mutuality can stop the cycle of inequality, of winners and losers. One of the earliest conflicts in the church rose out of the disproportionate sharing of resources (Acts 6), which was resolved by yielding to the complaint and appointing leaders who would be more likely mindful of the slight in the future.
For Anabaptist yieldedness to work, we must cultivate true mutuality through humility. True mutuality requires me to recognize our interrelatedness. It recognizes the image of God in all people and the possibilities of both our tetheredness and our freedom.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.