Telling our story, but not as an idol

Photo: Gabriel Lamza, Unsplash. Photo: Gabriel Lamza, Unsplash.

In May of 1859, August Heinrich Neufeld, pastor of the Ibersheim Mennonite congregation in Rhein-Hesse, Germany, issued a call to “every Mennonite congregation in the Old World and the New” to begin planning for “one of the most important days in our church fellowship” — namely, the 300th anniversary of the death of Menno Simons.

Much to Neufeld’s surprise, however, his proposal sparked a minor controversy. Some church leaders thought it was inappropriate for a tradition that emphasized humility to call so much public attention to itself. Commemorations like this, they feared, were simply imitating the self-congratulatory practices of the Lutheran and Reformed state churches.

Others argued that the true founder of the Mennonite tradition was not Menno Simons, but Christ alone.

Still others grumbled that Anabaptist beginnings went back to Switzerland, with the baptisms of 1525, not to Menno, who came along later.

The debate that swirled around Neufeld’s seemingly innocent proposal is a good reminder that public commemorations of historical events can be more complicated than they initially appear.

Nevertheless, historical memory is central to the church’s identity and witness. Throughout Scripture the people of God are repeatedly admonished to remember — to step back from the ordinary events of daily life to recall “the mighty works of God” in their past. When the Children of Israel crossed the Jordan River, for example, Joshua set up 12 stones to commemorate God’s miraculous intervention. “In the future,” Joshua instructed his followers, when your descendants ask their parents, “What do these stones mean?” they should tell the story of God’s miraculous intervention on their behalf (Joshua 4:20).

When members of the Jewish Sanhedrin asked the apostle Stephen to give an account of his faith, he responded not with a doctrinal statement, but rather with a long narrative of God’s saving actions in Jewish history (Acts 7).
Rituals of remembering in the biblical tradition are both an expression of worship and a form of renewal. Collective acts of memory help to form the church’s identity, reminding us of our highest ideals and equipping us to resist conformity to the status quo.

Yet, as Neufeld’s colleagues worried, commemorations can also easily become a form of idolatry in which a group worships itself instead of the Creator. In his book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, theologian Miroslav Volf suggests principles of right remembering that are relevant for MennoMedia’s recently announced “Anabaptism at 500” initiative and other plans to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the first baptisms in Zurich in 1525.

First, the Anabaptist-Mennonite commemorations in 2025 should be an occasion for confession — both in the sense of confessing our faith in Christ and of confessing our theological blind spots, our moral lapses, the sins of commission and omission that have been a part of our tradition from the beginning. Commemorations of Anabaptist beginnings should inspire us to confess our faith and nudge us to confess our shortcomings.

Second, “right remembering” always includes more than one story. It may be tempting in 2025 to focus only on the Swiss-South German Anabaptist tradition, which traces its beginnings to those first baptisms in Zurich. Yet many streams have fed into the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, each offering its own gifts. Our commemorations should avoid telling only one version of the Anabaptist story, recognizing the multiplicity of narratives that have sustained and renewed the tradition, including those of our brothers and sisters in the global church where the Anabaptist tradition is now growing the fastest.

Finally, right remembering should lead to renewal. Commemorations of Anabaptist beginnings should inspire all of us — young and old alike — to appreciate the gifts we have received, challenge the habits of the past and ­listen afresh to the stirring of the Spirit, which is making all things new (Rev. 21:5).

Collective memory is an expression of power. How we tell our story is always an argument — sometimes in disguise — about who we are and who we want to be as a people of God. I hope the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Anabaptism will renew a scattered and forgetful tradition through the gift of right remembering.

How will your congregation participate in those acts of remembering? It’s not too soon to start the discussion.

John D. Roth

John D. Roth - he is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study Read More

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!