Is Neo-Anabaptism a White Dude Movement?

I have a number of projects under way working with the surge in Neo-Anabaptism, especially in the US context. In one case, I was preparing a brief bibliography of blogs and books to share with a small Sunday school group. As I pulled together my notes and blog roll, I noticed quickly one striking similarity that had nothing to do with the content or perspectives of the writers. Rather, it was obvious that everyone on the list was a white guy. Now, if I had been a little shameless and shared the work of the NuDunkers, I could poiint to two excellent Brethren women writing in the blog world, but I stuck to those writers not directly connected to the Church of the Brethren. Nonetheless, I was dumb struck with just how white and male the grouping was= Scot McKnight, David Fitch, Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, Greg Boyd, and Stuart Murray to name just a few. 

My friend, and frequent commenter here, Scott Holland often asks if we NuDunkers are aware of the Post-Colonial critiques. In short, yes I am. Now face to face with the bibliography, thinking about the white dudeness of Neo-Anabaptism I can not help but think about the dynamics of power and privilege that run just beneath the surface of gender and race. Is it possible that the stance of post-liberal Anabaptism speaks most clearly to white men as we slip from the central circles of power? Can a Neo-Anabaptist talk with a leg to stand on to women or minorities and say that the best place to be is a kenotic, prodigal, and powerless one. 

While at Candler, I had the opportunity to study with a great feminist practical theologian. I remember one day, in a conversation about power and humility, my professor commented on the trend of men scholars to not make much of their title as Doctor. “Is it any wonder,” she said, “that as more women are achieving the status so long held by men that the men are trying to be informal and go by their first names?” 

I cannot help but wonder if this critique applies to those of us who claim the name Neo-Anabaptist. Is it just too convenient that as women and minorities are claiming a rightful place of power and influence in the public square that men are now saying that ‘letting go of power’ is necessary for appropriate theology? I remain convinced, however, that such a posture is necessary. But is it a posture that speaks with any validity to only white dudes? 

I recognize that I say that as a white male. I do think that part of my vocation is to step aside so that others may speak. At the same time, I take very seriously the need to call up, support, and even empower women and others to speak with authority. 

So what, then, should be done? 

Though the continual critique of Christendom’s wedding of faith and power politics is still an important voice for the American church, I think the conversation should soon shift to nuancing the conversations of power so prevalent today. Certainly, there is a kind of transforming power– both through the work of the Holy Spirit and in the formative practices of the church– that Neo-Anabaptism embraces. So to say that Christianity should embrace a kind of self-emptying posture in regards to its slipping cultural hegemony is not meant to diminish this kind of “power as self-transformation.” 

Here, I think Neo-Anabaptism, at least the streams of MacIntyrian virtue formation, needs to rise again to the surface. Though Hauerwas’ wedding of Yoder and MacInyre is well known, we would do well shift the balance of emphasis away from Yoder to consider how we are shaped and formed by the Spirited power of spiritual disciplines. For we are certainly not talking about self-emptying as a kind of self-deprication, but a desire to embody the virtues of Christ– virtues that empowered all those who witnessed Jesus’ transparency to God.

Neo-Anabaptism might also do well to turn to the works of Foucault, especially his later work on care and hermeneutics of the self. My own academic work in early Christian asceticism has already made this shift. By exploring the nuances of power as not just power over others, but as power in the hands of the self to be shaped towards a valued end, ascetic theory has confronted the tired mantra that askesis was simply a form of oppressive mysogyny and hatred of the human body. 

Though Evangelcialism and historic Anabaptism retain Luther’s old distaste for ascetcism, there is still a clear sense that discipleship entails a change in the ways we live in the world which parallel the early monk’s desire to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. Basically, holiness is a value shared by the 5th century monks, and modern radical Christians. 

Wrestling with the monochrome nature of contemporary Anabaptism is a necessary one. The resources are there, both within the current writings and in the critiques to shift the conversation to consider the kinds of power still implied in the welcoming of waning privilege. At the same time, I do think that the streams of Post-Liberalism within the Neo-Anabaptist movement have the ability to reveal just how colonial some Post-Colonial theorists truly are. For there is still a sense that though these writers (many of whom are equally white and male) speak from the margins so as to colonize and totalize those whom they criticize. In other words, Neo-Anabaptism can pull back the veil to reveal just how much power over others is still part of the project itself. 

So is Neo-Anabaptism a movement for White Dudes? Short answer, yes. But not by its very nature. The resources are there to expand the conversation, to empower others to give voice and bredth to the movement itself. 

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13 responses to “Is Neo-Anabaptism a White Dude Movement?

  1. Scott Holland

    Thanks, Josh, for these reflections on White Dude Religion & Ethics.

    A number of my women students suggest that it is the excessive Christocentrism of Neo-Anabaptism, which you continue to affirm in your post, which make it hopelessly all about “Jesus and the boyz.”

    Some of them suggest the biblical witness is more Theocentric with Jesus calling others to God through through examples of his engagements with others, not only the Samaritan Woman, but the women close to him in the movement, such as Mary. Even the guys in his own movement did not understand this nor did they understand his table fellowship with sinners so unlike themselves, the Jesus guys, the lads who thought they would inherit the keys to the kingdom because they looked a lot like the son of man. Nochfolge Christi?

    I’m writing this quick response from Juniata where during this Black History Month we are exploring Bonhoeffer’s adventures in Harlem. It was there he met “the black Christ” and this encounter changed how he understood the Jewish Christ so colonized by the German Christians back in Berlin.

    Jesus, the book of Hebrews teaches, is not like the proper priests from the lines of Levi or Aaron. He is more like that stranger priest from the far country who came carrying bread and wine to Abram and in the theology of the writer of Hebrews becomes a messenger of otherness, indeed, pointing not to himself but to the Wholly/Holy Other.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Scott,

      The Christological question here is important. It would be good to have more Christology within the Anabaptist conversations. My sense is that “Christocentrism” is assumed. My own Christology (obviously much more Chalcedonian than many of our Brethren peers) is that the human example of Jesus in the interaction with others is not a denial of the Theocentric, but the best example of how God meets humanity on human terms. Of course, the irony here is that the particularity of Jesus of Nazareth and the gospel portraits of his immediate community of disciples is heavily male centered. Often, it is the Cosmic Christ that challenges such gendered particularity in the historical narrative.

  2. I’ve been having a related discussion over on my blog, about evangelicalism more generally (lots of issues are raised in the comments).

  3. Thanks for this Joshua. It seems to me that the next questions should be, “why are they white dudes,” followed by “why don’t they interact and engage with POC’s and post-colonial theologies,” and finally “what now?”

    • Joshua Brockway

      Yeah, Tyler I think those are good questions to guide next steps.

      I do think, regarding the interactions of schools of thought, we are stuck in the world of genres. Some of those writing in Neo-Anabaptist circles are writing for a popular audience. The intersecting conversations though, happen in more academic settings. In some ways, post-colonial and ascetic theories are still scholarly conversations with a jargon and style often not picked up by popular publishers.

  4. For myself, there has been a certain kind of letting go of anxieties about “getting it right” with respect to working with folks coming from different perspectives, whereby I prioritize relationship-building with people outside my particular contextualities/situatedness, which happens to have a pretty strong “white dude” flavor in a range of senses (existential, academic, etc.).

    And so negotiating differences and being open to critique, disagreement, and even conflict is all a good and necessary process of loving well, which I (following Jesus) take to be the most important ethical practice of those who would call/confess/proclaim Jesus as “Lord.”

    More concretely, that’s meant for me that critical and identity-based theoretical, social/political movements (civil rights, feminism, post-colonialism, etc.) that also seem to have a fair dose of liberalism infused within them still (despite my deep reservations about liberalism) get a fair hearing and stand a chance of influencing my thinking, doing, and being in the world.

  5. Scott Holland

    Realizing, of course, that the anti-liberalism or post-liberalism of the NuDunkers is likewise a very identifiable identity-politics?

    [Watching a recent episode of Downton Abbey, which to my surprise many Anabaptists watch faithfully, the lead characters were proudly proclaiming themselves as “monarchists.” Downton portrays both the romance and necessary passing of “tradition.” I wonder if so many modern Anabaptists with anti-liberal sentiments are drawn to Downton as a kind of cultural and theological therapy since they sense in their psyches and souls the tradition of monarchial theology, even in its Neo-Anabaptist manifestations, is dying? To proclaim a lordship theology allows those who own the castle to live as lords and ladies bound by holy traditions. When monarchy must yield to liberal democracy, not merely the democracy of the the public square but a more radical democracy of the soul, for we do contain multitudes, everything must change].

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  7. FYI as you read my comment, I am a Neo-Anabaptist with roots in Mennonite Church USA, and I’m a queer white woman with a trans partner.

    I’m interested in this post. I may have more to say later, but after a cursory read-through (I’m at work), I have to mention a couple things that struck me.

    One, you casually mention John Howard Yoder in a blog about women and power with no mention of his abuse of power to sexually assault women. I find that pretty relevant to his way of looking at power and his teachings on power.

    Two, you use this language: “Can a Neo-Anabaptist talk with a leg to stand on to women or minorities and say that the best place to be is a kenotic, prodigal, and powerless one.” Asking whether Neo-Anabaptists can talk to women or minorities implies that Neo-Anabaptists are not women or minorities. And in my reading, kind of implies that the role of Neo-Anabaptists (who are in this writing presumably white, male, (and I’m assuming), straight, and cis) is to teach women or minorities who they should be (kenotic, prodigal, powerless one).

    Three, you ask yourself several questions, one being: “Is it just too convenient that as women and minorities are claiming a rightful place of power and influence in the public square that men are now saying that ‘letting go of power’ is necessary for appropriate theology?” And you immediately answer it, in the next sentence. You take no time to sit with the (one would think) deep discomfort of that question. To wrestle with it. You don’t ask any women, queer folks, people of color, trans folks, or any other marginalized community members what power or “letting go of power” means to us, to our faith, to our theology. You ask yourself, a white dude, and then answer yourself, a white dude. Then you tell yourself and other white dudes how to move forward.

    I’m hoping you agree with Brian above when he says: “And so negotiating differences and being open to critique, disagreement, and even conflict is all a good and necessary process of loving well, which I (following Jesus) take to be the most important ethical practice of those who would call/confess/proclaim Jesus as ‘Lord.'”

    I’m hoping what I’m saying is taken in the spirit of love in which its intended.

    I wish you would have spoken with some queer folks, some women, some people of color while you were wrestling this, and their perspectives were included in this. Or, you had asked one or more of us to write a post wrestling with these thoughts.

    I have a lot of thoughts that I don’t have time to share at this particular moment about power, privilege, oppression, faith, community, and more. That’s all for now.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Jen, for both the honesty of your reflections and the grace you are offering in the midst of critical engagement. You are right, I have assumed that Neo-Anabaptists are disproportionately white and male and straight. I also assume that many of my readers are white and male, which is an unfair and unrealistic assumption given the nature of the interwebs.

      A couple of thoughts come to mind. First, I didn’t write this on a whim. The story I told about my professor, and the question I offered have been sitting with me for some 7 years. Though the answer to the question came quickly in the post, it does reflect a lot of thought and time on my part. But at the same time, I don’t feel it is set in stone or “the answer” to solve anything.

      second, you have assumed I have not talk to others (women, queer, or otherwise) which I have to say is a striking assumption. The reality is that I have, and some of them are not yet as public in their orientation or their criticisms of the current state of the movement or church in general. So I felt it very unfair to name them and a breach of trust in our own conversations. This is a place where I try to keep confidence in a variety of ways- from the conversations I have with others and in the course of our my work for the church. So I often try to speak from my own learnings and in my own voice as much as possible.

      I do hope you get a chance to reply more constructively soon. I assume (lightly) that you have a great perspective on how to engage the question of power, especially in regards to the clear disproportion of white dudes in the Neo-Anabaptist/Missional conversation right now. You may also be interested in reading my follow up on power and kenosis that I posted over the weekend.

      As for Yoder. Abuse, yes, yes, and yes. I am not holding him up as an saint by any means. I also agree that we have to dig into his works, especially related to power in light of his violent acts against some (not all, but some) women. I also do not know how to do that with integrity given that some of his work- especially around sex- remain unpublished.

      Josh

  8. So, this post is bookmarked to return to, because I love that you’re engaging in this conversation at all. I appreciate your response to me, and really want to add some more thoughts, but my pesky job and all those pesky things I cram into my free time are getting in the way of engaging online discussions that I love. 🙂

    I will try to return at lunch and engage a little more.

    Much love,
    Jen

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