Category Archives: Discipleship

Praying to be like the Samaritan: A white guy on Zimmerman

I am a white guy. I like trucks. rock and roll, and I even shoot a gun from time to time. I go to tractor pulls and county fairs. In certain parts of town I double check that the car door is locked. And though I do my best and repent, I know there are times my first judgements get the best of me.

I am a white guy. And I have no problem saying that Zimmerman was wrong. I am Christian, and I say that what he did was a sin– from the moment he started following Martin, to the beginning of the fight, and ultimately in the final act of killing another man. Killing is a sin. We can justify it all we want, but there is no getting around that simple fact.

And, racism in every form and from every perspective is also a sin. And protecting racism and killing by any justification is the ultimate sin of pride. In protecting our racist tendencies we think we know just who a person is and what they are up to by the car they drive, by the color of their skin, and by the clothes they wear. Last time I read the scriptures, only one knows the heart, and for us to decide that we know a person’s intentions is to put ourselves in the place of God. By saying that “self defense is a right” we also think somehow we are above even Jesus who rejected that premise, refusing to protect himself all the way to the cross. How is it that we think we know more than God? How is that we think we are somehow more capable than Jesus?

Racism hit home for me early in college. We were down town Chicago for a day trip to the art museum. My friend, an African American from the south side of Fort Wayne, and I went to a record store down the block to check out the CDs. We talked together, showing each other the jazz albums we wished we had the money to buy. He picked up a CD and we walked to the top floor together. Somewhere up there he decided he shouldn’t get it. And like we all do, he put it up on the rack a floor above where he found it. And we left.

Not 20 feet from the door, someone came running out to stop my friend. We were clearly walking together, but I could have easily kept walking. The guy was an undercover cop and the store clerk had told him that my friend had probably stolen the CD. They went back into the store, and my friend took him to the rack where he had left it.  I don’t think I could have remembered where I left the silly thing if it were me. But my friend did– probably a familiar habit for him for just this reason. It struck me that neither the clerk nor the cop thought to implicate me in the questions. We could have just as easily passed the disc upstairs and I could have walked away unchallenged. There was one difference– the color of my skin. To be clear, I am not saying that either the cop or the clerk were bad, evil people. They simply acted from their prejudices.

Though I knew racism was real, especially in the north, I never really understood how it worked. There, on the streets of Chicago outside a record store, I realized just how much privilege I had simply because I am white. I learned, in just a few seconds, how people make snap judgements– thinking they know what is happening with just a glance at someone. And I came to know there were clearly two sets of standards, two different stories people constructed about the two of us just because I am white and he is black.

Those that try to narrow the Martin and Zimmerman conflict to just the few seconds when the fight broke out do not acknowledge the judgements both men made– Zimmerman assuming a black guy in the neighborhood is up to no good and Martin that a white guy following him was just as menacing. Just a little bit of empathy can put us into each man’s shoes– the frustration of another white guy assuming I am trouble at night; another unknown black man, looking suspicious in a gated community. Both reacted to their prejudice. Both fought from their fear. Neither was justified. Neither stopped long enough to ask questions. One man died. One man committed a mortal sin. No one won.

Just the other day I stopped to help a guy standing by his car waving his hands frantically. To be honest, for a few seconds my thoughts were to keep going. Can I trust him? What if he does something once I am out of the truck? He’s black, I am white. I stopped, about a 100 yards away and had to back all the way up. Do I think I am somehow heroic for pushing his car to the gas station? Not in a million years. But in thinking back, I realized just how much I had to fight against the stories in my head. I had to consciously put aside fear and prejudice for the greater good of helping someone I couldn’t know what would happen, and had no reason to trust him. I was vulnerable. And that is just how it should be.

Jesus once told a lawyer a similar story. A man lay beaten and bloody on the side of a mountain road. Those who were supposed to know right from wrong, from compassion and judgement, walked on by. The outsider, the one no self-respecting Hebrew of the day would even talk to, was the one that stopped to care for the man. Those that passed probably had every justification in the world for ignoring the man– some cultural, maybe even some based in fact, and some religious. But only one, the Samaritan, stepped outside the tapes playing in his mind to do the right thing.

I have no illusions that our society will some how become more just by the laws we pass. I am not naive enough to think that racism is a disease that can be cured. I do think, however, that we as followers of Jesus are constantly asked to act in spite of our prejudices, in spite of the stories we tell ourselves when we walk the streets alone. To stand up on these events to champion a political cause- whether it be systemic racism or gun laws- is simply to capitalize on hurting people. Yet, if we as disciples do not take this occasion to ask how we act from our prejudices rather than grace, we have missed the opportunity live into our salvation.

I am white. I am racist- sometimes. I make snap judgements about whites and blacks. And I repent. I am trying to live like the Kingdom of God has come. I fail at times and receive grace at others. But as Thomas Merton prayed- I believe that the desire to please God does in fact please God, and I pray- daily- that I have that desire in all that I do. I pray that I may be more like the Samaritan.

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Discipling Imagination

“We have too often pursued flawed models of discipleship and Christian formation that have focused on convincing the intellect rather than recruiting the imagination.” James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom

I recently attended a large conference that focused on the theme of Discipleship. Having worked on the topic in academic circles (through studying asceticism) and now as denominational staff for three years I tried to go with an open mind. At times it was fun watching Church Growth leaders trying to wrestle with the idea- and often getting much right, but equally as often importing their previous understanding into new vocabulary.

Much of the what was said was still pretty heady, literally. The discipling relationship was often cast is terms of teaching and sharing ideas in the midst of regular life. As Smith says, discipling was often the process by which the intellect learns Christian ideas. In one workshop the presenters went out of their way to say that their model was “about the process.” Yet, many of the questions were asking the content question: “What resources can I use to communicate the content?” In the end, the general sense I got was that discipleship was the new educational model- transferring Christian content by means of relationships.

To me, there is a huge gap in this conception of discipleship, which Smith gets right. Discipleship isn’t process and content delivery in the midst of relationships- rather it is about getting below the intellect, to the heart.

Becoming more like Christ is, as Smith says, about affect- the instinctual observing of the world through the eyes of Christ and being primed by that very affect to act like Jesus.

Thus it isn’t a process, but a practice. We rehearse and rehearse the story within our bodies. That is why I find the act of washing feet to tbe the central image for discipleship. Having to stoop, touch someone, and even embrace when the foot is dry gets below our intellectual understanding of service. We learn something within our core about what it means for Christ to empty himself. We learn that service isn’t a place of pride, but a way of care. All of those responses aren’t ideas we learn, but gut reactions. We get it- not with our mind- but our hearts and bodies.

So for all my church growth friends, I hope this turn toward discipleship does not follow the same “flaw” of intellectualizing the Christian way of life. I hope that we can make the turn to recover the ways we follow Jesus with our whole person- heart, mind, and body.

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Deconstructing Violence, Embodying the Kingdom

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“Non-Violence” image courtesy of Flickr.com

In a recent workshop on faith and politics the standard trope about Anabaptism quickly emerged. “We have a moral responsibility within society, and to vote would be to abdicate that responsibility.” The implication was clear- the Anabaptist impulse to withdraw (itself a narrowly defined understanding of the tradition) is a dismissal of that social moral imperative. This presenter then followed it up with the typical casuistry exemplar. With the rise of gun violence in Chicago, a well documented trend, what is the Christian to do? Wouldn’t lobbying for gun reform be the wisest, expedient, and most moral action to take?

Now in the most recent issue of The Christian Century Scott Paeth, associate professor of religion at DePaul University asks in a brief editorial: “What culture of violence?” The subtitle of the article makes his case clear- “Why we shouldn’t blame video games and movies.” If that was not enough to reveal his partisan stripes, his opening summary of the National Rifle Association and concluding remarks about the need for limiting firearms placed him within the political debate. “A more effective approach, I suspect, would be to contain the potential damage done by the confluences of violent media and violent intentions by depriving the fire of its power to burn. This would entail imposing tighter restrictions on the availability of certain kinds of firearms and ammunition” (pg, 12).

The argument leading to this conclusion follows typical modern assumptions about society and progress. As he states plainly, “the data do not support the idea that the consumption of violent media leads to a greater propensity toward violence.” Even more starkly, he says that the evidence “points in the opposite direction” (pg. 11). In support he states rather plainly, “overall violence has declined in the United States over the past five years” (pg. 11).

To be fair, Paeth’s overall caution is worth keeping in mind. The causes of violence are intricate and complicated. Addressing violent games and movies is not sufficient. Issues such as poverty, drugs, and access to weapons play a role in societal violence. What is more, the brief theological observation later in the editorial is equally a part of the conversation for the church: “At the heart of Christian teaching is the realization that we are in some sense fundamentally broken creatures, sinners in need of redemption from a transcendent source” (pg. 12).

However, the leap to advocate for public policy does not necessarily follow. As was evidenced by the presenter who asked what an Anabaptist was to do in the face of rising gun violence in Chicago, the modern imagination is hostage to the politics of the society. Meaningful, and “efficient” engagement with society- the redemption from a transcendent source- is to be found in the legislative debates of partisan politics. Underlying this limited thinking is a kind of exceptionalism, of the progressive kind. Despite mass killings in the 20th and 21st century, and the stunning efficiency (even dehumanizing of) killing, progressives continue to champion the progress of modern society. Not only have the last five years seen drop in violent crime, but the very political system itself is  presented as a sign of humanity’s rising, its capacity to effect societal change. In a moment of Pelagian optimism, Paeth demonstrates this plainly when he says that “as a society, we seem to be getting less violent even as the depiction of violence in media becomes more graphic and realistic” (pgs 11-12).

Indeed, as Paeth says, the causes of such horrific violence- whether in mass shootings or on the part of nations- the causes of violence are legion. To name one facet, whether violent video games or access to firearms or poverty induced crime, is to over simplify. Unfortunately, by taking the legislative position he does, Paeth engages in the same fallacy as the NRA.

In truth, the lobbying option is too easy. Asking a senator to vote one way on a particular piece of legislation requires nothing of us. In terms of discipleship to Christ, such advocacy does nothing for the incarnational witness in the places that need the change the most. In other words, the lobbyist can live in the comfort of affluent K St northwest in Washington DC but never have to confront the actual violence just a few miles away in the northeast quadrant of the city. To legislate weapons of any kind does nothing to address the statistically confirmed indicators of violence- poverty, isolation, and drugs.

To the presenter in the faith and politics workshop- the answer is clear, but not easy. Changing the culture of violence asks us to embody Christ in the places where the violence is happening. Move into the neighborhood. Build relationships. Mentor young people. Invest in local businesses. In other words, live the same self-emptying posture of Jesus himself (Philippians 2). Step down from our affluent isolation, beholden to societal expectations of upward mobility, and live with the people in most need of love and grace. It isn’t new laws that stop the violence. It is real people, in real relationships, that work in Christ-like ways, telling new stories of non-violent redemption and resurrection, sharing food around real tables, and caring for one another that bring to life a new way of Christ-centered peace into our world.

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It’s the guns and our imagination

We are all stunned, spinning in a state shock after the events in Connecticut last Friday. Today, I dropped my own first grader off at school, saying a short prayer as he closed the door and strangely comforted by the police cruiser parked at the corner.

In our dizzying state of disbelief a number of responses have emerged. Some have rallied to stem the tide of firearms, both through legislation and in gun buy back programs. Others, have stood up for increasing the number of weapons in our public spaces through concealed carry permits and even armed teachers in our classrooms. One thing is for certain, each of these and all the responses in-between grow out of the same grief, terror, and unknowing.

I’m not a card carrying member of the NRA, and even long for some tighter restrictions on the number and availability of firearms. As is often said at graduations around the country- there has to be some understanding of the responsibilities that come with rights. So, as I read through the many news stories about the Sandy Hook shooting, I can’t see how new gun legislation would have prevented it. Sure, very few people need a military style, semi-automatic rifle and magazines that carry more than 10 rounds. Yet, if it wasn’t the Bushmaster .223, it could have just as easily been the Glock and Sig which are both as fast and have 10 round clips or even any other rifle that can fire multiple rounds per second.

There seems to be a deeper concern- which some public figures have tried to put their finger on, but have only made matters worse. The question that hovers above the politics of gun control and ownership seems to be more cultural. “What is happening that persons week after week enter our public spaces to kill mass numbers of innocent people?” A week ago, a man entered a mall with a similar weapon and was only slowed down by a jammed round in the gun. The week before that another man went on a similar rampage, this time with a bow and arrow. It doesn’t appear to be the guns, but a culture of violence that shapes our imaginations to find some solace for despair in killing unknown and countless innocent people.

Some pastors have tried to say that it is because America has rejected God. Mike Huckabee and others have tried to say this was the result of taking prayer out of schools. What if, however, it isn’t a matter of what has been taken away, but what has been ever present in our culture for over 10 years- war and war games.

As I have argued in many other posts, we pay very little attention to the things that shape and form us. James K.A. Smith has made this abundantly clear in his book Desiring the Kingdom. There are liturgies in our society, both religious and secular, that shape what we desire and imagine. News cast after news cast show us the costs of war- death tolls, anonymous bombings and unmanned drone strikes, fear and the clouds of war. What is more, an entire generation has grown up on special ops video games that place the person in the first person perspective watching the “enemy” spray blood and die with the pull of a virtual trigger. Even more alarming is the rate at which these games have grown in simulating the reality of gun battles and war.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the company which produced the Bushmaster .223 used on Friday has publicly stated that these military style weapons are the weapons of choice for young adults. In these video games, the AR-15, the Sig Sauer, and the Glock are all depicted with stunning realism and can be selected for the game. The rise in these shootings with these weapons is a direct product of imaginations shaped by the war games and television shows that depict them as cool and fun.

Certainly, the availability and open access to such firearms should be questioned. At the same time we should be asking just what things within our culture actively shape our hearts and minds to imagine such radical forms of violence. Our kids no longer play “Cowboys” with finger pistols but sit in front of true to life images of guns and violence. The jump, then, from game to reality increasingly narrows so that pushing a game control button and pulling a real trigger are not dissimilar.

In full disclosure, no news of this particular shooter playing such games has been reported. I am rather pointing to the things within our culture which make imagining a mass shooting possible. We should be actively questioning such realism as entertainment. And we should be finding ways to breakdown the isolation, social abuse, and fear that create a matrix with our violently shaped imaginations and make possible such acts.

As a people, we are no longer desensitized to acts of violence. We are shaped to imagine them with shocking realism.

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A Materialistic Church: The Missional Corrective to Anabaptism

The standard critique of Anabaptism in its traditional form, and thus extended to its recent recovery, is that it is sectarian. Anabaptist visions of living in an alternative community, with different stories and rituals, is about withdraw from the current world. In fairness to the critique, there are some forms of the tradition that are about withdraw and creating a strong separatist culture with a dominant society. It is said, then, that Anabaptists are disconnected from reality and overly idealistic in thought and practice.

Yet, this need not be the case. In fact, I think that the intersection of Missional thinking and Anabaptism is a right balance of peculiarity and cultural participation. In this video, Michael Frost at the Sentralized conference demonstrates just how fruitful the interaction between the two schools of thought can be. Rather than arguing for a purist community withdrawn from society, Frost talks of the church as a community in exile. Dress in the clothes, enjoy the food and games, develop relationships with others, and yet tell the radical stories, sing the dangerous songs and embody different ways within the dominant culture.

Put another way, the Missional posture takes the Anabaptist community out of the realm of ideal forms and puts it on the ground. The congregation, as the central story telling and ritual place, does not exist in the sweet by and by. Rather, it is local- it is made up of people right where we are, comprised of hopes, fears, questions and needs. It is not isolated from the injustices of the society, nor is it immune to the questions the surrounding culture is asking.

Thus we aren’t talking about ethereal practices, but specific actions. We aren’t just talking about radical songs, but the very things a congregation actually sings. And when we talk of washing feet, we aren’t talking about a sentimental woodcut image but real feet on real people. And when we say we are being the church, it is clearly not the ideal. We are real people, who have goals and yet stumble along the way. We laugh with each other one moment and gossip the next. We serve meals with each other and then work at power grabs in the business meeting. The Missional corrective to Anabaptism reminds us that we are real people with faults and are situated in a wider context from which there is no escape.

Those who tend toward the idealized portrait of the church, those of the Anabaptist persuasion would do well to take seriously the contextual and cultural awareness that Missional theology brings. As part of that move, it is important for us Neo-Anabaptists and NuDunkers to wrestle significantly with the Incarnation as the defining theological frame for the tradition. By remembering that Christ did not come outside of a time and a place, we can begin to articulate how the vision for the church so central to our thought is not divorced from either. Our faith is, as Peter Rollins and many others say, a materialistic faith. And thus our ecclesiology or theology of the church, must be equally materialistic and embodied.

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What just happened?

Votes have been cast. I am sure tears have been shed just as there have been shouts of victory. Yet, we all woke up today- the world did not end either in the coming of a savior or in the first days of the anti-christ. So we really have to ask- What just happened?

Unfortunately, the politi-tainment machines are still in gear. Now the media will move into the post-mortem of an electoral season that their viewers were first hand observers of for over 18 months. While a retrospective is outside the norm for our 24 hour news cycle, it is an important move. Although I would go about it completely differently. Instead of looking to polls to interpret the meaning of the outcome, I think we should be asking ourselves a different question- “What just happened to us?”

From my experience, I can only say that we have been object of a systematic effort to co-opt our imagination.

In the late weeks of October a number of bloggers, from Catholic to Anabaptist, explored the ideas of “not voting.” In reading both the posts and the comments, it was evident that to even ask the question was enough to draw anxiety and out right anger. It used to be that the question of voting was framed as  “civic responsibility.” Even those who would object to war were voting as a way of participating in the range of American democracy. In using the goods of the civic system, the responsible thing to do was vote. Now, the logic of the Religious Right of the 1980’s, has taken significant hold across the religious spectrum. If one has convictions about the public good, whether related to abortion, poverty, or war, there is a spiritual mandate to contribute one’s voice through a  vote. In many ways, the cast vote is now a prophetic witness. Unfortunately, those who chose not to vote cast their abstinence in the same light- to not vote is to offer a public witness to the debacle of American governance. Both groups then, take the moral high road, invoking a long tradition of prophetic witness while conflating it with the act of voting and its negation.

The reality is that this very divide is a direct product of the political system. We can’t seem to think in shades or in nuance. It is either black or white, red or blue, conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican. The American experiment in democracy is precisely the outgrowth of the modern binary of either/or. To even think there is a range of reasons to not vote, or that one’s conscience to cast a ballot is based on a number of concerns or issues just passes by unnoticed. Either one votes, and is an upstanding Christian and true prophet or one is apostate and in danger of losing one’s soul for not. Never mind the equally judgmental rhetoric that is leveled at those who cast votes, albeit for a different party. Somehow we have arrived to the point where one’s faith and Christian walk is dependent not just on voting, but voting for one candidate or the other.

So what has happened to Christians in the midst of this polarized, binary culture? We fight amongst ourselves. We accuse one of not being for justice and another for not caring about the poor. We base our judgments of people’s faith based on their candidate signs in their yard. We look down the pew with disdain knowing our fellow worshiper has “that guy’s sticker”  on his or her car.” Meanwhile, we expend all our energy on the name calling and excommunicating as more people lose their homes, grow hungry and are killed by nation-state aggression.

What has happened to us in this electoral cycle? Easy. We have become more divided and easily conquered. The ways of the system have effectively neutralized any prophetic witness from the church for decades because we have conflated our faith, our vote, and our voice.

So now what? As I said recently- vote, don’t go vote. Discern your conscience. Then once the high holy day of American Democracy has passed, lets meet in the streets and sit with the poor, wash their feet, give them a meal. Let’s go to the VA and cry with the vets while we bandage their physical and emotional wounds. Let’s all take a single mother into our lives, helping to raise the child and let’s cry with the one who found no other option but to have an abortion. Then, once our whispered voices of votes and non-votes have faded we can embody a true prophetic shout together.

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Inauthentic Me?

I recently had a great conversation with a young leader in our denomination. This person asked the right question: “Do you feel like you can’t be you since you work with the whole denomination?”

It is the question of a generation.

Authenticity is a big deal today. Are you being true to yourself? Are you being who you say you are, or are you morphing into someone everyone else what you to be? And for many today, inauthenticity is the 8th deadly sin.

To be honest, I am not one to champion authenticity. I might cry foul when someone is politicking me or putting up a front, but I don’t think that being authentic is the remedy. I just don’t think we should start making Authenticity, with a capital A, the newest Cardinal Virtue.

Simply put, sometimes the “me” I want to be isn’t the best me. Or to phrase it another way, there a lot of times I rely on a simple motto: The first thing I thought, not the first thing I said.

See, I can get angry. My frustrations often get the better of me and my repines is not the best side of my personality.

I can jump to judgements without hearing the whole story, or taking the time to understand what is going on.

In a personality survey, I test low in “Rule Consciousness.” Basically, when rules make sense to me, I follow them as best I can. When they seem superfluous or overly legalistic, I tend to work from “Ask forgiveness rather than permission.”

And quite frankly, I am naturally anxious. I get nervous about how I come across. I worry as the expectations mount, and fear failure above most everything else. The end result is that I can easily become paralyzed in my anxiety and fear. The easiest route for me is not to try, or to hide away and avoid the possibility of failure.

If I am being me, then these things come out. And sometimes, the post-modern desire for authenticity says that these come without apologies. I am who I am, and I should be me in any circumstance.

In Christian spirituality this often is categorized under “Being who God created me to be.” Or at least that is the excuse. God has made me an angry, judgmental, expedient, and anxious person. Yet, when I live there, I am not the person I most want to be. In old fashioned churchy language, I sin. I hurt others. I hide rather than witness to God’s work. And I don’t enter the doors God has called through.

Think of Moses as he hears God’s call to return to Egypt as a liberator. “God, I can’t do that … that just isn’t me.” Yet, in the presence of God’s call the true self emerges. Its funny as we read through Moses’ journey from the Sinai to Egypt he makes all the speeches. His “press secretary” Aaron, the one God appointed as Moses’ companion, doesn’t say much. The stuttering shepherd became the eloquent leader.

Our emphasis on Authenticity today has ignored the reality that we each have two selves. There is the me I project and try to maintain, what Thomas Merton often called “the false self.” In the transforming grace of Christ, however, we each discover our “true selves.” We come to know our faults, and yet live into the gifts God has given us for mission.

Unfortunately, I don’t live as my true self all the time. Occasionally the true me surfaces and good things happen, but more often than not I look back and see the parts of me that cause hurt or paralysis. To be sure, the false self can be the one that others try to force onto me. The graced me, the Josh God is helping me to become, fights that projection just as much as the one I create. Yet, authenticity doesn’t get at the True Self. It does not ask me which self I am being true to- the false one, or the one God is leading me towards.

In the light of Christ my aim is to be my True Self, the one I am called to be, not necessarily the one I am.

The better antidote to the vice of inauthenticity is better understood as humility. I am Josh, the some times angry, some times anxious and judgmental. I am the Josh who tries and stumbles and tries again. I am the Josh who has some ideas, but not all the answers. And I am the Josh that needs others to help me see the whole picture. Humility as a virtue says to all those around us that we are who we are, but we are striving towards the “me I want to be.” Humility asks those around us to join that same journey, simply because we are more ourselves when we are with others.

Some might throw up warnings that too much emphasis on “me with others” leads to stifling of my true self. Yet, I think that Rowan Williams says it best in his book Tokens of Trust: “Our peace is what it is because it is a flow of unbroken activity, the constant maintenance of relation and growth as we give into each others’ lives and receive from each other, so that we advance in trust and confidence.” (105).

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If we build it…

At a recent conference a Neo-Anabaptist friend of mine asked why the traditional Anabaptists in the room were so unaware of the missional, post-christendom nature of our faith. It was quite obvious that most of those in the room, especially those over forty, were steeped in the liberal and institutional nature of the Brethren and Mennonites. In fact, often the vocabulary of some of the presenters more often reflected the political perspectives of our wider culture.

The question helped name just why I was a bit disheartened. The answer, however, is neither comforting nor easy.

Like many Christian traditions, the years following World War II were significant for the Anabaptists. Church buildings were built to accommodate increasing attendance and organizational structures grew to reflect the surrounding secular institutions. To be fair, these structures were created in order to gather and expand the local ministries of the congregations. By gathering resources and energy, these denominations could leverage their energy and funds to greater effect than could a single congregation. The effect, however, was to institutionalize what had initially begun as a movement.

It was not long until these institutions began to look more and more like other mainline denominational structures. Endowments were created, office buildings were constructed, and governance soon took over the original intent of facilitation. The Christendom model of buildings and programs soon took firm root.

Entering the contentious years of the 60’s and 70’s these historical peace churches encountered a new phenomenon. Their witness for non-violence soon spoke to a whole segment of American culture. Rather like the building based model of church growth so common in Christendom, this was an ideological outreach, albeit more passive in form. As people began looking for faith communities that spoke of peace, they found the Mennonites and the Brethren. The denominations themselves needed to do very little to entice these seekers, or in more traditional language, to evangelize. Instead, the people found us.

With this influx, however, came the Enlightenment Liberalism that the early movements tried to counter. Instead of seeing peace-making as an outgrowth of Christian formation, it became the mode of conduct. Peace was in many ways unhinged from discipleship. Soon the language of liberalism began to co-opt what had been a unique vocabulary of the movement. Justice, peace-making, and mutual aid started to look a lot more like the pacifism and altruism of secularism. There soon was little to distinguish Anabaptist theology from the ideologies of the wider cultural of American Liberalism.

To be fair, this was not just a flip of the switch. We did not become like the culture or other Christendom traditions over night. It was a long process of engagement, conversation, and attempts to speak faithfully in a particular time.

The result however, is common across the other mainline traditions. Denominational structures are in significant decline. The numbers of people in the pews is shrinking and thus the capital to support such large bureaucracies is waning. And just like the rest of America, the church finds its language and practices increasingly defined by the partisan politics of the 24 hour news cycle. Our communities reflect more the political party of choice than the traditions from which they emerged.

Despite this dire portrait, there is something to be said for the Anabaptist traditions. At their very roots these churches were movements of discipleship, structures and institutions followed. Our mainline cousins, on the other hand were birthed in the magisterial days when bureaucracies, secular and ecclesial, intentionally looked very similar. The bishops and diocese were patterned after provinces and governors. Christendom shaped both civil and church practices for these denominations.

For us as Anabaptists we need not look very far into our tradition to readapt to a Post-Christendom culture. We don’t need to assume that people are attracted to our buildings but reclaim a way of life as our witness. We don’t need to passively speak of peace, but adopt the ways of reconciliation that were a part of a life of discipleship.

Though my Neo-Anabaptist friend and I were a bit dismayed at the remnants of Christendom Liberalism, we need not dwell there. As our institutions decline and as the fallacy of our wedding of the Enlightenment and tradition is revealed, the resources and practices are at finger’s length. Turning toward communal formation and expectations for individual discipleship provide us the tools to reclaim our movement and missional nature. If we live it, people will come.

 

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Help, I am Being Repressed!

That classic line from Monty Python’s Holy Grail should be the new mantra for much of American Christianity. Progressives shout it at the screens of TVs and computers full of televangelists and pundits promoting another reading of the Gospel, while conservatives shout it at messages of tolerance from secular liberals.

No where has this been more evident than in the two recent debates regarding religious freedom and free speech. First, the US Catholic bishops played the repression trump card in the wake of the Health and Human Services decision to mandate insurance converge for birth control. Second, and most recently, conservative Christians flocked to a certain chicken vending establishment to stand up for the CEO whose statements about same-sex marriage ignited a media (and social media) firestorm.

Without comment on either of these specific instances, I have to wonder when American Christians became the most persecuted faith on the planet. Most recent studies of faith in the United States show that Christians are still the majority with just over 60% of the population. In addition, Christian leaders still exercise a great deal of influence in our cultural debates. In comparison to many countries around the world, where the practice of Christianity is often met with death either by militias or governments, we in the US have it easy. So when a company might lose a million in profits, or if I am offended at some media personality challenging Christian thought or practice, it is simply beyond reason to assume someone is being persecuted.

Aside from the social and cultural realities, Christians before the conversion of Constantine, or even later the coronation of Charlemagne by the Pope, assumed that confessing Jesus was equal to significant persecution. Each of the martyr stories exemplify a radical posture of acceptance of, even submission to, a culture other than the Church. Each one knew the possibilities and yet faith in Christ was more compelling than the gladiators and lions.

In Luke 14 Jesus speaks to his followers about the cost of discipleship. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost.” (Luke 14:28, RSV) In a context where faith is unfathomable or is outright rejected, our question should not be; “How can I change the culture, what kind of political stand can I make;” but “What will this cost me, and am I ready to pay whatever loss might come?”

The American experiment has created a context in which we have not had to weigh the cost of following Jesus. We have long been able to be both Christian and American without any threat or possibility of persecution. In the conservative and progressive camps of modern Christianity the knee jerk reaction is often the same. Take a stand, rally likeminded voters, or picket the latest monster to sway public and legal opinion in our favor. Both of these groups still assume a kind of Christendom mentality in which the state and the faith are similar enough to prevent any kind of challenge. All that is needed is a good publicity campaign and a solid reference to the First Amendment in order to avoid true persecution.

So which mantra will it be? “Help, I am being repressed!” or “Count well the cost.”

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Christendom Isn’t Dead?

Recently Mennonite pastor Isaac Villegas penned a brief article for Mennonite World Review that called the Post-Christendom thesis into question. By highlighting the recent political developments in North Carolina, especially the influence of figures like Billy Graham and the US Catholic Bishops, he states quite emphatically that “Given the dominance of Christianity in the United States, we ought to rethink using the language of ‘post-Christendom’ to describe our time and place.” This understanding of the Post-Christiendom interpretation of culture, however, narrows in on one element of the thesis: “The Christian story has moved from the center to the margins of culture.”

While Villegas rightly observes the dynamics of the American political process, he marshals the narrative as evidence that Christendom is alive and well. There are two problems with such a generalization. First, a robust definition of Post-Christendom entails more than just these political power moves. Second, social research is showing quite clearly that fewer and fewer persons are self-identify as Christian. So then, these political anecdotes are not a sign that Christendom is flourishing but are indicators that established groups of Christians are fighting to stay in positions of cultural power. In other words, we are in the slide toward the marginalization of Christianity. These days are simply the death rattle of Christendom in North America.

British Christians like Stuart Murray are speaking to America from the other side of this journey. In fact, Murray himself is clear as he engages American Christians that even the idea of Christendom in the United States differs significantly from that of modern Europe. Their outlining of the Post-Christendom thesis, then, includes a number of markers. “Christians therefore no longer feel at home in the dominant culture.” As a result, Christians “no longer enjoy automatic privileges.”  More to the point of Villegas’ criticism of the perspective, “The church no longer exercises control over society but instead Christians can exercise influence.” The wider cultural reality of pluralism and the constitutional disestablishment of a particular form of Christianity have created an atmosphere of anxiety among previously established church leaders.

At the same time, sociologists are backing up this interpretive frame. Ross Douthat, Diana Butler Bass, and George Barna have all noted in their recent books that the number of persons who self-identify with a particular religion has significantly declined in the last decade. Even those traditions that had flourished as Mainline Protestants declined in the late 20th century- non-denominational Evangelicals and Mormons- have decreased in percentage of population.

So what are we to make of this decline? I for one, agree with Stuart Murray, we are on the path to a Post-Christendom culture. The church in the coming decades will only be one more voice among many. What is more, established and institutional religion will most likely be “on the margins.” Part of the Post-Christendom assessment within North America is not to say “we are now the minority,” but rather to say this is the coming reality. Do we cling onto the previous vision of cultural hegemony as was the case for previous centuries, assuming that Church life and political culture are intertwined? Or, do we embrace the emerging realities and reconsider the Mission of the God.

David Fitch, in his book “End of Evangelicalism?” points to this dilemma in his discussion of the ideology of the Christian State. American Evangelicals, especially, have embraced the disestablishment clause of the first amendment but have assumed a kind of privilege in terms of political governance. This is also clearly argued in James Davidson Hunter’s book “To Change the World.” These Christendom minded groups, both liberal and conservative, assume that the society can become more Christian as the people assert their democratic influence. Such an ideology, however, is soon to not be a reality. Both the numbers and the stories are showing that christianity will eventually lose influence. Even in cases where Christian leaders can influence the political debates, these laws will eventually be struck down by the constitutional logic of rights and freedom of religion. What we see now are Christendom leaders trying desperately to keep their power as it slips through their fingers.

Unfortunately, Villegas falls into the same trap as many of the Christendom diaspora. He has assumed that Christendom is summed up in the political discourse and process of the country. But as Murray and others reflect on their own cultural realities, the Post-Christendom move is starting to show up in North America. We can no longer assume that those around us naturally know the parts of the Christian story. We cannot assume that just because we have a church building people will automatically come to worship. What is more, the typical “return to church when you are married and have kids” perspective will no longer sustain the institution. In sum, the Post-Christendom argument is about much, much more than just politics. It is an assessment of the culture in which we are finding ourselves.

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