Tag Archives: Discernment

The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church

The church is dead. Or at least every marker we would hold up as a sign of life is in decline. Membership is down across the board, and worship attendance is but of fraction of what it once was. Budgets are in decline as congregations and denominations struggle to find ways to support their ministries and leaders.

On top of that, nearly every denomination is fighting within itself. Leaders and laity a like are asking not “if we split” but talking about “when we split.”

Of course, this is not news. Even if saying it so bluntly causes you to gasp, we have known that the church is dead for some time, and known it deep in our bones. Each year the anxiety builds towards budgeting season, and every pastoral transition brings a whole new season of “visioning.” Lay leaders are hard to come by, and those who do say “yes” seem to be the same ones year in and year out. Words like change, relevance, adaptation, and even mission fill board minutes and sermon manuscripts in nearly every congregation. When sociological research confirms again and again that the US is growing less religious each year, church leaders scramble to find new and attractive ways to stem the tides.

Denominational statistics confirm what many know from social research, namely that our members are aging. Membership numbers across the board are in decline, and have been for some time. Of course the subsequent financial decline is following. Congregations are often faced with mounting costs— property, utilities, and staff salaries—and must choose between keeping the lights on or keeping the pastor at full time or continuing important ministries and allocations. Institutional systems constructed with financial windfalls fueled by the baby boom and peak numbers of church attendance now find themselves struggling to maintain staff, program, and property. In the last decade nearly every mainline denomination has undergone significant restructuring in order to responsibly meet the new financial realities.

All the while church leaders, both evangelical and mainline, seem flustered by the emerging realities, especially the growing marginalization of the church in general. The new normal is a constant state of anxious panic.

In cultures governed by monarchies every change of leadership was a microcosm of panic. Each time a king or queen died, there was a moment of possible anarchy as the power changed hands. Lodging the succession of the crown in family lineages was one way to keep that window of transition as small as possible. A phrase quickly emerged to help the people stem the moment of anxiety. When the monarch died, it would be proclaimed around the realm “the king is dead, long live the king.” Though there were sure to be changes as a result of the transition, the lines of continuity were well in place. The people need not panic, or act from their anxiety.

To be honest, we have very little that assures us as the church of any continuity. The modern structures of church life like denominations, congregations, and even church buildings no longer provide us with the sense of security and continuity they once did. More simply, the ways of “being church” are dead or dying.

So we panic. We act from our anxiety, as if the future of the faith depends on our ability to shore things up, or change things to meet the times.

The church is dead, long live the church. That is now my new motto. As a historian I can point to any age and name the ways the church was different from the age before. And yet, when I step back and look at the longer trajectory of history, the church continued on. That was, for instance, the brilliance of the Reformation. Amidst the dramatic cultural, political, economic, and religious change, leaders like Luther were able to root the continuity of the faith through the scriptures. While everything around them was in turmoil, there was at least one line that could be drawn back in time to the first Christians. As the religious loyalties of the princes shifted, and thus the official religion of the territory changed with him, the people could still find their roots of the faith in the scripture.

I am finding myself asking not “what needs to change” but rather “what keeps us rooted in the long history of the church.” In other words— The church is dead, long live the church.

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Whose authority, which worship

This post is part of a NuDunkers conversation on worship and authority. As is our pattern, a Google Hangout will take place Thursday, September 25 at 10 AM eastern. You can watch the conversation live here, or you can catch it on Youtube. You are all welcome to join the conversation in the comments, or write your own blog. Each of us will also follow up the Hangout with a post that will name what struck us in the conversation. 

A healthy mistrust of authority runs through our modern DNA. With so many examples of those who have abused their role for personal gain, or at worst, those who have so exercised their authority to harm or even kill millions of people it is completely understandable. Even for us as Brethren, this mistrust of authority has theological roots. In the early days of the Dunker movement, authorities came in two general forms— the clergy and the princes. Those authorities were often the source of both political force and theologies that reinforced that same force. On the run from princes and bishops too closely aligned, the early Brethren often counted on a kind of radical democratic practice. Rather than count on the clergy and princes to define the terms, the community of believers functioned as the guide for the early Brethren.

The problem with this brand of anti-authoritarian posture is that we all too often confuse (as a friend recently commented to me) being against authoritarianism with being against authorities— that is persons who, by training or office, have significant roles in our lives. In short, we basically rail against any person who speaks into our lives. “Who are you to tell me what to do or to believe.” While this is certainly understandable in some situations, we often rely on relationships with others before we trust them enough to grant them any authority.

The problem, of course, is that many people have significant power in our lives, whether we let them in or not. That is why worship can be such a contested space in our church lives. Those who write the songs, compose the litanies, and even shape the service have a significant role in giving shape to our theology, often without our explicit consent to their authority. When the words we use in worship both speak for us as a community and impact the ways we conceive of God, they have a unique role in our lives. Those persons who write and speak in worship have a kind of authority.

When those words conflict with our ideas, or even our way of life, the conflicts flare up. “Who are you to speak for me.” Sometimes, even the strongest of relationships are tested by this conflict of words and authorities.

The problem is, of course, that there simply are authorities. The question, then, is which authority do we allow to shape our actions and perceptions. Because we assume that the authority of the worship leader or preacher is contingent upon the role we overlook the skills and study that inform his or her functional authority. In fact, when the conflicts emerge it is precisely the skills and understanding that are dismissed out of hand. “You are just the preacher.”

James K.A. Smith helpfully shows in Desiring the Kingdom how there are many practices and stories that shape us. When we are confronted by the worship wars, we are inevitably choosing between two different sources of authority. Something, or someone, is informing our perceptions and understanding along the way, and we choose (possibly subconsciously) which authority has the most sway in our personal actions.

So a worship leaders have significant authority in the choosing of words and songs to guide the worship of a community. And I, for one, want someone who has also cultivated the theological authority to make those judgements outside of the worship gathering. However, I am well aware that our priesthood of all believers theology can undermine that skill based authority. In other settings it is the office or role that has the authority, with or without clear theological authority. We are, then, stuck in a bit of a conundrum. Our priesthood of all believers commitments balance out the times when role trumps skill, and yet that same commitment can equally undermine when skill and function are aligned.

Though I have no answers in naming this tension, I do find the words offered to new graduates of nearly every educational system offer us some way into the question. When a student “commences” their next stage of life and receive the degree for which they have toiled, he or she is told that in receiving the diploma that they also receive “the rights and the responsibilities pertaining thereto.” Those rights and responsibilities that strike me as the core question for us around authority in worship. Both the community and its leaders have significant rights and privileges. Yet, they are equally responsible to one another in the exercise of those rights.

What would it look like for us as people of faith to state clearly what we think those rights and responsibilities are? What would it look like for us to articulate the many other authorities that shape us, that we allow to define the terms and practices for us as individuals and communities? What if, instead of stating “Who are you to speak for me” we started with the questions of what rights are in conflict, or what authorities are competing in our midst?

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Midwife Theologians

When we were expecting out first child we decided to go with a midwife. Actually, there were several midwives in this particular practice. In the course of our many visits we saw each midwife so that we would be familiar with whoever happened to be on call when we arrived at the hospital. 

On the night our son was born the midwife amazed me. My wife had started induction earlier in the day and progress was slow. That night, when hard labor came, the midwife was in our room the whole time. She coached on occasion, and she waited patiently while we did what we could to make it through the contractions. When it was clear that a little more intervention was needed, she stepped right in and confidently guided my wife. 

At some point in the last few minutes the IV line pulled out of my wife’s hand. At the sight of the blood on her arm I began to panic. But the midwife looked at me with her cool face, and told me everything was fine. She was the epitome of what counselors call a non-axious presence. 

I was reminded of the work of a midwife in a conversation with my theologian, poet friend Dana. We were talking, as we usually do,  about the new energy in pockets of the church and the age old question of what a church bureaucrat is to do with old wineskins and new wine. Maybe this is the time for midwives of the church. Maybe we need those people who recognize the pain, and point to the birth of something new.

Some argue that as institutions and structures begin to crumble there are open places that emerge. These open places are the perfect place for creative and new things to take shape. What is need though, are those persons who can inhabit the fissures and work in the open space. It is a weird mix of being within the structures yet challenging old visions and dreaming new dreams. It is in this middle place of the now and not yet that the midwife is most needed.

We need coaches who know the signs of pain for pain’s sake and pain that births something new.

We need leaders who can discern what that “something new” looks like, even if it is just visible in outlines.

We need pastors who aren’t anxious and can hold the space for conflict and struggle, not taking it personally but offering counsel and guidance when those around are too mired in the structures as they are to see the possibilities. 

And we need compassionate guides who see the failures in the way things are now and can invite others into new modes of faithfulness. 

We need more midwife-theologians.

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Forget Buechner: Or It Isn’t About You

If you have been in any conversations about vocation or calling in the last decade undoubtedly you have encountered the Frederick Buechner’s trite little phrase on the subject.  “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC)

When I first heard the phrase, it was a like a breath of fresh air. Finally, someone wasn’t talking about a calling like it was a chain around your ankles, something you ran away from for years only to finally submit to its weight. Buechner helped many of us recognize that God might actually have something in mind for us that we are passionate about.

That’s the plus side of his catch phrase. But in the years following, possibly as I have grown into my vocation, I have to say it isn’t all roses.

Truth be told, a calling is work. There are things that need to be done in order to do what I am called to. There are deadlines and paperwork. People have expectations for me, and ask for things outside of my “passion.” And these same expectations often set up climates where I must be political and not speak the first words that come to mind.

Of course, there is some balance to be found here. When the things that sap my attention and energy far out weigh the joys of my calling, then possibly it is time for a change. But at the same time, I cannot just keep flitting between what excites me at each new moment. There has to be some staying power to my vocation, or otherwise it isn’t vocation at all. It is just a hobby.

Basically, Buechner got it half right.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many days when I pinch myself saying “I get to do this as my job.” There is certainly a sweet spot to find between passion, need, and work. There is even a place where God’s own desires meet the other three. And that sweet spot is not always easy. There are bound to be draining days, where tasks consume any joy. And there may be times where God calls us to places we would not go given our own preferences. But to be honest, we do harm to the wisdom of Buechner’s definition when we over-emphasize the “me” part.

And we do a great disservice to those around us in discernment when we invoke the phrase and ignore the costs of our calling. Though a vocation and true calling is life giving, it is not all apple pie and ice cream.

Lately, I have found myself celebrating with persons who have found the release when they finally step into the next stages of their vocation. And then, a sentence later, I find myself reminding them that it will be tough. There are requirements, hoops to jump, criticisms of others, and even hard work to be done.

That second sentence comes from experience. As people ask how I can possibly do this PhD thing, I frequently say something like this: “If I had known what it would take before I started, I most likely would have gone another way.” But honestly, I cannot imagine what that other way would be. The path to this vocation of mine has been paved with sweat and tears, literally. I have been medicated for anxiety and depression for years. I have cried at the shear effort expended to “claim my voice.” And I have laid awake at nights fretting over the papers to be written. I have yelled at colleagues and professors. I have been yelled at in return. And yet, when the page comes off the printer, or someone recalls something I have written, all of that fades away and I say simply “this is my calling!”

Buechner was half right. And the other half lies in the space between passion and hunger. In that space is the hard work of following after a God who leads us into lacking and need.

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Confessions of a Recovering Progressive

Our Sunday school class just wrapped up a great series. We have asked several persons to share how their mind has or has not changed in the course of their life. When you think about it for a second, it is a huge question! We often think of certainty and belief as something we hold onto. Any change of perspective or understanding is somehow a sign of weakness, or even worse “flip=flopping.” Thanks to the American political culture the idea that we can change or come to a different understanding is now anathema. 

After our first set of conversations I started to wonder how I would answer the question. There are a couple of things that came to mind— how I turned to look at the early church in my studies; how I came to see universalism as a problem and not an opportunity. Those topics, of course, would be enough to comprise a blog post or more (and likely light few fires along the way). 

There has been, however, a general trend in my thinking that encompasses those particular topics. In the fancy fashion of catchy titles, I’ll simply say that “how I changed my mind” can be summed up this way- Confessions of a Recovering Progressive.

Growing up I wouldn’t say I lived in either a conservative or progressive part of the country. However, the general influence of American Evangelicalism was quite pronounced. I was an early participant in after school Bible studies, and even went to See You at the Pole events. At the same time I agued for Christian non-violence and pacifism in the days of the first Gulf War. By high school I came to define myself as socially liberal and biblically conservative- not really knowing the baggage of either term. 

In my senior year I chose to attend a generally progressive college. My friends who knew of Manchester, and heartedly disagreed with what they knew about the school, wished me well by saying: “Don’t let them change you.” Knowing these persons well, I understood this as a fond farewell. But I am sure there are others who hear it as a bit derogatory. In fact, my declaration of a major— Peace Studies— probably did create some concern.

At college, my sense of not fitting the mold continued. I eventually dropped my pursuit of Peace Studies for a variety of reasons, the foremost of which was that I felt my emphasis on religion as the basis for peace making was on the fringe of my fellow students. That isn’t to say that the Manchester Peace Studies lacked a religious foundation, but rather my peers held a typically modern perspective that religious conviction is at the root of most violence. 

Nonetheless, over time I found myself self-identifying as a progressive Christian. I even bought a book or two by John Spong. I was simply running in the crowds that valued a clear sense of being progressive and I had cut my theological chops among them. By the time I entered PhD work, I had even made my position clear as so many did in the early 2000’s— on Facebook. I listed my “Political Views” as progressive. 

Along the way though, I have never really felt too at home in that circle of liberalism. I have often felt at odds with the general assumptions about Modern Liberalism. Here I should say that Liberalism is the dominant perspective of America. The assumptions and ideologies of Liberalism frame our cultural and religious debates from religion and science, politics and faith, to economics and social good. It is the genus for the two political species we call “progressive” and “conservative.” In essence these two camps are arguing with each other as to the best understanding of the liberal perspectives ushered in by the politics and philosophy of modernity (Kant and Descartes, just to name two). Basically, progressives and conservatives are arguing about how to be the best Liberals.

At one point this finally came to a head as I argued with a fellow Brethren theologian about the ways the liberal dichotomy of progressive and conservative impact the debates of the day. He quickly commented that even as I say these things my Facebook profile labeled me within that liberal construct. The chipping away of my progressive credentials had begun, and I deleted my own label. 

Certainly, as many of my blog posts attest, I am not all that liberal. I have found Post-Liberalism to reflect more of where I stand, especially in my critiques of modern assumptions and the false dichotomy of progressive and conservative. In 2012 I posted a piece on the surge of interest in Neo-Anabaptism. There I tried to say that those of us within historic Anbapatist circles that find the emerging camps of Neo’s helpful and interesting are drawn to the Post-Liberal perspectives of thinkers such as Stanley Hauerwas. In a way, I was making my position much more clear, stating plainly that my constant fringe feeling within liberal circles, even before I knew the word Post-Liberal, was indicative of not having the right category. 

So thanks to my friend and fellow NuDunker Andy, I picked up Nancey Murphy’s book on liberalism and fundamentalism. There I found the exact sentiment I had been experiencing all my life, and had tried to encapsulate by saying I was socially progressive and biblically conservative. In her opening argument Murphy sums it up this way (in paraphrase): To the liberal we sound like fideists, and to the conservatives we sound like relativists. And there it was! I finally saw in print the exact feeling I had in high school and college. Progressivism simply did not have space for the deep sense of faith and tradition I often argue for in my theology. At the same time, conservatism simply did not have room for the pastoral and contextual perspective I often bring to ideological debates. 

So despite my strong critiques of capitalism, the death penalty, and the American warring culture, I am just not a progressive. At the same time, I am not do not think that returning to anything actually is possible or helpful (there are things like patriarchy that I simply do not want to recover). 

Of course, there is a lot more to say about changing my mind. There are a lot of tapes that run in our heads, especially in our political climate where liberalism in both forms defines so much of our language and perspectives. Pressing pause on those tapes, or even playing them backwards, takes time and energy. To do so, is often the source of some personal frustration and draws side glances or outright conflict from others. Yet, I have to say I am a recovering progressive in search of better words, more options, and less antagonism in the ways we understand our world and our discipleship. For now, it is enough to just say I am more at home among those for whom faithfulness is our social capital and not progress, where the politics of the world are but shadow games in light of the Politics of Jesus, and where economic presuppositions are based in mutuality and sharing rather than accumulation of wealth as a sign of success and blessing. 

And in the end, I remain a recovering progressive. 

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Change without a Change

It was a question I was wondering myself, but one that I had set aside as “theologically inappropriate.” Gathered around the dinner table the other day following my ordination in the Church of the Brethren, a friend asked quite plain;y: “What’s changed?”

As I said, theologically for the Brethren nothing changes at the moment of ordination- at least not anything that hadn’t already changed at baptism (and strictly speaking, nothing changes there either). We are a priesthood of all believers tradition. So technically, one enters ministry when he or she exits the waters of baptism. So, really, on the theological side, nothing changed.

And yet, a lot did change. As a church bureaucrat I can list all the things I now must do in order to maintain my ordination. And, for that matter, i now don’t need to fill out yearly paper work as I did as a licensed minister.

At the same time, the work I was already doing continues. The to-do list on my desk is the same as it was on Friday when I finally went home. There are no new events on my calendar. And the dissertation was not some how completed when I came in to the office.

I am just sacramental enough though to say that everything has changed. In the public recognition, both on my part and on the part of my faith community, I am not just Josh but am now a set-apart minister. In that public statement of vows, of reaffirming my baptismal covenant, and hearing the confirming assent of my congregation a lot does change. Even as I knelt among friends, family, colleagues, and sisters and brothers in faith, as they laid their hands on my head and shoulders, and as I held my youngest son in the midst of them, there was a change.

Certainly it was a change long in coming. It was not as though a switch was thrown the moment I stood up. Rather, in the 14 years of my discernment, ministry, and training I have lived into a different sense of myself. I am sure there are some who knew me at various points in my life who would be a little perplexed by the way my life has shaped up. Yet, over these years I have consciously put myself in places so that I could grow into a minister, and a particular kind of minister at that.

Ironically, there is a sense in which the change marked by the our ordination vows and prayers was not completed. I may not have annual reviews but I do sense that my vocation will have a different look and feel in a few years. As so many have said, this is a journey. Ordination may have been a high point along way, but it is nonetheless “on the way.”

So what changed? Everything and nothing, all at the same time. Thinking about that answer, I was drawn back into our NuDunker conversation about church planting. Ryan, a plater in Pennsylvania, said something to the effect “I love church planting and I hate.” In other words, no matter what changes, how the work goes, I cannot see my self doing anything else.

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NuChurches- Exponential Vitality

This post is part of the next NuDunkers conversation. This time we will discuss church planting. Several NuDunkers are in the early stages of planting churches so we thought exploring the practical and theological questions about the practice would be a great conversation. We will be joined in the video hangout this Friday at 10AM Eastern by Jonathan Shively, Executive Director for Congregational Life Ministries of the Church of the Brethren (and my boss!). To join the discussion, click over to the Google Event page, check out the blogs posted there, and comment to your heart’s content!

I am not a church planter. So I write more as an observer of and companion to those whose calling is to create communities of disciples.

I remember when the idea of church planting first came to my attention. My first reaction was similar to many I hear today in denominational circles. “Why plant new churches when we have so many dwindling communities already?” Now, many years later the answer to that question is a whole lot clearer. Church planting is not a zero sum game. Like one network of church planters says in their name, the growth is exponential.

Now as a parent, I understand just how this works. I am an only child. So when my wife and I talked of kids I could barely fathom being the father of one, let alone four kids. (In case you know me, yes you heard me right- four. We are expecting another member of the Brockway Brood in May!)  In our economic mindset we tend to think of love as a limited resource. So it really takes a stretch of the imagination to realize that as each kid is born the love of a parent grows to make enough room for them all. There is always enough love for one, or four, kids.

Growing the church is much like love’s growth. The energy, vitality of our congregations grows as more join us. That is, as long as we see ourselves as expanding the work of God in the world and not as creating more family groups of like minded people.

When we think of our congregations as safe places, where batteries are recharded to make it through a horrendous work week, comprised of friends and not fellow disciples we barely attend to the fact that what God has done for us should not be held tightly, but shared. In other words, we tend to lack the conviction that our faith is so convincing that we cannot do other than share it. Yes, I am talking about the E-word. We lack the conviction that our beliefs should be shared and that others should join us in following Jesus Christ.

When we have that conviction an energy fills and attracts. First, the mission of supporting and taking part in growing ministries enlivens existing communities. It reminds us that what we first experienced in God’s love continues, and makes room for us and many others. Second, the energy and conviction of a people embraced by God’s love draws others in. In more negative terms, why would people want to be a part of a community of people who solemnly conduct the business of maintenance. In short, people are drawn to life.

At some point, we must turn from zero sum thinking- that the energy and resources invested in planting churches is taken away from our existing congregations. Rather, we would do well to think systemically- that our ability to remain vital as communities of faith is a lot like love. It grows to sustain and enliven all our communities.

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Will the Real Yoder Please Stand Up

In Anabaptist land the debates around the legacy of John Howard Yoder are heating up. It seems that every Menno or Neo-Anabaptist blogger is wrestling with what to do with Yoder. Even contemporary writers working with Yoder’s theology have to now offer a kind of apologetic for doing so- (See the appendix to Peter C. Blum’s newest book “For a Church to Come”.) Even Mennonite Church USA has called a committee to assess Yoder’s legacy. Funny, since he died sixteen years ago, and the disciplinary process of his conference had concluded the previous year. Is this a new day of Anabaptist Inquisition?

Up front, I have to say I have no skin in this game. I am not a Yoder scholar, nor have I read much more than a couple of his books. I do find him useful in many regards simply because of his publishing. Other theologians know what I am talking about because Yoder jumped into the wider theological discussions of his time.

Second, there is no excuse for his conduct. Neither his social awkwardness or any theological justification that remains in his unpublished papers can convince me of that. Plainly, and flatly, he clearly abused his power and prestige. Even if a case can be made that some of the encounters were consensual, I still believe them to be in error, not just because of my theology of marriage and sexuality, but because any consent is still clouded by his position of power over others- as a teacher and as a noted scholar in the field. Basically, he held the careers of women in the balance based on his assessment. In ethics lingo, he was in a position of undue influence and he abused that position for his own gain.

Lastly, I mourn with the women still traumatized by Yoder and the continued engagement with his work. I stand with them, both in the call to openly discuss the failings of leadership and the unmasking of continued abuse of women by men in power.

At the same time, I hope that Yoder’s most vocal critics can distinguish their theological disagreements from their distaste for his conduct. As I said in a recent comment on Young Anabaptist Radicals, to mask disagreement with Yoder’s thought and influence with a pious ad hominem is to re-use the women he traumatized for other gains. Though this is not sexual abuse, it is abuse by proxy.

So I am hoping for some honesty to enter the conversation. I wish that all of Yoder’s work were available to assess just how his understanding of sex connects to his other published works. I also wish that people who are critical of his work were honest about the nature of their disagreement. If the frustration is with the ubiquity of his scholarship, then say so. If there are disagreements with the theology he outlined, then name the differences. But please, name the differences rather than resorting to the ad hominem of “and his work should be negated by his conduct.”

As I said in my comment on YAR, Hauerwas and McClendon clearly understood the implications of Yoder’s conduct for his writing. Thus, they coached him to submit to the disciplinary process as a living out of his stated convictions about the church and discipleship. That is not to say that his submission to the conference was a calculated political move, but that only in Anabaptist circles is such harmony between ideas and practice so important.

Other theologians are well known for their behavior. Barth had a long time sexual relationship with his assistant. Tillich is also known for his sexual conduct. Others are known for a clear lack of compassion in general. Yet, to say that “thus their work is questionable” matters very little. I certainly have problems with Barth’s theology and the way it is now an industry in itself. Yet, it is disingenuous and lazy to say his extra-marital relationship negates anything he says.

For Anabaptists in general, such an ad hominem has dramatic effects. It is inscribed in us from the first days of discipleship that our life and theology are to match. So to resort to the fallacy has tremendous rhetorical implications. Yet, it seems to me that the equally important value for discernment in community should remind us that we are also to discern our personal motivations.

Just as the women who were traumatized find the continued praise and publication of Yoder’s work to open old wounds, I have to assume that the invocation of their trauma for gains other than healing is equally as painful. So, then, just as many are asking for the real Yoder to stand up, and be known, I hope that the real criticisms of his work will be made known. Standing on the back of these women for political, theological, or other gain seems to put them back into the power play that first began at the hands of Yoder.

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A Better Anthropology

Last week I was knee deep in reading Peter C. Blum’s recent book “For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought.” Since I had also just finished an extended essay on the relevancy of the Brethren tradition for today, I was reading it with an eye toward understanding the intersection of Pietism and Anabaptism. In reading Blum’s excellent essay on feet washing, I was able to narrow the field of my question: How does the Pietist emphasis on the individual offer both a hurdle to overcome and a helpful corrective to Anabaptist collectivism?

I’ve written already on the intersection of the two traditions here. My question though, was primed by my good friend Scott Holland, a frequent reader and commenter of the NuDunker blogs. Scott, once a student with Yoder, offers a solid critique of Yoderian Anabaptism saying that “it offers an anthropology of the disciple but not of the person.” So I threw the question out to Scott and some fellow NuDunkers in order to explore just how Pietism might help us get to a better anthropology within the wider conversations of Neo-Anabaptism.

First, a bit of history. The 16th century Anabaptists and the 18th century Pietists, though connected in an impulse to recover a radical discipleship based in their reading of the New Testament, were separated by the grand shift toward the individual begun in the Enlightenment. That is to say that a kind of Cartesian turn toward the interiority of the human person was a significant difference between the Brethren and the Mennonites. Put another way, the Pietists worked within the framework of the Cogito- I think therefore I am. There are of course a ton of problems with this kind of Cartesian turn to the individual- most notably the separation of the interior and exterior self. Yet, for as much as academics have refuted Descartes’ system (especially through the work of Phenomenology), this sense of interior confidence is part and parcel to the Western sense of the self.

For the Pietists, a sense of religious certainty was to be found in the inner life. Though they might have balked at Descartes over emphasis on rationality, it was still the case that the individual was a clear source for religious understanding. Hence, many of the Pietists gathered in conventicles or study groups to explore the scriptures together. Hence, Luther’s emphasis on “scripture alone” found its logical conclusion among those small groups. They read together in order to better understand the scriptures and apply them to a life of holiness. Many of these groups were known for a rich spirituality, an affective reading of the scriptures that was deeply prayerful and mystical in tone. In a way, we might say that for the Pietists, Descartes maxim was better rendered “I pray, therefore I am.”

There were of course many Pietists who remained within their religious traditions. Some said that there were two churches- the visible church manifest in the institution and marked by both the lapsed and those in pursuit of holiness, and the invisible church comprised only of the holy. The Brethren, however, rejected that conception all together in the decision to baptize believers in water. In that decision they created a new, and only visible, community of discipleship. What is more, they followed the lead of the 16th century Anabaptists. Certainly, when we read the early writings of the Brethren, they would not have called themselves Anabaptists. As German historian and pastor Marcus Meier notes, the categories of Anabaptist and Pietist are modern labels applied to the past. Yet, there were streams of continuity between the 16th and 18th century reformers. What seems more operative, then, is a different sense of the person.

My emerging sense is that the Brethren- with a Pietist sense of heart and mind coupled with an Anabaptist desire for community and ethics- sought to temper the trajectory of radical individualism with a community of discernment and accountability. There are stories of persons whose mystical experiences were explored by the community and tested against the scriptures. One could not just say that “God told me so” without also asking fellow believers if this inner word coincided with the outer word of scripture. At the same time, the Pietist emphasis on conscience offered an equally critical tempering of an Anabaptist turn towards collectivism. In other words, the church was not an authoritarian herd but a community of persons seeking faithfulness and holiness together. There were certainly cases where such discernment resulted in a clear “No” on the part of the community, and yet as some stories show, the entertainment of the question was a two way street to test the community’s understanding as well.

This still leads me back to my original quest for a better anthropology. Though I assume that the early Pietists were the product of the Enlightenment turn towards the inner life of the individual, I am still wrestling with the anthropology that was at work in the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Pietism. In many ways contemporary Brethren have camped out in either tradition, thus highlighting one as normative- either we are Anabaptists or we are Pietists, communitarians or individuals. My instinct is to say that both are true, but that still leaves open for debate how the heart felt mysticism of the Pietists finds grounding in the community of believers. That is to say that Pietism and Anabaptism practiced together avoids the pitfalls of collective authoritarianism on one hand and radical individualism on the other. Following Meier and others, the only difference I can discern in the historical narrative is the effect of the Enlightenment conception of the self. So the question haunts me- what is the better anthropology at work among the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Pietism?

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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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