Monday, October 05, 2015

Can Anabaptism Thrive In A Climate Of Affluence And Religious Liberty?

Hundreds of years ago, Anabaptists from Europe began a mass migration to America, a migration that ended up with Anabaptism being little more than a historical footnote in European history while at the same time seeing an incredible flourishing here in America. The various Anabaptist groups have never been a numerically significant population but they have become in many ways a quintessentially American phenomenon. Certainly there are Anabaptists in places like South America but the vast majority have lived in America for centuries. While the persecution slowly was reduced and eventually ceased altogether during their stay in America, I wonder if this has really been healthy for the descendants of European Anabaptism.

Somewhere around the mid-20th century the Anabaptists stopped being outsiders and started becoming just another denomination with mission boards, bureaucracy, colleges, all of the trappings of American religious culture. Around the time of the death of Hutterite draftees who were tortured and martyred in American military prisons as conscientious objectors during World War I, things seemed to change. Many Anabaptists served in civilian roles during the second World War and some even served in combat roles. Anabaptists also seemed to lose their missionary zeal, a zeal that in Europe caused persecution but in the relatively secure land of America seemed less important. Groups like the Amish and the Hutterites split off from society at large and other Anabaptists. The Mennonites began a seemingly constant splintering and re-splintering in response to the pressures of modernization and encroaching liberalism. When you look at many contemporary Anabaptist groups, they are not only not persecuted but they seem to have greatly prospered in America and are often affluent and comfortable. Today I look as an outsider at Anabaptism at large and I wonder if there is any real manifestation left in America today.

I believe we have already seen what happens when the Anabaptist portion of the church becomes too suburban, too comfy with the world. Much of what passes for Anabaptism today has slid into the broader evangelical world, becoming just another vanilla church. There is a large evangelical church near us in the middle of a major building project that once was a Mennonite church but now is just a generic evangelical church. Others claim the mantle of Anabaptism while looking an awful lot like a somewhat liberal megachurch, raising the question of how a people who treasured discipleship can flourish in the anonymity of the megachurch setting. Other portions of Anabaptism have moved into a quasi-Fundamentalist model with the traditional distinctive of their manner of dress to separate them from other Fundamentalist groups. Their focus is on keeping themselves free from overt sin and nipping in the bud any sign of "liberalism". Still other Anabaptist groups have merged into the progressive religious sphere and are largely indistinguishable from other progressive/liberal groups, having abandoned the prayer veil, ordaining women as pastors, taking tentative steps toward the normalization of homosexuality, replacing non-resistance with an activist political stance and denial of crucial and foundational truths like the reality of judgment and hell. These groups are committing the same "suicide by accomadation" that has killed liberal Protestant groups to the point that many who call themselves "Anabaptists" these days look, act and sound no different from any of the "mainline" Protestant groups and are dying off just as quickly.

My great fear is that Anabaptists in America have forgotten what it means to be Anabaptist. They no longer know how to be strangers and sojourners in the land who are hated and reviled not for how much Biblical truth they have abandoned but for their unwavering and child-like confidence in the Scriptures, a confidence that leads to a zealous evangelism and the resulting persecution. America is a land blessed with religious freedom but has it really been a blessing? I am not sure it has been when we look at contemporary Anabaptist groups. In fact I am not sure that Anabaptism has survived intact after a century of ease and acceptance.

The necessity and inevitability of suffering as part of the life of a disciple of Christ is deeply entwined with the Anabaptist history and theology. When people became Anabaptist in Europe, they did so knowing that it would mean sacrifice up to and including laying down their life. What happens when that suffering stops and is indeed replaced by affluence and comfort and ease? This is not merely an academic question. With the looming threat of a major shift in the American cultural landscape, the Anabaptists ought to be leading the way and an example for others. Instead I am concerned that Anabaptists are nearly as unprepared as the rest of the church for a post-Christendom existence because they have forgotten their heritage.

I hope I am wrong about this but the evidence doesn't seem to indicate that I am. Now is the time for Anabaptists to recover their heritage and start to think seriously about how to live as their forefathers did in Europe. The tales of persecution are not just interesting historical tidbits or tales you tell children to make them more appreciative of what they have. They are signal flares that show the way forward. I have found that an awful lot of Anabaptists barely even know their own history and this should make the leaders of Anabaptism deeply concerned. More so than almost any other groups, Anabaptists are a historic people. Their existence is inseparable from their history. When you lose that history and you lose the mindset that comes along with it, you lose the essence of what it means to be Anabaptist, especially in a world where people see fit to reinterpret Anabaptism to meet their own preferences.

The loss of their history as Anabaptists ought to be a far greater concern to Anabaptist leaders than the length of sister's hair or the style of dress they wear. The Christians of the very near future in America desperately needs Anabaptism and that means that the Anabaptists themselves need to remember what that word means.

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