Being Urban Anabaptists

The Anabaptist Vision and Urban Mission in Southern California by Jeff Wright

Creating an “Anabaptist Vision”

On December 28, 1943, Dr. Harold S. Bender, Dean and Professor of History of Goshen College (Indiana), and newly installed president of the American Society of Church History, gave his presidential address, entitled, “The Anabaptist Vision”. Perhaps it is too dramatic to say that a single scholarly address given before a small academic group changed an entire movement’s self-understanding. But it is clear that The Anabaptist Vision has become, in the sixty years since Dr. Bender gave that wartime address, the “symbolic theological anchor within the Mennonite Church.”

That The Anabaptist Vision has been critical to Mennonite self-understandings is undeniable . The question is, as current Goshen College Professor of History, Dr. John D. Roth puts it, “…as we move toward the 21st century, is it reasonable to ask whether – or how – The Anabaptist Vision is still relevant for the church today”.

The Anabaptist Vision, according to Bender, was a nonconforming critique of the Zwinglian reforms in Zurich in the first decade of the Reformation. Central to the vision, as Bender writes, are three themes:

“…first, a new conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship; second, a new conception of the church as a brotherhood [sic]; and third, a new ethic of love and non-resistance.”

Bender’s first theme is that of discipleship. Bender defines discipleship as, “the transformation of the entire way of life of the individual believer and of society so that it should be fashioned after the teaching and example of Christ.” Discipleship represented an outward expression of an inner experience. Again, to quote from Bender, “The great word of the Anabaptists was not ‘faith’ as it was with the reformers, but ‘following’ (nachfolge Christi).” Bender proceeds in the Vision to quote from 16th century source material ten times to cite opponents to early Anabaptism which, despite their opposition, concede the genuine outward Christian expression of the Anabaptists to which they were opposed. Bender even goes so far as to cite the case of one man, Caspar Zacher, who was accused of being an Anabaptist, but acquitted because, “he was an envious man who could not get along with others,…who often started quarrels…guilty of swearing and cursing and carrying a weapon.”

Anabaptist understandings of discipleship focus on a Jesus-centred approach to faith. It is not an abstract set of first principles that are followed, and it is more than merely a nonconformist, contrarian stance toward the “world” . It is Jesus who is to be followed. As Stuart Murray Williams has written for the Anabaptist Network in the United Kingdom:

“Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.”

Bender moves on to define church as a concrete community of Christians characterized by three realities: 1) suffering at the hands of, and conflict with, the contemporary social order, which Anabaptists have called, “the world” , 2) “true brotherhood and love among the members of the church” , and 3) economic stewardship and mutual aid of resources within the church.

These three elements make for an understanding of church which is by no means easy. However, a community in contrast to the world, truthful enough to love each other, and engaged in the practices and disciplines of a common life that even impacts one’s economic choices is the kind of real, visible community Jesus sought to create. Of course, one of the emerging realities for Anabaptists in the post-modern, post-Christendom experience is the lack of suffering at the hands of the world. As Stanley Hauerwas has noted,

“…the challenge facing Anabaptists is to discover the implications of living in a world in which they have won. Constantinianism has been defeated. There is no established church for Anabaptists to oppose. Christianity has become voluntary…As is often the case, the terms of the battles of the past may not prepare us well for the challenges we now face.”

It seems that the emerging end of Constantinianism leaves contemporary Anabaptist-Mennonites (especially Mennonites) caught in the dilemma of an ecclesiology that assumes a hard separation from the world, yet finds itself in a time when a post-Christian society seems to be genuinely curious about a church where authentic, loving, mutual care and the possibilities of shared economic stewardship are at least attempted. It is too soon to tell whether post-Christian society will move beyond their curiosity (witness the response of the USA television audience to the show, “Amish in the City”), and seek true engagement. It is not too soon for Anabaptists, especially Mennonite Anabaptists, to become serious about seeking ways to engage post-Christendom.

An ethic of love and non-resistance, applied to all human relationships, made up the third element of the Vision. Bender, using 16th century Swiss Brethren as the baseline for understanding Anabaptism , cited Conrad Grebel, who wrote in 1524, “True Christians use neither worldly sword nor engage in war.” In making his point concerning non-resistance, Bender cites Swiss (Grebel), South-German (Pilgram Marpeck), Moravian-Hutterian (Peter Riedmann), and Dutch (Menno Simons) Anabaptist sources as evidence of the universality of non-resistant peacemaking within orthodox Anabaptism.

While Bender spoke of non-resistance, later Anabaptists have shifted the language to a more “active”, less “passive” concept like “peacemaking”, as a means to describe a larger shift from a sectarian impulse in the face of persecution, to a broader engagement of social responsibility and social holiness. The shifts from quietism to activism within the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement had many sources , but the theological work of John Howard Yoder, building as it did upon the work of Harold S. Bender, clearly lead the shift.

Yoder was the leader of a second generation of emerging Anabaptist-Mennonite scholars, all former students of Bender, who became known as the “Concern Group”. Yoder, in his most well-known work, The Politics of Jesus, sketches out an approach to ethics that understands Jesus, and his non-violent atonement, to be normative for Christian social ethics. Bender, in quoting from the various foundations strains of European Anabaptists, cites obedience to Jesus Christ as the cornerstone of non-resistance, or “biblical pacifism” (Bender’s other term). “Yoder’s pacifism”, as put by Stanley Hauerwas,

“…is in no way based on prudential calculation of its possible success, but rather on the theological affirmation that the norm of the Christian life is to be obedient to the form of Christ – i.e., the essence of discipleship is the non-resistance to evil made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection.”

Thus, the theological centre at the core of the Vision is Jesus Christ as revealed in scripture. Without Christological conviction, discipleship, community, and peacemaking become meaningless . In Bender’s words, the Vision

“…was not a detailed blueprint for the reconstruction of human society, but… [the Anabaptists] did believe that Jesus intended that the kingdom of God should be set up in the midst of earth, here and now, and this they proceeded to do forthwith…we shall practice what He taught, believing that where He walked we can by His grace follow in His steps.”

It is this understanding of a missional Jesus – a Jesus sent by God to establish God’s Reign in a concrete and more complete way – that is foundational to The Anabaptist Vision. Bender, in a later article, lodges the Vision within an explicitly christological centre. For Bender, Christ was the holy, moral teacher to be followed in the path of discipleship, the suffering saviour atoning for a people which are called to form a new community, and the Risen Lord who invites His followers to a higher allegiance that those which must be coerced by the state and other institutions through the practice of violence. Christ is at the centre of The Anabaptist Vision.

This vision was reinforced in the late 1980’s as Mennonites in North America took a renewed interest in Christology. As the emerging Mennonite Church USA created a new confessional statement, Christology was a central issue under discussion. Through this discussion, Mennonites have again affirmed the centrality of Jesus Christ as the One who call us to follow him, who leads the church, and who both models (in his atonement) and directs (through the Holy Spirit) our mission of non-violent reconciliation. The Christological discussions that lead to the formation of a new confessional statement are grounded implicitly in Bender’s Vision.

One may legitimately wonder to what extent Discipleship, Community, and Peacemaking from a Christological centre are, as Bender put it, “new conception[s]” of the Christian faith. Perhaps more accurately, Bender’s Vision represents a new constellation of historic Christian themes which addressed a certain occasion and location. The critical issue for Mennonites, some sixty years after Bender’s address, is not if the basic themes of the Vision are relevant – they are – for they are centred in Jesus Christ. The issue is how these themes find new and concrete expression within contemporary settings of the Mennonite reality in such places as metropolitan Los Angeles.

The Mennonite Experience in Southern California

The occasion and location of where one is doing theology is just as critical as the content of that theology . Location and occasion determines the types of experiences from which one makes theological reflection. The Anabaptist origins which Harold S. Bender explored in The Anabaptist Vision were formed in the proto-urban culture of 16th century Zurich. The urban megalopolis of Southern California provides a certain experiential framework that shapes the way in which Anabaptists re-imagine how discipleship, community, and peacemaking coming together in a Jesus-centred missional theology.

Place matters . Place informs our theology. Becoming aware of, and in, our place and through that awareness being able to construct meaningful conversation with and about God and God’s purposes remains central to the task of creating a worldview with purpose. What Daniel Kemmis, former Mayor of Missoula, Montana, said with respect to politics can also be said with respect to the church’s task as theologian within a certain occasion and location: “…every place has a unique contribution to make…but…no place can play that role until we become much more sharply aware of how our places shape our politics.” Or our theology.

According to Richard S. Weinstein, “Los Angeles is the first consequential American city to separate itself decisively from European models and to reveal the impulse to privatization embedded in the American Revolution”. In fact, Los Angeles and its unique development have given rise to entire new school of urban studies. As Robert Kaplan put it:

“…Teheran and Sao Paulo…prepared me more [for Los Angeles]. Teheran, which takes ninety minutes to traverse even in light traffic, has, like Los Angeles, and increasingly vague center [sic] and mile after mile of chalk-colored [sic] houses hidden by high walls. In Sao Paulo, I stood in a farm field and saw a different skyline in almost every direction….On the other hand, East Coast cities such as New York and Boston…did not prepare me at all for Los Angeles.”

There are at least three critical components which provide sufficient occasion and location for building an experiential framework in Southern California by which Anabaptists can do missional theology.

The first component is the social reality of constant migration. Migration is a fact of life in Southern California. In 1960, about 8.8% of the population of the five county regional area (i.e., Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Ventura Counties) were born outside the United States – a slightly higher number than the national population of 5.4%. In 2000, 31% of the region’s population was born outside the United States, a significantly higher percentage than the national share of 11% of the USA population born outside the United States. In other words, while the United States as a whole has experienced a doubling of foreign-born residents in the past forty years (a significant statistic in and of itself!), the five county metropolitan region of Southern California has experienced almost a four-fold increase in new immigration, and contains almost three times the first-generation new immigrant population than the national average. Within the Mennonite experience in Southern California, it has been estimated that 75% of the membership in the Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference’s Southern California region were born outside the USA. Clearly, the passage into law of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 transformed the USA landscape in general, and in particular has made Southern California the primary point of entry into the USA for immigrants of the 21st century.

There are a number of implications for understanding migration as the social location and occasion in which one applies The Anabaptist Vision as a missionary theology. For the purposes of this paper, primary among these implications is that a church of migrant peoples which springs into life informed and formed by The Anabaptist Vision of discipleship, community, and peacemaking will not look “Mennonite” in the sense of embracing a peculiar ethno-historical tradition. Being Mennonite must mean something other than being of Swiss-German or Dutch-Russian decent, lest the exigencies of life reshape one’s theology to the point where it is no longer recognizable as a part of the tradition. Being Mennonite in the social location and occasion of migration means “coming home” to a set of Christian values, perhaps once just held at the margins in an intuitive way, but increasingly are explicit affirmations of a radical faithfulness. In that respect The Anabaptist Vision as a heuristic device is critical. The Vision provides a theological frame of reference that can be articulated by persons of many cultures in the process of formation of new Mennonites in Southern California, many of whom are seeking to reinvent themselves in their new home

Further, the heuristic offered by the Vision points us toward a discipleship of migration, a “spirituality of the road”, as it were . As Jesus was an expatriate and an immigrant (see Matthew 2.13-23), and as Anabaptist-Mennonites have historically been an immigrant people , one can expect that there is a resonance within the Vision from persons seeking a new place in the journey of life to begin afresh, yet facing significant challenges in the journey.

The second component is the ecological reality of constant disaster. Southern California lives daily with the possibility of any variety of disaster . Southern California seismic activity is well-documented. Also well-known locally (but perhaps not so well known in the UK) is the dramatic boom/bust cycles of rain and drought brought about by climatic forces such as the El Nino effect , which led to massive public works projects redirecting water from the Colorado River Basin and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, leading to the creation of a continuing political, social, and economic crisis over securing an adequate water supply for Southern California . El Nino refers to a phenomenon of ocean currents warming in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, off South America, creating increased rainfall in the Southern California basin. Combined with periodic and dramatic changes in atmospheric pressure in the Western Pacific (Southern Oscillation), the so-called, El Nino-Southern Oscillation effect (or ENSO) creates a huge changes in the seasonal rainfall totals, creating flood conditions, with an increased atmospheric instability, and even the capacity to spawn tornadoes – a weather occurrence better known to the residents of the American Great Plains. Another constant threat of disaster is the annual wildfire season. As strong (sometimes reaching hurricane-force), dry desert winds (known as “Santa Ana Winds”) blow into the Southern California basin between August and October from high-pressure systems lodged over the Four-Corners region of the American West, they meet up with the consequences of a policy of “total fire suppression” that is now in effect for 85 years , plus the combustion of carelessness, lightening, or arson, creating catastrophic fires. Yet another threat of disaster occurs when massive housing developments and the attendant infrastructure it requires intersects with the wildlife native to the mountains that form the geographic basin of Southern California.

But not all disasters are of a geological, atmospheric, botanical, or biological nature. Some disasters in Southern California occur within the social ecology. Over the past 235 years, five great racial disasters have also ravaged the social ecology of Southern California.

The first of these social disasters began in 1769 with the Spanish explorations into Alta California, and ended with the Modoc War of 1872-1873. Over these 100 years, the population of indigenous peoples in California were conquered, enslaved, and then mostly exterminated, first by Spanish and then Anglo-American conquerors. The second of these social catastrophes, set in the second half of the 19th century, had to do with the importation of Chinese labour into California, first to provide labour in the gold fields and later to provide labour for the construction of railways. The third social disaster was occasioned by the infamous “zoot suit riot” of June 1943. This conflict pitted the white establishment of Los Angeles, using the manpower afforded by USA military servicemen waiting for deployment, against local Hispanic youth who had come to Southern California in droves through farm-labour contracts created through the agency of the US Department of Agriculture to insure steady agricultural production during World War II. A fourth social disaster, occurring at the roughly the same time, was the forced deportation of about 93,000 Japanese-Americans to “relocation camps” across the western USA during World War II. The fifth social disaster was the on-going racism applied against African-American persons who began migrating to Southern California in the early 1940’s and continued to migrate well into the 1960’s. In 1965, and again in 1992, riots (Watts – 1965; South Central Los Angeles – 1992) broke out, occasioned by charges of serious police misconduct against the African-American population.

Disasters of a physical nature, such as earthquakes, El Niño, and Santa Ana driven wildfires require a theology of Christian community that seeks to reach out to others in mutual aid and economic stewardship. Such mutual aid and stewardship is not merely the practice of Christian relief in response to disaster. Real mutual aid and stewardship in the face of the physical disasters that are a part of the Southern California ecology require working toward the transformation of economic, transportation, and environmental policy. Authentic Christian community in Southern California must of course work toward responding with the healing love of God after natural disaster, but it must also work toward the reallocation of resources to be more in harmony with the environment God has created for this time and place. Disasters of a social nature, centred on race and racism, as they are apt to do so in the United States, also require a new commitment to a non-violent struggle for authentic peace and justice, in a hostile environment, grounded in the truth that racism must be opposed by Christians. In short, knowing that the occasion and location of Los Angeles includes physical and social disasters means embracing an ecclesiology of transformation .

The third component is the economic reality of constant growth. Edward Soja and Allen Scott say it as well as anyone:

“For close to a century now, Southern California has been the magnet for enormous population movements both from other parts of the United States and from other parts of the world. In an ever-widening orbit of attraction, a series of migratory waves have given rise to a net population growth averaging close to two million people per decade, or over five hundred [people] every day for almost one hundred years. Anchoring this phenomenal growth has been a process of urban and regional development that has engendered one of the world’s largest metropolitan agglomerations. The regional metropolis of Los Angeles, centered [sic] around the original settlement of El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula but now stretching outward for sixty miles in almost every direction encompasses more than 160 separate municipalities in five counties, with a current population of fifteen million.”

Five hundred new people each day for almost a century is a staggering growth statistic, requiring tremendous infrastructure supports in such diverse areas as housing, transportation, education, parks, libraries, health care, and employment. The consequences have been enormous. Southern California is an economic colossus and political quagmire. Compounding the sheer volume of economic and demographic growth is the growth of perspective that occurs in the midst of globalization, magnifying the issues occasioned by perpetual growth, and fragmenting the means by which those issues can be addressed.

Addressing the reality of constant growth may seem too far from the scope of this paper to provide adequate justice to the issues. Nevertheless, if the Christian way is to have any meaning in Los Angeles, it needs the capacity to speak to the issue of constant growth. Far too often, the promise of urban sprawl in the United States has been baptized by a Christian theology that uncritically blesses the forces of market capitalism with its attendant choices of individualism, independence, and escapism.

The Anabaptist Vision was not a tract written to prevent urban sprawl. However, in calling for a peacemaking fueled by following Jesus and lived in authentic Christian communities that practice mutual aid and economic stewardship based on love for one another, there seems to be embedded in Bender’s Vision, a peacemaking of generosity. The promise of market capitalism, unlimited growth, simply misses the point. Charles Handy, in quoting no less than Adam Smith, writes:

“A profitable speculation is presented as a public good because growth will stimulate demand, and everywhere diffuse comfort and improvement. No patriot or man [sic] of feeling could therefore oppose it. [But] the nature of this growth, in opposition, for example, to older ideas such as cultivation, is that it is at once undirected and self-generating in the endless demand for all the useless things in the world.”

It seems that in the cultivation of a culture of peacemaking grounded in generosity, one can find ways to choose individual identity over individualism, interdependence over independence, and liberation over escapism.

Answering the Macedonian Call to be Urban Anabaptists

Given a vision of Jesus-centred discipleship, an understanding of the church as primary, alternate community, and a mission of peacemaking focused against the location and occasion of constant migration, disaster, and growth, seeking to create a new discipleship of migration, an ecclesiology of transformation, and a peacemaking of generosity, what might the various strategies of mission be that could begin to take shape and form a Mennonite Church in Southern California with enough strength to present a meaningful witness across the metropolitan region, and even around the ever urbanizing world of the 21st century?

An urban Anabaptist missionary discipleship, ecclesiology, and peacemaking would be expressed by means of a holistic witness. One example of such a strategy can be found in Acts 16.11-40, where the Apostle Paul and his team find themselves called to the Macedonian city of Philippi, where the first significant Christian witness on European soil and in a thoroughly Roman culture takes place.

There are five significant elements to the holistic witness offered by Paul and his team in the city of Philippi. The first element of a holistic witness strategy is looking for ways in which God is already at work and aligning our work accordingly. In vv11-13, Paul and his team, in answer to a vision to come to Macedonia (cf. Acts 16.6-10), travel to Philippi, and then, rather than launching into some form of program or campaign, the text says in v12b, “we spent time in the city for some days”. One may conjecture at the nature of spending time in the city. Clearly, it was not in some form of idle amusement. Neither does it seem to be in frantic preparation for launching their grand strategy. It was, instead, a time of learning where things stood in Philippi. Paul’s strategy in the so-called first missionary journey relied on proclamation in the synagogue each Sabbath (see Acts 13.5, 13.14ff, 13.44ff, and 14.1). Philippi seemed not to have a Jewish synagogue, thus rendering the strategies learned in the first journey less helpful. A new strategy – of “spending time” in the city was developed. Out this effort, Paul and his team develop a hunch (see v13 - suppose, or think) that there is a place on the river where people gathered for prayer. Paul and his team encounter a group of women, and in spite of rabbinical training, engage the women in conversation. This leads in v14 to the conversion of Lydia.

The circumstances of Lydia’s conversion and baptism lead to the second element of a holistic witness strategy. Paul, his team, and Lydia join forces in the formation of a new, invitational Christian fellowship – in short, church planting . Lydia’s conversion and baptism lead to her inviting Paul and his team to base their ministry from her home. The irony is heavy. Paul, a Jewish rabbi, who has sought mightily to listen to and obey the voice of God through this journey into uncharted waters, is now prevailed upon to base his ministry efforts from the home of a woman, a Gentile woman, and in light of the lack of an explicit reference to the contrary, apparently a single Gentile woman . It may be reaching to suggest that the Lydia’s home was the site of the first Christian meetinghouse in Europe – but it is safe to say that her household formed the nucleus of the new Christian community (along with perhaps the other women at prayer on that Sabbath, a slave girl, a Jailer and his household, cf. vv13, 18, 30-33 – a rather diverse lot!) and her home provided a base of operation, because she asks Paul to recognize both the depth of her hospitality to these migrant preachers that he represented and the genuineness of her conversion. Paul was seeking to create in Philippi not just a relevant witness, but a relevant church , and that gave him the freedom and the courage to base the new Philippian church in the home of single, Gentile woman.

A third element of holistic witness is action for spiritual and economic liberation. The story of the slave girl (vv16-24) has a number of dimensions that are worth noting, but lie outside the scope of this paper. The central element of the text for our purposes here rests on the notion that Paul and Silas’ act of exorcism (v18) had both a profound spiritual and economic outcome. The spiritual outcome, of course, was that the girl lost her power of soothsaying, and was freed from demonic oppression. However, the girl’s status was still that of slave – she was the economic property of her owners. These owners are none too happy with their lost cash flow and seek legal recourse against Paul and Silas to recover their investment (v19). The economic interests of the slave owners (not to mention their anti-Semitic attitudes) carry the day, and summary judgement is carried out against Paul and Silas (vv20-24). The action in this text is the linkage between the spiritual and economic. Our economic actions have profound spiritual consequences. Our spiritual activities have profound economic consequences. By freeing the slave girl from the demons, Paul and Silas restored her dignity as a person – she was no longer marginalized merely an economic asset. She was a human, full of potential, full of meaning. While this action costs Paul and Silas dearly in terms of retribution, it is nevertheless an expression of the potential of real human transformation.

The fourth element of holistic witness is the deliverance of those in bondage. Again the text (vv25-34) is heavy with irony. It is easy to read this part of the story with its pain, singing, and earthquake (disaster?) as the story of Paul and Silas’ deliverance from unjust bondage. But the story is really about the deliverance of the jailer from his self-inflicted bondage, reminding the reader that the mission of the church is to put away the sword, and the coercive violence of retribution, whether inflicted by state authority, or inflicted on one’s self to avoid the guilt, shame, or fear of having failed, as the jailer failed to keep his prisoners locked away. In putting away the sword, the church responds with the redemptive, reconciling message of hope: “…believe on the Lord Jesus Christ…” (v31).

The fifth element of holistic witness is that of public accountability (vv35-40). It turns out that Paul is a Roman citizen , and he was, in the arrest, arraignment, beating and detention, denied his due process as a citizen under Roman law (v37). The Philippian establishment is concerned to the point of panic (v38), and proffers an apology on the public record. Paul uses the means at his disposal to address injustice and call for a just response.

The Anabaptist Vision of Harold S. Bender provided North American Mennonites in the second half of the 20th century a new and unifying theological anchor of Jesus-centred discipleship, church as faithful community, and an ethic of peacemaking. In coming to and engaging in the geographical and social environment of Southern California, Mennonites have experienced the challenges of living with constant migration, disaster, and growth. In facing these challenges a new discipleship of migration, a new ecclesiology of transformation, and new peacemaking of generosity have begun to be explored as Mennonites in Southern California have embraced a strategy of alignment with God’s present activity in the city – migrating to where God is at work. It is being explored by creating new Christian communities – an ecclesiology of transformation. It is being explored by acting for spiritual and economic liberation and seeking deliverance from bondage and calling for public accountability – a new peacemaking of generosity. These strategies, consistent with Bender’s Vision and the New Testament church are equipping urban Anabaptists by applying a historical tradition (Bender’s Vision) into a context (Southern California), and rediscovering who God has invited us to become.