How Peacemaking Helps Frame the Context of Anabaptism, Sexuality, and Higher Education

The first of two guest posts this week comes from our friend Jared Burkholder, chair of the History and Political Science Department at Grace College.

The rhetoric that has surrounded the recent controversy in the CCCU and the departure of Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University has underscored, at least for me, the way Anabaptist identity
continues to be misconstrued by many evangelicals. It has also highlighted the dualistic rhetoric that can be common among conservatives. Others could more effectively unpack the concerns I express below, but in watching this story play out, I wonder if Anabaptist notions of peacemaking, which surely make up part of the relevant context for these policy changes at Goshen and EMU, have received enough attention. (Though Chris has certainly pointed readers to this context in his coverage of this story.)

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I do not often recommend dipping into the acidic pool of comments that follow online coverage of contentious news, but a glance at the comments section of stories about the CCCU in recent months will illustrate well-worn assumptions about why Goshen and EMU have adjusted their policies on hiring those in same-sex relationships. Conservative evangelicals have been quick to assume that these Mennonite schools are victims of cultural “drift,” that their commitments to “biblical” Christianity are weak, that they are too timid to resist “worldly” influence, that they’ve succumbed to pressure to be tolerKraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdomant, etc. Although these sorts of fundamentalist rhetorical paths have become routine, it is worth noting how these arguments can be nothing more than easy ways to dismiss opposing viewpoints without actually appreciating the depth of thought as well as ethical convictions those viewpoints represent. (Spring Arbor’s John Hawthorne has also commented on this.)

In reality, Anabaptist convictions, whether they be more “conservative” or “liberal,” are rarely the result of cultural drift. Indeed, as contented residents on the cultural margins, Anabaptists have been far more counter-culture in their Christian convictions than most American evangelicals – something that Anabaptist have sometimes been quick to point out.

Traditionally, Anabaptist notions of living out a counter-culture gospel have been embodied in the teachings of nonresistance and through fostering lives of modesty and simplicity. I like to recommend that Evangelicals read Don Kraybill’s Upside Down Kingdom, a dated, but still compelling treatment of the Anabaptist ethic.  In more recent decades, the Anabaptist peace ethic has come to represent more active (and even activist) peacemaking efforts that promote social justice. The history of this transition has been skillfully laid out by Ervin Stutzman’s From Nonresistance to Justice and summarized quite well in a post by Devin Manzullo-Thomas here at The Pietist Schoolman.

Before going further, it is important to point out that Anabaptism is not a monolith. In fact, fragmentation has always plagued Anabaptist groups and, as we have seen at this year’s Mennonite Church USA convention, diverse convictions continue to manifest in spirited debate and received attention from major news outlets. It goes without saying that conservative Mennonites and other Anabaptist traditionalists haStutzman, From Nonresistance to Justiceve opposed this shift from nonresistance to justice. With regard to this question specifically, the Saskatoon (1986) and Purdue (1987) statements on sexuality are important markers. Among Anabaptist social progressives, Ted Grimsrud offers some of the most substantive counterpoints to the Saskatoon and Purdue Statements.

But the point is, if evangelicals would take the time to discern the core concerns that lay at the heart of the Anabaptist heritage, they would find a tradition of peacemaking that Anabaptists, regardless of where they stand on same-sex issues, believe is rooted in authentic and biblical Christianity and mandated specifically in Jesus’ teaching. This path is one where Christian faith mandates that others are not merely tolerated but embraced and where the oppressed are cared for through active service. This tradition necessitates inclusive attitudes precisely because those in the LGBT community have been so thoroughly marginalized and oppressed in the past.

Both evangelicals and Anabaptists value separation from the world, but they have divergent interpretations of how that separation should be applied to our society. While evangelicals have largely defined their separation from the world through participation in the culture wars, Anabaptists see such participation by evangelicals as no different from that of secular society. From an Anabaptist perspective, “the world” breeds divisions and conflict, defines insiders and outsiders, and gives preference to power, wealth and coercion. But Anabaptism teaches that to truly live separate from the world, Christians must reject all of this and swap it for the values of hospitality, compassion, service, and fair treatment.

While many conservative evangelicals assume these attitudes are just more of the same liberal nonsense, Anabaptist notions of justice flow from a peace ethic forged through generations of constant dialogue, reflection, and hard choices. Evangelicals will continue to disagree with the way (progressive) Anabaptists apply the ethical imperative of peacemaking, but we would all do well to acknowledge that the policy decisions such as those made by Goshen and Eastern Mennonite University are not the result of some form of moral weakness, cultural drift, or weak commitment to stand up for Christian faith, but rather the result of concerted ethical dialogue, biblical reflection, and a tenacious commitment to a robust heritage of peacemaking.


9 thoughts on “How Peacemaking Helps Frame the Context of Anabaptism, Sexuality, and Higher Education

  1. Great post! I think it’s important to admit that all of us, liberal and conservative, buy into “the world” in some ways, and resist “the world” in other ways. We often actually have different “worlds” or different parts of “culture” that we see ourselves resisting. For some of us, evangelical Christian culture needs to be resisted at times, as Jesus resisted some ideas of the religious leaders in his own tradition. I don’t mean to label evangelicals as Pharisees–though that is sometimes a temptation for me, this thoughtful and even-handed article by someone at an evangelical institution helps me resist that urge in myself! 🙂

  2. Self-contradictory. You admit that there has been a development “from nonresistance to justice”. At the same time you try to maintain that this “justice” is nothing more than a “tenacious commitment to a robust heritage of peacemaking”. But only one of these statements can be true.

    Now “justice” is a weasel word and can mean anything to anyone. But if we want to use that unfortunate word: As a homosexual man, I personally don’t deem it “just” that little shopkeepers should lose the base of their livelihood, only because some resentful LGBT people insist on getting their marriage photo, their marriage cake or their marriage party place just from them (when they could easily find another provider). It’s not “just”, because the big loss to one side is in no relation to the little gain to the other. And these little shopkeepers are now, at our time, the oppressed people Mennonites ought to support and protect, not the thriving LGBT community, which belongs to the “powers to be”!

    So I don’t need to look into the real decision-making process of the Mennonite liberals. I can judge them by their fruits, i.e. by their non-commitment to the persecuted little shopkeepers.

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