We obey God. Our minds are God’s property. This poignant testimony, offered by a member of the Meserete Kristos Church (MKC) to a Marxist official in Ethiopia, is but one of many stirring declarations of faith in Nathan Hege’s history of Anabaptism in Ethiopia. The Meserete Kristos Church, or
Christ Foundation Church, is gearing up to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, and Hege, who served in Ethiopia for nearly a quarter of a century with Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions, has gifted us with an insightful and inspiring narrative to mark this milestone.
Hege carefully balances the stories of North American missionaries with the testimonies of Ethiopian believers. The first half of the book examines missionary efforts in education, medicine, and development, while the second half narrates the birth, growth, suffering, and survival of an Anabaptist Ethiopian church. The story of how the MKC survived, even thrived, under Marxist persecution is particularly inspirational.
Several aspects of Hege’s study deserve to be highlighted. Most laudable is Hege’s ability to cast a critical, if ultimately sympathetic, eye on the fascinating history of North American Mennonite missionary work. Looking over the list of workers who have passed through Ethiopia, one is moved by the years of service that North Americans were willing to dedicate to the mission field. The example of missionaries who spent decades overseas stands as a silent rebuke to the present trend within Mennonite churches to clamor for increasingly shorter terms of service.
Hege skillfully explains the tensions which arose between Mennonite mission workers in Ethiopia and their sponsoring North American churches. Missionaries discovered, for example, that the plain coat which they were expected by their sending churches to wear had the unwanted effect of reinforcing a distinction between the clergy and the laity that an Anabaptist faith was supposed to undermine. Such discoveries earned some missionaries the label of rebel back home, while their work in health and development conjured up fears that the missionaries had become proponents of a
Some quotes uncovered by Hege’s research remind the reader of the potentially problematic character of mission work. Deploying the vocabulary of colonialism, Orie Miller, then the secretary of the Eastern Board, said that Ethiopia
is just opening up to mission work, and it is as yet practically unoccupied by Protestant forces. A medical missionary reasoned that
When folks are sick, be they Muslim or otherwise, they are in a mood to hear the gospel. Such statements help to explain the suspicion of a Marxist official that
Although you bring grain in your right hand, you have the Bible hidden in your left hand.
Hege also wonders about missionary attitudes towards the Ethiopian Orthodox church, with its centuries of Christian witness.
Did the missionaries of the twentieth century pause long enough to really appreciate the faithfulness of this people? Hege asks pointedly. Unlike some other Protestant missions in Ethiopia which sought to bring about a revival within the Orthodox church, the Mennonite missionaries were focused on starting a new, evangelical church. Members of the MKC often faced a variety of social sanctions from the Orthodox church, most painfully the denial of burial rights in Orthodox cemeteries. The MKC appears to have weathered such prejudice with grace; its leaders urged Hege not to be overly critical of the Orthodox church in his study. Today the MKC makes overtures for dialogue to the Orthodox church, overtures often met with silence. In the words of one Orthodox cleric:
We are the church in Ethiopia, and have no reason to dialogue with evangelicals.
In addition to his willingness to engage in gentle critique of Mennonite missionary work, Hege is also to be commended for not writing a history solely concerned with North American missionaries. Hege gives pride of place to the stories of Ethiopian Christians, rightfully celebrating the rapid growth of the MKC and honoring its remarkable fortitude under Marxist oppression.
Few criticisms can be leveled against this fine study. The references to
Israel on pp. 41 and 45 are anachronistic, as the discussion involves missionary travel to Palestine in 1947 under the British Mandate. Also, while Hege generally takes care to highlight the role of women as well as men on the mission field, at times he lapses into less inclusive usage, e.g. referring to the
Nevin Horsts (63).
Helpful appendices include a map of Ethiopia showing the geographic distribution of the MKC; a chronological survey of historical highlights; and a comprehensive list of all workers who served in Ethiopia with EMM, MCC, and the Mennonite Relief Committee, noting their positions and years of service.
Missionaries, students of missiology and church history, and anyone concerned with the church’s international witness will benefit from Hege’s thorough study.
Alain Epp Weaver
Mennonite Central Committee