Paradoxically, the very existence of Benjamin Goossen’s provocative piece illustrates how the global Mennonite community already is benefitting from the 500th anniversary: corporate remembering gives opportunity for critical reflection on the journey that brought us here. Goossen’s essay challenges me and all involved in events of the next decade to examine assumptions and convictions undergirding our faith.
Along with two dozen Anabaptists from five continents and diverse ethnic groups, I recently had the opportunity to participate in an Anabaptist history walking tour of Augsburg, Germany. We saw the residence of Pilgram Marpeck and talked about this untypical 16th-century Anabaptist who had a positive view of government and worked for the city of Augsburg as a civil engineer. Informal conversation among tour participants generated insights on differing ways Anabaptists engage government in our respective cultures today.
Later, we stopped by a large house where 88 Anabaptists were discovered in an illegal meeting on Easter morning, 1528. People arrested were variously deported, tortured, or executed. Someone from the global North in our group expressed gratitude that Anabaptists no longer are being persecuted today. Immediately, a brother from Ethiopia raised his hand and said, “Can I tell you about persecution today?” In parts of the global South, the Anabaptist church is struggling, suffering, and growing. The act of remembering together built bridges of understanding between widely diverse Anabaptist cultures.
Examining the story of European Anabaptist origins will be life-giving if we do it as a global conversation, constantly tying into the current experience of today’s church. The one-day Decade of Renewal event at Augsburg in February 2017 included presentations by young Anabaptists from five continents on how they understand and express the Great Commission in their context today. The whole event emphasized the present and future mission of God’s people, not romanticized history. In 2018, the Decade of Renewal event will be in Kenya, with focus on the Anabaptist story in Africa.
Remembering historic places and events can become idolatrous, much like icons in the Orthodox or Catholic traditions can become idolatrous. But icons also can be windows into the divine. In a similar way, heroes and dates in church history can become portals into deeper understanding of the work of the Spirit.
Judeo-Christian faith is profoundly rooted in history. Repeatedly, the Hebrew Scriptures retell the story of the origins of Israel – especially exodus from Egypt and formation of the Davidic monarchy. Christian faith again and again repeats events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Common stories shape a people, and always have an arbitrary character.
In recent decades, we have become accustomed to understanding Anabaptism as issuing from polygenesis rather than monogenesis – from diverse sources, rather than from just one event in 1527 Zurich. But having acknowledged the diverse origins of Anabaptism, it still is right for today’s Anabaptists to name specific parts of history that we intend to claim and embody today, such as the Mennonite World Conference “Shared Convictions.” These are not a comprehensive summary of diverse Anabaptist expressions in the 16th century. Rather, they are convictions being lived out by today’s followers of Jesus who draw inspiration from 16th-century forebears.
Goossen points out that it is arbitrary to pick any date as the “beginning” of Anabaptism. But one also could debate whether or when to celebrate an individual’s birthday. Should it not really be celebrated on the anniversary of conception in womb? Or on the date of rebirth upon confession of faith? And why is age 100 more significant than age 99? Accidents of history mean most of the world uses a decimal system of numbering, in which tens and hundreds become milestones. Many cultures take the opportunity to honor those marking their birthdays, and individuals can reflect on where they are on life’s journey.
A salutary development of the multiple Reformation 500th-anniversary events is that various Christian traditions are building reconciling relationships with each other. After centuries of antagonism registered in our various creeds and historic documents, Mennonites and Lutherans recently conducted in-depth dialogue and formally asked forgiveness of each other. At a reconciling celebration, leaders of both the governing ecclesial bodies were African. Two black men from the global South embraced and forgave each other for failures of white European men 500 years earlier. They embraced in a hall where there were tears. I have broken bread in Indiana with local Lutherans and Mennonites who gathered to mark that reconciliation and to resolve that our local shared witness will be in unity. Such can be the benefit of historical remembering.
Perhaps we should shift the language of our 500th events from celebration to commemoration. There is much we do not want to celebrate of the 16th century: patriarchy, highly charged and polarizing language, millenarian violence. We must not hide or forget such failures, or pretend that such expressions were not part of us or from real Anabaptists. But our challenge as Anabaptist people today is not that we will celebrate history too much but that we will forget history and lose our identity. We need the anchor of telling the story of God’s faithfulness in our forebears, a story of suffering and hope that should lead us to Jesus and radical obedience.