Ben Goossen challenges Anabaptist-Mennonites to reflect on how we remember the past. He is particularly concerned that Mennonite World Conference’s (MWC) “Renewal 2027” events will “reinscribe a patriarchal, Eurocentric understanding of Anabaptism.” Although Goossen “affirms the commitment” of the organizers, he charges that the commemoration of the 16th-century Anabaptists is an implicit way for “older white men” to protect their power.
Although I also hope that the commemorations will not reaffirm “ethnic” Mennonite supremacy, I am not convinced that the planned commemorations must inevitably take the problematic forms Goossen fears. His warnings arise from his conviction that the project rests upon outdated ways of writing Anabaptist history, as well as his fundamental objection to focusing on the origins of Anabaptism in the 16th century. Since this article was written, the first of the commemorative events took place in Augsburg in February 2017.1 John D. Roth, secretary of MWC’s Faith and Life Commission and organizer of the commemorative events, has also published an article outlining the principles for “right remembering” the Reformation in light of MWC’s engagement in ecumenical dialogues and the reality that the demographic weight of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement has shifted to the global south.2 It feels unfair to comment on Goossen’s essay without learning whether the proceedings at Augsburg event reinforced his suspicions of the commemorative project.
Goossen’s first objection to commemorating 500 years is that pinning the origins of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement to those events in Zürich reflects a simplistic and outmoded manner of telling the Anabaptist story. In addition to ignoring the contributions of women, this way of narrating the past ignores the ways that Anabaptists were indebted to the Catholic tradition and minimizes the history of Anabaptism in the Low Countries. Of course, the study of the 16th century is not that simplistic, and I would invite Goossen to explore the last several decades of Anabaptist scholarship rather than assuming that the current historiography resembles what he was taught in Sunday school.3 I have difficulty imagining my peers at any Mennonite college teaching Anabaptist history in a way that resembles Goossen’s caricature. However, my hunch is that he was more interested in scoring a rhetorical point than in engaging the scholarship.
And yet, I agree that MWC’s proposed schedule of events raises some questions. The final year 2027 will mark the 500th anniversaries of the Schleitheim Confession and the so-called “Martyrs Synod” in Augsburg, thereby juxtaposing the Anabaptist tradition of the disciplined community with the Anabaptist missionary tradition.4 This may satisfy the organizers’ heuristic aims, but it may also reinforce the idea that the real Anabaptist events occurred in the southern German-speaking lands. The northern chiliastic Anabaptist movement did not grow directly out of the southern Anabaptist stream. Perhaps there should also be some acknowledgment of the history of events in Amsterdam, Emden, and Münster in 2033.5 Despite sharing Goossen’s misgivings about a monogenetic narrative, I do not believe past disagreements about historical origins preclude the planned commemorations from taking place. The plurality of Western Christian traditions demonstrates the dramatic way that the reformations shattered the uniformity of late-medieval Christianity. Many of the wounds are now being healed. As Protestants and Catholics discern how best to commemorate/celebrate the Reformation, Anabaptists and Mennonites should challenge narratives that discount them as seditious fanatics.
My sense is that Goossen’s concern is not with the historiography of the origins of Anabaptism. His research on Mennonites and German nationalism at the dawn of the 20th century challenges contemporary Mennonites to grapple with their past. He posits a link between Mennonites’ desire to commemorate a monogenetic past and militarism and scientific racism. Because he is committed to social justice and the need for historians to tell the story of the global church, he states, sometimes implicitly and sometimes directly, that it will be impossible to commemorate 500 years with any type of moral integrity. I look forward to learning more about Mennonites’ interest in biological racism in Goossen’s upcoming book, but the argument that this paragraph makes about the first Mennonite World Conference’s close association with racism needs additional explication. I am open to being convinced, but I would like Goossen to expand a bit further on the connection between Christian Neff’s quote regarding the legacy of the sixteenth-century martyrs and biological racism. The connection may be there, but the quotation given does not make the case clearly. In my reading, Emil Händiges’ 1928 article that Goossen cites was not tracing the biological transmission of Anabaptism “with genealogical exactitude” in a genetic sense, but he was discerning whether Mennonites or Baptists were the intellectual successors of Balthasar Hubmaier.6
Like Goossen, I would also hope that the next 10 years are not an attempt to recover a “Golden Age” of Anabaptism to which the contemporary church should hold itself accountable. I also hope that the story of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition does not mire itself in the global North, while ignoring the phenomenal growth in the global South. However, I believe it is possible to reflect on the past while paying attention to the marginalized voices in the present. One can reflect on the origins of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition while also taking care to tell the story in a way that avoids the pitfalls that Goossen so clearly outlines in his article. As John Roth recently wrote, “the possibly of remembering ‘wrongly’ should never be a reason to avoid reflection on the past.”7 I am not sure I completely understand Goossen’s alternative imagining of the tradition as a “trans-historical community” that “looks not back through time but beyond it.” I would worry that such an emphasis on a transcendent tradition instead of a historically embodied narrative would make it too easy for contemporary members to avoid coming to terms with the shadow side of their past in a way that Goossen has called us to do in his recent publications.8
All commemorations are located in a particular context and inevitably reflect the discourses of that time and place.9 In a footnote, Goossen proposes an alternate “Renewal Decade” that would focus on recent scholarship on traditionally marginalized members of Mennonite Church USA. While I am a great admirer of this scholarship, Goossen’s proposed decade focuses on topics most relevant to one part of the North American church. Questions around race, gender, and sexuality are currently at the heart of MC USA’s identity, but these would not necessarily be the primary concerns of others.10 While I value Goossen’s concerns, I appreciate the way that the commemorations’ organizers have called on participants to reflect on the ways that Anabaptists and Mennonites have lived out their faith in a variety of contexts, thereby pulling us all out of our particular contexts for understanding Anabaptism. I hope that the following 10 years will be a period of renewal and not live up to Goossen’s fears. May we all be renewed through the right remembering of the past as well as the discovery of new expressions of faithfulness.