Disappointed. That was how I felt when I discovered Jesus was not born on December 25. I felt the same when I realized there was no historical certainty about many of the events celebrated on our Christian calendar: the date of Jesus’s crucifixion, all the events leading up to Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost…. Why commemorate an event when its historical accuracy is questionable? What is the relationship between the life of a 1st-century Jewish man and, for example, the life of a 21st-century Malawian girl?Today we can ask the same questions about the polygenesis of 16th-century Anabaptism and its ethnic European origins. Why commemorate the 16th-century Radical Reformation when its beginnings were so complex and did not occur exclusively with the January 21, 1525, baptism in Zurich? What is the relationship between the white men and women of European ethnicity who gave birth to 16th-century Anabaptism and, for example, 21st-century Afro-Colombian peasants eking out a precarious existence?
Disappointment, I want to suggest, opens a way to hope when we understand that the question of an event’s historical accuracy loses its importance when compared to the reasons for its commemoration. It is not about exalting a past event, nor the founders of a denomination, nor the Anabaptist movement in itself. Rather, Renewal 2027 is, as with many other Christian commemorations, an opportunity to generate identity, to reflect on our history, and to project ourselves towards the future with a spirit of hope and mission. The core question is not whether the dates are accurate but rather whether the purpose of their commemoration is worth it.
Commemorating Anabaptism’s beginnings is crucially important to our global church today. Many communities identify with the radical reformers of the 16thcentury because they are facing a similar context of suffering. In the midst of religious violence, social injustice, economic inequality, persecution and martyrdom, the Anabaptist movement developed specific Christian convictions. Nonviolence, the importance of community life, voluntary membership, and the pursuit of social justice emerged as a Christ-centered response to their context. At the same time, the first Anabaptists identified with the early church, whose values and principles motivated them to continue along the path they chose in their context.
Many churches in the global South affirm their faith identity not by direct ethnic descent, but by identifying with the early Anabaptist context of suffering, and the principles they practiced. In those contexts, it is imperative to look forward and backward: we look back with gratitude for the example received, and we look in the present with repentance for harm done and pain caused in our desire to be faithful to our faith history. It is also relevant to prepare ourselves to respond to an uncertain future with clear identity and Christ-centered convictions, as our ancestors did.
Therefore, during the 10 years of commemorative events, Mennonite World Conference (MWC) has decided to organize regional gatherings that facilitate the contextual reflection of Anabaptist convictions. We hope that as we reflect on the context of 16th-century Anabaptists, we will see a mirror that shows us our own context and helps us to evaluate our own faithfulness to the distinctive Anabaptist convictions that marked and guided the lives of our spiritual ancestors.
Part of Renewal 2027 will be the commemoration in 2025 of the first hundred years of MWC. We remember that MWC emerged as a response to the violence of World War I, the persecution of Mennonites in Russia and the disproportionate growth of nationalism in the Europe of the last century. As we approach 2025, we commemorate the effort of 20th-century Anabaptists to strengthen their identity as followers of Jesus over political identities. In a context of nationalism, racial supremacy, and building of walls, MWC affirmed an identity based on Christocentric values and the need for a transcultural and interdependent community to deal with persecution.
Commemorating MWC’s origins is relevant today, not simply to remember the beginning of an organization but also to promote a global identity based on Christ. MWC overcomes nationalisms, celebrates our cultural diversity, seeks to practice an interdependent lifestyle and, in the midst of contexts of suffering and persecution, calls us to hope. MWC reminds us that in following Christ – in community and by the power of the Spirit – we are part of a new humanity.