I plan on getting back to the problem of violence in the Old Testament soon, but today I want to share a marvelous experience I had last week.
About eight months ago I spoke at a conference at Hesston college (a Mennonite college) on faith and politics (I posted on it here). While at this conference I sensed very strongly God telling me there was some sort of relationship I (and possibly the church I pastor) was to have with the Mennonites. More specifically, at the end of the conference I received a very clear and burning message I knew I was to share with the Mennonites. Whatever else this “relationship” entailed, I knew it included sharing this message. Yet, I had no idea when or how this message was to be shared.
Then about two months ago I received an invitation to speak at a historic gathering of Mennonite leaders in Columbus, Ohio. When the Executive Director of the Mennonite denomination (Jim Schrag) explained to me what he hoped my talk would accomplish I got goose bumps because it was exactly what God had put on my heart at Hesston seven months earlier. I have rarely been part of something that was so obviously providential. I was humbled and delighted to be given this important assignment. My message was — and is — basically this.
There is a beautiful and powerful grassroots Kingdom movement arising all over the globe that Mennonites in particular need to notice. Millions of people are abandoning the Christendom paradigm of the traditional Christian faith in order to become more authentic followers of Jesus. From the Emergent Church movement to the Urban Monastic Movement to a thousand other independent groups and movements, people are waking up to the truth that the Kingdom of God looks like Jesus and that the heart of Christianity is simply imitating him. Millions are waking up to the truth that followers of Jesus are called to love the unlovable, serve the oppressed, live in solidarity with the poor, proclaim Good News to the lost and be willing to lay down our life for our enemies. Multitudes are waking up to the truth that the distinctive mark of the Kingdom is the complete rejection of all hatred and violence and the complete reliance on love and service of others, including our worst enemies. Masses of people are waking up to the truth that followers of Jesus aren’t called to try to win the world by acquiring power over others but by exercising power under others — the power of self-sacrificial love.
What many who are being caught up in this movement lack is a sense of tribal identity and historical rooting, and many are looking for his. A central feature of post-modernity is the longing to “live in a story” that’s bigger than oneself. Many, therefore, are looking for a tradition they can align with.
The only tradition that embodies what this rising breed of Kingdom radicals is looking for is the Anabaptist tradition (which the Mennonites are heir to). This is the only tradition that consistently refused political power and violence. This is the only tradition that made humble, self-sacrificial love the centerpiece of what it means to follow Jesus. It’s the only tradition that isn’t soaked in blood and the only tradition that looks remotely like Jesus. Many (in fact, most) of the early leaders of this movement in the 16th century paid for their non-compliance with the Christendom paradigm by being martyred. This tradition is a treasure to be cherished. And it’s a tradition whose time may have come, for this is precisely the vision of the Kingdom that millions today are waking up to.
The irony is that, just as millions like myself are running toward this treasure, many Mennonites are running away from it. In the name of becoming culturally relevant, the distinctive, radical aspects of the Anabaptist tradition are being downplayed by some as they become “mainstream” American Christians. For example, some Mennonite churches now allow national flags on their premises — even in their sanctuaries! This was always taboo among Mennonites, for they have always (wisely) been keenly aware of the danger of mixing the Kingdom with nationalism. So too, some churches are now letting their Kingdom message get co-opted by politics — some on “the right” and others on “the left,” which in turn is beginning to create tensions in the church. And some churches have even begun to back off the centrality of their stance against violence.
So, my message to the Mennonites, in a nutshell, was (and is) this: Cherish Your Treasure! Not in a prideful way, of course, but simply as a precious gift God has given you and that God wants to give the world through you. Be daringly flexible on all matters that aren’t central to the Kingdom (e.g. worship styles, dress, etc.), but be utterly uncompromising on all matters that are central to the Kingdom (viz. everything that pertains to living a Jesus-looking life). My Mennonite sisters and brothers, you have what multitudes in the rising Kingdom movement are longing for. You can provide a home to so many who right now are looking for one. If you hold fast to the faith you’ve been entrusted with (Jude 3), you may just find your fellowship exploding in the years to come. For, I believe, the Anabaptist vision of the Kingdom is a vision whose time has come.
I am deeply humbled and honored to have been invited to share this word with the leaders of the Mennonite Church last week. My prayer is that God uses it to prepare them to fulfill the vital role God has for them in the Kingdom movement he’s inspiring in our day.
p.s. People who are in the know tell me that the new CVM site will be ready to launch in a few days. Wooooohooooo!! It’s got about 10 times the content as the present one and is a whole lot easier to navigate.