The two most influential attempts at Mennonite self-definition in the 20th century were Harold Bender’s Anabaptist Vision and John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. Both legacies have come under scrutiny, with Yoder’s more pointed due to the abuse he levelled personally.
Both theologies acted as a sort of marinade in which Mennonite
churches, schools and leaders have soaked for decades, and so it is no small thing to reckon with expressions that have given the modern Mennonite church its flavour. Both books explicitly name these influences in their titles, signalling to readers that one cannot simply start again from scratch or return to some untainted past. To discern future steps, one must be aware of how past events still shape the present.
So what form do these theologies take in the wake of Bender and Yoder?
Mennonite theology was previously distilled through the singular voice of authoritative men. In contrast, these books are edited collections reflecting diversity in terms of gender, race and sexuality. The essays in Liberating are exclusively by woman, so race and ethnic diversity are given greater attention. This diversity builds on the often-unfulfilled value of community discernment within the Anabaptist tradition. From here the books diverge in terms of overall aim.
Recovering attempts a broad reflection on, and experimentation with, Anabaptist theology in general, while Liberating is a specific attempt at women forming an adequate peace theology for the present moment.
Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision is the culmination of a larger process of reflection on Anabaptist identity and theological method, ranging broadly in style and content. The first three essays address more formal aspects of the theological method. Paul Martens sets the context, acknowledging the yearning of modern western Mennonites for a renewed sense of identity, and how both Bender and Yoder offered refined, elegant and powerful answers. Martens sees the new critical assessment of both accounts as opening up new opportunities to revisit our connection to historical Anabaptism and the relationship between church and state. Martens concludes with the observation that, in this time of renewal, Anabaptist theology exists as a “contested conversation.” The hierarchies of authority are falling, and it is a good time to enter the conversation, so churches and individuals can find their voice.
The remaining essays offer a glimpse into that conversation, placing strong emphasis on the need for external relationships of collaboration and accountability, whether in ecumenical or interreligious dialogue, acknowledging expressions of theology women have been articulating, or learning from queer and trauma-informed authors. Paul Doerksen concludes the book with an account of the restlessness of theology, saying that, even as theology speaks with wonder, conviction and fear, its speech must be accountable to its limitations.
These essays are hesitant to make major substantive claims for Anabaptist theology establishing a relational or collaborative mode of theology beyond Anabaptist distinctives. This understanding helps avoid misguided quests for a fixed identity or kernel of truth around which to build theology, it pushes us to acknowledge that we are always being formed in a complex of forces. Unless we take account of them, we will likely be determined by them in unhelpful or even harmful ways.
Given this framework, Liberating the Politics of Jesus can be read as an example of such a relational, collaborative approach. Peace theology is not built from a single male architect but is gathered from among the lives of a diverse group of women. While this collection definitely understands its relation to John Howard Yoder’s work and legacy, it also acknowledges how women have always lived and embodied Jesus’ political ways, but who can now “simply get on with reconstruction work and produce new material.”
The book is divided into four parts, the first addressing theological method in relation to women’s understanding on matters of patriarchy, racism and suffering. Part 2 offers three examples of lived peace theology in the contexts of South Africa, Colombia and the U.S.
Part 3 brings peace theology to bear on the shattering realties of sexual violence, correcting harmful notions of forgiveness and salvation, as well as emphasizing the solidarity that must happen, even if all “facts” cannot be known. Symbolically closing the chapter on a larger era, the final part of the book addresses the fallout of Yoder’s abuses on the church and its institutions.
While many essays in these books use traditional theological categories, many more have turned to lived experience as a component in Mennonite theology. This may address past abuses and limitations in Mennonite theology, but experience is not self-evident and should not become another foundation for doing theology. Experience should be a part of the “contested conversations” in our theology. The examples of collaboration, acknowledgment of suffering, and struggle for justice and healing provided in these books, offer tremendous resources opening out into the next generation of Mennonite theology.
David Driedger is associate minister of First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg.