Our family was invited to an Indo-Canadian family birthday celebration. A one-year milestone, particularly for a son, is a monumental occasion in our friend’s culture. The colourful dress, curried-sensations and dancing were a little overwhelming and invitingly beautiful for a white bloke like me who grew up in southwestern Ontario, where dancing was verboten and curry was “hurry” pronounced incorrectly.
Currently, we are enjoying befriending a Syrian family that is adjusting to Canada. There is much we appreciate about their way of life—like the importance of hospitality—and there are other things we experience with them that make us rejoice that our culture is different.
Culture is simply, as Erin Meyer says, the shared patterns of what we see, think and do. Every culture has been shaped in a variety of ways, and is both rich and poor. Consequently, every culture needs to be transformed by the good news of God’s kingdom—which roots heaven’s way of seeing, thinking and acting among the diversities of every people.
Do you despise your roots? Sometimes when you experience something new, it can cause you to turn against the water you swim in; and yet you can never really get out of that pool. In the end, we tend to reduce cultural heritage to feigned nostalgia and surrender the essence of what shaped us to accommodate the new that seems better or inevitable.
Unwittingly, this is what has happened to many within the Anabaptist tradition of the church. We have embraced the secular-humanist values of our culture, and run the risk of abandoning what is central to our own story. To be clear, this has nothing to do with white European ways, modes of dress, four-part harmony or having an inexplicable soft spot for borscht or farmer’s sausage.
The fact that we might reduce our heritage to such things actually underlines the issue, for the true heritage of Anabaptists is not food, dress or even relief work that might be done exceptionally well. Our heritage is firstly the story of Germanic people within religious Europe called to radical obedience by Jesus’ cross, resurrection, and invitation to surrender their lives for his glory and be led by the Holy Spirit regardless of the cost. This kingdom transformation of their culture literally changed the world.
In Acts 26, the Apostle Paul stands before King Agrippa. He who once ravaged churches is now seasoned as the one sent to the gentiles for whose sake he willingly became all things (I Corinthians 9:22). Yet, as he speaks to Agrippa, he references his Jewish heritage as “our religion” (26:5), “our twelve tribes” (26:7), and “our people” (26:23). His roots are not despised, but at the same time he has been transformed by a new identity: “a servant and witness” of Jesus (26:16). In fact, he is so sure of his true identity that he appeals for those of his own people “to become such as I am—except for these chains” (26:29).
The invitation is to identity in Christ and life by the Spirit. The issue for Anabaptists in this day is to recover this true heritage. But this will not be found in our politics, our dress or even our good works. Our heritage, which the 16th-century Anabaptists only recovered again—as we must once more—is Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, and the one to whom every culture must bow—including our very own.
Phil Wagler (firstname.lastname@example.org) serves the training of workers and churches for mission. He still loves a good summer sausage sandwich, but a dash of curry is increasingly welcome.