Yes, it’s true. Mennonite even in the “ethnic” sense. In fact, I often say that I have more of a family wreath than a family tree because both sides of my lineage link to the Mennonite Brethren from Prussia. I actually broke the wreath by marrying a Russian Molokan turned evangelical – but that’s beside the point.
For most of my life, my Anabaptist Mennonite heritage was more filled with culture than the biblical values that drew this group of radical reformers together in the midst of the Reformation. Sure, we told stories about our people fleeing peacefully from the persecuting sword in the dark of night, but for most people I interacted with – values like peacemaking, social justice, and empire subversion became the butt of many jokes. We mostly had become mainstream American Evangelicals, with really good food and stories. The Anabaptist way seemed outdated.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that this seemingly obsolete perspective on the discipleship way of Jesus began to draw me in. I’m convinced that my Anabaptist roots offer something to a growing segment of culture that is burnt out on religion and suspicious of the so-called power-brokers of the world. Interestingly enough, the days of the institutional church being the dominant influence in society is quickly fading (often called “Christendom”).
For many outsiders, the church is seen as oppressive to culture. Personally, I think that the Anabaptist movement offers a counter-story to the negative aspects of Christianity that have dominated since the days of Constantine, when the church and state married each other. Non-Christians associate Christianity with power, greed, oppression, televangelists, and scandal – but us Anabaptists have a better story to tell!
In Europe, the transition of the church being recognized as a main force in society is about a decade ahead of American culture. Where we in the States are seeing this transition take place in urbanized regions, this is almost normative throughout the U.K. The Anabaptist movement is on the rise across the pond, as evidenced by Stuart Murray’s prolific book, The Naked Anabaptist – The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. Many people are drawn to our Jesus-centered way of faith as they try to discern what it means to express Christian community as a minority group in their secularized context. New Christians, from what some refer to as “Post-Christian” situations, are drawn toward seven core convictions that reflect our historical story. Murray summarizes them as:
- Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. – Christ invites us to follow him in all parts of life, by his example as we worship him.
- Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. – Jesus as revealed in the Scriptures is the center from which all interpretation flows.
- Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era. – Culture no longer will be dominated by the church, giving believers an opportunity to evangelize in new ways from the margins of society rather than the center.
- The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. – This is not to say that one cannot be rich and a Christian, but that we can be known for our identification with the poor and suffering of our world.
- Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship. – In an age of individualism, Anabaptists model a communal faith that fosters spiritual gifts and authentic relationships.
- Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. – In an age of consumerism, Jesus calls us to simplicity, justice for the poor, and generosity.
- Peace is at the heart of the gospel. – Nonviolence, as modeled by Jesus, is evidence of the good news of the kingdom.
I want to invite a brief look at the final value of peacemaking and touch on a few others along the way. As our society becomes more secular and cynical of the institutional church, the nonviolent way of Jesus will be an entry point for those who don’t yet know Christ. I want to suggest that this single conviction, which Anabaptist Christ-followers are tempted to dismiss as impractical, relates to many people who think the church is hungry for power and supportive of war. We Anabaptists, have the opportunity to leverage our distinct perspective on violence and power as a catalyst to draw people to the resurrected Christ.
During times of persecution, nonviolent resistance made sense, but in this day of security and prosperity in the USA, many are convinced that violence is sometimes necessary. Jesus couldn’t have possibly meant that violence is always wrong – he’s too smart for that! We appeal to common sense and in the process read the difficult texts of the New Testament through this grid. I should know – I grew up believing this logical approach to interpretation.
The pushback goes further: War is inevitable. People who are innocent need someone to defend them. Therefore, Jesus’ teachings must be an “ideal” or only talking about self-defense, not the defense of one’s neighbor. Yet, although we may wish it otherwise, Jesus clearly states that all violence is contrary to his call into discipleship. Scholarship is now bending in the Anabaptist direction as well. One translation renders Jesus’ words: “But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil!” (Matthew 5.39). Jesus not only commanded us to live by such a high standard, but modeled these words by carrying a cross, showing us that self-sacrificial love doesn’t cling to the sword.
For most of my life, nonviolence seemed so irrational that I thought: This couldn’t be what Jesus actually meant? This defies all common sense! In fact, it’s foolishness! After finally embracing my Anabaptist roots, I now realize that accepting nonviolence doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. Yet believing such may offer something to the world that it’s starving to find, a counter-cultural kingdom community that operates so differently that it’s attractive. Many in our society, who continue to see the destructive effects of militarism, are ready for an alternative paradigm. Power leads to corruption; Jesus leads to peacemaking, social equality, justice, and Spirit-led possibilities! May we with Anabaptism in our blood and those who we would call sisters and brothers choose to carry our cross for the sake of the world. In the days ahead, we may find that the way of peace, justice, and empire subversion is actually a bridge to leading many in this Post-Christian culture to a relationship with Jesus Christ.
*** For a full treatment of Jesus and the New Testament’s perspective on Nonviolence, see “Nonviolence 101.” On Nationalism, see “Whose Jesus, Which Lord? Jesus and Nationalism.”
 Christendom is a term used to describe the church as a dominant and sometimes militant cultural influence. A simple explanation of Christendom is: the church in the center of society rather than offering an alternative way of life from the margins. Christendom’s reality began with Constantine and is fading slowing in the West during our time. This is referred to as “post-Christendom” by missiologists.
 See: The Naked Anabaptist, 45-46. There you will find a fuller treatment of each of these statements.
 The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011).
Kurt Willems is an Anabaptist writer and pastor who is preparing for church planting next year by finishing work towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He writes at: the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook