A Discussion Paper (1994)
by Gerald J. Biesecker-Mast

In 1994, two major North American conferences (one at Elizabethtown College in June and the other at Goshen College in October) commemorated the 1944 publication of Harold Bender's Anabaptist Vision, an essay that articulated a modern appropriation of sixteenth-century European Christian radicalism to twentieth-century North American sectarian communities of Mennonites and Brethren. These conferences assessed the historical contingencies and future possibilities of the three points of Bender's Vision: discipleship, community, and nonresistance. Among the problematics that were highlighted in the Elizabethtown conference were the distance between Anabaptist radicalism and Mennonite sectarianism, the relationship of cultural and social practices to Christian faith and God's grace, and the place of the disciple in the church and in the world.

These are issues that have been under discussion for several decades with no clear consensus emerging on the best way forward. Indeed, these questions have been taken up quite differently by popular Anabaptist-identified scholars and writers in North America. Some scholars wish to recover Anabaptist zeal by maintaining a rigorous dualism between church and world and by priviledging the oppositional cultural practices of the believers' churches as the means of the world's salvation.1 Other scholars suggest that our historical situation differs from that of the Anabaptists insofar as the lines of distinction between believers' churches and the churches of Christendom are no longer necessary or clear, and that therefore the believers' church should forge alliances with the traditional Christian churches and their theologies in the war against secularism.2 Still others argue that the latter part of the twentieth century, like the early part of the sixteenth, constitutes a moment of historical possibility and cultural ambiguity which provides new relevance for the practices of Anabaptist discipleship, and which, unlike sixteenth century Reformation Europe, demands an acknowledgement of the believers' participation in and accountability to both churchly and non-churchly publics, and thus, which requires of contemporary disciples the integration of a multi-cultural public consciousness with a radical Anabaptist communitarianism.3

All of these proposals emphasize the narratively constituted character of both self and community, and all recognize the significance of social and historical differences for the formation of collective identities. In this sense, all of these reconstructions of the Anabaptist vision address the postmodern moment; that is, they presume the linguistic turn in intellectual and popular consciousness and they recognize the fallibility of reason as an arbiter of truth. But, as is often the case with postmodern theories of self and community, they are frequently taken to task for providing an inadequate explanation for radical personal and social transformation. Put in theological terms, cultural-linguistic models of religious and social identity are accused of not providing an account of the human experience of salvation by grace through faith in a God whose revelation transcends the narrow conceptions of reality held by individuals and social groups.

These questions of grace and transcendence are frequently articulated as a debate between evangelicals who insist that the experience of grace and transcendence is personally available to Christians as an act of salvation originating outside human culture and agency on the one hand and agnostics who declare that the ultimate reality referred to by the categories of grace and transcendence is always a contingent, historical construction of the human imagination and therefore unknowable in an absolute sense, on the other. The confinement of discussions about grace and transcendence to the boundaries of this debate is both unfortunate and unnecessary, if we are open to new learnings from postmodern social theories of human subjectivity and cultural consciousness. Postmodern descriptions of culture (particularly those who are trying to recover a Marxist or neo-Marxist project of emancipation) emphasize both the discursive foundations of the historical truths which guide human communities and the means by which members of such communities confront the limits of their discourses. To be sure, such postmodern social theories understand the ultimate inability of a given historical discourse about "truth" to fully constitute the world as the condition of possibility for the initiation of social transformation and emancipation from an unconstitutable "outside." In other words, a postmodern, post-Enlightenment conception of salvation would be suspicious of common-sensical and familiar experiences of "revelation" and "salvation," and would privilege rather the traumatic and surprising encounters with radical difference and otherness. Thus, in a religious appropriation of postmodern social theory, the category of "God" is returned, as it was in early Hebrew narratives about YHWH, to the linguistic space of the unrepresentable (at least unrepresentable through conventional narratives and preoccupations), as well as to the space of transcendence "outside" (but not independent of) cultural historical formations. This type of approach to God, grace, transcendence, and revelation, renders the old debates between traditional evangelicals and modern agnostics irrelevant, and it suggests new ways for the prophetic paradigm of Anabaptist discipleship to be articulated to the postmodern, multi-cultural global village of the twenty-first century. In what follows, I suggest three such points of connection between the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition and postmodern concerns which open new roads toward emancipation and salvation: peace theology, cultural nonconformism, and communal hermeneutics.

1. Mennonite peace theology should be brought into conversation with current discussions about the ethical relation to the other given the decline of modern assumptions about individual agency, the social contract, and personal autonomy. Anabaptist-identified communities came quite belatedly to the problems of professionalization, specialization, and pluralism that arose in modernity. Indeed, at precisely the moment when modern Mennonite institutions and communities have finally adapted more or less successfully to modern forms of social and economic organization, the modern world is itself encountering a profound crisis of legitimacy if not indeed facing its own end. Perhaps most importantly for Mennonites, the modern view of the self as an autonomous, free-floating agent has been challenged both in recent philosophical developments as well as in popular consciousness. It was this view of the self that Anabaptist communities struggled for centuries to resist through the development of organic and nonconformist communities of mutual assistance and accountability. The most profound expression of the Anabaptist opposition to free-floating selves has been the reappearance in different centuries and contexts of different forms of peace theology and practice. The commitment to peace, imperfect though it has often been, constitutes a challenge to modern conceptions of the self because it insists that selfhood is maintained not through autonomy from others but by seeking the well-being of others, even enemies. In other words, the self is sometimes saved by risking its loss. Thus, it would appear that Anabaptist peace theologies, which have often functioned primarily to justify Mennonite and Brethren commitments to pacifism, have an opportunity now to enter a broader conversation about the place of the other in the ethical constitution of the self.

2. One significant obstacle to participation in this conversation, it appears, is the sectarian residue still clinging to Anabaptist-Mennonite peace theology. Mennonite and Brethren pacifism has, for the most part, been articulated as part of a Christ against culture stance that views with suspicion the cultural practices and habits of the broader society. This suspicion has been productive as a negative stance that provides a prophetic voice to harmful cultural and institutional patterns located in the host societies. Yet this stance has also prevented Mennonites and Brethren from constructive and redemptive practices of solidarity and activism in the public spheres of government, the arts, the media, and the shopping mall, except as outside agitators or inside collaborators. There is a strong need for Anabaptist intellectuals to develop a nuanced theory/theology of culture which preserves the Anabaptist critique of cultural and institutional violence, yet suggests constructive ways for Mennonites and Brethren to engage in cultural and institutional activism from both within and without the contemporary public (and private) spheres of secular (and religious) activity. In this way Anabaptist communities can participate in the complicated (and often ambiguous) events of emancipation and salvation which occur in the midst of all human histories.

3. Another Anabaptist connection to postmodernity is the collection of theories and practices of biblical interpretation that have grown up in believers' churches around the general assumption of communal responsibility for "binding and loosing." The function of the gathered church in Anabaptist hermeneutical conventions is not a far cry from that of the interpretive community described in contemporary reception theories. Put simply, the court of reason is not constituted in Anabaptist hermeneutics as the final arbiter of textual truth; rather, it is the collective response to scripture performed by the gathered body that determines how the text is understood. The traditional Anabaptist emphasis on practice over proposition (obedience over assent) offers one program for reconstituting the means to truth after the failure of the Enlightenment valorization of reason as the primary mode of discernment. Yet Anabaptist disciples must take seriously the plurality of (often contradictory) truths discerned in the various communities to which they grant authority (occupations, nations, and secular and religious organizations, as well as the church). It is no longer sufficient to say that the church (in its local, gathered form) is always the final arbiter of truth. The church is often wrong and its sins are often prophesied against by non-churchly activists and discourses. A conversation between an Anabaptist hermeneutics of obedience and postmodern theories of reception and rhetoric can do two things: a) offer the church a way to reconceive its own fallibility and salvation through mutually redemptive encounters with other communities and their truths; b) offer postmodern skeptics a way out of cultural relativism vis a vis a theory of interpretation that emphasizes practice. These observations suggest that Anabaptist communities must pursue their salvation and the world's with an even deeper level of involvement in society than the admittedly brave steps of the past several decades have made possible. The work of investigating and reinvigorating the Anabaptist contribution and commitment to the public worlds of culture, politics, and religion can best be accomplished in the context of an interdisciplinary conversation involving a variety of discourses, genres, and media. Scholars and artists, pastors and presidents, writers and relief workers, all offer important perspectives on the problems and possibilities of an Anabaptist public theology. But because of the modernization of the Mennonite world, these persons are often housed in different departments, institutions, and locations which impede rather than encourage collaboration. Thus, there is a need for contexts which deliberately integrate the various knowledges, practices, and disciplines relevant to a new vision for Anabaptist cultural activism.


1.See John H. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel, (South Bend: U. of Notre Dame P., 1986) and J. Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist, (Scottdale: Herald P., 1987).

2.Stanley Hauerwas took this position in his keynote address at the Elizabethtown College conference: "Whither the Anabaptist Vision?" See also A. James Reimer, "Towards A Theocentric Christology: Christ in the World," in Rodney Sawatsky and Scott Holland, editors, The Limits of Perfection, (Waterloo: Institute of Anabaptist-Mennonite Studies, 1993), pp. 95-109.

3.See Scott Holland, "God in Public: A Modest Proposal for a Contemporary North American Anabaptist Paradigm," Conrad Grebel Review 4.1 (1986), pp. 43-55. See also Gordon Kaufman, Nonresistance and Responsibility and Other Mennonite Essays, (Newton: Faith and Life P., 1979).