J. Denny Weaver's theological program constitutes Mennonites and radical Christians as the agents of human redemption through the extension and reinterpretation of three interpenetrating historical narratives: the first century gospel story, the sixteenth century Anabaptist story, and the twentieth century Mennonite story. In the gospels, Weaver reads a battle between the forces of God and the forces of evil which is decisively won by Jesus; influenced by Anabaptist pacifism, Weaver interprets this battle as being waged by a non-violent Jesus against violent institutions and practices; formed by his own Mennonite past, Weaver constitutes alternative Christian communities as the contemporary agents of Jesus' ongoing struggle against violence and worldliness.
In what follows, I agree with Weaver that the early Christian, radical Anabaptist, and contemporary Mennonite narratives are appropriate orienting stories for radical Christians today and I argue that these narratives must not only thrust their audiences into forcefully nonviolent confrontations with oppressors and tyrants but lead them also into radically nonresistant encounters with outsiders and foreigners.
Weaver's theological vision is a courageous approach to the contemporary crisis in Mennonite identity because it relies on (and extends) the peculiarities of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition rather than promoting its commonalities with mainstream Christianity. Unlike some Mennonite intellectuals who find little in Christendom for contemporary Mennonites to oppose, Weaver emphasizes precisely those aspects of Mennonite doctrine which, if taken seriously, are sure to lead its adherents away from conventional Christianity.
First, by posing the realm of God against the kingdoms of the world through the Christus Victor atonement motif, Weaver establishes a hermeneutical grid for reading the scriptures in general and the gospels in particular which turns the Bible into a critique of common sense and constitutes its readers as agents of social and political struggle against the status quo. Rather than foster cooperation with the institutions of civil governance (as does popular Christianity) such an interpretation of the Bible empowers radical Christians to challenge the state by encouraging them to think of themselves less as citizens and subjects of the present world of nations and more as strangers and pilgrims from the future world of God.
Second, by reading Jesus' struggle against evil as a refusal of violence, Weaver makes pacifism a fundamental feature of Mennonite doctrine and identity, as well as the first principle of a radical social ethics. Moreover, Weaver's recontextualization of pacifism (not unlike the work of Gandhi and King) as a strategy of Christus Victor, instead of an invitation to victimage, challenges Mennonites to reverse their quietist retreat from violence toward a more activist engagement with it. By asking us to reject violence, not merely endure it, Weaver's narrative theology suggests one response to the problem of Mennonite social responsibility identified by J. Lawrence Burkholder in the 1950's, and it holds promise for feminists who find traditional peace theologies empty of adequate guidance to victims of sexual abuse.
Now, while much of this brings to mind John Howard Yoder's Politics of Jesus, Weaver's emphasis on narrative theology reveals a third distinctive element of Mennonite identity: the critique of individualism. Classically, this has been stated in the context of an ecclesiology which prioritizes the Gemeinde over the individual, but in Weaver's essay, the critique of individualism can also be read as a statement about anthropology and epistemology. The human person for Weaver is "oriented" by her community's narratives, can be "transformed" by these and other stories, and finds a "subjective certainty" in the "normative" story of Jesus. This approach follows the critique of the enlightenment subject performed by postmodern critical theory in general and exemplified in the cultural-linguistic model of George Lindbeck in particular, but it can also be seen as a sophisticated description of the Anabaptist-Mennonite conception of mutual accountability, where the individual both shapes and is shaped by her community. Herein lies the greatest promise of Weaver's narrative theology, and here is where I want to push at the edges of his program.
Recognizing that the self is constituted by narrative, Weaver points out that "each person is an intertwined bundle of narratives," including personal stories, church stories, and biblical stories, and he suggests that for those who "confess Christian faith" these stories should conform to a "normative" story, that of Jesus making the reign of God visible in the world. Thus, the Christian is constituted by the privileging of the Jesus story over the other stories. In a crucial passage, he also admits that the "normative story" he advocates is itself constituted by the tradition within which he finds himself: "The Mennonite, peace church approach to the Bible has been to read with a predisposition toward discipleship and obedience which makes pacifism and the rejection of violence intrinsic to the Jesus story." The Mennonite Christian, then, is one who privileges a pacifist Jesus over the other Jesus personas imagined within the Christian tradition. For Weaver, such a predisposition is ultimately justified by the Mennonite version of the "normative" story itself, though, which completes an unfortunate circle: the Mennonite reading of Jesus as a pacifist is justified by the Mennonite reading of Jesus as a pacifist.
The solution to this problem is not to abandon the notion of a normative story, as some might advocate, but rather to recognize, as Weaver seems willing to at times, that this story comes to those of us whom it constitutes through layers of cultural and historical sediment, and that our reading of the story originates in our contemporary circumstances and formative traditions. Thus the "normative" story's origins are less in the past than in the present, and must be justified in terms of the present. It is not enough to say, as Weaver does, that "modern Christians should accept pacifism and reject violence because it is intrinsic to the normative story of Jesus." Rather, we must also demand of the pacifist Mennonite understanding of Jesus an adequate ethical guide for radical Christians at the end of the twentieth century. For example, Weaver is right that we should allow the story of Jesus (in its pacifistic Christus Victor form) to critique the North American story.
But we must also recognize that the North American story (including the stories of the American revolution, the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, etc.) will inevitably shape our telling of the Jesus story, even if we maintain the normativity of the Jesus story. Rather than try to escape this reality, we should encourage the Jesus story, the Mennonite story, and the North American story to stand in mutually critical relationships with one another, even as we rely in the last instance on our best reconstruction of the Jesus story as the provisional basis of critical authority.
Normative motifs, as Weaver notes, have both "abstract formulations" and are "embodied in real historical movements" that "cannot exist apart from economic, social, and political dimensions." What I am suggesting is that the abstract formulations themselves are real, historical practices which cannot exist apart from economic, social, and political dimensions. If this is so, we must do more than insist that the Jesus story remains normative. We must also accept ethical and political responsibility for our particular presentation of this "normative" story in the contemporary context.
If we subject Weaver's narrative theology to the standard I have just suggested, it succeeds admirably in some important ways. Because it emphasizes a struggle against worldliness rather than withdrawal from the world (as did earlier Mennonite versions of the "normative" story), Weaver's account of radical Christian origins is well suited for a time when Mennonites can no longer claim marginality, conscientious objection is tolerated, and young people are seduced into the military rather than drafted. At a time when North American Mennonite consumers are busy enjoying the privileges of world economic hegemony, Weaver's theology instructs radical Christians to actively challenge the practices of oppression and exclusion found in the political, economic, and social structures which organize and rule our world.
Weaver's theology is unnecessarily limited, however, by his own insistence that the "church" is the primary agent of the "reign of God," and by his tendency to see the state as the primary agent of "evil." For example, in the case of sexual abuse, an evil that is every bit as grievous as militarism, Weaver's activist theology can offer a much needed justification for intervention against patriarchal institutions and practices, yet, it is caught in a contradiction when the agent of God's reign (the church) turns out to be itself the agent of evil (patriarchy).
This problem is exacerbated when the church's identity is constituted by a "pure" narrative theology with what I will call a "hard" normative status rather than a "soft" normative status. Because a pure narrative theology insists that it is itself the only legitimate ground of critique, all of its own weaknesses (including Weaver's own admitted biases) are too easily dismissed as aberrations rather than defining characteristics, thus disallowing for the normative narrative (and the church it constitutes) adequate vulnerability to the other stories which challenge it (including those who have been excluded or abused in peace churches). So, for example, we are left with the image of trajectories which intersect on the basis of common concern but depart from one another at points of difference.
I fear that the logic of trajectories cannot adequately explain how communities and persons can be transformed into fundamentally new creations within which the old ways and traditions make no sense anymore. Rooted in a trajectory of narratives from which she seeks in the face of the other only the familiar reflection of the self, how can the follower of Christ experience new birth? How can he be moved by the Spirit? Rather than dwell on these problems, I want to imagine briefly where Weaver's theology could take us if unfettered by the constraints of an ecclesiology constituted by a "hard" or "pure" normative story.
Weaver's reading of the Christus Victor atonement story can lead us beyond the withdrawn alternative community to an activist alternative community which challenges not only the evils of the state, the military, Wall Street, the media, and other institutions "out there," but also the evils perpetrated by the church (including peace churches), church-related institutions, Christian theologies, and some interpretations of the Bible. No longer seen as the primary agent of God's reign, the church is itself now subject to God's reign, instructed not only by its own ministers and theologians but also by the stories and proclamations of "a great cloud of witnesses" both inside and outside the church. Such a church practices radical nonconformity: it does not conform to the surrounding cultural prejudices nor to its own exclusive traditions, seeking instead the revelation of God's truth in unfamiliar places and among people who have not said "Lord, Lord."
Weaver's call to nonviolence as the primary ethical standard for judging our conduct can guide us beyond a simple conscientious objection to military service toward a divestment of such practices of power which operate imperialistically: including those derived from dehumanizing structures of prejudice such as colonialism, patriarchy, racism, and heterosexism. No longer obsessed with retaining the purity of their own traditions, radical Christians will risk their narratively constituted selves through mutually transformative encounters with others whose stories and dogmas demonstrate the limits of the Christian story in general and of the radical Christian tradition in particular. Seeking friends among fellow strangers and pilgrims who may find Christianity itself too sinful to include them, such Christians practice radical nonresistance: they resist neither the enemies of their nation nor the critics of their churches, but instead are ready to lose their own lives and safe traditions for New Life and Greater Love.
A radical Christianity such as this would also turn again to the texts and the traditions of its own past, and, refusing to simply find there what it already desires to see, would discover strangers and foreigners inhabiting such texts as the Bible and the Martyrs Mirror, prophetesses and wise men heroic in their struggle against worldly and churchly evil. Thus committed to a nonresistant biblicism, nonconformist Christians would discover anew the strangeness and unfamiliarity of the radical Jew they claim to follow, that child of a homeless single mother who was executed because he claimed to be God's son. Such a nonresistant biblicism can help fulfill the promise of J. Denny Weaver's theology of activism and discipleship: that the "Stillen im Land" will yet be led back into noisy confrontation with the historical forces of iniquity and idolatry, away from a Christendom still compromised by conformist cultural and political practices, and toward the new world of God anticipated by Jesus and his defenseless followers.