Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Marking and Remarking the Body of Christ: Toward a Postmodern Mennonite Ecclesiology

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Marking and Remarking the Body of Christ: Toward a Postmodern Mennonite Ecclesiology

Article excerpt

In Toni Morrison's profoundly unforgettable novel Beloved, (1) the character of Sethe, a former slave, wears the marks of her history seared into her body like a "tree" growing on her back. These marks, a mass of revolting scars left by a master's whip, remember pieces of a story about Sethe's living--her past, her present and her future--formed, shaped and shared throughout the body of the text. They are marks that remember their genesis in brutal beating and the loss of a baby daughter. They are marks that she has never seen and cannot see. They are marks, also, that she can no longer feel, the skin having been dead for a long time. Yet they are there throughout the text, growing and marking as both Sethe and the text grow and mark. In these marks on Sethe's body, the marks that run through the text--violence, grief, love, longing, desire, wounds, holes and gaps--find their way into materiality. The body remembers the marks; the body marks and remarks.

And on that same day at evening, the writer of the Gospel of John tells us, when the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among the disciples, showing them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad. But Thomas, not being among them, dissented, saying, "Until I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe." And hence, the resurrected Jesus came, with hands marked by nail-prints and side gaping from a sword wound. And doubting Thomas touched the marked body of Jesus, feeling the nail-prints and thrusting his hand into Jesus' side. And Thomas answered and said unto him, "My Lord and my God." (2)

For those of us who claim the figure of the body of Christ as central to our notion of the church, it may seem a far stretch to begin a theological/genealogical investigation into Mennonite/Anabaptist ecclesiology with the figures of bodies marked and re-marked, like Sethe and Jesus the Christ. They are not pristine, pure and unblemished bodies, but bodies crisscrossed with visible and un-visible lines of violence, loss, longing, love and desire that both remember a story of the body's past--a slave beaten, a Nazarene crucified--and constitute the living, breathing ongoing present of that body--a woman scarred, a man scarred, a text written, a church formed. As we struggle with the possibilities and problems of a postmodern culture, it is not a far stretch to hold dear in our ecclesiology these marked and re-marked bodies, especially the marked and re-marked body of the broken Christ. These lines remember our past and constitute our present.

For a time in our history, Mennonite/Anabaptist ecclesiology--the formal theological reflection on the constitution and nature of the church--has hung its hat on the body of Christ as a central figure grounding our theory, practice and confession. As the self-claimed remnants of sixteenth-century Anabaptist movements, Mennonite/Anabaptist groups have, since the middle of this century, helped us see that that body and that ecclesiology make us different both from the world at large and from other ecclesiologies and other bodies. For Anabaptists are without a doubt highly ecclesiological movements. (3) As Harold S. Bender and Franklin Littell told us, and as John Howard Yoder keeps telling us, the essence of the Anabaptisms was the church done differently, the church done right. (4) Such "right" ecclesiology, as an alternative ecclesiology, has been grounded in the body of Christ as a theological construct of Christ's enduring presence in the material world through the matter of the Church, rather than through the matter of the bread and wine. The old Anabaptist texts tell us that this body of Christ, broken and remade--like but not in the bread of the communion table--absorbs the marks of the difference of Anabaptisms--community, holiness, nonconformity, nonresistant suffering and witness. (5)

As a theological construct, this body of Christ makes the marks of Anabaptist difference visible against a tableau of other bodies: the body of the world and the bodies of other Christian theories and practices. …

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