Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy

Article excerpt

In discerning how best to fulfill their role as citizens of the United States, present-day American Anabaptists should take seriously sixteenth-century Anabaptism, which provides a model for courageous, uninhibited engagement with the wider culture. They would also benefit from recognizing the existence of two Americas, one characterized by participatory democracy, the second by imperial domination. Antipathy toward the latter should not lead Anabaptists to self-limitations in their involvement in the former.


Heirs of the Radical Reformation continue to face basic questions about citizenship. What does it mean to be "in the world and not of it" On. 17:14-17)? What in our lives should we give to Caesar and what should we give to God (Mt. 22:15-22)?

Anabaptists living in the United States (1) are challenged by these questions in complex ways. We find ourselves, on the one hand, in the land of freedom. The first Anabaptist generations in the sixteenth century, facing severe persecutions, desperately sought safety; many groups migrated widely in this quest. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, many established communities in the United States. Despite periodic flaring of wartime persecutions, we may now look back with gratitude for our forebears' opportunity to find a safe home in America.

We have a great deal to be grateful for in terms of religious toleration. We also, not coincidentally, have opportunities, totally unimaginable for the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, to participate in the political life of one of the world's pioneering democracies. That is, not only are Mennonites tolerated, we may vote, run for office, speak out, serve on school boards and in other ways be fully participating members in American democratic processes.

At the same time, American Mennonites are also tax-paying citizens in one of the world's greatest-ever empires, if we define "empire" in terms of a country's exercise of domination over many other parts of the world. Perhaps the U.S. does not overtly possess foreign colonies in the manner of old empires such as Great Britain. However, in terms of the actual expression of power over others, the U.S. surely greatly surpasses even the largest reach of the British Empire. America is now the world's one great superpower, spending more on our military than nearly all the rest of the world's countries combined.

From its beginnings the Anabaptist tradition expressed a strong suspicion of empires, power politics and trust in the sword. Present-day Mennonites surely are being faithful to that tradition when we refuse to participate in, or even support, the wars of America.

However, what about the "good America'--the America of religious freedom and participatory democracy? Is the traditional Mennonite "two kingdom" stance, in which Christian convictions are understood primarily to be directly relevant for the faith community's inner existence but not for that of the broader society, adequate for determining our understanding of citizenship today? In our time, people throughout the world plead for participants in American civil society to seek to influence American foreign policy to be more peaceable. Do American Anabaptist Christians have a responsibility to aggressively seek to take their pacifist convictions into the public square in a way that might influence our government?

In this essay I suggest that we have three distinct stories to take into account as we reflect on these questions. The first I will call the "Anabaptist Story." The second story, the story of the "good America," talks of the America that welcomed migrating Mennonites and that has served as a beacon of hope for self-determination and freedom for people around the world. We may call this the "Democracy Story." And the third, the story of the "other America," is a story of conquest, domination and widespread violence--the "Empire Story."

As pacifist followers of Jesus, those adhering to the Anabaptist Story appropriately seek to distance themselves from the Empire Story. …

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