Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Following Christ Down Under: A New Zealand Perspective on Anabaptism

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Following Christ Down Under: A New Zealand Perspective on Anabaptism

Article excerpt

To say we were converted by a cookbook would be going too far. But it was the More with Less recipe book, together with John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, which my wife Margaret and I read as university students, that first triggered our interest in the Anabaptist tradition. Both books were produced by Mennonites and both gave expression, in different ways, to the same fundamental Anabaptist conviction: that to be a Christian means following Jesus; that following Jesus means taking Jesus' ethical teaching seriously; and that taking Jesus seriously means a lifestyle of simplicity, service and peacemaking. In the heyday of student radicalism in the early 1970s, discovering the authentic Christian radicalism of this long-established faith tradition--little known in New Zealand--was very timely. Three decades later we regard that tradition as one of the most formative influences on our understanding of Christian faith. Our lives have been immeasurably enriched by participation in two Mennonite congregations, attendance at several Mennonite conferences, periods of sabbatical leave at Mennonite seminaries and, above all, by enduring friendships with Mennonite Christians in different parts of the world.

FIRST CONTACT

After completing my initial theological studies in New Zealand in 1980, I was accepted for doctoral work in New Testament at the University of London. We decided to spend three months in North America en route to Britain. Thinking that this visit would be a good opportunity to meet some real live Mennonites, I obtained addresses of three Mennonite organizations from the U.S. embassy in New Zealand. One was near Chicago, which was on our itinerary, so we arranged to pay them a visit.

Our first few weeks in America were unsettling. We encountered various expressions of church life, but disliked much of what we saw. Whether it was the smooth consumer religion of the mega-church we visited in Los Angeles, or the manipulative showmanship of the countless televangelists we masochistically watched, or the overt racism of the small midwestern Presbyterian church we attended with some distant relations, the American Christian scene seemed bizarre indeed. Most disturbing, however, was the boisterous "God and country" nationalism that seemed to permeate church as well as society. I remember watching one well known TV preacher--whose theology was "thoroughly orthodox," I was assured by an American friend--commemorate the Fourth of July with a sermon entitled, "I am the American flag." In return for a reasonable donation to his ministry, I could have received a transcript of his message and a lapel badge of the Stars and Stripes. I resisted the temptation.

With all this fresh in our minds, we turned up at the Mennonite World Conference headquarters in Lombard, near Chicago, where we were given a gracious welcome and spent the afternoon in conversation. At one point I asked the director, the late Paul Kraybill, what he thought of the religious nationalism so pervasive in what we had seen of the American church. "Idolatry!" was his simple reply. I recall writing in the visitors book: "Wonderful to meet kindred spirits."

We arrived in England later that year and spent the first few months settling in. We visited several churches in our neighborhood but could find nothing that really suited us. One weekend I went with a friend to a conference celebrating the fifth birthday of the British magazine Third Way. One of the speakers was Alan Kreider, director of the London Mennonite Centre. I was most impressed with him, and the following Sunday we attended the worship service of the London Mennonite Fellowship in Highgate, North London. To us as strangers in a foreign land, it felt like coming home spiritually. We fitted, in a way we had not experienced before. We remained active members of that church until we returned to New Zealand four years later.

What did we find so special in this small Mennonite fellowship? …

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