Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Emergence of Mennonite Peacebuilding in an International Perspective: Global Anabaptism and Neo-Anabaptism

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Emergence of Mennonite Peacebuilding in an International Perspective: Global Anabaptism and Neo-Anabaptism

Article excerpt

Abstract: During the past three decades, membership in the global Anabaptist-Mennonite church has nearly tripled, with the overwhelming majority of that growth occurring in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Along with the emergence of these new churches in the Global South have come questions about theological identity, particularly understandings of the gospel of peace. This essay traces the globalization of the Anabaptist-Mennonite peace witness during the second half of the twentieth century. More specifically, it argues that many "neo-Anabaptist" networks and groups in the Global South are indeed deeply committed to an identity as "peace churches," even as they confront many of the same challenges as those faced by Mennonite churches in North America.

In Gospel versus Gospel, a landmark history of the Mennonite Church mission movement, Theron F. Schlabach argued that Mennonite missionaries in the twentieth century were frequently conflicted about the nature of the gospel they were proclaiming. (1) Whereas the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition (2) understood the gospel to be a holistic message of reconciliation--inseparable from a life of Christian discipleship, a commitment to love in all human relationships, and the collective witness of a disciplined church--Mennonites missionaries, borrowing heavily from the language of contemporary American fundamentalism and evangelicalism, frequently promoted a different gospel. On the mission field, Schlabach argued, Mennonites tended to reduce the gospel to simple formulas of forensic salvation, marked by a conversion experience and characterized primarily by intellectual assent to a set of prescribed doctrines.

As a result, Schlabach said, the churches that Mennonite missionaries helped to establish in countries around the world did not look very different from those of their Protestant counterparts, particularly in terms of their peace witness. "Mennonite Church missionaries might have gone forth with the integrated, holistic 'gospel of peace' idea at the center of their message," he concluded. "Generally, however, they did not." (3) Since the mission movement was the primary means by which the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition took on a global expression in the course of the twentieth century, the indigenous churches that emerged from those efforts seemingly had little grounding in the theology or practices of pacifism.

On the surface, Schlabach's argument--carefully argued and bolstered by a host of primary sources--seems compelling. Yet, from the longer perspective of history, his conclusions do not tell the full story. During the past three decades, the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition has undergone a profound transformation. Between 1980, when Gospel versus Gospel appeared, and 2014, membership in the global Anabaptist-Mennonite church nearly tripled--growing from 600,000 to 1,700,000--with the largest portion of that growth occurring in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. (4) Parallel to this growth, and often the primary reason behind it, has been a general indigenization of ecclesial identity, in which church leaders have translated the gospel into the language, cultural forms, and ritual traditions of their particular contexts. In many of these settings, Anabaptist-Mennonite groups around the world are rediscovering and reclaiming their identity as "peace churches."

One expression of the global character of the Anabaptist-Mennonite peace witness is the emergence of several so-called "neo-Anabaptist" peace networks. Usually composed of individuals and congregations who retain their own denominational identities, these networks have brought together Christians from many different theological backgrounds into a common conversation around Anabaptist understandings of discipleship and the church, with themes of peacemaking and reconciliation at the heart of these encounters.

Even more significantly, a commitment to Christian nonviolence and peacemaking has emerged as a defining characteristic in many Anabaptist-Mennonite churches around the world today. …

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