A Neo-Anabaptist Approach to Missions: Ralph and Genevieve Buckwalter and the Hokkaido Mennonite Church, 1949-1980

By Hershberger, Emily | Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2004 | Go to article overview

A Neo-Anabaptist Approach to Missions: Ralph and Genevieve Buckwalter and the Hokkaido Mennonite Church, 1949-1980


Hershberger, Emily, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: Ralph and Genevieve Buckwalter's approach to Mennonite missionary service in Hokkaido, Japan, embodied an emerging neo-Anabaptist vision of missions that stood in sharp contrast to the Mennonite mission movement of the nineteenth century, which had borrowed deeply from mainstream Protestantism. As articulated by John Howard Yoder and other members of the Concern Movement, this model of missions emphasized cultural sensitivity and face-to-face relationships; it stressed discipleship over numerical growth; and it cultivated sending congregations rooted in a commitment to the believers church. Ralph's experience in Civilian Public Service and the couple's dedication to peacemaking gave them a unique identity in post-World War II Japan.

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Their success in realizing this new mission model depended heavily on the depth of their relationships with Japanese Christians who, in equal partnership with the Buckwalters, made the work of church and community building as distinctly Japanese as it was distinctly Mennonite. In November of 1948, three years after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a Japanese educator came to Goshen College's Fall Missionary Conference with a troubling tale and a stirring invitation. Speaking before an audience of college and seminary students, Dr. Takuo Matsumoto, president of Hiroshima Girl's School, described how the atomic bomb had demolished his school building, painfully injured his daughter, and killed his wife, eighteen of his teachers and three hundred of his students. With a gentleness of spirit that astounded his youthful Mennonite audience, Matsumoto asked his listeners to forgive the Japanese people and bring the Gospel of Jesus to his country. (1) Ralph E. Buckwalter, a student seated in the crowd that day, heard in Matsumoto's words a direct and compelling challenge. "Imagine how we felt when he asked us to forgive Japan for the great wrongs she had committed," he wrote later. "We couldn't help but cry, 'No, forgive us! Forgive our blindness, our lack of concern, our failure to be truly Christian.'" (2) Although Buckwalter had no way of knowing it at the time, Matsumoto's speech was a catalyst that eventually led him and his wife, Genevieve, to devote thirty years of their lives to mission work in Japan--a life of service characterized by the same gentle spirit and forgiving attitude so evident in Matsumoto's speech.

At the time of Matsumoto's invitation, missions in a Japanese context seemed daunting. No Mennonite missionaries had previously served in Japan; a deep cultural divide separated the Buckwalters and the Japanese people; and the devastating consequences of the atomic bombs were still fresh in the Japanese memory. Under such circumstances, wondered the Buckwalters, how and why should Mennonites engage in mission?

For Ralph and Genevieve, the answer to this question emerged out of a growing conviction that Christian missionary service was, at its best, a way to reconciliation and relationship with the Japanese people. The Buckwalters' career as Mennonite missionaries thus embodied an emerging neo-Anabaptist theology clearly articulated by John Howard Yoder that placed pacifism, human relationship and believers church at the center of Christian discipleship. Yet even as the Buckwalters embraced this new, distinctive theology of mission, they also came to depend fully on local Japanese people for insights into the cultural context. Ultimately, it was the relationship between the Buckwalters and their Japanese friends--mutual partnerships that made church development a shared task--that nurtured the creation of a new, markedly Mennonite approach to mission and Christian community.

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT

Mennonite missions in the decades prior to World War II were more mainstream Protestant than distinctly Mennonite. As the historian Theron Schlabach has argued in Gospel Versus Gospel: Mission and the Mennonite Church, 1863-1944, the Mennonite missionary movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century borrowed deeply from Anglo-American models of Protestant revivalism and fundamentalism. …

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