An Anabaptist scholar weighs-in on nonviolence and the Metaxas punch

Eric Metaxas

If you are unfamiliar with what I mean by the “Metaxas punch,” get up to speed here and here and here.

Jared Burkholder, a history professor at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana and advocate of nonviolence, weighed-in at his blog Hermeneutic Circle. Here is a taste:

The notion that pacifists are simpletons who fail to take seriously the morally complicated realities of the world is a well-worn critique and those who take this rhetorical path betray at least some ignorance of the peace tradition and its thinkers. In my reading of those within nonviolent circles, I would say these thinkers and theologians are anything but simpletons. In fact, those in the peace tradition do not hold their convictions in spite of moral complexity, but rather because of them – and because situations often spiral toward precisely the sort of moral quandary into which Metaxas has stepped.

Much of the larger debate over looters, violent agitators, and vigilante justice has devolved into partisan opinions about when violence is justified and when it is not. Zmirack, in fact, seems to be arguing in one post that its not worth extending the lives of criminals, thugs, and other morally undesirable people because their lives matter less than those he considers innocent, such as vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse.

All of this is, in fact, a microcosm of the larger debate over Christian participation in war. The pacifist critique of Just War Theory is that it is human nature to believe that one’s causes are always just and therefore Just War Theory will never really serve as a check on violence. So we can at least say that it is not surprising that Metaxas’ own bad behavior has turned into a discussion about justifications for violence and it is equally unsurprising that Metaxas and company would dismiss pacifism and then claim that his violent action was righteous and just. I say this not because Metaxas is somehow unique in this, but because it is human nature. This is precisely the point, nonviolent theologians would say. Whether to garner support for war, incite revolutions, or angrily throw a punch at an obnoxious protester, moral justifications for violence will usually reflect merely the interests and definitions of justice of those who find they want or need to commit such acts.

Read the entire piece here.

The *Believe Me* Book Tour Comes to Mechanicsburg Church of the Brethren

Church of Brethren

I had a great visit yesterday with an adult education class at Mechanicsburg (PA) Church of the Brethren.  The class is reading Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and it was a privilege to be present to answer questions and talk more about the book.

We spent a lot of time exploring theological, political, and historical factors that led so many evangelical to support Trump in 2016, but we also talked about a vision for Christian politics defined by hope, humility, and an informed understanding of American history.  Class members had questions about abortion, “end times” theology, environmentalism, the 2020 election, and how to think more Christianly about political engagement.

As Christian political scientist Glenn Tinder explains, politics requires “attentiveness” and “availability.”  Attentive people are aware of what others are “doing, suffering, [and] saying.” But they also make themselves available.  They see the needs of the world and ask: “Is there anything I can do about it?”  If we think about politics this way, then churches are always engaged in political activity.  And if churches are always engaged in political activity, then it also has a responsibility to think deeply about how to exercise such engagement in accordance with scripture.

Thanks to Warren Eshbach for the invitation.

The GOP is Trying to Win the Amish Vote for Trump

Amish vote

Over at The Washington Post, Julie Zauzmer reports on the “Amish PAC,” an attempt by Republican operatives to get the Pennsylvania Amish to vote for Donald Trump.  Here is a taste:

Amish PAC aims to win more votes for Trump in 2020 in a state both the president and the Democrats are desperate to win. Amish people tend to align strongly on policy with Republicans, who share their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. But making voters out of the Amish, who forgo technology like television and the Internet and who believe fiercely in the separation of their religious community from government intrusion, may be a steep goal.

On a farm where eight Amish children in their traditional clothing were playing baseball, a young woman said sternly of those who would ask the Amish to vote: “We don’t really appreciate that.”

While she skillfully snapped lima bean pods off the bushes at her farm, another woman said about voting: “My husband never did; I never did.”

The same answer at market stall after market stall, where Amish farmers sell their wares: Never voted. Never wanted to vote.

But Ben Walters, who co-founded Amish PAC, says the tide is turning. He heard from more Amish people willing to vote in 2018 than in 2016; in 2020, he thinks, the numbers will be still higher. “Their votes would be so important, and there’s a lot of them,” he said. “Since 2016, every single year, it gets a little bit easier. We’re seeing more and more signs of progress. I think behaviors are finally changing”…

At Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Kyle Kopko and Steven Nolt — two of the foremost experts on the Amish — are studying the results of the PAC’s efforts. Nolt said he is skeptical the PAC can make much of a dent. “For a group like the Amish PAC, the key is — to what extent could a group like Amish PAC take that civic identity that’s here, and leverage that into registering to vote and actually voting?” he said. “There’s not a prohibition, [but] there would be a fairly strong, strong religious and cultural bias against [voting.]”

Read the entire piece here.

Steven Nolt probably knows more about the Amish than anyone else alive.  If he thinks that this effort will not “make much of a dent” it is likely that this effort will not make much of a dent.

What Hath Anabaptists To Do With Evangelicals?

PICKWICK_TemplateA few years ago I wrote an essay in a book, edited by Jared Burkholder and David Cramer, titled, The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism.  Since I self-identify as an evangelical, work at a college with Anabaptist roots, and study American evangelical movements, I have had an informal interest in this subject for a long time.

Cramer is a pastor and seminary professor who works at the intersection of these two Christian movements.   I met him for the first time in the Fall when I spoke about Believe Me at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

Cramer writes about that visit in a post at his new Patheos blog “Anabaptist Revisions.”  Here is a taste of “Does ‘Anabaptist Revisions’ Belong on the Evangelical Channel?“:

“Are you sure you belong on the evangelical channel?” the Patheos director of content asked me over the phone. It’s a fair question.

A couple months ago over breakfast a pastor friend from my evangelical denomination expressed his concern with what he called my “Mennonitism.” He seemed to think Anabaptist theology is incompatible with evangelicalism and to equate Anabaptism with liberalism.

The irony is that the denomination in which we both pastor was started by Mennonites who had been kicked out of the Mennonite church for their progressive methods and ideals—like singing four-part harmony, holding tent revivals, and embracing women in leadership.

The suspicion can run both ways. Last fall evangelical historian John Fea spoke at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS, the seminary where I work) and was told in no uncertain terms by one Mennonite theologian in attendance that evangelical theology is itself responsible for the violence and racism prevalent in American society. After the interaction Fea wrote that he “realized that Anabaptism and Evangelicalism are quite different, especially when it comes to the theology of the atonement and the role that doctrine plays in Christian identity.”

Read the rest here.

The *Believe Me* Book Tour Rolls Through Elkhart, Indiana and Holland, Michigan

Hope College

During the Q&A session at Taylor University on Tuesday night someone asked me if my work at a college with Anabaptist roots (Messiah College) influenced what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald TrumpIt was a great question–one that I have thought a lot about.  Historian Jared Burkholder made the same observation a few months ago.

This question was on my mind again on Wednesday afternoon when I spoke to a group of faculty, students, and staff at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana.  During the conversation following my talk, I realized that a lot of my thinking about religion, politics, justice, and public life is very compatible with the views of my Mennonite brothers and sisters, especially when it comes to the Christian nationalism that drives so many white evangelicals.  I felt at home at AMBS.  At the same time, I also realized that Anabaptism and Evangelicalism are quite different, especially when it comes to the theology of the atonement and the role that doctrine plays in Christian identity.  After talking to folks at AMBS, I realized that I need to go back and re-read Burkholder and David Cramer’s book The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptists.

Fea at AMBS

Thanks to Janna Hunter-Bowman for the invitation and thanks to everyone who came out for the talk, including David Cramer and AMBS president Sara Wenger Shenk.

After the AMBS visit I drove up to Holland, Michigan for an evening talk at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.  We had a great turnout and one of the more engaging Q&A sessions of the tour.  Thanks to Jeanne Pettit of the Hope history department for the invitation.  It was also great to see my old friend and Hope historian Fred Johnson and meet so many Hope professors, including Lynn Japinga, Aaron Franzen, Wayne Tan, Mark Baer (who is leading a church reading group on Believe Me), Janis Gibbs, Steven Bouma-Prediger, David Ryden, and Virginia Beard.

I tweeted about my favorite moment of the night:

On to Calvin College for the meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. See you there.

The *Believe Me* Book Tour is Coming to Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana


I will be talking about Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart on October 3, 2018.  The event is part of the AMBS Noon Lunch Forum and will take place in the Lambright Dining Hall at noon.

The event is open to the public, but the organizers ask that you RSVP if you wish to enjoy the meal ($6.50) that will be served during the talk.  If you are coming for lunch please send an e-mail by Monday to lkvandrick(at)ambs(dot)edu

Jared Burkholder Reviews *Believe Me*

Believe Me Banner

When you get a chance, check out the new look at Jared Burkholder‘s blog The Hermeneutic Circle.

Today he is running a review of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

This is my favorite review so far! Not only is it a positive review, but I appreciate the way Jared connects Believe Me to some of my earlier work in the history of 20th-century evangelicalism and fundamentalism and my experience as a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  I am also guessing that he will be the only reviewer to suggest that the Anabaptist heritage of Messiah College may be rubbing-off on me!

Here is a taste:

Historian John Fea gets back to his roots in explaining the “81%.” (The percentage of evangelicals who supposedly voted for President Trump.) Though he has a long list of accomplishments in mainstream historical circles, Fea’s original forays into writing about history was as a graduate student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he studied the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism under old-school church historian, John Woodbridge. I got to know John after he moved on from Trinity, but it was through the influence of him and others like him that I enrolled in the same program. In fact, when I had Woodbridge as a professor, our class used a bibliography on American fundamentalism that Fea had compiled while he was a student. While at Trinity, he completed a thesis on hard-core conservative fundamentalists. So while Fea has moved on to weightier topics such as the American Revolution, the early Republic, and Christian nationalism, he knows a thing or two about conservative evangelicals and the roots of the Religious Right. Fea draws on all these experiences in writing about how evangelicals helped to put Trump in office and why many continue to support the president, despite the president’s lack of Christian virtue.

Read the entire review here.

Can Progressive Evangelicals Claim the “Anabaptist” Label?


Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church: Goessel, Kansas (Wikipedia)

Richard Beck of Abilene Christian University has written a very interesting piece explaining the difference between progressive evangelicalism and Anabaptism.   The election of Donald Trump has led many progressive Christians to claim the Anabaptist mantle But as Beck explains, this progressive approach to politics does not always conform to Anabaptist political teaching.

Here is a taste of Beck’s piece at Mennonite World Review:

The story starts in 2003, with George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. Many progressive Christians mobilized against that war. At the time, social media was just exploding. Blogging was in its Golden Age. Twitter would show up in 2006, just in time for the 2007-2008 Presidential campaign where we debated the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, torture and Guantanamo Bay.

As these debates raged on social media, Anabaptist theology, with its criticisms of nationalism and war, became a powerful theological tool in the hands of progressive Christians to level indictments at the Bush administration.

In addition, emergent and post-evangelical expressions of Christianity were going strong. Many disaffected and disillusioned evangelicals were looking around for theological positions that critiqued how evangelicalism had been co-opted by politics. With its strong criticisms of Constantinianism, Anabaptist theology also fit that bill.

And so it was during these years that many progressive Christians, in using Anabaptist theology so effectively to critique the Bush administration and the politicization of evangelicalism, convinced themselves that they were Anabaptists.

But they weren’t Anabaptists, not really.

Why weren’t progressives Anabaptists? Two reasons.

First, there’s more to Anabaptist theology than its peace witness. Anabaptist theology also espouses a robust ecclesiology, the church as the locus of life and political witness. This aspect of Anabaptist theology doesn’t sit well with many progressive Christians, who would rather work as political activists than invest in the daily life of a local church. To be sure, many post-evangelical progressive Christians harbor nostalgia for the local church, memories of hymn sings, youth camps, vacation Bible school and pot luck casseroles. But at the end of the day, progressive Christians tend to think calling Congress, community organizing and marching in protests are the best ways to make the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Second, the robust ecclesiology of Anabaptist thought and practice works with a strong church-vs.-world distinction. This contrast has been famously captured by Stanley Hauerwas: “The first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.” In Anabaptist thought the church is set apart from the world, its goal to be a witness to the Powers by making a stark contrast between the kingdom of God and Babylon.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with David Weaver-Zercher

MartyrsMirrorDavid Weaver-Zercher is Professor of American Religious History at Messiah College. This interview is based on his new book, Martyrs Mirror: A Social History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Martyrs Mirror?

DWZ: Anyone who studies Anabaptist groups (i.e., Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites) knows that Martyrs Mirror—Thieleman van Braght’s thousand-page martyr book, first published in 1660—shows up at every turn. I’ve long been interested the book’s staying power (a thousand newly printed copies are sold every year), as well as the way different people and different groups have appropriated the martyrs’ legacy. The martyrology itself is fascinating, but to me, the conversations the book has generated over the centuries are even more interesting.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Martyrs Mirror?

DWZ: More than any other text, Martyrs Mirror has shaped the way Anabaptists conceive of Christian faithfulness, forcing generations of readers to take stock of their own lives vis-à-vis the sixteenth-century Anabaptist martyrs. Competing interpretations of the book both reveal and reinforce divisions in the Anabaptist world; at the same time, the book’s presence in conversations about faithful living provide a common thread that connect contemporary Anabaptists who have little else in common. 

JF: Why do we need to read Martyrs Mirror?

DWZ: For religious historians, my book provides a unique overview of Anabaptist history (especially in North America), using the tradition’s classic text to trace both the unity and diversity that has existed in the tradition from the very beginning. For historians of print culture, my book offers a case study on how texts help to create communities, and how religious communities use texts to create and sustain memory.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DWZ: When I was in seminary, church history courses were always my favorite courses. I often found myself reading more than I needed to, just for fun. And when I came across a book or article that was especially well written, I began thinking that I’d like to do that someday.

JF: What is your next project?

DWZ: I continue to be interested in the imaginative lives of religious people, particularly as they imagine themselves to be inhabiting places of peril. For my next project I hope to expand my frame beyond Anabaptist groups to look at twentieth-century evangelicals who used danger, real or imagined, to refine their faith (or the faith of others, particularly adolescents).

JF: Thanks, David!

Do Mennonite Young People Have Ethics or Faith?

Goshen College: A Mennonite college

Interesting question posed by Richard Kauffman, book review editor of The Christian Century and a practicing Mennonite.

He writes:

Recently a Bible professor at one of our Mennonite colleges said to me that when her Mennonite students talk about faith, it is all about ethics. It’s not about God or worship, but rather what we do, especially work for peace and justice. I’m afraid that these students may have learned their Mennonite lessons all too well.
Stanley Hauerwas has convinced me that many contemporary Christians are Kantians, whether they know it or not. This would include at least some Mennonites. Immanuel Kant wanted to be rid of religious myths (biblical narratives?) and replace them with universal moral principles (peace and justice?). He replaced theology with ethics. Which of course brings us back to our Mennonite college professor’s students for whom faith is about ethics, especially a concern for peace and justice — what I have come to call P&Jism.
Read the rest of Kauffman’s piece at Mennonite World Review here.

I know (and have known) a lot of Mennonite (and Anabaptist) young people whose faith does include spirituality and worship.  I also know (and have known) some Mennonite (and Anabaptist) young people (and adults) who define their faith solely in terms of ethics.

Thanks to Kauffman for giving some definition to some of my scattered thoughts on this topic.

Follow Devin Manzullo Thomas As He Writes About "Born Again Brethren"

Devin Manzullo-Thomas

I know that a lot of you have been following my daily posts about the ins and outs of researching, writing, and publishing a history of the American Bible Society.  I am grateful that so many of you are finding these posts useful.

My approach to research and writing will naturally be different than others.  Another historian might do their work in fundamentally different ways.  If you want to see how another religious historian does his work, check out Devin Manzullo-Thomas’s blog The Search for Piety and Obedience.  Devin will be blogging about his work on an article-length study based on his Temple University masters thesis titled “Born-Again Brethren: History as Identity and Theology in the Cultural Transformation of a ‘Plain People.’”  It deals primarily with the relationship between the Brethren in Christ Church and the American evangelical movement.  He hopes to offer weekly updates on his progress.  Here is a taste of his post:

To maintain accountability and help steer this project toward completion, I’m taking a page from my Messiah College colleague John Fea’s book and attempting to document my research and writing process here at the blog. (If you’re wondering why I’d be doing more research for a project that’s already basically written, stay tuned — I have a blog post just for you!)
Each week, I’ll post a new update about my work on the essay. These updates will be a mixed bag: sometimes they’ll be personal reflections on the research/writing process; other times, they’ll be short research notes sharing interesting finds in the archives or questions I’m grappling with. Like John, I hope to walk readers through each step of the process: research, writing, submission, waiting, peer review, etc.
Looking forward to it!  I hope this post has raised the accountability bar a bit.  

Constantinianism Debated

Over at The Anxious Bench David Swartz of Asbury University calls our attention to an ongoing debate within evangelicalism over whether the earliest Christians were pacifists.  Much of this debate surrounds the 2010 publication of Peter Leithart‘s Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom.  It seems that many pacifist-minded anti-Constantinians are rushing into print to counter Leithart’s argument, which is directed against neo-Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder and his disciples.

Swartz sorts it all out for us.  Here is a taste:

The rebuttal to Leithart is on. The book immediately sparked lively conversations online here and here andhere and here. The October 2011 issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review offered quick and substantive responses from four critics. John Nugent argued, in a theological vein, that God calls his people away from imperial identities—whether that is Roman, German, or American—to lives ‘of vulnerability, trust, and service to all those created in God’s image.” Alan Kreider offered a historical criticism, contending that Leithart’s sources on Christian participation in the military were sparse and questionable compared to evidence against involvement in state-sponsored violence. Constantine’s reign did indeed signal a fundamental shift: “from the gestalt of early Christianity to another gestalt—Christendom.” Responding in the same MQR issue to this battery of criticism, Leithart was unrepentant. “Because Christ is king,” he wrote, “kings should be Christians and exercise their earthly dominion in a righteous manner.” Leithart raised the stakes theologically. “The rub,” he declared, is that “we do not agree on the Gospel.”

The debate continues as a small avalanche of books rolls off the press. Last year Ron Sider released The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment. Also in 2012 Wheaton professor George Kalantzis published Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service. And now Goshen College’s John Roth, author of Choosing Against War, is releasing a more direct rebuttal of Leithart entitled Constantine Revisited: Leithart, Yoder, and the Constantinian Debate. It is an edited volume featuring an impressive lineup of Anabaptist theologians and ethicists including Stanley Hauerwas and Mark Thiessen Nation. Together, these books argue, in the words of Kalantzis, against “recent scholarship [that] accepts as axiomatic that there was ambivalence among the earliest Christians. . . . I do not believe that such a conclusion is borne by the literary evidence.” They marshal writings by Pliny the Younger, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, Lactantius, and others. Jesus Christ, they say, inaugurated “a new call to non-violence, unrecognizable by the culture around them, for it took the form of civil disobedience as the mark of a transnational community bound together with the bonds of baptism. A community that honored Caesar by disobeying his commands and receiving upon their bodies the only response a state based on the power of the powerful could meet—an imitation of Christ.” The bottom line: “With remarkably univocity they speak of participation in the Christian mysteries as antithetical to killing, and the practices of the army.”

Should Christians Embrace Secularism?

I ask this question today in an op-ed at The Washington Post(For some context, check out this post from yesterday).  Here is the piece:

I didn’t know what to think when Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University invited me to be the first plenary speaker at a conference called “Secularism on the Edge.” I am an evangelical Christian who teaches American history at a Christian college. In fact, I am writing this from a hotel room in Pittsburgh where I am attending “Jubilee,” an annual gathering of thousands of evangelical undergraduates from East Coast colleges and universities. In a few hours I will be conducting a seminar on how to integrate Christian faith with the study of history.

Though I do a lot of speaking at events that might be described as “secular” (American history lectures at colleges, universities, libraries, museums, etc…), I don’t normally get invited to public conferences devoted entirely to the subject of secularism.

For many of the culture warriors who share my particular brand of Christianity, “secular” is an adjective used to modify “humanism.” Secular humanists are often described as aggressive atheists and unbelievers who want to remove all traces of Christianity from public life. In the 1970s and 1980s, Jerry Falwell and other members of the emerging Christian Right warned evangelicals about an encroaching secular humanism that was creeping into American schools and threatening the Christian character of the nation.

As an evangelical believer, I, of course, see the world through the eyes of my Christian faith. I have many friends and acquaintances who do not believe in God, but I have profound differences with them about the origin, meaning, and purpose of life. If being secular means living in a disenchanted world in which God does not exist, or abandoning essential Christian beliefs such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ or authority of the Bible, then I am definitely not secular. But if secularism is something akin to what Berlinerblau describes in his book, “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom,” then there is much of it that I can embrace.

Let me explain:

For Berlinerblau, secularism is more of a political philosophy than a religious one. Secularists, he writes, “are often deeply suspicious” of “any and all relations between government and religion.” In other words, secularism is essential to religious freedom.

Many Christians have believed in this kind of secularism. Martin Luther taught his followers that God rules over two kingdoms. The secular kingdom should not be confused with the spiritual kingdom. One kingdom upholds the law and preserves the common good. The other kingdom is a heavenly one where Christians experience God’s grace and find salvation.

Or consider the Baptists. Ever since the devout Puritan exile Roger Williams wrote about “a hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world,” they have defended religious freedom. In colonial Virginia Baptists suffered immensely under a so-called “Christian state” controlled by the Anglican Church. It should thus not surprise us that when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison called for religious freedom and a largely secular state in post-revolutionary Virginia, Baptists rallied to the cause.

Anabaptists—those from the Mennonite and Brethren traditions who founded the college where I work—have long resisted the temptation to equate the kingdom of God and the nation-state. As a result, one would be hard pressed to find an American flag on the campus of Messiah College.

In 2011, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, in his provocative “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World,” urged his fellow Christians to abandon the notion that we can “change the world” through politics. He instead called for evangelicals to leave the political arena, stop trying to Christianize the nation, and practice their faith in the world through acts of Christian love in their local communities and neighborhoods. He described this approach to Christian living in the public square with the phrase “faithful presence.” 

Trying to convince evangelicals that Berlinerblau’s “secularism” is a theologically legitimate way of understanding the relationship between church and state will not be easy. The Christian Right has successfully demonized the word. Many of my fellow evangelicals firmly believe that God has a special plan for the United States and the founding fathers, as servants of God, set out to create a uniquely Christian nation, not a secular one. Such an assertion is problematic on both theological and historical grounds, some of which I look forward to discussing Wednesday at the Secularism on the Edge conference at Georgetown. I hope to see you there.

John Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College.

“Secularism on the Edge,” an international conference exploring secularism in the United States, France, and Israel, opens at Georgetown University Wednesday, February 20, through Friday, February 22. All events are free and open to the public. Visit the Web site for more details and follow the conference on Twitter @SecularismEdge for updates and live tweets of the events.

Election Day Communion

Now this is a good idea.  Christian churches–they all appear to Mennonite so far, but I hope others will join them–are going to hold a communion service on November 6, 2012, the evening of the 2012 presidential election. 

Here is the announcement, taken from the website of Election Day Communion: November 6, 2012, A Day to Remember:

Choose Wisely.

On November 6, 2012,
Election Day,
we will exercise our right to choose.

Some of us will choose to vote for Barack Obama as President of the United States.
Some of us will choose to vote for Mitt Romney as President of the United States.
Some us us will choose to vote for another candidate as President of the United States.
Some of us will choose not to vote.

During the day of November 6, 2012,
we will make different choices,
using different reasons,
hoping for different results.

But on the evening of November 6,
while our nation turns its attention
to the outcome of the presidential election,
let’s again choose differently –

Let’s choose to meet
at the same table,
with the same host,
to remember the same things:
  • to remember that real power in this world — the power to save, to transform, to change – ultimately rests not in political parties or presidents or protests but in the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus;
  • to remember that, through the Holy Spirit, this power dwells within otherwise ordinary people who as one body continue the mission of Jesus:  preaching good news to the poor, freeing the captives, giving sight to the blind, releasing the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:16-21).
  • to remember that freedom — true freedom — is given by God and is indeed not free; it comes with a cost and it looks like a cross;
  • to remember our sin and need to repent;
  • to remember that the only Christian nation in this world is the Church, the holy nation that crosses all human-made boundaries and borders;
  • to remember that our passions are best placed within the passion of Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2);
  • to remember that we are not to conform to the patterns of this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2);
  • to remember that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness;
  • and to re-member the body of Christ as the body of Christ, confessing the ways in which partisan politics has separated us from God and each other.

Go to the website for more information about how to join the movement.

HT: Matt Bucher on Facebook

Remembering the Dead on Independence Day

Richard Kauffman, the book review editor at The Christian Century, feels “out of step with the rest of American culture” on the Fourth of July.  I will let him explain:

The fourth of July joins Memorial Day and Veterans day as the three times a year I feel out of step with the rest of American culture. While I’m grateful for my country’s freedoms and opportunities, and I want to mourn with those who mourn the losses of war, I cannot participate in rituals that glorify war.

Eamon Duffy, who teaches the history of Christianity at Cambridge University, has helped me to better articulate my own discomfort with memorializing war. Remembering the war dead is a highly tribal act, Duffy argued in a speech he gave for Remembrance Day 1998 in the UK (a speech included in his collection Walking to Emmaus). We are remembering our own war dead. There’s no room in our rituals for remembering others’ losses, especially not those of our enemies.

The dead themselves are silent; we hijack them and use them for our own purposes. “They become ventriloquist’s dummies,” says Duffy, “through whom we utter the words we think we need to hear.” Behind all the trappings of the ceremonies is a nostalgic longing for the moral clarity of a nation united around war, in which divisions are silenced and people have a clear sense of right and wrong. Or rather, of who is in the right and who is in the wrong—of our enemies’ uniform as the embodiment of evil.

Most of the people killed in war aren’t heroes. Most of them are victims of war. Though they were fallible, sinful human beings, we make them into secular saints by virtue of them having been killed in war. Of course, the ones who actually fight the wars often have their own misgivings.

Read the rest here. Thanks, Richard.

Falling in Love with Conrad Weiser

Have you ever “fallen in love” with a person from the past? This occasionally happens to historians.  It happened to Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe.  The only problem is that her love interest is Conrad Weiser, a celibate eighteenth-century German monk who did a stint at the Ephrata Cloister.

Read Beth’s short and very entertaining account of her love affair with Weiser.  Here is a taste:

Conrad Weiser can not love me back.  He died in 1760.  I met him for the first time in the basement of Princeton’s Firestone library sometime in the spring of 1996.  Like all great loves, he came upon me unexpected.  I had my head buried in a book, my body in my carrel, when a friend rounded the corner and introduced us.  He had just met Conrad and thought I too should get to know him.

Sixteen years later, my attempt at seduction begun in that basement continues unabated.  My husband knows about us.  My parents, sons, colleagues, and students have all been introduced.  I take him with me everywhere I go, and no one complains.  I alone suffer with the knowledge that my affection remains unrequited.

Read the rest here.  And let’s hear about your love affairs with people from the past.  I am sure it will make Beth feel better about her affair with Weiser.

Pennsylvania Pacifists and the American Revolution

ABC News is running a story about a July 11, 1775 broadside written by the Lancaster County Committee of Correspondence, urging German immigrants, many of whom were pacifists with religious objections to the American Revolution, to give money to support the patriot cause. (HT: Tom Van Dyke). Those whose “religious scruples” prevented them from taking up arms were urged to contribute toward the “necessary and unavoidable” expenses of the town.

There were several broadsides of this nature published in Pennsylvania at the time of the Revolution.  The commonwealth, of course, was filled with German immigrants of the Anabaptist persuasion. 

For example, On May 29, 1775, the Lancaster committee published a warning for those who were persecuting their pacifist neighbors:

The Committee having received information, that divers persons, whose religious tenets forbid their forming themselves into military associations, have been mal-treated, and threatened by some violent and ill-disposed people in the County of Lancaster, notwithstanding their willingness to contribute chearfully to the common cause, otherwise than by taking up arms: This Committee duly considering the same, do most heartily recommend to the good inhabitants of the County, that they use every possible means to discourage and prevent such licentious proceedings, and assiduously cultivate the harmony and union so absolutely necessary in the present alarming crisis of public affairs…. (accessed at Early American Imprints).

A few years ago I had a student write a very good paper on one of these broadsides.  They provide a very different window into the way the Revolution played out in local communities, especially those with large numbers of religious pacifists.

No Star Spangled Banner at Goshen College

In February 2010, we did a post on Goshen College’s decision to play the Star Spangled Banner before sporting events.  You may recall that Goshen is a Mennonite college and Mennonites have historically been both pacifist and opposed to public displays of nationalism.  Yet, back in February, the college concluded that playing the Star Spangled Banner before games was OK for the following reasons:

  • We believe that playing the anthem offers a welcoming gesture to many visiting our athletic events, rather than an immediate barrier to further opportunities for getting to know one another.
  • We believe playing the national anthem is one way that is commonly understood to express an allegiance to the nation of one’s citizenship. We have shown that in the past in a variety of other ways, such as flying a flag on campus, praying for all men and women serving our country, welcoming military veterans as students and employees, annually celebrating the U.S. Constitution, and encouraging voting.
  • We believe playing the anthem in no way displaces any higher allegiances, including to the expansive understanding of Jesus – the ultimate peacemaker – loving all people of the world.
  • We believe playing the anthem opens up new possibilities for members of the Goshen College community to publicly offer prophetic critique – if need be – as citizens in the loyal opposition on issues of deepest moral conviction, such as war, racism, and human rights abuses.

It now appears that the Goshen administration has changed its mind.  Yesterday the college issued a press release stating that it will no longer play the Star Spangled Banner before games and will look for an “alternative to playing the Star-Spangled Banner that fits with sports tradition, that honors country and that resonates with Goshen College’s core values and respects the views of diverse constituencies.”

Goshen should be applauded for remaining true to its roots, but this decision by the college Board of Directors also seems to present a small roadblock for president James Brenneman’s attempt to make the Mennonite college appealing to students of other Christian faith traditions.  (Or at least this is how I read the press release).

Here is a taste:

The Board expressed a strong commitment to advancing with President Brenneman the vision for Goshen College to be an influential leader in liberal arts education with a growing capacity to serve a theologically, politically, racially and ethnically diverse constituency both within and beyond the Mennonite church. The Board concluded that continuing to play the national anthem compromised the ability of college constituents to advance the vision together.

“The Board has a diversity of views on this issue as reflected throughout the process of considering the anthem,” said Rick Stiffney of Goshen, the chair of the Board. “The Board itself struggled with significant differences and conflicting perspectives, so this decision was not easy and took many hours of discernment and prayer. Our resolution represents our best effort to find a path of wisdom that we could endorse together.

“We recognize that some people may not be satisfied with this decision, but we believe it is the right one for Goshen College. We also believe this decision will enable the college and the board to move forward and prepare with joy for the 2011-2012 academic year.”

Responding to the decision, President Brenneman said, “I am convinced that Goshen College is on a challenging and rewarding journey toward becoming a more diverse institution that serves an increasingly diverse community. I am hopeful that this resolution will help Goshen College move forward together, and focus on finding new ways to welcome students from our local and regional community.”

Carlos Romero, executive director of the Mennonite Education Agency and an ex-officio member of the Board, affirmed the decision and the message he said it will communicate to the college’s constituents, Mennonite Church USA members and other people of faith.

“Goshen College has been and remains a ministry of Mennonite Church USA with an enduring peace tradition,” Romero said. “The Board’s decision reflects a belief that faith and honoring country can co-exist without disturbing higher allegiances to God and that Goshen College will become increasingly diverse and will welcome diverse viewpoints.”

Romero also commended the Board, President Brenneman and the President’s Council for carefully studying, discussing and prayerfully deciding the anthem issue. “The willingness to listen and learn from one another has indeed modeled a process to the wider church and community about how to engage difficult issues. In today’s polarized culture, that is indeed an important gift,” he said.

Sunday School at Slate Hill Mennonite

I spent the last three Sundays teaching Sunday School at Slate Hill Mennonite Church, a local congregation in the area where I live.  I was invited by my friend and colleague David Weaver-Zercher (check out his new book, The Amish Way) to do a three-week series on Was America Founded as Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

I don’t know what the “students” in the class thought about the course, but I really enjoyed  bringing some of my research to the lay Christian audiences I hope to reach with my book. The material led to some fruitful conversation and discussion on the topic and the adult churchgoers in the class seemed very engaged with the subject.  (Of course it also helped to have five or six Messiah College faculty members in the class!  I joked that I had never taught a Sunday School class with so many Ph.Ds in the room!). 

As Mennonites, many of those in attendance seemed fascinated, and probably a bit disturbed, by the way in which the founding fathers often linked Christianity to the general well-being of the American republic.  Folks like Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, etc… believed that Christianity was essential to a successful republic. The state needed Christian churches to flourish in order to make the United States a virtuous nation. In other words, these founders seemed more interested in Christianity as a means of serving the state than they were as a means to draw closer to God.

I think I might become a Mennonite!