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The problem with Anabaptism

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In 1993, British science minister William Waldegrave promised a bottle of champagne to anyone who could explain to him in one typewritten page what the Higgs boson was and why we should want to find it.*

The Higgs boson is a hypothetical, sub-atomic particle, whose existence huge machines like CERN’s $8-billion particle collider in Switzerland have been built to discover.

The reason for Waldegrave’s challenge was simple. Only highly trained physicists really understood what the Higgs boson might be, yet governments around the world were being asked for billions to research its existence. To this day, the Higgs boson remains distinctly hypothetical.

It’s easy to be cynical about the quest for the Higgs boson. Academics have a way of attributing very high, possibly infinite, value to their ideas – and of course they need generous funding. Does this sound like a shell game?

But it isn’t. The drive to understand the structure of the cosmos is what makes us human. Because of this quest, thinkers like Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking are household names. We may not understand why time should slow down when the speed of light is approached or what a black hole is, but these concepts have shaped us and we are richer because of them. We do need particle colliders.

And therefore, the Waldegrave challenge is profoundly important.

Current debates over Anabaptism also often take place in very technical environments. The simple story of our origins that I was taught, and which is re-written into virtually every Mennonite genealogy, turns out to be far more complex. In the last 30 years, the fascinating history of our 500-year-old movement has attracted the attention of historians and theologians, and with them scores of books, research papers, and study conferences.

This is a great blessing. We may not all be interested in every detail, but accurate details separate knowledge from nonsense.

Unlike the Higgs boson, however, Anabaptism is not theoretical. It’s a real, albeit often misunderstood, stream of Christianity. Since it’s widely misunderstood, getting understanding is an important assignment. If we call ourselves Anabaptists, we must know what this means.

I tried to summarize Anabaptism in a series of recent articles. Anabaptists, I wrote, are separated, new covenant, people of the Book.

That’s easy. And the Higgs boson is a hypothetical sub-atomic particle – that’s also easy. But understanding only sets the stage for the next part of the question. If Anabaptism is an accurate reflection of the Gospel, it must make a difference. This is the critical half of the Waldegrave challenge.

Menno Simons wrote, “True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked, it feeds the hungry, it comforts the sorrowful, it shelters the destitute, it serves those that harm it, it binds up that which is wounded, it has become all things to all people.”

This quote symbolizes our most visible ministries. We’re well known for our practical service. In the article, “Canadian Peace Foundation: Alphabet Soup,” Dave Hubert wonderfully describes this rich piece of our Anabaptist legacy (http://www.mhsbc.com/news/v14n01/p09.htm). We have reason to be proud of our good name. There are places where it makes a visible difference.

But this highly visible image of Anabaptists actually masks a deep problem. I believe the connection between Anabaptism and daily life has been lost.

We have been recognized as a major stream in the history of Christianity. We are praised in the world media for our compassionate service. But for many of us it’s not clear what it means to be an Anabaptist truck driver, doctor, carpenter, lawyer, teacher, bookkeeper, mother, father, son, daughter, co-worker, and neighbour.
This is a terrible problem.

Because of our scholars, modern Anabaptism is being studied in exhaustive detail. Because of our agencies, it has become visible and famous. Both developments are nice, but the heart of Anabaptism was always supposed to be demonstrated in the routines of daily life. It’s supposed to be defined by the difference it makes as we get up in the morning and carry out the business of our day. First of all, we should be defined by what kind of family members, neighbours, and co-workers we are.

For Anabaptists, the Waldegrave challenge strikes very close to home – literally.
In the articles that follow, I want to examine our Anabaptist beliefs, not just as a matter of definition, but as a matter of application.

Next month: The peace witness at home and work

James Toews is that pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.


*The five winning papers are posted at http://www.phy.uct.ac.za/courses/phy400w/particle/higgs.htm.


Anabaptism 101 series

Walking in the ordinary way of peace

You are what you eat: Biblicism applied

Craving connection: Community applied

Paradoxical living: Practical separation

Getting to the root: Radical Anabaptism for today


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