Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship

Gospel unvoiced by activists

Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship
Joanna Shenk, Ed.

What’s more important: mission or survival? Since North American culture is steeped in materialism, consumerism, and individualism, the answer is obvious; survival is what matters. Sadly, the church has not been unaffected.

The call to be disciples of Jesus is radically countercultural, and according to editor Joanna Shenk, there is a growing number of North American Christians from all manner of denominational stripes who are partnering to embrace this life of discipleship. As 21 contributors spin their stories, Shenk points out the common thread of Anabaptist ideology in all of them.

The book is organized into three historical “waves”: the first, including the story of the establishment of Chicago’s Reba Place, in the 1950s and 60s; the second, including the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams, in the 1970s and 1980s; finally, the 1990s to the present, including the birth of Little Flowers Community in Winnipeg. Many of the 19 stories play out over several decades, so there is some chronological overlap.

It seems to me that cross-denominational blending centred around discipleship – as Anabaptists conceive it – gained traction with the civil rights movement. That epic transition in American history brought together so many different denominations, without it, I wonder if a book like this would have ever been written. This was the issue that gave birth to this movement of “widening the circle,” or at least galvanized it into action.

What are the individual strands that intertwine to make up this interdenominational Anabaptist movement? The following priorities emerged from these stories.

• Nonviolent resistance to empire and war. The book reiterated that a central tenet of the gospel is peace, achieved through nonviolent means. It’s not the kind of pacifism that hides from conflict, but is active, so much so that its adherents are willing to suffer and die for it. Ron Sider’s 1984 speech to the Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg, France, captures the radical commitment to peace needed for the position to mean anything at all: “Unless we…are ready to die by the thousands in dramatic vigorous new exploits for peace and justice, we should sadly confess that we never really meant what we said, and we dare never whisper another word about pacifism to our sisters and brothers in those desperate lands filled with injustice”

The stories about peacemaking include moving to Palestine to support nonviolent resistance, taking a vow of poverty to avoid paying war taxes. No story records loss of life, but willingness to be arrested for convictions in several of the case studies demonstrates a commitment to active peacemaking.

• Engagement with poor and marginalized. “Engagement” means building real relationships, and sacrificing for the poor. In one of the stories, that meant breaking immigration laws to help a family in need. Immigration law is faulty and often results in immigrant mistreated, the storytellers argued. People matter more than laws; Christians are obligated to care for people regardless of their legal status.

I’m not sure it’s that black and white, and one story in particular showed an almost a cavalier disregard for the law. At the same time, I understand the Christian call to the poor and the tension that results when we confront injustice in the system through civil disobedience and practical calls for change levelled at systems of power.

In another story, a disciple of Jesus purchased a house for a poor family to live in, and worked out a way in which the family could eventually own the house. The story exemplified a “whatever it takes” attitude toward caring for people in need.

• Shared life. In several cases, these members of these worshipping communities live in the same house, share their resources, and even pool their finances. Everyone admitted that this intentional sharing of life has its challenges, but despite the stresses of shared living, all agreed it was worth it. However, in all of the stories, the shared living arrangements don’t last forever. As families grew, individual family units needed more space, but the principles of shared living remained, even when they were not sharing a house any more.

• Equality/acceptance. I’m not sure the perspective taken in the case studies is Anabaptist, nor am I convinced it’s biblical. One author described herself as “fiercely egalitarian” (an ironic descriptor, given the peace position); another author said we should “value the commitments of love whether with a partner of the same or different gender.” Another author committed to radical equality confessed that she “found it difficult to break gender roles,” the same author re-defined the term “set apart” to mean “a fierce inclusivity in a world full of judges” What seems to matter more than anything is that everyone is equal (not just in value, but also in role and function) and fully accepted regardless.

• Social change. The “American dream” is a nightmare, the systems of justice in North America are broken; this is nothing like God’s kingdom, therefore, the book argues, followers of Jesus must must help those who suffer, even if it means breaking the law. All these stories are about “activists”: helping people get jobs, helping homeless people get homes, nonviolently battling against war and abuse. These disciples of Jesus have a nose for injustice, and when they smell it, they become active. One of the stories, spoke of “repenting of our silence and committing ourselves to act on behalf of…” (whatever the need might be)

What might be missing

The people of these stories excel at loving people. They’re active agents for change, so others can have a better life. In the midst of all of this action, the actual message of love – the gospel – is left unsaid.

Christian discipleship is distinct from all other efforts to bring peace and help people, in that we have an actual message to tell. If we don’t tell the good news of God’s story, then we are simply nice people doing nice things, nothing more.

—Dennis Wilkinson is a church planter at West End Communities, Vancouver.

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