The Anabaptist Ideal and a Funk Band, Luke D Miller, April 1999 (United States)
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Since I was born I have been in the Mennonite church. My dad is a Mennonite pastor and my mom a faithful Mennonite woman. I was attending Mennonite general conventions in a stroller. I went to Mennonite summer camp from fourth grade until I worked there myself in high school. At my home Mennonite church I have my second family of people that I've grown up with. After high school I went on to Goshen College and fully immersed myself up to my ears in the Mennonite scene.
Almost everything I knew about the Mennonites was all from first hand experience. I knew little of the history of the church or how beliefs developed. Taking Mennonite and Anabaptist History has given me the opportunity to find out what kind of questions people in Mennonite history, which I'm explicitly tied to, asked, and how they answered these questions.
Now, away from my Mennonite family and home congregation, knowing at least the basics of Mennonite and Anabaptist history, I stand at a threshold where I can take a step back and examine these questions for myself. I can evaluate my own answers and decide how I want to live in this Mennonite context I've grown up in.
One name encompassing the beginning movement of the Anabaptists is the Radical Reformation. The Reformation was an attempt to step back and renew what it meant to be Christian away from the Catholic traditions and corruption of time. The Radical Reformation went even further to call for a complete transformation to a true Christian life. The early Anabaptist founders held a high ideal for being an earnest Christian, living by Christ's teachings and example. Some tried to follow this as closely as possible. This ideal took priority over the state authority, success, and even life as many died in martyrdom. Others compromised with reality and followed this ideal secretly or even (in the infamous case of Munster) by staging an armed rebellion. The first generation of Anabaptists included a mix of extremely faithful Christian martyrs and also other groups sticking to the "earnest Christian life" to different degrees.
For the purpose of this paper I am going to define Anabaptist as this ideal of living a truly Christian life. I am going to take my criteria for this ideal from Harold S. Bender's Anabaptist Vision. His essay has been criticized for being idealistic and historically inaccurate for ignoring the variety within the Anabaptist tradition, but since I am defining Anabaptist as an ideal these critiques aren't relevant. Bender's three major points for the Anabaptist vision were a new conception of Christianity as discipleship, a new conception of the church as a "brotherhood" or community, and a new ethic of love and nonresistance.
After the first generation of Anabaptists passed away Anabaptist followers ran into the problem of continuing to express this ideal amidst developing traditions and institutions, lack of persecution, prosperity, moving from a sect to a denomination, and more. The Mennonites formed as a diverse group trying to carry on the Anabaptist ideal. There were continual problems with some groups making compromises with reality and others attempting to renew the Anabaptist ideal in different ways.
In the Netherlands the Dutch Mennonites lived with relative religious freedom. Many of them were wealthy and prosperous. The Flemish and the Waterlanders split from each other mainly over the issue of the ban. The Flemish wanted a renewal of the criterion of church as a community. They thought the church needed a stricter ban to keep the church pure. The Waterlanders though, in this case, a compromise needed to be made with reality. The ban, used in the Flemish sense, was legalistic and not the way Jesus intended it to be used. Poets and playwrights criticized many Dutch for ignoring the criteria of discipleship by being excessively wealthy and not sharing with their neighbors.
The Amish split off from the Swiss Brethren mother church as an attempt to renew the Anabaptist ideal. They thought the Swiss, among other things, weren't upholding the discipleship criterion by being too lenient on discipline in the church. They thought they weren't upholding the church as a community criterion by not separating themselves from the world enough and recognizing the True-Hearted as saved even though they weren't baptized. The Amish wanted a renewal of strong discipline to keep a pure church and a strong sense of community through division from the world. The Swiss Brethren thought a compromise with reality was called for in these situations.
Again in Russia the Mennonite Brethren Church formed and split from the Russian Mennonites as call for a better spiritual life and better discipline. They started evangelizing, singing and dancing with musical instruments during worship, and formed other differences. The Mennonites tried to hold on to the traditions they had.
Different ideas about how the Anabaptist ideal should be expressed in the specific realistic context led to many conflicts and schisms among the Mennonites. Even within the mainline Mennonite Church tradition I grew up in there is a wide variety of how people choose to express the Anabaptist ideal and what compromises they make with reality. I see the Anabaptist ideal as an accurate interpretation of Jesus' life and teachings, and that is what I want to follow. The Mennonite Church is the medium of expressing the Anabaptist ideal that I grew up with and live in. I am a Mennonite because it is the easiest, most familiar channel for me to express the Anabaptist ideal. I think this ideal can be expressed in varying degrees in any tradition however. Martin Luther King certainly expressed the criterion of love and nonresistance as a Baptist, and so did Gandhi as Hindu with Christian influences.
For myself, as a Mennonite, I need to examine how I am going to choose to live my life to uphold the criteria of life as discipleship, church as a community, and the ethics of love and non-resistance, and what compromises I choose to make with reality. This happened during the Concern Movement, which came as a by-product of the Anabaptist Vision. Students and people like John H. Yoder wanted the Anabaptist Vision to be a tool of transformation within the Mennonite church, and a chance to reexamine their own lives. They saw it as a call to activism and a renewal of radical discipleship. They urged an intense way of life, giving to any that asked and living for service. I really respect this ideal of putting faith into practice. I think the Anabaptist ideal does call for an active stance that might not fit in with the rest of the world's ideas. But certain compromises must be made in certain places when looking at how to apply the Anabaptist ideal to life.
The first reality I have to make a compromise with is what I love doing. I love playing music, specifically group improvisation. The majority of the times I've sensed something higher than myself have been in this setting. I have to compromise living a life exactly like Jesus because playing music is what makes me come alive and touch God. I want to examine what I could do to in the setting of a band to be a Mennonite and uphold Anabaptist ideal based on the three criteria stated above.
Living a transformed life of discipleship in Christ to me means making everyday choices for Jesus. In the context of a band this would mean being honest musically and lyrically and otherwise, not doing drugs, and having a sense of humility even in the spotlight. It would mean not living with excess money, not being greedy, and being kind to any and all of God's children. A band has the unique opportunity to make an example of their lives. Choices aimed at discipleship patterned after Christ would be noticed. CD's and concerts cost a lot of money, so they aren't readily available to poorer people. As a band we could try and change that aspect of the popular music industry by making our music more widely available to a wider class of people. We could make concerts free to anyone who worked on certain service projects that we set up in the town we were playing in for example. The most important part of discipleship to me would be always keeping in mind the motive of the band and the music was to glorify God and enact the Kingdom here on Earth.
Living out the criteria of church as a community has taken on many different forms to different Anabaptist groups. To the Hutterites it meant a community of goods, and to the Amish it meant a near severance with all society. A compromise the Mennonite church has made with reality is being more involved with the world than these groups. Yet there remains a level of nonconformity. As a band this sense of church community could be manifested in several ways. We could make it a point not to be governed or influenced by outside sources like a record company. And we could remain true to the music we wanted to play and not get sucked in to what was popular. A part of Mennonite church community is economic mutual aid. The band could give any excess money gained to organizations like Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), or to help specific people in need.
The criteria of love and nonresistance have been a historically a major part of the Mennonite tradition. As a band we could use any prominence we had to really speak out against war and violence. We could do benefit concerts for nonviolent movements, address violent situations in our lyrics, and encourage people to get involved in specific organizations and movements aimed at promoting nonviolence. Duane Friesen in his book Christian Peacemaking and International Conflict: a realist pacifist perspective uses the examples of black spirituals, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan that helped inspire and fuel the Civil rights Movement and protest against the Vietnam War.
It says in the Goshen College Music department mission statement, "As a ministry of the Mennonite Church, we believe musical expression is a human manifestation of a divine impulse and, as such, serves as window into the individual soul, a bridge between human beings and a means of corporate religious experience." The "corporate religious experience" during music is one of the most magical things I've ever encountered. Erik Blad wrote to our band after performing at Bethel College, "…what you and your friends did for me on the night of the 20th was possibly the best thing that has happened for me in such a long time. The way you guys harnessed and delivered THE energy that night was SO DAMN COOL." (capitalization in original text) It things like this that really know that God is at work when I am playing music.
Living a life based on Jesus' example and teachings to me means living out the Anabaptist ideal in concrete actions. Growing up in the Mennonite context makes me choose it as the vessel for my expression. I want to maintain my identity as a Mennonite even if I take a path very different from that of other Mennonites. Instead of being a farmer or anything else I want to live a life patterned after Christ by being in a band. I don't think there is any tension between being a Mennonite and bringing music to the masses in a popular form. In fact I see it as a way to express my full Mennonite beliefs in an active stance.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.