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  • Writer's pictureKevin Shorner-Johnson

Timely relevance and challenge of the Anabaptist tradition

Reposted from the Church of the Brethren Newsline, November 18, 2019

Kevin Shorner-Johnson

Elizabethtown (Pa.) Church of the Brethren was filled with congregants representing diverse Brethren churches and Anabaptist traditions for the Elizabethtown College Peace Fellowship lecture. Drew Hart, assistant professor of theology at Messiah College, introduced “not a light topic” of how white supremacy and Christianity are entangled together. Using the metaphor of “putting on our blue jeans,” Hart encouraged listeners to find and follow the message of Jesus over attachments to power and cultural affiliations.

We live in a world of high-speed cell phones, tweets, discord, and vast geo-political challenges that seem insurmountable, where many of us feel we can’t keep up with crises and technological change. In this context, many might argue that Anabaptist presence and worship is an outdated tradition that no longer speaks to the speed of the present.

However, it is exactly that crisis and exactly that speed that make our Anabaptist traditions relevant. Embracing the richness of our heritage of faith, we can bring counter-cultural love, hope, witness, and being to the present moment. Our work at Elizabethtown College seeks to reimagine how a heritage of presence, vulnerable witness, nonviolence, humility, and relationship-centeredness gives insight to shared hope, reconciliation, and restoration.

Our new Master of Music Education emphasizing peacebuilding, affiliated with the Center for Global Understanding and Peacemaking, is reimagining through podcasts how lived theology may “reclaim space for connection and care.” And our movement into programs related to engineering, occupational therapy, physician assistants, psychology, education, and many other majors has taught us about how an Anabaptist heritage may inform humane care and ethical work toward the greater good. These common threads of heritage are powerfully relevant to the present day.

In his speech, Hart spoke of “leaning in[to]” what it means to “be followers of Jesus.” While he did not identify as Anabaptist in his early formation, his encounters of radical hospitality, lessons in “taking Jesus seriously,” and a willingness to address social concerns planted the seeds of Anabaptist life in his formation. As he worked on his dissertation, he experienced those seeds taking root.

These roots encourage us “to put on our blue jeans,” entering the work of antiracism and restoration. Hart believes that from “vulnerable space, the Spirit renews our minds and transforms our lives to understand God's power and wisdom. This has nothing to do with the dominant way of seeing things and everything to do with following Jesus” (“Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism,” Harrisonburg, Va.: Herald Press, 2016; p. 116). He speaks to a call to move in “counterintuitive solidarity with those on the margins.”

This is one of the counter-cultural messages of Dr. Drew Hart--one that reimagines and renews us as we live into restored, loving relationships of community. The life of our faith tradition is in the challenge that it presents to renew ourselves and live into relationships of just peace and care. And in this time, the depth of hope within our tradition has never been more relevant to contemporary contexts of pain, hurt, and disconnection.

-- Kevin Shorner-Johnson’s report from this year’s Elizabethtown College Peace Fellowship Lecture was provided to Newsline by Kay L. Wolf, program manager for the college’s Center for Global Understanding and Peacemaking.

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