Monday, March 28, 2011

definition of “Anabaptist”

A colleague recently asked me to write “an historical definition” (450-500 words) of Anabaptism for a forthcoming newsletter for the Anabaptist Network in South Africa.

I like history a lot, though I think I am too inclined to want to do theological analysis of historical events to truly measure up to the standards of modern historiography. That disclaimer aside, my definition is below.

In order to find a useful definition of “Anabaptist”, let us begin with the name itself. The word “Anabaptist” consists of two parts, “ana” and “baptist”. The first part, “ana” is the Greek prefix meaning “re”. The second part, “baptist”, refers, obviously, to the Christian practice of baptism by which one becomes a member of Christ and his Church. In the sixteenth-century, European context in which it was first coined, the title “Anabaptist” denoted a person who had been “re-baptized”. The title was pejorative; it was the Anabaptists' opponents way of speaking about those whom they said had violated the “one baptism” mandate of the New Testament (Eph 4:5). The name stuck, and today the spiritual descendants of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists gladly embrace it. Yet, originally, the Anabaptists did not believe themselves guilty of re-baptism; they simply denied that their “first” baptism—the sprinkling of water upon a newborn baby's head—was truly Christian.

The first known Anabaptist baptisms took place on 21 January 1525 in Zurich, Switzerland, when a group led by Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock, and Felix Manz baptized one another in Manz's home. Their baptism, which has come to be known as “believers' baptism”, stood in contrast to “infant baptism”, the standard practice of the European society known as Christendom, the alliance of power between the church and the state. The meaning, again, lies in the name; the baptism of “believers” signifies those who have put their faith in Christ, not “infants” who, against their wills, have been sprinkled with water. Anabaptist baptism is the baptism of discipleship, of “counting the cost” before one sets off on one's journey after Jesus (Lk 14:27-28). Thus, believers' baptism—along with the type of community (church) it forms—is also often described as “voluntary” and “free”. Consistent with the freedom of their baptism, Anabaptists, in spite of a few notable exceptions, rejected coercion and violence, including participation in military service—for which they were persecuted and martyred.

Just as the early church after the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1ff.), so persecution “scattered” the Anabaptists; in addition to remaining in their birthplaces of central and western Europe, Anabaptists fled in waves to Russia and the Americas. Later, through the great missionary movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Anabaptism took root in Africa, India, and East Asia. Today, the spiritual descendants of the Anabaptists are on every inhabited continent, with the greatest concentration of believers in Africa. As of 2006, according to the findings of Mennonite World Conference, “a community of Anabaptist-related churches”, there were nearly 1.5 million Mennonites and Brethren in Christ worldwide in 75 countries and over 200 “organized bodies”. Yet wherever people commit themselves to Jesus in a community of “justice, joy, and peace”, there the Anabaptist vision is alive (Rom 14:17).

In drafting this definition, a connection I began to make but had never quite seen before was the “freedom” inherent to “believers’ baptism” with the “nonviolence” characteristic of “believers’ churches”. In other words, though we often reason for nonviolence in terms of Jesus’ example from the gospels (which I still take to be the bedrock), Anabaptist Christians might also make a “theological” case from the wisdom or logic inherent to our (“free”, not “coerced”) baptism.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

a gift that keeps on giving

Today during our morning office time, we had an appointment with the Canon (Bethany Bible School rents office space from the Diocese of St. John’s, Anglican Church).

We met to discuss an unexpected fee raise on accommodations for conferences that we had noticed from our last invoice. While the Canon said that the decision was not his to make—that he had to take it to his Executive meeting later this month—he would certainly advocate for us, for our school, to receive a lower rate. He then gave his own testimony about BBS. He said that he used to see the Zionist leaders in the place where he was also serving an Anglican congregation. And, upon noticing over time that the quality of these pastors’ preaching had greatly improved, he commented to them, “I can see that you are getting some new things.” They replied, “Yes, we are going to Bethany.”

So, the Canon said to us, “I have seen the fruits of your labor.” Those are things that we do not always see. Nor did we expect to hear such an affirmation today; we are therefore grateful for this gift that has come our way. So too we are grateful for, to use a phrase which I first heard used of another ministry context involving Mennonites and African Initiated Churches (AICs), the “significant deposit of goodwill” which was made long before we even dreamed of coming to South Africa. That deposit is still there for us.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

worker care

Mennonite Mission Network has learned through long experience that the pressures and sometimes isolation of cross cultural work lead to high levels of burn out and other problems. And so they take the health, mental and otherwise, of their workers seriously.
To address these issues they employ a number of "worker care" people. A new initiative has been to take on, as mission workers, a couple who are based in London and travel the world visiting workers and seeing what they need. Wayne and Lois Hochstetler have come to see us twice and have washed dishes, played with our boys, visited ministry sites, met people, talked with us, done more formal counseling, and taken us out to eat. Their experience in pastoring and counseling qualify them for the work. Making them more highly qualified is the fact that that they are easy, warm, and adaptable people. Now they have been all over the world and have seen missionaries dealing with all kinds of situations, experiences which they bring to bear on other situations. In addition, they have been living outside of their home culture themselves.
Lois wrote a list on her blog the other day about the great things about being a missionary. It all feels very true to me, having spent most of my life in cross cultural mission in some way--as a missionary kid and now as a missionary myself. Here is the list.
  • You get to live in some of the most beautiful parts of the world.
  • You get to travel.
  • You get to be (have to be!) self directed.
  • Your experiences are very varied.
  • For most, the daily routine is very unstructured, often relaxed.
  • You get to see so many life experiences from different cultural points of view.
  • You get a much greater, "zoomed back," world view.
  • You feel unique.
  • The great satisfaction, when it happens, of "getting it," be it the language, a cultural moment, a connection with a national.
  • Kinship with other expatriots.
  • Although sometimes lonely, you know you are prayed for.
  • Those moments of supreme grace when there is a sense of being in the presence of, and participating with, a great and compassionate God.
  • You get to combine all this with a passion for the church, the Kingdom of God and the spiritual wellbeing of people all over the world.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

HIV-AIDS workshop at Bethany Bible School

When South Africa has been included in international news over the past decade, it has often been for an unfortunate reason: its scourge of HIV-AIDS. The government of Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008), successor to Nelson Mandela as the nation’s second president, was widely condemned for its stance on HIV-AIDS, namely its denial that AIDS was caused by the HIV virus. Just as the government followed a course of misinformation during these years, so many of South Africa’s citizens remain misinformed or uninformed about a disease that affects all of them directly or indirectly.

7-8 years ago, Mavis Tshandu (below), a student-leader of Bethany Bible School and a nurse by trade, led a series of trainings on HIV-AIDS throughout the Transkei (the eastern part of the Eastern Cape Province with Mthatha as its principal city) as part of an off-shoot organization of BBS. That organization no longer functions, but our expansion of BBS’s program with three additional workshops throughout the year has created new opportunities to bring understanding of HIV-AIDS and other social issues affecting South Africa. On 4-5 March, Mavis led the first of these workshops in 2011 for 25 students who had gathered. Of these, only one person had participated in her trainings years ago. Moreover, Mavis reported that the knowledge of HIV-AIDS of those gathered last weekend was next to “nothing”; it seems that the time had definitely come for this workshop.

It was well-received. With an air of surprise and a sense of empowerment, one participant exclaimed, “This workshop was very nice—we are doctors now.” Hyperbole, yes; but also testimony to knowledge—and a measure of power—gained over an otherwise overwhelming burden in the rural communities from which these students come.

-JoeBBS HIV-AIDS workshop 015

BBS HIV-AIDS workshop 004