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Lectures: What North American Mennonites can, and should, learn from the world

September 11th, 2017

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN – Although the title “Going Global with God” might have implied the topic of Christian mission to the world, Menno Simons lecturer Walter Sawatsky took it in a somewhat different direction.

Sawatsky, professor emeritus of church history and mission at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, was the speaker for the annual series at Bethel College, Oct. 26-28.

Sawatsky was “returning to a theme touched on in these lectures before,” said John Thiesen, Bethel co-director of libraries and lecture series organizer, introducing Sawatsky, “understanding Mennonite Christianity from a global perspective.”

Sawatsky gives “a persistent challenge to us as students and to the church to look beyond our own North American culture for light and for truth,” said Mark Jantzen, Bethel professor of history, in his introduction to a later lecture.

Or, as Sawatsky stated, “Why telling the story from a global perspective matters.”

He went on, “Since the Mennonite world assembly in 2009 in Paraguay, it’s become rather trendy [among Mennonites] to speak of ‘the global church,’ having in mind only the Mennonites or perhaps only the Anabaptists.

“The church that came into being at Pentecost was described as being ‘the body of Christ,’ and that’s what ‘global church’ must refer to. Are we really still thinking that only our little body constitutes ‘the global church’?”

He devoted much of his first lecture to a historical sketch of the Russian Mennonite experience in the late 19th and early 20th century “as a paradigm.”

The story he referred to most, however, was not the one many North American Mennonites know – the 1874-78 migration west of Mennonites from what is now Ukraine to the Great Plains of Canada and the United States, what Sawatsky called “a remarkable logistical achievement.”

But theirs is “the minority story,” he said. “The majority actually ended up deported to central Asia and Siberia, where they were repressed and forcibly repatriated, the means by which Soviet authorities were trying to crush religious belief.”

These are the Mennonites who went first went east voluntarily, with mission as their goal, into what are now “the -stans” of central Asia. During the Stalinist purges of the 1940s, many ended up exiled in the gulags of Siberia and central Asia.

“This is the story of a people who stayed against great odds, and it is not solely a Mennonite story,” Sawatsky said. “Along the way, there were always congregations who connected with their neighbors.

“Despite the Soviets’ decades of attempts to crush Christianity, there were still Christians gathering to worship in 1988 [the year before Communism fell in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union].

“Russian Mennonites, by whatever label, living in Siberia and central Asia, had been very active at home and with their relatives in Germany,” Sawatsky said.

They had built institutions, such as Christian colleges and publishing houses. Their worship and lives showed “elements of Radical Reformation heritage: the lordship of Christ, the centrality of Scripture, an expectation of suffering, responding to evil with love and forgiveness [and it] included the reality of a dynamic, evolving, not static, spirituality and peace theology.”

In Sawatsky’s second lecture, he referred to the story of the Last Supper, as recorded in John, where Jesus prayed for his disciples: “that they may be one … that the world might believe.”

Yet in 2014, Sawatsky went on, “there were 40,000 ‘bodies’ around the world not relating to each other – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox. How much reconciliation do we still have to do?”

Sawatsky evoked the current global political context for his entire series: “We are at war, and it is not a game. We are back in the Cold War in very dangerous ways.”

But, he said, “Truth-telling and paradigm change forces us to rethink.”

He spoke of a 2006 speech by Mikhail Gorbachev, “the last president of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, present at that event, said he had once believed President Ronald Reagan’s characterization of the USSR as “the Evil Empire.” Then, Powell said, he met Gorbachev in 1996. Gorbachev told him: “You are going to have to find yourself another enemy besides the Soviet Union.”

“There is a psychological flaw in American foreign policy,” Sawatsky said. “There is a learned set of values that are claimed to be the American story, which make America’s enemies the polar opposite of what America is supposed to be. The USSR was [supposedly] unchangingly evil, secret, closed. Powell came to the conclusion that he was wrong, he had misjudged Gorbachev, and claimed him as a friend.

“How do we now reconcile ourselves with a global body of Christ that includes the former Soviet Union, China and others? If we truly love God’s church, what must we do?”

In the third lecture, Sawatsky returned to his theme of “what North American Mennonites can learn from the global church.”

“The global contextualization of the Gospel had changed much,” he said. “The ‘sins taught by the missionaries’ are not the ones of most importance [in the developing world].” Rather than sin as reflected in the Ten Commandments, for example, what needs to be addressed more immediately are such things as poverty, economic disparities, social injustice and political repression.

The “recently formed Mennonite Church USA is rather dysfunctional,” he went on. In his observation, MC USA, as of 2000 at least, is “pursuing at least six different missiologies or mission strategies, [rooted in] deeply formed different patterns of life and thought that existed in the General Conference and Mennonite Church bodies long before ‘integration.’

“There are Mennonite communities outside [the designated] Mennonite World Conference that are apparently larger than [the total] who are in. So are ‘we’ waiting for the rest to ‘see the light’ and ‘come inside’?”

Finally, in his concluding lecture, Sawatsky moved from Russian Mennonite and worldwide Christian mission paradigms to what could be learned from the peacemaking efforts of secular bodies around the world.

He started with an excerpt from the song “What have we done?” sung in Zulu. “In the ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ process [in South Africa after apartheid], whenever things would get tense, someone would start this song,” Sawatsky said, “and they would sing it over and over. It sounds like a song that belongs in worship.”

Sawatsky evoked recent history with references to the Cold War nuclear arms race starting in the 1940s, the 1989 “Velvet Revolution” (nonviolent end to communism in Czechoslovakia), 9/11 and America’s launch of the “War on Terror,” the “vilifying of President Putin and ‘the Russians’” over the upheaval in Ukraine in 2014, and the latest “war,” against the Islamic State.

“Why did Mennonites, members of historic peace churches, keep voting for American political leaders who have fostered the arms race?” Sawatsky asked. “Can we be an authentic Christian witness without speaking against the profound militarism and violence of our government?”

Sawatsky said that “in the 1980s and ’90s, I kept wondering when this Christian peace movement from Europe would reach the U.S. and American Mennonites. Our parochialisms run deep: [our question is] ‘What should our government do?’” about a situation of conflict anywhere in the world.

“How we frame our histories, how we frame our failures and recoveries, matters. To tell and teach Mennonite history without reference to the others, except that ‘those others did bad things to us,’ is to sustain a lie.

“This lecture has attempted to introduce a worldview that gradually surfaced into public consciousness enough so that ... societal repentance changed the trajectories of societies and even the world.”

About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.