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Goshen professor examines challenges and promise of global Anabaptism

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Throughout his career as a historian and academic, John D. Roth has made it a point to “do scholarship in and for the church” – which his recent audiences at Bethel College recognized and affirmed.

Roth, professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College since 1988, was the first teacher in 59 years from that sister institution of Bethel's within the Mennonite Church USA family to deliver the Menno Simons Lectures, which took place this year at Bethel Oct. 31-Nov. 2. Roth's overall topic was “The Future of Anabaptism as a Global Movement.”

When he gave the second of the four lectures, traditionally done in a morning convocation and directed at students, Roth projected an image of the Bethel College seal onto a screen in Krehbiel Auditorium. The seal includes a verse from I Corinthians 3, said to be the favorite of Menno Simons, from whose name the word “Mennonite” comes: “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

“What does it mean for a college like Goshen to say we are Christ-centered or like Bethel to have a logo that says there is no other foundation than Jesus Christ?” Roth said. “Is that an embarrassment, or a relic from the past we shouldn't take too seriously? Does it identify us as narrow-minded, triumphalist Christians whose claim to have 'The Truth' is often associated with violence?”

On the contrary, Roth went on to challenge Bethel and other Mennonite colleges to present “an alternative vision of the Christian faith in a global perspective.”

To embrace the claim on the Bethel seal, he said, “is to be passionately committed to the Christian faith while being equally committed to peaceful neighboring with those of other cultures and faiths.

“A commitment to being Christ-centered creates the possibility of being in genuine dialogue with people of other religious traditions,” he continued. “Christians are in a position to have much better conversations with others equally committed to their religion – to something of ultimate importance.

“It's a complex, confusing world, where religious conflicts are not going to disappear,” Roth concluded. “The temptation is to see religion only as a problem. But our colleges are full of bright, educated, [religious] people interested in peacemaking and toleration. My hope is that you can claim your logo with confidence. It calls you to a posture of humility and graciousness, to welcome the stranger, to be committed to healing broken relationships, to live into a power committed to being made perfect in weakness.”

Roth's convocation lecture was the most broadly focused – on global Christianity, in which the Anabaptist faith and traditions have their role. His other lectures looked more specifically at the effect the worldwide Anabaptist movement, particularly in the global South (Africa, Asia and Latin America), is having on the “cradle” Anabaptist-Mennonite church in Europe and North America in the 21st century.

“We are at an intriguing, paradoxical point in history,” Roth said in his first lecture. “Things have never been better for Mennonites.” Whereas for most of Anabaptism's 500-year history, church and state powers have ignored Anabaptism at best and persecuted its adherents at worst, the last 50 years, he said, have seen a much more positive shift in attitude and interest by everyone from historians to leaders of mainstream Christian denominations around the globe.

Yet, “behind every silver lining is a dark cloud,” Roth continued. “It's ironic that now that we're accepted, we as Mennonite Church USA are in a state of precarious health, perhaps in or close to a crisis. Just when we're being embraced in ecumenical circles, Mennonites [in Europe and North America] are seeking to distance themselves from what makes them distinctive.”

Meanwhile, “the broader Anabaptist fellowship has entered into a period of explosive growth,” Roth pointed out. The national churches in Indonesia, Congo and Ethiopia are all bigger than the Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada combined. Of the 1.6 million people worldwide who call themselves Mennonite, a million live outside North America and Europe. Half the Mennonites who ever lived are alive today.

In his Bethel lectures, Roth set this global shift – which is occurring within other mainstream Protestant and Roman Catholic groups as well – into an Anabaptist, as well as church and religious, history perspective. While teaching classes at Goshen, directing the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College and serving as editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review, Roth has also devoted a significant portion of his time in the last several years visiting and learning from Mennonite groups all over the world.

In his third lecture, Roth suggest a new metaphor or image for thinking of global Anabaptism, though he stressed it is still in process and for which he welcomes suggestions and more conversation.

“I propose we imagine this not as a quest to connect with the taproot but rather as the tangled, interconnected web of relationships suggested by the image of a rhizome,” he said. “A rhizome sends its stem out horizontally, usually but not always underneath the soil, and then at quite unpredictable places creates a node that sends up shoots as if it was a new, independent plant. We would use the metaphor to describe non-hierarchical networks of all kinds, with no beginning or end – always in relationships of mutual connectivity, in alliances with multiple entry and exit points.”

In his fourth and final lecture, Roth presented a condensed version of the conclusions of the Multi-Nation Anabaptist (MNA) Profile, a recently completed survey of 12 Anabaptist groups (from Tanzania, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Vietnam, the United States [Lancaster Conference], Indonesia, India, the Philippines, two from Honduras and two from Kenya). Conrad Kenagy from Elizabethtown (Pa.) College headed the survey, begun in 2008 and largely funded by Eastern Mennonite Missions, to whom all 12 groups have some connection.

Church leaders from all the groups, Roth said, were “tremendously grateful and excited to have this data” – far from feeling it was “another North American project imposed on them,” they found the information it revealed valuable to their own ministries.

The survey also revealed significant areas of challenge, Roth said, including Anabaptist-Mennonite identity; political involvement; the role of women, including ordination of women; concerns about Islam (which Roth said look very different outside North America); and training of young people and discipleship training in general.

Roth closed his final lecture by saying, “As I try to make sense of where we are as a denomination, [I note that] today is Election Day and that politics and elections [here] have been among the most polarizing movements in recent memory.” Given that, and the huge challenges facing the global Mennonite church, he added, “It's easy to get discouraged.”

Then he told a story about being in Berlin three years ago and being asked to speak in a small Baptist congregation that had read one of his books in a German translation. As he spoke, he saw tears begin to run down the face of an older man sitting near the front.

When the man came up later to speak to Roth, he recounted how, for 30 years, a little group of Baptists would gather every afternoon at the Berlin Wall to light candles, sing a hymn and pray that the wall would come down. People laughed at them for what seemed a foolish gesture. In 1989, more people began to join them in lighting candles and praying. Soon there were thousands. And then the wall came down.

“In the midst of our congregational tensions, our denominational issues, all the divisions and obstacles that stand in our way – if you think about it too much, you should probably just say home,” Roth said. “But then there are those people who want to gather and light candles and pray together. I believe God wants walls to come down, and we can be part of it.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2010-11 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is in the first tier in its category in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of “America’s Top Colleges” for 2011. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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