Saturday, June 3, 2017
Peace at All Costs: The Disparity between Anabaptist Theology & Black Theology
Anabaptist theologians claim that following Jesus’ teaching necessitates a wholesale commitment to nonviolence. Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of whatever particular details a given situation could have, Anabaptists hold up a universal judgment concerning any and all acts of violence: they are all condemned by God. Period.
Furthermore, Christ-likeness means giving up any participation in the work of the State, i.e., refusing military service, and resisting all involvement in political affairs. Don’t run for office, don’t vote, don’t join the military. With a particular reading of Jesus’ attitude toward politics, and with the assumption that everything Jesus does and says is commanded by God as the right way to live, applicable to all times in situations, they conclude that Christians should follow the model of Jesus of Nazareth to the letter, and never do anything that seems like something Jesus of Nazareth wouldn’t do.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’ criticized Anabaptism on this point. He said Anabaptists turn peace into an “absolute norm” and nonviolence into an unqualified “biblical law” applicable to all humans at all times. They thus become legalists.
What we have to affirm in order to resist this tendency, Bonhoeffer says, is that Jesus is a person, a living subject. Jesus is not simply “that guy in the Gospels,” but the One, resurrected Son of God who lives and speaks today. Jesus is Immanuel, God – with – us. He is not just a dead guy whose memory lives on in the Christian community, but the person that the Christian is to actually encounter in the church.
Only by affirming Jesus’ life and activity in the present can we avoid putting Jesus in a box of our own making. This means we have to leave even our nicest and dearest principles open to alteration, subject to change.
Jesus’ word will always be an other word, a word from someone who is not like us, who is beyond us, and thus calls into question even our most profound insights. And this means we have to learn to look for Jesus in those things which are other to us.
James Cone provides an essential way of doing this today. He says that if we want to see where God is and what God is doing and saying in a white supremacist society, we have to look at the black community. That Jesus is alive and present today means that Jesus is hidden among those who are alienated and oppressed in today's world, and that means black lives. Today, if we are to understand that Jesus was a Jew, we have to say that Jesus is black.
It is not enough, however, to just say this, to just acknowledge it, as if the purpose of black theology is just to get itself a footnote in a white theologian's book. Witnessing to Jesus' presence in the black community means subjecting ourselves to a responsibility for the black community. It means opening ourselves up to black experience, being taught by what we find there, and responding accordingly.
Unfortunately, Anabaptist theology from the outset is not open to being taught by black experience. Built as it is on absolute principles of peace and political withdrawal, it is difficult to see how Anabaptist theology could truly be open to reckoning with a responsibility for addressing the suffering and oppression of black lives. It states definitively that it will never entertain the possibility of involvement in any acts of violence, or engaging in politics, and thus fundamentally shuts itself off from the testimony of those like Malcolm X.
Anabaptist theology sets the ground rules for its engagement with black lives. It will address black suffering on its own terms, in accordance with its own rules, and thus does not leave itself open to learning from black needs and encounters. It does not open itself to what Bonhoeffer called a "concrete commandment," a new divine word for a particular, concrete situation.
Cone, in his book A Black Theology of Liberation, quotes Malcolm X saying, “Don’t let anybody who is oppressing us ever lay the ground rules,” and also, “What is logical to the oppressor isn’t logical to the oppressed.” A white, affluent society may believe, for example, that violence is never justified, that nonviolence is always the only Christ-like approach, and that Christians should not engage in politics, but for Malcolm X that should in no way obligate blacks to follow suit. Black theology is not black if it commits itself to the rules of white theology. Black theology binds itself to black experience, and is answerable to that experience, and not to absolute principles.
Malcolm X spoke of black power in the voting ballot, and if that fails, then it may lie in the bullet. Anabaptist theology disarms black people when it denies them both the ballot and the bullet. Black theology is thus not compatible with Anabaptist theology, for the latter refuses to be answerable to black experience. It denies history in favor of principle. It can only hope that in doing so it does not also deny God in favor of principle.
Ultimately, the Anabaptist Jesus is distinguishable from the responsive, dynamic God of the Israelites. This Jesus is not willing to get his hands dirty for the liberation of the oppressed. He would rather rest well on the certain and absolute principle of peace than risk his purity in the fight for liberation. Is he not then different from the God of the Israelites, who was responsive to Israel's history and at times suspended the ethical in favor of Israelite liberation?
The classic binary between the good God of the New Testament and the horrible God of the Old Testament may thus be reversed for black theology. If the Anabaptist Jesus is the God of the New Testament, then the hope of black theology lies in the liberating God of the Old Testament. And Anabaptists have always been allergic to the God of the Old Testament.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Lecture in Ciernohorské Kúpele: On the Theological Foundation of the Work of the World Alliance,” in Ecumenical, Academic, and Pastoral Work, 1931–1932, ed. Victoria J. Barnett, Mark S. Brocker, and Michael B. Lukens, trans. Anne Schmidt-Lange, Isabel Best, Nicolas Humphrey, and Marion Pauck (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 362. Also see Michael P. DeJonge, "Anabaptists and Peace," in Bonhoeffer's Reception of Luther (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), particularly 172-177.
 See Bonhoeffer, Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology, ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr., trans. H. Martin Rumscheidt (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 126-135. Also see, Discipleship, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Kraus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 201-204.
 See James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 40th anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010); as well as God of the Oppressed, rev. ed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997).
 See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 363-387.
 Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, xvii, and xix..
 Malcolm X, "The Ballot or the Bullet," in Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, ed. George Breitman (New York: Grove Press, 1990), 23-44.