The Blog of Jack Holloway

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.[1]

What we have to affirm in order to resist this tendency, Bonhoeffer says, is that Jesus is a person, a living subject.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.”[5] 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.[6] 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.

[1] 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.
[2] 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.
[3] 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).
[4] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 363-387.
[5] Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, xvii, and xix..
[6] 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.


  1. Interestingly enough I have thought about this. More so about the ballot than the bullet, but I’ll address both. After reading The New Jim Crow and seeing the social/political/economic oppression that has been put back on the overwhelmingly black incarcerated, my initial thought was well hell, it is easy to excuse ourselves from politics and voting when the decision is ours to make!

    I should think that Anabaptists would absolutely need to (if we are going take part in liberating action) work to address the problem of oppression that has robbed so many voices. To respond by only trying to enforce the Anabaptist view misses the point and like you say legalistically imposes our belief on the matter, especially when there is a bigger issue of exclusion and hatred happening. Even though we refute this system I believe when America touts itself as equitable for all, then all of its citizens should hold them to it and we should save our thoughts about eschewing politics and voting for a day when we as equal members can discuss it.

    As for violence, I understand the idea that the protected white-voice pushing for nonviolence is hushing the black-voice that has been robbed of protection, which is a wonderful point. However, I don’t think it gives Anabaptist history a fair shake. The movement came out of the upheaval of state-sponsored Catholicism and Protestant violence in Europe. The initial Anabaptist voices were of a people being marginalized for questioning the system’s practices and then subsequently lynched while trying to remain faithful to Jesus. This radical engagement with suffering is what attracted me to it in the first place and I felt it was echoed again within the slave narratives and even from prominent black figures like Howard Thurman, Cornel West and James Cone namely The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

    My point being that I don’t think any theology rooted in the Gospels can really condone the “bullet” because it is vengeful in nature and puts the self in the position to declare another “disposable” which is opposite of peacemaking and reconciliation. It’s a way to get our way by playing the same scapegoat and domination game that Jesus and even the OT’s God of Shalom seem to reject. You’ll have to take that for what it’s worth because I see YHWH’s self-revelation being tethered to Israel’s pagan projections and assumptions in the OT, but those are my thoughts.

    1. On the violent resistance note, I'm sorry but you seem to be proving my point. Why is the bullet vengeful in nature? Why does it automatically make the other disposable? Maybe a privileged white person can say that, but what about the black people who are concerned about losing their lives? What about those who have to face the police every day and wonder if it's going to be them that gets shot today? You equate the fight for liberation with black people "getting their way." Is not that terribly presumptuous? Are you not demeaning the importance of the preservation of their lives by simply swallowing their concern up in an absolute statement: "Violence = making the other disposable in an effort to get your way. Period."

      This is exactly my problem with Anabaptist theology. This is exactly why it's inherently contradictory to black liberation theology. It tells blacks from the outset what their violent resistance is, and why it's wrong.

      On top of that, you outright reject Scriptural testimony concerning God. Now, I recognize that any thinking human should have a problem with many of the violent actions of God in the Bible, but to say that the whole Bible paints a picture of God that is peacemaking and nonviolent, and then to add that any theology in the Bible that says differently is just pagan, is to reject the God of the Bible altogether. You have concocted a God of your own creation, through picking and choosing Scripture, and then you hold it up and say it is the One True God. But what you actually have is an idol, an all-too-known god, an absolute, metaphysical principle that you hold over against history, over against experience, and--the most objectionable--over against black experience. You thus shut yourself off from learning from black experience in such a way that you are open to having your assumptions challenged.

      Forgive the polemics. I feel free to speak in this way since I know you, and since we both know I was once myself an Anabaptist, so we can both understand that my comments are simultaneously addressed at a former version of myself.

    2. Haha! If your response wasn’t somewhat polemical I would be afraid you were getting superficial on me! But I have to concede that my using the phrase “getting our way” was a really bad choice of words especially on this topic. I do not equate the black plight with blacks trying to “get their way”. I mean the term for how people in general tend to stay in cycles of conflict.

      On the other hand, the notion that I have made God my own concoction might be a little off base (though we all do this to some degree). I don’t think the whole Bible paints the picture of a peacemaking God in the way many propose it. My understanding of God lives much more in flux than my generalities might suggest. Even Jesus flipping tables in the monopolized temple and condemning the Pharisees for maintaining purity at cost of their neighbor says something about God’s disruptive action.

      For me the problem is the underlying assumption that my commitment to nonviolence is me addressing black suffering on my terms. I would never tell the black community that they just need to “love their enemies”, with an unspoken “and get over it”. In fact I would reserve my anti-violent diatribe for the state and their militarized-police forces. They have much more ammunition and in my mind pose the bigger threat.

      For the black community I see gaping wounds that are not being addressed and the privileged community has obligations to help the trauma of blacks find expression on their terms and take their needs seriously. So when I see the violence and self-destructive mentalities erupt in a protest, my thought is never that those violent sinners need to learn about being peaceful, but rather I say the failure of our community has taken its toll.

      The complexity of relationships and needs of people in conjunction with my commitment to nonviolence helps form how I will view the situation. But, the reality is there is ebb and flow to social conflict that requires creative vision for helpful responses. It has to be dynamic enough to create constructive change processes that respond to real life problems and create life-giving opportunities. To me this is how liberation happens and how violence has a chance of being reduced.

  2. I'm not a theologian, but I will suggest that you make a small change to one of your precedent arguments. Anabaptists are not traditionally politically isolated. However, this actually adds interest to your argument. Why aren't there more Mennonites out there on the front lines with BLM? Well, there are, some, at least. I was in St. Louis shortly after the Ferguson incident and attended the Mennonite Church there not far from St. Louis University where a protest was held and there were a few in the congregation that had been involved. The Mennonite Church in Evanston IL is actively involved in police brutality protests. There is a church in Detroit as well, but I'm not sure if it's Anabaptist. The guy is doing GREAT things. But 1) these are urban churches, where it is hard to hide from the reality faced by Blacks. 2) They seem to be the exception, rather than the rule. Most Anabaptist communities are out in rural areas, safely blinded from the long term effects of authority indifference and brutality. This is a matter of White privilege. Secondly, urban Anabaptist communities (at least those in St. Louis and, to a lesser extent, Denver/Boulder) are the result of Gentrification and, therefore, are not only not natural allies of Black theology, but in certain ways they are competitors. There are so many things going on right now and so many places to work, I think that political outlets for many Mennonites just don't find their way into Black Lives Matter especially when the media filter is one of random, sporadic violence.

    However, given the history of Anabaptists and their struggle against persecution, you would guess that they should be natural allies with Black theology on these issues. I don't think they are allies, but I think this has more to do with White privilege rather than a conscious decision to remain separate from secular political activity. Part of the problem is the Mennonite (my Anabaptist experience) decision making process which makes it, collectively, virtually impossible to move to action--on a church budget or a political call to action. And then, of course, there are many, many Anabaptist churches that were the bedrock of segregationism!

    There needs to be more inter community dialog on the issues you are talking about.

    But you should definitely visit Evanston. You may also see about Rev. Larry Rice in St. Louis (Anabaptist?) I think they may have some surprises in store for you. But WHITE PRIVILEGE is a vital concept here.

    1. Tim provides some great nuance here. You're portrayal of contemporary Anabaptists is highly (and mistakenly) monolithic. You're not paying attention at all to the newer generations (by which I mean both younger and those coming to Anabaptism from the outside). We are challenging such claims from within.

    2. I have in mind people like Boyd, Hauerwas, Yoder, Bruxy Cavey, and others. Who were you think of?