The Cross, The New Creation, and Creative Discipleship
Please read the first two posts in this series before proceeding to read the following essay:
Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: Intro
Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: Christ The Center
In this article, I wish to turn from hermeneutical method and towards very brief sketches of Christology and ecclesiology. The second feature of historic Anabaptism, according to Tyler Tully is free church of confessing, baptized disciples. What type of Christology is inferred from the post-Christian Anabaptist approach developed from predominantly white male Christians? How faithful are these “new” Anabaptists to the Christologies of the first members of the Radical Reformation? And lastly, how may a Black Liberationist Christology be compatible with Anabaptist studies of Christ’s personhood?
For the emergent Anabaptists of today’s post-Christendom, when it comes to approaching the Bible, the category of story is stressed above history. The hazard in overemphasizing the mythos of the past is to make religious communities vulnerable to dreaming of an essentializing good ole days. The good ole days in this perspective is that of the early church, united and on one front being persecuted from the margins in their witness of spreading the Good News. One possible safeguard against this hegemonic dream was the interpretation of the Tower of Babel by John Howard Yoder, and affirmed (sort of) by his student Stanley Hauerwas, where God “confusing” the languages of humanity actually liberates humanity from empire and monolingualism. As I will attempt to demonstrate, not even the Pentecostal possibilities of this re-telling of Nimrod’s story can save White post-Christendom Anabaptist theology from its own pitfalls.
When I was in seminary, the book that originally changed it all for me was Stanley Hauerwas’ and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens: Life In the Christian Colony. Hauerwas, as a student of John Howard Yoder, takes his cues from his teacher in exploring three paradigms in ecclessiology: the ‘activist church,’ ‘the conversionist church,’ and the ‘confessing church.’ Taken from Yoder’s essay, “A People in the World: Theological Interpretation, Hauerwas criticizes the former two models of doing church, and praises the latter, or at least his own version of it. The confessing church sees the local congregation as a counter-culture by first prioritizing “the congregation’s determination to worship Christ in all things” (page 45). Confessing churches reject numbers games, filling the pulpits, and rather, they seek to make the category of faithfulness primary. The Confessing Church is the group of visible martyrs, being salt on the earth, operating as Christ’s flashlight in a fallen, dark world.
According to Hauerwas, the Confessing Church is the community of The Cross. One practical example of a Confessing Church in action is a missional response to events that happen in international affairs. Hauerwas suggested that a Christian response to the Libya crisis would be possibly for the United Methodist Church to send 1,000 missionaries to Libya in spite of it being illegal to travel there. Hauerwas when informed of that barrier, responded, “We can’t go there because we no longer have a church that produces people who can do something this bold. But we once did.” Hauerwas and Willimon continue, “We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price” page 48.
For Hauerwas and Post-Christendom White Christians, the worship of Jesus and the remembrance of our story determines the Church’s task. It is this worship that sets the boundary between Yoder’s and Hauerwas’ preferred way of seeing society, that of Church and World. The Church’s nonviolent testimony is God’s response to a violent, fragmented world. In The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer In Christian Ethics, Hauerwas describes this fragmentation as, “Life in a world of moral fragments is always on the edge of violence, since there are no means to ensure that moral argument in itself can resolve our moral conflicts. No wonder we hunger for absolutes in such a world, for we rightly desire peace in ourselves and in our relations with one another.” [Hauerwas continues,] “Moreover the fragmentation of our world is not only ‘out there,’ but it is also in our own souls. Amid fragments it is extremely hard to maintain our moral identity. We feel pulled in different directions by our various roles and convictions, unsure whether there is or can be any coherence to our lives. We become divided selves, more easily tempted to violence since, being unsure of ourselves, we are easily threatened by any challenge that might rob us of what little sense of self we have achieved.”-pages 5-6
Taking some of his cues from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Hauerwas takes us on a journey in virtue ethics all the while providing a rebuttal to Christian realism. Christ Jesus is the embodiment of God’s Kingdom . Jesus performs the story of Israel in his offices of priest, king, and prophet (see Chapter 5: Jesus: The Presence of the Peaceable Kingdom). While his discussion of Christ and discipleship originally focuses on what the Protestant Reformers call the Munus Triplex, the three offices of Christ, really what Hauerwas reduces the tradition to is actually two offices, that of Priest and King. Christ is only prophet to the extent that he is the Chosen Servant to die ala the Servant stories in Isaiah (page 78). This neglect of the traditional understanding of Christ as prophet has larger implications for White Post-Christendom ecclesiology.
IMO, Stanley Hauerwas, and subsequently Anabaptist thinkers after him, have slightly modified John Howard Yoder’s notion of a Confessing Church to fit a more hierarchal, sacramental church structure. Whether Hauerwas’ vision for THE CHURCH is eschatological in a future sense or a present descriptor, I wish not to debate here. What I will say is that Yoder’s ecclesiology was informed primarily by the founders of the Radical Reformation. The earliest debates between the Anabaptists and their interlocuters, Catholics and Protestant Reformers respectively, revolved around the nature of baptism, believers’ baptism versus infant baptism. The consequences of denying the power of original sin as a biological impediment of human nature was usually imprisonment, followed by beheading. Claiming inspiration from the Holy Spirit, the Anabaptists ferverently spread the message against deadly opposition. Preaching Good News inspite of the very real specter of death was seen as their participation in the Third Baptism, the Baptism of Blood/Martyrdom.
What was meant to be a mockery of Anabaptists (being re-baptized, and then finding themselves drowned to death for their beliefs), the Third Baptism became a marker of the Radical Reformers’ theology; in short, discipleship meant the re-positioning of the believer’ bodies, even to the point of death. In Scripture, Christ’s witness is shown in water baptism, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and Blood Baptism (bodily sacrifice) ; see for example 1st John 5:6-8. One example of this martyrdom is the story of Balthasar Hubmaier, who as he was about to be burned at the stake, reportedly said, ‘Oh salt me well, salt me well.” This gives a new meaning to the phrase “salt of the earth” for when salt is placed on a wound of our skin, it burns. As Jesus said according to Mark, “For everyone will be salted with fire” (9:49), or in some texts, “every sacrifice will be salted with salt.”
I don’t want to dismiss the significance of the Baptisms of Water and of Spirit, but for my purposes since I want to talk about discipleship, and what would an interdenominational Radical Reformation movement look like, I will prefer to discuss Blood Baptism. Water baptisms are marks of what local congregations you are a part of, who will keep you accountable in your Christian walk from birth to death. The Spirit Baptism is more about God personally interacting with you on an individual level, as a seal of salvation as well as a Guide to help you in the process of personal sanctification. The Third Baptism is the place where we can see another intersection between Black Liberation Theology and Anabaptism.
Because Hauerwas and company neglect to see the sources of Yoder’s ecclesiology (the Radical Reformation), they have appropriated in a problematic direction. The example Hauerwas gave of a Confessing Church in action, the UMC (a predominantly white-lead institution) invading an African country in the Two-Thirds world is a small glimpse of a colonizing ecclessiological gaze that narrative postliberal theologians could have without the aid of Liberation Theology. As I mentioned in part one of this series, John Howard Yoder preferred the category of story over history. Historical questions, he claimed, weren’t being dismissed, they just weren’t the focus of his work. However, Yoder did dismiss the criticisms of The Politics of Jesus by Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza in her Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. While Schussler-Fiorenza and historical critics wanted to talk about the historical context of the household codes, Yoder chose time and again to derail the discussion by claiming to be concerned for the “christological component” of the early Church’s action. In other words, narrative and therefore, heretical Docetism prevails.
The notion of us humans being “storytellers,” simply isn’t that innocent at all. Narrative needs historical context, and historians need people’s stories. There needs to be a reciprocal, dialogical approach to Christology and ecclesiology in this regard. Imagine a Confessing Church that not only praised the Living God in awe of God’s work revealed in Christ’s life, but also a church that confessed a politics that was historically aware in the quest to practice neighborly love. In the words of Drew Hart,
The Third Baptism is not only a mark of what has historically happened to faithful Christian witnesses, but it is also something that is DONE BY persons claiming to be members of Christ’s church. An #AnaBlacktivist ecclesiology would carry on the memories of Blood Baptisms in history, initiated by both secular agencies as well as Constantinian White Supremacist religionists. James Cone in Black Theology and Black Power described these blood baptisms in existential terms. “absurdity arises as a man confronts the world and looks for meaning. […] Absurdity arises as the black man seeks to understand his place in the white world. The black man does not view himself as absurd; he views himself as human. But he meets the white world and its values, he is confronted with an almighty NO and is defined as a thing. This produces an absurdity.” – page 11.
Unfortunately because emergence Christianity’s discounting of the historical Radical Reformation tradition of The Third Baptism (while appropriating the title of Anabaptist I may add), I fear that the new Anabaptists will just be repeating the same imperial Christianity they seek to both avoid as well as oppose. As long as White Supremacy is not confronted, those Libyans [ahem, or Nigerians] overseas will be looked upon as Things to be missionally converted rather than human beings to be loved. The message of Black Liberation is summed up in its definition of freedom: “The man of Black Power will not rest until the oppressor recognizes him for what he is– man. He further knows that in this campaign for human dignity, freedom is not a gift but a right worth dying for” page 12.
The Anti-Imperial Confessing church then, is one that “continually to ask: ‘Who in the community does not live according to the spirit of Christ? This is the kind of question which was so important to the sixteenth century Anabaptists, and it must be vital for the Church of any age.”- page 70. If “the true church of Christ must define clearly through its members the meaning of God’s act in Christ,” then we as believers must know who Christ is, as priest, prophet, and king. The Messiah’s reigning presence is found among the poor and imprisoned. Christ Jesus as priest is the Suffering Servant of God, as “an oppressed being who has taken on that very form of human existence that is representation of human misery” A Black Theology of Liberation, page 129. As prophet, Jesus stands unambiguously on the side of the oppressed as did the major and minor prophets during the rule of Israel’s monarchs. Jesus the Liberator opposes the history of Christendom itself, “at least from the time of Constantine” “a history of human enslavement” (page 123).
Black Liberation Theology provides another corrective for White postliberal Anabaptist Christology, the third office of Christ as publically confrontational prophet. The 24th Question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, How doth Christ execute the office of prophet? and the answer is Christ executeth the office of a prophet, in revealing to us, by his word and Spirit, the Will of God for our Salvation. In the Old Testament, the prophets’ words could not be separated from their deeds, because in many instances, God ordered them to provide symbolic actions like with Ezekiel. Jesus’ prophetic office is deeply rooted in the tradition of Jeremiah, Moses, Amos, and Isaiah, opposing the rulers and kings of this age with direct action lead by the Spirit of YHWH. If there is to be an #AnaBlacktivist ecclesiology, it must profess a Confessing Church of Creative Disciples free to remember the histories of Blood Baptisms and partake in the prophetic ministry of Christ Jesus.
This is the third part of 4 for my contribution to the MennoNerds Synchroblog: MennoNerds on Anabaptist Convictions. “As MennoNerds, we all have found certain distinctives of Anabaptism to be central in our expression of faith. This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog in the month of May on Anabaptism. For the list of distinctives go here. For the list of articles, go here