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History and Identity

History and Identity

At a celebration evening in April I was asked to reflect on the relationship between history and identity, and as it relates to the Mennonite Church BC’s 70th anniversary and launching of the website www.pilgrimageproject.com. These were some of my thoughts.

In the introduction to Thomas Cahill’s book ‘How the Irish Saved Civilization’ he writes about history in a way that I think applies equally to the history of the church and our specific history as God’s people in this time and this place.
“We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage – almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, (and) gave something beyond what was required by circumstance” (p.v).

I think Cahill gets at something that we value as followers of Jesus; that is, that the stories that are most true, that most reflect the God we worship who Jesus made present on earth, are stories of relationships made right, instances when grace has shone through, blessings have been received and gifts given. Now, our history and our histories don’t just include those times but they include enough of them, enough to continue to give us hope that ‘all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’.

I’ve thought about the relationship between historians and preachers and one of the places where passions and interests intersect is that both groups like good stories. Now pastors, as a rule, are not as concerned about the veracity of the story – whether it happened or not – as historians are. You know the old adage about never letting the truth get in the way of a good story; however, the telling of good stories that are engaging as well as truth-filled is something that both preachers and historians hold to.

Phyllis Tickle recounts a denominational conference she attended where there was some serious debate over a theological point; it went on over the course of whole morning with proponents of various opinions speaking passionately from their positions. She said that during the debate she saw a young man, one of the servers, standing at the back listening intently to the conversation. At lunch she took him aside and asked him what he thought about the conversation and what his viewpoint was. He told her that on this theological point the story is so beautiful, it must be true, even if it never happened. (From The Great Emergence.)

I recall hearing a story about a Mennonite who was stranded on a desert island for quite a number of years. Finally, he was found, and the leader of the group that rescued him was walking with the stranded man who was giving him a tour of the island and he pointed out his house, and his church. But there was a third building as well, and when the rescuer asked him what that building was, the Mennonite replied, ‘Oh that is the church that I used to go to.’

I think that is a story that is true even though it may never have happened because it points to those many true events in our history that actually have happened. We have had and continue to have this propensity to bring narrower and narrower ways of defining what is true sometimes to the point of even excluding ourselves! (I heard Peter Rollins tell this story on a podcast recently – same story only this time it was Seamus from Ireland!)

As an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia I studied sociology and specifically looked at religion and my own story as a Mennonite. I’d been nurtured in a Mennonite church, however had found a renewal of my faith through the Jesus People and Campus Crusade and other more evangelical groups and as a result had very little use for my traditions. Probably, as with many others of my generation, I knew that history began with me and the pinnacle of understanding and faithfulness and following Jesus was exemplified in what I and my friends were experiencing.

So when I began to study Mennonite history and the rich legacy that there was, I gained a new and deep appreciation for the tradition that had nurtured me and had given me this soil to grow in. Learning about those who had gone before me reshaped my understanding of faith and of the church in very significant ways. I discovered I was not in fact the pinnacle of all that God had done in the church, but rather I was receiving from those who had gone before me as I would be giving to those who came after me.

I discovered John Howard Yoder while studying theology at Regent College and was drawn to the carefully reasoned responses for pacifism and clarity in theological understanding about what it meant to live as if Jesus life was saying something about how to live in the world I live in. As I read about the historical context that he came from I was struck by a couple of things. One was the conflict that he and some of the other young Mennonite scholars had in the early 1950s with their elders and leaders in the Mennonite church, as they took a different theological path and began to challenge them. They were pushing the boundaries of what the church and its theological traditions were all about. And we know the impact that Yoder has had on Anabaptist theology and on the larger theological conversations that have come about from his work.

I also learned that Yoder came out of a church that had been excommunicated from its conference for an infraction (I don’t remember what) but this shaped him as well. Although the church a few years later regained its status of a congregation in good standing, it must have had an impact on how he did his theology. What impressed itself on me was that what many others and we now understand to be important elements of contemporary Anabaptist theology grew in soil and weren’t seen widely at the time. And what also became apparent was the fallibility of even the most committed and theologically astute individuals. Both grew in the same soil.

I also remember studying the history of Christianity while at Regent and starting most classes with a song or a hymn; some music that came from the period we were studying and how the theology of the song was shaped by the issues of the day. I recall singing Luther’s hymn ‘A mighty fortress is our God’ and reading the verse that begins with the line ‘The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him. His rage we can endure, for lo his doom is sure. One little word shall fell him’ and then talking about Luther’s insistence that ‘the word’ was that most powerful force on earth. This at a time when he was wrestling with the authorities and powers around him as the Reformation took shape around him. Our theology is shaped by the world around us – what we wrestle with in the church is determined by what we wrestle with outside the church.

I could list many more examples of how I have been shaped by what I have learned from the telling of stories from the past of those who have been faithful (or not) and have done extraordinary things (or not). Let me end with another quote from Cahill’s book.
As he recounts the specific history of the Irish in his book, I think the understanding of what is going on and what is at stake is also something that all of us would affirm to be true, for as we reflect on our history we discover that

“…the great gift-givers, [women and men, church leaders, pastors and lay people] arriving in the moment of crisis, provided for transition, for transformation and even for transfiguration, leaving us a world [a church] more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one they had found.” (book introduction)