As the most recent American presidential election approached, electoral energy and partisan pep were at a high. The plutocratic realities of our society are covered by a democratic ideal and illusion that has captivated our society for generations. This myth of democratic life divides friends and families, while, oddly enough, it unites otherwise foes in a common political language. The story being sold was that this election was important in deciding the trajectory of America’s future. The choice was between freedom and hegemony, success and failure, security and annihilation, as the argument went. The narrative’s plot centered on the continuity or discontinuity of national exceptionalism, and this was regardless of which candidate we were talking about. America has told its citizens that this is its faithful responsibility to society, and in doing so, it has also shaped and limited Christian visions for social engagement in America. To discuss Jesus and Kingdom of God-oriented politics and ethics, for many American Christians, translates into partisan positions and one’s preferred candidate. Christian politics then, rather than being an in-breaking reality of counter-ethics to imperial and hegemonic tendencies, have opted into imperial political life, and therefore have nothing more to offer society than what is already offered among gifted intellectuals in fields like sociology and philosophy.
As a young African American male, the narrative plot of American exceptionalism and its inclinations to spread “freedom” around the globe hasn’t sat well with me. Growing up in a Black church, I had been raised reading the biblical narrative. While the text in and of itself can often seem ambiguous and even problematic, when I read it through a postcolonial lens, I didn’t encounter it as such. The ‘Exodus motif’ had reminded me of God’s self-revelation and solidarity with the enslaved, oppressed, poor, and marginalized. It’s not hard to imagine how different forces merged to shape my sense of identity and worldview, and my view of America. My understanding of the political landscapes in which Jewish sacred texts emerged shaped my interpretive framework, alongside my life experiences and those of the African American community to which I belonged. And so it was, during my undergraduate studies at Messiah College, that I began to see America not as the innocent hand of God in the world but as one aligned with the portrayals, offered by Israelite witnesses, of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and Rome at the peaks of their oppressive empires.
While at Messiah College, receiving an academically rigorous education in biblical and religious studies, I got my first glimpse into the life and witness of the early church and also of the 16th-century Anabaptist movement. I am one who interprets Constantine’s work in the 4th century as a defining shift for the Western church, in which Christians moved from persevering through persecution to performing persecution. Many aspects, though not all, of the church’s understanding of its role in the world were compromised by its new vision of Christianizing society from the top down. During the European reformations of the 16th century, most reformers sought to correct what they saw as false doctrine and praxis, but ultimately understood the relationship between church and society in the same way as their Catholic brothers and sisters. For many, theological reflection on social engagement and posture had remained firmly static on this issue. But there were some who felt that the reformation had not gone to its logical conclusion.
These Christians would be labeled pejoratively, Anabaptists, meaning re-baptizers, because of their differing interpretation on baptism. This would enable some to apply an ancient Roman law to interpret the actions of Anabaptists, labeling them heretics and treating them as such. By the thousands, these Anabaptists were tortured, drowned, burned at the stake, or killed through other creatively inhumane means. The difference between early Christian and Anabaptist persecutions is that the latter had become a marriage between church and civil authorities (all assumed to be Christian) that sanctioned and enforced the torture of fellow Christian citizens. Unfortunately, the issue of baptism, while still debated in many streams of Christianity, has eclipsed something much more significant that emerged out of these radical, reforming communities. A radical ecclesiological vision emerged that was decisively anti-Christendom. Anabaptists called for Christianity to divorce empire and thereby dissolve a disgraceful marriage. Anabaptists, given their position of marginality and vulnerability in 16th-century Europe, appropriated from the life of Jesus and the early Church’s witness resources that would provide spiritual, economic, and social sustenance for their radical communities. Today, when Anabaptists declare themselves to be followers of Jesus, they imply that they have a community that is oriented around the life and teachings of Jesus in a way that can and must be demonstrated ethically and politically. The thrust of contemporary Anabaptism is not doctrinal yet it is decisively ethical. Discipleship, in most Anabaptist circles, is a life of following Jesus in concrete application of His own performance. I often say that discipleship for us ought not to mean something significantly different than what it meant for Jesus’ first disciples who followed Him.
My own religious identity is currently one that navigates the hybridity of both the prophetic witness in the Black Christian tradition and the radical ecclesiology of the Anabaptist tradition. The hybridity of the two has not been too difficult, because they often coincide or are at least complementary. Both traditions have emerged in the contexts of Christians needing to read, interpret, and be shaped by Scripture and the Gospel on their own terms, while being crushed on the margins of society by an uncritically imperialized Christian society and culture. What could come from such a combination is a community that is committed to being transformed through a radical reconfiguration of economic, social, and relational boundaries that are redefined by the birth, life, teachings, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus. It would be a community that seeks to serve, that is generous, that lives simply in solidarity with the masses, and that works for true peace and justice by embodying an alternative reality framed ecclesiologically. However, this community would also prophetically engage and challenge society. The Spirit of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and Amos are recovered in Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King, Jr., and now in contemporary communities that don’t wait for election time to say “No” to injustice. Right now they say “No” to mass incarceration, “No” to corporate empires, “No” to dehumanizing representations, and “No” to drones!
What are the spiritual resources that shape the religious hybridity of one that is an amalgam of both Anabaptism and the Black prophetic Christian witness? I would say that one resource is the constant and smooth move from exegesis to ethics. It takes seriously two moments, one significant and the other defining for Anabaptist and Black Christian existence. The ‘Exodus motif’ continues to play a huge role in my life. It is alongside the liberating act displayed in the Exodus story that Scripture has God for the first time revealing God’s self (Yahweh) to Israel and consequentially to the world. Whenever that specific name for God emerges in the text going forward, it is always connected to and recalls the story of the Exodus. The Exodus/Sinai moment is the peak of the Christian Old Testament narrative, and in disclosing divine self-revelation, it portrays a God who hears the pains of the oppressed and enslaved Israelites and actively sets out to liberate them. Many texts in the Old Testament are ambiguous and troubling for me, if I am honest. Yet this moment of liberation in the Exodus is a theme that reoccurs and is reinterpreted continually by Israel throughout the biblical narrative. This moment personally offers me hope.
While the Exodus is significant, it is the incarnation and cross of Christ that are most central to my understanding of God. In John 14:9, we are told that to see Jesus is to see God. He is the perfect representation and imprint of the image of God. Therefore, the concrete life and performance of Jesus (as told in the Gospels, since I am content with their narratives and am not concerned with going behind the text, in some quest for a historical Jesus) is defining. The defining “peaks” as I read them are centered around the incarnation and cross of Jesus, through which the revelation of God is made known as ‘The Word’ made flesh. Therefore, for Christian ethics and politics, the incarnational life is paramount, in that one takes seriously Jesus’ Jewish and messianic body and identity and his social and economic solidarity with the masses of poor and marginalized people. After being reoriented in light of these things, one becomes apprenticed to his social performance and pedagogy. In Anabaptist terms, one’s Gelassenheit, or ‘yieldedness’ to the life of Jesus, is the goal. There is a constant transition from exegeting ‘The Word’ in Scripture, which is ultimately Jesus, and following ‘The Way’ in one’s own life, which is also Jesus.
This spiritual discipline demands an ethical response, and redefines one’s relationship to nation and world. Response then is not defined by current political platforms, popular philosophical trends, or pushes for imperial power so we can impose Christianity on others. Rather, the cross of Jesus, for me, constantly sits centrally as a reminder of the absurdity of embodying an incarnational life. The incarnational life is a scandalized life. It is a threat to the powers, it is problematic, and it is punishable. The incarnational life is not a friend of empire; rather empire tries to take control of all representations of such life, by either distortion or domestication. To be Black (and here I mean, theologically, not racially) and Anabaptist is to choose to live with the scandalization of one’s community and the ethical and political postures of hegemonic forces. A Black Anabaptist, then, also believes that not to choose the incarnational life, of becoming a marginalized disciple of Jesus, inevitably vandalizes the name of Jesus. The vandalization of Jesus occurs when Jesus and the totality of his life and death become domesticated, imperial, safe, and popular, through representation by those who merely claim His name. The Black Anabaptist realizes that when one seeks the incarnational life one can’t avoid the continual internal battle of the self’s scandalization. And one realizes that, however committed, one might at times still participate in the vandalization of Christ. Therefore the incarnational life has more to do with perseverance in following than perfection in attainment.
And I believe that Jesus still invites us all to “Come follow!” It is an invitation to be part of a decolonized ecclesiology and prophetic Christian community that nevertheless believes that it can speak prophetically in our world. While I am not arrogant enough to think that Black Anabaptism is the only genuinely Christian expression in America, I do believe it is capable of providing a rich resource for the larger American church as it relates to power, working for peace and justice, and navigating what a potent yet marginalized church might look like right now, as the U.S.A. continues to become more and more post-Christian.
Drew Hart is from Philadelphia and is a PhD student at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in the area of Theology and Ethics. He is interested in the intersection and discourse between Black Theology/Prophetic Tradition and Anabaptism. Drew believes that together they can contribute immensely in decolonizing American theology, ethics, and ecclesiology while also promoting lives that are more just, peaceful, and oriented around the life and teachings of Christ. You can follow him on Twitter @druhart and you can visit his blog at www.drewgihart.com.