Modelers or Infiltrators: Drawing the Line with the World
For Christians and the Church, there is the challenge of being "in the world but not of the world". We are called to live in creative tension between being modelers of the faith who keep separate and do not conform to the world, and being infiltrators of the faith who learn to feel at home in the world. Guest speaker Dr. Perry Bush, Professor of History at Bluffton University, uses examples from Mennonite history to help us reflect on what it means for us to be faithful followers of Christ today.
Good morning! It’s good to be here with you at Daniels Run Peace Church and share in your excitement about your new pastor. I’m happy for you, though our loss is your gain. A lot of people around here miss Tig’s presence on campus for all sorts of reasons. I myself miss Tig for another one besides -- he was always a great guy for me to sit down with and watch the LA Dodgers in the playoffs and World Series…
As Tig said, I make my living as a history professor. In doing that, really, what I tend to do is function as a kind of a history preacher. I hope you will forgive me here if I slip into that role. In teaching at Bluffton, and in researching and writing Mennonite history for the past 3 decades, I’ve learned to follow a wonderful model pioneered by some of the great historians of the churchlike Guy Hershberger, Al Keim, Beulah Stauffer Hostetler, Harold Bender and C. Henry Smith. I want to present history here that provides some clear lessons for the present. Put more simply, in the model of these great Mennonite historians of earlier days, I just want to provide a few pieces of a usable past.
In that vein, it seems to me that the Mennonite experience of the past few centuries in North America has been characterized by a process of creative borrowing. Mennonites – and for that matter, also the Amish -- have been greatly enriched by it. To some degree, the act of creative borrowing is something that has been shared throughout the wider history of Christianity. Not that borrowing is bad per se. It’s inevitable; we can’t escape it; we are products of our culture and our society. In fact – and this is a key point -- some of that borrowing can reinvigorate us and serve as a source of renewal. To give an example, some of what our Mennonite ancestors borrowed was very helpful and functional: Sunday schools and revivalism, for instance, or the kind of theological imports that have sometimes accompanied them, evangelicalism and Fundamentalism.
On the other hand, sometimes this process of creative borrowing has led to periods of real conflict, even church schism. Some years ago the Mennonite sociologist Fred Kniss published a book on Mennonite church conflict, and he found a lot of it. He found periods of Mennonite history which were just laden with church conflict and congregational splits. Many of you are aware of a particular phrase your ancestors sometimes liked to use regarding themselves, a kind of a marker of an earlier Mennonite identity. They liked to call themselves the “Quiet in the Land.” Fred Kniss found so much conflict in the Mennonite churches that he titled his book the Disquiet in the Land.
Moreover, to push this even further, that kind of church conflict has been characteristic not just of Mennonites but of all sorts of Christians. When you look through the entire story of the history of the church, it’s hard to find a group of Christians that hasn’t been wracked by conflicts and schisms and disagreements over things that may seem small to us now but were so great to them that they rent the church over it. You can go all the way back to the earliest days of the church and find this. The Apostle Paul, for example, focused a number of his New Testament epistles on addressing conflicts that were breaking apart some of the church’s very first congregations. It’s a basic question for all believers since thee dawn of Christianity: how to be in the world but not of the world?
In the end, this tendency to borrow, and then to deal with the inevitable conflict that comes from borrowing, may be due to a fundamental tension that lies at the heart of Christianity. (You can’t see my footnotes in a sermon so I just want to say that I am taking a bit of this analysis here from a Baptist pastor in Minneapolis named John Piper, who in turn was paraphrasing the arguments of a great scholar of missions named Andrew Walls. We scholars are always borrowing too).
The tension, these guys argue, came from two different ways that especially the Apostle Paul characterized the role of the People of God in the world. On the one hand, there was a fundamental depiction of them as a pilgrim people. Some of his writings stress this identity clearly. Perhaps no better is that passage from Romans 12 we read this morning: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” The world is not our home. We are a pilgrim people, moving through this world but keeping our eyes always fixed on our heavenly kingdom, to which we owe our ultimate obedience.
On the other hand, Piper argues, lying in tension with the mode of God’s people as a pilgrim people is a different posture for them: as people at home in the societies and cultures of the world but doing their best to transform them in line with God’s wishes. In other words, instead of being a pilgrim people, we are an indigenous people. Piper wonders, for example, “How does the command not to be conformed to this world relate to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 9:22, ‘I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some’? How is becoming all things to all people not conforming to the world? Or how does the command not to conform to the world, that is, to be counter-cultural, relate to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:32–33? Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” How does not being conformed to the world fit with not giving offense to the world?”
Paul wasn’t confused, Piper says. He meant these two different poses are reflections of the church’s mission that we need to hold in balance. They exist in tension with each other. It’s here that he builds from the work of the missiologist Andrew Walls. God’s Good News, these scholars say, must find a home in every culture in the world. It must become indigenous to every culture. If the Gospel is to spread, it needs to fit in.
On the other hand, God’s people can never fit totally at home in any culture. In fact, their Good News must be critical of every culture, pointing out how all sin and fall short of God’s glory. And so God’s people are aliens in any land. They’re pilgrims.
Christians have historically had a hard time keeping these dual purposes of the church in their proper balance. They waver between one pole or the other, and that wavering has historically produced tension. It produces conflict.
I don’t think it would take a long foray into Mennonite history to demonstrate that, throughout the long course of our history and up to relatively recently, our Mennonite ancestors mostly took the Pilgrim People mode to heart. This became the basis for much of Mennonite historical identity. Our own church’s history has been watered by the blood of martyrs. We are the spiritual and literal descendants of Anabaptist ancestors who had suffered terribly at the hands of the state of their day. It had tortured and put them to death in large numbers. So we’ve mostly thought of ourselves as Pilgrims. If there was one scripture that our Mennonite ancestors took to heart, and set at the very foundation for their church in their life here in America, it was Second Corinthians 16:17: “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord.” Or they quoted Jesus’ prayer for his disciples there in the Gospel of John. “…the world has hated them,’ Jesus prayed to God, “For they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.”
Even when Mennonites were most consciously borrowing, they tended to strengthen the drive towards separation. As they borrowed useful ideas and strategies from their protestant neighbors, like Sunday schools and revival meetings, English language hymns and worship services, they consciously worked to widen the distance they had from society in other ways. For example, they reinforced the plain dress, and passed all sorts of prohibitions against things like attending baseball games, circuses and other amusements, or joining unions, secret societies: things like that. In other words, even as they borrowed from the world and et the walls come down, they simultaneously engaged in actions that tried to put the walls back up.
Yet in the end, those walls did come down. I will keep this as a sermon, and not as a history lecture, and besides, I am short of time. So I won’t try to walk you through in detail the remarkable process of Mennonite acculturation that escalated especially through much of the twentieth century. It happened for a number of reasons. To give just one, there’s the impact of technology. Think for a moment about the impact on isolated rural people of such wonderful technological developments like the telephone, the radio, the CAR (and for farmers, its spin-off, the TRACTOR and TRUCK), the movies, then finally, TV and later, the worldwide web and personal computer. All of these factors would work to break down the social isolation of rural people, Mennonites included. Our young people went off to secular high schools, most of them to non-Mennonite colleges, and we took our place in the world. And we really had to wrestle anew with what it meant to be a Mennonite.
Listen to the Mennonite economist Jim Halteman. “Thus we stand at an important juncture in Anabaptist history,” he wrote twenty years ago. “How high should the wall between the two kingdoms be? Will the community of faith become secularized if the wall is reduced or torn down altogether?” Halteman offered a continuum which seemed to set the parameters for how we might figure out a way forward. One end of the continuum he called the “modelers”: Christians who say that it’s our job only to present a different model for society and to call people into it and out of the sinful order. We need to stay separate. The other pole on Halteman’s continuum was the “infiltrators,” whose approach to social change was to “penetrate” wider society and slowly pull it toward kingdom values.
For centuries we Mennonites mostly embodied this first model, stressing our identity as a pilgrim people. We simply modeled a different kind of Kingdom for society and hoped people noticed. In the words of the great Mennonite historian and social ethicist Guy Hershberger, we were called to be “colonies of heaven.” At the same time, as the walls came down, we increasingly took on the role of infiltrators as well, as we moved more towards a new identity as a people of service. There’s been an explosion of Mennonite energies towards service through the twentieth century. We’ve created massive new agencies like Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Voluntary Service, and Mennonite Disaster Service, in which Mennonites physically demonstrate Christian compassion for the needy. Those are important ways that Mennonites have created to balance the tension between being modelers and being infiltrators, between the calling to be a pilgrim people against culture and an indigenous people transforming it.
Even so, here today, the trend for most of us Mennonites, as it is for most American Christians altogether, is to embrace the infiltrator pose, to feel more at home in the culture. And so we need to be on guard against several of the traps that being indigenous people, at home in the culture, makes us prey to. A friend of mine told me a story that illustrates one such trap. He has a doctorate in European history but he also is a Methodist minister. In fact, he’s a four-point pastor, which means that he simultaneously drives around all over the countryside and pastors four different Methodist churches. These are little rural churches, he told me, primarily with aging congregations. They’re not much bigger than a collection of two or three major families who have dominated them for a generation. They’re almost churches of little individual clans. They’ve long ago quit attracting outsiders and most of them struggle to even retain their youth. In another half a generation it’s hard to imagine that these congregations will still be around. This is a danger of becoming too indigenous, too embedded in the culture.
There is a second trap that looms up if we’re unable to keep these two tensions in balance between being a pilgrim people, uneasy in the culture, and being an indigenous people at home in the culture. Maybe it’s just because I am a Mennonite historian and spend a lot of time listening to the voices from our past. But I do think there was they had a bit of wisdom to their instance on keeping up some of the walls with the world. When we set out to infiltrate society, it’s hard not to let those channels of influence work both ways. Sure: we’re going to borrow. But we need to be careful and discerning with what we are borrowing. Let’s identify it; let’s name it.
Do you know what the most recent Church Member profile Survey has revealed about our social class position? It showed that over the past several decades, partly because of the way that Mennonites have gravitated towards the “helping professions” and away from blue-collar occupations, increasing numbers of us have achieved higher levels of education. As a result, we Mennonites have increasingly taken situated ourselves in well-paying, comfortable, middle-class, professional occupations to a higher extent than even other American protestants, and certainly at a much higher rate than American society as a whole.
So let’s go back to what acculturation has done for us, us good Middle Class Mennonites. We got rid of the dress codes and most of the prohibitions. Most of us, me included, would today regard this as a good thing. We can go to a baseball game, or a movie, without risking public reprimand from a church official here in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. I am quite confident that Pastor Tig does not want this as part of his job description. We can look like, recreate, consume, vote and mostly act like our non-Mennonite or even our non-Christian neighbors. We embraced all those technological wonders, and as a result, a very attractive culture penetrated our Mennonite communities. In fact, that culture made itself at home right in our living rooms. We found it very seductive. And we have been seduced.
Any of us who have been parents and have tried to raise good Christian children know in our bones the basic tension that our ancestors faced as they wrestled with how to remain separate from the world. All of us parents today have some sympathy, or ought to have some sympathy, with our traditional, old, plain-dressing Mennonite ancestors who were trying to keep some distance from the world. Several years ago, when our youngest daughter was in high school, she found time in her busy schedule to watch a lot of TV. On at least one occasion my wife Elysia and I sat down to watch one of her favorite shows with her. We just thought it was a good idea. We were shocked at what values we saw there portrayed in that TV show. Clearly, in my mind, it was not just teaching promiscuity, but seemed to be celebrating promiscuity. So we told her, no, that’s it. We are raising you to be a Christian young person. You just can’t watch that show any more. Meanwhile, in a private moment, my wife and I looked at each other with a knowing look of horror. That’s it, our eyes conveyed. It’s finally happened. We have become our parents.
But that was just one TV show. We knew we couldn’t protect our daughter from the hundred other channels of negative influence that were flooding into her life from our culture. Sometimes we felt like that Dutch kid in that old story, standing there with our fingers in the dike. If we stop up that stream of cultural influences in one place, it would be sure to break through someplace else. We can’t hold back the culture, and as a result, we decent Christian parents sometimes feel like we’re standing knee-deep in the muck.
How does Psalm 37 go? “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion,” writes the psalmist. “There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.”
As I close, listen to the words of one of my favorite poets, a Catholic mystic poet named Anne Porter. This is her poem titled “After Psalm 37”:
We’re still in Babylon but
We do not weep
Why should we weep?
We have forgotten
How to weep.
We’ve sold our harps
And bought ourselves machines
That do our singing for us
And who remembers now
The songs we sang in Zion?
We have got used to exile
We hardly notice
For some of us
There are such comforts here
Even a guard
To keep the beggars
From annoying us
We have forgotten you.
In conclusion, my hope for the church is that we need to admit that we’re borrowing from outside culture. It’s hard to be outsiders. We can do a lot of great work for the Gospel by becoming indigenous. At the same time, if we’re going to borrow, let’s be aware of the process, and name what we’re borrowing. So my fellow Christians here at Daniels’ Run, I don’t know you but I will leave you with a hope cast as a prayer. It’s the same prayer that I have for the entire church. I pray that you’ll never forget the songs you knew in Zion. I pray that you’ll always remember how to sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land.
Thank you for having me.