By Jim Rice
This is the fourth in a seven-week series on Social justice and social media.
The beginnings were modest. “[L]ittle house-churches of earnest Christians began a spiritual emigration from Christendom. They were convinced that the world of nationalism and mindless technology which was emerging was hopelessly committed to war and violence. For Christians, perceiving the world’s rush toward self-destruction, the only answer was to restore a true church based on New Testament models.”
This passage could have been describing the faith-based community movement of the 1970s, which emerged in the context of the war in Vietnam and the Cold War-driven nuclear arms race, or perhaps even the urban communities or back-to-the-land movements of today.
But the words above are actually from the foreword to Walter Klaassen’s classic Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant, describing the origins of the Mennonite church and other Anabaptist streams of Christian faith in the early sixteenth century.
The term “Anabaptist,” as Klaassen explains, was a pejorative nickname given to those who “baptize again”—that is, advocated that people become part of the church not at birth, by the default of geography and circumstance, but rather by choosing to join through “believer’s baptism.” This was immediately perceived as a threat to both the “magisterial” Protestants and the Catholics, whose religious life was tied up with that of secular, civil authority. And perhaps needless to say, both of the state-affiliated branches of Christendom began to persecute these “heretical” countercultural Christians, including widespread torture and execution of followers of this “third way” of Christianity.
From the beginning, these early Anabaptists lived, practiced, and preached values very much in tune with what today would be called “social justice.” As Stuart Murray put it in his book The Naked Anabaptist, “many of the early Anabaptists had been deeply involved in campaigning for social, economic, and political justice before they joined the movement and continued to pursue these concerns as Anabaptists.”
Along with their belief in the “separation of church and state” and “freedom of religion”—phrases they wouldn’t have used, but lived and died for—their grounding in New Testament teaching led them to emphasize Jesus’ way of loving nonviolence (which they sometimes called “nonresistance”) in dealing with evil. Their refusal to participate in the state’s wars, and other peacemaking efforts, not surprisingly resulted in persecution, from the 1500s to the present. For Mennonites and other members of the “peace churches” (Church of the Brethren, Quakers, and others), the commitment to peacemaking often found expression in individual acts of conscience (for example, conscientious objection to serving in the military and resistance to the military draft), but also in institutions that practiced relief, development, and advocacy for social change, such as the Mennonite Central Committee.
Mennonites and other Anabaptists have valued and practiced other fundamentals of a just social order, all rooted in their commitment to follow in the way of Jesus as presented in the New Testament. For instance, their practice of modesty, humility, and simple living is a foundation of the modern “simple living” movement. And their centuries of experience in building and nurturing community offers models for those engaging in similar pursuits today.
While social justice has always been part of the Anabaptist tradition, and thus a natural fit for contemporary followers, social media is more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, many Mennonites and other Anabaptists are drawn to the intrinsic community-building aspects of social media—especially now, in our age when the church is truly global and yet interconnected in ways never before possible.
But some Anabaptists approach social media—and even the active pursuit of a just society—with deep suspicion. Jesus’ realm is not of this world, they might say, and thus it is right to be wary of “worldly” things, including technology and “politics.” The focus for some people, such as some Old Order Mennonites and their spiritual cousins, the Amish, is on the community of believers itself—for instance, on their spiritual lives and their relations with one another—instead of on the world outside. They understand Matthew 5:39 (which they translate as “resist not evil”) to be a call to nonresistance, to non-engagement with the problems of the world around them.
Other Mennonites understand Jesus’ words differently. They translate Matthew 5:39 as “resist not evil with evil” and hear it as a call to active nonviolence and engagement with the world on behalf of justice and peace.
Combined, these two approaches offer a healthy balance of principles for our engagement in social media: skeptical of worldly claims, clear about identity, and cognizant of who we serve—and at the same time recognizing our obligations to the whole of God’s creation, human and otherwise, to be co-participants in the reign of God in the world.
With this grounding, Mennonites have embraced not only the community-building potential of social media, but also the ways technology can serve as a vehicle to support movements for social change. One of the leading IT organizations for nonprofits in the Washington, D.C., area, for example, was founded by a Mennonite—and such examples abound, for sure, in many cities and towns across the country. Social media, and other digital technology, can be used on behalf of simplicity and nonviolent social change, just as it can be used for less positive purposes.
In this series, Monica A. Coleman talked about the Trayvon Martin case and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Verity A. Jones pointed to the role that social media has played in campaigns such as It Gets Better and other efforts for LGBT justice. Mennonites and other Anabaptists have participated in these and other efforts for social change, from Pink Menno and Menno Neighbors to hundreds of congregation-based activities across the country and around the world.
Anabaptism’s rich heritage of peacemaking, community building, and faith-based social justice offers models for other Christians. As Brian McLaren put it in an interview a few years ago, “It’s very hard in other Protestant denominations to find people who take Jesus as teacher deeply seriously, and take Jesus’ teachings and the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’ example of nonviolence seriously.” Perhaps that “serious” pursuit of justice and peace is just what the world needs from the faith community.
Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.
The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact email@example.com.