Sunday, April 18, 2010

Anabaptist Fierce what I'm trying to learn how to be at seminary right now.

In preparing for this friday's Voices of a People's History of Christianity joint worship service at Bethany and ESR (Earlham School of Religion), our professor Dawn Ottoni Wilhem gave some of us in her worship course feedback on our readings. We were preparing a service in which we would perform (in the best sense of the word) readings from Christoph Blumhardt, Meister Eckhart, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mary Ann Tolbert, who were/are all notoriously controversial prophets of their times.

The worship service, planned by my husband Parker, was inspired by our admiration for the late Howard Zinn's project, Voices of a People's History of the United States, in which Zinn gathers together some of the great actors of our time to enact and embody the words of many great prophets from US History.

Dawn was exhorting one of us to drop the normally cheery disposition it is culturally acceptable to operate in and switch to a more serious and provocative tone.

"Don't be Anabaptist nice," she said. "Be Anabaptist fierce."

That's it! I thought. What a perfect term for what I've been trying to embody this semester! Maybe Dawn didn't invent the term and maybe lots of cradle Brethren and Mennonites will tell me they've heard it from birth--which seems to happen to me pretty often as a convert--but I'm still impressed.

It seems to me that while the shift from Anabaptist nice to Anabaptist fierce may appear small, it takes a lot of work and makes a lot of difference.

For me, this semester it has meant working hard to be more and more honest about who I am and what I am thinking and feeling, which might sort of sound innocuous--but try doing it! I will tell you it is no easy task to unlearn 25 years worth of habits of closeting my thoughts and feelings and of only letting squeeze out a thin, filtered version of myself, in favor of becoming a more honest and open me.

More than once this semester telling the truth about my feelings or thoughts especially when it comes to sexuality, sexism and our bodies, has alarmed and offended my classmates, some of whom have even approached me in private to try to shame me into shutting up.

But thanks to the support of great friends and mentors in this community and the great witness of our Anabaptist-Pietist heritage, I am not shutting up. I am trying to pick up where my adopted ancestors and mentors left off and trying to learn the fierceness required to stand strong on who I am and what I know.

How can we live and experience fully God's presence in this world if we don't develop the fierceness it takes to be authentic? And I don't mean being offensive for the sake of being offensive, but genuinely authentic.

I've been quoting Bob Hunter a lot lately, and I hope he doesn't mind if I do it again, but he planted a very helpful and related seed in me at Bethany's Presidential Forum. In our small (and I do mean small) group discussion on racism at the forum, we were discussing why many Evangelical Christian associations would have lots more people of color than our very pale, liberal-leaning forum did. Bob cited a weak (or rather antithetical) version of non-violent theory he often hears from seminarians as symptomatic of the problem. Concerning Jesus' Sermon on the Mount commandment to "love your enemies" these seminarians want to claim that we have no enemies, which as Bob cited is not really nonviolent theory at all.

Only someone at the top of the food chain, with all kinds of privilege, could claim that we have no enemies. People of color (and other oppressed peoples), who in this country are faced with messages every day that often demarcate them as the enemy to "American" culture, know the point of that old labor song "which side are you on?"

And a kind of "peace church people" who want to pretend those demarcations are not there and that no matter what someone believes they are not working in opposition to us, will always seem frighteningly and dangerously out of touch with reality.

To be clear, to stand up for and on your convictions does not mean you have to be unchanging, uncaring and infallibly correct. It means you have to have the fierceness to say what you mean and mean what you say.

It doesn't mean we can't be in community if we disagree--in fact it means we've got to learn to love each other across enemy lines!

But community is not real if we're all pretending to be Anabaptist nice when we really disagree with each other vehemently. That's not community. That's a lie. Now there's a careful balance to loving each other while speaking truth, but we'll never get good at it if we don't first try on some Anabaptist fierce.

I know it was those peace church people who tried this fierceness on that drew me to fall in love with Stone Church and the Church of the Brethren to begin with.

So, when I stood up to perform a reading from Mary Ann Tolbert in Friday's chapel service, in which I would talk about sex, sexuality, and then call, with Mary, for the church, "all of us straight and gay, to come out of the closet about our bodies," I was a little nervous because I knew that there were quite a few in the community (and probably some in that room) whose bodies scare them and who just plainly disagree.

But, I wasn't nearly as nervous as I would have been at the beginning of the semester, when I was still trying to hide behind a mask of nicety. I could take solace in the knowledge that for us to be truly the community of believers God calls us to be, we need to be honest about where we are and what we believe.

And that disagreement is not something to sweep under the rug, but rather a great opportunity for growth, if we can find the courage to be Anabaptist fierce.

-Katie Shaw Thompson


Anonymous said...

The hard part is being radical and nonconformist in your own community. In my small group at the forum we talked about being aliens not just in our country or world, but within our own congregations.

Thank you for being so courageous.

P.S. Not liking your own body isn't the same as being scared of it, right?

AmySGR said...

Roar! I'm old enough to remember when Helen Reddy's song, "I am woman hear me roar" came out on the radio. It was a call to this fierceness that you write about here. Not an overbearing displacement but giving a good hip bump so those standing on the platform have to move over to let others stand on the platform. Some may be hip butted off the platform.

You go, Katie. And everyone. Nice only lasts so long before its bland and meaningless....FIERCE adds heat and color and energy.

Frances said...

I'd love to hear that presentation! Thanks for being so brave.

Paco said...

Right on. I agree that it is only the very privileged who change the idea that we are to love our enemies into the idea that we have no enemies. That's certainly not what Jesus though.

I've taken that we are to love our enemies as pretty much straight up permission to have enemies and have a lot of them. If we don't think we have enemies in a world such as the one we are living in, we are either very disconnected or perhaps dead. And only the privileged can afford to be so abstract and safe in their thinking.

Having enemies and being angry (fierce?) are both very dangerous things. But they are both things that Jesus and his disciples and all the prophets did and do.

And while we may indeed need to be "careful" about it, before we are careful we need to allow for it, accept it, explore it. Admonishing to be careful before exploring, shuts down the conversation prematurely.

Our neighbors (the ones we are to love) are subject to countless, terrible, horrible things happening all around the world, constantly, all the time. If we say we really love them (our neighbors), and we are not angry, horrified, ashamed, shocked, devastated, by what is happening to them, to all of them, to us, to any of us, then I would have a very hard time thinking that our "love" was genuine.

In order to love enemies, we must first have them.

So go have them.

Nico said...

I just read this again. Rock on!