The other week I was at a conference. One of the speakers challenged us as church leaders to “be on the right side of history.” He then went on to reference women, race, immigration, and sexual orientation. I have been thinking about his challenge ever since. On one hand I like the idea of the church being prophetic, creating spaces for those who have been excluded from the table. From a distance it seems heroic.

There is also that other hand. I am part of a church tradition that was once referred to as the “radical reformation,” the Anabaptists. Five hundred years ago one of the few things that the Catholic and Lutheran church leaders could agree on was that the Anabaptists should be burned at the stake. Looking back on that period, it is now easy to say that the Anabaptists were on the right side of history. Their emphasis on community, non-violence, and the priesthood of all believers are ideas that have gone mainstream and as a result have been accepted in the church at large.

The result of this is that we have become less radical and more normalized. And normalization has led to institutionalism. This in turn has led to maintaining the status quo (the institution). Although it is true that institutions create stability and help to maintain order, the downside is they do this by resisting change. This resistance can and does lead to being on the wrong side of history.

Even my radical tradition was, and still is among some groups, resistant to inclusion of women at all levels of church leadership. Racism continues to rear its ugly head. Our acculturation has occasionally led to an unwelcoming attitude towards the immigrant. Currently we are either ignoring the sexual orientation debate or threatening to let it tear the church apart.

You see, there is a cost for being on the right side of history, especially in the church. Confronting injustice more often than not leads to misunderstanding and sometimes goes all the way to charges of heresy. Being thrown out of the church for “not holding the correct beliefs” is not fun.

I realize that it is not easy to go to church with people whose beliefs are radically different than the traditional way. If the church is going to be the church, then it needs to figure out how to embrace and include that which is different. It is the only way we can find our way back to the right side of history.



Filed under Bearing Witness, Christian, church rules, community, denominations, distinctives, diversity, faith, immigration, mennonite, ministry, movement, multicultural, racism, racist, religion, religious system, theology

3 responses to “History

  1. Glenn R

    The language of “right / wrong side of history” is deeply misleading. History doesn’t have a “side.” It has actors, events, outcomes . . . but it has no “side.” What does it mean to be on the right side “in” history? That’s really quite hard to say. Just because the North won and just because the Republicans brought about the emancipation of the slaves doesn’t mean that they were the right side. The same agents that emancipated the slaves also introduced the residential school system, reasoning that “education was cheaper than elimination.”

  2. Nicely said, Glenn B. Being in right relationship with both God and humanity is often a struggle and Mennonites have managed it for some time. It takes a willingness to bend like the Biblical reed rather than stand firm (and get broken off at the stem) sometimes. And maybe a shoot must regrow from the stump as Jesus was such a shoot. I think the ways to accumulate the right kinds of changes toward God’s kingdom is to alter the flow where you can (creating islands of sanity) and let God alter it where you cannot. If God’s kingdom is indeed like the mustard seed (I prefer dandelion seed), it will require a lot of attention to detail to keep the weed suppressed. Our country and Mennonite USA has embarked on this suppression. They will break like the unbending plants as we tolerant reeds bend in the gale that is coming (or they will begin to bend and be tolerant). Faith during the gale will carry us through as our works create the foundation (on our islands) of a new generation in the new covenant… Or so my sermon prophesied this last Sunday! So the question is not the Rodney King question, “Can’t we all just get along?” but rather “Can we just create a world that draws everyone in, so that they may leave the world in which we cannot all get along.”
    —Rich Williams

  3. Well said, Glenn B. Maybe the question isn’t about being on the right or wrong side of history, but being where the new, more workable paradigm is. The strategy to counter the institutionalists is to be as bendable as the Biblical reed as we seek ways to create God’s kingdom here on earth. Those who cannot or will not change, those unbendable branches of history will break as we bendable reeds survive the impending and ineluctable gale of history. To change to the river metaphor,we should have the faith to go with the general flow (the arc of the universe) and create islands of right relationship with God and humanity where we can. Americans and Mennonites in the past have been good at this strategy. However, as you imply, both are now becoming rigid and self-righteous. Maybe we should not be asking the Rodney King question, “Why can’t we all just get along?” But rather ask, “Can we create a world that draws everyone in, so they may leave the world in which we cannot all get along?” With our islands as a foundation, we can create new generations under the new covenant. (Those who cannot or will not come in will stand around us, wailing and gnashing their teeth perhaps!).. or so my sermon last Sunday suggested.

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