A church story, on Pentecostals, Anabaptists, and politics

August 16, 2009

emerging church / pentecostal / charismatic / politics / theology

As I’ve said here before, when I look at church history I see strong, real links between the nonviolent, prophetic, anti-Imperial life that Jesus advocated for his followers1, and the charismatic, Spirit-filled life that he advocated for those same followers2. Often, over the centuries, the two emerged together (the very early church, some elements of the Desert Fathers, various mystics, the Anabaptists, and then the Pentecostals). Often, they faded together (most of these examples lost one element, both elements, or faded into obscurity).

The coinciding emergence of these two sides happened most recently in the beginnings of the Pentecostal movement, as I’ve said, though the pacifism and, indeed, political independence of any kind, of the early Pentecostals has all but faded into allegiance to conservatism as it now exists in America.

A story to illustrate this: when I was in college, dating Kiera, we were invited to attend a certain rally/meeting/event with a specific speaker who is still fairly well known in certain circles on Valentine’s Day of 2003. For whatever reason, we went. First mistake, I’m sure. As you may remember, this was the time when the United States was preparing to go to war with Iraq. The political figures of both parties were busy scaring everyone with tales of weapons of mass destruction, links to terrorism, and other such things that we now know were false.

At the time, I had just begun to be interested in politics, after having spent several years writing it off as irrelevant, for various reasons. I had already been unwilling to see the Religious Right as the Christian option, and didn’t know enough to look into other visions of political activity. But by this time, I was angry at the government’s response to 9/11 and its evil rhetoric leading up to the invasion of Iraq, and anger had made me care.

So on the religious side of things, there were events like the one we attended. The main thrust of the message (which came after a statement that we should “pay” for revival instead of “pray” for revival) included the worst scriptural interpretation I have ever encountered, where the speaker believed that Jeremiah prophesied that God would “Bush Babylon.” He proceeded to tell us, of course, that the American invasion of Iraq was God’s method of “bushing” Babylon. During the time when the speaker had the crowd march around the sanctuary, with its crystal dove-shaped chandelier, chanting “War, War, War,” Kiera and I and our two friends, who were equally against the war, walked out, shaken by the heresy we had witnessed.

As the year moved on toward the invasion, I was one of the voices on the Pentecostal college I attended that asked, when classes prayed for American soldiers, to pray for the Iraqi soldiers, and the other people there. As my theology and understanding of how God has worked in the church has developed over the years, I have moved into the belief that nonviolence is an integral part of following God in the way of Jesus.

As I have reflected on these things, I have grown a desire for people to see the division that has come into the Pentecostal movement in the last several decades, from the original Pentecostals who refused to fight in the World Wars to the present day, when examples like the one I have recounted are not as isolated as I wish they were. As I have become acquainted with the present-day peace churches – the various streams of Anabaptist faith that have preserved this understanding of the kingdom of God, and the ways they have moved into Emergent and the broader emerging church – including people like Shane Claiborne, the wonderful folks at Jesus Manifesto, and others – I have wondered why the link isn’t observed more often than it is.

Anabaptist theology, from what I know of it, has always been open to supernatural experiences and such things that characterize the Pentecostal movement these days. At their beginning, Anabaptists were the “heirs” of what we now call Pentecostal experience in the 16th century. The movement has also had at its core the vision that the kingdom of God looks like Jesus, and that Christianity must imitate him, and thus cannot resort to hatred and violence. As another example of my overall point, they are currently in danger of losing this core vision of the nonviolent kingdom of Jesus.

Greg Boyd has written several important posts specifically related to Mennonites, as the heirs of the Anabaptist tradition, about how they must not run away from this vision.

My current question, then, is this: can the two distinctives that have been, throughout church history, the easiest to de-emphasize, choose one and then lose the other, or pretend never existed, be brought together again? Can this happen within Emergent, and the broader movement of emergence Christianity?

  1. For more on this, see Jesus For President, A People’s History of Christianity, The Politics of Jesus, and other works, including Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God for a specifically Pentecostal perspective []
  2. For more on this, see 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity, especially, though there are other good works. But I’ll admit – this one is harder, since there are not as many good scholars of Pentecostalism as there should be []