There was a lot of talk in my growing up years about being “separate from the world.” At least some of the markers of that separateness were enforced by bishops and school officials. Vigilance of the boundaries between us and the world was a constant preoccupation. I acquired the strong impression from the border guards that if we did everything just right, we could keep the nastiness of the world out. Within our carefully guarded enclave, the purity of the church would be preserved.
I’m not here to assess how that all shook down or to do a reprise of what some might argue were happy or unfortunate outcomes. But I would like to raise several questions that surfaced for me after reading a fascinating op ed about the new pope by New York Times columnist David Brooks called “How Movements Recover.”
About Pope Francis, Brooks said: “It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who says he prefers a church that suffers ‘accidents on the streets’ to a church that is sick because it self-referentially closes in on itself.” Brooks contrasted two rival reform movements to restore the integrity of Catholicism at the beginning of the fourth century. During a time of crisis in the church, the Donatist movement chose a defensive posture—promoting separation from impurity, reestablishing core principles and defending them against what they perceived as hostile forces.
Augustine, on the other hand, considered the Donatists’ approach much too static. In sealing themselves off to “ride out the storm” they ended up “sealing themselves in.” Augustine suggested that the church should be “a dynamic, ever-changing network, propelled onto the streets by its own tensions”; firmly rooted, but eager for discovery.
Brooks’ op ed prompted me to ask several questions about our current North American Mennonite Church. Some might argue that we’re experiencing a crisis—with declining membership and intractable disagreements. How, I wonder, do we restore the integrity of the Anabaptist Mennonite movement? Are we called to provide a holy alternative to an unclean world? What degrees of separation are essential to preserve a faithful community? Is closing ranks against impurity the most promising way to defend core principles from hostile forces?
For some of us a defensive posture may feel like our default impulse. When we feel besieged by an overwhelming invasion of “the world,” we throw up walls of protection. We guard against what threatens to rob us of all we hold dear. We become defenders of the faith.
There is, however, a rare but more successful strategy Brooks suggests, which looks more like what Augustine proposed. It’s counterintuitive in that it requires a lack of defensiveness. Rather than throwing up walls during a time of weakness, it requires making oneself even more vulnerable. Rather than withdrawing, it requires wading into the fray. Rather than sealing oneself off from so-called sinners, it requires embracing them in love.
Such a lack of defensiveness and readiness to be vulnerable can grow only out of steady confidence that one’s identity, one’s faith is secure even amid the crisis.
How do those of us committed to practice reconciliation, I wonder, prepare ourselves to embrace vulnerability? Where do we find the deep formation, the sustaining power that enables us to be secure in our faith? How might a lack of defensiveness open us to discover God in people and places we’d never imagined possible?