We Come in Peace: A Response to Mark Tooley

November 18th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder, Editors Blog

What if Mennonites ran the world? According to Mark Tooley, we are about to. In October, the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) ominously warned on the website of the American Spectator that the rise of neo-Anabaptism among academics and hipster Christians threatened to become a politically dominant force for the ‘Great Satan’ that is American liberalism. For Tooley, the popularity of Stanley Hauerwas and Greg Boyd signals the rise of a militant pacifism that undermines historic Mennonite sectarianism and seeks to force pacifism onto the world by expanding the power of government. In other words, the great sin of the neo-Anabaptists is that they are liberals.

It’s difficult to take Tooley’s critique seriously. The IRD has long had a history of attacks against perceived liberalism within the church and has often been a provocateur in the current battles over sexuality among the mainline denominations. While IRD’s mission statement claims that it seeks to “reaffirm the church’s biblical and historical teachings” the positions the think tank considers to be “historic” often seem to have more to do with the so-called culture war and a particular type of Christian conservatism that conflates the worship of God with nationalism. For example, in a 2007 IRD press release, Tooley called a Washington, D.C. anti-war march a “pacifist and an anti-U.S. rally” since the promotional literature advocated “the principles of pacifism upon which Jesus based his life and ministry.” As atheist commentator Austin Cline noted, Tooley pretty much condemned a pacifism “that is based on teachings attributed to what he regards as his Lord and Savior.”

In that sense, Tooley’s attack on neo-Anabaptism has the qualities of a turf war in which theological disagreement takes on the seriousness of religious persecution. Citing the Lutheran World Conference’s recent apology for Reformation-era persecution, Tooley muses whether “repentant neo-Anabaptists” will someday “apologize to other Christians for their hyperbolic denunciations and sweeping political demands.” Oh, please. Until we start burning other Christians at the stake there really isn’t any comparison. However, Tooley’s apparent seriousness with this cheap shot testifies to the destructive power of the culture war on the church as differences in political preferences are elevated to cosmic warfare.

Yet amidst the hyperbole, Tooley does have a point. As Mennonites become more politically active, we haven’t always carefully discerned whether we were buying into somebody else’s political agenda. The agendas of the Democratic Party or the ACLU are not the same as the Kingdom of God and it’s problematic when Christians are not able to distinguish between their faith and their political preferences. But liberals are not the only one with this problem – my conservative, Glenn-Beck-listening relatives are just as accommodated to the political system as I am. Just as liberal Christians have at times twisted the Gospel to conform with an external political view, I am amazed at the theological gymnastics my relatives engage in to conform the Bible to libertarian ideology. When it comes to partisan politics, we have all fallen short of the glory of God.

Such is the tribal nature of partisan politics — we devote our energy and time condemning the specs in the eyes of others, while ignoring the planks in our own. Of course, tribalism is nothing new in the Body of Christ. The book of 1st Corinthians is, after all, an extended appeal by Paul for the unity  in light of quarrels and divisions among the Corinth church. So as I worked on this post, I wondered whether Tooley would consider me a Christian brother or the enemy. And more importantly, I wondered what I thought about him — do I consider him a brother or an enemy? I hope that if I ever encountered Tooley, I could treat him as a brother, even though we have some fundamental differences about what we believe the Gospel means for us today.

Are we Christians putting our own tribal, political preferences before the Kingdom? How is the witness of Christ hurt by these divides? Is it possible for us to have political preferences, but to hold them in a healthy way that doesn’t get in between relating to other Christians?

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