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Seeking the Peace of the City-1

February 6, 2009

I am currently taking a class through Eastern Mennonite Seminary titled, “The Good News, Culture, and Anabaptism.” I will be posting some thoughts here on the written material for the course, asking questions and commenting as we process this material and interact with it in the class. The first text we are discussing is Duane Friesen’s Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City. Friesen seeks to develop a theology of culture from an Anabaptist perspective, and offers a compelling metaphor for how the church can engage the culture we find ourselves in.

Friesen returns to the writings of the prophets to find a context and basis for this metaphor, particularly Jeremiah 29. The author seeks a comparison for the church in North America and finds one in the Jewish exiles living in Babylon. The question those exiles asked in the past is also relevant to our context: “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4 TNIV). Attempting to answer this question, we are guided further by the words in Jeremiah which encouraged the exiles to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7 TNIV). The author interprets the message of the Jeremiah passage as an instruction to “take responsibility for the city in which they live (Friesen 28). This idea will guide our engagement of culture. And to me this view sounds awfully close to a missional approach to being the church.

I like the direction Friesen is moving with the “exile” language, because I believe there is value in looking further back in history to find similarities to our contemporary context. As such, I also find much value in the current writings of Phyllis Tickle (specifically The Great Emergence). This exercise of looking back allows us to interact with our spiritual ancestors, thinking about what they did and did not do, to “seek the peace” while in exile. How did they respond in that context? In what ways are we similar? The scripture texts give us real pictures of their cultural engagement, and seem to point out that not everyone was in line with the peace-seeking guideline (Psalm 137:9 in particular). Within the church in North America we tend to have varying viewpoints as to how to engage culture (or if we should even do so). How might we find common ground on the issue of cultural engagement, in order to rediscover the common mission God has called us to? How might we engage other Christians who operate under a different metaphor and who are quite “’at home’ in our cultural context” (27)?

In reading Friesen’s “exile” comparison, as a Mennonite I keep thinking of the idea of restitutionism. In part, restitutionism describes a desire to rediscover a true New Testament praxis. What was the church doing then that was essential and vital to its identity, and helped in the communication of the good news? There are valuable comparisons to make between our culture and that of the church in the first century; there are similarities between the two despite the centuries that separate us. But I am encouraged by Friesen’s work to go further back and consider more in depth the period of the exile to see what principles for cultural engagement and discipleship we can draw from that experience.

Of course, we also have a message to share (“good news”) so we want to consider what role that plays in our cultural engagement. In a class discussion the idea was presented that, as Anabaptists, we traditionally have been good at theopraxis but weaker when it comes to evangelism. We are better at showing someone what we are about then we are at speaking or communicating about it. It will be of great value to discover a metaphor for our cultural situation. But also important is our ability to find ways to communicate the message that is at the heart of who we are as follows of Jesus.

Currently my context is local church ministry as pastor of a small Mennonite congregation in the Philadelphia suburbs. The process of discipleship is important to us and relates to our culture. So we tend to ask questions concerning what it looks to be a disciple of Jesus living in this culture. This is an ongoing process for us, and each week members of our community ask some great questions about what our mission looks like as it’s lived out. We do not always have answers and we definitely do not always agree. But I sometimes hear an echo of the voice that asked, “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?” I am encouraged that there is a desire to interact with our culture, rather than trying to separate from it (which was part of our past). At the same time we want to allow that there are ways to be distinct in our witness as Anabaptist Christians, and that this distinctiveness could be a valuable way to speak to our culture.

One Comment
  1. kdking permalink
    February 11, 2009 1:38 am

    I think you are correct in saying that our suburban churches need to find our way in this culture. My perspective from working with teens at Dock is that we (Mennonites) are unique in our love of enemies and the natural connection from this to active nonviolence. Teens actualy love this ANV stuff. We are in need of finding the language for telling our faith. I hope trinitarian language stays central with the Jesus model as our key revelation.

    We all hope our class will solve this as we keep putting our minds and experiences together. Side-note: I am still thinking about the story of inviting Muslims in to the church for Muslim worship. Wow- how can you and I do that?

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