The Anabaptist social gospel is profoundly community centered. Historian James Stayer has demonstrated a direct connection between the egalitarian agenda of the sixteenth century participants in what became known as the German Peasants’ War and the Anabaptist movement. In an earlier post, I argued that the main difference was that the Anabaptists’ rooted this ethic of social equality and economic sharing in relationships within their emerging “free churches.” They also insisted that it needs to be nonviolent.
How can this ethic inform the social practice of our churches today? One of the dangers of centering our social ethics within the community of faith is that it can become culturally and socially bound to a religious community that, over time, becomes increasingly separate from the larger society. The Amish, who are direct descendants of the Anabaptists, are a good example of that. Yet, even within their tightly subscribed cultural-religious boundaries, the Amish still bear witness to a faith-based communitarian, economic life that challenges our individualistic and materialistic American society.
People are increasingly aware that the church today desperately needs a new spiritual awakening. I’m convinced that any authentic renewal will be deeply rooted in a radical social gospel tied to the life and practice of the community of faith. It will take the form of progressive Christians experimenting with ways to embody economic sharing, servant leadership, social equality, and radical inclusion in their churches and then actively finding ways that enable this social practice to spill over into the towns and cities where they live.
I’ve written about such a faith-community centered social gospel in the chapter “The Free Church as Body Politics” in the recently published book John Howard Yoder: Radical Theologian edited by J. Denny Weaver. My chapter especially draws on Yoder’s thought in his short book Body Politics where he sketches some distinctive practices of the church as an expression of God’s reign and the life of Christ alive in its midst. The life of the church is a precursor of this new world coming.
As the pastor of a small church in the Metro DC area, I’m always looking for practical expressions of an Anabaptist social gospel that we can incorporate into the life of our church and our engagement with the City of Fairfax where we’re located. It can involve simple things like sharing a potluck meal after our worship service.
Affordable housing is a huge challenge for service workers and even for young professionals and retired seniors in our community. We’re in the beginning stages of a process where we hope to someday build a complex of affordable homes on our church property. Another aspect of this is working with other churches, local businesses, and non-profits to advocate for affordable housing with our mayor and city council.
Other things we’re doing include working with other churches to open our churches to shelter homeless people on cold winter nights. We recently created a community garden and a nature trail on our church property. These are small steps but we’re learning as we go. It can be overwhelming, considering all the potential obstacles, but it’s also energizing and faith building as we seek to be an expression of God’s love, peace, and justice in our community.