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In his landmark book The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, From the Civil Rights Movement to Today (Basic Books, 2005), Charles Marsh argues that the earliest goal of the Civil Rights Movement was not merely to break down the walls of racial segregation but to form an altogether new society. Martin Luther King, Jr.?s vision of social transformation went beyond legal definitions of equality to the hope for a truly redeemed society’a ?beloved community? where people who had been divided by centuries of oppression and prejudice would be fully reconciled, living alongside each other in peace and harmony. Although the Civil Rights Movement eventually severed its ties with this overtly religious language, the origins of the Black Freedom Movement’and hopes for social justice still today’are, claims Marsh, incomprehensible apart from the underpinnings of Christian faith.
In this issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review, historian Tobin Miller Shearer traces the formative years of Vincent Harding, a pastor, civil rights activist and confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose commitment to social justice was inseparable from his understanding of the gospel. In the late 1950s, Harding enthusiastically embraced Anabaptist-Mennonite theology, thinking that he had discovered an ecclesial tradition perfectly suited for transforming the racism and violence of American culture into a ?beloved community.? Yet, as Shearer documents, Harding’s sojourn as a Mennonite did not last long. When his energetic efforts failed to persuade nonresistant white Mennonites to take a more active role in a confrontational witness against racism, Harding eventually left the Mennonite Church in frustration. Nonetheless, his ability to walk for a season in both worlds’straddling the border between a traditional Mennonite ethos of separatism and the engaged politics of Christian activism’eventually had a more profound influence on the Mennonite church than Harding himself realized. Shearer’s essay not only illuminates the details of Harding’s creative influence but also provides new insights into racism, social justice and the visible shape of the ?beloved community,? themes with which Mennonites in the U.S. have wrestled ever since.
In a quite different context, the Old Order Mennonites of the Weaverland Conference’sometimes known as Horning Mennonites’have also struggled to define the contours of Christian faithfulness at the border between church and world. Sociologist Karen Johnson-Weiner traces the central role of parochial schools in helping members of the Weaverland Mennonite Conference negotiate an identity that they perceive to be genuinely ?Old Order,? even as they are clearly adapting to the economic and technological changes imposed by the modern world. Traditionally, most Horning Mennonite students attended so-called Old Order Plan schools overseen by more conservative, horse-and-buggy groups. Since 1977, however, a growing number of Horning church members have sent their children to a cluster of parent-owned schools collectively known as Weaverland Mennonite Schools. In contrast to the Old Order schools, the Weaverland schools have generally dropped German from the curriculum, and they have introduced formal Bible instruction’which Old Order schools tend to regard as the responsibility of families and churches’along with a wider selection of reading materials, a variety of field trips and the possibility of some forms of formal education beyond the eighth grade. At the same time, however, the Weaverland Schools consciously understand their educational program as vital to their goal of promoting an explicitly Old Order identity among congregations in the Weaverland Conference. Thus, according to Johnson-Weiner, the Weaverland Schools both reinforce connections to more conservative horse-and-buggy groups while simultaneously accommodating a more progressive pedagogy and a more modern lifestyle.
We conclude this issue of MQR by inviting readers to join in an on-going and lively theological debate. During the past decade or so, few topics have been the subject of more heated exchanges among North American theologians than the question of the atonement, specifically the so-called ?substitutionary? view summarized in its classic form by Anselm in the eleventh century. J. Denny Weaver, professor emeritus of theology at Bluffton College, has been a leading voice in rejecting a substitutionary understanding of the atonement for its depiction of God as vindictive, vengeful and violent and, by extension, for perpetuating a Christian ethic that ultimately regards violence as redemptive. Weaver’s arguments in favor of a ?nonviolent atonement’?what he has called ?narrative Christus Victor’?have been vigorous and vociferous. But, according to Peter W. Martens, they are unpersuasive. Martens offers a trenchant critique of Weaver’s revisionist perspective, challenging his argument in its substance, logic and method. Given the contentious nature of the exchange, it seemed appropriate to invite Weaver to respond to Martens, and then to allow Martens a few final thoughts. Although this sort of public debate represents something of a departure from MQR’s traditional format, we trust that readers will find in it a helpful clarification of the issues. The conversation, in any case, is certain to continue!
– John D. Roth, editor
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
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