Those of us in the Anabaptist community come from a faith tradition that takes Paul’s words in Romans 12 to heart: “Be not conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” For us, nonconformity is more than a theological concept– it is a way of life.
Nonconformity is an expression of radical hope. Although we are a part of a wider world we don’t have to live the same way the rest of the world does. Our souls can be renewed and we can be freed to choose another path. When, for instance, the world chooses violence, we can choose peace. When it chooses oppression, we can choose justice. When it chooses hatred, we are free to respond in love. Our belief in nonconformity gives us the courage, at times, to say no to injustice and violence even when they’re taken for granted by those around us. It gives us the wisdom to imagine a world radically different than the one handed to us.
Rather than committing ourselves to the way of Jesus, we side with the path of domination whenever it happens to suit our purposes.
But at the same time, the discourse of nonconformity has often given us the false sense that we are more immune from the ways of the wider society than we really are. It would seem the patterns of this world weave their way through our lives, just as they do for everyone else. We claim to be a people of peace but our communities are rife with intimate partner violence, and we often protect abusers instead of victims. We claim to be a people of justice, but Euro-American Mennonites have historically been no less racist than other white people in this country.
Anabaptism began as a multinational, ethnically and linguistically diverse religious movement of poor people in Europe. The original Anabaptists chose to resist the nationalism of the state church and its addiction to violence, often at great personal cost. When European Anabaptist groups moved to North America, where we no longer faced systemic persecution, we quickly grew complacent.
Today I see nonconformity deployed most often by politically conservative Mennonites who are concerned that their way of life is disappearing. They see that young people are overwhelmingly politically progressive and they know that young people are the future of the church. As the church grows more progressive, political conservatives are concerned that the church will assimilate to the ways of the world.
When, for instance, same-sex marriage was legalized on the federal level, conservative leaders scolded inclusive churches for conforming to the patterns of secular society rather than abiding by the traditional understanding of marriage. But when homophobia was both the law and culture of the wider society– and indeed, that’s still overwhelmingly the case today– exclusionary Mennonites were happy to assimilate to the ways of the world. Likewise, patriarchy is very much embedded in the patterns of the world. But many Mennonites, rather than being transformed by the renewing of their mind, continue to believe that women must play a subservient role in the church.
Our dedication to nonconformity has sometimes meant wearing different clothes, driving different cars, and speaking a different language than the rest of society. But rarely has it meant resisting or dismantling the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, or ableism of the wider society. We’ve been more than happy to join in those patterns.
So it seems that our commitment to nonconformity has been inconsistent. Rather than committing ourselves to the way of Jesus, we side with the path of domination whenever it happens to suit our purposes. It would appear that, as Mennonites, we believe we should be somewhat conformed to the patterns of the world.
And yet, I have not given hope that nonconformity can be continue to be redemptive and revolutionary concept for us. But the first step will be to acknowledge that we are not so immune from the ways of the world than we think. We can no longer pick and and choose when we will align ourselves with Jesus and when we will align ourselves with injustice. And our nonconformity will need to be more than aesthetic, linguistic, or cultural. It must be economic, structural, and ethical. We must show with our whole lives that we are witnesses to a Kin-dom which is not beholden to the powers and principalities of the world.
When we resist the patterns of this world, we develop, articulate, and live into new patterns.
This is not an easy or simple transformation. Neither is it a one time event. But I believe that we are a resurrected and renewed people. So we must recommit ourselves, time and again to unlearn and resist the patterns of domination that undergird the social world around us. For those of in the United States, this means living in a way that disrupts the death-dealing power of the American empire, both within and beyond its borders. But we don’t do it alone. When we resist the patterns of this world, we develop, articulate, and live into new patterns. As we weave those patterns into the fabric of our community, we embody the hope that another way is possible.