Pushing the Edges

By Byron Rempel-Burkholder

This week I’ve been working on two books by people who are not Mennonite but who are passionately committed to social justice and attracted to radical Christian discipleship. If you’ve ever heard me talking about the books, chances are you’ve heard me say that they “push the edges” of what we at MennoMedia normally do. Both are to be released this fall.

The first is a comic book, Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith. It opens with excerpts from the gospels, showing the original Jesus movement from a social justice perspective, and then tells stories of people through history who have taken seriously Jesus’ costly call to peace and reconciliation. Historical examples include Swiss Anabaptist Conrad Grebel and slavery opponent Angelina Grimke. More recent stories feature Christian Peacemaker Teams workers and civil rights leaders.

Editor Paul Buhle is a veteran comic book writer, editor, and university professor of comic art. Paul says this is the first comic book of its kind, taking its place among various graphic retellings of the Bible, including the recent Manga Bible. And yet it also fits squarely within a long tradition of using visual art to illuminate the gospel story.

The format is relatively new territory for us, and therefore edgy. But so is the cast of participants in the book. The three illustrators are all recognized comic artists from a variety of backgrounds, each bringing a unique perspective on what’s so radical about Jesus. Sabrina Jones overlays the gospel stories with visual allusions to contemporary social justice issues; Nick Thorkelson introduces us to Catholic Worker communities; while Gary Dumm pays homage to Quakers, and their relationships with Native Americans. It’s refreshing to see how radical Christian discipleship has played out in so many ways in history, beyond our usual Anabaptist stories, and even beyond the language we use to tell them.

Coincidentally—or providentially?—another fall release is doing something similar, even though it is quite a different book. For God and Country (in that Order): Faith and Service for Ordinary Radicals by Iraq war veteran Logan Mehl-Laituri is what the author calls a kind of hagiography—a book of stories about saints. But the saints he profiles here are people who have served in the military and have struggled to come to terms with Jesus’ call to the way of peace and nonviolence.

Many of these people were, or became, conscientious objectors. Some, like Logan, left the military when they encountered the gospel. Others felt God’s call to serve in non-combatant roles, such as chaplaincy or in the medical corps. Some, including Logan, maintain a deep compassion for their fellow-soldiers—especially today, when soldiers come home psychologically wounded, often ignored or criticized by the church, and every bit in need of the gospel as smug pacifists in armchairs.

Like Radical Jesus, this book begins in the Bible and then combs history for stories of faithful people—in this case, those who worked that treacherous borderland between civic duty and nonviolence. These “saints” are not perfect—and one or two, such as the biblical Samson, are downright bad examples. Warriors such as Deborah in Judges and Cornelius in the book of Acts show courage and faithfulness. St. Francis and St. Joan of Arc challenge militarism in their own ways. North Americans serving in the increasingly brutal context of high-tech warfare find themselves all the more convinced of Jesus’ way of peace.

For Mennonites and other pacifists who reject all participation in things military, some of the stories in For God and Country will shatter comfort zones. But maybe that’s healthy. It will help us be a little less judgmental of those who have interpreted Jesus’ call slightly differently. It will help us appreciate the difficult path that people of faith in the military walk every day. It will arouse us to compassion for those who have been wounded by war. It will jostle us out of the smugness that so easily tempts us, especially if we are not on the front lines of violence ourselves.

In editing both these books, I have become even more convinced that the way we grow in our faithfulness is by walking the edges, not staying in the comfortable middle. Even for those of us who wish to claim a “radical” faith—we can become settled in our radical identity. These books shake us up a little—just as the gospel itself does.

IMG_6160Byron is managing book editor for Herald Press, MennoMedia’s tradebook division.He works out of his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

MennoMedia and Christian Formation

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Christian Formation is a process–a journey–not unlike a pilgrimage. The scallop shell is a symbol of Christian Pilgrimage.

Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada have a joint Vision statement: God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to grow as communities of grace, joy and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.
With such a vision statement, it is only right that the first priority of the church is Christian Formation. I define Christian as the creating of persons in the image of Christ and creating communities as a family of God. The Purposeful Plan of Mennonite Church USA puts it this way: “God intends that by our participation in the community of those who are formed by and for the Kingdom, we will be healed and infused with hope for ourselves and for the world.” It states further that “Authentic witness to the Kingdom is made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us.” Unless there is Christian Formation in us individually and as communities, we will not be able to properly implement the rest of our priorities.

We live in an individualistic age—a hyper-individualistic age—in which self-help faith tends to be taught and learned as yet another consumer product. We contend as Anabaptists that our formation is both personal and communal. We learn and are shaped by God’s Spirit in community and through community. This is our heritage as a people, a vision going back to the calling of Abraham, through the Apostolic vocation given to the early disciples and inherent in the formation of the first Christian communities in Acts chapters two and four.

To quote again from the Purposeful Plan: “This first and highest priority commits us to fashion and mold our lives after that of Jesus Christ. As the sent One of God, Jesus sends us into the world. As missional communities, our congregations, conferences, and agencies will ensure that people are invited to make a commitment to Christ, discipled in the way of Christ, taught to engage with the scriptures, helped to develop Christian identity from an Anabaptist/Mennonite perspective, and given the capacity to cultivate their vocational calling.”

In addition to individualism, we have to fight for time. In an age of microwaves and social media, it’s tempting to think that we can quickly heat up spiritual practices and maturity or to hope that God will send us an invitation on Linked In or appear on our Facebook newsfeed. It is in this sense that MennoMedia works as an arm of the church in providing excellent and relevant resources in print, on paper and digitally, online and on video, to equip and help teach and learn as communities of faith. This is our first priority.

To give a few examples: Books such as the have helped shape our understanding, practices and identity as Anabaptists in an age of Post Christendom. A resource for daily common prayer, such as, 9374Take our Moments and Days, helps us to form regular disciplines and practices of prayer. In recent years we produced new hymnal supplements Sing the Journey and Sing the Story, which have brought wonderful and new music to our worship setting and deepen and enrich our common tradition.

This post is an excerpt from a presentation being made to the delegates at the Mennonite Church USA Convention this week in Phoenix, AZ

~Russ EanesDSCN0625