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. 

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