Eastern Mennonite University

Fall 2006

President Loren Swartzendruber Asks:
LIBERAL or CONSERVATIVE?

Loren
Loren Swartzendruber in his office surrounded by Bike Movement participants (from left): undergraduates Kendra Nissley, Tim Shenk, Kristen Swartley, and ’04 alumnus Dave Landis.

"Are you a conservative or a liberal?" This appears to be a simple, straightforward question, yet my answer is never simple. It is: "I don't know. I am both, and I am neither. It depends on the issue. It depends on the person or group to which I'm being compared."

I'm a pacifist because that's how I understand the meaning of following Jesus, but that is a very liberal position to some of my friends. I support certain lifestyles and am disheartened by other lifestyles " ones which I believe EMU should actively discourage " so some call me (and EMU) conservative. If you really want to know what I believe, you'd be safe to read the "Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective" [at www. mennolink.org/doc/cof/]. Not that I agree with every last detail, but I do trust the discernment process of my church body. When I was baptized I committed myself to this: to follow Jesus and to "give and receive counsel."

I was surprised when EMU was lauded in a 2006 college guide book, All-American Colleges: Top Schools for Conservatives, Old- Fashioned Liberals, and People of Faith. Many, though not all, of the other 49 colleges in the guide book are "conservative" in that they have a direct connection to orthodox conservative causes, such as educating and preparing students to serve in the U.S. military. Yet the profile on EMU is largely accurate.

The title of the guide underscores the dilemma that an institution like EMU faces in explaining itself to prospective students, donors, church people, and community members. How do we define ourselves within a cultural context that wants to reduce complex realities to simplistic clich's? Sometimes I receive calls from community folks who seem to know exactly how a Mennonite institution should conduct itself. These calls bemuse me since those of us committed to this expression of the church rarely possess such certainty, despite our heartfelt prayers for guidance.

Since my ordination in 1975, I have preached in more than 230 congregations, most Mennonite, but some other traditions. Frequently I have engaged folks in Christian education conversations and interacted with members and leaders over a meal. Though I am optimistic by nature, I have detected a trend that concerns me: I am troubled by the loss of identity among many who call themselves Anabaptist.

I am not referring to such simplistic identity labels as "conservative" and "liberal." Do these really matter? I meet church members who eagerly embrace one in opposition to the other, as though it is actually possible to be consistent across the spectrum, whether theologically or politically. As one of my Anabaptist mentors used to say rather frequently, "On some social issues I am rather liberal- because I take the Bible very seriously. Which is a conservative position." I have a deep concern that Anabaptist Mennonites have been derailed theologically by the influence of so-called Christian radio and TV. I grieve that we are increasingly unable to stand up for the Jesus of the New Testament who called us to another way. We are also subject to derailment from liberal theology that downplays the significance of Jesus' invitation to salvation.

The problem with drinking from other theological wells is that we are subtly lulled into thinking that all Christians share similar perspectives. Yet all do not read the Bible the same way. Many believers have a "flat book" view of the Scriptures. The logical result is that Old Testament perspectives are put on the same level as those in the New Testament. Jesus himself demonstrated a different approach: "You have heard it has been said, but I say"

My Anabaptist theological ancestors interpreted the Old Testament through the eyes of Jesus and through the lens of the unfolding revelation in the New Testament. Unfortunately, that's a perspective not heard from most speakers in the popular Christian media. Either my Anabaptist forebears were deluded, or they were right. I'm throwing my lot with them. They believed the example and words of Jesus must be our guide, and so do I.

What practical difference does this make? Some years ago I was guest preacher for several days just prior to a U.S. presidential election. One individual told me, in all seriousness, that she would not vote for a particular candidate because "he would take away all of our Bibles." The same person appeared surprised when I responded that Jimmy Carter may well have been the most "Christian" president of my lifetime. At least he attended church regularly, openly confessed his faith, and has been a life-long Sunday school teacher.

I wish I could report that her concerns were unusual. I've heard the wild claims of what might happen "if so-and-so were elected" all too often. Never mind that I doubt any U.S. political leader would denigrate the Bible, I have to ask the obvious question from a New Testament perspective: "What difference would that make?" I've always understood that the strength of the church, and the faith-based stances of its believers, are not subject to the "state."

What kind of faith is demonstrated if we insist on being legitimized by government? Our friends in Ethiopia saw people flock to the church during a time of prolonged persecution. They didn't need governmental support for the church to flourish, even as they would certainly appreciate, as we do, the freedom to worship in peace.

My observation is that many of us who grew up Mennonite have struggled to come to peace with our past experiences. We remember the days when we were, in fact, very different culturally. It was embarrassing to stand out in the crowd. It is so much easier psychologically to "fit in" with the multitude. And, now, particularly in the U.S. context, we fear the possibility of being ostracized by our neighbors if we dare to challenge prevailing assumptions.

What does this have to do with EMU and Mennonite education? I've devoted most of my adult life to this mission for one simple reason: I believe Mennonite Anabaptists have had (and still have) a unique theological perspective -and practice - that is needed in our world. I am disappointed with the headlong rush to "be like everyone else" as though our theological forebears were badly mistaken.

Frankly, I think the burden of proof is on those who have embraced the majority culture. Again, the New Testament hardly promises that the followers of Jesus will enjoy majority status.

I've frequently said that I am "proud" to be a Mennonite, though I always add with a smile, "I'm proud in a humble sort of way." That's not because I value being Mennonite above being a follower of Christ. I do believe, however, that it's not possible to be a generic Christian. We are all part of theological streams with historical wellsprings, whether we are charismatic, Pentecostal, Lutheran or Anabaptist - and whether we realize it or not.

If EMU and our sister Mennonite schools and colleges are not unique and thoroughly committed to being Anabaptists as followers of Jesus, there is little reason for them ' for us at EMU to exist. There are hundreds of good, academically strong institutions that do a great job of educating young adults.

I am astounded at the number of parents around the church who aren't aware of this simple fact: we're different from other colleges. Even other educational and denominational leaders recognize we represent something unique. One university president from South Dakota, himself a Baptist, told me recently, "You Mennonites are among the few in the whole country who are making any sense right now."

Jennifer Jag Jivan, a member of the Church of Pakistan (a merger of four Protestant denominations) and a recent MA graduate, described the difference this way in a recent letter:

I feel richly blessed that my life crossed the Mennonites. Like all people, of course, they experience their ups and downs, church conflicts and others, but they are a people whose commitment to walk in the love of God in humility renews one's spirit in the goodness of humanity. My deep appreciation for all the Mennonites, whether meeting them in the cafeteria, bookstore or classroom - their culture of helping others and meeting others where they are, and spreading this culture of love and peace - is breath-taking indeed! But what is more, this environment is so catching that it enables others to embrace this spirit and be the miracle of this love-sharing life. This is unique and very special to EMU.'

These statements are not reasons to become prideful, but they do show that others see something distinctive, a difference worth preserving.

It may seem strange for a university president to say that he doesn't really care if his institution exists in the year 2026, 20 years from now. And I don't, not for the sake of the university itself. But, I do care, with all my heart and soul, that the church's witness is strong in the year 2026. I'm convinced it will only be so if a substantial number of our youth receive a Mennonite education.

To those who have stuck with me to this point in my "sermon" and who are surprised at my audacity and passion, I made a similar speech to the EMU Parents' Council one morning last spring. I made it totally off the cuff, after I had forgotten I was to join them, and then I apologized for my passion. I reflected that perhaps I'm getting old, and that I no longer feel as if I have much to lose. They were slightly stunned, I think, and then said, "Put it in writing. You're preaching to the choir."

My life would be blessed if the "choir" would carry the message and deliver their young adults in large numbers to EMU and all of our Mennonite schools - and most blessed when those graduates have become the faithful members and leaders of the church tomorrow.

To those from other theological traditions reading this, I am grateful for your recognition of and appreciation for EMU's unique role in this world. I am grateful, too, for the insights you bring to us and to this role.

-Loren Swartzendruber