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2012-04-02 issue:

Church as a rhizome?

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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On Jan. 22, Rafael Erasmo Arevalo, a Mennonite pastor from Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, was beaten and killed following an evening worship service he had led with a congregation in the nearby town of Veracruz. The murder took place on World Fellowship Sunday, a day designated by Mennonite World Conference as an occasion for Anabaptist-Mennonite congregations around the world to remember that we are part of a global family of faith.

Since the tragedy, I have been thinking more about the meaning of the “global church.” The Anabaptist tradition has understood—rightly, I believe—that the most basic context of the Christian life is the local congregation. Here brothers and sisters in Christ gather for singing, Bible study, admonition, discussion and prayer. Here we eat together, work together and share in each other’s joys and sorrows. The body of Christ, we have taught, is not an abstraction but a living reality made visible in the face-to-face relationships of real people.

Intellectually, I know that more than 4,500 murders occur in Honduras every year; I have not grieved for each of them. So why, given our local view of the church, does Arevalo’s death trouble me so deeply? Just how is my congregation connected to the Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Hondureña or to the congregations Arevalo served in Santa Rosa de Copán or Veracruz?

Unlike the Catholic Church, the Anabaptist-Menno­nite tradition has no pope. We have not understood the unity of the church to be anchored in a doctrine of apostolic succession or a high view of the sacraments. We do not have an authoritative body of doctrine (like Calvin’s Institutes) or a unifying statement of faith (like the Augsburg Confession). So what does World Fellowship Sunday mean in a tradition with an impoverished theological vocabulary for describing the church beyond the local congregation?

I recognize that at some fundamental level we are indeed “united in Christ” (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 2:13-16), that we are “one in the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3-6). But at a more practical level, what are the bonds that connect the Mennonite congregations gathering for worship in Indonesia, Benin, Taiwan, Mexico, South Dakota and Honduras?

One impulse in thinking about the unity of the global Anabaptist-Mennonite fellowship is to describe our relationship in historical terms: We are connected because all of us join in a taproot that can be traced back to the Anabaptist movement of the 16th century. Or perhaps we are inclined to describe the taproot in theological language: We all share a core set of foundational Anabaptist convictions (though who defines those convictions remains ambiguous).

Lately, I have been pondering a different image. Instead of a taproot, consider a rhizome. Rhizomes are plants that propagate by sending out a profusion of roots horizontally beneath the soil. Occasionally, these roots develop nodes that send sprouts up in unexpected places; but underground those sprouts are joined in a complex interconnected web that defies clear mapping on an organizational chart.

Aspen trees, like lilies or bamboo, are rhizomes. The Pando colony of aspens in Utah consists of nearly 50,000 trees extending over 100 acres; yet beneath the soil it is a single living organism. In fact, scientists have determined that damage done to trees in one part of the grove is “sensed” by trees at a far distance.

One reason Arevalo’s death mattered to me is that I have had students from the Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Hondureña in my classes at Goshen (Ind.) College. My wife lived in the home of a Honduran Mennonite family for three months while she was in college.

My home congregation in Millersburg, Ohio, has had a longstanding relationship with Honduran Mennonite churches—in fact, I heard the news of Arevalo’s death from my brother-in-law, who happened to be leading a group of construction workers on a service trip to Honduras.

I know all metaphors have their limits. Are these personal threads of connectedness enough to define a global fellowship? What would it mean concretely to share in the suffering of those with whom we claim a connection? What would it look like for our congregationally oriented tradition to become more committed to promoting rhizome growth? 

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.)  College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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