Decades of conversation about persecution
Tree dedication in Elkhart, Ind., mirrors tree plantings worldwide.by Mary E. Klassen
A river birch tree with three trunks but one root system, standing in front of the Mennonite offices in Elkhart, Ind., became a mark of reconciliation among Lutherans and Mennonites at a dedication service on April 10.
Dr. Kathryn L. Johnson, professor of historical theology at Louisville (Ky.) Presbyterian Seminary and a participant in ecumenical dialogues between Mennonite Church USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, waters the tree planted in front of the Mennonite offices in Elkhart, Ind., by Lutherans and Mennonites at a dedication service on April 10. Photo by Mary E. Klassen.
At the service, André Gingerich Stoner, director of holistic witness and interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA, noted the one root system symbolizes the roots we share in God’s love and grace. The three trunks remind us that “as we grow in relationship we maintain our own identity even as Christ is always present with us as a third partner.”
This tree dedication mirrors tree plantings that have occurred in other locations worldwide that also signify the deepening relationships between Mennonites and Lutherans.
The ceremony was part of a daylong event that commemorated several decades of Lutheran-Mennonite dialogue. Participants in those conversations as well as in day-to-day interdenominational ministry were present, including representatives from the international dialogue, national denominational staff, regional synod and conferences, seminaries and lay ministry in the local area.
Among the guests was Kathryn Johnson, Ph.D., who was instrumental in fostering encounters between the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and Mennonite World Conference.
In an evening lecture, Johnson briefly noted three decades of conversations between Lutherans and Mennonites to address the historic persecution of Anabaptists by the Lutheran Church. She described the July 22, 2010, service of forgiveness and reconciliation in Stuttgart, Germany. At this gathering, leaders expected to take a vote on an action to express repentance for the persecution, a vote that normally would have involved delegates raising cards to show their affirmation.
However, Mark Hanson, the presiding bishop and president of LWF, said, “This is a holy moment. We are asking for forgiveness for something that we did in the past, but even more, for its continuing legacy that we have never addressed. This is a holy vote; we should be voting on our knees.”
Johnson reflected, “At that moment, the only people sitting were Mennonites. And everyone else was kneeling or standing.”
Johnson continued her presentation by sharing how “beyond our imagination this act of reconciliation has spoken to churches in ways that are far beyond addressing simply the persecutions in the 16th century. There’s a resonance, there is an appeal to the Christian imagination [that] continues to surprise us.”
In the discussion that followed Johnson’s presentation, Nelson Kraybill, pastor of Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, asked how Mennonites should tell the stories of Anabaptist martyrs in this new era of reconciliation.
Johnson recommended that the stories continue to be told, referring as an example to the story of Dirk Willems saving his pursuer from drowning and then being killed. “That’s not only a story of martyrdom; that’s a story of nonresistance in the face of evil,” she said. “To lose that story would impoverish the whole Christian family.”
Johnson emphasized that the important issue is how the martyr stories are told, reflecting discussions through the day in which Mennonite participants challenged each other to tell these stories as examples of faithfulness to Christ rather than as “what those people did to us” and to tell martyr stories of faithful Christians from other church traditions as well.—Mary E. Klassen for Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Church USA
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