Emergent Anabaptism

Published by Trevor Bechtel on

A Sermon by Trevor Bechtel on April 30 2023

I’d like to start this morning by telling you the story of Lauren Olamina. Lauren lives with her family in Robledo, California. Her father is a baptist preacher and her biological mother died a few years ago a victim of a drug use epidemic affecting people without regard to social status. Lauren’s brain was changed by her mother’s drug use and she shares other people’s pain crippling her at times. 

The country she lives in, the United States of America, is falling apart at the seams. Guns are a fact of life. The Police are unreliable at best and actively harmful at worst. Climate Change is having a dramatic effect on people’s ability to survive and thrive. Travel between states is difficult. More and more people live in gated guarded communities and inequality is stark and growing. A new president has been elected on the platform, Make America Great Again. 

Lauren is the author of the poems we read today the Earthseed versions. They are for her a new religion in which God is change. Lauren has found her father’s religion wanting. Although she has a lot of respect for it, it doesn’t work for her. The world she lives in is very volatile and her revelation is that in a volatile out of control world people need to find out what they have agency to do and then do it. Because change is so prevalent, people need to shape change. The only God Lauren can recognize is change, and in shaping change she seeks to shape God. 

Lauren is a fictional character, the protagonist of the books Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. Butler was a science fiction author and wrote Parable of the Sower in 1993, 30 years ago, and set it in 2024, next year. It is scarily accurate. We are in better shape as a country than Lauren’s America, but all of the aspects of her novel are true in one way or another about the society we live in, and much more true now than they were in 2023. I’m rereading the books now and the parallels especially about far right Christian Nationalism are eerie. 

Octavia Butler is a unique voice in American Literature, not just because in these books she predicted the future so compellingly, but also because as an African American Woman writing science fiction she created space for a new group of authors who are often grouped together under the name Afrofuturism. The most notable of these is N.K. Jemisin who wrote the Broken Earth Trilogy, the first trilogy to win Hugo awards for best science fiction novel for each of its volumes. She did this in three consecutive years; an incredible accomplishment. But beyond fiction Butler has also influence another group of writers thinking about how groups come together and make decisions, how organizations form, how to change society and how to hold those who do harm accountable. These writers can be collected under the name Emergent Strategy. These include my favorite Alexis Pauline Gumbs and adrienne maree brown, who wrote the book Emergent Strategy. Both Gumbs and brown name Butler as central to their own writing and thinking. They recognize something in Butler that Butler herself sought to do with the Earthseed books, to deliberately reflect on how humans come together, particularly in difficult times. 

There is currently no thinker more important to me than Alexis Pauline Gumbs. I have read from her book in the Emergent Strategy series, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, to many of you in meetings and groups we’ve been a part of. I don’t imagine that I’ll stop doing this anytime soon. It’s entirely predictable that I someone who is learning about how to be anti-racist and has always identified as a feminist and who has looked for lessons in nature throughout my life would love a book subtitled, Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. 

But I also love this book because I feel love by this book. Gumbs again and again expresses her love for her readers in this book. I don’t always feel included when I read books designed to challenge me on racism or capitalism or justice, but I feel deeply included when I read Undrowned and when I met her this winter her in Ann Arbor she personally reiterated this sentiment to me when I told how valuable it was to hear it. I want to read from her book this invitation. 

“This book is for you! Also known as everyone who knows that a world where queer Black feminine folks are living their most abundant, expressed, and loving lives is a world where everyone is free. I wrote this with you in mind, dreamers that live near the shore and wonder about the whale bones you find. I wrote this with you in mind, those of you lobbying at the United Nations about deep ocean ecology and what it takes to honor it. And you, the ones who can’t keep from crying when you read the daily news. And you, the ones who feel cut off from nature. And you, the people who prioritize nature in your lives. And us, the people who are anxious about climate crisis. Us, the people who take long social media fasts and want peace. Yes, you and me, the ones who thought our practice of looking at pictures of marine mammals was completely separate from our economic justice work. This is for all of us. You are on my mind and in my heart.” – Undrowned p.13

When I think of what I want to invite people to in a believing community this is exactly it. I want a very open very welcoming invitation like, “This book is for you!” And I want a community that believes in abundance and flourishing and justice for all, “Also known as everyone who knows that a world where queer Black feminine folks are living their most abundant, expressed, and loving lives is a world where everyone is free.”

I think that there are real similarities to Anabaptism in this invitation. Our practice of adult baptism is voluntary. Everyone is invited and no one is coerced. But baptism and belonging to our communities also comes at least historically with some significant commitments: to pacifism, community and mutual aid, and following Jesus in word and life.  

It’s also entirely predictable that I would love Emergent Strategy, although like many things that people tell us to do, it took a little while for me to read it after it was first recommended to me. It shouldn’t have because again this is a book based in things that I already love. There is a lot of reflection on nature. And there is a lot of focus of imagination, rooted in science fiction. The subtitle of this book is Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. You can see the very deliberate connection to Octavia Butler in that subtitle. And there is a lot of  attention to how a community comes together and sustains itself looking for flourishing for all of its members and seeking peace and justice, which really resonate for me with Anabaptism. 

I’m going to spend the rest of my time this morning reviewing some of the elements of Emergent Strategy and connecting them to Anabaptism following the children’s story this morning. So we’ll start with the Fern. 

Brown suggests that organizations should resemble themselves at every level of organization. She says, 

“So many of our organizations working for social change are structured in ways that reflect the status quo. We have singular charismatic leaders, top down structures, money-driven programs, destructive methods of engaging conflict, unsustainable work cultures, and little to no impact on the issues at hand. This makes sense; it’s the water we’re swimming in. But it creates patterns. Some of the patterns I’ve seen that start small and then become movement wide are: 

Burn out. Overwork, underpay, unrealistic expectations. Organizational and movement splitting.
Personal drama disrupting movements. 

Mission drift, specifically in the direction of money. 

Stagnation—an inability to make decisions. 

These patterns emerge at the local, regional, state, national, and global level—basically wherever two or more social change agents are gathered. There’s so much awareness around it, and some beautiful work happening to shift organizational cultures. And this may be the most important element to understand—that what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system.” brown, Emergent Strategy

Brown doesn’t talk about a flat structure a favorite term of ours here at Shalom, or a priesthood of all believers as the Anabaptists did, but there are many obvious resonances. There is a strong anti-clerical streak in Anabaptism, and here at Shalom. And we do not seek to follow the status quo. We often seek to be different.

A key insight for me in thinking about how the small scale connects to the whole system is the focus brown brings in terms of sustainability. Small organizations can struggle with sustainable ways of functioning. As we think about how to engage more volunteers to do our work at Shalom we would do well to consider these ideas. 

On to the starling murmuration. Another of brown’s elements of Emergent Strategy that resonates here is being interconnected and decentralized. She approvingly quotes Grace Lee Boggs, “Building Community is to the Collective as Spiritual Practice is to the Individual” This is the point for brown where faith explicitly enters. While she doesn’t outline a particular faith commitment, Emergent Strategy is not a secular project. Rather than foregrounding belief, brown and Gumbs both emphasize the importance of practice, of regularly focusing our mind and attention in meditation with the purpose of keeping ourselves grounded. Meditation is not a big part of our worship services, but other practices, like hymn singing, sharing, listening, and praying are. And if it’s useful to think about religion on a continuum between doctrine on one side and practice on the other, Anabaptist probably do fall on the practice side. 

The final element, the dandelion, is a focus on resilience and transformative justice. Brown talks about transformative justice in this way, “Transformative justice, in the context of emergent strategy, asks us to consider how to transform toxic energy, hurt, legitimate pain, and conflict into solutions. To get under the wrong, find a way to coexist, be energy moving towards life, together. 

While we often put our attention on the state and demand transformative and restorative justice, it is important that individuals begin practicing in our personal, familial, and communal lives—we can reach the people we need to reach, and measure our work by the way the relationships feel. It is hard work, but it is accessible to anyone, anywhere, at any scale. 

Eventually, transformative practices that begin small will demand new societal structures. I suspect we can’t back into this, demanding that our government provide a form of justice that even we in our movements do not know how to practice in real time.” Emergent Strategy p. 75

Our commitment to pacifism is like this we don’t exactly know how to practice it in real time but it is nonetheless important to us, imagines a new world, and seeks to heal conflict at the root. And it is something that our congregation also works at through our connection to the Friends of Restorative Justice of Washtenaw County and other initiatives. This is a kind of approach to justice that does intend to leave no person behind, including the person who does harm. It shows up less in Emergent Strategy than in the work on community accountability done by other black women like Miriam Kaba, but both of these spaces are interested in thinking through what it means to include harm-doers in community. At its best the ban that conservative Anabaptist practice can be this kind of commitment. 

Thanks for listening to me make some connections between a bunch of black feminists and anabaptism. In closing I want to say a bunch of things that I don’t mean to have preached this morning. 

While there is a lot of similarity between these ways of thinking I don’t think that there is an genealogy that connects them. These ways of thinking arose at different times among different groups of people, but one is not dependent on the other. And while the ideas I’ve mentioned here occurred in Anabaptism first, that doesn’t give us any kind of priority. 

There are also some differences. Emergent Strategy also has a signifiant emphasis on pleasure and adapting towards pleasure. No one has ever accused Anabaptists of being too focused on pleasure. There is also a focus on experimentation and iteration in Emergent Strategy. I don’t think that Anabaptists are creative in that way, although we have our own creativity, especially in finding ways to help others. The creativity and experimentation in these thinkers is about how to do social organizing and activism and we probably could stand to learn from Black Feminists, Afrofuturists, and Emergent Strategy practitioners here. 

While I’m indebted to these thinkers I don’t want to replace scripture, or our hymnal, or other aspects of our way of being together with these ideas. I don’t think that Gumbs or brown think that Butler started a new religion, although I know that some people do seek to practice Earthseed as a religion. 

In fact because we have some version of these ideas active in our communities already there may be much we can learn but engaging these texts as we think about new ways for us to come together, care for each other and help in our community. 

Categories: Sermons