Widening the Circle
Experiments in Christian Discipleship
by Mary Jo Leddy and Ervin Stutzman
Listen in as Mary Jo Leddy, a Canadian Catholic activist and writer, and Ervin Stutzman, a leader in Mennonite Church USA, discuss the significance of Widening the Circle for followers of Jesus—both within the Anabaptist tradition and far beyond it.
Mary Jo: Reading this book is like seeing the ripples widen after a stone of great consequence has been cast into the waters of history. The Anabaptist story is not a big stone. It is small but weighty and consequential.
Ervin: On one level, this book is about Christian community. But on a deeper level, it is about much more. It is about the search for a deeper and more widely shared commitment to God's peace and justice in the world. It is about the ways that intentional communities develop and undergird a commitment to God's ways in an upside-down world.
Mary Jo: I am always in awe of the crucial Anabaptist insight into the ways of Empire. It is an insight forged in great suffering, and even though later generations may have become more comfortable and secure in their faith, they have carried the "dangerous memory"1 of those who refused to bend to the will of emperors—whether political or religious. I believe that this is the crucial gift that the Anabaptist tradition has to bring to all Christian efforts to live and act and believe as communities of faith. To quote the introduction of this book, "The great word of the Anabaptists was not 'faith' as it was for the reformers, but 'following.'" The counter-cultural "following" that is the Anabaptist way is all too easy to take for granted. However, it is as remarkable as it is authentic.
Ervin: When my wife Bonnie and I were married in 1974, we were drawn to the idea of Christian community. We joined a Mennonite voluntary service household and then expanded it a year later to include other Christians. We were drawn to the vision popularized by Dave and Neta Jackson's book Living Together in a World Falling Apart. We called our community the "Peace House" and wrote a covenant of commitment. It was a great introduction to living together with people of different values and different needs. I look back with fondness and appreciation on those five years, when I learned a lot about myself as well as others. I learned that if I cannot change the people who sit at my table each day, I am not likely to change others beyond that circle. Discipleship communities focus on the call to follow Jesus. They find ways to extend these commitments to everyday life, including difficult social problems. As the stories in this volume show, living together is not easy, particularly where members share their possessions with each other. The intensity of communal living can nurture people at their very core, but they can also exact a heavy toll. Perhaps that's one reason why some of the contributors to this volume, like me, speak of intentional community living in the past tense.
Mary Jo: There is a profound humility in those who bear witness in this book to the blessings and burdens of community. All refer to the human, flawed, and imperfect experiments that they have been part of. Nevertheless, they all acknowledge that while their efforts have not been perfect, they have been good. It is this ongoing search to do the good rather than the perfect, to be good rather than perfect, that is so inspiring. Not all these experiments succeeded or survived, but they each cast a measure of light and hope in their time. We Catholics who are tempted to think big and broad do well to heed such practical humility. All of us who believe we are called to community know that it can sometimes be an experiment in suffering and failure. To know this and to continue to follow this call is an experiment in hope. This profound link between humility and hope is crucial for all of us who have honed our critique of the American empire. It is all too easy, as I have painfully discovered, to become like that which we are against. If our focus is primarily on who or what we are against, we will probably replicate those patterns within and among ourselves. Even small communities can replicate imperial dynamics within their local realities. Repentance and forgiveness are the way of humility and hope. Thus, we must focus our lives in terms of who and what we are for. The "following" of Christ is a lifelong task—a longerthan-life task—that concentrates our lives and makes them whole.
Ervin: Just as the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century insisted on a more faithful way to follow Jesus, these discipleship communities show important alternatives to traditional Christian churches. It is crucially important for traditional churches to see that the way of Christ does not begin or end with a North American way of doing things. Indeed, the heart of Anabaptism is a commitment to follow Jesus, no matter what the cost. Anabaptism that accommodates the ways of the world is a contradiction in terms. Perhaps the best lesson I learned from the Amish community in which I grew up is that followers of Jesus are called to march to the beat of a different drummer. At times we need to "buck the system." Reading these stories reminds me that there are people who are willing to make radical commitments in attempts to change the world. In most cases, that difference is reflected in both an inner and an outer journey. The inner journey is nurtured by a commitment to transformation of oneself through the insights and discipline exercised in communal interaction. The outer journey is a path toward a more just and peaceable world and is nurtured by a communal vision to make a difference in the world.
Mary Jo: Not all Christian communities can see an emperor a mile away; not all can see the long shadow of imperial power. However, reading these "Experiments in Christian Discipleship" is an astonishing exercise for those who have not been shaped by the Anabaptist experience. I was impressed by how many of these "experiments" took shape because of a spiritual insight into the "original sins" of empire: racism, violence, war, and the abuse of the environment and the outsider. Such spiritual insight had immediate and practical consequences in terms of lifestyle and action. Where the empires imposed uniformity, the Anabaptists practiced community. The wisdom of the Anabaptist way is significant for all of us who live within the American empire, in this time and place that we call home. And, as several witnesses in this book point out, we know this empire well as it lives within us and among us. Other Christian denominations have their own wisdom about the way of community, but it is the Anabaptists who link their practice of community to their political discernment, to reading the signs of the times.
Ervin: The stories in this book demonstrate that many believers seek something substantial, something more authentic and real than the Christian world they see all around. They are willing to forsake the American dream for a way of life that promises justice and hope for those on the margins of society. It gives me hope that discipleship communities can indeed show the way for the world.
Mary Jo: All of these "experiments" suggest something about the future of the churches. I think that denominational differences will seem rather minor compared to the major choice that each Christian community has to make: Are we propping up the empire or are we participating in the building of the reign of God?
Mary Jo Leddy is founder of the Romero House Community in Toronto, Ontario, where she works alongside refugees. She is author of many books including: The Other Face of God: When the Stranger Calls Us Home (Orbis 2011), Our Friendly Local Terrorist (Between the Line 2010), and Reweaving Religious Life: Beyond the Liberal Model (Twenty Third Publications 1990). She is adjunct professor of theology at Regis College, University of Toronto.
Ervin R. Stutzman is a preacher, teacher, and writer. Before taking on his current role of Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA, in 2010, he served for nearly twelve years as Dean and Professor of Church Ministries at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Virgina. His Herald Press publications include From Nonresistance to Justice: The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric, 1908–2008 and Creating Communities of the Kingdom (co-authored with David Shenk).