"Broken as the world is broken": setting our sights on God’s Shalom vision

An interview with Sara Wenger Shenk, President Emerita of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and plenary speaker for Mennonite Church Canada’s 2020 study conference

Sara Wenger Shenk will be the plenary speaker at “Table Talk: Does the Church Have Legs?”, Mennonite Church Canada’s virtual study conference on October 24, 2020.

Wenger Shenk was president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary from 2010 to 2019. Under her leadership AMBS created a distance-friendly Master of Divinity program and connected with Meserete Kristos College in Ethiopia to offer a new online degree in Theology and Global Anabaptism. She also led AMBS’s acknowledgement of John Howard Yoder’s abuse of women at its seminary in the 70s and 80s by organizing services of lament in 2015 for those affected.

Wenger Shenk has a Master of Theological Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and a Doctorate of Education from Union Presbyterian Seminary. She is retired and currently lives with her husband on a farmette just outside of Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley.

Mennonite Church Canada writer Katie Doke Sawatzky spoke with Wenger Shenk about her reaction to the question “Why the Church?” and how crises like COVID-19 and justice movements like the Black Lives Matter inform her answer to such a question.


Credit: Gerald Shenk.

 

How has COVID-19 affected you and your community?

The pandemic upended our world here, as it has for so many people. People no longer go to church and need to reinvent their jobs or find ways to make life work at home with new rhythms and the intensity of family. For us personally, as retired grandparents with a little farmette, it doesn’t create the kind of anxiety faced by others. We’ve offered shelter to others. We had our son's family, with a newborn baby and a two-year-old, with us for seven weeks when things were closing down in New York. We've been able care for our other grandchildren so their parents can carry on with full-time work. There’s been profound grappling with the basics of life –how do you care for each other in hard times, how do you sustain life when everything is upended?

Have you gained insight into that?

I am finishing a book manuscript for MennoMedia. The title is Tongue-Tied: Learning the Lost Art of Talking about Faith. The entire project has taken on a different meaning and intensity because of the pandemic. During any crisis, fundamental questions about what larger story we’re a part of and who we are relative to God become exceedingly pertinent.

That very much relates to the question we’ve asked you to discuss in your plenaries for our conference. What's your reaction when you hear the question, "Why the church?"

It sounds like a question posed by people who have found the church unhelpful, too conventional, uninteresting, out of touch and inactive in response to the great dilemmas, problems and struggles of our time. I hear that question coming out of some great ambivalence about whether the church has anything to offer to the real world and the very hard times we find ourselves in.

What has caused that ambivalence?

Some church communities have been focussed on their own internal dynamic, self-preservation and comfort. As humans who cluster in communities, we like to stay in control of our community and manage internal dynamics. That is a good impulse and it's also a self-defeating impulse. If we focus too much on maintaining control and serving our own self-interest, we lose touch with God's larger Shalom vision for the healing of the world.

So that's your reaction, what is your initial response to the question, "Why the Church?"

There’s a natural social characteristic built into the fabric of our lives as human beings. We desire to be more than we can be by ourselves. There are all sorts of ways humans organize to do things together. Groups organize around a charismatic leader, an ideology like Marxism or progressivism, or as a social club. We organize as institutions and agencies to deliver goods to society.

The church organizes around God's Shalom vision. We learn that vision from the Scriptures. We tell stories and rehearse that vision together. The particular calling of the church within the larger biblical Shalom vision is to be the Body of Christ in the world. The church as a human association intentionally seeks to follow the “Jesus Way” together, to become the hands, feet, mind and heart of Christ in the world.

So why the church? We are a human association that organizes around what we believe is an alternative vision for the flourishing of all creation—the Shalom vision of God.

You mention “an alternative vision.” I grew up under this idea that the church is an alternative vision that is against all of these other ways humans associate, that you've mentioned. It's counter-to, very much separate and apart and everyone else is wrong, etc.

Right, church against the world.

You are not describing it that way, which is compelling to me. Can you touch a bit more on that?

It's very interesting that you raise the question that way. I was raised with much of the same idea, that there is the church and there is the world and the church is separate from the world. 

That way of framing things creates an artificial and misleading separation or divide between a noble, holy, righteous church and the horrible, fallen, broken world. We are all a part of this world, through and through. The world that God created and so loved. Those of us who choose to congregate as the church seek to align our lives with the vision of God for the world. We seek to intentionally shape our lives in ways that Jesus invited us to do.

God’s vision for the world is our orienting North Star. When we choose to seek to be the Body of Christ for the world, we discover that we need each other and the accountability that we receive from others to walk in step with that vision. We discover that we need to keep testing our decisions, our actions and our attitudes to see whether they align with that vision. Yet we are a part of the world. We are broken as the world is broken. We are beautiful as the world is beautiful. We are loved as the world is loved. But we have set our sights on the North Star of God's Shalom vision, most explicitly revealed in Jesus Christ. The church becomes the Body that openly says, “This is our vision; this is where our primary loyalties and allegiance lie. To God’s Shalom vision. To Jesus as Lord.”

We are broken as the world is broken. We are beautiful as the world is beautiful. We are loved as the world is loved. But we have set our sights on the North Star of God's Shalom vision, most explicitly revealed in Jesus Christ.

COVID-19 and the Black Lives matter movement have precipitated changes to "how" we do church. A lot of congregations are going online with their services. Then in response to racial injustice, we feel this call to respond to say that change is coming to how we structure ourselves and make decisions. But these are changes to "how" we do church. Do these things inform your response to the question of “why the church”?

They absolutely inform why we do church. This is the wonder of the biblical vision of Shalom, if you will. The church gets hijacked by truncated visions. In the U.S. we talk about the "the White church," "the Black church," the "Hispanic church," the “Chinese church.” We turn the church into a republican church, a progressive church, a liberal church. Well, where did that come from? Why do we do that? The church is the church is the church: the Body of Christ.

The cry for justice is what the Bible is built around. The cry of an enslaved people and the discovery of a God who responded to their groaning. A God who loved justice, who wants all humanity, all creation to flourish. Whether it's climate change, environmental disasters, pandemics or whole groups of oppressed people crying out—all of these take us back to basic questions: what is our story? What have we forgotten or neglected to hear? We’re a lot like the people of Israel getting carted off in exile who are suddenly disoriented and distressed, wondering, how did we get here.

That's the beauty of the gospel of the Shalom vision of God. As hard as the crises are, when you go back and read the Scriptures, you find out: Oh my God! God has loved justice; God has loved the whole earth; God has loved the creation; God has loved every man, woman and child the world over, from the beginning.

In an AMBS blog post from 2018 you write about “the Jesus Way,” about forming “small Jesus bands; missionary communities with the love, courage and imagination needed to repel the viruses of hatred, racism, sexism, violence and nation-first narcissism wherever they show up; and communities of resistance standing together on the beautiful jubilee gospel of Jesus (Luke 4)….” In my experience, churches don’t see themselves as “communities of resistance.” What's the obstacle to that?

A lot of churches, particularly in white-dominant denominations and congregations, have been acclimated to comfort. We have it pretty nice, thank you. We have plenty to eat, great homes, our children go to good schools. We feel safe and become complacent. What would we resist other than a threat to our comfort? Resistance is a strange notion to people who are comfortable, it seems to me.

“Resistance,” in the sense that I was using it, comes largely from communities of people of colour, or oppressed people, or people who have needed to find the wherewithal to stand up to injustice. It comes from those with a vision for God’s Shalom who are willing to put their lives at risk on behalf of those most at risk because it makes all the difference in the world as to whether they'll survive, whether their children will be safe, whether they'll have access to good schools or to the basic necessities of life. When Christian movements emerge as powerful movements of resistance, it is in response to injustice, to oppression, to the negation of basic human dignity.

The cry for justice is what the Bible is built around. The cry of an enslaved people and the discovery of a God who responded to their groaning. A God who loved justice, who wants all humanity, all creation to flourish.

What kind of resistance are you seeing?

In the U.S., a lot of us have been called out in new ways because of Trump's flagrant denigration of almost everything we value. We have needed to stand up in a new way in resistance to the messages of hate, despoilment of the earth, denigration of human dignity, dishonesty on every hand. The church in the U.S. is showing more of that resistant spirit, given how overwhelming the denigration of everything we value is from our current administration.

There is also resistance to the complacency of other Christians who marry God and country. Current crises are contributing to the development of a spine of resistance in our churches as we reclaim the original, Shalom vision of God and the way of Jesus, and find it provides deeps wells of renewal and empowerment. It's all fundamentally about basic human dignity—God so loving the world that God sent Jesus!

Anything else you would like to add?

We are all sons and daughters of God, every last one of us. That was the revolutionary message of Jesus and the Jesus movement. Human dignity was at such a low ebb in that time, with widespread enslavement, gendered violence and moral debauchery. The Christian message that every human being has dignity, has worth, was world-altering. When the church recognizes that, gets on board with that and makes that our mission in the world, it impacts everything we do. We resist all kinds of life-denying, life-crushing forces out there.

 

Katie Doke Sawatzky is writer and communications coordinator and writer for Mennonite Church Canada. You can reach her at kdsawatzky@mennonitechurch.ca.

For more information on "Table Talk: Does the Church Still Have Legs," our 2020 virtual study conference, go to www.mennonitechurch.ca/tabletalk2020.