Spring 2009 · Vol. 38 No. 1 · pp. 2–4 

From the Editor: Toward Anabaptist Political Theology

Paul Doerksen

Within the modern Western political tradition, it is most often taken as a given that church and state must remain separate, a notion that has its roots in the work of such influential thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes. Such an understanding might be seen as a reaction to more than a millennium of Christendom, when church and secular authority worked in close relation to govern society. 1 This arrangement, heavily critiqued and subsequently dismantled in Western society, has given way to the current post-Christendom era. It is within this post-Christendom era that Anabaptists have begun to contribute to a renewed emphasis on the study and writing of political theology, even as we find ourselves also participating within conventional halls of political power.

Oliver O’Donovan suggests that the work of political theology is to shed light from the Christian faith upon the intricate challenge of thinking about living in late modern Western society. If he is right, then we have many areas of thought to consider: e.g. judgment, the nature of freedom, the possibility and shape of public deliberation and communication, the role of power and coercive force, powers that any given institution should or should not have, the nature of representation, the nature and locus of authority, the role and form of punishment, sharing and husbanding of resources, what constitutes meaningful action in history, intelligibility of suffering—just to name a few. And presumably, Anabaptists (and others, surely) want to think about these matters without making a case for hegemony of the church or theocracy; for the revival of Christendom or even the establishment of the church. Clearly we have much work ahead of us.

And I am happy to say that the task has already begun, and I hope that readers of this issue of Direction will agree that some exciting and important work is in process. In seeking to engage the question of Anabaptist political theology, I invited contributions from scholars in a variety of disciplines in order to put on display the multi-faceted approaches taken to pursue the myriad questions and issues that are part of the fecund field of political theology. The first essay, a contribution by biblical scholar John E. Toews, argues a thesis that at first glance seems simple—the confessions of the earliest church were simultaneously theological and political statements—but very quickly it becomes obvious that such simplicity is not a call to an easy or uncomplicated life on the part of the Christian disciple. Toews reads a number of key New Testament texts carefully, showing the radical nature of confessions of faith that stand over against other kinds of confessions of allegiance.

The second essay approaches questions of politics and faith from a different angle. Janis Thiessen, a labor historian, brings to view specific practices of Canadian and American Mennonites insofar as they relate to communism and labor unions by tracing various church statements and writings of leading representatives of Mennonite groups. Thiessen finds that Mennonite concerns about communism in the first half of the twentieth century eventually give way to serious concerns about involvement in labor unions. In this study of Mennonite attitudes and practices, Thiessen holds up a mirror to developing attitudes and beliefs about specific dimensions of political action and involvement, and in doing so wonders if it is time that interest be redirected more fully to global capitalism.

As it turns out, the third and fourth essays included here are connected, not because of my careful planning, but because of an on-going conversation that involves A. James Reimer and his important project that is currently underway. Before I describe Reimer’s essay, it is important to introduce the piece by Jodie Boyer Hatlem and Douglas Johnson Hatlem. These authors see within Anabaptist political theology a divide that has opened up between the work of Reimer and the late John Howard Yoder, and they want to find another way—not by rejecting either Reimer or Yoder’s projects in their entirety by any means, but nonetheless seeking to find another way forward that is centered on, among other things, a thorough-going rejection of the nation-state and its violence, but also reengaging biblical law (Torah observance) and making tactical alliances where necessary.

The engagement with Reimer is timely, since he contributes a programmatic essay, describing the comprehensive project he is currently in the process of completing, which is itself part of an even larger trilogy of theological books. Those familiar with Reimer’s work know of his emphasis on the Trinitarian structure of theology and ethics, and it is therefore no surprise to see him try to show how such a structure can and ought to play a generative role in working out an Anabaptist political theology. If I am correct, the discussion on display here (between the previous essay and Reimer) is one that will merit following as Reimer’s project is carried through to its fruition.

The two final essays are centered on a recently published book of Anabaptist political theology, namely John D. Redekop’s Politics Under God. P. Travis Kroeker’s contribution to this issue consists of a review essay in response to Redekop’s book, which is followed by Redekop’s response to that review. This lively conversation is not to be missed, in my view, bringing to view as it does two differing political visions. Kroeker is concerned about the question of whether a messianic political theology is still possible even in our time, and thus brings Redekop’s book into conversation primarily with the work of John Howard Yoder. In doing so, Kroeker poses a series of questions and concerns centered especially on possible understandings of state and church. Redekop’s vigorous response challenges not only Kroeker’s reading of Politics Under God, but also some of Yoder’s work. I hope this exchange motivates readers of Direction to now read Yoder, Redekop, Kroeker and others in this exciting field of inquiry—all with a view to evermore faithful discipleship, which is itself political.

So, my hope is that this issue of Direction opens discussions, introduces voices that deserve attention, and clarifies some issues even while it complicates others. I have prepared a very brief reading list in the burgeoning field of political theology, and hope that it is found to be useful. Not on the theme of political theology but an interesting sociological study is Robert Enns’s survey of faith and culture in one Russian Mennonite immigrant family. In the Ministry Compass column, Corey Herlevsen contributes an always relevant reminder of the temptations that uniquely afflict the pious. I extend many thanks to the contributors in this issue for good work done in a timely fashion. My gratitude also goes to Dr. Vic Froese, general editor of Direction, for his initial invitation to act as guest editor for this issue, and for patient advice and sensitive guidance.


  1. The term “Christendom” can describe a specific historical era in which the Christian church was identified with the whole of organized society, or the merging of the religious and political community. See R.W. Southern, Western Society and Church in the Middle Ages (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1970), 16. As a concept, “Christendom” might be described an attempt to take seriously the political nature of the church and its instrumental role in the salvation of the world. See William Cavanaugh, “Church,” in William Cavanaugh and Peter Scott, eds. Blackwell Companion to Political Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2004), 397. In Craig Carter’s use of the term, Christendom is “a concept of Western civilization as having a religious arm (the church) and a secular arm (civil government), both of which are united in their adherence to Christian faith, which is seen as the so-called soul of Europe or the West.” Craig Carter, Rethinking ‘Christ and Culture’: A Post-Christendom Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 14.
Paul Doerksen, Ph.D.
Biblical Studies Department Head
Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute
Winnipeg, Manitoba