CGR Vol. 39 No 1 (Winter 2021)

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews


This issue of The Conrad Grebel Review completes a series of articles on ecology and land that addresses the challenges and opportunities posed by the “Environmental Politics” of Jedediah Purdy. The Editors extend hearty thanks to Joe Wiebe, for initiating this timely, engaging project and for coordinating this issue and the previous one as Guest Editor, as well as to Jedediah Purdy for responding so graciously to his interlocutors.

The interaction with Purdy’s work began in the Fall 2020 issue of CGR, where Joe Wiebe situated Purdy in his US context and outlined his affection- based politics, call for a new commonwealth, and exhortations to citizens. Peter Dula challenged Purdy’s understanding of “naturalism” and invited Purdy into a more considered dialogue with contemporary theology. Sarah Stewart-Kroeker discussed resonances between Purdy’s notion of “political ecology” and her proposal for “wounded bodies/ecologies,” as well as their desires for a new commonwealth. Daniel Sim resisted Purdy’s suggestion that a commonwealth can be plausibly created on the questionable assumption of Indigenous peoples and settlers “living in harmony.”

The present issue continues with three more contributors engaging with Purdy and concludes with his response to all the interlocutors. Sunder John Boopalan builds on Purdy’s insights and applies them to the situation of India’s Dalit (“untouchable”) population and suggests how to build transnational solidarity. Julia Kasdorf engages Purdy’s notions of commonwealth, contemporary politics, and reciprocal flourishing from a perspective deeply rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition in Pennsylvania. Isaac Villegas broadens the discussion context by bringing Purdy’s project into conversation with the 16th-century apocalyptic preachers’ “gospel of all creatures,” a perspective that breaks thorough anthropocentric theologies.

Finally, Purdy provides a thoughtful response that engages the wide range of issues raised, including conceptions of nature, naturalism, creation, and materiality, as well as Indigenous land claims and other ethical, theological, and political considerations.

We are grateful for both the probing contributions of Purdy’s interlocutors and Purdy’s willingness to engage in fulsome discussion with them. Book reviews on a wide of subjects round out this issue.

CGR’s mandate is to advance thoughtful, sustained discussions of theology, peace, society, and culture from broadly-based Anabaptist/ Mennonite perspectives. To this end, the Editors welcome submissions on diverse topics from a wide range of academic fields as well as written responses to previously published articles.

W. Derek Suderman, Editor   

Stephen A. Jones,  Managing Editor

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Transnational Solidarities

Sunder John Boopalan

ABSTRACT: The author responds to Jedediah Purdys This Land Is Our Land by (1) elaborating on Purdys insight connecting land and racial injustice to include the situation of Dalits, the more than 16 percent of Indias population historically discriminated against and treated as untouchables”; (2) drawing parallels between indigenous communities in North America and in India; and (3) offering a commentary on transnational solidarity-building. Wounds are everywhere,and those that we can heal most effectively are those closest to home—and the most difficult to name and redress. Transnational solidarities are not impossible, but they are difficult.


Of the many things I appreciate in Jedediah Purdy’s This Land Is Our Land,[1] the most poignant for me as a Dalit scholar of religion is the connection between racial injustice and the physical environment. In conversation with India’s caste system and its injustices, this essay will respond to Purdy’s book in three parts. First, it elaborates on Purdy’s generative insight connecting land and racial injustice to make some connections to the Dalit situation. (“Dalit” is the name given to themselves by communities that were historically discriminated and cruelly treated as “untouchables.”) Dalits account for more than 16 percent of India’s population and are connected to indigenous people in India through shared histories of oppression and resistance. In the second part, the essay draws parallels between indigenous communities in the North American context and India. Indigenous communities in India are also called Tribals or Adivasis (“original inhabitants”) and make up more than eight percent of the country’s population. Finally, the essay offers a commentary on transnational solidarity-building that I hope will spark conversation.

Dalits and Land

I begin with a quotation from Purdy that describes the land that Pauli Murray—civil rights activist, lawyer, and Christian minister—grew up in and that makes an explicit connection between the topography of land and racialized social landscapes.

Like many black Durhamites, her family lived in “the bottoms,” the downslope flats where small, dirty creeks flood when summer thunderstorms, fall hurricanes, or winter rains saturate the red-clay soil. Murray’s childhood home was just downhill from a grand, then-segregated cemetery that still occupies acres of land a short walk from Duke university’s campus. In rains, she recalled, the water that poured into the lawn and flooded the family garden came down from the white graves up the slope. It was as if other people’s deaths filled the soggy bottom and made it not the Murray’s own, left them with no home they could shape in their own image. The caste system of race and class in this country have always been shaped by unequal answers to some of the oldest questions in human settlement: whose waste is carried away, invisible to them, and who carries and absorbs it? Who can control the boundaries of their own land and water, and finally the boundaries of their bodies, and who is susceptible to permeation, or ends up being treated as matter out of place, a kind of human pollution?[2]

Murray’s childhood neighborhood is similar to India’s casteist landscapes which  unequally  distribute  vulnerability.  The  flowing  down of waste from upper slopes and the unchosen absorption of this waste by marginalized communities at lower levels—as in the case of many black homes in Murray’s Durham—are features that are very familiar to the Dalits even today. The parts of the village where dominant castes live are often on a higher sea level and those where Dalits live are on a lower level. When it rains, dirt washes down towards Dalit households. Caste-ridden topographies thus force Dalit homes to stand right next to stagnating puddles and ponds of drainage, making them susceptible to infectious permeation by casteist waste.

Dalits continue to suffer caste-based discrimination that ranges from various sorts of daily humiliations to brutal forms of violence. Overtly, casteism includes lynchings and murders (by members of dominant castes) of persons deemed to violate dominant caste norms. Covertly, caste-based oppression operates through many means, including endogamous marriages, caste-based political loyalties, and seemingly benign but nevertheless violent actions whitewashed by the label “culture.”[3]

In a typical Indian village, the part where Dalits live is separated by a tract of land from the area where dominant caste communities live. Quite literally, the land that connects the dominant castes to Dalits is the same land that separates them. Indeed, what Purdy observes about land has an eerie resonance in caste-ridden Indian landscapes: “Land is perennially the thing we share that holds us apart.”[4]

Caste-ridden landscapes are both humiliating and frightening, as I will illustrate with an instance of each of these categories. In a typical Indian village/town, bodies are segregated by land according to the arbitrary ranking of caste-based hierarchy and power. When one uses the word “village” in the local vernacular, its meaning is layered. A first meaning, somewhat benign, conveys that the village is a small municipality of a larger district or state. A second level of meaning—one that often escapes notice—refers to that part of the village where dominant caste persons live. In the dominant casteunderstanding, the “village proper” is only that part where dominant castes live. In other words, it is possible to describe a “village” without any reference to Dalits who also live in it, as if they don’t count.

The Dalit side of every village is often referenced through various othering terms. The idea of “our side” and “their side,” by virtue of being part of the village’s geography, is deeply inscribed into epistemological and tactile engagements that constantly assess self and other. Because this “us- them” difference is so entrenched, crossing borders of caste often meets with negative, including lethal, consequences. Post offices, banks, schools, and other places of public importance and access are often located in the “village”—away from othered Dalit hamlets, separated by land. Dalits going to the post office must walk through streets lined with dominant caste homes and petty shops on either side. When passing through these streets, Dalit children and youth are often ridiculed and taunted: ridiculed if their clothes are not up to par, taunted if they are. These streets are evidence of the many acts and affects of violence and hatred that make me agree with Purdy that if human persons are to engender a commonwealth, “we would need,” as he puts it, “first, to be a we.”[5]

There is no “we” on casteist streets. There is only “them” and “us.” Importantly, this us-them is neither an accident nor the consequence of some unforeseen contingency. It is intended. This is where land is both witness and evidence to histories of structural violence. Such landscapes are, in Purdy’s words, “the material legacy of cruel and fully intended inequality.”[6] Caste-ridden landscapes are also frightening because they can be lethal spaces. Dalits are often landless. In households with inadequate sanitation, they use surrounding open lands and fields to relieve themselves. In other instances, they also use these lands and fields as walking paths to other surrounding destinations. Danger lies in each of these excursions; murdered Dalit women’s lives haunt these lands.[7] Despite such occurrences of brutal injustice, widespread denialism both in India and the US in dominant caste and other circles takes the form of questions like, Did that really happen? or Where is the evidence?[8] Although these women are missing and missed, the land stands as a witness to continuing violence.

When couples fall in love across caste-based divisions, families of the partner from the dominant caste often intimidate and threaten the couple, including carrying out “honor killings” of the less dominant caste person or of both persons. I offer just one example. Shankar, a Dalit man, and Kaushalya, a dominant caste woman, married in 2015 against the wishes of her family. Her family reportedly asked, “Aren’t you ashamed to bear the Thali[9] tied by a Pallar[10] guy?” Her father’s insulting and injurious words were, “Bearing the child of a Pallar in a Kallar[11] womb is blasphemous, don’t you know that? I am ashamed that you were born to me.” Less than a year after their wedding, the couple was attacked by a group of men in broad daylight. The gang hacked Shankar to death, shouting, “How dare you love, you Pallar son-of-a-bitch!”[12]

Dalit filmmaker Nagraj  Manjule’s  2016  film  Sairat  portrays  the  violence of such “honor killings.”[13] In the story, an inter-caste couple defy all odds and marry each other. For their physical safety, they cross the border to a different state. The girl’s dominant caste family pursues them. In a chilling last scene, her male relatives, under the pretext of a friendly reconciliatory visit, pull out machetes and hack the pair to death and leave. The couple’s young child crawls over his dead parents’ pool of blood and exits the threshold of their modest home leaving a trail of blood on the ground, on the land. Blood cries from the ground and with it.

Tribals/Adivasis and Land

A focus on land puts into question the legitimacy of modern nation states. In the US and Canada, colonists justified taking the lands of indigenous people “by insisting that only settlers and farmers could properly own and rule a terrain.”[14] Genocidal tropes of “empty land” (terra nullius) buttressed such claims. Purdy reminds us that key figures in the U.S. understood “getting free” as amounting to “getting free of other people.”[15] This led to a situation like that when “the people who created the parks and monuments and wilderness areas also wanted to be free of inconvenient kinds of people.”[16] Today’s “wilderness” in North American contexts did not simply arise out of nowhere but rather is the result of violent genocidal strategies against indigenous people forced out of their ancestral lands. Purdy offers a poignant account of how for notable conservationists “it was a short step from managing forests to managing the human gene pool.”[17]

Indigenous people today are reclaiming their identities and ancestral lands. Their reclamation efforts put them into direct conflict with nation states and pull away the veil of empty rhetoric about democracy. Theologian George E. “Tink” Tinker helps frame this point:

We must be clear about this one thing: states must necessarily oppress indigenous people, must destroy our self-identity, our cultures, and our religious and spiritual traditions. States have no choice but to oppress and suppress precisely because our ancient claim to land is a constant and persistent challenge to the legitimacy and coherence of the state and its claim by virtue of discovery (read conquest) of our territories.[18]

Indigenous peoples’ claim to land is indeed “a constant and persistent challenge” to modern nation states’ legitimacy. Tinker’s astute observation that nation states must “necessarily oppress indigenous people” proves to be a reality. India’s recognition of indigenous people is an interesting case in point. The Indian government voted in favor of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), but with a condition in the form of an innovative but oppressive argument. India argued that all Indians after 1947, the year India gained independence from the British, are considered indigenous, thus erasing the claim of first peoples or original inhabitants.

Nevertheless, many indigenous communities use the term Adivasis (“first inhabitants” or “original inhabitants”) to refer to themselves. It is a political term that asserts rights of occupancy to ancestral lands. However, when indigenous people assert their land rights, they are often penalized under draconian sedition laws from the colonial era that punish persons who “attempt to excite feelings of disaffection against the government.” Under such laws, to offer one example, India charged 10,000 indigenous people of sedition in the state of Jharkhand.[19] Such are the oppressive ironies in modern democracies.

When seen through the lens of land, such injustices are not failures of an ill-functioning democracy but rather the direct consequence of how modern nation states constitute themselves. This is why I appreciate what Purdy calls “a favorite liberal story” that blames societal polarization and division on “a crisis of norms” or the “loss of stabilizing political virtue.”[20] Loss of political virtue or not, structural injustice in regard to land continues to be  an  original  sin  with  recurring  unpleasant  consequences.  Modern democracies often mistakenly believe that democracies work merely because citizens have the ability to vote and in principle can participate. In practice, however, the weight of structural injustice and the shadow of an unequal history often reveals the lurking specter of an intended unequal democracy.

Two methods or motifs of liberalism marginalize indigenous and other oppressed communities who live on land. The first occurs in the name of “development.” Someone always pays the price for development in a democracy, as Purdy observes. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, spoke of big dams as “temples” of development.[21] Naming “temples” as a positive feature is counterintuitive; it makes Dalit ears prick up because actual temples were (and still are) at the heart of caste-based discrimination. Dalits were disallowed from entering Hindu temples and punished for doing so. It is no surprise, then, that dams as modern “temples” discriminated against similar others on the margins.

Indigenous communities often pay the price for so-called development in modern democracies because their claim to land comes into conflict with national desires. Similar to how development on, and of, sacred grounds of indigenous people in North America is a source of displacement, big dams in India are notorious for displacing indigenous communities.[22] When seen transnationally, it is frightening to consider how national development often violently displaces indigenous communities from lands and spaces they have stewarded for centuries.

The second method of marginalization occurs in the name of conserving land. Thus, conservation often becomes development’s leftist- posing liberal partner. In the state of Madhya Pradesh in 2014, government authorities evicted indigenous people from their traditional lands in the name of conservation in order to create the Kanha Tiger Reserve.[23] This presents a dilemma, because indigenous people have sophisticated practices that maintain the integrity of forests and land. Tinker is again helpful here, noting that “when  [indigenous  people]  are  presented  with  the  concept of development, it is sense-less.”[24] As one envisions a commonwealth in conversation with Purdy, it is thus essential to insist with Tinker that “there are peoples in the world who live with an acute and cultivated awareness of their intimate participation in the natural world as part of an intricate whole.”[25] Degradation of these very persons nevertheless persists violently and often with impunity. Purdy’s recognition of this degradation is generative and opens up cross-disciplinary and transnational conversations.

Alternatives:  Whither from Here?

Envisioning alternatives is not straightforward. One should pay heed to Purdy’s warning against looking to “a movement of professionals and lawyers.”[26] In the pursuit of alternatives, therefore, one ought not to be enamored with elitist approaches that “have limited interaction with, and do too little to empower”[27] the people whom they say they are concerned about. If liberal democracies are to truly become commonwealths, privileged persons constituting these landscapes cannot simply speak beautiful words by lobbying at a high level.[28] As Purdy notes, we need to “make enough room for popular engagement.”[29]

As I bring this essay to a close, I’d like to sketch the possible conditions of such popular engagement. My fi st observation concerns the reality of exhaustion among those who bear the weight of the struggle. The struggle for a new commonwealth is not new, and the voices of those articulating it are often faint because their visions are “blocked again and again.”[30] Treated as “matter out of place” (recall Purdy’s description of Pauli Murray’s childhood home), those on the margins are often weary. Song in A Weary Throat, the original title of Pauli Murray’s autobiography, captures the feeling often expressed by those on the underside of power. As Dalit activist Christina Dhanaraj puts it:

This is what is asked of us—to get up after being beaten, to dust off the dirt after being pushed, to keep trooping against an army of hateful caste soldiers, every day. This might seem inspiring for some, but for us, it’s tiring. It’s wearing us out, like it did our mothers and grandmothers.[31]

Envisioning an alternative must start with deep gratitude to, and solidarity with, those at the margins. It is by centering those on the margins of power—and holding oneself accountable to them—that agential possibilities might arise.

I offer another nod to Purdy’s insights. “Because our problems are global,” I agree that we need “an internationalism that raises questions of distribution and justice within the limits of an ultimately finite planet.”[32] It is this logic that has informed my response in this essay to make transnational connections. Although transnational solidarities are not novel, they face risks. Purdy is well aware of this, and names several: the left, the neoliberals, the neoconservatives, and the new populists.[33] Speaking of anything “transnational” from a US location is fraught with danger, given America’s historical role in overthrowing democratically elected leaders and crushing mass movements in the name of fighting communism or some other imagined danger.[34] One thus needs viable alternatives to the “selfish nationalism”[35] that powerful nation states offer their subjects. To put it differently, how might voting citizens of empires like the US forge transnational solidarities with integrity, when their very desires are constantly shaped by the forces of empire?

Forces of empire not only spur misrepresentations of “outsiders” but also invisibilize othered subjects within nation states themselves. Indigenous people in the US are often invisibilized in mainstream politics, academia, and even activist circles. For instance, I witness colleagues describe “eastern” spiritualities (Buddhism is a popular candidate) as wholistic. But aren’t indigenous spiritualities within the US just as wholistic, if not more so? Why the fascination with religions of the east rather than with indigenous spiritualities within the US? Tinker has asked and answered this very question. He notes that colonial ways of thinking have a history of debunking indigenous knowledge and that “today’s liberals among the colonizers more often dismiss our best intellectual reflection with the cursory judgment of ‘interesting.’”[36] In short, perceptions of what power is and where it lies are shaped by imperial frameworks rather than by impulses and desires for solidarity. Thus I appreciate Purdy’s critique of liberals and liberalism as much as his indictment of right-wing majoritarianism.

In desiring to form relationships of solidarity with those who suffer the most, one must be wary of mere appearances of solidarity. Otherwise, commonwealths become a mirage. Let me now shift our attention to some predicaments in the Indian context to offer an example from the other side of the transnational conversation generated in this essay. The Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized popular movements globally, impacting several countries, including India. Indian Twitter handles owned by dominant caste persons—including notable celebrities—were hot with #BlackLivesMatter hashtags. An uncomfortable question arises, as some of those tweets came from Indian celebrities who endorsed fairness skin creams. These creams (“Fair and Lovely” is one of many) are essentially bleaching products that damage human skin.[37] The question that many Dalits and others asked was simply, How can one say Black lives matter when simultaneously endorsing skin creams that promote anti-blackness? Furthermore, if solidarity with those on the margins was really what the celebrities were after, why do instances of caste-based violence not gain as much traction among media- savvy Indians?

Writer-ethnographer Temsula Ao’s  caution  that  globalization when uncritical  can  make  communities  “commodity  markers  stripped of all human significance”[38] is useful to remember. Disembodied global imaginations can create optical and other illusions. While being positively affected by global movements is better than recoiling from them, we must guard against illusory visions of a commonwealth that are not ethically sensitive to what is happening on the ground locally. Disembodied visions and aspirations might inadvertently become manifestations of a rejection of interdependence. Real interdependence that believes that  “everyone alive has an equal claim to thrive in this world”[39] will need to focus on local material realities and wounds. The weight of structural injustice will have to be borne through concrete actions attentive to local on-the-ground realities. Wounds are everywhere, and those that we can heal most effectively are the ones closest to home. They are also the most difficult to name and redress. This does not mean that transnational solidarities are a lost cause, only that they are difficult. Purdy’s book evocatively articulates this difficulty. I am most moved.

Sunder John Boopalan, Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

[1] Jedediah Purdy, This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2019).

[2] Ibid., 42.

[3] For a more elaborate discussion, see chapter two, “Wrongs and Formation of Violent Identities,” in Sunder John Boopalan, Memory, Grief, and Agency: A Political Theological Account of Wrongs and Rites (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 21-74.

[4] Purdy, This Land Is Our Land, x.

[5] Ibid., 96.

[6] Ibid., 131.

[7] For a recent example of this widespread casteist violence, see Billy Perrigo, “A Fatal Gang Rape Is Forcing a Reckoning in India Over the Caste System,” Time, hathras-rape-case-india-violence/, accessed March 1, 2021.

[8] See also Sunder John Boopalan, “Religions and the Production of Affect in Caste-Based Societies,” in Global Vision of Violence, forthcoming; Richard Fox Young and Sunder John Boopalan, “Studied Silences? Diasporic Nationalism, ‘Kshatriya Intellectuals’ and the Hindu American Critique of Dalit Christianity’s Indianness,” in Constructing Indian Christianities: Culture, Conversion and Caste, ed. Chad M. Bauman and Richard Fox Young (New York: Routledge, 2014), 215-38.

[9] “Thali” refers toathreadtiedbythemanaroundthewoman’sneckduringaweddingceremony, symbolizing union. While this symbolism is rooted in patriarchy and heteronormativity, it continues to be a major feature in many weddings.

[10] The Dalit community Shankar belonged to.

[11] The caste community Kaushalya belonged to.

[12] Kathir Vincent, “They Killed My Husband, Saying, ‘How Dare You Love?’: Udumalpet Caste Killing Survivor Recounts What Happened,” Huffington Post India, https://www., accessed November 1, 2020.

[14] Purdy, This Land Is Our Land, ix.

[15] Ibid., 8.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 115.

[18] George E. Tinker, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 25.

[19] Supriya Sharma, “10,000 People Charged with Sedition in One Jharkhand District. What Does Democracy Mean Here?,” November 18, 2019, people-charged-with-sedition-in-one-jharkhand-district-what-does-democracy-mean-here, accessed March 1, 2021.

[20] Purdy, This Land Is Our Land, 19.

[21] Brij Kishore Sharma, “Jawaharlal Nehru’s Model of Development,” Indian History Congress 73 (2012): 1292-1302.

[22] Shone Satheesh, “Hundreds of India Villages under Water as Narmada Dam Level Rises,” Al Jazeera, water-as-narmada-dam-level-rises. accessed March 1, 2021.

[23] Abhijit Mohanty, “Tribal Communities Suffer When Evicted in the Name of Conservation,” DownToEarth, when-evicted-in-the-name-of-conservation-64376. accessed March 1, 2021.

[24] Tinker, American Indian Liberation, 82.

[25] Ibid.

[26]  Purdy, This Land Is Our Land, 109.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., xiv.

[31] Christina Dhanaraj, “Red Earth and the Sky a Dalit Blue,” Outlook India Magazine, October 19, 2020, 28.

[32] Purdy, This Land Is Our Land, 101.

[33] See for instance Purdy, This Land is Our Land, 100.

[34] Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997); Kyle B. T. Lambelet, ¡Presente!: Nonviolent Politics and the Resurrection of the Dead (Washington: Georgetown Univ. Press, 2020).

[35] Purdy, This Land Is Our Land, 101.

[36] Tinker, American Indian Liberation, 18-19.

[37] Sakshi Venkatraman, “Bollywood Actors Called out for Protesting Racism While Promoting Skin Whitening Creams,” NBC News, asian-america/bollywood-actors-called-out-protesting-racism-while-promoting-skin- whitening-n1226211, accessed March 1, 2021.

[38] Cited in Keneipfenuo Rüpreo Angami, “COPIOUS AMIDST CHAOS: A Tribal Postcolonial Feminist God-Talk from Northeast Indian Perspective,” Doctoral Thesis, Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands (2018), 36.

[39] Purdy, This Land is Our Land, 99.

Table of Contents | Foreword | Articles | Book Reviews

God and Land: Remembering Dreams of the Commonwealth

Julia Spicher Kasdorf

ABSTRACT: The author uses three quotations from Jedediah Purdys This Land Is Our Land to structure her discussion of a commonwealth, the kind of politics needed today, and reciprocal flourishing. She surveys William Penns Holy Experiment and the dream of a peaceable kingdom,and ruminates on her familys history in Pennsylvania, romantic Mennonite agrarianism, restorative nostalgia,settler colonialism, and radical visions of hope. The author observes that valuable themes persist in our best old dreams”: e.g., the rationale for the Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery (1688), was simply Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

If you draw a perfect X across the breadth of Pennsylvania, the lines will intersect just about where This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth[1] rests on my desk. Delivered as a series of lectures in New York City, Jedediah Purdy’s fine, narrative essays invite me, as stories often do, to reflect on my own place here in northern Appalachia. Not until I undertook a documentary poetry project that took me out to listen to people—really, anyone who cared to talk about their own experiences with gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking)—did I come to see how deeply I care about this place and to recognize what a rare privilege it is to live, even in the middle of nowhere, if your people have resided there for a long time. Particular memories stick and old dreams abide if you have been too stubborn, poor, religiously plain, or otherwise disinclined to move. Thinking alongside Purdy from this place, then, I look for whatever resources and experiences from here might orient us toward more just relationships with one another and the earth. All the while I wonder how a material commonwealth can be realized out of language—whether the words of human longing or law.


“. . . a commonwealth is not a gauzy utopian ideal: it is radical and practical.”[2]

Maybe the dream tracks back to the idea of Eden: Adam and Eve in the garden, naked and vegan, naming the beasts like poets speaking their truths, never needing to kill or till the earth for food or to shear or skin or sew their own clothing. The dream appears in the Sermon on the Mount as a list of reversals for “the blessed”—the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake. Not a fantasy projected into a life beyond this one but a possibility, the dream inspires us work to create a just and peaceable “kingdom of heaven” on earth. Except that we have to live on this earth in the meantime, the mean times.

A more specific dream of a commonwealth emerged around 1681 after King Charles II of England gave William Penn full proprietary rights to one of the largest tracts of land ever granted to an individual in the history of the world. The land came as payment for debts owed to William’s father, Sir Admiral William Penn, a Royal Navy Officer who established Jamaica Station at Port Royal, Jamaica, then sat in the House of Commons for a decade when he wasn’t visiting his confiscated estate in Ireland. The younger William Penn, trained as a lawyer and jailed for his Quaker beliefs in England, while still in his 30s dreamed of creating a province where religious dissenters and persecuted pacifists could live in peace with their indigenous neighbors. As for the Swedes already settled in what would become Pennsylvania, Penn wrote:

For you are now fixed at the mercy of no governor that comes to make his fortune great; you shall be governed by laws of your own making and live a free, and if you will, a sober and industrious life. I shall not usurp the right of any, or oppress his person. God has furnished me with a better resolution and has given me his grace to keep it.[3]

War, global capital, and empire underwrote Penn’s “Holy Experiment”—a peaceable dream realized through settler colonialism— which inspired leaders for as long as the Quakers were in charge here, about 80 years.

Among those whom Penn would invite to join his Holy Experiment were Mennonites who had moved up the Rhine Valley out of Switzerland into the Palatinate at the invitation of Elector Palatine Karl Ludwig, a grandson of England’s King James I. Having proven themselves capable of working marginal lands in the Jura Mountains, the Swiss Mennonites cleared forests, drained swamps, and restored Karl Ludwig’s fields and herds that had been destroyed by the Thirty Years’ War, in return for religious tolerance but not citizenship.

Mennonites from the Palatinate who were converted by Quaker preachers before they migrated to the New World were among those who drafted and signed the 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery, which asserted the equality of enslaved Africans with all other people. The document is strange, written by immigrants not fluent in English and unfamiliar with Anglocentric colonial culture. Unlike the British Friends, Mennonites from Germany and Holland were unaccustomed to seeing slaves used in the production of wealth, so they recognized the contradiction between Quaker spiritual values and their everyday practice. Thereafter, the morality of slaveholding was debated among Friends in Philadelphia for nearly a hundred years, until in 1776 the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting formulated a statement banning slaveholding in Pennsylvania. Rediscovered and preserved in 2005, the original 1688 petition remains important as the first universal human rights statement issued by Europeans in the New World, an inspiration to abolitionists.[4]

For as long as I can remember, Penn’s Holy Experiment has persisted as the cartoon of a dream repeatedly rendered by the early 19th-century Quaker sign painter Edward Hicks. Hicks’s 60-odd versions of the motif he called “The Peaceable Kingdom” depict a legendary meeting between William Penn with other Englishmen  and  Tamanend,  Chief  of  Chiefs and Chief of the Turtle Clan of the Lenni-Lenape nation in the Delaware Valley, with other Lenape chiefs of the Turtle Clan under the great elm tree at Shackamaxon. That encounter takes place in the background. Wild and domestic animals crowd the foreground, lion and lamb of Isaiah 11 at rest with a European child or several children near a river, surrounded by dense forest.[5] Serene beasts, farm animals, and sweet-faced white children dwarf the distant, mythic conversation between Europeans and the first people at a spot now marked within the boundaries of Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.

Although  “the  Great   Treaty”   is   mentioned   in   transcriptions of subsequent meetings between Penn and Lenape leaders, that first conversation was preserved only in oral tradition and various imaginative renderings. Neither transaction nor treaty, the conversation persists in memory and artistic depiction as a pledge of abiding friendship and commitment to peaceful cohabitation in the words traditionally attributed to Chief Tamanend, “for as long as the creeks and rivers run, and while the sun, moon, and stars endure.” In addition to the paintings by Hicks (and later Benjamin West, commissioned for public relations purposes by Penn’s sons), a Lenape wampum belt showing two figures facing one another is said to memorialize the agreement.

In some versions of Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom, a young Christchild holding a grape vine nestles among the wild animals. A verse paraphrase of Isaiah 11 frames the image, sometimes cast in the future, sometimes in the past: sometimes dream, sometimes memory of the commonwealth. A retrospective version, now in the collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, refers directly to William Penn:

The wolf did with the lambkin dwell in peace

His grim carnivorous nature there did cease

The leopard with the harmless kid laid down

And not a savage beast was seen to frown

The lion with the fatling on did move

A little child was leading them in love;

When the great PENN his famous treaty made

With Indian chiefs beneath the Elm trees shade.[6]

In the syntax of these couplets, the wolf, leopard, and lion align with the British men, while the gentler lambkin, kid, and fatling seem to stand for the Indian chiefs. More could be said about the Lenape, characterized as “women” and peacemakers among North America’s indigenous peoples, but I will leave the scene there. What intrigues me is artistic repetition, persistent as nostalgia, stubborn as hope. All of the creatures—human and animal—appear to be equally serene gathered under the limbs of the great tree of life, of the knowledge of good and evil. “He began by making a league with the American Indians which were his neighbors. This is the only treaty between those persons and the Christians which has not been sworn to, and which has not been broken,” wrote Voltaire in 1764.[7]

Last spring, I spent a Saturday afternoon making phone calls to offer information and encouragement to voters who had received mail-in ballots for the upcoming primary election. As a number, name, and prompts popped up on my laptop, I’d hear a telephone ring somewhere in Philadelphia. If the person who answered stayed on the line to converse, the voice invariably registered as “Black” in my mind. The people who spoke with me were kind. Many had already returned their ballots. Nearly all agreed we need change. During the pandemic, homicide rates were soaring in the City of Brotherly Love, ranking it second only to Chicago.[8]

Sometimes people closed the conversation by saying, “Be blessed.” The phrase is a habit in some communities, a theological gesture, as only God can bless, or a simple wish for health and prosperity. In retrospect, I wonder whether this benediction alludes more literally to the Sermon on the Mount. Were those people wishing the well-intentioned “white” voice on a long distance call the blessings and curses of the Beatitudes? In these times of plague, hunger, inequity, and unchecked violence in the streets, might “be blessed” also be an imperative to join the poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure of heart, to be a peacemaker, and to be persecuted for righteousness’s sake?


“The ground that people stand on memorializes and divides them. What kind of politics could help people to turn and face one another?”[9]9

On a topographical map of eastern Pennsylvania, undulating concentric green lines trace the contours of foothills at the southern base of the Blue Mountain, which once served as a boundary between the British colony and French and Indian territory during the Seven Years’ War. Superimposed on that terrain are the outlines of tracts for which the first Amish settlers received survey warrants in the mid-18th century. Here’s my immigrant ancestor, Ulrich Speicher: 193½ acres warranted in 1752 and surveyed in 1755, beside a 13-acre tract surveyed for his son Michael in 1770. Apparently illiterate, Ulrich had scrawled a signatory mark beside his name on lists of men disembarking from the Charming Nancy at Philadelphia’s port in 1737. During the intervening 15 years, he probably worked off his passage and saved money to buy this land.

The map is held in an oversized folio, Early Amish Land Grants in Berks County, Pennsylvania, published in 1990 by the Pequea Bruderschaft Library, an Amish outfit in Gordonville, Pennsylvania. A brief introduction to the book explains that the early Berks County settlers suffered “severe persecution” in their homeland because they would not baptize infants or worship God in a “state church.” Consequently, some were imprisoned, fined, even executed, and their children were taken from them and taught “the wisdom of the world.” They were compelled to flee from one place to another and worship in secret places, their religious books banned. “The government would not allow Anabaptists to own land. . . . This was the life of our forefathers in the European countries.” The author then describes the dangers of Atlantic crossings at that time—“In 1738, 600 emigrants died at sea and were buried in the depths of the ocean”—before praising the courage of the ancestors so determined to find a place where “they could live the life of a Christian.”

Explaining that Quakers were persecuted for their religion in England, the author further asserts that the land settled by Amish farmers was acquired from Penn himself “for a very reasonable price. His theory was to assist the poor people to find a home where religious freedom could be practiced.” In fact, Penn was dead by the time Amish settlers moved into the Tulpehocken watershed. The land was purchased from Thomas and Richard Penn, the grasping sons from the Proprietor’s second marriage. Has it always come down to a hunger for God and land?

The book of Amish land grants makes reference to previous human occupants of the area only once, by implication. A photograph of a stone house rests on the title page above the caption, “Hochstetler homestead, the site of the Hochstetler Massacre on September 21, 1757.” I will not recount that tale except to say that its persistent repetition in popular forms— children’s books, novels, even a Mennonite churchman narrating it for a celebrity on an episode of the television show Who Do You Think You Are?— makes me think Mennonites need to control its meaning. The moral of that story always seems to come down to pacifist identity.[10]

On the edge of a farmer’s field in the Oley Valley near Reading, Pennsylvania, stands an oak tree, estimated to be 700 years old, that Lenape people hold sacred. They occasionally gather there to recall a time when their ancestors lived in that place and the tree had a powerful kind of medicine. In 2004 the Delaware (Lenape) Nation filed suit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, seeking 314 acres of the more than a million acres appropriated by Thomas Penn through a notorious swindle orchestrated in 1737 known as “the Walking Purchase.” But the suit was dismissed. Some years ago, helping me to find my Amish ancestors’ land, historian John Ruth first showed me the Sacred Oak. I stretched my arms against the trunk for a photograph but could not reach even one-fifth of the way around, as I once held my arms partway around the old oak at Salm in the Vosges Mountains of what is now Alsace, France. Amish people had moved up out of Switzerland after 1690 and figured out a way to survive in that place, and their descendants finally became legal citizens and could own land there as a result of the French Revolution. They planted the tree in 1793 to commemorate their being granted special exemption from military service.

Around that time, a generation or two after Ulrich Speicher, the search for more and better land drove the Tulpehocken Amish west, as Lenape and other native people suffered what the Anabaptist ancestors had survived in Europe: hiding in secret places, forced migration, children separated from their parents and compelled to learn new forms of knowledge and faith.

In 1790, Amish people first arrived in the Kishoquillas Valley of central Pennsylvania, named for a Shawnee chief who befriended John Armstrong, an Irish civil engineer who came to Pennsylvania to work as a surveyor for the Penn family and later served as an officer in the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution. Now commonly called “Big Valley,” this is where my parents were born and raised, and where I lived briefly. As a boy, my father walked behind a horse and plow in those fields, sometimes pulling up arrowheads, quartz crystals, or limestone fossils studded with silver mollusks. What we call “mountains” around here—ridges, really—were once as high as the Himalayas. What we call “valleys” were once submerged under oceans. The earth holds it all, and we live on the layers, plowing, writing.

Mennonites from Lancaster County migrated north to settle unceded land along the Grand River in Waterloo County, Ontario, after the Revolution. A man from Big Valley rode a horse to that settlement, sold it, and walked back—a distance of about 700 miles round-trip—twice, to gather enough money to buy land in Big Valley. That story is told to show how precious the place is, how hard we have worked—and how shrewdly mindful of markets we have been—as if such labor, like persecution, might somehow eclipse the memory of those others who also loved the place before us.

“If you own land, you have blood on your hands,” the late Jewish- American writer Jerome Badanes told me years ago when I came to know him at an artists’ colony. “Since the formation of Israel, the most significant cultural contribution of the Jews has been the invention of the Uzi!”[11] Blinded by romantic Mennonite agrarianism, I found his words almost impossible to absorb, and only now can I hear in his reference to “blood and land” the genocidal resonances and consequences of settler colonialism.

By the end of the 19th century, groups of Amish people, enabled by the Homestead Act, departed from the settlement in Big Valley for Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, and Oregon, places recently taken from tribes in the west. For most who stayed behind, land did not come easily. Both of my parents were born on tenant farms owned by absent, worldly landlords. Not until the prosperity of World War II could their fathers purchase modest homesteads. As a child I spent summers in Big Valley, and my affection for Holstein cows, pasture streams, a full and fragrant hay mow, and the barn that burned in 2001 has long fueled my writing. Considering the power of nostalgia in politics after the end of communism in eastern Europe, historian Svetlana Boym diagnoses the variety of nostalgia (nostos [home place] + algia [ache]) I feel, brooding as I often do on “the ambivalences of human longing and belonging.” This nostalgia she calls “reflective” and suggests that it has some uses beyond the production of literature, among them the interrogation of another kind of nostalgia she calls “restorative.”[12]

Restorative  nostalgia  makes  dubious  truth  claims  that  prop  up traditions that probably never existed, at least not in the pure forms it recalls. It fuels populist political movements with slogans such as “Make America Great Again,” whether championed by Ronald Reagan in 1980 or Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. Trump’s restorative nostalgia underwrites the ideology of far-right groups that seek to expel or exclude outsiders with a rationale similar to the “blood and soil” ideology of the lkisch movement that opposed modernity from the late19th century to the Nazi era in Germany and today inspires alt-right “Folkish” groups in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. When I recently drove by my Spicher family’s home farm in Big Valley,

I noticed a large Trump campaign sign stood in front of the implement shed. It was placed there by the local Republican party, my resident cousin told me apologetically (at least acknowledging the Amish Mennonite tradition of non-involvement in national politics), contending that it’s easier for farmers when the Republicans are in charge. Our home place is now the largest dairy in the county. Two Spicher brothers farm more than 900 acres, renting and owning some of the fields our grandfather tenant-farmed in the 1930s. They haul daily tanker-loads of milk to a grocery chain bottling plant to the east and a Land-O’-Lakes butter factory to the west. Almost 600 milk cows and 600 heifers produce enough manure to generate electricity for the dairy and five households, with some left over to sell back to the grid.

My cousins employ three local “retired” crop farmers and a crew of six short, dark-skinned men who live in a trailer on the property and milk the cows. I noticed bicycles propped against the side of the trailer—to ride to the milking parlor? Or to the Dollar Store, the Sharp Shopper, or the thrift shop down the road? The men come from rural parts of central America and are good with animals, I’m told. One has lived in Big Valley for six years without returning home. Two brothers on this farm and another on a dairy over the mountain send their wages home to a father who intends to purchase a coffee plantation in Guatemala. I guess these details were shared with me to show that those gentle herdsmen from the countryside have more in common with their employers than meets the eye.

Like the man who walked to Ontario to trade horses, my cousins have found a way to work an unpredictable, tight market and secure the family farm. Their workers come from a country where wealth distribution is among the most unequal in the world, and where crises caused by climate change are among the most severe. What contradictions do these men notice on the Spicher farm? Or are they solely focused on earning the funds impossible to obtain at home? More than three-quarters of the indigenous population in Guatemala lives below the poverty line, mostly in rural places where malnutrition stunts almost half the children.[13] Remittances sent home by workers living abroad were expected to account for 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2020, nearly all coming from the United States.[14] In the global economy, any place can be a borderland.

About 30 miles from the Spicher farm, I live in a small town that serves as the governmental seat of Centre County, named for its central position in the Commonwealth, one ridge and a narrow valley south of the Allegheny Front, the western edge of the old English colony. When people spoke three European languages in Bellefonte, this place was also crossed by an east-west trail used by Lenape hunters driven westward, and an important north-south trade route for the Haudenosaunee, or Nations of the Iroquois Federation that extended from upstate New York to the Natchez Trace in Tennessee. Early Presbyterian settlers, themselves driven by religious and land disputes in Scotland and Ireland, found maize growing in clearings already planted in these valleys. When the newcomers thrust plows in the ground, they hit iron ore, so ore mining, limestone quarrying, lumbering became our first extractive industries, fueling the region’s earliest iron furnaces and forges.

The Allegheny Front also marks the edge of the Marcellus Shale Formation, the largest natural gas field in the United States, extending from New York to Tennessee, roughly mapping onto coal fields, and developed in the 21st century through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking). “Eminent Domain” is the term local judges use to grant access to land the owners have refused to lease to drilling and pipeline companies. “Criminal contempt” is the ground on which one judge sentenced a woman to three months in our county jail because she allegedly baited bears and mountain lions to interfere with construction of the pipeline that will haul liquefied natural gas to the port at Philadelphia for export to Scotland.[15] Game wardens say that the last mountain lion around here was shot well before the 20th century, yet the creatures persist in myth and personal testimony, figures of faith like God, a student once wrote in an essay. When I sent a poem to the woman in jail, she replied that she’d like to embroider samplers of all the nice things people had written to her during her incarceration. About a mile from my home, a 48-inch natural gas pipeline lies buried under a cornfield. Compressor stations posted along the right of way keep the gas moving to urban markets; the pipeline passes under the Big Valley Spicher farm.

In September, the local newspaper confirmed what we felt all summer around here: hottest days since 1892, nearly six degrees warmer than last year and combined with a drought in July and August, the likes of which we haven’t seen in at least 60 years. One farmer told me he measured eight- tenths of an inch of rain in all of July, whereas a typical summer sees about an inch a week. He stood on a hill on his farm at the foot of Harry John Mountain and pointed to eight farms that once were dairies; seven of those, including his own, can no longer support a herd of milk cows. Not wildfire in the West or hurricanes flooding countries in Central America, collective crises caused by the climate emergency, these quiet catastrophes—also caused by raising temperatures—are mostly experienced as personal failures: debt and bankruptcy, shame for having made the wrong choice somewhere. One man wondered if it was “maybe a hundred-year cycle.” Someone else blamed Michele Obama and her push for healthier school lunches that serve unsavory skim milk and kill the taste for dairy.

Whatever nostalgic claims I may lay on the Spicher home farm, I moved to Bellefonte to take a job at Penn State, a public land grant institution established in the 19th century and endowed by “Indian removal” and federal sales of vast territories in the west. Unlike the wives of some farmers around here, I do not work on campus to stabilize a fluctuating agricultural income or provide employer-funded health insurance for my family. In recent elections, Centre County shows up as a blue island in the rural red sea stretching from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. Here, as elsewhere in the US and Canada, cities occupy a tiny sliver of the land mass but are home to a majority of the voting population; cities generate the media, control wealth, graft off the young people, and consume nutritious agricultural products from the country, define the values of the dominant culture, and write its laws and regulations. Cities create “the wisdom of the world.”


“These are the terms in which a commonwealth is possible: a way of living in which our survival and flourishing do not prey constantly and involuntarily on the lives of others, in which instead, my flourishing is the condition for your flourishing, and yours reciprocally of mine.”[16]

A praying mantis, his tan back nearly matching the parched grass of my lawn, stops me on my way back from the garden. As a child, I heard “preying” and feared these uncanny creatures with their shifting, angular heads, bulging all-seeing eyes, and tiny, barbed claws. Just now, looking it up, I see not “preying” but “praying.” Things are not always what we think.

Maybe things are not as bad as we imagine, doomscrolling the news. Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe the global economy has not grown so complex and politics so polarized that there’s nothing left to do but collapse under the weight of our own making. Maybe the moral authority of religious leaders and institutions is not so compromised that they cannot intervene on behalf of the poor. Maybe the climate emergency is not so far gone that we can’t wake up and finally see that there’s no place left to flee this vast and general assault. No new world to find, despite the recent maneuverings of Mennonites from Belize, hell-bent on clearing more of the forest in Peru in order to maintain the agrarian lifestyle, insisting in the old familiar way that “The calling of God is higher than the calling of this government.”[17] Perhaps the longing eyes we cast on the land will finally inspire us to conserve acreage rather than acquire it. These days it’s easy to see history as a repository of cruelty and abuse, easy to blame Evangelical Christians or nostalgic flag-waving gun- toters, harder to find radical visions of hope or see common ground. What would it mean to pray?

Prowling around my town on pandemic lockdown, I see so many yard signs, not just from the contentious presidential election in this “battleground state” but from a more local war that’s raged for months. Last spring, around the time Washington DC’s football team dropped the name “Redskins,” alumni and students of Bellefonte High School gathered more than 4,000 signatures on a petition to retire the school’s sports mascot, a clichéd image of an “Indian,” complete with the kind of feathered war bonnet associated with the plains people rather than the woodland tribes who lived around here. A counter-petition to save the mascot and team name, “Red Raiders,” gathered more than 5,000 signatures. All in a town of only 6,000 people! Those agitating for change created a Facebook page and website to offer resources and explain why such mascots are outdated and wrong, noting that the “Red Raider” name, which everyone holds in such nostalgic esteem, was only adopted in the 1930s. Since then, the conflict has played out in newspaper letters, protests, and signs that have proliferated the red silhouette of the mascot with the mottos “Save our Mascot” or “Proud to be a  Bellefonte  Red  Raider.”

In one lawn, two signs signal a connection between this local issue and the Black Lives Matter protests inspired by a police killing in Minneapolis this past summer. One homemade sign reads “All Lives Matter, Especially .” The arrow points to a “Save our Mascot” sign. The connection between BLM and the mascot, I guess, is the desire to keep things as they have been, to tend to this local place and resist a perceived threat from the outside cultural arbiters affiliated with the university and distant urban places who call for change. On one e-mail chain, an older woman who grew up in Bellefonte and is now involved in historic preservation wrote, “If we get rid of the mascot, how will anyone remember that Indians lived here?”

Pennsylvania was established as a Commonwealth in 1776, the same year Quakers banned slavery. Massachusetts, Virginia, and Kentucky (formerly Virginia) are the other commonwealths among the US. Practically speaking, being  a  commonwealth today  means  we have  stronger  local governments, which mainly plays out as an elaborate tax system and confusing liquor controls. Township and borough police have the power to arrest, while county sheriffs do little. Municipal zoning boards can sometimes fend off fracking and pipeline construction. One township declared “home rule” and successfully fought an energy company’s decision to dispose of fracking waste in their area, as shown in Invisible Hand,[18] a recently released documentary created in conversation with members of the Seneca Nation.

The dream of the commonwealth persists in an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution passed in 1971. Article 1, Section 27 recognizes the citizens’ civil right to “clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” It makes “Pennsylvania’s public natural resources . . . the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come” (emphasis mine). The Commonwealth is designated as the “trustee of these resources,” required to “conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.” Some other state Constitutions have one or the other of these two statements but few have both. Our legislature has a long history of selling commonwealth resources to the highest bidder, but this amendment proposes that the land beneath our feet deserves the same protections as freedom of religion or speech. Long dormant, it has been revived in recent decisions to challenge fracking legislation, and environmental law experts believe it can support regulations to address the climate emergency and support draw down of greenhouse gas emissions.[19] At protests, I have seen people wearing T-shirts printed with nothing but the text of this amendment to the State Constitution.

In the flowerbed in front of my house, tubers shared by a colleague last spring have grown into verdant shrubs crowned with rich bursts of ruby the size of my fist with a blush of gold at the base of their petals. Dahlias along with marigolds and zinnias astounded the Spanish conquerors when they arrived at Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. All the hot summer, whenever I washed dishes, I carried rinse water out and dumped the dishpan onto their gorgeous, complex, violent beauty, remembering my mother who, after she and my father returned from the 1997 Mennonite World Conference in Calcutta, could no longer bear to pour clean water down the drain. She took it outside and watered a rose bush because, I suppose, doing even that tiny thing felt better than doing nothing.

And where does God go by the end of an essay about land? When we pray, if we pray, what do we do but open our hearts and minds to change? Maybe it’s not what we think. New ideas and new deals, yes, and let us also hear themes that persist in our best old dreams. “Fantasies of the past determined by needs of the present have a direct impact on realities of the future,” Boym puts it plainly.[20] The rationale for the first universal human rights statement in the New World, the 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery was not a complex argument but simply an outsider’s insistence on an ancient ethic: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Julia  Spicher  Kasdorf is Liberal Arts Professor of English, Penn State University, University Park, Pennsylvania.

[1] Jedediah Purdy, This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2019).

[2] Ibid., xx.

[3] Mary Barbagballo,“Penn’s Pen: Caretaker of a New World,” http://www.pennsburymanor. org/penns-pen-caretaker-of-a-new-world/, last modified July 1, 2012.

[4] “Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery,” National Park Service, https://www.nps. gov/articles/quakerpetition.htm, accessed December 28, 2020.

[5] Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom c. 1884, National Gallery of Art, collection/art-object-page.59908.html, accessed December 28, 2020.

[6] Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom, Philadelphia Museum of Art, https://philamuseum. org/collections/permanent/56662.html, accessed December 28, 2020.

[7] Voltaire, Dict. phil., 7, 17-18 quoted in “Peace Treaty,” Penn Treaty Museum, 2020, http://, accessed December 28, 2020.

[8] “Philadelphia Among Top Deadliest Cities in the U.S. this year,” August 4, 2020, https://6abc. com/philadelphia-crime-homicide-stats-philly-murders/6351850/, accessed December 28, 2020.

[9] Purdy, This Land is Our Land, 20.

[10] Beth Hostetler Mark, ed., Our Flesh & Blood: A Documentary History of the Jacob Hochstetler Family During the French and Indian War Period, 1757-1765 (Elkhart, IN: Jacob Hochstetler Family Association, 2003).

[11] A submachine gun adopted by Israel in 1951, reportedly sold to more than 90 countries.

[12] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), xv-xvii.

[13] Hector Delgado, “Wisdom of Guatemala’s Indigenous People Needed for Sustainable Development,” August 30, 2020, UN News,, accessed December 28, 2020.

[14] Mario Arturo Garcia, “For the first time Remittances in Guatemala Have Surpassed US $1 Billion in One Month,” August 21, 2020, Elfaro (Spanish language news source), https://elfaro. net/en/202008/internacionales/24742/For-the-First-Time-Remittances-to-Guatemala-Have- Surpassed-US$1-Billion-in-One-Month-What-Does-this-Mean.htm, accessed December 28, 2020.

[15] Scott Blanchard, “Ellen Gerhart, fighting pipeline on family’s land, jailed for allegedly violating court order,” State Impact PA (collaborative broadcast and online media service), July 28, 2018, pipeline-on-familys-land-jailed-for-allegedly-violating-court-order/, accessed December 28, 2020.

[16] Purdy, This Land Is Our Land, 146.

[17] “Belize colony Mennonites look to Peru,” December 9, 2020, Anabaptist World, https://, accessed December 28, 2020.

[19] Robert B. McKinstry Jr. and John C. Dernbach, “Applying the Pennsylvania Environmental Rights Amendment Meaningfully to Climate Disruption,” Michigan Journal of Environmental and  Administrative  Law  8,  no.  1  (2018):  49-114,, accessed December 28, 2020.

[20] Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, xvi.

Isaac S. Villegas
ABSTRACT: The author brings the 16th-century apocalyptic preachers’ “gospel of all creatures” into conversation with Jedediah Purdy’s environmental politics project. This gospel breaks through anthropocentric theologies, views nonhuman creatures as agents of evangelism, offers a message of salvation, and sees baptism as a ritual of commitment to a movement of radical reformation, a struggle against oppressive dominions. The Anabaptist environmental theology the author explores recognizes the crucified body of Christ whose “tortured yet enduring love is a presence of consolation and strength.” To know such love involves “solidarity with the wounded life of our kin,” human and other-than-human alike.

Sequoias visit in my dreams. They’ve come to me ever since a camping trip in Northern California when I was in my early twenties. We arrived at night and pitched our tent in the darkness. At dawn, bleary-eyed, I stepped out of the tent and glimpsed towering figures around me. I blinked away the sleep and, with my gaze, followed their trunks until they disappeared into the fog above. Dizzied at the sight of their massive presence, I crouched to the ground, taking a seat on the remnants of their leaves, decomposed into the earth’s skin. Their roots cradled my body.

Last  night,  here  in  North  Carolina,  on  the  opposite  side  of  the continent, the trees visited me again. This time they were on fire.


In “Losing a Country,” the middle chapter of This Land Is Our Land, Jedediah Purdy recounts the landscape of his dreams since moving from the mountains of West Virginia to the lowlands of central North Carolina. “In these dreams,” he writes, “I started out walking up a wooded slope, and—departing from the low terrain of the Carolina Piedmont where I lived then—the slope rose through the loblolly pine into steep pastures. The pastures leveled out into high meadows, then rose to crests of stone.” While the terrain varies slightly from dream to dream, he finds himself led to an elevated spot, “the highest landform,” a vantage point from which to look across the landscape below, to see how the fields and valleys and hills fit together as a whole.[1]

“These  dreams,” Purdy interprets his subconscious, “sketch  a geography of thinking, a way of seeing a place whole without being overcome by it . . . to get above a terrain without leaving it, to merge many small horizons into one image.”[2] He experiences his own dreams as glimpses of a mind’s “bafflement and fear” at the political “opacity” that ensued after the election of Donald Trump. The dreamscapes are a “personal way of talking about paths out of, or through, the dark wood where some of us woke up on November 9, 2016 and have been wandering since.”[3] Lost in the forest, Purdy searches for clarity of vision, to make sense of what has become of our world.

I woke up lost in those same woods, wandering in the terror of Trump’s regime. Those years were one crisis after another. I rushed from protest to rally, from marches to direct actions, from calling representatives to facilitating strategy sessions. The US federal administration unleashed political arsonists throughout society. This country was on fire, is on fire. That would explain the forest ablaze in my nightmare, where flames engulf trees as if I’ve dreamed myself into a scene from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.[4] With Butler’s protagonist Lauren Olamina as my guide, together we watch the California landscape turn to ash.

Henry Thoreau guides Purdy through his restless dreams. Purdy takes an 1854 journal entry from Thoreau as a way into his sense of wandering, of looking for a vantage point to make sense of what has gone awry: “I did not know at first what ailed me. At last it occurred to me that what I had lost was a country.”[5] Purdy resonates with Thoreau’s disorientation, the disintegration of a political self: “He was describing a mind under pressure, flattened and interrupted by outrage, lies that became law, laws that became facts, and fact that, uncontested, became the truth,” Purdy writes. “Losing a country meant, for Thoreau, seeing these moral lies become legal and physical facts, knowing they were made in his name because he was part of the political power that made them.”[6] Purdy names the tragic situation of a person—like himself, like Thoreau, like me—whose rights and privileges, whose status as a US citizen, depends on and participates in a federal government’s subjugation of others. In his journal entry, Thoreau grapples with US President Pierce’s decision under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Act to deport Anthony Burns from Massachusetts back to the estate of a slaveholder in Virginia, Charles Suttle, from whom he had escaped. Federal marshals had arrested and detained Burns in Boston, twenty miles from Thoreau’s cabin near Walden pond. “The remembrance of my country spoils my walk,” he writes. “My thoughts are murder to the state.”[7]  He names a condition of the mind common to all of us who have known the treachery of political authorities who claim to represent us yet crush our hopes for society.

Thoreau’s nature walks were not an escape from political life. Alone at Walden, he was occupied with others. His country haunted his solitude. The ground under his feet remembered the impressions of past cultures, their absence a sign of the violence of civilization. Histories of destruction perdure in our surroundings: “nature and landscape are palimpsests of history and social violence more than they are respites from these things.”[8] The environment bears witness to repressions. The unexamined life tries to forget what nature remembers. To “know thyself ” is to know a place—the formation of a terrain, the histories of habitation. Self-knowledge involves politically aware environmental epistemologies: to see “in a landscape,” Purdy writes, “the nonhuman body of the species, in which the history of economic and political life is written as vividly as in the laws.”[9]

That Walden offers a vantage point into an anguished world is a theme Purdy develops in his earlier book, After Nature. He concludes a chapter on “Natural Utopias” with an account of Thoreau’s “ecological mysticism,” a contemplative mode of reflection that recognizes the woundedness of nature.[10] Purdy turns to the pages late in Walden where Thoreau meditates on the railroad—how workers split open the ground to lay the tracks, “a quarter-mile gash in the earth.”[11] These sights and sounds of civilization are internal to his rural New England environs. “The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell,” Thoreau notes. “I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link.”[12] The outside is inside, the beyond is present, steel rails connect his life to Anthony Burns. In his backwoods cabin, Thoreau doesn’t escape the world; instead, solitude is a confrontation with the cruelties of his country. He reads the signs of violence carved into the ground as he walks to his pond.

As he describes the spot where the railroad slices open the hillside, the register of Thoreau’s language shifts to the vocabulary of the body—the ground depicted as wounded flesh. Purdy summarizes the imagery: “The bowels that show the harmony and aliveness of all matter have been spilled out, cut as if with the bodily violence that reveals literal bowels.”[13] In Thoreau’s own words: “I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body.”[14] In the broken land, Purdy notes, Thoreau “achieves insight into the unity of things.”[15] Earth’s brokenness offers revelations. The wounds in nature disclose truths. Thoreau’s contemplative gaze unearths the violations layered into the environment. “[P]rofanation is simply the condition of the world,” Purdy concludes his reflection on Thoreau, “which is redeemed, if at all, by our deeper apprehension of that condition.”[16]

When  he  returns  to  Thoreau  in  This  Land  Is  Our  Land,  Purdy highlights this  Thoreauvian  imagination,  the  environmental  experience as provoking political visions. “His nature tugs and jostles him to new vantage points.”[17] Purdy’s dream life internalizes this tugging and jostling, with landscapes visiting his subconscious. He intensifies Thoreau’s intimacy with nature, where the self becomes a site of environmental presences, which include remnants of degradation, of harm. “The Thoreau I come to feels the accumulated violence of the country in his body.”[18] These are the multitudes a human life contains. Purdy’s environmental politics calls for an apprehension of this condition, as he puts it, an imagination that grows from recognizing our complicity in a profaned world.

“Listen,” God instructs Cain in the book of Genesis, “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.”[19] In this biblical narrative, violence haunts landscapes. The earth remembers, and speaks: “the ground makes known and responds to human violence,” Mari Jørstad describes the soil’s reaction to Abel’s murder: “the ground assesses human conduct and responds accordingly.”[20] Not only does the landscape indict the killer, Cain becomes subservient to the earth’s agency. “Cain is no longer the protagonist of his story,” Jørstad explicates the narrative’s plot. “Instead the ground shapes his life.”[21]

Like Thoreau gazing at the earth cut open, Genesis confronts readers with the condition of profanation, the ground bearing witness to human destruction—although the environmental imagination cultivated in Genesis claims more agency for the earth than Thoreau. At Walden the hillside prompts revelations for the seekers, whereas the landscape in Genesis 4 accosts God with a repressed truth. The biblical scene shocks the reader with possibilities for the ground to instigate conversation—for soil to give voice to the life received into the earth’s care, to speak on behalf of the blood.

“Cain murdered Abel, and the blood cried out from the earth,” Marilynne  Robinson  begins  a  chapter  late  in  her  novel  Housekeeping. “The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted.”[22] All creation groans. Nature absorbs what has been lost, who has been lost—the materiality of the earth as an expression of the longing for redemption, the life of hillsides and rivers as demands for an impossible reconciliation. Robinson’s narrator recounts the early chapters of Genesis as the comingling of human and environmental history, one storyline inseparable from the other.

Cain became his children and their children and theirs, through a thousand generations, and all of them transients, and wherever they went everyone remembered that there had been a second creation, that the earth ran with blood and sang with sorrow. And let God purge this wicked sadness away with a flood, and let the waters recede to pools and ponds and ditches, and let every one of them mirror heaven. Still, they taste a bit of blood and hair…. Well, all that was purged away, and nothing is left of it after so many years but a certain pungency and savor in the water, and in the breath of creeks and lakes, which, however sad and wild, are clearly human.[23]

Nature, as displayed here in Robinson’s biblical imagination, is bodily—tissue as soil, veins as mycelia, plasma in the water. The earth aches with loss and alienation.

Robinson’s depiction of nature shares Thoreau’s vision of an earth alive with human profanations, landscapes as sites for the apprehension of our condition, an opportunity for “insight into the unity of things,” to borrow Purdy’s description of Thoreau’s experience of the hillside cut open. For Robinson, however, the unity coheres in a longing for the presence of the disappeared: “But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh.”[24] A desire for redemption, for healing, animates this natural world. Robinson’s writing echoes with Pauline theology: “Creation waits with eager longing [to] be set free from its bondage to decay.”[25]

The German theologian and activist Dorothee Soelle would nudge the apostle Paul to clarify that natural disintegration is not the problem; instead, we need to be freed from the fear of decay: a psycho-spiritual liberation from death’s torments. “The idea that I am a part of nature, that I fall down like a leaf and rot, is not an idea that instills terror in me,” Soelle wrote from her deathbed, “the tree continues to grow, grass grows, birds sing, and I am part of this whole. I am at home in this cosmos.”[26] Yet, to claim that creation experiences decay as bondage projects human sentiment onto other parts of nature. Death is an opportunity to yield the self to the whole, Soelle reasoned from her observations of the natural world, because we are all bound together in a network of gift exchange, which is called life. Conversely, she could be ignorant of the language of trees, which may scream in pain as the wind rips leaves from branches.[27]


This year, when the sequoias visit my dreams, their bodies ablaze as wildfires roar along the Sierra Nevada mountain range, they startle me awake—not with voices but with howls, with shrieks from the flames as their bark blisters. I do not have a lexicon for this interspecies communication, to render the expressions of trees intelligible for human beings. And I know that my psychology metabolizes the panic of our climate catastrophe through dreams. But I also know that peoples native to this continent—human communities that have grown up with these forests for generations—have said that the trees find ways to speak to us. “Did you know that trees talk?” asked Tatanga Mani (English: Walking Buffalo), a 20th-century leader of the Bearspaw First Nation, a band of the Nakoda people. “They talk to each other, and they’ll talk to you if you listen,” he continued. “I have learned a lot from trees; sometimes about the weather, sometimes about animals, sometimes about the Great Spirit.”[28]

From time to time stories about Anabaptists in spiritual communion among trees, with trees, emerge from European archives—“primarily in the form of reports in the records about secret worship services held in a neighboring forest,” as French historian Jean Rott discovered in a cache of documents, including the following account.[29] In 1574 a Lutheran vicar in the Alsatian city of Strasbourg infiltrated a group of Anabaptists gathering for worship in the woods. “During the preaching (lest I forget to mention it),” Elias Schad reports, “some were leaning against trees.” After the sermon “all knelt, each usually before an oak tree as if he were worshipping it.” The women and men, two hundred of them, prayed for half an hour or so. “There was a great audible murmuring as if a nest of hornets were swarming,” Schad notes. “I was unable to make out a single word, much less a sentence; for they never raised their heads and they sighed and groaned and moaned . . . they sighed and groaned for the Spirit.”[30]


Thoreau guides Purdy into conversations with nature. My guides are not as prominent in the historical record, which offers only fragmentary insights into their epiphanies about the natural world.

In 16th-century central Europe, as the masses revolted against political and ecclesial hierarchies, theological sensibilities within peasant communities coalesced into a perspective that stressed the strength and solidarity of God through nature. Apocalyptic preachers wandered from town to village, from countryside to city, spreading “the gospel of all creatures.”[31] Their message turned hearers to other-than-human creation for revelations of Christ because, as the preachers declared, the flesh of nature remembers Jesus’ sufferings. The gospel of all creatures takes a Christological vantage point into natural theology, with the particularity of Christ’s life and death as the subject of nature’s theophanies.

We glimpse early articulations of this theology in Thomas Müntzer and Hans Hut’s sermons and reflections.[32] “Holy Scripture shows nothing else—as all the creatures bear witness—than the crucified Son of God,” Müntzer wrote in his “A Highly Provoked Defense,” a reply to Martin Luther’s condemnation of the peasants.[33] This theology also appears in an anonymous tract from the same decade, The Mystery of Baptism, attributed to Hut. “In the gospel of all creatures nothing else is shown and preached but the crucified Christ alone,” the author explained. “But not Christ as the head alone, rather the whole Christ with all his members—this is the Christ that all creatures preach and teach.”[34]  God commissions animals and rivers to preach and teach their kin—a gospel for human and other-than-human creatures alike; for the body of Christ, the incarnation of God, includes members from all of creation.

This gospel breaks through anthropocentric theologies while pointing to an ecclesial center in that nonhuman creatures are agents of evangelism, offering a message of salvation, an invitation to the baptismal waters, a ritual that constitutes the church’s identity.[35] This gospel beckons human beings to be baptized into Christ and all his relations. To join the Christian body is not a promise of escape but a union, ever deepened, with this life—to let the mourning and hope of this earth wash through us. “[T]he water of every grief is the true essence and meaning of baptism, in which the person sinks in the death of Christ,” says The Mystery of Baptism, “Christ also accepted this covenant from God in the Jordan river . . . the baptism of every grief.”[36] In baptism human flesh absorbs memories that long for redemption. The primordial oceans and ponds and creeks described in Robinson’s novel— “they taste a bit of blood and hair”—swirl through this baptismal water.

However, the gospel of all creatures depicts baptism not as an invitation for individuals to contemplate the mysteries of profaned nature but as a practice of solidarity, a ritual of commitment to a movement of radical reformation—full immersion into the call of redemption. This baptism is a person’s yieldedness (i.e., Gelassenheit) to the labor of hope, a sacrificial devotion to a struggle for another world to be born within this one, within Christ’s body, a membership extending beyond human relationships.[37] From God’s perspective, according to The Mystery of Baptism, in baptism the Spirit bathes the body with Christ’s presence and promises to comfort and strengthen the community.

A true, genuine friend of God, who daily waits for the Lord and in consolation hopes in him, will have his heart strengthened, so that he can bear the will of the Lord under the cross. Everything that such a person suffers is called the suffering of Christ and not ours, for with Christ they who suffer are one body with many members, united and bound together through the bond of love. Therefore Christ takes care of such people as his own body.[38]

In baptismal waters the person joins nature’s ache for redemption and discovers the crucified Jesus alive with consolation and hope.

The submersion of baptism, according to the gospel of all creatures, is union with the Christ who empowers a movement for liberation, a struggle against oppressive dominions whose power over life derives from the threat of death. The baptized commit to the life of Jesus, who did not let the threat of being killed determine his ethics, his political vision—his love. He loved this world to the end: gathering companions, caring for them as if they were part of his own body.


To offer Anabaptist reflections as opening up a public conversation with Purdy’s work feels awkward because he is a friend, which means this essay will function as notes for a future discussion. Part of the reason we are friends, I assume, is that we share a political vision for this world, our home—a politics that shapes our hopes and concerns about our environment. The clear- sightedness of Purdy’s writing during the Trump administration has guided my own grasp of our situation. Despite how terrible things have become in this country, Purdy has a vision for what might be possible around the corner. “If the problem is the world we have built, then it is in our power to build another,” he writes in concluding This Land Is Our Land, which exhorts the reader to strive for the Green New Deal. “To make a safer, stabler world, we will have to shake the pillars of this one.”[39] He writes with hope, for which I am grateful.

Hope is the theme of the final chapter of the first theological book I read about our environmental life as Christians: Dorothee Soelle’s To Work and To Love: A Theology of Creation.[40] My teacher, professor Willie Jennings, had recommended it, perhaps as a gentle invitation to improve the questions I was asking in his course on the doctrine of creation. Soelle concludes with a call to the work of hope: “I think that struggle is the source of hope. There is no hope without struggle.” She articulates the Christian faith refracted through Marxist commitments for social change: “There is no hope that drops from heaven through the intervention of God. Hope lies in the struggle.”[41] Soelle strengthens the faithful in this struggle for the health of our environment, and Purdy outlines a hopeful rationale for a political program for a sustainable relationship between human society and the rest of nature. The promise and possibility of their discourses are similar.

And both end with a word of love. Purdy closes After Nature with a call to find in nature something to love, an impulse which “engages animist intuitions and carries us toward post-humanism.”[42] On the last page of To Work and To Love, after Soelle also exhorts the reader to love (“become resisters and lovers of life”), she turns from the human ethics of love to the recognition that we are loved, that nature flows with the love who the Scriptures name as God: “‘Lover of the living’ is an old name for God (Wis. of Sol. 11:26).”[43] That seems to be the heart of the theological contribution to conversations about nature: the acknowledgement of a subject who loves all of life at once, from before the beginning until after the end, and whose solidarity manifests as a “bond of love,” to borrow language from The Mystery of Baptism, never to be undone, because the materiality of existence has become internal to the life of God in Mary’s womb: the creator as creature, a creaturehood bound together with all of nature.

This incarnation of God, according to the gospel of all creatures, is inseparable from the crucifixion. The one implies the other. When God’s love became part of creation in Jesus, this world killed that life—and creation bears witness to that history of rejection, the otherness of God revealed in the violence of the cross, “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”[44] The woundedness of life remembers the crucified love of God. The Anabaptist environmental theology I have explored, in conversation with Purdy’s work, returns to the disemboweled hillside near Walden’s pond, the rivers that mourn in Robinson’s novel, the trees on fire in my dream, and recognizes the crucified body of Christ whose tortured yet enduring love is a presence of consolation and strength. To know such love involves the intimate work of solidarity with the wounded life of our kin, a baptism into a body whose membership includes the human and other-than-human alike, a union that promises the delight and heartache of love’s embrace regardless of what the future holds.[45]

Isaac S. Villegas is the Pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

[1] Jedediah Purdy, This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2019), 66.

[2] Ibid., 68.

[3] Ibid., 69.

[4] Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows (1993); Grand Central Publishing, 2000).

[5] Purdy, This Land Is Our Land, 57.

[6] Ibid., 59.

[7] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1997).

[8] Ibid.

[9] This Land Is Our Land, 66.

[10] Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2015), 148.

[11] Ibid., 149.

[12] Thoreau, Walden, 109.

[13] Purdy, After Nature, 149.

[14] Thoreau, Walden, 286.

[15] Purdy, After Nature, 150.

[16] Ibid., 151.

[17] Purdy, This Land Is Our Land, 74.

[18] Ibid., 75.

[19] Genesis 4:10, NRSV

[20] Mari Jørstad, The Hebrew Bible and Environmental Ethics: Humans, Nonhumans, and the Living Landscape (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2019), 58, 60. For my review of Jørstad’s book, see Isaac Villegas, “All earth is grieving,” The Christian Century 137, no.

1  (January  1,  2020):  30-33, treated-all-creation-plants-and-stars-soil-and-rivers-our-kin.

[21] Jørstad, Hebrew Bible and Environmental Ethics, 59.

[22] Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1980), 192.

[23] Ibid., 193.

[24] Ibid., 195.

[25]Romans 8:19-21, NRSV

[26] Dorothee Soelle, They Mystery of Death, trans. Nancy Lukens-Rumscheidt and Martin Lukens-Rumscheidt (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 117.

[27] Not only do we project human anxieties about death onto other species, we impose one person’s experience of death onto others—as if there are proper and improper ways to die, adjudications in Western discourses as old as Socrates and Jesus. Thomas W. Laqueur provides accounts of the politics of determining the meaning of a life based on someone’s attitude toward death in The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), 186-210.

[28] Quoted in T.C. McLuhan, Touch the Earth: A Self Portrait of Indian Existence (New York, NY: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1972), 23. Vine Deloria observes that “If the nature of the world is a ‘single continuous stream of life,’ there is no reason to reject the idea that one can learn to hear the trees talk. It would be strange if they did not have the power to communicate.” —Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red: A Native View of Religion (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2003), 93.

[29] See the editor’s introduction to Elias Schad, “True Account of an Anabaptist Meeting at Night in a Forest and a Debate Held There with Them,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 58 (July 1984): 292-95. I’m grateful to Jamie Pitts for sharing this reference with me.

[30] Schad, “True Account of an Anabaptist Meeting,” 294.

[31] Werner O. Packull provides a helpful account of the 16th-century Radical Reformation movement in the Swiss-German context. See his “The Origins of Swiss Anabaptism in the Context of the Reformation of the Common Man,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 3 (1985): 36-58, and “In Search of the ‘Common Man’ in Early German Anabaptist Ideology,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 17, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 51-67. According to Packull this gospel fueled the egalitarian nature of the Anabaptist movement in contrast to the elitism of the magisterial Reformers: “What is important in this context is that [Hans] Hut directed his gospel of all creatures against any monopoly of divine revelation by clerical estate. The witness of the creatures opened to the very poor and the illiterate the possibility of hearing the gospel directly.”—Packull, “In Search of the ‘Common Man,’” 54.

[32] E. Gordon Rupp, “Thomas Müntzer, Hans Huth and the ‘Gospel of all creatures,’” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 43, no. 2 (1961): 492-519.

[33] Müntzer quoted in Rupp, 498. See The Radical Reformation, ed. and trans. Michael G. Baylor (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), 74-94, for the text of Müntzer’s reply. He also mentions the “suffering of creatures” as revelatory in his “Prague Protest”— see Baylor, Radical Reformation, 5. Hans-Jürgen Goertz argues for the theological kinship between Müntzer and the leaders within the early Anabaptist movement: “‘A common future conversation’: a revisionist interpretation of the September 1524 Grebel Letters to Thomas Müntzer,” in Werner O. Packull and Geoffrey L. Dipple (eds.), Radical Reformation Studies: Essays Presented to James M. Stayer (Aldershot, England: Ashgate 1999).

[34] Hans Hut, On the Mystery of Baptism, 156, in Baylor, The Radical Reformation.

[35] In the same way that a contemporary appropriation of the gospel of all creatures resists anthropocentric tendencies in theology, Purdy’s environmental vision seeks to dislodge the human being as the center of our politics—“a democracy open to the strange intuitions of post-humanism, intuitions of ethical affinity with other species, of the moral importance of landscapes and climates, of the permeable line between humans and the rest of the living world”—Purdy, After Nature, 282.

[36] Hut, Mystery of Baptism, 163.

[37] Gelassenheit is a term from German mysticism that becomes central to Anabaptist spirituality. See Walter Klaassen, “‘Gelassenheit’ and Creation,” The Conrad Grebel Review 9, no. 1 (1991): 23-35. My use of the imagery of labor and birth follows the metaphors operating within Müntzer’s apocalyptic spirituality: “For when [the word] is received, there immediately follow pains like those of a woman giving birth” (Müntzer, “Sermon to the Princes,” in Baylor, Radical Reformation, 20). The figure of Mary echoes in gelassenheit spirituality, which Hans Urs von Balthasar notices in his “Drei Formen der Gelassenheit,” Geist und Leben 54, no. 4 (1981): 270-75, translated as “The Serenity of the Surrendered Self: Three Variations on a Theme,” in Explorations in Theology, Vol. 5: Man Is Created, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2014). In contemporary Mennonite spirituality, Mary as exemplar of Gelassenheit before God resounds in a popular hymn by Gerhard Tersteegen, “God is here among us,” Hymn 62 in Voices Together (Harrisonburg, VA: MennoMedia, 2020). The second verse begins “Come, abide within in me; let my soul, like Mary, be thine earthly sanctuary.”

[38] Hut, Mystery of Baptism, 164.

[39] Purdy, This Land Is Our Land, 149-50.

[40] Dorothee Soelle, with Shirley A. Cloyes, To Work and To Love: A Theology of Creation (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984).

[41] Ibid., 161.

[42] Purdy, After Nature, 288. Cf. Isaac S. Villegas, “Know the world, know yourself,” The Christian Century 133, no. 18 (August 15, 2016): 36-37, reviews/2016-08/know-world-know-yourself.

[43] Soelle, To Work and To Love, 165.

[44] Revelation 13:8, NRSV, quoted in Hut, Mystery of Baptism, 164.

[45] I am grateful to Peter Dula and an anonymous reviewer for their feedback on an earlier version of this piece. yes, To Work and To Love: A Theology of Creation (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984).

[41] Ibid., 161.

[42] Purdy, After Nature, 288. Cf. Isaac S. Villegas, “Know the world, know yourself,” The Christian Century 133, no. 18 (August 15, 2016): 36-37, reviews/2016-08/know-world-know-yourself.

[43] Soelle, To Work and To Love, 165.

[44] Revelation 13:8, NRSV, quoted in Hut, Mystery of Baptism, 164.

[45] I am grateful to Peter Dula and an anonymous reviewer for their feedback on an earlier version of this piece.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Response to Commentators

Jedediah S. Purdy
ABSTRACT: The author responds to his commentators (see CGR Vol. 38, No. 3 and Vol. 39, No. 1). He expresses gratitude for the richness and care of their observations and challenges, and for heartily engaging with his efforts to “relate politics to the ground-facts of our lives,” including “the ground where we find ourselves” and “the webs of affection” shaping our lives and identities. The author offers initial brief responses that focus on conceptions of nature, the monotheistic legacy, naturalism, creation, materiality, land claims, ethical, theological, and political considerations, and other matters.

Gratitude is my main response to all the contributors to this forum.[1] Paying attention is a great act of generosity, and time is precious. All of the contributors have given time and attention to what I’ve written. How could I be anything but grateful? I have learned a lot from the contributors—about conversations I hope to have, about things to read, about the richness of ideas and perspectives in disciplines and places where I am an outsider. At the end of some sixteen months of relative isolation, imposed by an ongoing pandemic, I feel I have met a very engaging set of new people. What a gift.

Joseph Wiebe’s introduction is itself an argument, as well as a careful tour of what the other contributors have to say. (All of these essays defy summary.) I share his sense of what I am trying to do, in this[2] and other works:

to relate politics to the ground-facts of our lives, which include the ground where we find ourselves and the webs of affection that help to shape our lives and identities. When it comes to ground, he is unusual among commentators on my work in sending a scout to look at Chloe, West Virginia. The general store there (formerly one of two, and now several owners on from when I knew it as Coopers’ Store), is much as his friend described it to him. There isn’t a church house right in the little town, contrary to his source’s memory, but several, and most of the life of the place, is up the hollows where people get their mail through Chloe’s post office: Walnut, Walker, White Oak, and Little White Oak. There will be several other hollows further down the West Fork of the Little Kanawha that are now in Chloe’s postal catchment as small post offices have closed.

I must say, too, how grateful I am to Joe Wiebe for his effort and generosity in assembling this forum, and for that of everyone involved in the creation of The Conrad Grebel Review. In a short reply I can’t do justice to the richness and care of these observations and challenges, so I will do what I can with initial and partial responses, in the spirit of conversation. Two of the contributors, Peter Dula and Daniel Sims, offer fairly direct challenges to aspects of what I’ve argued. Dula has made an extraordinarily generous and thorough journey into everything I’ve written in this area, and contends that I’ve made a basic mistake. The mistake lies in thinking that the image of nature as having a point of view that speaks to our concerns is a specifically monotheistic legacy. (As Dula notes, this is an idea I’ve borrowed from others and advanced tentatively, inviting challenge, and I am heartened to find the challenge now arriving.) Dula suggests that I have monotheism wrong—it need not imply an “order of nature”—and that I have “naturalism” wrong, in that there are influential atheists of various kinds who think nature has a moral point of view.

I think that I agree almost completely with the criticisms. When I said (in a talk that Dula aptly quotes) that the idea of nature’s moral standpoint “is only available if you are a monotheist,” I overstated the claim and opened myself to Dula’s telling counterexample of “new atheist” types who believe all truth is scientific and scientific truth includes utilitarian ethics. Clearly they think understanding nature implies an ethical perspective, and clearly they are not monotheists.

The other kind of counter example might be captioned #NotAllMonotheists. Dula points me to rich theological and intellectual- historical work that makes clear that monotheistic traditions can foster many different perspectives on the moral significance of nature, creation, materiality, etc. Although he does not press the point, his account of Christine Hayes’s Whats Divine About Divine Law[3] (now high on my reading list) is an apt reminder that polytheistic traditions have cultivated strong views about the order of nature and its meaning for human life.

What I should have said is that the idea of nature’s moral point of view (1) makes sense only from a broadly religious point of view and (2) has strong elective affinities with monotheism. To elaborate on (1): I take the new atheist utilitarians (or any other kind of physicalist who claims that the material world grants their particular ethics the imprimatur of science) as examples of how seemingly bright and trained people can hold incoherent ideas simply because the elements of those ideas are familiar. It seems to me that positivists are stuck with Hume’s distinction between fact and value, even if they choose to ignore it. That some of them find it easy to ignore suggests either that they are participating obtusely in a non-positivist ethical inquiry that they misunderstand (much as we can use language, for example, without being able to give an account either of its grammar or of its origins) or that they are living on the leftover cultural legacy of religious traditions that they’ve disowned but not actually discarded.

To elaborate on my response (2): the specifically providential view that has pervaded much of American culture on these issues, and the Romantic view that has in many ways been its American counterpoint, have both been inseparable (the first in a self-aware way, the second often in a confused way) from an idea of a divine mind that pervades and gives meaning to the world’s forces and events. On reflection, I think these examples reveal a lot about both the elective affinities and the actual legacies of monotheism, but not more than that.

Daniel Sims warns that “a failure to . . . snuff out White supremacy and settler colonialism in the United States, would result in a new commonwealth that has more in common with the Commonwealth of Virginia during the Civil War than with Purdy’s new ideal.” As I understand it, this criticism is based on the fact that I understand democracy to imply that “[f]or Indigenous peoples . . . the acceptance that they need to share the land with settlers, whether they like it or not.” I agree with him and have stressed in all my writing on these questions that continuing, multifarious forms of inequality are of central importance, particularly those rooted in the legacies of enslavement, dispossession, and genocide. It does seem to me that these reckonings can only take place in the frame of politics, and that a democratic politics is for various reasons the best we have or can hope to have. I do not see a way forward for the position that “the land needs to be returned,” as Sims puts it, can be a precondition to legitimate politics. In my approach to this question, I am deeply indebted to Aziz Rana’s The Two Faces of American Freedom, which argues for a dialectical understanding of settler colonies as containing resources for both subordination and emancipation.[4] If I have understood Sims’s argument, then it may be that we see this matter differently.

Sunder John Boopalan also raises the question of how indigenous peoples relate, and should relate, to states—not only settler states, but states per se, very much including those such as India’s, whose relationship to Adivasi peoples may not compare favorably with that of, say, twenty-first century Canada. He favorably quotes George Tinker’s claim that “states must necessarily oppress indigenous people . . . because our ancient claim to land is a constant and persistent challenge to the legitimacy and coherence of the state.” This is a very interesting point. Politics necessarily problematizes claims to land, and states tend both to ratify one such kind of claim and to provide vehicles for competing claims. (When Sims says that in 1492 “America was owned by various Indigenous states,” I take it he is saying that those political societies ratified their own claims, necessarily inconsistent with any previous claim that they had displaced.) But I would like to note the resonance, for me, of Boopalan’s powerful and extended description of caste as a social reality built in the landscape itself. On a few occasions in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, I have encountered the village geography of caste that he describes (and have been struck by its similarity to the segregation of Roma neighborhoods in some Andalusian villages and towns). To go here, as Boopalan does from my effort to see with Pauli Murray the old racial landscape of Durham’s “bottoms” and its uplands, is just the sort of meditation I have hoped that This Land would invite—a mode of seeing in which there is no separating the social from the material, and in which our human bodies are also the bodies of our places, the relations of spaces also our relations. I am, to give back the words that conclude his response, most moved.

Two other responses share somewhat in this register, excavating the landscapes in which the authors share and reflecting on the ethical and political stakes of the excavation.

“Has it always come down to the hunger for God and land?” asks Julia Kasdorf in her fine meditation on the layers of her Anabaptist family’s presence in eastern and central Pennsylvania. The younger William Penn, who founded the colony on the strength of one of the largest grants ever made to an individual, was the son of an English colonizer in Ireland, who had helped the English to establish their presence in Jamaica. (Although the younger Penn’s grant came from Charles II, whose dynasty would soon be expelled in favor of the more reliably Protestant House of Hanover, the elder Penn’s colonial adventures were under Oliver Cromwell, founder of the first republic in modern Europe, a relative liberal in matters of religious conscience, and still remembered in Ireland for the brutality of his conquest and expropriation—a reminder that these weavings of the best and worst and political possibilities are by no means only American ironies.) How, she asks, could this hunger ever be turned to an ethics of care? Could the way to that ethic run through memory? She quotes a late friend: “If you own land, you have blood on your hands.” If we look to our foundings, there are no exceptions to this diagnosis, only variation in the precision and completeness of memory. I think of the records Assyrian kings left, many centuries before Christ, of the slaughters with which they extended and protected their empire—vivid and terrible with descriptions of dismemberment, the gouging of eyes, bonfires of the living and the dead—and of the description, early in Bathsheba Demuth’s wonderful Floating Coast,[5] of a tale from one indigenous group in the Aleutian peninsula of the massacre and flaying of a tribe of rivals. As states have grown larger and more sophisticated, they have been the means for greatly intensifying this violence and also for seeking ways to arrest and even repair it, beyond cycles of revenge.

How can we make political and ethical sense of our place in a wounded world, in which we are at once the wounders, the wounded, and the wounds? Isaac Villegas stitches his own dreamscapes into his work on this question, in a really lovely and subtle meditation which I am touched to have had a part in prompting. He valuably challenges my use of Thoreau—the radical, questioning, troubled and troublesome Thoreau—by emphasizing a difference between Thoreauvian reflections on and in nature and the Anabaptist “gospel of all creatures.” The latter, he emphasizes, points us to “a practice of solidarity

. . . a movement of radical reformation.” I think this is indeed further than Thoreau goes and further than one can go without a strong idea of the moral quality of what connects us. I am not sure Thoreau ever developed quite such an idea. (Reading this essay helps me to a formulation that is probably not new, but which I have not seen: Thoreau as a kind of apophatic patriot, trapped and degraded by collective misapprehension of what it means to live together, seeking words for a kind of polity in which the spirit could flourish without lies.) I love, too, Isaac’s contrast between the gospel of all creatures and the image of a mourning world awaiting redemption that Marilynne Robinson gives late in Housekeeping[6] (a novel I read during the pandemic, at about the same time Isaac was writing his essay, although I do not think we discussed it). In Isaac’s account of the gospel of all creatures, grief and love are inseparable, both implied in incarnation.

I see Isaac Villegas’s essay as very close in both spirit and argument with Sarah Stewart-Kroeker’s reflection on the relationship between the theological and political transformation of woundedness and disfigurement. I love her use of St. Augustine’s idea that the resurrection should include not just newly perfect bodies, but the mutilated bodies of the saints, testimony to the love for which they permitted themselves to be tormented. Could we generalize this idea, she asks, to imagine an eschatology that does “not efface earthly wounds”? If so, that religious vision might tend to converge with a political one that seeks to cultivate ongoing awareness of interconnection, not just in cheering ways but in ways that build solidarity on the sharedness of suffering—and of “longing for healing, wholeness, and restoration.” We share vulnerability, need, pain—and the power to give, or be, some redress for these. Here I begin to think of politics and theology as complementary ways of making sense of (many of) the same elemental facts of our existence. I am influenced by the tradition—sometimes called left-Hegelian but traceable in ways back at least to Epicurus—that sees religion as an illuminating but displaced treatment of earthly and human suffering and promise. I really welcome these replantings of religion in the earthly, these refusals to accept that it must be alienated from, or in contrast with, our soiled (in a double sense) lives.

From these facts, from our condition, there are many possible lessons. These days I find myself often poised on the edge between political hope and political despair. Interdependence and vulnerability are starting points that can lead both to openness and to closedness, to the fortified self and the generous posture, to the need for revenge and to the open hand—in the same polity, the same life, the same relationship, the same day. What we are able to sustain, in our belief and in our ways of seeing, of meeting the world, is eminently a matter of what others show back to us. I will say again how grateful this reflection makes me for the generous attention and challenging words of others.

Jedediah S. Purdy is William S. Beinecke Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, Columbia University, New York.

[1] The author is responding to seven essays published in CGR on his work, particularly This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth (2019): Joseph R. Wiebe, “Jedediah Purdy’s Environmental Politics”; Peter Dula, “The Accidental New Atheist”; Sarah Stewart-Kroeker, “Horizons, Political and Theological”; Daniel Sims, “Concerning Cruelty, Clemency, and Commonwealths”, all in Vol. 38, No. 3 (2020), and Sunder John Boopalan, “Transnational Solidarities”; Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “God and Land: Remembering Dreams of the Commonwealth”; Isaac S. Villegas, “Wounded Life”, all in Vol. 39, No. 1 (2021).

[2] Jedediah Purdy, This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2019).

[3] Christine Hayes, Whats Divine About Divine Law (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015).

[4] Aziz Rana, The Two Faces of American Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2010).

[5] Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (New York: W.W. Norton, 2019).

[6] Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980).

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Book Reviews

Mark W. Elliott. Providence: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Account. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020.

In this sophisticated interdisciplinary study, Mark Elliott models how to track a single theme across the breadth of Judeo-Christian Scripture and its history of interpretation, offering an impressive retrieval of an idea with a surprising ability to synthesize the biblical tradition. Elliott’s working definition is that providence is “God taking care of things, which involves responding to humans in need and difficulty as well as ongoing supply of the goods of creation, and this according to some intentional, even planned action” (11). Such taking-care is expressed both in the life of the planet and its creatures and in the long journey of human history, which God mysteriously nudges/invites/leads/directs (one of the open questions of this volume is which verb to use) towards its ultimate goal (also an open question). Belief and trust in providence, elusive as it may be, is a legacy Christians should not easily relinquish, Elliott contends.

The book’s introductory chapter illustrates, by way of literary and historical reference, the modern and postmodern resistance to providential thinking, not merely as a corollary to atheism or emotional reaction to horrendous evil but simply as “prevalent popular disgust with explanation” (4). Still, Elliott’s first task in rehabilitating providence is not so much apologetic as exegetical; he must demonstrate that it is not an import to a biblical thought-world but is inherent to it, even if the Greek term pronoia (providential care, forethought) and its cognates have limited range in the canon. Not that the book is some ponderous word-study. Rather, it is a fast- moving conversation—almost too fast-moving—around a concept expressed in the Bible under a wide range of terminology and motif, including the “face,” “hand,” “sight,” “will,” “kingdom,” “blessing,” and “fatherhood” of God.

Chapter 2, “Alternative Themes to Providence,” continues to carve out a space for the topic over against a cluster of competing theological emphases, including original creation, ongoing creation, divine rest, and eschatology. Chapter 3 takes another step nearer the primary biblical witness by discussing conceptual matters related to divine action: overlap between Greek philosophical perspectives and biblical theology, the significance of the kingdom of God, and modes of God’s presence, guidance, and saving activity. The discussion ranges freely, even dizzyingly, across material from Romans to the Psalms, and the Gospels to Revelation, while engaging disparate scholarly perspectives past and present.

A reader with limited time and interest might choose to segue directly from the introduction to Chapters 4 and 5, which are the real heart of the book: an intelligently selective survey of both Testaments through the lens of the main theme. This pair of chapters would make a wonderful resource for a preaching series on providence, or indeed for any exegetical preaching, when combined with the book’s extensive Scripture index and bibliography. Elliott interacts widely with the narratives of Abraham and Joseph, Saul and David, and Esther; with the providential logic of the Prophets, including providence in judgment; and with the broad affirmations and poignant complaints of such Wisdom texts as Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. The subsequent New Testament chapter moves from a nimble framing of Jesus’s death within the providential paradigm of Joseph (“You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” [Gen. 50:20 RSV]) to a sustained focus on the book of Acts, arguably the most providence-conscious text of Christian scripture. Not only does it repeatedly portray a triune God interacting with the historical flow of events for the benefit of individuals, groups, and the church at large, it also highlights within its narrated preaching (e.g., Acts 2:23, 3:21, 14:17, 17:25-27) the general and specific providential action of this God.

The author’s conclusion continues the assertion of his first two chapters against competing themes and outlooks, most notably Thomistic grace-in-nature and the potent literary categories of tragedy and comedy. A chief opponent is the “subjectivizing” construal of providence as more about human beings than about God: providence as a therapeutic “construct of faith to keep the soul feeling consoled that there is meaning in life” (199) and as a role human beings assign themselves in the presumed hiddenness or absence of deity. While such an ongoing defense of the book’s central theological motif is valid, one might nevertheless wish for a few pointers on connecting the dots to practical and ethical reflection for the life of faith— certainly as regards global hot topics such as ecology and food security but also in relation to common concerns like money, health, and prayer. To be fair, an adequate treatment of these might require a companion volume along the lines of “Providence Applied.” Elliott does nudge readers, here and there, in the direction of prayer and practical relational faith in his own understated fashion (e.g., “Should one pray for peace in the Middle East if one hasn’t had some sense of answered prayer in smaller matters?” [23]). This is true up to the closing pages: “Christian faith trusts in the living God, with a very sober form of ecstasy” (220). Christianity’s model prayer for providence —“Our Father …, your kingdom come”—is one basic expression of that way (221).

Chris Friesen, doctoral student, Wycliffe College, Toronto School of Theology, Toronto, Ontario.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Laura Schmidt Roberts, Paul Martens, and Myron A. Penner, eds. Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision: New Essays in Anabaptist Identity and Theological Method. New York: T&T Clark, 2020.

This volume’s title suggests that Harold Bender’s “The Anabaptist Vision” has left a deadly wound or become a source of debilitating addiction. The reader might then expect that the essays collected therein will diagnose these wounds or addictions and show a decisively different path forward for those affiliated with Anabaptism. (The cover image, an unfortunate selection, suggests as much: A solitary flower, tall and unblemished, stands amid a patch of dead and withered blooms.) There is no editorial introduction and this leaves us with, besides the title, only the unsigned back matter to tell us what purpose unites these essays. This material heightens the promise of an Anabaptist theology in a radically new register: “these essays refuse the determinative categories of . . . Bender’s The Anabaptist Vision . . . in an attempt to liberate Anabaptist theology and identity from the constricting vision appropriated and reformulated by Yoder.”

An introduction may not be necessary for every essay collection, but it is a perplexing omission from a book that purports to advance such a critically bold theological program. Absent an introduction, the opening essay by Paul Martens, one of the editors, has the effect of (appearing to) set the agenda and make concrete what sort of liberation from Bender’s “Vision” we might expect. Martens sketches a preliminary case for how Bender’s theological categories, which attempted to transcend “the particularities of Mennonite experience” in order to create a theological Anabaptist identity, ended up making an abstraction and therefore a distortion of the church and the Christian life, especially once these categories ended up in Yoder’s hands (13). He then concludes, in what reads more as a foreshadowing of what is to come than as a summation of his argument, by declaring that Yoder’s theological vision is “impotent to address the challenges that we face” (16).

Each of the next  four  essays  proceeds  to  emphasize  positively the “Anabaptist” practice the hermeneutic community—other classic Anabaptist themes, like discipleship and peace, are also prominent—only with reference to those indebted to Yoder rather than to Yoder himself (Karl Koop is an exception). There is an opening to a critique of the hermeneutic community when Stephanie Burns implies that the process of hearing every voice often makes LGBTQ Mennonites feel “further erased and victimized,” but she misses the opportunity and falls back on the (Yoderian!) tropes of inclusivity and “the community as the authority” (80, 89). I have no wish to tell anyone to read or cite Yoder. However, if the program is to recover from his damaging theology and its lasting influence on Anabaptism, attention to how we can salvage this apparently still important Anabaptist practice from the otherwise “impotent” thought of its most prominent and substantive propagators is necessary.

In fact, the majority of these essays’ self-articulation, as well as the sources they cite and the commitments they display, clearly indicates that they are not engaged in a project of rejection of and recovery from Bender’s “Vision.” They instead join with many other Anabaptist thinkers, going back at least four decades, who are modestly engaged in what Laura Roberts elaborates on as a critical “retrieval and reinterpretation” of an Anabaptist tradition that includes “The Anabaptist Vision” (48). On these terms, a number of fine contributions emerge.

Carol Penner performs a great service to those of us who have not attended a Mennonite/Anabaptist Women Doing Theology conference by providing an inspiring and theologically insightful history of these events that displays their feminist and Anabaptist methods. Karl Koop uses theology and history to promote an understanding of Anabaptist identity rooted in family semblances rather than essences, while proposing that we move forward “in an Anabaptist key” with a core emphasis on discipleship ontologically grounded in Christ’s person (25). Jeremy Bergen critiques denominationalism and argues that Anabaptists best understand their “distinctives” as gifts to help all “Christians turn ever again to Christ” (125).

R. Bruce Yoder’s argument for the pertinence of the contextual theology of 20th-century Mennonite missions will be of great use to those interested in Mennonite missionary activity and theology. Paul Doerksen outlines a theological method of restlessness, hoping to redirect our theology to God rather than identity formation. Melanie Kampen’s hard-hitting critique of contextual and “inclusive peace theology” is distinct (94). She argues for a trauma-informed, critical-contextual theological method that begins by asking “Who is suffering?’ rather than starting with Scripture, tradition, or Jesus (99).

Unfortunately, these otherwise helpful essays have been effectively (if not by intent) conscripted to Paul Martens’s theological project. The book’s inaccurate framing—at whatever editorial level these framing decisions were made—does little to help us identify, understand, reckon with, or recover from the violences of Yoder’s theological thought and legacy. It does not help us discern how “The Anabaptist Vision” is, or need not be, entangled in that legacy. It may actually inhibit such work, to the extent that it obscures and confuses how dependent and closely related our theology is to Yoder’s.

This includes the way such framing mutes Kampen’s voice. Her essay is radically critical of “The Anabaptist Vision,” and accordingly her critique of contextual and inclusionary politics reads also as a profound critique of most of this book’s other contents, with Martens’s essay as a possible exception. It is not just that, as the back matter tells us, the other essays “hold together the importance of Scripture, tradition, and the lived experience of the Christian community,” which to me seems perfectly amenable to “The Anabaptist Vision,” whereas according to Kampen’s statements she has, at most, limited use for any of these. More significant is the way those essays either expressly articulate or assume an inclusive and dialogical account of the Christian life, with Christ at the center mediating us to each other even as we mediate Christ to one another. If I understand Kampen—her account is quite abbreviated— it is precisely this model that maintains structures of marginalization and violently silences the voices of victim-survivors. However, the presentation of these essays makes it seem as though Anabaptists can keep on doing what they have always done, more or less, while taking Kampen’s critique in stride.

A book titled Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision that begins

with Kampen’s condensed manifesto and is followed by essays working out her argument would be much more fitting. I would likely have many disagreements with it but I would also welcome it, not as another “important perspective” to bring to the table—this is the “inclusive” peace theology that Kampen rightly criticizes—but as a substantive critique that would move the conversation forward. Despite the self-presentation of Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision, we still await such a volume.

Gerald Ens, Ph.D. candidate, Religious Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Elizabeth Soto Albrecht and Darryl W. Stephens, eds. Liberating the Politics of Jesus: Renewing Peace Theology Through the Wisdom of Women. New York: T&T Clark, 2020.

In Liberating the Politics of Jesus, twelve female activists, scholars, lay leaders, and ministers associated with the Anabaptist tradition show how peace theology is renewed in liberative ways through women’s wisdom and experiences. The contributors share emphases on embodied knowledge, narratives, truth-telling, and resistance to oppression in the pursuit of nonviolence, peace, and reconciliation in patriarchal and racist societies. They also reflect differences among their lived experiences, identifying their social locations as Black, Latina, and white women in the contexts of Colombia, South Africa, Canada, and the United States. Creating a dialogical space with such different voices in race, career, and region is a unique contribution to peace theology. The collection of essays invites readers to critically reconsider understandings of the cross as voluntary suffering in Anabaptist peace theology.

In line with other authors, co-editor Elizabeth Soto Albrecht argues that “a theology of suffering” fosters a culture of tolerance for human-made pain (56). With a critique of the abstract view of suffering in the dominant peace theology, she proposes “a politics of suffering” and just praxis that dismantles concrete oppressions in everyday life such as sexism, racism, and classism (54). Similarly, Linda Gehman Peachey points out the danger of pursuing peace while neglecting the actual pains and needs of the oppressed. Highlighting God’s act of solidarity with the marginalized, she interprets the cross as subversive resistance to injustice (124-25). In her interpretation of the cross, Hilary Jerome Scarsella engages more specifically with the Mennonite context of John H.  Yoder’s  serial  sexual  violence.  Arguing that Jesus’ crucifixion entails sexual assault in his culture, she calls for reconceptualizing peace theology in terms of sexual violence and political solidarity with survivors (165). These three contributions provide concrete examples of how traditionally dominant Anabaptist views can be reoriented from women’s perspectives.

Decentering Eurocentric assumptions running through dominant peace theology is another key feature of this book. Nancy E. Bedford argues that John H. Yoder’s politics of Jesus is founded on “the implicitly white Jesus” (24). The tendency of Euro-American theologies, which often code Jesus as a white man by omitting his “Brownness” or “Blackness,” is also seen in Yoder’s theology and leads it to “white space” (22-23). Considering the problematic gender dynamics in his abuses, Bedford argues that Yoder’s “‘politics’ of gendered and raced ‘revolutionary’ subordination” fails to lead his white male readers to decentralizing their privilege (24).

Furthermore, Carol Penner highlights “white biases”’ and the power disparities between white women and women of color, which were addressed in the Mennonite Central Committee Women’s Concerns Committee Report (40-42). Alongside white women, Mujeristas, womanists, and Asian women contribute to reimagining power relationships and strategizing the use of power in Anabaptist communities (43). Black church traditions are also brought into peace church theology by Regina Shands Stoltzfus, who argues that to build sustainable community in a racist context “[l]earning to love Black body is a critical step” (99). These works, integrating racialized Anabaptists’ stories into peace theology, invite readers to think about how to build anti-racist communities and form renewed identities as Anabaptists in disproportionally gendered and racialized societies.

Alongside these broader themes, several essays demonstrate that contextual stories and lived experiences are crucial sources to reshape peace theology and practice. Alix Lozano shows that a contextual reinterpretation of patriarchal biblical readings was a driving force for an ecumenical women’s group to engage in peacebuilding amid armed conflict in Colombia. Karen Suderman’s experience of hospitality in a post-apartheid  South  Africa leads her to reframe the meaning of revolutionary subordination. Lastly, in responses to Yoder’s sexual violence, three authors describe how the institutional and communal experience of violence transforms institutional morality against gender violence, which had long been neglected. These cases validate the importance of embodied knowledge for peace theology to be more accountable to the realities of women in various contexts.

Although the contributors persuasively propose liberative and contextual approaches to peace theology, their emphases could be further strengthened if settler colonialism had been addressed as one oppressive reality that has produced vast and fundamental intersectional oppressions in North America. Moreover, while the strategic focus on women’s wisdom effectively acknowledges a historically marginalized voice, this gender categorization can also exclude the sexually minoritized by reinforcing the binary of women and men, if the experience of those outside the binary norm is not given similarly significant attention. In the context where everyone is complicit in multifaceted violence in complex ways, simultaneous factors must be carefully considered.

Despite a few limitations, Liberating the Politics of Jesus: Renewing Peace Theology Through the Wisdom of Women, written by gifted women from  diverse  backgrounds,  is  a  rare  volume  that  demonstrates  that Anabaptist peace theology must integrate perspectives of the marginalized. For those seeking peace theology relevant to contemporary contexts, this book provides a fresh and emancipatory view.

Hyejung Jessie Yum, Ph.D. candidate, Theology, Emmanuel College, University of Toronto.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Magdalene Redekop. Making Believe: Questions About Mennonites and Art. Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press, 2020.

Magdalene Redekop investigates an artistic “renaissance” that has been ongoing since the 1980s and ’90s among Mennonites in Manitoba. Transitioning smoothly between rigorous literary criticism and a personal memoir-like voice, she explores how and why the arts have flourished among Mennonites in the Canadian prairies and traces Mennonite “accents” discernible in writing, music, and visual artwork. She also shares stories about her experiences growing up in a rural Kanadier Mennonite family, and reflects  on  her  relationship  to  Mennonite  journey  with  clowning as a dramatic art form and presents her clown persona, Sush Binks—the “only living descendant” of the fictional Mennonite Sarah Binks, the main character in Paul Hiebert’s 1947 novel (118-23).

The author posits that several “roots” support this Mennonite renaissance: the influx of Russian Mennonites with distinct cultural/arts interests in the 1920s (here she notes the research of Harry Loewen, Al Reimer, Hildi Froese Tiessen, and Robert Zacharias); the creative friction that resulted from Kanadier Mennonites (1880s migrants) and Russländer Mennonites living side by side; the sheer number of Mennonites in Manitoba; the rise of postmodernism in the 1980s (a proposal of Hildi Froese Tiessen); and the evangelically-influenced Revival movement that swept through Manitoban Mennonite communities of the 1950s, which Redekop contends was traumatic for many and therefore shaped the Mennonite narratives of several artists well established by the 1980s (32-33).

The first half of the book explores concepts of “border zones,” “insider” and “outsider” representations of Mennonitism, and the place of nostalgia in Mennonite artistic reflection. The second half focuses on literary, musical, and visual arts. Redekop explores this artistic renaissance as a Mennonite “crisis of representation,” and engages with Mennonite artmaking in light of her view that “cultural identity is dialogical” (xv, et passim). She sees the artist as “trickster” and contends that artists of Mennonite background often seek out, or are situated at, points of intersection with other groups in Manitoban society. She calls such “contact zones” the spielraum (play space) where creative sparks fly due to friction with other cultures, ideas, and contexts. In her study of non-Mennonites’ efforts to represent Mennonitism and how they relate to Mennonites themselves, she takes up media ranging from photography and dance performance to the Low German film Stellet Licht (2007) and Glenn Gould’s experimental CBC radio program, The Quiet in the Land (1977). With memory culture in mind, she grapples with “time warp” or “a-chronicity” (a blurring or mutability in the recollection and representation of historical events), one of the accents she perceives.

Redekop makes extensive use of examples from literature, exploring the poetry and prose of Rudy Wiebe, Sandra Birdsell, Di Brandt, Patrick Friesen, Sarah Klassen, Miriam Toews, and many others. While she acknowledges her own literary specialization, she does not shy away from case studies focused on music and visual art. She explores Mennonite values of “shunning the world” and asceticism in relation to music traditions among Manitoban Mennonites. Testing the concept of Mennonite music and exploring nostalgia in relation to hymnody, she considers several composers, conductors, and musicians, and analyzes the commission and performance of non-Mennonite Victor Davies’ Mennonite Concerto (1975). She also observes that most of the beloved “Mennonite hymns” are borrowed from Lutheran, English, and American hymn traditions. Finally, she turns to visual artists, considering “iconoclash” and concerns about idolatry in Mennonite historical tradition. She highlights the importance of further research on Mennonitism and art in the Dutch Republic, and then proceeds with personal and theoretical reflections on artwork of contemporary Canadian artists such as Wanda Koop, Gathie Falk, and Ray Dirks.

Although the author states that it is not her aim to offer an exhaustive selection of artists and examples, she nonetheless offers a very useful overview of many main players in the arts over the past several decades. This macro view runs parallel with careful close readings and individual artwork analyses, ensuring that readers get a taste of many of the artists’ works for themselves.

Redekop emphasizes the importance of the “cultural” or “secular” Mennonite” in Canada. She is right to highlight this categorization, which is relevant to many major Canadian Mennonite artists. However, readers from other countries, and anyone not familiar with the current cast of characters on the Manitoba arts scene, should understand that many of these artists are still actively, “religiously,” Mennonite. Several of those named are practicing Mennonite church members (as are many other Mennonites working in the arts in Manitoba who are not mentioned). It is not only “secularized” Mennonites who have turned to the arts.

As scholars continue to work toward a more complete trans-national and trans-geographical picture of Mennonite arts engagement over the centuries, the differences in the nature of Mennonite participation and representation in arts (by era, region, and group) must all be carefully traced. Redekop’s book is a valuable contribution toward this goal. It thoughtfully highlights key patterns, questions, and answers pertaining to the recent and current Canadian Mennonite context. Example-rich and written in a style at once accessible, humorous, self-reflexive, and scholarly, Making Believe:

Questions About Mennonites and Art will be of interest to both academics and the broader public—particularly, but not exclusively, those who are Canadian and Mennonite, those who are working on topics such as Canadian contemporary arts, and those who are interested in Mennonite history and Mennonite religio-cultural heritage.

Nina Schroeder, postdoctoral researcher, Dutch Mennonite Seminary, Faculty of Religion and Theology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Matthew Thiessen. Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020.

Jesus andthe Forcesof Death coversatopicthattheauthorhasbeenruminating since his doctoral studies, attested in the precision and clarity with which he engages the subject. The book draws on the literary evidence of the Gospel authors to demonstrate that for them, against scholarship suggesting Jesus “abandoned this external [Jewish ritual purity] system in favor of interior spiritual realities” (xii), Jesus is very much a law-observant Jew. The central argument in support of this thesis revolves around ritual purity: the manner in  which  Jesus  interacts  with  the  ritually  impure  highlights  that  Jesus "abolishes the force that creates the ritual impurity in the person he meets” (6).

Chapter 1 lays out the essence of that force, namely death, and how it relates to ritual purity: the three major sources of ritual impurity—“lepra,” abnormal genital discharge, and death itself—represent the forces of death (16); God is holy and immortal (17); what is holy must be the “antithesis of death and mortality: life” (17); impurity regulations thus concern maintaining life with God (18); and apocalyptic transformation constitutes hope for deliverance from sources of impurity (19-20).

Of concern  in  chapter  2, the  description  of  the purification  and Temple presentation of Jesus in Luke 2:22 has been considered at odds with Torah instruction: Leviticus 12:2-4 only specifically calls for the purification of the mother after a baby’s birth, while Luke 2 seems to articulate a plural subject is needing purification. Thiessen argues that some Jewish circles— Luke included among them—did interpret Lev. 12 to mean that even the child may be impure and require purification.

Mark’s dealing with the man with lepra is the primary focus of Chapter 3. This chapter clarifies that lepra is not equivalent to “leprosy” as sometimes translated, but is instead a “minor medical condition” (54) with

a key symptom of white, flaky skin (46-7). The condition, nevertheless, as described in Lev. 13-14, is associated with death (51), and was thus believed to cause ritual impurity. Present-day individuals living with skin ailments, such as psoriasis, may find unnecessary the analogy to Jesus performing a miracle akin to using “dandruff shampoo” (54). In Mark 1:40-45, according to Thiessen, the reason that Jesus becomes angry is that he naturally desires to “rid people of what causes their ritual impurities” (63).

Chapter 4 deals with ritual impurity caused by genital discharges, specifically the abnormal twelve-year flow of a woman as narrated in Mark 5:25-34 and her healing by Jesus. Lev. 15:25-30 serves as primary governing regulation. Lev. 15:31 indicates that entering sacred space in this state would result in death, and therefore the restriction is based in compassion, to save life. In other words, to suggest that Jesus heals the woman out of compassion in order to abolish the ritual purity system is a false dichotomy (89-90).

The matter of ritual impurity caused by death itself is the focus of chapter 5. Thiessen observes that from the account of the deceased girl in Mark 5 and subsequently in Matthew 9, to the widowed mother in Luke 7, to Lazarus in John 11, the moment of death is pushed farther into the past, amplifying Jesus’s powers to purify (113, 121). This chapter ends with the poignant observation that Jesus no more rejects ritual purity than do Elijah and Elisha (121) on the occasions they perform miraculous revivification.

Chapter 6 examines demonic or pneumatic impurity. Only vestiges of this kind of impurity are observed in the priestly literature of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Numbers 5:11-31). Nevertheless, an abundance of literature associated with demons is available throughout the ancient Near East, the Second Temple period, and rabbinic literature, a survey of which indicates that demonic beings were associated with evil (138) and were regarded as a force opposing God (139). The chapter surveys Gospel accounts of Jesus’ exorcisms, concluding with Thiessen’s proposal that the writers “might have been implying that the holiness of Israel’s God was housed in the person of Jesus in a way that actualized God’s control over the demonic forces that plagued humanity” (148).

Chapter 7 addresses the perceived contradiction that Jesus breaks Sabbath laws by healing on the Sabbath. Here, Thiessen discusses examples of Jesus (or his disciples) working or healing on that day and contends that Jesus makes arguments that are “legally defensible” (155). In particular, Jesus follows an argument shared among Jewish circles that saving life and showing mercy take precedence over Sabbath observance.

The book concludes where it began, confirming that ritual impurity was “of fundamental importance” (179) for the Gospel writers. The conclusion also concretizes the argument that Jesus is introduced into the world as a “powerfully contagious force of holiness” (179), to overcome the forces of impurity and death.

An appendix discusses the debate over whether Jesus rejects Jewish dietary laws in Mark 7: the Gospel of Mark argues that since handwashing is not a commandment of God, Jesus and his disciples adhere closely to following God’s commands.

This volume is a must-read for understanding Jesus as a Jewish individual living in the ancient Mediterranean world of the first century CE. To identify how ritual impurity and the forces of death are connected helpfully illustrates how the Jesus of the Gospels is not eschewing ritual purity but is instead combating the forces of death associated with such impurity. Topics are explained in detail yet in a way that is clear to readers whether from scholarly or other contexts. The consistent methodology used in each chapter may seem repetitive, but this helps make each chapter self- contained and allows for reading individual chapters separately. The use of comparative materials, including those from the ancient Near East, Dead Sea Scrolls, and rabbinic literature, is also a welcome element.

Carmen Palmer, Adjunct Faculty, Martin Luther University College, Waterloo, Ontario.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Anthony G. Siegrist. Speaking of God: An Essential Guide to Christian Thought. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2019.

In Speaking of God, pastor-theologian Anthony Siegrist offers a unique and compelling introduction to theology for the everyday Christian. Like a sightseeing tour bus, this book provides a “drive-by” look at a wide range of topics. Using the canonical structure of Scripture as his map, Siegrist covers an astonishing range of biblical, theological, and historical material. The stops are brief, the depth of content limited, and the topics are engaged with a sense of arbitrariness (“while we’re here, let me point this out…”). Yet, like any good tour, Speaking of God gives readers the theological “lay of the land” in little more than two hundred pages, clearly hoping they will go on to explore the stops in greater depth.

In the first two chapters, Siegrist introduces foundational concepts (such as canon and hermeneutics) and lays out his goal: to enable readers “to join the conversation about being a faithful and imaginative follower of Jesus” (23). He then begins the theological journey in the book of Genesis, with discussions of the nature of God, humanity and fallenness, and the concept of mission (linked to God’s calling of Abram). Exodus points to redemption and formation—both for ancient Israel and contemporary Christians. Quick stops in the historical, wisdom, poetic, and prophetic books prompt discussions of such topics as pacifism, theodicy, syncretism, and the extent of God’s control of the world. Chapters on the New Testament introduce important concepts such as incarnation, recapitulation, reconciliation, Christology, and theories of atonement. Explanations of the nature of the church and the shape of the Christian life are rounded out with an introduction to eschatology and the book of Revelation. Along the way, diverse Christian historical figures are introduced, from the mystics to Martin Luther King, Jr.

The whirlwind tour finishes with a discussion of the task of theology—a chapter one might expect to come at the beginning of a book like this rather than at the end. However, this approach is effective and well-reasoned: the first chapters have not only conveyed information but demonstrated how to think theologically, in conversation with Scripture, experience, tradition, and reason (the Wesleyan quadrilateral). In this final chapter, the author pulls back the curtain to reveal the tools he has been using all along—thereby empowering readers to follow his example in their ongoing theologizing.

Speaking of God brings together a pastor’s heart and a scholar’s intellect. Siegrist knows the needs and questions of real people in the 21st century and can lead them into the richness of Christian history, theology, and Scripture in language they will understand. His explanations of complex topics are simple and easy to comprehend. He anticipates and addresses doubts and critiques, provides forays into humor and anecdote without being overbearing, and avoids the extremes of emotivism and “Bible- thumping” that he decries early in the book (17). His narrative framework is appropriate in today’s postmodern environment, where explicit truth claims are met with suspicion.

The author’s approach to theological controversies is refreshingly fair and measured. He presents different perspectives in an even-handed way, yet he also recognizes the importance of careful theological thinking, showing how topics that may seem trivial at first (e.g., the precise nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity) should not be dismissed as irrelevant (169). His Anabaptist influences are revealed in his “one-story,” Christocentric approach to Scripture and his emphasis on shalom and social justice—as well as his gracious, down-to-earth approach.

Readers cannot realistically expect Siegrist to cover all topics or perspectives in such a short volume. Yet there are additions that could have made an excellent book even better. For instance, his discussion of sexuality (205-208) fails to cover the LGBTQ+ conversation so important to today’s church and society. While perhaps not central to the book’s purpose, it seems a missed opportunity to explain various Christian viewpoints in the author’s fair and equitable way. Additionally, while key terms are highlighted throughout the book, a glossary would be help readers get a handle on theological language.

No doubt readers from theological perspectives on the far right or left will be dissatisfied with this book’s “middle way” approach. Some readers will be concerned with the author’s refusal to denounce universalism and other non-mainstream ideas; others will find his approach to Scripture too literal. Those who think in black and white will find frustrating his repeated claim that “choosing” between different viewpoints is unnecessary (e.g., 98, 166, 202). But those in the middle of the spectrum—or those open to conversation with other viewpoints—will find it a breath of fresh air.

Speaking  of  God  would  be  particularly  helpful  for  readers  who are Christian because of heritage or experience but have never engaged intellectually with the faith. While this book may not lend itself to use as an introductory text in an academic setting, it could be very beneficial (perhaps even required reading!) for those exiting advanced theological studies and returning to the “real” world. It is superbly demonstrates how to translate complex theological concepts into language understandable and relevant to everyday people.

Jeremy McClung, Ph.D. candidate, Wycliffe College, Toronto, Ontario.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Gerald W. Schlabach. A Pilgrim People: Becoming a Catholic Peace Church. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press Academic, 2019.

A Pilgrim People is a book rich in experience and practical advice organized around the urgency of the Catholic Church’s committing itself to non- violence. It is divided into three sections on diaspora, the witness to diaspora—being a pilgrim church—in scripture and church tradition, and peacebuilding respectively.

Several points stand out in the way Gerald Schlabach orients the Catholic reader to nonviolence. One is the testimony of recent popes, especially after Vatican II (1962-1965), regarding the untenability of just war theory under the conditions of modern warfare, in which the loss of innocent life is assumed. Another is a deft and accurate rereading of Augustine, assumed to be a founding figure in Christian just war theory. While that theory comes to be associated with notions of Constantianianism, Christendom, and a Christian nation-state, Augustine always maintained the provisionality of politics and the exile identity of God’s people (183- 89). As the perfect society, the church only looks to such arrangements as analogues; it recognizes its own perfection as bound up in its participation in the mystery of the divine trinitarian community.

A third strength is a concession regarding peace church readings of the Sermon on the Mount: that we have read Jesus’ injunctions as “antitheses rather than triads” (252). In binary readings, one opposes “nearly impossible ideals” (252) to “moral despair that calls itself realism” (253). (Schlabach has Reinhold Niebuhr especially in mind with that last phrase.) Following Glen Stassen, the author sees Jesus’ teaching as inviting transformative initiatives that break out of vicious cycles towards “just peacemaking” (253). This reading aligns well with a heavy emphasis throughout the book on political involvement and practical wisdom. Yet another example of orienting the reader to nonviolence is the extensive practical advice given in the third section, from cultivating hospitality that begins with being a good guest (226-35) to direct practices like supporting nonviolent civil disobedience and fostering just and sustainable economic development (267-72).

The build-up to this culminating section primarily concerns diaspora. This emphasis creates a severe tension for the reader: Is the book really about nonviolence (or just peacemaking), or is it about diasporic identity? One way partly to square this circle is to insist that the church does not have an ethic, it is an ethic, which Schlabach does, with Stanley Hauerwas’s help

at one point (57) and Benedict’s at another (197). Nonetheless, the book is very interested in the church’s relationship to the culture around it (always in local contexts), to issues of indifference, assimilation, and “respectful evangelization and inculturation” (110). Such a question is arguably a third theme vying for primacy, though it can be said to emerge out of that of diasporic identity.

Schlabach is as thought-provoking on diaspora as on just peacemaking. Above all he wants to dispel any illusions of a church neatly aligned with the phenomenon of the nation-state (see esp. 109-12), and he enlists Karl Rahner’s reflections on Vatican II—as consolidating the Catholic Church’s self-understanding in this regard—to good effect (95-99, 121-30). Less satisfying is his appeal to globalization as a natural comparison point for a church that needs to remember that it is a community in exile. Globalization is, after all, just another political construct, one of which global capital and the media are particularly fond. Schlabach is aware of the awkwardness of the comparison and reminds readers of wise reflections by John Paul II on problems attending the identification of a globalized environment (88-90; cf. 209-13).

Nevertheless, references to globalization appear in two of three supporting theses proffered early and on the back cover as well. They read like a gesture to a reality knowable in its own right, rather as his ongoing allusions to natural law (culminating in an afterword to the second-last chapter) suggest the notion of a self-contained, knowable nature (natura pura) that has no place in Catholic natural law theory. Nature, like politics, is always already caught up in a reality that includes a supernatural dimension, which is why exile is such an important part of the church’s self-understanding.

Recognition of the church’s diasporic, exile condition comes through very strongly in the book’s middle section. Starting with the call of Abraham to be “a blessing for others” (136) and his place in “God’s social change strategy” (140-49), Schlabach finds in scripture an indissoluble tie between diaspora and the call to be “a sacrament for the world” (189–93). He then traces the theme of exile in works from The Shepherd of Hermas (2nd-cenutury) to The City of God. He stresses the importance of the Jewish diaspora, of “contacts embedded in social and familial networks” (167), to the spread of Christianity, drawing fresh attention to Rodney Stark’s scholarship in the process: “‘Jewish Christianity played a central role until much later in the rise of Christianity [than we have thought]’” (168). From its beginnings, the Church has exhibited a “fixed-yet-fluid identity” (177), and has been “invitational” (177), “multicultural” (177), “a transnational nation” (177), attractive to women, protective of its offspring, caring for the sick, and, at its heart—though this has not always been evident—oriented towards peace.

Norm Klassen, Professor of English, St. Jerome’s University, Waterloo, Ontario.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

William Janzen. Advocating for Peace: Stories from the Ottawa Office of Mennonite Central Committee, 1975-2008. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2019.

This collection of stories by the inaugural director of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada’s Ottawa Office provides a unique window into Mennonite political engagement in the Canadian context. It is an important companion to Keith Graber Miller’s analysis of the first 25 years of MCC’s Washington Office, as well as to historical studies of MCC Canada by Esther Epp-Tiessen and Mennonite involvement in Canadian politics by T.D. Regehr.

The Ottawa Officewasacontentiousexperimentwhenitwasestablished in 1975, and Janzen had to marshal his expertise as a political scientist and Mennonite church leader to figure out how MCC could meaningfully speak into public policy debates, while simultaneously explaining this work to MCC and its diverse stakeholders. Although Mennonites had long engaged the Canadian government to navigate their own interests, speaking out on behalf of others was still relatively new terrain. One way of reading this book is to view it as a sustained argument or justification for MCC’s advocacy efforts. It should put to rest any doubt that this work was worthwhile.

Janzen has narrated 50 out of what could have been hundreds of stories drawn from his 33 years of leadership in the Ottawa Office and grouped them together in 18 thematic chapters. Some chapters focus on topics of Canadian political debate such as capital punishment, Constitutional reform, or major policy reviews. Other chapters are global in nature, providing glimpses into advocacy related to Vietnam and Cambodia or Palestine and Israel through trips taken and delegations hosted. Two of the more substantial chapters gather multiple stories that shed light on two of the most prominent instances where the Ottawa Office made a difference: enabling the private sponsorship of refugees by churches and community groups, and securing Canadian citizenship for Mexican Mennonites.

Just as insightful are chapters that delve into administrative topics such as correspondence with Prime Ministers, “organizational maintenance,” and “other international work.” There are reminders throughout the book that, in addition to serving as MCC’s voice to the Canadian government, the Ottawa Office supported MCC programs in many practical ways—Janzen was clearly an institutional thinker and doer at many levels.

Apart from sharing interesting details that lie behind particular advocacy initiatives, the most significant contribution of these stories is that they collectively illustrate Janzen’s approach to trying to effect change in the Canadian political context. In many ways, this approach reflected the broader ethos of MCC. For example, from the outset the Ottawa Office’s advocacy was rooted in longstanding MCC program priorities and partnerships, and Janzen’s main role was to serve as a connector and translator in order to make programmatic insights relevant and impactful in the realm of governmental policies.

Furthermore, as in other contexts, MCC’s presence in Ottawa was rooted in relationships: for Janzen this meant building relationships with countless civil servants, elected officials, and political staffers that were genuinely personal as well as professional. Although it may have been an experiment, under Janzen’s leadership the Ottawa Office was playing the long game from the start, never compromising the effort to build trust and credibility for the sake of splashy wins. These relationships also gave Janzen unique insight into the character of political actors that, far from breeding cynicism, left him with a positive view of both their intentions and the role that the Canadian government could play.

The approach to advocacy evident in the Ottawa Office’s first 33 years also reflected the character and particular gifts of Janzen himself. For example, the oversized portfolio of issues that he somehow managed to juggle with care and attention to detail points to a compassionate and generous spirit, not to mention an incredible work ethic. And his fluency in Low German enabled him to take up citizenship issues faced by Mennonites from Mexico, a significant contribution that continued beyond his retirement.

Above all, these stories display Janzen’s strategic approach to advocacy. He learned or simply possessed a sense for when and where MCC could make the greatest impact, sometimes by working alone, given its unique connections in contexts such as Iran and North Korea, and other times by working within networks or building coalitions in order to amplify a shared message. Janzen often went beyond pushing for (or resisting) policy changes in order to seize opportunities  for constructive action through  gaps in existing laws and regulations.

Readers may find some topics dated, obscure, or surprising—who remembers that MCC spoke into debates about abortion, Amish milk cans, or tobacco advertising? Some might then assume that these reflections are of limited value today. In his concluding chapter, Janzen notes that his efforts often focused on pushing the government further along a direction it was already moving, or holding it to ideals and commitments already made. The same was true for MCC’s supporting churches. In contrast, government policies and church priorities were often at odds with those of MCC in later years, and at the same time the access and authority granted to NGO and faith leaders was diminished. If it was hard but possible to make a difference in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, rising political partisanship in both church and society made MCC’s advocacy efforts all the more challenging toward the end of Janzen’s time in the Ottawa Office (and in the years since). Yet certainly this is all the more reason for Mennonites and other faith communities to be more reflective and strategic in their pursuit of peace and justice in the political realm.

Indeed, this book could spark helpful conversations about advocacy within congregational settings, given that many churches are finding themselves compelled to take action in new ways to address pressing systemic issues such as climate change, Indigenous reconciliation, and racial justice. I also hope it will prompt researchers to dip into the Ottawa Office archives in order to learn more about the stories—and personalities—that lie behind this collection.

Paul C. Heidebrecht, Director, Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement, Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario; MCC Canada's Ottawa Office Director (2009-2014).

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews