Book Review: Widening the Circle

One of the great pleasures I’ve had since leaving college is getting to know some fantastic people in various parts of the country who are doing really good work to re-build the church like Francis of Assisi. Some of them will never write a book but are quietly living out a radical response to the gospel. Some of these leaders in the church today ought to be given the platform more often, to challenge the rest of us to look beyond just the big name celebrities. It’s unfortunate that many of these leaders who need to be heard are women and people of color. That is why I am so thankful for my friend Joanna Shenk’s first book, Widening the Circle. This volume gives the stage to a chorus of voices rarely heard by most of the church, even those of us in the “Christian community” movement.

Joanna’s day job is connecting the Mennonite Church with Christian communities formed in the Mennonite/Anabaptist tradition who may or may not have any Mennonite blood in them. Widening the Circle (WC) lets the communities she’s encountered speak for themselves in a neat compendium of authors and formats, ranging from interviews to poetry to images.

Indeed, I would say that this is the book’s most gratifying characteristic, that it is not merely one narrative after another, but broken up with interviews with some formidable drum majors of the Christian nonviolence community, including Vincent Harding and Hedy Sawadsky. Jesce Walz has a cool series of poem/prose reflections on her communities, and Dawn Longenecker of Church of the Saviour here in D.C. has an illustrated journey.

As for the content itself, I have really enjoyed reading the stories that brought the various authors to identify with Anabaptist ethics and theology.  That’s the unifying thread in the book, wanderings in and out of traditional Mennonite communities and churches, something that has clearly been going on for several decades. Sometimes we younger generation communities have the impression that we’re doing something new and don’t need to listen to the stories and wisdom of those who came before. I’m often disappointed at the lack of interest in this history among people who claim to have a love for community. The book highlights three “waves” of community, starting post WWII, including stories of Civil Rights era communities, Reba Place in Chicago, Sojourners and Church of the Saviour in D.C., ThirdWay and Missio Dei in Minneapolis, and many more.

One extremely important community included in the book is the Christian Peacemaker Teams. I don’t know if I would have thought about CPT as a community otherwise because it’s make-up is quite different. Yet to put CPT in the same generation and importance as Sojourners Community (both in the “2nd Wave” section) highlights how vibrant and nurturing it has been for so many people.

I’m not Mennonite, but I was taught from birth many of the things that the authors in the book find so appealing about being Mennonite, so I often feel a slight case of denominational-envy that I think at least a few authors in the book express, if not in those words. Meaning, their own denominations seemed to miss out on a crucial part of Jesus’ message and they found a spiritual family in the Mennonite church.

For folks from a more typical Mennonite family (though this book really questions what “typical” Mennonitism really is) Joanna’s bio gives a brief look into her tumultuous journey with her faith family of origin. My one complaint of the book is that Joanna’s bio could have been a full-fledged chapter! Perhaps for space constraints it wasn’t, but I would have enjoyed a more fleshed-out narrative of her own particular story. It comes out in bits and pieces for sure, but her humility in sidestepping the spotlight was unnecessary. I’m not really criticizing the book for this, but think it would have made a great addition.

For many potential readers who might look at the Table of Contents and not recognize many names and thus not be inclined to read it, I strongly urge you to resist that temptation. Widening the Circle was written for that very reason, to exemplify that the circle of who’s in and worth being listened to must be broadened or else we are not truly aware of who we actually are. I appreciate Joanna’s ability to listen well to the voices often pushed to the margins and to not let the leadership of the Christian community movement remain only in the hands of charismatic speakers like Shane Claiborne. Let me say it plainly: these voices must be heard or else we are choosing to remain ignorant of our DNA as Christians, as peacemakers, as participants in God’s kingdom.

This book is an important witness to the rest of the Christian Church in North America. It’s an ironic example of ecumenism, where a denomination is learning to recognize and dialogue with itself. I pray that such an attitude will take hold across denominations, and indeed there are other examples of such possibilities.

One last note for non-Mennonites. It’s true that in some ways this book is a response to murmurings in the Mennonite Church, and therefore may not carry much significance to your own personal history or associations. It may not seem like a big deal to you that the Mennonite Church is recognizing these communities as important parts of the denomination. I would have two responses to that: 1)The Mennonite Church isn’t beginning to recognize just that these communities are important. If that were the case, it would be no different than the Methodists or Episcopalians, or even the Catholics, who (in varying degrees) have also recognized the good work of Christian communities. No, the Mennonite Church, with Joanna Shenk’s help, is recognizing that these communities are the church. That is a crucial difference. It would be akin to the Pope writing an encyclical validating the Catholic Worker movement as the best example of what the Catholic Church could and should be.  Widening the Circle is exemplifying a new perspective on what is the church.

Secondly, these stories about people becoming Mennonite are also, indeed primarily, about devout Christians whose journey to a deeper faith in Christ has moved them to do some rather risky and incredible things. They are normal people who have struggled with their faith in the same ways so many of us have. Why not let them inform your story as well?


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