The blessing of Abraham’s children

A theology of service

Mission Focus 19:4 (December 1991): 52-55.[1]

In January 1986 Samuel Escobar, an evangelical leader from South America, was guest speaker at the annual meeting of the Mennonite Central Committee, the main North American Mennonite agency for relief, development and global education. After listening to a lengthy discussion of how MCC workers witness to their faith, and whether MCC should make church planting an explicit part of its program, Escobar expressed surprise. After all, he said, observers from other churches often looked to Mennonites as a model of “integrating word and deed.”

The Mennonite record of committing human and financial resources to various forms of “service” draws envy from many church administrators in both evangelical and ecumenical circles. Yet our theology of service is not always in step with our engagement in the world’s situations of poverty, crisis, war, and human need.

Of course, acting on faith is more important than theorizing about acting, if we must choose. Though the priest and Levite could probably expound in great detail on proper orthodox theology, it was the despised, heretical Samaritan who became Jesus’ model of love when he acted neighborly by stopping to aid the victim on the Jericho road. Biblically, however, we know God and know God’s will best through the ongoing, fruitful interaction between reflection and action — what Latin American theologians call praxis.

In this century Mennonites have served in increasingly sophisticated ways. Our Anabaptist forebears thought it scandalous that the wealthy, established churches of their day did not even provide for their own poor, much less show a sense a Christian obligation to aid other hungry and naked people. Since their day, a commitment to mutual aid within the Mennonite community has led naturally and logically to efforts on behalf of the needy whatever their race or creed. Mennonite churches have created a series of helping institutions — alternatives to military service, voluntary service at home and abroad, large-scale relief, grassroots development projects in the Third World, activism and lobbying on behalf of social justice, and more. Desire for alternative service in the face of military conscription has regularly been a catalyst in the process, but the urge runs deeper. An apparent preference of newly urbanized Mennonites for service professions suggests a commitment lasting after times of war and beyond the age of both conscription and youthful idealism.

Facing a new world

A first glance suggests that Mennonite theological reflection has kept pace with Mennonite action for service. Mennonites once cited obligations “first to the household of faith,” and later sought to provide the “cup of cold water in my name” to the hungry, thirsty, naked, and stranger.[2] But now many Mennonites are service professionals educated to analyze human need according to interlocking systems of cause and effect, supply and demand, justice and exploitation. Or, as overseas volunteers, they have experienced first hand that “doing good” may not always be so simple. Having acquired more complex worldviews, some of these Mennonites in turn cite the biblical themes of shalom, justice, and even liberation.

Yet there are signs that Mennonite theology of service and social responsibility has not kept pace with Mennonite programs. The continuing struggle over how to integrate word and deed is only the first of various areas where we lack church-wide consensus. If we are to sustain our commitment to service we face a pastoral challenge.

In 1959 J.D. Graber, the Mennonite Board of Missions executive who did more than anyone else to bring his church’s witness and service into the contemporary, post-colonial age, wrote: “The idea that every young man (or woman) owes his church one or more years of service on a voluntary, nonremunerative basis is a dynamic idea that is fast on the way to being universally accepted and practiced.”[3] Would that we could be so optimistic a generation later! MCC is sustaining its record number of personnel (over 1000 in 53 countries) through multiple terms of service, not a record number of applications. Other voluntary service programs run by Mennonite denominations have scaled back.

One way in which MCC and other voluntary service agencies call on Mennonites to give their time, talents and financial support is to appeal to the example of the Good Samaritan, or Jesus’ words about a cup of cold water. We need Samaritan-like reflexes for responding to human need. Otherwise our service institutions may grow more sophisticated, but lose their soul. Yet taken alone, such biblical motifs prompt individualistic images of service. Samaritan-like motivations may backfire when volunteers begins to wonder whether their efforts amount to more than a drop in the bucket, and when, after all our “sacrifices,” we are still so much wealthier than our hosts. In the face of massive poverty, world hunger and entrenched systems of injustice, guilt and obligation sometimes drive the would-be disciple to despair, not service. Individual idealism alone is not sustainable, and service done out of guilt even less so.

Moreover, service is more than volunteering. If volunteers return to North American or European culture hoping to maintain a servant lifestyle, they will soon sense a need for a supportive community of service. One apparent solution is to choose a lifelong service profession, or to become involved in special interest groups. But often a new peer community, whether a professional guild or a solidarity group, then provides the concerned Christian with counsel, cues, and nurture. Thus it effectively substitutes as “church.”

On the other hand, the person who turns instead to the faith community for support and outlets for service, will quickly find that many brothers and sisters in the church are afraid of the biblical themes of justice and liberation. The result is that concern for worldwide human need effectively remains an individual opinion — an atomized response to global problems.

Finding a new theology

To keep pace with our service and engagement in the world, then, we need more than a theology of individual obedience and volunteerism. We need to create (in life, not just on paper) a theology that accounts for the complexity of structural injustice. Yet we must do so without overwhelming the spirituality, the piety, and the personal motivation that we need to sustain struggle and work.

We must locate service within salvation history. Looking back, we must remind ourselves through story and liturgy, that the source of our service is God’s saving love. Looking forward, we must dream God’s dream of new heavens and new earth where justice reigns. And to bring past and future into our present, we must incarnate both in servanthood communities.

We might find help in a new paradigm — a model of who we are to be in the world, one that functions as our tradition once did to make sense of our experience as a people, yet one that is able to solve new problems our tradition never faced. Actually the paradigm we need is the oldest one of all, the model of the Abrahamic minority.

Historian Thomas S. Kuhn has described how science painfully adopts new “paradigms,” or ways of looking, to explain natural phenomena. He has noted that just before a “paradigm-shift” takes place, scientists increasingly find themselves tinkering, qualifying and noting exceptions to the old theories.[4] Mennonites too have been struggling to account for new data. Two generations ago theologians Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr told Mennonites their pacifism and social posture was biblical but not socially responsible. Ever since, Mennonites have had to answer the charge that service, however noteworthy, was inadequate to meet the challenges facing humanity.[5] Meanwhile our own service efforts were taking us to the limits of charity, and social trends such as urbanization have presented Mennonite social ethics with new problems. As a result, Mennonites theologians and social activists today bear some resemblance to astronomers in the century prior to Copernicus, who bravely multiplied mathematical formulas and charts to account for all the erratic movements in the stars, yet keep the earth in the center of the universe.

One kingdom or two?

The Mennonite universe once divided neatly into two kingdoms. To be sure, these were not Augustine’s two cities nor Luther’s two realms — dualities of material and spiritual, or visible and invisible realms. No, Mennonite two-kingdom theology has always expected God’s kingdom to manifest itself concretely in the lives of Christ’s disciples, here and now. At its best this theology has helped us present a coherent, relevant message of shalom to the kingdom of this world. It has done so by grounding our witness in a distinct community that is a living expression of the social reality of the Gospel. Two-kingdom theology has helped us keep means and ends in order. For if we believe God to be working indiscriminately in the worldly kingdoms rather than in Christ’s own church, we are more likely to use power vested in the present system for Kingdom ends.

Two-kingdom theology also made sense of our sociology, a rural sociology of relative separation from mainstream culture. But that is now one of its problems; as sociological distinctions erode, some of our theology’s rationale does too. A more serious problem is that the two-kingdom outlook has often tempted Mennonites to ignore the world while they concentrated on building their own churches and communities. And so, paradoxically, it has too often been at odds with the very Gospel of shalom that the redeemed community is to incarnate and project. Shalom, after all, is God’s all-inclusive, universal hope for a redeemed, restored, re-integrated creation. Two-kingdom theology is an inherently rigid model; it tempts us to believe that we can state once and for all that God is working here and not there, with some people in and others out.

Two-kingdom theology may be an accurate, though partial, description of what is: only part of the creation acknowledges its Lord. Yet the two kingdoms are the problem, not the solution. Of course, we do need an accurate description of the problem. But the promise for which we hope is one Kingdom.

Is the alternative then some form of one-kingdom theology? Christians have done much damage in the name of cosmological dualism (albeit usually of the Augustinian, metaphysical kind). The priority of “saving the soul” has justified neglect for material human needs — or even outright destruction of the body and of the environment. In reaction, many theologians today call for the elimination of all dualism.[6] One-kingdom theology is biblical when it reminds the church that no part of creation is beyond the church’s concern. It thereby removes the easiest, lamest, and most-common excuse for passing human need on the road because “that is not the business of religion.”

The problem with one-kingdom theology is that it tends to underestimate the need for conversion, a radical change to Jesus’ ways. The Kingdom toward which we work tends to be merely a reformed version of the present systems of power. One-kingdom theology also tends to underestimate the need for covenanted community. The entire social order is the sphere of activity, and so no special allegiances, commitments or networks of support seem necessary.But if a project for social change is original enough to be worth the bother, those working for change need a living model of what that change would mean.

Whether or not they use the terms, Mennonite thinkers today are trying to sort out whether our theology should be that of one or of two kingdoms. Both views have biblical roots. But the result is a pre-Copernican complex that hardly represents consensus across the faith community. Instead of piecing together elements of both theologies, we need to transcend them. Both fall short because both are rigid, spatial images — flat maps rather than living travelogues, static cosmologies not living chronologies. Maps freeze boundaries. Travelogues bring peoples to life, bring them together, and invite further journeys.

The Abrahamic model brings paradox

The major biblical image is not a cosmological construct at all but a story. It is a story that has been unfolding ever since God called Abraham out of Ur and promised to bless him so that he might be a blessing to all nations. Realistically, some have yet to acknowledge the source of that blessing which falls on just and unjust alike, but the invitation is open. Meanwhile the children of Abraham, if faithful to their calling, show God’s indiscriminate love and concern for all creation through service to all peoples. And when they fail?

Ah, but that is the biblical drama! The temptation to hoard God’s blessing constantly defined the struggle of Old Testament Israel. It was the temptation to celebrate identity in Abraham, liberation at Exodus, and a land flowing with milk and honey — while forgetting to welcome the stranger, free the slaves, and remember the oppressed, widow and orphan. The more abjectly the people failed, the more the prophets agonized over the meaning of Israel’s existence. Finally Isaiah and his disciples saw that the only way forward was, in effect, the way back to the call of Abraham. If the people of God had failed to be a servant people-for-other-peoples, another Servant of Yahweh would come to live and die supremely for others. Yet even as Jesus Christ fulfilled the messianic vision of Isaiah, he called his disciples to form a new servant community — a new people-for-other-peoples sent into all the world. They struggled with how to be an inclusive community of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, and yet not dissipate their distinct identity. And so do we. Yet, like the Hebrews and the early Christians, we lose our very distinctiveness when we live merely to preserve our own self-interests.

This paradox of becoming a new community, yet moving beyond that community’s self-preservation, is what gives the Abrahamic community its creativity — and the Abrahamic paradigm its power. Our service is not just that of a special-interest group or philanthropic agency. We are a community with a distinct story to nurture, retell and live. We have pastoral and liturgical obligations to one another. We are accountable to a sacred tradition. We should expect to live as nonconformists within mainstream culture. Far from producing an ingrown community, however, this story allows us no complacency. It will push us out again and again, beyond the boundaries of our community, toward other peoples and other communities — even though their values, their cries for justice and their religions pose challenges for the very community that sent us. Yet if those at the frontier remember that it was the community and its story that nurtured and sent them there, they will bring these questions back with reverence. And so, a continuing dialectic. Our communities will change, but as Abrahamic communities they will continually find life by dying for others.[7]

The Abrahamic model brings faithfulness

Children of Abraham, a blessing to the peoples, a creative minority living for the whole. Our own stories should stand within the Abrahamic story of salvation history. Locating them there can help us be more faithful. Doing so invites sustenance from our past, guidance from God’s future, and hope for our present:

First of all, obligation is a poor motivator. That is why the basis of living justly in both Old and New Testament is always God’s loving, liberating acts, to which we respond by acting lovingly. In what may be the oldest liturgy in the Bible, the Hebrews confessed that “A wandering Aramean was my father… the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…” In response they brought a tithe for “the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat…”[8] So too, we will only sustain service as we remember, through worship and devotion, that we too were in bondage until God reached out to us.

Secondly, toward what does our service work? The eschatological hope of the Abrahamic story is nothing less than the new heavens and new earth of Isaiah, Micah, and St. John on the island of Patmos. In God’ new order, all nations find blessing as they go up to the mountain of Yahweh “that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths.” The nations thus blessed turn weapons into farm implements; they redistribute resources so that every family may produce sufficiently and without fear of repression.[9] Serving with this vision, we can embrace the complex work of justice without its overwhelming us. For ultimately, the change we seek is God’s gift.

The Abrahamic model brings hope

Finally, the model of Abrahamic communities of service may offer hope for many of our most persistent problems.

First, we may be less likely to confuse specific service institutions with service itself. Alternate service, voluntary service, and service professions become tools in the hands of a servanthood community. They are not its substitutes, nor ways the church entertains its most adventurous, youthful members. Second, service will keep the church’s care for itself from becoming neurotic and self-absorbed. Mutual aid, pastoral nurture, and common worship find their fulfillment as they enable Christians rather than distract them from outward-looking tasks. Building community is more important than ever, yet we will not dare to lose our perspective — the community loses its reason for being unless it lives for other communities.

And third, we may finally gain clarity on the relationship between word and deed — holding them together in creative tension without either divorcing them or allowing one to swallow up the other. To proclaim a word that calls people into the Abrahamic community of Jesus’ followers is the most crucial, most potent deed we can do! Yet because this word creates a community-for-other-communities, it dare not be triumphalistic or disrespectful. As Dom Helder Camara, the former archbishop of Recife, Brazil, said: “The Spirit of God breaths life into the Abrahamic minorities that already exist in the womb of all races, all religious, all countries and all human groups. Whoever hopes against hope, like Abraham, and decides to work, even sacrifice for a more just and humane world, belongs to these Abrahamic minorities.”[10] Whether the church goes out in “mission” or in “service,” it goes to meet the Christ who is already at work, perhaps namelessly, in the culture, the social fabric, even the religion, of other peoples. The blessing of Abraham’s children never needs to “destroy this village in order to save it.”

Realistically, our churches are a long way from this Abrahamic, servanthood way of being God’s people in the world. Many, perhaps all of us, shrink back from the call of Abraham; for in spite of the promise of blessing, the church we know seems old, and its womb sterile. Yet the path Abraham walked offers a way not only to serve the world but also to renew the church. If the church is to become more of a creative, serving, Abrahamic community in the world, let us be a creative, serving, Abrahamic minority in the church. Let us begin simply, and simply begin.


1. Gerald W. Schlabach has served with Mennonite Central Committee in Nicaragua and Honduras, as well as MCC headquarters in Akron, Pennsylvania. Currently living in East Lansing, Michigan, he continues to work part-time for MCC as a writer and editor. He is a graduate of Goshen (Ind.) College and an alumnus of the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Indiana.

2. Galatians 6:10; Matthew 10:42, 25:31ff.

3. J.D. Graber, The Church Apostolic: A Discussion of Modern Missions (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1960), p. 65.

4. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, enlarged 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).

5. Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist,” in Christianity and Power Politics, pp. 1-32. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940); Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), pp 45-82.

6. See for example, Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1973). pp. 69-72. It would be wrong to assume, however, that radical, liberal, or liberation theologies provide the only examples of “one-kingdom theology.” One-kingdom theology can also justify the status quo –even or especially a fascist status quo– by granting it divine legitimacy as the result of God’s overall working in history.

7. Two people have influenced my thought on “Abrahamic community:” David A. Shank, lifelong missionary formerly in Belgium and now in the Ivory Coast, West Africa, and Dom Hélder Câmara, former Roman Catholic archbishop in Recife, Brazil. See Shank, “The Shape of Mission Strategy,” in Mission Focus: Current Issues, edited by Wilbert R. Shenk (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980), pp. 118-128; and Câmara, Messages to “Mani Tese” in Hélder Câmara: Proclamas a la Juventud [Hélder Câmara: Proclamations to Youth] edited by Benedicto Tapia de Renedo, (Salamanca, Spain: Ediciones Sígueme, 1976) pp. 183-204.

8. Deuteronomy 26:5-13.

9. Isaiah 65:17-25; Micah 4:1-4; Revelation 21:1ff, 22:1-2.

10. Hélder Câmara, “Un pacto digno de coronar vuestra marcha” [A covenant worthy to crown your march], message to the youth movement Mani Tese [Outstretched hands] climaxing a march on 5 November 1972, Plaza Michelangelo, Florence, Italy; in Hélder Câmara: Proclamas a la Juventud [Hélder Câmara: Proclamations to Youth], edited by Benedicto Tapia de Renedo, first volume of a trilogy, with introduction by editor, Serie PEDAL 64 (Salamanca: Ediciones Sígueme, 1976), p. 189.