Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Brethren and Their Culture

June 19, 1958 - The Church of the Brethren were gathered in Des Moines, Iowa for Annual Conference and a celebration of the 250th Anniversary of the Brethren. On Thursday evening, Kermit Eby spoke on The Brethren and Their Culture. Eby's early life was influenced by growing up in the Baugo congregation in Northern Indiana. His book, For Brethren Only, published in the same year reflected on what he had learned in those earlier years. In 1958 he was a professor of social sciences at the University of Chicago.

As I have written on other occasions, one of the most exhilarating intellectual experiences of my life occurred when I received the insight that the founders of our church were as much the product of their time and environment as of divine inspiration. Furthermore, I was fascinated to discover that the problems our ancestors faced were not dissimilar to our own.

The Brethren, then, came into historical being because events brought about their existence. When the state persecuted them, they rejected it! Being victims of force and violence, they made reconciliation their goal. Confused by the state's interpretation of religious truth, they stressed a fellowship of believers. All of this, of course, is common knowledge. It is Brethren history and as such has been repeated many times.

...the thesis of this paper is not new. Those who espouse Christ cannot be wedded to the world. One cannot, as the Bible states, serve both God and mammon. (If I may be personal at this point, I would point out that this is my life witness. The most profound sadness I know lies in the fact that I realize that Baugo, my home church, exists now for me only in memory. Thus, since I cannot return there, I devote my energies to building a world true to Baugo's image. This, no doubt, is as old as the desire of man to build a city of God....)

Our ancestors' greatness lay in their uniqueness - in belief, character, and witness. The uniqueness of a Dunker, at its best, involved more than his mode of dress. As much, it included the "queerness" of the man who lived in the world by otherworldly standards. Such men are always unique!

For years I have been writing about Baugo, the church of my boyhood. I have intimated that it no longer exists except in my memory. Today, those who worship at Baugo go to church on Sunday morning, and then follow their separate ways. When I was a boy, the service ritual had meaning, for the brotherhood of the love feast was expressed in he necessities of life. In order to get certain tasks done, we had to exchange labor. But not so today. Now, the market is more significant in its impact on life than is the neighborhood. The market is impersonal; the neighborhood was intimate.

Again, this point need not be elaborated. It is enough to repeat that (1) the Brethren came into historical prominence because of their uniqueness; (2) they maintained their identity by institutionalizing a way of life; and (3) their survival was uniquely contributed to by the way they lived and earned their living. Today, all these factors have changed. We are "respectable," assimilated, and urbanized, and we are becoming more so daily.

So, if we would survive - and I think we have much to give and so should survive - it is necessary for us to understand that the church must be reborn with each generation. To accomplish this, I would deliberately set out to make every Brethren child conscious of his roots and his heritage. I would begin with that which is uniquely Brethren - peace, reconciliation, and stewardship of life and property.

Source: The Adventurous Future, chapter 20