One Sunday around 1173, in Lyons, a wealthy financier named Waldo heard a traveling singer tell the story of St. Alexis, the son of a Roman senator who fled his family, became a beggar, and took to a life of prayer and service. Moved, he hurried to talk to a theologian, who told him of Jesus’ exhortation: if you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor. And so he did.
There’s a fable I often heard growing up, about a Mennonite man (or Amish or Brethren, depending on where the story is being told) who was asked whether he was a Christian. His response: “Ask my neighbors.” The story encapsulates a certain historicist impulse in the Anabaptist tradition: the commitments we claim matter less than the commitments we embody. I first learned to care about the history of my community for just that reason. We learn who we are by considering honestly how we have lived.
Thanks again to Brad Littlejohn for his clarifications, and for the opportunity to further clarify my own thoughts. It is always helpful to get this kind of feedback, to see where my readers and I agree and disagree, and where I have simply failed to explain myself adequately.