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Hallo again to all.

A Hutterite womanA few weeks ago, we picked up a book with a title and topic guaranteed to keep it far off the New York Times Best-Seller Lists. It was Alvin Esau's The Courts and the Colonies: The Litigation of Hutterite Church Disputes, published by the University of British Columbia in 2004, and now available in softcover, too. It was riveting, and we found it hard to put down each night when time came to turn off the light and catch forty winks.

Having visited Hutterite colonies in western Canada, we had some acquaintance with the fascinating subject of this brick of a book. Hutterites are a Christian church of the radical reformation, still living with strict community of goods and according to Anabaptist principles. Though they speak a dialect of well-traveled German and dress plainly, Hutterites are not connected to the Amish and Mennonites with whom they are often confused. They use modern, efficient farm technology; have telephones, radios and electricity; make webpages about the past and the present, drive cars, and are cautious but serious users of the offerings of the modern world.

For centuries—four of them—one of the defining tenets of Hutterite life was a strict refusal to use secular law courts to settle church matters or, indeed, even to use the law to seek redress for wrongs against the community on almost any grounds. Filing lawsuits was considered outside the sphere of acceptable conduct because it violated their strong principles of total nonviolence, and a lawsuit involved a threat of force against a losing party. Grounding their attitudes about this matter on St Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 6, Hutterites and many Christians along with them over time—but Hutterites ne plus ultra—believed that civil litigation tarnished the credibility of the Christian testimony of love in the world. To Hutterites, a very high quality of internal life is also essential, and was sure to be undermined by litigious attitudes and wasted energy. There are long, long hymns to be sung, buildings to be built, crops to be harvested, children to be fed and taught, geese to be plucked and beets to be sold, elderly people to be dressed and read to. There is no time for lawsuits.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, all of this began to change. Trademark and patent disputes about farm inventions and the very use of the name Hutterite spiraled out of control, particularly in Canada. Families were expelled, leaders were cast out of fellowship, and the sacred Hutterite community of goods and life was violated over and over as legal fees grew dangerously. It was as if, having fasted from litigation for centuries, some Hutterites now began to gorge themselves on it. While the group has survived these court battles and continued a general growth trend, the 1990s will always remain as a Time of Troubles in their history—troubles in some way worse than those when Hutterites were victims of persecution by outside forces. The church had internal problems it could not find a way to address on its own in any path marked out by Christ for his disciples.

Lady Justice, by RaphaelAnyone who reads newspapers or follows online church news knows that for Anglicans from Pennsylvania to Ghana to Connecticut to California and Zimbabwe, unceasing litigation is becoming a normal state of affairs. In some places, we find ourselves in headlines more often for secular court disputes than for anything connected with the life-giving mission of the church. We are sure that there are instances when civil litigation of church disputes is necessary, but we are not sure that these are they. The drain on church financial resources and energy is extreme, and the needs of the world around us are too real for court cases to consume some of our most focused and dedicated minds. No one disputes that there are better places for our already-stretched attention spans and energies to be directed, but we continue our fixation on (and addiction to) legal quarrels. This is a problem in our church culture that needs to be solved by and for Anglicans, but also for others. They should be able to join us without having to find themselves in the midst of a litigious atmosphere right out of the gate.

If you can find a copy of Dr. Esau's book, or you have a good Interlibrary Loan service, by all means tolle lege—read about the recent Hutterite paroxysms of litigation. But read it as a mirror of our own fractured church life, which it must be until we change that.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 17 September 2006

(Click for the 1 August update on Cynthia's cancer.)

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