This is going to be a long topic, so I’m dividing it into two posts. It’s also going to be somewhat theological; don’t say I didn’t warn you.
In an essay called “The Monastic Renewal: Problems and Prospects,” Thomas Merton wrote that the monastic life
has a certain prophetic character about it . . . in the sense that [the monk] is a living witness to the freedom of the sons of God and to the essential difference between that freedom and the spirit of the world. . . .
The monastic life then must maintain this prophetic seriousness. . . And there is only one way for the monk to do this: to live as a man of God who has been manifestly “called out of the world” to an existence that differs radically from that of other men, however sincere, however Christian, however holy, who have remained “in the world.” (First published in Contemplation in a World of Action [CWA], pp. 28-29; now in Selected Essays [SE], edited by Patrick F. O’Connell, p. 387)
Merton speaks here of “the world” as an entity that will compromise, and even actively oppose, the purposes of God and the life of God’s people, which bears a striking resemblance to “sectarian” Mennonite language and thought. The notion of an “essential difference between [Christian] freedom and the spirit of the world” seems characteristically Anabaptist to me, and even more so the sense of having been “‘called out of the world’ to an existence that differs radically from that of other [people].”
Of course, the language of “leaving the world” and living in a way that contrasts with those still “in the world” goes back to the very beginnings of Christian monasticism in the desert fathers and mothers of the third century. But it is just such a conviction of radical difference from “the world” that gives Anabaptism its “sectarian” flavor (in the sociological sense, not the wacko-cult sense). There is no mistaking Merton’s Anabaptist-like tone when he writes later in the same essay:
The specific value that draws a Christian into the “desert” and “solitude” (whether or not he remains physically “in the world”) is a deep sense that God alone suffices. The need to win the approval of society, to find a recognized place in the world, to achieve a temporal ambition, to “be somebody” even in the Church seems to them irrelevant. They realize themselves to be called to a totally different mode of existence, outside of secular categories and outside of the religious establishment. (CWA, pp. 42-43; SE, p. 398; emphasis Merton’s)
The ideal of a life dedicated to God alone, even while remaining physically “in the world”; of abandoning “worldly” quests for approval and position; and especially of a mode of existence outside of “worldly” categories, including established religious ones: is this not central to the “Anabaptist vision”?
The monastic stance of prophetic critique of “the world” from outside it is one that Merton shared with Anabaptism in contrast to mainstream Christianity or secular progressives. (Gordon Oyer’s award-winning book Pursuing the Spiritual Roots of Protest documents one highly significant instance of this.) In such a view, in order to struggle truly and authentically against evil powers, believers must do two things. They must disentangle themselves from those powers and their confusion as much as possible, in the first place; and then they must begin to be the new humanity, the eschatological community in which the life of Christ is manifest and is aware of being that life. Both mainline, establishment Christianity and secular progressives would argue that the authentic stance is to remain within the messiness and confusion of the world, taking part in its necessary evils in order ultimately, eventually, to bring about good. But Merton (like the Anabaptists) claims that one cannot possibly see clearly to make things new while remaining embedded in the fog and confusion of the old. Monks and Mennonites agree on the need to come apart from the problem and then, in that alternative space, to take up an alternative existence as the solution, both in individual life and in community. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, NRSV). This is bedrock “sectarianism.”