Mennonite Concerns

Now that I am licensed to minister in MCUSA I feel like maybe now I can start taking some ownership in the term Mennonite. Typically I find myself torn between referring to myself as an Anabaptist Christian or as Mennonite. Often when I am given the chance to address Mennonites I say that I refer to myself as Anabaptist amongst them because I don’t believe they really understand the term Mennonite if they think an ethnicity of “Mennonite” exists that can be separated from Christ and if they do they should just get over it and baptize their babies. Outside of Mennonite circles I am more comfortable accepting the term, but I want to be clear my goal is never to be a good Mennonite, but that Mennonite is the term that best locates how I think we are to follow to Christ. However, I do not accept Mennonite as a substitute for Christianity. One of the radical instances of me feeling lost in the term Mennonite happened when I was on a panel with several other younger Mennonites and one person described themselves as an “Agnostic Mennonite” and not a single member of the audience sought to challenge that such a person could exist.

But what I wanted to draw attention to are two separate articles that currently weigh in on this struggle. The first from this issue of The Mennonite by Janet Trevino-Elizarraraz explores the difficulty with this discussion from a Latino perspective. She writes:

Historian Philip Hammond categorizes Mennonites as an "ethnic religion" whereby "ethnic identification can be claimed without claiming the religious identification, but the reverse is rare." What I’m asking for from Germanic Mennonites is rare; I’m asking them to present a living faith divorced from their ethnicity so that people like me can find a home with them, and this faith can speak to my culture as well.

Her article displays how an understanding of Mennonite that stems from not just a perceived identity as Mennonites, but from a particular geographic location can stunt a different cultural expression of what it means to be Mennonite. And while I enjoyed her article it does seem to grant too much weight to notions of culture. Janet accepts the terms that cultures are really at risk here rather pushing how the body of Christ is at risk, a body that is more dictated by our location in it, that is “in Christ”, than our geographic or ethnic locations.

The second article is from the Mennonite Weekly Review by Matthew Krabill (whom I know from sometime I spent at Fuller Seminary) and is written from the perspective of a Mennonite insider. Matthew’s concern focuses more on the growing disconnect between Mennonite and Christianity. He writes:

Part of the problem is that we can be so thoroughly Mennonite that we are no longer Christian. Culturally, this is actually possible, since Amstutzes, Yoders and many others represent ethnic clans with historical ties to Europe. Theologically, however, this is a serious problem. Mennonites are sometimes so inherently oppositional that we define ourselves over against the rest of the Christian family, to a point where our “distinctives” (peace and justice, etc.) become the only story we tell — or at least they are disconnected from central Christian convictions. Put another way, in faithfully being neither Catholic nor Protestant, we adopt an isolationism that has the potential to distance us from our Christian roots altogether. So, for example, while we may affirm a value such as peace, we may not be so sure how it relates to core Christian affirmations such as “Jesus is the Son of God” or “Jesus is Savior.” We may affirm justice but not know what it has to do with the crucified Christ or the hope of the resurrection.

Matthew’s article provides a greater insight into the missional nature of Anabaptism that I think is currently being put together through Mennonites at Fuller Seminary. Here I think Matthew does a better job at connecting the theological beliefs that root Mennonites only as they know Christ, for he notes this is “the firm foundation upon which nothing else can be laid.”

Both of these voices and stories need to be heard in the church and hopefully we can begin to find ourselves no longer engaged in this discussion be moving outward. And as Ephraim Radner pointed out in reference to the Episcopal Church, “the Gospel is alive, and the Church that is Christ’s Body given, takes us to a new place.”


7 thoughts on “Mennonite Concerns

  1. Good to see you have found a place in Oregon…been to Lebanon, a college roomie of mine is from there…hope all is going well!

    Thanks for sharing this too…I’ve struggled with it myself. I remember when I went to EMU and had a discussion with a peer about whether you identify first as Christian or Mennonite…my peer said Mennonite and I was taken aback. I agree we need to move beyond this discussion and on to the new place.

  2. found your comments on my article… 🙂 thanks for shedding light on what you read & how you understood it. my question for you would be both a question & yet more of a conflict within me… as much as i would like to see anabaptism/mennonitism liberated from its cultural entanglements, i dont believe its possible that it could b in a vacuum or understood outside of culture… as objective truth. it is only within culture and experience that it makes sense – or is this just me? LOL

    now, im trying to understand your idea about the risk being the body of christ instead of culture. hmmm… missing some important pieces in your ideas, right? im sure there’s more to this than what is written. mennonite for me is the visible body/community. anabaptist the historical belief system. my culture the medium in which i understand and apply the above. christianity the focus of belief system but scary bc of its historical implications. body of christ as the invisible church…. hmmm…. thinking out loud here. body of christ as something i cant control nor do i give it much thought. kingdom of God – Word in action… so, after thinking about this some more, i dont know if its just where im at w my minority status in this country & the constant realization that im not from here that makes it difficult to let go of the cultural piece in my faith, but honestly, i also see a God who honors culture & uses it for God’s purposes.

    thanks for letting me process on here. 🙂

  3. Janet,
    Lots of good questions. I enjoyed your article plenty.
    I hope I am not trying to advocate a Christianity without culture but rather push towards seeing the church as our first culture. Culture is a given but I also don’t want to place to much weight or have our identity stem from that. I think if you look at American culture part of a divided church is that people place their identity more often in political choices, class, sport teams, color of skin, music, which channels they watch, what they wear, etc. So anabaptism will always be a part of culture but our unity should come only in the spirit, not our cultures. But I thought your article pressed well on showing how Mennonites are uncomfortable with an ethnic church that is other than Germanic European and that was helpful.
    I will say I wrote this blogs post as a white non-life time Mennonite that worries about the controlling forces of his culture. I actually think being from a minority culture will help minorities resist the colonizing force of the mind that is western culture. But history is full of stories where pride in cultures (which is often a nationalistic identity) has turned to unhelpful divisions and even violence. So I think I resist giving them too much a place other than the given in which we exist. I actually have sometimes thought about culture as a principality or power that in the end is reconciled to Christ, but I am not sure how. But for the church I think we have neither jew nor greek, slave nor free…..Because of Christ.
    But I really do appreciate the push back and I apologize if I miss read your article. I linked to because I actually did enjoy it and the fact that we need voices like yours in MCUSA. Grace and Peace.

  4. im finally able to sit & read your response & i thank you for it. 🙂 culture is tricky and being able to get to the core of our faith w/o it is even more. it’s a valuable call for us to weed thru culture, but i also think it’s easier for the majority to believe this than the minority. it’s a luxury that the majority r afforded bc they are not in the struggle as minorities are. all that to say, in essence, i wish for a day when the labels are gone but who that is really serving anyway & im curious how heaven will be. 😉

    id love to hear what you think about this…

    a worthy critique of my article which i admit that at this part i did exaggerate – asking for a divorce… that’s a bit too far im sure but the issue john brings up is none the less interesting. i’d love to hear your opinion on it. i’m currently in dialogue w him via email.

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