Thoughts in My Head: On Being “Mennonite”

Okay, so being “Mennonite” is not as straightforward as it might seem.

For some, the word “Mennonite” brings to mind plain dress and beards, head coverings and communal living. For others, it means having a “Mennonite” name like Friesen or Wiebe or Dyck. For some it involves speaking low German and eating Borscht with Zwieback as you play the “Mennonite game” of finding all the relatives you have in common.

But Menno Simons himself, the very “Menno” in “Mennonite,” didn’t fit these cultural descriptions of “Mennonite.” And neither do most of the Mennonites in the world today, as the video above nicely demonstrates.

So what does it mean to be “Mennonite”?

Like all questions of identity, it’s a complicated one, and different people will answer differently. I am a Mennonite by choice, not by birth, and I’ve reflected on this quite a bit for myself in coming to that decision. If I had to boil “being Mennonite” down to three things, here’s what they would be.

First and foremost, being Mennonite means being committed to Jesus. I know, I know: all Christians are committed to Jesus in some sense, either as God worthy of worship, or as Saviour bringing deliverance from sin, or as Healer of our infirmities and diseases, or otherwise. Mennonites agree with these understandings of Jesus. But Mennonites are distinguished by their commitment to Jesus in a particular sense: we strive to take seriously Jesus as Lord, especially in following Jesus’ teachings and way of life as presented in the Gospels.

This particular commitment to Jesus has several implications. One is that we try to read Scripture with Jesus at the centre. Jesus provides the clearest window on God and God’s will, so we read Scripture to know and follow Jesus, which in turn (we hope) makes us better readers of Scripture. Another is that we refuse to give ultimate allegiance to anything or anyone else, whether nations or political systems or economic structures. We are not anarchists, and we do seek to live within the laws of whatever land we find ourselves in, but Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, not any of these “powers of this age.”

A second commitment flows out of this ultimate commitment to Jesus: being Mennonite means being committed to community. Jesus gathered disciples around himself to be with him and learn from him and follow him, so we as disciples of Jesus continue to gather around him for these same reasons. We see the church as God’s family, as brothers and sisters in Christ, caring for each other. We see the church as Christ’s body, united in our diversity to serve each other and continue Jesus’ kingdom work in the world.

Again, I hear you: all Christians are committed to community in some sense. But Mennonites have taken this commitment as seriously as any other Christian tradition and more seriously than most. Sometimes this serious commitment to community has not been healthy, as some Mennonites have insulated and isolated their communities from the world to such an extent they have been unable to obey Jesus’ call to be salt and light in the world. But some of the most caring, most challenging, most encouraging, most welcoming, and most egalitarian communities I have been involved in or have seen have been Mennonite.

A third commitment stands out for Mennonites, again flowing out of our ultimate commitment to Jesus: being Mennonite means being committed to peace. The Mennonite churches are among the historic “peace churches,” those Christian traditions that have particularly emphasized nonviolence and peacemaking.

This means taking Jesus’ teaching seriously, that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, that we are not to resist evil with evil, but with acts of mercy. This means following in Jesus’ path of love and nonviolence: overcoming evil in the world not by violence or aggression, but with self-giving, even suffering, love. This means dedicating ourselves to Jesus’ kingdom vision, seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s justice, yearning and praying and so striving for this kingdom to come on earth: a vision of swords turned into plows, of justice and mercy met together; a vision of good news for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed; a vision of the least being feasted, the last being first, and the lost being found.

Someone might well think what I’ve described is more generally what it means to be “Anabaptist,” not particularly “Mennonite.” Undoubtedly that’s true: these are really Anabaptist commitments. And I’ve known Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, United Church and other folk who hold these commitments in much the same way I do.

To this I would say, “Praise God!”—though in four-part harmony, slowly, a cappella. (Yes, another Mennonite stereotype, which, like Borscht and Zwieback, I happen to like. So sue me—I’ll give you my cloak.)

But I would also say that, while one can be Anabaptist and Anglican, or a kind of Anabaptist-Catholic, or otherwise bring Anabaptist commitments into conversation with other Christian traditions, it is in being Mennonite that I am most comfortable, and most challenged, in my commitment to peace, my commitment to community, and ultimately my commitment to Jesus.

We Mennonites don’t do this perfectly by any means. Sometimes we mess it up badly. But mostly we do it pretty well.

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2 Responses to Thoughts in My Head: On Being “Mennonite”

  1. Marco Funk says:

    I like this, Michael. I sometimes wonder if Mennonites are as community-minded as we’ve often told ourselves we are. In business, we seem to be fierce individualists. We don’t really do any kind of communal discernment when it comes to spending our money or organizing our finances. Nothing like our Hutterite cousins. We do theological discernment in community; but then we’ve also split numerous times over theological/ethical differences. I’m not convinced that community is an actual marker for us as Mennonites anymore, if it ever was, and perhaps more an ideal we like to think of but live out less and less in any significant way. Perhaps I’m being far too pessimistic. There are times when the beauty of community shines through – it brings me to tears. But I’m not sure I can say this is a telling marker of what it means to be Mennonite in contrast to some other denomination. When I think of the clearest examples of community, in our world today, I think of folks in the New Monastic movement, or the ‘old’ monastic movement, the Hutterites perhaps.

    • Michael Pahl says:

      Thanks for this, Marco. I agree that we don’t generally “do community” the way we used to – which, as I say in the piece, is not all bad. I also agree that we don’t necessarily “do community” as well as some others do or as well as we could – though one’s ideal of “doing community” will be different from person to person, I would think (I don’t personally long for a “New Monastic” kind of community, nor do I think that is a “more biblical” or “purer” form of community than other models). But I wonder what your experience of non-Mennonite churches is? My thoughts here come out of my own experience. I’ve been quite involved in Baptist, Lutheran, Evangelical Free, and non-denominational churches, as well as Mennonite ones, and through all that my best experiences of community have come in multiple Mennonite churches. As I put it in the piece, “some of the most caring, most challenging, most encouraging, most welcoming, and most egalitarian communities I have been involved in or have seen have been Mennonite.” Again, not that other groups don’t “do community” well, and not that we can’t learn from others about this, but in my own experience we “have taken this commitment [to community] as seriously as any other Christian tradition and more seriously than most.”

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