A Thoughtful Existence, Pete A Byler, April 1999 (United States)
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Why am I a Mennonite? This question had begun to weigh heavily on my mind long before I registered for the Annabaptist / Mennonite history course at Goshen College this spring. Not knowing any of the history or very much of the foundational theology that define Mennonitism, the beliefs that I have held onto so firmly for so long had suddenly appeared to be founded on very shaky ground. The need for a spiritual exploration was clear. This semester has provided an opportunity for just this, and the answer to this question has, in a personally satisfying, if somewhat abstract, way, shown itself to me.
To me, being a Mennonite can perhaps best be described as living thoughtfully and deliberately. The lifestyle and belief questions that become apparent as I attempt to live "correctly" as a Mennonite cannot always, if ever, be answered simply or in a black-and-white, right-or-wrong fashion. But these tensions, as John Roth calls them, can be very useful if they are considered and taken seriously during every phase of our lives. By keeping these tensions in constant consideration, and thus by living thoughtfully and deliberately, I feel I can truly live a life that will prove me worthy of being called a Mennonite.
One of the core beliefs of Mennonitism is an ethic of peaceful nonresistance, or pacifism. One viewpoint that can be taken with this knowledge is that all violence is sinful and wrong, regardless of situation. Another possible idea is that one's own personal life will be nonviolent, but military or other violence that is not under one's control should not be worried about. A third ethic could involve personal nonviolence, but the notion that personal anger or confrontation is acceptable as long as violence is not involved. My personal belief of a thoughtful existence differs slightly from each of these. If each situation is considered in light of my pacifistic beliefs and also my sense of right and wrong, an active pacifism develops. This leads me to avoid personal anger and confrontation whenever possible, to be saddened when military violence takes place, and to absolutely avoid violence at a personal level. But it does not cause me to condemn all military action unconditionally, nor does it make me become a passive bystander when an injustice is taking place. My active pacifism realizes that in a fallen world, injustice sometimes may need to be stopped. And, sometimes, confrontation may be the only way. Each situation needs to be considered and prayed about. In this way can I be a thoughtful, deliberate pacifist.
Another idea that (I hope) defines Mennonitism is the ethic of love. Many times in the modern day it seems easy to judge people and overanalyze the actions of others. The unconditional love of Jesus Christ, it appears to me, is often forgotten. That is not to say, though, that all actions can be ignored and forgotten instantly. Certainly another defining characteristic of Mennonitism, I would hope, is a separatism from the sins of the world that is held high. Thus, another major tension emerges. When should unconditional love be shown, and when should our separatism dictate discipline? Perhaps me idea of thoughtfulness does not lend itself quite so well to this situation. Or perhaps it does. What if we considered each member of our church family as a person and not a situation? Do we have it in us to show love to each individual and consider his or her situation uniquely? I should think that this deliberate, thoughtful approach to the tension between love and discipline might be a good one. But then again, maybe it would not. Maybe church-wide votes and decisions handed down through the structure of the church is the more practical way to go. Or maybe these two methods are not as different or even separate as they seem. I do not claim to have all the answers, and as I have said, I don't think there always are clearly defined ones.
A third tension that emerges is my life as a Mennonite, and perhaps the one that has the most tangible applications in daily life, is that between the materialism of the world and the Mennonite "spirit of enough." Everything that we experience in this world tells us we need more and better things. But everything that we know as moral and right tells us, I think, that we are called to use our resources to help others less fortunate, and to avoid becoming dependent on worldly possessions so as to not depend any longer on God. But where is this line drawn? Is there a maximum amount of money for which we can purchase an automobile or a house? What about our college education? And that nice pair of new boots in the store? Drawing a line, then, seems an overwhelming task. But if we consider each day the consequences, both material and spiritual, of each purchase we make, and if we conscientiously consume goods at a rate we believe is good one day at a time, then I think things will remain under control. By thoughtfully approaching the issue each time it arises, we can truly live with the spirit of enough.
Certainly the tension I have mentioned are not the only ones that face a Mennonite in today's world. There are also the tensions of community and individualism, inner and outer spirituality, evangelism and humility, and myriad others. My definition of Mennonitism does not answer these tensions, but rather is a way that I can live within them throughout my life. By being a thoughtful and deliberate Christian whenever these become apparent, and by keeping Jesus Christ as the center of these considerations, I believe that I can live a life that truly is Mennonite.
But all of this, I suppose does not really answer the question, "Why am I a Mennonite." I could, after all, easily write a paper about Catholic theology and how to live a good Catholic lifestyle, but that would not make me a Catholic. The obvious reason that I am a Mennonite is that my parents raised me that way. As much as I would like to claim that I would be in this church regardless of my upbringing, that is fairly unrealistic. So I owe a great debt of gratitude to my mother and father.
But the reason that I am still a Mennonite today, and that my beliefs continue to grow and be strengthened constantly, is that the way of life I have described above makes sense to me. I am a physicist. I like things to make sense. (For example, I do not like the quantum theory.) A way of life based too heavily on spirituality would not sit well with me for too long. But nor would a belief system that did not take into account the import of Jesus Christ and the powerful testimony of His life. I have chosen to be a Christian of my own will, and Mennonitism fits perfectly into what I think Christianity at its best could be. It is very Biblically based, yet does not have a set of rules to follow blindly. Certainly this constant struggle for the "truth" or "righteousness" that I have described above is the best way to be the best Christian I can be. So this is why I am a Mennonite. I will humbly suggest that the Mennonite way is a very good way to live a Christian life, and that is what I want to do.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.