I Am a Mennonite, Deborah A Scott, April 1999 (United States)
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God exists, therefore everything that I am exists in the context of God's continuing presence. My understanding of God and my experience of God's Spirit has largely been shaped and experienced within the context of the Mennonite church, so the church plays a big role in my life. In the past two years at Goshen College, my definition of the Mennonite church has widened and deepened as I've connected with the communities within communities that make up the church. I have felt surrounded by ever widening communities, encircling me in love and support. I felt as though I was floating in God's womb.
But with that trust and that comfort, there was also the fear of being expelled from the community into the cold threatening world where I would have to stand on my own. Even though my own understanding of what it meant for me to be a Mennonite was growing, this was pretty much synonymous to discovering myself. I didn't really know how other Mennonites defined Mennonite, and this lack of knowledge nagged me at times. It meant that I could take a wrong step in my personal journeying and unwittingly end up outside the community. I knew singing in harmony was part of Mennonitism. I knew starving in Russia, farming in Canada, and helping others help themselves was part of my Mennonite heritage. I knew that to eat my grandmother's zwiebach, platz, and peppernuts was to experience transcendence.
I thought I knew this much as well: that we had a tradition of helping others help themselves; that we joyfully and uncomplainingly were working to realign the world; that we lived differently than others because we tried to live as Jesus would have us live - as peacemakers.
This class certainly gave me more substantial historical facts and a background of the theologies present in Anabaptism over the centuries, and for this I am grateful. Applying the history of the Mennonite church to the present has not been easy for me. It is hard to look back to the sixteenth century and say, well that was a good notion to rid ourselves of, this was a bad idea to pick up, this is where we stand now. A lot of questions have surfaced instead of definite answers.
Baptism is a lot more complicated than I imagined it was when I chose to publicly express my faith at 17. Who should be baptized? How much should one agree with the Mennonite doctrine, or know of it before one gets baptized? How far on one's spiritual journey should one be, and what if that journey does not seem to follow the "traditional" Mennonite road? These are, I suppose, questions that every generation of Anabaptists has had to face. The Mennonite church today is broadening, embracing many cultures and peoples at once - people who do not necessarily claim the Mennonite 'culture' as theirs but do want to be part of the community of believers. For these people and for those whose roots lie in those Dutch and Swiss early Anabaptists, what is there in ourselves that we must name as Mennonite - that to a degree we must have in common - for our community of believers to be a true, binding community?
Another aspect of the Mennonite faith is the worldly context of our community. The Anabaptists often acted in reaction to the antagonistic or accepting culture around them. This shaped the ethnic culture that many Mennonites claim and even the theology a bit. As I recognized these roots, I was unsure of whether this delegitimized those aspects or whether this was just to be accepted. I am unsure of how much my own faith should be influenced by the surrounding culture. Many see the push for the Mennonite church to accept active homosexuals as stemming from cultural influences. (Personally, I grew up not seeing same sex marriage as a sin, and quite frankly I think I got that from the church. The subject of homosexuality rarely came up in church on Sundays, but love, peacemaking, and respect for all was standard fare. When I found out that we viewed active homosexuality as a sin, I knew that I could never believe homosexuality to be a sin or a vice one must overcome, like overeating or greed. Denying the right to the ties of marriage or the ties to the community goes way beyond sex. I will not deny anyone such things.) For myself, the issue that has brought the tension between secular culture and churchly doctrine to my attention is nonviolence/nonresistance/nonviolent resistance/pacifism. I have discovered that my pacifist stance and personal quest for nonviolence stems from the church's teachings and tradition but also from the liberal pacifism of the 1960s. I came into Goshen with the attitude that we were called to be active peacemakers and transform unjust systems into just ones through which God's love is expressed to many. Well that just isn't Mennonite. So I've been struggling with defining my own feelings, my own theological or spiritual reasons for pacifism, and I've been struggling with not feeling betrayed by the church for allowing me to mix culture with faith and tradition. I've been struggling with the urge to just throw one of those elements out all together. I don't think that's what I'm called to do. The question still remains, how much should we allow the surrounding culture to shape our outlook and our definition of life?
It's easy to say that the Mennonite church has lost its economic ideals, but I think we deserve better than such a blanket statement. Many Mennonites give generously of their money and their time to the church and others. This wealth is for the most part amassed through hard work and American capitalism, and it is accepted. At the same time, however, simplicity is lauded, particularly when we step outside of our Mennonite circles and point back inwards. More With Less, while it may point towards a religion of frugality more than a simplified way of life, is still telling of how we perceive of ourselves and to an extent how we live. In fact, I think that More With Less was where I first formed the ideal of living simply, eating that which taxes the earth the least, using resources as responsibly as possible, and spending money with a view of where it is going. Granted, I fail at attaining and sometimes even attempting to reach those goals, but I have been blessed with congregations at home and in college that have an eye on similar goals as well. I'm not sure about the larger church, however. It feels like North American Mennonites hold up both the ideals of American materialism and Biblical simplicity at once, and I do not know that the inherent tension in this is often addressed. The merger of the two denominations seems like an opportune time for dialogue on this tension, but it is easy to feel threatened and not listen when one's lifestyle is criticized. Nonetheless, if we as a church community don't take the trouble to define where we stand in relation to the material world, what can we base our lives on but the culture surrounding us?
Such questions can be frustrating, but at least I now have the knowledge to articulate them. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that for me to be Mennonite is to ask such questions. And when I have thought about them, to then turn to the church community and ask fellow Mennonites their views. Which brings me back to the community. I guess I'm not encircled by cocentric rings of "community". I suppose being a Mennonite is not and should not be a matter of simply floating in the midst of a homogenous theology that one can absorb when spiritual fortification is needed. The community does exist, but not in such a consistent, unwavering way and not for the purpose of protection, though it can play that role when called on.
I am just now allowing my church communities to give up this role. Right now I'm still working at getting my balance, but I hope that before I leave this place I shall be able to walk in the world without crumpling to the ground, without forever reaching my arms back to that God-like womb. I know that the only way I will be able to do that is to accept the church for what it is and what it can be and walk - sometimes with the church, sometimes behind, and perhaps sometimes ahead - through the world towards God.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.