Mennonite in 1999: Why Me? Mandy A Yoder, April 1999 (United States)
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Why am I a Mennonite? First and foremost I am a Mennonite because I believe in what the Mennonite church believes. However, I am also a Mennonite because I was born into a family who is Mennonite on every side. I don't look down on that aspect of why I am a Mennonite, though. In fact I think it speaks very highly of a church if they can keep and welcome as members those who are born into them.
I also embrace the Mennonite faith because I believe in the history of its people. The Mennonite Church has made some very different choices and turns from our Anabaptist forebearers, yet I still find myself identifying with them a considerable amount. No longer do we suffer physical persecution for our faith. Some would argue that if we really are still trying to be separate from the world we should encounter some uncomfortable times, but for the most part this is not an issue.
We are also considerably more involved in government than our Anabaptist forebearers. Because of their acute desire to be completely separate from the world that persecuted them and did not agree with them theologically they were very suspicious and avoidant of government involvement. The emphasis was on their allegiance to God as being number one with little room to accommodate an alliance with another entity. Mennonites today are also a lot more pluralistic. Our Anabaptist forebearers were all located in/from western Europe from fairly similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Today, however, Mennonites are found on nearly every continent and in almost 50 countries. Our members are of Asian, African, American Indian, European, Latino, and Pacific Island decent.
Mennonites in the 20th century are also a lot less dualistic. I think we still maintain some semblance of separation from the world and the feeling that the church is the highest allegiance. However, we no longer see the church and the world as being in constant conflict. Today the Mennonite church is much more able to live almost completely in the world. As mentioned earlier I believe we still are distinct from the world and from other churches, but we are certainly not as much at odds with the world as our Anabaptist forbearers. There is also a lot less emphasis on visual signs of separation. We no longer dress as simply as the Anabaptists did. And, most of us no longer live in or associate with communities of only Mennonites. Certainly Goshen, Lancaster County, Kalona, and other Mennonite towns seem contrary to that statement, but for the most part we really do live in the world to the full extent of the word.
I also think of the many similarities that we Mennonites in the 20th century still have in common with our ancestors. We don't swear oaths. We are nonresistant, fairly suspicious of government, and we live simply. We have a strong focus on community and mutual aid. And, these are some of the reasons that I am a Mennonite. I believe in the value and virtue of all of the characteristics mentioned above. Though we are becoming more and more present in government I think there is still a certain questioning of those who do enter into government work as well as a general distrust or dissatisfaction with the government. Also, as we begin to embrace all of the modern conveniences and the materialism of the US in 1999 we are becoming increasingly less inclined to live simply. However, I believe that it still is important to many Mennonites, and it is something they will work hard to keep a pertinent concern.
The points of emphasis for modern Mennonites that really keep me in the fold however are multitudinous. I am a Mennonite because I think a nonresistant life is what Jesus lived and what he calls us to live. This emphasis, which is also a point in H.S. Bender's Anabaptist Vision, is of utmost and central importance. This ideal is upheld by most Mennonite churches. I realize there are some that do not seem to feel this is an important point, and that is very disturbing to me. I am of the same persuasion as our Anabaptist forbearers in that I believe the vision of the Sermon on the Mount is something that can and should be emulated here on earth. The ethic of nonresistance is most certainly a part of that for me.
Simple living is another area of Mennonitism that attracts me to this sect. As we studied and reflected on the wealthy Dutch Mennonites of the 16th century I found many parallels between them and the 20th century Mennonite church in North America. Like many Mennonites today, the Dutch Mennonites had the freedom and time to become literate and pursue higher education and in turn to become very wealthy. I do not view the development of Mennonites in education as a bad thing, I only question where our extreme wealth is taking us in our faith lives.
It seems like today in the U.S. simplicity has vanished from many Mennonite's lives, much like it did from our Dutch ancestors. They were about as assimilated into the mainstream culture as was possible to be, and in many respects I would say that we are very assimilated today too. Mennonites today drive Lexus cars and wear five carat diamonds, and I believe that is wrong. With the knowledge of what many people around the world have to endure daily it seems very arrogant to not try more diligently to live in solidarity with them. It also seems to fly in the face of Jesus' teachings regarding sharing with the poor, not storing up treasures on earth, and just living simply.
Naturally it saddens me to see that the Mennonite church of today is not doing as well as it could in the simplicity camp, however, I am also intrigued by the story of the Dutch because it makes me look at the present situation of Mennonites in the U.S. a bit differently. Instead of idealizing our European ancestors and feeling that only lately has the church been slipping from a simple lifestyle, I realize that the church of today is no different from many of those who came before us.
I am still dismayed, however I believe in the Mennonite church and its ideal of simplicity even if it doesn't always get lived out the way I think it was intended. The fact that we are no worse than the Dutch does not give us license to continue accumulating vast amounts of wealth and material goods. I think we need to do much more to embrace the value of simplicity, but at least now I now realize that it is impossible for the church to exist outside of it's cultural milieu, which for us in the 20th century Mennonite church involves a lot of materialism and emphasis on wealth. Therefore I will not cease to think we could be doing more. However, I will also try to be conscious of the things that we as a church are doing well.
The church's emphasis on community is another reason that I am a Mennonite. Though I'm sure to some the "community" feel of the Mennonite church sometimes seems exclusive to those who are not a part of it, for me it is a very attractive aspect. I believe Christians were called to live in community in order to support and encourage one another in faith development. However, I think we are also called to be with one another in order to remember what we believe, where we came from, and why we are or should be different.
Living in and with a strong emphasis on community also incorporates the Anabaptist value of mutual aid. Though I have some problems with our own Mennonite Mutual Aid organization I believe in what it stands for and the ideals for which it was begun. MMA also does a good job of witnessing with its financial power. They invest only in companies that they see as socially responsible: companies that help the environment, aid underprivileged groups, and enforce affirmative action statements. They also avoid investing in alcohol, tobacco, or military companies. Nevertheless, they do not accept everyone that applies for insurance, and it is because of this that I am left puzzled by "true brotherhood" language and the true meaning of the Acts texts.
I feel that I understand the economic ramifications and the risk of insuring some people. The early Anabaptist communities also had people who were "high-risk;" they are the old, the handicapped, the orphaned, the chronically ill, and the mentally retarded. These people were not major contributors to the economy of the community, but they were still cared for by the community. They were provided for because they believed that when Acts 4: 34, 35 says, "There was not a needy person among them...and it was distributed to each as any had need" they were to do likewise.
I am not saying that I don't think we are a good community. Indeed, the positive aspects of the community are what I love so dearly about the Mennonite church. And, I do not think that in order to become a better community we need to share goods completely and not own any personal possessions. However, I do think the basic meaning behind mutual aid and community is slowly being eroded, and I believe that is something we need to be aware of. When the Swiss Brethren needed help the Dutch Mennonites didn't refuse because of their alleged inferior educational background. They simply acted on their beliefs that property and wealth is a gift from God that should be used to help those who aren't as fortunate. They believed a common purse was biblically mandated.
Another aspect of the Mennonite church that draws me in is its emphasis on doing the word of God instead of just reading and speaking it. I think our Anabaptist forebearers embodied the Biblical call to seek the Kingdom of God here on earth. They lived in community, shared goods, sought peace, and helped one another. Certainly these actions in themselves are not the Kingdom of God, but it seems to me that such an environment of love and care is sure close to what it will feel like.
Though I believe that the Kingdom of God will not really be a reality until heaven I still believe that we should live as though it could exist here and now. This semester we talked about living with the knowledge that there isn't much of a chance that the Kingdom of God is going to be realized while simultaneously not using that as an excuse to cease from trying to make it so. I see a lot of denominations that use their belief that the Kingdom will never be realized as an excuse to stop working towards that goal. I see the goal of heaven on earth as something we must constantly hold as an ideal. For if we loose the ideals then we just slowly begin to be satisfied with less significant accomplishments. Indeed, the Mennonite church's commitment to taking this call more literally than a lot of denominations and faiths is one of the reasons I am a Mennonite.
I am a Mennonite in part because I think we seem, look, act differently from society at large. We are not as different as we used to be, but I think we still retain some semblance of odd-ness about us. I know I could tell who the Mennonite kids in elementary school were. Even in Goshen, a community full of Mennos, I knew we were different and that we had something in common that was important. I am a Mennonite because I believe in maintaining some form of distance from the government in order that my true allegiance is never mistaken for another peripheral one.
I am a Mennonite because I believe what most Mennonites believe. Though there are some who are more conservative and others who seem too liberal, we all share some common beliefs and ideals. The call for a new and separate church--a true church--to be established, as Bender suggests, is not what I think is necessary. I think the Mennonite church of 1999 is growing, stretching, and changing in many healthy ways. However, as we embark upon a new millennium it seems important to again think seriously about where we come from and what being a Mennonite today should entail and what it does entail. Maybe after we have prayerfully and honestly done this we will have a better sense of the direction the church needs to go in the not-so-distant future.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.