What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Aspen Schmidt, April 2011
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For claiming to be a denomination that’s based on simplicity, describing what it means to be a Mennonite is overwhelmingly complex. When I was younger, my youth group toyed with the idea of how to describe to people what it meant to be a Mennonite. We decided that it was very easy to tell people two things: that we practiced believer’s baptism and rejected violence. It seemed easy enough, but as we have expanded everything about the word “Anabaptist” in this class, I am finding it extremely difficult to describe what it means to be a Mennonite in just a few words. Telling people what Mennonite means is more than just a pacifist stance and an adult baptism, but rather a conversation that would take multiple coffee dates and processing. In the next few paragraphs I will attempt to describe my take on what it means to be Mennonite, as well as briefly describe why this denomination is for me.
My first proposal on what it means to be Mennonite is to study and understand Anabaptist history. I know that this is not appealing to everyone, and perhaps not even an entire class such as this one is necessary, but I believe it is important to interpret our history into how it shapes us today. Being a Mennonite means to know that the Anabaptist Church began when Grebel baptized Blaurock against authorities wishes (Blanke). It means comprehending the historical documents such as The Schleitheim Confession, the Martyr’s Mirror, and The Anabaptist Vision. While I don’t know that I agree with absolutely everything in The Schleitheim Confession, I would say that it’s an important foundational document. It lays out seven compliances that were non-argumentative during the 16th century, and some might even say that they are non-argumentative today as well. The Martyr’s Mirror is us! It’s our story of persecution and our heroic past. And lastly, The Anabaptist Vision encourages us to be disciples, in brotherhood with our church members, and followers of peace. Being a Mennonite means to comprehend all of our past and use it to assemble and define our future.
I believe that knowing the past really does affect everything about our future, from missions to tradition to treatment of the earth to the understanding of other’s beliefs. So, let’s start with this idea of missions. This class has radically changed and challenged my view of this idea. While I have previously wanted to be involved with missions more for humanitarianism than spreading the gospel, I have realized the importance of Jesus so much more. I hate imposing my faith on others, but when we look back to the beginning of the Anabaptist movement, our forbears were off-the-wall crazy about Jesus, and people clung to their ideas. By building relationships, listening to others, and understanding human needs, we can spread the gospel to our neighbors, living right next door or around the world.
Tradition is also a common theme among Mennonites, and just from the very definition of the word we know that tradition comes from our history. If we know about the history of the Swiss Mennonites or understand why there was immigration to Russia and Germany, then we realize and figure out how Mennonites moved throughout the world. We know why we eat the foods we eat, why we do not pledge our allegiance to the flag, or why we appreciate the practice of thrift. There is something comforting about a body of believer’s that holds tradition so tightly, whether it be a European descendant or an Anabaptist from South America.
Our treatment of the earth also comes from our past. From the beginning, it has been recognized that the Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. This means that our energy consumption needs to be well thought out these days. Recycling and compost should be a daily routine. But this also means that we have a responsibility to our fellow humans. Like Keith Graber Miller mentioned, we have a responsibility to hold the elite responsible for reporting the truth. And while this is true, we also have the responsibility to take care of our brothers and sisters of this world. Being a Mennonite means to take care of the Earth, because it is the Lord’s. In this way, our Mennonite churches should learn to be dependent on one another, not worrying about corruption or too much sacrifice, but when a fellow church is in need we need to be present within that desperation or request.
I also believe that in being a Mennonite, we need to learn to understand other traditions as we would want others to understand ours. I would love to believe that all religions have the same creative spirit as Kraybill reflected on in previous class readings. I don’t know if this is true, and I wouldn’t say it’s something that all Mennonites should adhere to, but it makes it much easier to understand and appreciate other people’s practices. To me, being a Mennonite means to listen to others and learn from them. For example, and even though they are our closest relative, I think we have much to learn from the Amish. Our life should be filled with more joy throughout our everyday interactions and work, and we should strive to make our lives slower and simpler.
Lastly, being a Mennonite does mean that we hold baptism and peace to a higher standard than most other traditions. Jesus, along with other leaders like Paul, did not preach infant baptism (Harder, ed.). There is no record of us needing to be baptized before we fully believe. However, along with this, baptism does not save us. We need to continue to learn long after our baptism (Roth). We also follow the gospel in believing that nonviolence is the only way to achieve peace. We are not of this world, and so we cannot be caught up in the worldly affairs of disagreement, death, and corruption. So, while these are the two ideas that most people hold us accountable for, we should be accountable for much more.
I am a Mennonite for several reasons, partly to do with this accountability. My first reason for being a Mennonite begins with my parents. I grew up in this tradition and it’s what I know. However, I would like to think that I am a part of this tradition for many more reasons than just my parents. The main reason I believe I am a Mennonite is because this tradition holds me accountable and challenges me to be a better person everyday. I also would go as far to say that I think it is scripturally correct, not that all other traditions are not. As a Mennonite I hold even higher morals than most other Christians. I will never resort to violence in any situation, I will continue to reach out to Jesus even though I have already been baptized, I will care for the earth by both helping people and leaving as little impact as possible, I respect other’s traditions and do not believe that I have the only correct avenue to heaven, and much more. I am a Mennonite because I want to be more, do more, and understand more, all in the name of Jesus.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.