What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Caleb Paul Mechem, April 2011

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My identity as a Mennonite has been developing slowly and steadily over the past three years. In one vital way, I am not a Mennonite. I have never committed myself to a community by joining a Mennonite congregation; I have not yet been in one place long enough to make that commitment, which I take very seriously. Throughout this course, I have started to discover what it means for me to be a Mennonite and how I identify with this particular history, from the early years of the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland, to the middle-class existence that is North American Mennonitism today. I am now comfortable referring to myself as a Mennonite, but only as long as there is an asterisk attached.

This class has helped me focus my understanding of why I think of myself within the Mennonite tradition. I have identified several beliefs that I identify with that are particularly expressed in the Anabaptist tradition, though they no doubt have expressions in other faith traditions as well.

I believe that being a follower of Christ is about making a conscience decision, and not about whether or not one was born into a particular tradition. There is something valuable in ethnic Mennonitism or, for that matter, ethnic Catholicism, ethnic Judaism, or any other religious tradition that has developed cultural expressions that are not necessarily linked to confessional faith. But a cultural tradition is not what makes the church the church. The church is composed of people who have decided to be part of the church, whatever tradition they are from. The question of baptism, so important to the Anabaptist movement, has to be discussed and lived in the context of this belief. I struggle with the question of whether or not I ought to be re-baptized. I was baptized at age 11 into the American Baptist Church. I certainly made the decision of my own free will, without force from my parents or my congregation, and yet I know now that I had very little understanding of what being baptized actually meant. I had really not considered the possibility of not believing in Christ or belonging to the church, though I did not know what either of those things really meant. On the other hand, I imagine that no matter what age I was baptized, if I looked back in 20 years, I would question whether I was really mature enough to make that decision to commit myself to the body of Christ. Though I have plenty of questions about how to best act upon the decision to follow Jesus, I believe that decision is a necessary marker of belonging to the church.

I believe that Christians are called to in some way remain wholly separated from the world, although the world is what necessarily gives us a context in which to live our lives. This is a tension from very early in the Anabaptist movement. How were the Swiss Brethren to remain separated from their Reformed neighbors who nevertheless cared for them and helped them survive? Christians are called to remove themselves from the world in some significant way, but I also want to take very seriously the cultural context that has shaped me, both negatively and positively. Unlike many of the earliest Anabaptists, I believe that true and faithful followers of Christ can be found all over the place, in all kinds of traditions, and in many diverse practices. While I want to live out the call to remain apart from the dominant culture, I also want to recognize God wherever God is—and surely God is in the world.

I believe that the lines between church and state should be sharply drawn, that the church suffers anytime that those lines are crossed, and that we must discern together how best to interact with governments and worldly authorities to promote the rule of God—whether that means completely ignoring the established political order, being active in the political process, or even running for political office ourselves. Figuring out the particulars of political involvement requires humility and communal discernment. I am drawn to Ted Koontz’s notion of a second language for Christians when it comes to politics. We are first and foremost citizens of the kingdom of God. We interact with the kingdoms of the world every day, and there is no doubt some positive outcomes from that interaction. But we should always be wary of that interaction, and we should recognize that a Christian’s role as president, police officer, city council member, public parks maintenance worker, and voter are all relativized by that person’s identity in the Christian community. If any political or governmental role conflicts with one’s primary identity in Christ, then that person ought to participate in politics in a different way.

I believe that the church of Christ should be held to a high ethical standard, that we should hold each other accountable, and that there are cases when transgression without repentance means that a person is no longer part of the community. Ethics and behavior are important for the church, and what individuals do carries consequences. There is a place for drawing a line between the church and the world based on people’s actions, but there is ambiguity about what behaviors ought to be condemned and how they should be. We have seen that this has always been a contentious issue in the Anabaptist community, responsible for splits and schisms from the 16th century to today. I locate myself in the ambiguity and the difficulty of those controversies. I recognize the appropriateness of emphasizing actions and acknowledging their importance, but grace, humility, forgiveness, and hospitality are surely among the church’s most important contributions to the world.

I believe that following Jesus means refusing to use violence and striving to behave and think in a way that promotes peace and wholeness. The several stories of Anabaptists resorting to violence—Münster, elements of the Peasants’ War, and those Russian Mennonites who practiced selbstschutz—reinforce the broader movement’s commitment to nonviolence. Moreover, we see in Anabaptist history an emphasis on service that promotes healing. The Dutch Mennonites helped save many Swiss-German Mennonite lives; North American Mennonites formed MCC to help Russians devastated by the overthrow of the Czar; and Mennonite missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries often built their missions work around providing education and health care to those in need. The Anabaptist stance against war is only the negative expression of the positive historical work for peace, health, and fulfillment.

Each of those beliefs is connected to the Anabaptist movement, and because I believe in them I feel that I can in someway call myself a Mennonite. Yet I also believe, with our Anabaptist and Mennonite forebears, that one can best follow Christ only within the context of a community of Christians. To the extent that that is true, I cannot call myself a Mennonite because I have not committed myself to any of the small, local expressions of the church universal. I began this course feeling very uncomfortable about how to answer whether I am a Mennonite or not. Writing papers, I was never quite sure whether to refer to Mennonites as “we” or “they.” I am still living in that gray area—thoroughly convinced that the Mennonite tradition is where I belong, yet still not committed to the community—but I am more aware and confident of the ways in which I identify as a Mennonite, and I have a better understanding of exactly why I cannot quite call myself a Mennonite without an asterisk.

Discussion questions

  1. Is there anything North American Mennonites can learn from the Mennonite involvement in Paraguayan politics?
  2. What thoughts do you have about the Mennonite interaction with the Lengua and Nivacle people?
  3. Do you think the MB guidelines for political engagement are good ones? What would you add? Are they too strict at any points?
  4. Are you more comfortable identifying yourself as a Mennonite or an Anabaptist or both? How do you think North American Mennonites ought to use each of those terms?

This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.