What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Daniel Penner, April 2011

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“I’m not Mennonite,” responded Luis, “but I go to a Mennonite Church.” When I pushed him further he supposed that he was Mennonite, “...but I don’t speak German,” he reminded me. Conversations such as this were typical in Paraguay. I felt like it was a constant source of debate, or at the very least clarification. What did it mean to be Mennonite? Is speaking German define oneself as Mennonite? For me, having the last name Penner, my response of confusion to German phrases was met with a great deal of consternation. That is something that we struggle with at Goshen College too. With relative ease many on campus can, with relative ease, connect themselves through their Yoder, Kulp or Kraybill ancestors. In this context, the definition of Mennonite becomes a question of ethnicity.

In Guatemala, my Spanish teacher professed herself to be Mennonite. Her mother was Mennonite, her father was Mennonite and but her distinctly Guatemalan worldview was quite different than mine. Not only was it shaped by the overarching cultural differences, but by the violence that has pervaded Guatemala over the past 30-40 years, first through government institutions but more recently in the form of gangs. She had strong faith, she prayed and attended church regularly. Her story made me ask the question that we have wrestled with quite a bit over the past few weeks “who holds the truth?” When the Mennonite church is so widespread, different expressions will emerge under the same Mennonite name - some are charismatic, others are similar to evangelical churches and others have different points of emphases. In this context, the definition of Mennonite becomes a question of culture.

So with reason there is confusion when I am asked the question what is a Mennonite. I have struggled with the question, and it always surprises me how often it is asked. It came up in a discussion with homeless men by Martin’s grocery store Goshen, Indiana, confused as to why I would come out all the way from Kansas to go to college. (“what, couldn’t ya afford KU!?” was Dan’s incredulous response) It came up another time as I shared a ski lift with a stranger from Colorado, as we discussed the nature of baptism. My answers have changed over the years, with my changed understandings I answer them differently. Especially after this class, I feel like I have started to grab ahold of the various questions that people had. I can tell stories about Pilgram Marpeck, Conrad Grebel and even Danisa Ndlovu.

When I hear the question “what does it mean to be Mennonite,” my first response is, “who are you asking?.” What I say will be very different than the majority of my congregation would say back in Harper, Kansas and even more different than La Amistad congregation in Paraguay. If I narrow my definition of a Mennonite to just my personal belief, I may be more accurate, but it is also much more limited. While Mennonites are different, there are a lot in commonalities - I will do my best to outline what it means to “be a Mennonite.” This is speaking from a North American context, I struggle to say whether this is better or more right than other expressions. However, this is what I know the best, and I have definitely seen these elements are expressed clearly in Mennonite churches globally.

I think first of all it means to be committed to the peace. This is fairly central to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. This is what Jesus was talking about at the Sermon on the Mount. I think because of pacifism’s stance in counter to the mainstream is why it has defined the Mennonite church so much. Because it is something that is often roundly critiqued, Mennonites have sought out to understand why they believe in the centrality of peace. The origins of how Anabaptists became a peace church is disputed, whether they adopted it as a means of survival or rather believed that it was a key point of Jesus Christ is not entirely clear. However, the fact that it is still a peace church gives it a position to say something powerful to say to society.

I see the emphasis of Mennonite churches to be on community more so than other churches. The individual is responsible to the larger church and we are to hold ourselves accountable. A simple exercise in one of my classes demonstrated this. We were asked to stand in certain corners of the room depending what we viewed the most important part of the church was. I don’t remember what all of the options were, but nearly all of the Mennonites in the class flooded to the community corner. I suppose this can be seen in a variety of ways - as a strength, as exclusive, as grounding - but this is a big part of Mennonite-ness. This is shifting some, as Mennonites (or Anabaptists) are not as persecuted as in the days of Zwingli, Stalin or Roosevelt. The community aspect is not as prevalent, perhaps in part because of persecution. Mennonites have urbanized and spread out. While the Mennonite havens like Goshen, Newton or Lancaster are still quite vibrant, there are congregations springing up in Seattle, Denver and St. Louis. This integration into the larger culture seems to have diminished the strength of community some. However, diffusion of Mennonites has the potential to lead to Mennonite being less ethnic and more spiritual. How do we keep community and promote inclusivity is a continual question.

To be Mennonite is to be committed to service. There is a great deal of respect for those who are committed to do service both inside and outside the community. Mennonites have a large number of organizations that work for good, in a number of different places and scales: Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite Mission Network. In my congregation I note a particular sentiment that intentional service is something that is important. At our conventions we have service projects, helping out the city where we descend. In Paraguay, my church was active in cleaning up the neighborhood and helping out community members that were struggling. At Goshen College, “culture for service” is a motto and Celebrate Service Day is one way that it is expressed.

Much of what is expressed from these points from what it means to be a Mennonite is also why I am Mennonite. I view these peace, community and service elements as central to Christianity – elements that many traditions lack, or do not devote enough time to. Because of this I see it as important for Mennonites to impress these points. I admit, because I was raised in a “Mennonite” home, and these points were emphasized as valuable. It is also important to recognize that Mennonites do not have the market cornered on these points. There is room for improvement; many Christian traditions do an excellent job of living out these traits that I have identified as particularly “Mennonite.”

Ted Grimsrud opened up his article “The Anabaptist faith: a living tradition” with a quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past. This quote gives proper recognition of history, and we are products of our environments, traditions and cultures. We have inherited so much from a rich history of Mennonites and Anabaptists. But at the same time there is dynamism that goes along with that. While we inherit many of the positives and negatives, denominations are not static, but rather various elements constantly shape these given traits and characteristics. We do have an active role in determining the changing definition of Mennonites.

This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 2011.