What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? David Harnish, April 2011
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As a history major, I cannot help but to begin by defining what it means to be Mennonite by looking back. While most Mennonites do not spend a lot of time contemplating their historical roots, after having learned a substantial amount about the Radical Reformers, it seems impossible to ignore the early Anabaptists’ impact on present day Mennonites. Our current beliefs as Mennonites are drawn from the Anabaptists’ beliefs that were lived out in Zurich and articulated in the Schleitheim Confession. Adult baptism remains a defining characteristic of being Mennonite worldwide. The commitment to peace and separation from the world are important to Mennonites, but not universally. Although different groups of Mennonites have taken a range of views on these issues, the Schleitheim Confession and the Radical Reformers remain important roots for Mennonite thinking. Also, considering the ways that we have responded to the challenges faced by the persecuted Anabaptists (tendency to defer to authority, avoidance of conflict, etc), to be a present-day Mennonite is to be an ideological descendent of the early Anabaptists.
The essential beliefs of Mennonites today are a commitment to service, community, peace, and economic ordering that runs counter to the mainstream ways (this last one is done mostly through aid and the work of Mennonite agencies like MEDA and MCC). Regardless of the great variety in worship style and salvation beliefs amongst global Mennonites, the centrality of service and community seems apparent. Even in hyper-individualistic America, Mennonites are very concerned with forming a tight-knit community that provides comfort and counseling. This can be done too much, though, as has happened in North America where Mennonites risk being viewed as a denomination in which membership depends on ethnicity. Worldwide, this seems like less of a concern, mostly due to the rapid expansion of the church. It is hard to be viewed as an exclusively ethnic religion when you are evangelizing and including outsiders at a rapid rate.
Another essential element of being Mennonite is the belief in pacifism. This is the embodiment of the ideal laid out by Christ for us to love both our friends and enemies. I find it difficult to view a congregation as “Mennonite” if they do not profess a commitment to peace. That seems like too big of a departure from the core beliefs first articulated by the Radical Reformers. What’s more, an accepting view of violence and military spending permits outrageous amounts of suffering worldwide. We in the United States are some of the worst offenders, as our nation spends far more than any other country. If we truly believe in Jesus’ teachings of the “upside down Kingdom” where economic order does not punish the poor or helpless, we cannot support military spending. Thus, Mennonites must support pacifism and economic actions that help the poor and do not perpetuate oppression.
On a related note, another defining characteristic of Mennonites is a global connection amongst themselves. Due to the rapid growth of the church, the average Mennonite is from the Global South and likely takes views of worship that is livelier and salvation that is more personal and prayer oriented. These differences lead to questions of just how connected global Mennonites really are. If we take such different views of worship and salvation, how should our interactions look? I see Mennonites as far too detached from one another. Despite the professed beliefs of economic equality in a manner that is counter to the mainstream, Mennonites in North America have done a rather poor job of connecting in meaningful ways with their brethren in the Global South, both personally and economically. Admittedly, however, Mennonites have established some global connections, such as MCC, 10,000 Villages, and MEDA to name a few organizations. While this is a good start, Mennonites in North America lack personal communication with Mennonites worldwide. This could be a meaningful opportunity for renewal and rejuvenation within MCUSA, which is aging and dwindling.
A final defining aspect of Mennonites is the tension between “living in but not of the world.” Mennonites have a long history of staying out of politics. However, as Mennonites have experienced financial success, they have had to reconsider just how much they should be involved in decision-making processes. It seems certain that a strong (and perhaps healthy) tension will persist amongst Mennonites over how to engage in the affairs of the world. Certainly, some action is required, but how much? To me, this is a defining question of being Mennonite: how do we interact with the government and the political process? Why I am a Mennonite
Many of the aforementioned characteristics of being Mennonite call to me personally. As a believer in Christ, I desire to follow the principles he laid out; I see the Mennonite tradition earnestly striving to do this as well, which is why I find it appealing. As a critical and studious American, I cannot help but feel ashamed of the United States’ actions that abuse humans both domestically and abroad. The Mennonite Church offers an alternative to the nationalistic, ultra-patriotic view that I find so harmful in America, especially when it is associated with conservative, evangelical Christianity. Being Mennonite allows me to separate myself from Christians I see ignoring Jesus’ teachings and perpetuating pain and suffering throughout the world. At the same time, I recognize that Mennonites are far from innocent and stand to gain from ecumenical dialogue not just with our brethren overseas, but also within our own country.
Mennonites’ valuing of community is another key aspect to why I am one. While I grew up fully integrated into American society, unlike past generations of Mennonites, I still experienced communal values not commonly associated with America. I see my personal concerns over oppression, racism, and violence to be partly tied to the way my Mennonite parents and grandparents taught me to empathize. I am a Mennonite because I see it as a way to follow Christ and actively do good in the world, all while recognizing that I am wholly reliant on God to do anything of significance. Likewise, my lack of concern for financial success allows me to feel comfortable in the Mennonite Church, which does not preach the wealth and health gospel that I associate with evangelical US churches. Mennonites in the US have problems to deal with, such as a spiritual malaise and aging population, but I see those issues as capable of being solved through communication and willingness to change. If we are willing to listen to our brothers and sisters in the Global South (who have much greater claims to the word “Anabaptist” due to their circumstances), then Mennonites in the US have the ability to grow in faith and maybe even in numbers.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 2011.