What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Hannah Canaviri, April 2011

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When I registered for this class last spring, I had next to no expectations about what I would learn or get of this class; I was just looking forward to another John Roth class. Now, with this semester drawing to an end, I realize that this class proved to be one of the most thought-provoking and personally relevant classes I have ever taken, and I am extremely glad that I took this class. Over the course of eleven weeks, I have been stretched to see inside others’ point of views, been forced to critically examine my own spiritual journey, and have become more aware of the strengths, complexities, and ongoing tensions within the Anabaptist/Mennonite church tradition.

Am I Mennonite? I have wrestled with this question in some way, shape or form for almost the entirety of my life. At different points, it seemed more relevant or important to make the decision and label myself as such than at other times. When, in one of my Bible classes in high school, I stood up and defended pacifism and nonviolence, it made sense to affiliate myself with the Mennonites – after all, I had then had a whole group of people backing me up and sharing similar beliefs! With Bolivian friends, however, I never made any connection between myself and Mennonites since I knew that the word would conjure up images of the colony Mennonites in Santa Cruz – a group I do not affiliate myself with! I always accepted that fact that my mom was Mennonite, but I never really knew whether that made me one as well. My father is a first-generation Christian , so he claimed no denominational affiliation, and our church also consisted of new Bolivian believers with little concept of denominations. My school friends were all Christian and I received tremendous spiritual support from them and school faculty; the only difference between us, as far as I was concerned, lay in my belief that war was wrong.

I suppose I always thought that a commitment to peace-making marked the key distinction between Mennonites and other Protestant Christians. My Christian friends at school beliefs aligned with my religious beliefs: that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, crucified and resurrected to bring us salvation; that the Bible was the Word of God and that we should model our lives’ on its’ teaching and Jesus’ example; that in Christ, one could find hope, peace, assurance of eternal life; that the Holy Spirit worked in and through a believer’s life to transform, renew and bring glory to God; that the Great Commission called for us to share the gospel of Jesus with others. There may have been some eschatological or soteriological differences, but these opinions seemed of secondary importance – what mattered was that we loved Jesus and had been redeemed by His grace. This compromised – and still does, for the most part – my general attitude towards denominations and Christianity in general. I suppose I did not have enough exposure to denominations or even a structured, established church growing up for this categorization to make much of a difference to me. I recognized that differences exist between groups, but I identified with Christians from any denominational background simply because we served the same God. If anything, I felt the division only between Protestants (“evangélicos” in Bolivia) and Catholics, since the only Catholics I knew were only Catholics nominally, baptized their babies and did not really have any relationship with God.

Since coming to the United States, I have become increasingly aware of denominations and the categories they place Christians in. Suddenly, things have become less black and white and more grey, and I realize that there are differences within the church that I personally would not like to associate myself with and separating these different beliefs along denominational lines is useful. As a categorizer myself, I recognize the value in having set belief and value systems and traditions to draw from. It is also easier for renewal to occur or problems be addressed within a smaller group than dealing with the Christian church on a broad, global level. Still, I feel somewhat uncomfortable tying myself to a denomination since it almost seems as if I would be turning my back on my own church background and my congregation; I do not want to adopt any feelings of superiority over other Christians. For all practical purposes, however, I affiliate myself most with the Mennonite denomination. My mother and her family are Mennonite, I live and interact within ethnic Mennonite enclaves both here in Goshen and Pennsylvania, and I attend Mennonite churches in both places. I am a baptized member of my church in Bolivia, however, so I have not been baptized into the Mennonite church.

If a commitment to peace-making and the belief that baptism should be a choice distinguish “Mennonitsm” from other Protestant and Catholic churches, then I am Mennonite. And after taking this class, I find that I admire the 16th century Anabaptists immensely and agree with their stance on the Bible, baptism, and the church. I love the idea of the members of the church voluntarily living separate from the world in a community of love, transformed by Christ and dedicated to following Him in humility and love while remaining very missional. The passion and courage of these early Anabaptists is inspiring and worth emulating. I would gladly affiliate myself with Anabaptism and hope to continue live in that tradition. However, as the Klaasesn article points out, Mennonites in North America today look very little like their Anabaptist faith forefathers. If suffering for Jesus and being persecuted because of counter-cultural beliefs and stances make one an Anabaptist, I sadly fall short of this label, too.

I agree, at least traditionally and idealistically, with what the Mennonite church has stood for. Harold Bender’s Anabaptists vision paints the picture of a faithful community transformed by Christ – a community I would love to be a part of. I admire and support the North American Mennonite church’s peace witness and emphasis on service. I have seen Christ’s compassion and humility embodied in the lives of individual Mennonite living and working up here in North America, and also serving Jesus abroad in other countries. Yet I also see too much of a focus on social action and a decreased passion, or almost embarrassment, about Jesus. Like Dintaman, I fear that the North American Mennonite church risks becoming spiritually impoverished. It has ceased being mission-minded – in some circles, there is an almost antagonism felt towards missions – and perhaps too much toleration towards everything and everyone. If being Mennonite means endorsing this, than I cannot call myself one. At the same time, however, I realize that even within the North American Mennonite church there are tensions and extremes. We are an imperfect people, but God, in His grace has redeemed us and is willing to transform our lives. Then, of course, there are the non-Western Mennonites passionately sharing their faith and loving joyfully despite their outward circumstances.

So, am I Mennonite? I am a Christian with strong Mennonite and evangelical backgrounds, for sure. Like it or not, I have chosen to associate with and involve myself within the Mennonite church and to attempt to distance myself rather than hope, pray and work for renewal within this community is irresponsible and apathetic of me. I should not focus on all that I see happening within the Mennonite church that I disagree with, but rather learn to trust and be content with where I am and allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through me wherever I may be. I should closely examine my own life and see my own faults as well – am I passionate about Jesus? Do I consistently live a life that bears witness to Christ’s transformative power and invites others to know Him, too? Do I seek to love and address both the spiritual and physical needs of others? Whatever the answer to these questions may be, I am reminded again of my own weakness and my great need for Jesus. In humility, may I seek to encourage and love both my fellow Mennonites around me and Christ’s body in general. As a community of disciples reliant on God’s grace and filled with His joy, united by love for Jesus and not torn apart by differences, may we reach out to the needy and hurting and share Jesus’ love. This I hope and pray for.

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