What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Jonathan Harnish, April 2011
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Even in my youth, when I was not entirely sure what a Mennonite actually was, I have had very little trouble actually trying to be Mennonite. My personal affiliation with the Mennonite church was something that came completely natural for me, it was part of my identity. For this and other reasons, I have never seriously considered dropping that Mennonite identification. Much of this is likely if not entirely due to the fact that I was raised in an almost strictly Mennonite bubble: my immediate family is Mennonite, both sides of my extended family are Mennonite, my ancestors are Mennonite and every church my family and I has ever attended was and is still remains to be Mennonite. For someone born and raised in a Mennonite bubble, I find that it is remarkably difficult to explain what it means to be a Mennonite. Part of the reason for this difficulty is that when Mennonitism is synonyms with your identity it becomes difficult to pinpoint what aspects of that identity are universally Mennonite. Living within the Mennonite bubble, can leads to mistaken associations of cultural elements and various other ideological or practical conditions as central to Mennonite identity.
The risk is always that you will mistake the core of Mennonite identity as something that is too region specific, too culturally excusive or too subjective. I personally feel uncomfortable with definitions of Mennonitism that exclude people who identify themselves, or wish to identify themselves, within the Mennonite family. In particular, this means rejecting ethnicity centered affiliation right off the back. Mennonites do not have to be ethnically Swiss, Dutch, German or Russian; Mennonitism, at least within my mind, has to always be culturally universalizeable.
On the other hand, if you dismiss ethnicity and culture as irrelevant to identification as Mennonite, you are essentially left with ideology and practice as the being the connecting factor. Unfortunately, there is disagreement among Mennonites as to what Mennonite ideology actually looks like. Anabaptist Mennonite History has taught me that not all Mennonites believe or practice the same theology, ethics, quietism, activism, and many other factors. Personally, I have a hard time letting go of ideology as the unifying factor; I don't want to accept that religious principles need to be jettisoned in order to arrive at Mennonite inclusivity. But by all accounts, there is no quintessential Mennonite ideology that is representative of the now global Mennonite church. So what is there left? What can hold us all together when our ideology and practice point towards otherness and our ethnicity, culture and language lead us towards separation? I would argue that the various diverse expressions of Mennonite faith, which range in terms of doctrine and practice, are dependent upon a central variable which is theoretically present in all subgroups of global Mennonitism: adult baptism or rebaptism. As I see it, the core of Mennonite identity is rooted in our baptism; making the life-shaping decision to renounce one’s life in the world and embrace a life lived for and within the Kingdom of God. Theoretically, all other variables of note are essentially details derived from this central point of similitude.
From my perspective, there are a variety of aspects of Mennonite faith that can be traced back to adult baptism and what it signifies as a ritual. These include the Mennonites' historical peace tradition, the Mennonites' separation from the world, the Mennonites' quietism, the Mennonites' activism, etc. All of these factors, even the ones that contradict each other, are all linked in some manner to our unique understanding of baptism. In this way, if you understand adult baptism, you can understand what it means to be Mennonite.
So what does adult baptism signify? Symbolically, Adult baptism represents one's spiritual death to the world and the intentional choice to live in the Kingdom of God. This includes the death to the world's goals, ambitions and methods and a new birth into the Kingdom of God where we live under the guidance and transformation of the Holy Spirit.
Subsequently, the aspect of adult baptism that embraces the Kingdom of God also serves as a statement of the Lordship of Christ in our lives above and beyond the authorities of the world. It goes without saying that adult baptism is a statement of faith, all baptism is. What makes adult baptism especially significant is the degree of that trust. Adult baptism not only represents a death to the world, it also represents the historic and profound life-entrusting faith that the first Anabaptists had when they rebaptized each other. They were literally dying to the world; they knew full well that they would be breaking the law of the worldly authorities, yet they trusted and had faith that their deaths would not be their end. They trusted in God's faithfulness, His coming Kingdom and the resurrection of the dead. Ideally, in the community of the baptized adults, everyone recognizes the Lordship of Christ; the diversity of ways that Mennonites strive to live within that lordship simply means that Mennonites do not have total agreement on what Christ's will actually is and how best to respond to that will.
The Mennonite baptism is the reason why I have decided to identify myself within the Mennonite church. For me, the Mennonite baptism is symbolic of my faith: it informs my beliefs, my ideologies and it guides my behaviors. Over the course of this semester I have come to accept that our baptism will inevitably take the shape of a variety of diverse faith expressions. And although this may seem like a divisive characteristic of the Mennonite faith it is actually one of our greatest strengths. While we have many differences they are all expressions of the same adult baptism and the degree of our devotion to the Lord; and it is precisely because of that degree of devotion that we are willing to openly disagree with each other in the first place. Anabaptists are a family through our baptism and discipleship to Christ. In this family we don't always get along, not all of us enjoy the same types of music, not all of us look the same or speak the same language but we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and we are all radical followers of our Lord.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 2011.