What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Mike Zehr, April 2011

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Recent events and my stage in life have led me to rethink and reevaluate myself and my beliefs. This semester, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t believe in the Christian theology and no longer consider myself a Christian. However, I would not say that I have lost my faith but that I never really had faith to begin with. I was raised in a Mennonite context and family and those values have been instilled in me from a young age, but I’ve never truly had to make a conscious decision to follow Christ. Now that the time has come and past, my choice might seem contrary to my upbringing, but upon further reflection, I’ve realized something. I may not be Christian anymore, but I will always be a Mennonite; a Mennonite without faith.

So what am I to say for the purpose of this paper? I have a strong understanding of what it means to be a Mennonite, because culturally, I am a Mennonite but technically most people would not consider me to be Mennonite because I don’t have faith. What I intend to do is give an understanding of what it means for me to be a Mennonite without faith and why I will always consider myself a Mennonite.

One might ask how it’s possible for me to consider myself a part of the Mennonite tradition and culture if I don’t necessarily believe in it. In response I would give three answers or reasons as to why: I was raised a Mennonite and the traditions and values have been instilled in me, I agree whole-heartedly with many of the ideals and values that are held essential within the Mennonite tradition, and the relationships and friendships I have made with Mennonites are too strong to sever.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve been a part of a strongly convicted Mennonite family, church, and community. This community, I would argue, is more than a religion and more than a denomination but has grown to be a culture. Just because I no longer have the religious aspect doesn’t mean the Mennonite within me will just disappear as well. I was raised to act and behave a certain way, to treat others a certain way, and to basically live according to the Mennonite ideals, with a spirit of brotherly love. Becoming a non-Christian may have changed my beliefs and how I see things, but it hasn’t changed who I am. I am still a person who believes in a love for all people and am still the guy who would rather talk things out than fight. It might be easier to move a mountain than to take the Mennonite out of me and I have my parents and church community to thank for that.

The second reason I still consider myself to be a Mennonite is that I tend to agree with the basic principles and ideals Mennonites hold to be important. I may disagree on the reasoning why, being that I put no emphasis on the bible, but the point remains valid. For example, I am strongly convicted in a stance of peace and non-violence for myself as well as, ideally, for the world. I believe in peace not because the bible or Jesus say it is right, but because murder and killing, to me, is always wrong. Violence causes suffering and I do not condone suffering. Other examples would be that I agree with the separation of church and state, or that I also agree with avoidance of oath taking. Church and state should be separate for obvious reasons in that it causes too many problems so I agree with the Mennonite stance. I also agree that we should not pledge our allegiance to any one nation or human constructed system. Where I differ is that my allegiance isn’t to God but to life. I want to pledge my allegiance to supporting and furthering life in general, not because God tells me to, but because, in my opinion, life is the most precious of all things. These are just a few aspects of Mennonite ideology that I agree with. I may be slightly biased by my upbringing but I find foremost, the idea of peace and non-violence to be unarguably right.

The third and final reason I will never be able to escape being a Mennonite (though I’m not ensuing that I want to escape) is the people. In my experience, Mennonites are some of the friendliest, most honest, hardworking, and downright good people I have ever met. This is true in the U.S. and I have found it to be true in other countries as well (Peru). Some may want to exclude me from the category of Mennonite because I’m not Christian, which is fine, but I will never leave voluntarily solely because I have an immense love for the people in this tradition. For me, what it truly means to be Mennonite is to be a part of a community who love each other and love others so much that they will even give the shirt off their backs. I’ve grown too close to too many Mennonites to walk away just because of a difference in belief.

When it comes to faith matters, I really don’t know what I believe. What I do know, however, is that if I were ever to regain my faith, I wouldn’t have to look far. I share so many things in common with Mennonites and the fact that I was raised a Mennonite has given me a strong love of the tradition. But none of that really matters much in my mind because it is the people who embody what it really means to be a Mennonite. And so here I sit in time and space, unsure of what will happen next but forever being a Mennonite.

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