What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Nathan Geiser, April 2011

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Right now I am a Mennonite both by culture and informal identification. I haven’t been baptized in the church yet, so I am not an official member. One question I have pondered is whether, if I had been born to a Presbyterian family, or a Hindu family, I would now be following one of those traditions. I think there is a high chance that I would. However, that doesn’t invalidate my current belief system, or make it less valuable. While I have not formally joined the Mennonite church, I consider myself a Mennonite.

A Mennonite identity is more difficult to construct than a Catholic or Lutheran identity, because there is no official Mennonite authority structure and ruling body which decides who is and who is not a Mennonite. However, Mennonites are a Christian denomination which can trace their roots to the Radical Reformation in the early 1500’s. Core tenets of this movement included the separation of church and state, a commitment to non-violence, a duty to live as faithful servants, and an emphasis on faith as an informed choice, instead of a default belief at birth. These tenets are still applicable today. I do not think that separation from the world, as espoused in the Schleitheim Confession, is necessary or even desirable, but I do think that a call to be “in the world, but not of it” can lead to healthy actions by Mennonites who strive to make the world a more just place. This call has been embodied in many different forms, from isolated but wealthy Russian Mennonite colonies to liberal North American Mennonite Church USA members who focus on social justice. Some forms of this call are less valid than others; self-identified Mennonites are tempted to lose sight of God and Jesus as the centers of their faith, and replace these things with social justice, tradition, or something else. However, a common history is a link between different kinds of Mennonites, and most Mennonite groups have focused on stewardship and humility in their practices. There are several reasons I want to be a Mennonite. I strongly agree with adult baptism instead of infant baptism as a commitment of faith. While I have not gotten baptized yet myself, I appreciate that I have the opportunity to learn about faith with the support of my community and then make my own decision, instead of having my faith commitment designated before I am ready.

The separation of church and state is also a tenet I agree with. I participate in the political process and do not have a problem working in the state, but I think that church and state structures weaken each other if they are intermixed, and that the church should be an independent witness to the state. One Mennonite belief which I have struggled with is the commitment to non-violence, and this is one of the reasons I have not yet been baptized in the Mennonite church yet. I think that policing functions and even war are sometimes the best option for states to take, and I am not agree with a two-kingdom theology which says that non-Mennonites in government have a right to participate in violence, but that Mennonites should refrain from violence as a God-given duty. I think that non-violent action is almost always a better alternative than violence in unjust situations, but I also think that sometimes lethal coercive force can help prevent greater injustice. I am not comfortable with a position that because pacifism is a God-given duty, then pacifism is always the moral choice no matter the consequences. This strikes me as similar to a Kantian perspective that lying is always wrong, even if lying would help prevent injustice. I do not have a clear perspective on non-violence yet, and it is something I want to resolve before I get baptized.

Another factor which makes me identify as Mennonite is the Mennonite culture of service. I know that Mennonite organizations such as Mennonite Central Committee are highly regarded even outside Mennonite circles. I also am interested in doing Mennonite Voluntary Service after college. Knowing that this endeavor will be supported by my community is a positive for me.

I am also Mennonite because of a family and cultural background. A large majority of my ancestors on both sides of the family have been Mennonite, tracing roots back to Germany, Switzerland, and Russia. There has also been strong family pressure to attend Goshen College. My parents, both sets of grandparents, several aunts and uncles, and all of my cousins have attended or are attending the College, and several relatives have been faculty members here. This tradition has increased my awareness of Mennonite beliefs and practices, but also caused some resentment and questioning because I did not feel as if I had much choice of college and faith tradition- I did not have a chance to explore whether I wanted to be a Presbyterian, Hindu, or something else. As I grow older, I hope to grow and affirm my Mennonite identity by following core Mennonite beliefs and also by making my own choices, so that when I do get baptized it will feel like a voluntary but essential commitment.

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