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

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Amidst these readings and lectures, I am even more confused than I was initially about what it means to be a Mennonite. I certainly identify with a Mennonite ethnicity, especially since quite a bit of my gene pool is of Amish descent. I am a social justice obsessed pacifist, and I care deeply about a church community and the issues of sharing among a small community. However, I must wrestle with two things that seem to be implicitly at the essence of Anabaptism in this class. I seem to be agnostic about half of the time, regardless of adhering to the value of church community. In the past, I have also been vehemently opposed to most kinds of evangelism that involve a more head-on intent; basically, I think that we should serve others and sharing faith should be less verbal. As this class would make it seem, the Mennonites have an often ignored missional tradition, which I wrestle with in my identity.

Firstly, where I do identify as Mennonite in the aforementioned ethnic sense, I have a great sense of pride in the martyr stories and origin stories I was brought up with, perhaps informing my identity. Martyr stories have a way of unifying groups which is one of the reasons John D. Roth suggested in class that we continue to record these stories. The fact that most Mennonites are not what I identify as “ethnic” makes me feel a guilty by identifying as Mennonite on ethnic grounds, but I think there is a certain pride I maintain in this cultural narrative. For my purposes, I will continue to cling to it. Also, as an individual raised in the Mennonite church, my ethical and moral framework is rooted in such a community, thus my lifestyle will probably continue to be informed by what I have experienced, since I have been socialized as a upper middle class, US, progressive Mennonite.

I also state I am a Mennonite where Mennonites place social emphasis. I am drawn to ministries such as Ten Thousand Villages with the notion of fair trade, or the thrift stores, which encourage reuse and provide more affordable resources. I appreciate that Goshen has an SST program based out of its Mennonite values and I agree that we are morally obligated to learn about the world and appreciate our neighbor. Pacifism is a relevant form of ministry for anyone today in a world where power, resources distribution, and masculinity all connect with violence, I am personally opposed to all forms of killing and I have a community that would support me in such a decision. So from my definition of Mennonite in our context, I treasure these values, and thus can culturally consider myself “Mennonite.”

There are, however, several essential concepts I don’t adhere to. Mennonites have been founded as a Christian movement. As far as God is concerned, I drift in and out of belief, literally from month-to-month. As a baptized church member, I am embarrassed of this and perhaps I note the concern for perfection in the Anabaptist tradition, which historically manifested in the Ban, and don’t bring up this issue with many fellow church members. However, I also believe my baptism holds me accountable to the Kern Road Mennonite Church congregation. In retrospect, this is on factor as to why I pushed back so extremely against Larry Miller’s “Some Thoughts about a Well-Entrenched Mennonite Assumption.” While the Mennonite church is very divided on issues and I have had struggles with what this means, Kern Road is where I experience God the most and what I believe a church should be in the truest sense. My devotion to the church, and likely, my home congregation, will be unchanging regardless of my orthodoxy.

On the aforementioned note of Church members stepping out of line and banning: I believe there is residual damage from this practice. As I understand Christianity, there ought to be an admission of flaws. So as a person self-identifying as Mennonite, one of our truest flaws is not being able to articulate our struggles and shortcomings. Being a Mennonite means devotion to the community, though this community is often pushed to be ultimately “flawless.” While my home congregation is not completely like this, I do feel this throughout some other western Mennonite communities. As a critique of my own identity, I ought to offer this: being a Mennonite has to mean acknowledging the flaws within the church and seeking a more relevant discipleship for the times. I believe this portion of identity is in flux, I do not acknowledge the idea of a “flawless” faith community as part of my idea of what it means to be Mennonite.

Noting my strong bias towards an “Ethnic” Mennonite identity, I feel guilty that I have a harder time envisioning deeper involvement with the wider Mennonite Church. While I think it’s wonderful that social mindsets have been transformed by the Mennonite faith, I also find myself ambivalent towards what I have constantly believed would be more conservative societies, usually believing that the Gospel itself would be rather “progressive” if I saw fit to slap a narrow label on my ideal of Christianity. I was shocked to see the survey results, granted these may be culturally interpreted differently. I would label what I saw in the Lancaster conference to be a more old-fashioned and less socially relevant way of viewing many of the issues facing the wider Church. So while I am very regionally oriented I hope that we can learn from these other Anabaptist groups and be open to new possibilities.

The global spread of Anabaptism conflicts me, because of my frequently anti-evangelism mindset. I most often think we should be service oriented without seeking to necessarily plant churches, unless this happens by accident. This may also be because I have pitted my Mennonite identity against the Charismatic or Pentecostal movements, which I associate with social conservatism, Falwellian theology, and heavy evangelism. I have previously bought into the meta-narrative that all Missionaries are Conservative Evangelicals. In my mind, they would only care about “winning souls” and care nothing for the state of social or physical well being of the people targeted. Essentially, believing that the only missionaries out there are right-wing fundamentalists spreading a gospel of wealth that only cares that people “get saved.” I cognitively realize these views are not true, but my subconscious mind carries pretty strong negative stereotypes of missionaries that I’ve known. Perhaps I am also subtly influenced by the notion of being “the quiet in the land.” Lately, I’ve felt a bit more open to the idea of a more missional identity in the Mennonite Church, but will struggle with this in my own identity.

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