What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Steve G Troyer, April 1999 (United States)
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It is hard to determine exactly what it means to be a Mennonite. We are a distinctive group, but many of our distinctions are more cultural than religious. And if one looks to the past to obtain a Mennonite identity, one learns that sixteenth century Anabaptist beliefs and practices are very different from what we are used to today. In addition, the historical picture is far from clear, offering several viewpoints depending on what leader or group is studied and who does the studying.
It is limiting to define a broad movement such as Anabaptism by one document or summation, but this is at least a useful place to start. The sixteenth century beliefs of the Swiss Brethren are summarized in the Schleitheim Confession, an attempt by church leaders to come to agreement on several points of faith. They came up with seven articles concerning: baptism, the ban, breaking of bread, separation from abomination, shepherds in the congregation, the sword, and the oath. In the Confession, we see a picture of a radical church, separate and distinct from the world, including all other churches. Some of the Confession's statements seem familiar to a modern Mennonite, while others seem quite surprising. Leonard Gross summarizes the key ideas in this picture of Anabaptism: "the nature of Christian obedience, the idea of the gathered people of God, and the way of Christian love." These ideas are a good place to start in understanding early Anabaptism.
The idea of discipleship was central to early Anabaptist thought, and it is still important today. The Anabaptists made the radical claim that Christians should take all of Scripture, especially the words of Christ, literally and live like Christ did. This implied a radically different way of relating to each other, to the poor, and to the government. Notably, the government mistrusted Anabaptists because they refused to serve in the military and refused to swear oaths. In addition, they were part of a separatist church of faith, which the state-sponsored churches saw as a direct threat and abomination.
The Anabaptists saw themselves as living in a world with a sharp division between good and evil. They recognized that their beliefs and pious life separated them fundamentally from the "sinful" world. The world ignored the commands of Christ, living however suited them. The world heavily persecuted the Anabaptists, killing or exiling their leaders and fining them into poverty. In this context, it is easy to understand why the Anabaptists saw themselves as not only separate from the government, but also separate from the entire world outside of the church.
Is the modern Mennonite Church separate from the world? Obviously we are not separate to the degree of the early Anabaptists. Indeed, it would be easy to argue that we are not separate at all. We are hardly recognized as a separate denomination, let alone a radical separatist sect whose beliefs and practices visibly set us apart from the rest of the world. There are reasons for this change. The world has ceased to persecute us. It is now possible for a committed Mennonite to be a normal part of society, at least in times of peace. Religious toleration permits us be pacifist, refuse to swear the oath, and even drive a buggy, if we so choose. Unfortunately, this toleration has allowed Mennonites to become more relaxed in their faith. Without a constant reminder of the price of radical discipleship, we begin to lose our distinctiveness.
An important question to ask is: is our success as a church defined by our separation from the rest of society? Is assimilation failure? This is not an easy question to answer. Yes, our Anabaptist forerunners were very separate from the world, but this was more a reality of the times than a point of faith. Now that the times have changed, is there a need to still be separate from the world, a world which seems to accept us? There is value in being visibly different from our neighbors. The Anabaptists lived such radically pious lives that everyone else had to notice, even if they didn't agree. The Amish are visibly different from society. Few wish to emulate their lifestyle, but yet they are viewed as an icon of purity and discipleship among wider society. Does society take such notice of us? If the world sees nothing different about us, what is our witness? If we claim that following Christ necessarily changes one's life, we had better be ready to explain how it has changed ours.
In the sixteenth century, the Anabaptists were set apart by their refusal to support or serve in the military, their refusal to swear oaths, and their idea of a voluntary believers church. This was in a society where all were expected to take a turn serving as a magistrate, oaths were central to government and commerce, and the state church was an unquestioned institution. The Anabaptists beliefs were so different; they seemed revolutionary-dangerous.
In the modern era, in the United States, some of these radical beliefs are not so radical anymore. Oaths are hardly present in modern society and the voluntary believers church is one of the principles the country is founded on. We need to think about what Mennonite beliefs are radical today. Radical discipleship still has radical ramifications, consequences that are alien to modern society. If we take our faith seriously, we will be separate from the world. People will question us. I would propose that we seek to emphasize these aspects of our faith, not to alienate or somehow set ourselves above society, but to bring into question the accepted ways of doing things; to disrupt the unquestioned status quo by example.
One of the most radical and misunderstood Mennonite beliefs is our rejection of war and violence. Like the Anabaptists, we believe Christ has called us to a new life of peace. We are to love our enemy, not kill him or her. We refuse to serve in the military. We have achieved the right to perform alternative service instead of military service in wartime. We publicly question the necessity for the United States's large standing army and the taxes that support it. We question the all too frequent use of this military to solve all problems. This stance brings us into conflict with society. It is not normal to question the morality of a standing army. We are not understood. While we must remain sensitive to the beliefs of others, we have a great opportunity for witness. We can remind society that there are other options, that violence is not the only answer.
We can express our belief in nonviolence in other ways as well. There is a great need for a new way of dealing with crime and violence in society. Mennonites can be a great witness by advocating and demonstrating alternative forms of justice. Jesus' idea of justice was reconciliation between parties. If we believe this way, we should strive first to be an example of peace and reconciliation with each other and the rest of the world. Second, we should work to act as a reconciling force in the world. Organizations such as Christian Peacemaker Teams and Violence Intervention Project work on an international and regional level to try to reconcile conflicting parties without resorting to violence or lawsuits. The practices of these organizations are new and unusual. We are not used to thinking of criminals as people needing healing: we just want them locked up. More widespread questioning of existing justice systems and demonstration of alternative strategies will be a witness to a world caught up in violence. Again, we will probably not be universally accepted or understood, but we will at least get people thinking.
Jesus taught a great deal about economics, and this is another area where Mennonites can be a witness to the world. The United States suffers from extreme consumerism and materialism. Amassing wealth is the ultimate goal. Christ, however, taught that riches are not to be desired. The love of money comes between God and us. If our priorities are truly focused on Christ and Scripture, we should view money much differently than the average North American. The money we earn is not ours, it is God's. We are only entrusted our possessions as caretakers, not as owners. Therefore, if we have more than we need we are called to help those less fortunate. The concept of not owning our property is radical, and disturbing to a modern mind. We like to think that what we earn through work is ours, and we can do with it what we like. Mennonites should demonstrate a different view of material possessions. God does not expect us to give everything away and live in poverty, but he can't approve of church members buying extravagant cars and houses while others suffer.
Finally, Mennonites have unique wisdom to offer with regards to the concept of nation and ultimate allegiance. We realize that the national government is necessary and serves a purpose: to keep order. However, we also must emphasize that as citizens of God's kingdom we owe our ultimate allegiance to God, and not to any human rulers. In the same way, we have more in common with fellow believers in other countries than we do with many Americans. Seeing ourselves as citizens of a worldwide church necessarily changes our view of our responsibility to our brothers and sisters worldwide. If we see injustice in the way U.S. corporations do business in third world countries, we need to speak out. If we see injustice in weapons sales to third world countries, we must speak out. Again, justice is not simply deciding who is right and wrong and punishing the wrong. And it certainly is not "My Country Right or Wrong." Justice is about reconciliation, healing of relationships, and right treatment of all, whether American or not.
The above examples are just a few issues on which Mennonites hold a unique perspective. There are many issues today where radical obedience to Christ brings us into conflict with the rest of society. While we should not actively seek conflict with society, we have an opportunity to make Christ's wisdom known in the world. We should not expect to be lauded for our beliefs, or even understood. However, if we truly are committed to radical discipleship, we must follow Christ's example without thought of consequence or approval.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.