What It Means To Be Mennonite, Katrina Nussbaum, April 1999 (United States)
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Why am I a Mennonite? That question seems so straightforward, but it could be taken many different ways, each way with its own corresponding answer. Why am I ethnically Mennonite? My parents can answer that for me with a little help from genetics. Why am I ethically Mennonite? I try to follow Mennonite ethical standards because I believe they attempt to imitate the ethics of Christ, and I believe that Christ is the best ethical role model for healthy living. Why am I membership-wise a Mennonite? I was baptized into the Mennonite Church at age sixteen because I wanted to formerly join the faith community in which I had been raised. So why am I a Mennonite? For many interconnected reasons, these already stated plus others.
Knowing that my faith commitment is based upon a blend of many reasons and that I didn't always feel sure of all my religious thinking used to bother me more than it now does. Doesn't having diverse reasons for and expression of being Mennonite mean that there is no unity to my beliefs? Learning of the plurality of beliefs present in the early Anabaptist movement can leave the Mennonite student of history feeling like there is no definition to being Anabaptist, much less Mennonite. Or acknowledging this early plurality can reassure the student that it is legitimate to question and to adjust as one continues along one's walk of faith. For me, studying Mennonite history and theology has done the latter. So in answer to "Why am I Mennonite?" I give areas of answers rather than point-blank reasons. In my own experience, I can identify three focus areas for my own commitment to the Mennonite Church. In this essay, I will discuss these three foci: respect for the vision, love for the people, and hope for the future.
Respect for the Vision
I am a Mennonite first and foremost because I care deeply about ethical, Christ-like living. As a student of both religion and psychology, I could not feel comfortable adhering to a religion that I believed would lead to unhealthy and unjust living. I believe the Mennonite Church makes serious attempts to add to mainline Christianity those ideals that lead to healthy and just living. As outlined in H. S. Bender's famous Anabaptist Vision speech, the Mennonite Church believes strongly in discipleship, in loving nonresistance, and in community orientation. If I were going to make additions to "basic" Christian theology and practice, these three aspects of Mennonitism would certainly be among the first to be added. I admire the church's commitment to following Christ's example through careful discipleship. The aims of nonresistance and community then stem from this discipleship. Personally, I feel very strongly committed to a pacifist stance both because of its Biblical mandate and because I believe it to be a viable, and ultimately optimal, option for dealings between persons and between nations. And the feeling of belonging to a community is definitely a reinforcer of one's Christian walk throughout life.
Love for the People
Secondly, I am a Mennonite because I have experienced sincere caring and fellowship among Mennonites. I have grown up in the Mennonite Church. I have attended Kidron Mennonite in Kidron, OH, all my life, and I have found there a kind of stubborn constancy that has been both a restraint and a comfort. One thing in my involvement in the Mennonite Church that has led to this paradoxical feeling of restraint and comfort is the homogeneity of the membership body. To be around others so similar to oneself racially, economically, and religiously all the time can narrow one's impression of the church as a missions effort but also give one a firm sense of self and place. I think the important thing is to both cherish the support in sameness and to also explore beyond the church's walls to see more of the diversity in the world, too. Applying to the outside the caring and self-giving nature found within the church is the way to truly minister to others. Desire to share the community one has found should be the primary motivation for mission.
Hope for the Future
And I am also a Mennonite because I see a great deal of hope for future growth and betterment within the Mennonite Church. The church today is struggling with many issues--encouragement or disapproval of women in leadership, embrace or rejection of homosexuals, and maximum or minimum global stewardship to name just a few. But I am grateful that the church is struggling. To not be struggling would be hypocritical for a church that has historically defined itself in active contrast to society. Struggling at least means trying. And I continue to have confidence that with the leading of the Spirit, people committed to truth, to faith, and to humility can find solutions for problems and disagreements within the church. It is because of this confidence that I continue to be a Mennonite.
I know that growing up ethnically Mennonite and then attending a Mennonite college was sure to bias me in my religious choice to some extent. But I also honestly believe that my choice to join the church and stay in the church was just that, my choice. I am not the kind of person to accept things without question and without demand for explanation. Yet the more I question and demand explanations for various Mennonite beliefs and practices, the more I see integrity at the core. The expression is not flawless by any means, but certainly the basic framework is viable and hopeful.
This Anabaptist & Mennonite History course, in particular, has both given many explanations and also raised many challenging questions. I believe that the key focus now for the Mennonite Church is to draw upon this core integrity to search out partial answers to all those challenging questions, to all those diametrically opposed goals the professor says must be held "in tension". And my own personal focus will be to see where I fall along the tension continuum and to then find a niche within the church from which to make that viewpoint heard and known.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.