Why Am I a Mennonite? Debra Lefever, April 1999 (United States)
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Introduction: Setting and Direction
I am sitting here with a lap top (something I'm sure my Mennonite Ancestors have never said) on a table strewn with papers. Amidst the papers are a Mennonite Hymnal, a Bible, a personal journal, notes from an entire semester of Anabaptist Mennonite History and reflections on the nature of the church today, and a box of Whitman's chocolates that are mostly gone now.
I have spent the last 3 hours formulating an outline about what I believe Mennonites are today in response to the question "What does it mean to be a Mennonite?" Only after this did I realize that the question was why am I a Mennonite. I'm glad the question changed, because perhaps this is what I really should be asking myself. However, I'm also glad I asked the former question first. The two are by no means unrelated.
Why do I include myself as a member of this body of people, which claims a common identity despite the fact that our lives are drastically different from one another? We live around the globe, speak different languages, and are citizens of diverse governments. Economically we cover the whole scheme from the impoverished of third world countries to CEO's of powerful multi-national corporations. Our beliefs range from strict conservatives to loose liberal interpretations of a sense of a Higher Being. Our expressions of those beliefs range from plain dress to social demonstrations on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, DC. What ties us together? Where do I fit into this community? Why am I a Mennonite?
The most obvious answer to that question is that I was born and raised in a Mennonite family. I went to a Mennonite church, attended a Mennonite school, and was baptized into the Mennonite community. I could take you on a journey though my life and share with you the influences that I believe have led me to the beliefs I now have, the way I now live my life, and the choice I have currently made to continue to identify with the Mennonites. However, to do so would limit my response to an exercise of self-reflection. Although self-reflection is very valuable, what I would like to accomplish here is a reflection on the Mennonite Church as I experience it. I would like to digest who I think the Mennonites are and evaluate that before saying why I continue to be a Mennonite. It may represent only a small slice of Mennonite experience, but this is what I see in the church in my environment. Because of this, I think it is important to offer a quick summary of my environment so that these reflections can be placed into context.
Most of my experience with the Mennonite church comes from Lancaster, PA. I am a member of Forest Hill, a congregation of about 300 people. Most of us are upper-middle class, white American citizens. My family is also Mennonite and would fit that same description. I went to Locust Grove Mennonite School for grades K-8, and Lancaster Mennonite High School for grades 9-12. For two years following High School I was not directly involved in Mennonite Institutions. I attended a non-denominational Christian college for a year and traveled to Kenya for 4 months. I am currently a student at Goshen College in Goshen, IN. These reflections were formed here and reflect on both my experiences in Lancaster and at Goshen, and also my conversation with peers at EMU in Harrisonburg, VA.
Answering the Question: Who are the Mennonites in my experience?
The Mennonites are my people. They are my ethnic group. They are my family, my friends, and my mentors. When I think about what it means to be a Mennonite, I hear a cappella hymns in four-part harmony, I taste succotash and whoopie pies, I see Dirk Willems pulling his ensuer from the icy waters, I feel water pouring over my head in Baptism, and I smell the glories of creation I was taught to appreciate out of a long tradition in agriculture. A large part of what the Mennonites are for me is cultural. It is my history. These are things I love about the Mennonite church. Each one of them deserves an essay of its own. They are the tangible things I can talk about. The ones I can sense. But what Mennonites truly are goes way beyond this. There is a spirit that I can see throughout the history of the Mennonite Church from the Reformation to the road trip. The road trip I took for spring break that is; four Mennonite college kids, (two from Lancaster, one from Kansas, one from all over the world - three studying at EMU, one at Goshen) 2,400 miles, 6 days of idealistic vision for the church and the world, and one personal synthesis of what it means to be a Mennonite. To some the message that our VW bus and long hair and diet of cereal and chocolate sent was that its true: Mennonite youth are falling away and it's all the college's fault. But for me the energy that filled those days was a 21st century expression of the same spirit that Conrad Grebel and George Blaurock carried with them into the home on the night of the first re-baptisms. The same spirit that Menno wrote with, the same spirit Jacob Amman worked from. The same spirit with which the martyrs died, the Russian Mennonites emigrated, my ancestors took the plain dress and my Mother and Father refused the plain dress.
Words were not always kind during those six days, and conclusions weren't always so great either. Written history and personal scars tell us that the same is true of those in the past. "The Anabaptist story includes the disappointed, the disillusioned, and the unsuccessful, as well as those who succeeded in defining the on-going tradition (Snyder, 409)." But despite this, the spirit of which I am talking is where my love for the church comes from. I believe it is what gives the community such a lively, passionate existence. We are in tension often as we continue to define the on-going tradition, but it is what makes the Mennonite church alive. The spirit that I believe ties all Mennonites together is a true, authentic, sincere striving. We are an aspiring people. Mennonites have been a group embarking on a religious journey or a struggle after the truth from our beginnings. We have always been visionaries, seeking after a realization of God's Kingdom on earth. Idealistic aspirations of a new social order are "pushed for and demanded in a world where we know it is impossible outside of the perfection of Christ (Snyder)." Snyder grants to the Anabaptists a "generous mix of visionaries, seekers, saints, sinners, and the deluded (Snyder, 411)." I think this is a fair appraisal of the make up of the church today. We continue, as Snyder also said, to "reflect all of the chaotic genius of popular movements (Snyder, 411)."
Christianity for a Mennonite does not boil down to a speakable doctrine. It is not articulated in a neat written theology, but rather, it is emanated in living. Mennonite theology has come from a tradition of working it out in practice. This is part of the reason for it's constantly changing nature. The essence of Christianity for Mennonites is discipleship. One shows evidence of faith in a regenerated life. The life of Christ and the Biblical Word stand alone as our only authority by which to make choices and govern action. This in its self is reason for a lot of the tension and schism you see in the Mennonite Church. How we interpret the Bible is a matter of personal choice in the end. Some Mennonites may hold firmly to literal Scripture and tradition, while others place more emphasis on our current place and thought. All take the Bible seriously, but the shape that takes is greatly varied. I think in many circles we are changing our focus for interpretation from looking intently at what the Bible says to looking at how we understand the motives in Christ's life and use our personal experience as more of a sounding board for decision making. We have accepted love, justice, equality, and relationship as basic ideals that governed Christ's life and therefore we choose to try to use them in our own, making choices based on these things rather than strictly the Word of God. Christ's love exhibited in our lives becomes our standard of Biblical interpretation. Mennonite theology is about seeking for expression of Christ's love in the church and in the world. We continue to be an aspiring people as we live out our tradition based on ideals rather then a written doctrine. We have never had a concrete accepted truth, but always a concrete desire live out truth in a fluid world. I think this is what characterizes Mennonites.
Grounding the Answer: How do I see us aspiring?
If this is true, then how are we aspiring? How are we continuing to work out the tension that exists between the high call of Jesus (i.e. Sermon on the Mount) and the daily compromises we still make? To embrace the tradition of being visionaries, of carrying on the spirit I believe characterizes Mennonites, means to grapple with issues. It means you have to take introspection seriously, both of yourself and of the church. It means calling things into question. Mennonite discipleship calls for an embrace of ideals of love, peace, equality, and social justice.
In the 16th century the Anabaptist movement clearly had social ramifications. It gave a voice to many in the peasantry and was feared by the government to be merely clothing for a social revolt. Literacy is one example of empowerment from this era. The ban is a tangible sign of a concern for purity within the community of believers. Both of these issues that were prominent in the early church reflect the community-level nature of their world. I think it is interesting to consider how the "size" of our world, or that which directly affects us, has changed the focus of Mennonite concern from community purity to global justice.
In the era where our awareness was more on a national level, at least in the US, I think the focus of Mennonite concern turned more to separatism. As it became more apparent that we were a community indeed in the world, the focus of being in the world but not of the world became an expression of this spirit. Plain dress was part of the fruit of this national era.
Today our world truly is a global one. Mennonite focus has switched to embracing our role in the global economy. Not only are we in the world, we recognize now that our actions affect people all around the world.
I see the spirit living on in the Mennonite church today in issues such as capitalism/consumerism, homosexuality, and questions of lifestyle. Global economic disparities, social justice, emphasis on the Holistic person (recognizing mental health, and searching for new models/opportunities were personality expression and gifts have been denied), and seeking for new systems of restorative justice based on relationship. I'm sure there are others as well. Mennonites continue to take living out their faith seriously on both a personal and institutional level. We wrestle with these things as a call of faith. We are not content with the state of the church or of the world and embrace a responsibility to challenge it, change it, or at least question it. Following Christ needs to be expressed in both daily relationship and on a global scale.
Evaluating: Is it enough?
I have already stated that I love this spirit that I believe characterizes the Mennonite church, but I also feel a need for further evaluation before I can state why I am a Mennonite. I have spoken very little in this paper about exactly how the call to discipleship, for a Mennonite, is linked to belief in church today. The early leaders of the Anabaptist movement have been called zealous lovers of God. It was said of them that they were driven by a vision that burned within them. Their drive came from reading the Word of God. They were clearly driven by a belief in God. Their actions towards social justice and peace were founded in the Bible, on the life of Christ. They also had a hunger for righteousness and Holy living.
Many in the Mennonite church are still grounded in a strong faith. Jesus is their foundation for all that they do and the strength with which they do it. I have been extremely fortunate to have many people in my life, both peers and adults, who have modeled this for me.
However, this is not always the case, at least not obviously. My concern for the church today is that we have carried on the behavoristic aspirations of the ideals of the early Mennonite church, but have lost sight of Menno's emphasis; "For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 1Cor. 3:11"
For the early Anabaptists, to follow Christ as they were meant great suffering. They were persecuted for living out their faith and making choices based on discipleship. There was a keen understanding that to follow Christ meant to suffer. Somewhere along the line, that fundamental understanding has changed. I believe that the ways of Christ are seen as beneficial to us today. We understand the good of ethics and love and justice for there own right. To follow the ways of Christ is to have a more meaningful and whole life, not to suffer.
Popular culture today has many voices that highlight the inherent good in the types of choices that we make on the basis of following Christ. Christianity is not the only source urging us to rethink some of our ways. In fact, it is not even the strongest voice. We now have numerous secular disciplines that promote Mennonite ideals of peace, love, social justice, and even simplicity. Some of these reasons have begun to take the place of faith for some Mennonites. We have become more concerned with the good our actions will do for both our community and for the world then with the foundation of those actions.
When our actions are no longer essentially based on our faith, but have other basis as well, we have a tendency to turn elsewhere for an understanding of faith. The Anabaptist belief that the essence of Christianity is discipleship has been lost by some as we've been more influenced by mainstream Christianity which holds a doctrine of belief at the center of what it means to be a Christian. I think faith has become more and more a feeling, then a response to Christ in action. There is some sort of measure of one's spirituality or faith on the basis of an emotional response to Christ. This has never been a part of Anabaptist theology, and I don't think it works for many of us today either. There seems to be a growing trend of rejection of justification through Christ as it has been linked to an inward experience of grace. People in my generation where taught somewhere that we needed to be "on fire for Christ" rather then driven by a vision of Christ's love in the world and the unity which follows. We learned that in order to be a good Christian you had to believe that you were wretched and awful and in need of God's mercy. We learned that the essence of Christianity is in a magical salvation equation where we ask Jesus into our hearts and somehow the blood that stained the cross would appease God and God would let us into Heaven. The idea that the sanctification of one's life was more powerful then the moment of justification was lost. The teaching that discipleship is the essence of a regenerated life was not heard. A lot of what I believe makes Mennonites a unique denomination was taught only through example, but never in word.
Conclusion: Why am I a Mennonite?
I am a Mennonite because of what I see in the spirit and vision of the Mennonite church. Because of the sincerity I see in our search for truth. Because I believe love is an action verb and not a noun that describes an emotion. I am a Mennonite because I find here a living faith, not merely a commitment made from an emotional reaction. I am a Mennonite because I believe that Christ is the foundation, that the Kingdom of God is our goal, and that it will only be recognized fully in the perfection of Christ. I am a Mennonite because I see the same spirit alive in the church now as I see in our history. I don't believe that floundering youth like the four of us in that VW bus have rejected anything Anabaptist. I think we have temporally lost our ability to hear the real message of faith and salvation come though because of all the other voices around us. The voices which address discipleship issues come from secular sources and the voices that address faith and salvation come from revivalist rhetoric which inadequately tries to explain what we experience as grace, salvation, faith, and life.
I am a Mennonite because I believe we are re-joining those voices that have been separated. I do believe that the source of our vision lies in Christ, not in a sociological textbook. We are learning how to take the inward grace that has been given us and express it though an outward application of that grace to all human relationships and situations. We do believe very much like that Anabaptists, that the knowing is in the doing. We are offered today a secular basis for that doing, but faith lies in the belief that the realized Kingdom of God on earth is not reducible to behavior. Living out the vision is only possible through the inner presence of Christ. I believe that the second foundation offered to us from the secular world for our life choices will never build a cathedral out of this pile of rocks (will never accomplish perfect harmony, unity, and beauty from imperfect humanity). But I believe that action rooted in faith and achieved through the perfection of Christ will.
I am a Mennonite because I believe that we are striving for an active faith. We want a life of discipleship that is an answer to who God is and what God is doing in the world, rather then to a feeling of guilt and wretchedness. Discipleship means following Christ. I think one aspect of this has been forgotten. We've forgotten that Christ was a great prayer too. We are in danger of forgetting where Christ's strength came from. We need to follow Jesus in this too and re-find the source of and reason for our vision. I'm not saying that Mennonites are perfect or have it all figured out, but I am a Mennonite because I see truly seeking hearts, and intentional action. I see a spirit that will continue to create visionaries, and idealistic aspirations. I believe that if we rediscover ways to ground our vision in the only foundation that has already been laid, which is Jesus Christ, then we will be able to continue on this road trip to truth.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.