Why Am I a Mennonite? Derek M Wentorf, April 1999 (United States)
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Why am I a Mennonite? This is a question that, until recently, I have not really thought of. What else is there in my life besides being Mennonite? I am the son of a Clemens, who has a long history in the Mennonite church, and my father has worked in Mennonite agencies all of my life. It appears as though I had no choice and I had no problem with that. Now, as my life depends more on the choices that I make and less on the decisions of my parents, the thought of "why", in religion, is something I wrestle with perpetually.
My life has been a relatively easy one thus far. I grew up in a couple of different Mennonite hot beds, Franconia, PA, and Goshen, IN, and through out my youth I had never really thought about Mennonites being a minority. I always thought that since everyone that I knew was Mennonite, most of the other people around the world were Christian to some extent. The differences within Christianity were something that I did not fully understand and that probably lead to my misconception of the Mennonite's place in the Christian world. As I grew, my knowledge of the Christian world grew. With that knowledge came the realization that Mennonites were in a minority in some of the things that I see as central to my faith.
In general, there are things that are pivotal in all Christian denominations. First of all is the centrality of Christ. This I see as the key as to where you go from "the starting line of your faith". With this centrality there comes a love for your neighbor and the will to do good for all human kind. After the recognition of these central beliefs, faiths start to diverge and decisions within one's own beliefs need to be made.
Why am I a Mennonite? I hold up three points that I see as significant to my beliefs at this point in my life. First of all, I believe there is a separation between the things of God and the things of this earth. The dualistic beliefs of the Anabaptists of the 16th and 17th centuries are extreme for me but there is a very valid point in the general thesis. God should be the main focus of one's life if you are a devoted Christian. With that focus comes an understanding, in my case, that money and material possessions can lead one away from God. I often walk into my dorm room and see all of the electrical gadgets and clothes and wonder why I need all of these things. Material things take up time, time that you could be spending with others or with God. Mennonites in the present, in general, are a far cry from the Anabaptists that began our faith. This is not saying that Mennonites have taken a wrong turn, things have merely changed.
The extreme separation between the world and God is not something we concentrate on now but it is something that I believe is important. Take the Russian Mennonites of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They had come form Prussia and struck it rich in the fertile lands of Molochnaia and Khortiza. They were not worse Christians because they were rich, they just had a different life style, but there is a limit. We must keep rethinking and re-evaluating where we are so we can see where we should go. It is difficult to make drastic changes that we see are wrong, but if we make minor changes through out our life, the need for drastic changes should not be as great.
Pacifism is also a belief I see as very important in my faith. There are many times that I have had discussions with friends about pacifism. We try a rationalize what we would do to stop horrific human rights violations and massacres with out using force to bring it to an end. I try and reflect again on what the ancestors of our faith did in the face of torture and tyranny. I don't know if I have the strength that the Anabaptists had but I do think that one must make a stand for they believe. I have a bias opinion on reading the Bible, and I think every one does. I just have a problem seeing where anyone can justify the taking of another person's life. I realize that there are situations that can drive a person to violence but there must be control of that desire. The source of that control can be the love of Christ.
Now, in the United States there is no oppression or forced faith. We can believe what we want freely. Since there are now no strings attached to what you believe, people take faith a lot differently. We do not have to put our lives down for what we think and believe and this could make our faith weak.
I was in the Mennohof museum of Mennonite and Amish history recently. I was there taking a tour with two other people who evidently had never heard of Mennonites before and they were curious. I heard them say that they respect the Amish for their faith but the Mennonites appear to be much more open to accepting people. I thought about that comment for a while. Which is better? I guess, when it comes down to it, I do not want to be turning people away, but rather showing them the love of God through my actions. The final point that I see as primary in my faith is missions. I believe that the Mennonites have done better then most when it comes to out reach. I am proud to hear that now the Mennonites in North America are in the minority. God wants us to tell every one we can about his love for them. This is displayed not only through actions but also through words. We can not turn our backs on the people of this world because we see them as part of the evil. The dualistic belief of God and earth should concern only the values and possessions and not the people that we are here to witness to. Jesus told his disciples to "preach the gospel to every nation" and as a follower of God, it is also my duty.
Dualism, Pacifism and mission work are not the only reasons that I call myself a Mennonite, but they are the most axial as far as my faith is concerned. I must admit though, that I am a Mennonite because my family is as well. There is a certain sense of comfort in knowing that you are in a home congregation and things are familiar. After graduation things could change but as of right now, the reasons you have read in this paper are why I am a Mennonite.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.