Why Am I a Mennonite? Nate Pletcher, April 1999 (United States)
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When I think of Mennonites, I think of a great variety of people. In many cases, Mennonites are among both the most conservative and most liberal people that I know. I have been a Mennonite all my life, but I since I have come to Goshen College I have begun to more closely examine my religious beliefs. As I think about the question of why I am a Mennonite, I continually return to another question: what does it mean to be a Mennonite? This is not a simple question with a straightforward answer. For me, there are several core beliefs that are central to my ideology and define the Mennonite faith.
The first central idea is the belief in the value of tradition, which forms a base for various other Mennonite doctrines. Tradition is deeply rooted in Mennonite history, dating back to the Mennonite ancestors of the early Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptists broke away from the both the Catholics and the Protestants because they believed that these groups were not moving in a direction that followed the will of God. In this way, the Anabaptists formed their own traditions that fit their beliefs, including adult baptism and priesthood of all believers. They were considered radical and dangerous for their different beliefs. The Anabaptists were not necessarily more liberal than other religious groups, but they were trying a new concept by breaking away from the mainstream. The Mennonites continued to build on this foundation and created their own heritage, although they still hold on to many of the original Anabaptist ideas. As the Mennonite religion has progressed and developed through the years, the force of tradition has remained strong and early Anabaptist beliefs have been modified and refined to form the Mennonite ideology.
A second central Mennonite belief has to do with separation from the world. This is an idea that comes directly from the early Anabaptists, who taught that believers should be "in the world, but not of it." The Anabaptists believed that the world was evil and that true believers must separate themselves from the world. This belief persisted into Mennonite ideology and was often carried out by forming separate communities of Mennonites. For modern Mennonites, the separation idea causes more of a problem because it seems that we are increasingly involved in the larger world, making it difficult to be separate. I do believe that Mennonites should try not to become entangled in many matters of the world, but sometimes I don't feel very separate at Goshen College. It seems like everyone has similar ideas and there is not much need to stand up for your own beliefs. But I am strongly reminded how separated I am when I travel outside of this small Mennonite community to cities or other colleges and universities. I see the people around me and think about how nobody around me believes the way I do and no one knows or understands anything about Mennonites. Recently I attended a national research conference at the University of Rochester and I heard a very good speaker who was a poet. She had many interesting points to make and almost unconsciously, I tried to fit her message into the context of Mennonites and Goshen College. Sometimes I would be able to do this neatly, but other times I was reminded how different my Mennonite outlook was from the speaker and the rest of the audience. Times of realization like this make me appreciate my own beliefs and Mennonite background.
Another essential philosophy of Mennonites is their belief in community. Mennonites tend to group together and live in communities that are primarily Mennonite. This probably has to do with a desire to be separate from the world, and it is comforting to be among fellow believers where individuals don't feel threatened because of different religious convictions. Community is one of the aspects that I most appreciate about being a Mennonite because there is a feeling of family and support. However, I am convinced that these small intentional communities can be both good and bad. Although it is valuable to be brought up in a Mennonite community with useful role models, I believe that the community can have a sheltering effect on young Mennonites. The community shields and protects young people from knowing what the outside world is really like. They are then unprepared to face difficulties outside of the community. I do value the community aspect of the Mennonite faith and the support from that community, but Mennonites must also be careful not to hide the real world from their members.
Along with a community lifestyle, Mennonites also believe in living simply and humbly. This is a tradition also deeply rooted in Anabaptist beginnings. The early Anabaptists believed that Christians should not do anything that draws unnecessary attention to themselves. Mennonites have followed the Anabaptists with this attitude. For me, this is one of the most visible and memorable characteristics of Mennonites. My grandparents in particular have been a constant example of simple living and humility in my life. They never wore flashy clothes or drove nice cars, but instead lived only with what they needed. In the past, this belief in humility often caused Mennonites to reject sports and performing arts because these activities were viewed as unnecessary. Recently, this conviction has been relaxed by many and Mennonites now frequently participate in cultural activities such as art. I appreciate this shift in attitude, which I believe shows Mennonites' ability to change traditional beliefs in some cases.
A final Mennonite conviction that I consider very important is the doctrine of pacifism and nonviolence. This is a core belief to the Mennonite faith, and it is also a principle idea that sets Mennonites apart from most other religions. In many cases, pacifism is something that identifies Mennonites in the larger world. This is particularly evident during wars when Mennonites participate in alternative service rather than the military. Both of my grandfathers and my own father had to make the decision to go into service during World War II and Vietnam. Although Mennonites are not persecuted for their beliefs in the way that the early Anabaptists were in 16th century Europe, the doctrine of peace and nonviolence is a belief that makes modern Mennonites stand up against the government for what they believe.
I am a Mennonite because I believe and try to live by the above principles. I have thought through the Mennonite doctrine and these are ideas that I value. Although I live in a time and place where I am not persecuted for my beliefs, I am quickly reminded how different I am when I go to places where no one else is Mennonite. But instead of making me feel alienated and alone, this feeling of difference makes me more fully appreciate my Anabaptist roots and the Mennonite community.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.