Why am I Mennonite? Ben Smucker, April 1999 (United States)
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Asking why I am Mennonite means, for me, addressing the unique characteristics of being Mennonite. What am I experiencing by being Mennonite that I would not experience if I were Baptist, Presbyterian, or Catholic? What do I see as the fundamentals of the Mennonite church that draw me to it? However, asking why I am a Mennonite also give an opportunity for critique and for addressing the difficulties inherent in being a Mennonite in American society. Hopefully, some of the above themes will be addressed throughout my response to the question "Why am I Mennonite?", yet I want to attempt not to be overly analytical. I do not want to feel as though I am analyzing why I am Mennonite, but as though I am discussing my take on what it means to be Mennonite.
There are three main aspects of the Mennonite faith which draw me to it. Being Mennonite means being part of a close-knit community of believers. Important to my experience with this close-knit community was a voluntary baptism into the community. Accepting a form of Christianity that will necessitate some degree of separation from the "normal" social processes and mores of the broader society is also part of being Mennonite. Lastly, the outward application of the love of Christ in Christian discipleship is fundamental to my Mennonite faith.
It may sound odd, but I find singing four-part hymns surrounded by fellow church members to be one of the most important expressions of community. My faith necessitates feeling as though I have a community to support me and give me opportunities to support others. In the Mennonite church, a feeling of community pervades. This feeling is present even in the very personal act of baptism. Baptism in the Mennonite church means being baptized into a community of believers, not simply coming to some great individual understanding. Prayer support and mutual aid are two other ways in which community is expressed, though mutual aid has taken on a much different meaning in the well-off communities of American Mennonites that it did in early Anabaptist communities.
Mennonite community does not just function as a cushy pillow of support. There are challenges to being part of the Mennonite community. I believe in a church community which is able to maintain some degree of accountability. Though this accountability no longer must be enforced through strict application of the ban, some accountability is necessary to maintain a degree of purity in the church. Maintaining the church community is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks of the modern Mennonite church. Indeed, one of the ongoing tensions in my life as a Mennonite (and likely for most American Mennonites) is attempting to live with a non-individualist perspective in an individualistic society. Being part of the Mennonite community necessitates taking this non-individualistic perspective in matters of faith, in financial matters-indeed in one's entire outlook on life.
Inclusion in the Mennonite community and acceptance of Mennonite beliefs inevitably ends in some degree of separation from society. Though this separation is not as drastic as it was with our Anabaptist predecessors, we still must realize that non-conformity with the world will lead to conflict with the world. For me, separation from society is a difficult concept to explain to non-Mennonites. To many non-Mennonites it may seem as though the concept of separation from the broader society is being lost in the modern Mennonite church. For me, this is not true. As a Mennonite I am constantly aware of the Anabaptist tradition of martyrdom. Though the Mennonite church no longer faces such drastic persecution, we still must embody the beliefs that led our spiritual ancestors to die for their faith. Martyrdom was the ultimate expression of putting Christ above the world. Just as the early Anabaptists were willing to die to accomplish this, we must be willing to make some sacrifices should our faith be challenged similarly. We should not be tied down to anything worldly (such as country, property, or lifestyle) to such an extent that we would not be willing to leave it in order to embody the will of Christ more fully. This characteristic is what I see as defining the modern Mennonite concept of separation.
The difficulty of separation from society comes in knowing what extent to interact with and participate in society. I believe it is acceptable to participate in society to an extent where the participation does not corrupt our beliefs. Distinguishing to what extent participation is possible is a fine line and raises many difficult issues for Mennonites today-myself included. The key to being successful in maintaining the spiritual integrity of the Mennonite community is remembering that true power lies in God and the community of believers, not in wealth or government.
In discussing separation and community of faith, I have inevitably touched at times on the role of Christian discipleship in my understanding of the Mennonite faith. In The Anabaptist Vision Bender states, "The focus of Christian life…[is] not so much the inward experience of the grace of God…, but the outward application of that grace to all human conduct and the consequent Christianization of all human relationships." More simply put, truth found in Christ must be displayed in action. This concept also drives the Mennonite education (ex. "Culture for SERVICE"), where furthering one's personal understanding necessitates incorporating these understandings into a Christian lifestyle. This discipleship aspect of the Mennonite faith is one that I find both intriguing and difficult. In order to understand my personal views on discipleship, I find it helpful to look at how discipleship was viewed among early Anabaptists.
We have learned from our heritage that Christian discipleship combines an understanding of the implications of what Christ said and did with a broader perspective on life that understands the themes of love and forgiveness present in Christ's ministry. For me, the Mennonite views on discipleship become overly literalistic and legalistic if they overemphasize the former and leave out the latter. At the other end of the spectrum, overemphasizing general themes present as opposed to actual acts of Christ scatters the focus or grounding point of our discipleship. Thus discipleship has elements directly tied to Biblical understandings, with both literal understandings of and broad themes present in Christ's ministry directing our actions.
HOWEVER, to emphasize a biblical understanding of discipleship excludes a number of important sources that are necessary for direction. The main arena which has been left out of my discussion on fellowship thus far is the role of the Holy Spirit. Bender's quote earlier emphasized outer expression of grace, but key to the outer expression of grace is a feeling of the role of the Holy Spirit in directing the inner understandings of both the Church and the individual. One criticism I have with my experience in the Mennonite church is its failure to convey the importance of the Holy Spirit-the failure to communicate that an inner spirituality is necessary in order for outward actions to take on meaning.
Tradition also plays a key role in defining Mennonite discipleship. Historical examples of found in martyrdom and other settings reinforce traditional Mennonite beliefs. Generation after generation of Mennonites finds roots in the solid examples and implications of Mennonite tradition. For me, studying Mennonite history and tradition has allowed reinforcement of many beliefs.
In describing discipleship, I have tried to emphasize three directing forces of Mennonite discipleship. I feel that the Mennonite church becomes unhealthy when it overemphasizes any one of these three directing forces. Too much emphasis on Biblical understanding leaves out inner faith and the examples of our predecessors. Likewise, overemphasis on tradition alone causes faith to become more of a history lesson than a dynamic process. Lastly, overemphasis on the movement on the spirit can cause the loss of community, as each member loses the common ground provided by the Bible and tradition. When discipleship is looked at from all these perspectives, it becomes a dynamic process that can be difficult but is incredibly rewarding.
One last area I feel the need to address is pacifism. I have not tried to fit pacifism into the broad topics of community, separation, and discipleship because it plays a part in each. Pacifism defines the outer actions the Mennonite community and also defines a line of separation between Mennonites and the majority of society. To me, it is the ultimate display of the agape love. As stated in the Schleitheim confession, "…the Lord is a Lord of peace and not of quarreling." There is some aspect of the personal acceptance of pacifism that strengthens relationships and makes communication easier for me. I find that a pacifistic outlook when combined with the love of Christ gives a calming reassurance to the direction of my life.
Mennonite emphasis on discipleship, a feeling of community, and a degree of separation from the world are fundamental aspects of the Mennonite faith which cause me to identify myself as Mennonite. Though living a life based on Mennonite ideals in a world with drastically different ideals can be difficult, I find the peace instilled by my faith to be worth the struggle. I have found studying the history of Anabaptists and Mennonites has instilled a new sense of excitement to my faith. I am part of a new generation of Mennonites which will shape its own beliefs based on previous generations and will be responsible for leaving behind its own traditions for generations to come.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.