January 2000

           

 

THE MENNONITE YEAR IN REVIEW

Minding Us Mennonites

 

PHYLLIS PELLMAN GOOD*

     I think of us Mennonites as a rather muscular group-small, scattered, varied, but still making some difference in the world. So I was a little sobered the other night while catching "Jeopardy" on TV. I had just remarked about how intelligent the contestants seemed. But they all got stumped on the next question, from the category "Protestantism." The answer, for which they were to provide the question, was: "The group related to the Amish, named for one of their leaders, a Mr. Simons." None of the three players knew. Kind of humbling. Kind of funny.

     Clearly the game-show brains who wrote the set-up assumed the contestants and their audience had some idea about who the Amish are. They were the reference point. Of course, we (smug) Mennonites know why. We think that, if the Amish weren't so visually obvious, they would be no-names, too. And then we go on, explaining why we're so small and nearly invisible, usually because of our tough discipleship standards and our self-effacing, servant-like practices.

     Oh, yeah? "When and where and who?" I'd have to ask, if it were any other group claiming such a mix of sulky self-analysis tinged with a strain of self-pity and self-righteousness.

     And so I was reminded again that, while we have our own self-perceptions, others may have a somewhat different view of us-if they have any at all.

WHO IS "US"?

     At the invitation of the editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review I agreed to reflect, in a "highly interpretive" manner, on what Mennonites are presently facing, to give a sort of window into Mennonite life at this moment, as I understand it.

     In an effort to be frank, I have imagined that I am talking to my mother or to my daughters-and so I will be personal and candid. No footnotes, no documentation, no results of careful studies.

     I will limit my observations, confessions and questions primarily to the band of North American Mennonites of which I am a part. Once the "mainstream" among Mennonites, we of European origins and long histories in the peoplehood are a shrinking percentage within the global Mennonite church. More than half the Mennonites in the world are now Africans, Asians and Latin Americans. Within North America, Old Order and conservative groups will likely surpass us in numbers within a few years. And there are a rising number of charismatic Christians joining our church. In addition, more and more people of different ethnic groups are now also North American Mennonites. Clearly, we no longer have a lock-hold on the typical, or "correct," theological-historical-sociological mix that makes a Mennonite.

     That is on top of our many other well-documented sociological shifts, some peculiar to ourselves, others shared with the rest of North American society-such as giving up farming for professions and business, leaving the rural world, seeing women go to work, reducing the sizes of our families, becoming educated, specialized and highly scheduled, all within a single generation.

     What kind of church are we now? I will suggest a few facts, name several myths and family secrets, and end with some questions that continue to follow us.

A FEW FACTS

     1. We Mennonites were never monolithic, but I believe the differences among us are more pronounced than ever before. Our varying, and sometimes tension-producing, theological streams are well known. They haven't gone away or subsided. Instead, they keep taking new shapes, often influenced by the political-theological currents of the day, whether we lean to the left or to the right.

     More and many-fingered fissures stretch out among us, and we don't know yet how wide nor how deep they will turn out to be.

     Our incomes and our education separate us. Our urban or suburban or rural mindsets mark us. Our politics put us into camps. Our professions require us to hold confidential knowledge and to make private decisions that often have moral or ethical implications.

     Some of us are prepared to permit the church community to have a strong interest in our daily lives and decisions. Others believe that our fellow church members understand too little about our worlds and therefore have not earned the right to have moral authority over us.

     Some of us are drawn to public life and activity, believing we ought to make a contribution there. Others are convinced that the risk of compromise is too great and prefer to live quietly, hoping to be witnesses by our character and integrity.

     We live increasingly independent, "unobserved" lives. We see comparatively little of each other. Sunday morning worship services and bimonthly small group meetings are no match for the tumble of decisions each of us regularly makes. They give us thin companionship in managing the overall tone and direction of our lives.

     Our congregations are no longer the local parish; we are no longer each other's neighbors. Gone is the natural accountability of living near each other.

     2. The Past sits among us, throwing shadows that unnerve us, providing occasional comfort.

     Sometimes the Past sounds like a Story of Crimes. The church was "authoritarian, restrictive, abusive, oppressive." It used weapons-words and enforced practices that whipped its members into dark, straight lines: "Nonconformity," "revival meetings," "prophecy," "Preparatory Services," "Council Meetings," "following Jesus," "Bible memory verses," "coverings/capes/plain suits."

     Along the way we foisted off a lot of this "baggage." We may feel less burdened. But we aren't free of the Past. In fact, we are pretty skittish about authority; we are in a fog about defining lines; we can't be sure how firmly to set membership standards. Might we, by our nervous tiptoeing, be doing as much damage as the old preachers of the Past did? Only differently?

     While the church has dithered around, trying to give "sensitive, enlightened" leadership, some of us have lived off the memory of the clear images that filled the Past, its unmistakably defining practices, the people who embodied what the church meant to be. Some find comfort in that old clarity.

     3. Authority is suspect. If we do agree we need it, we can't always agree on where it should lie or how firmly it should be held.

     Ordination used to do the trick, although not automatically so. Collective wisdom usually kicked in, bestowing true authority on those leaders who most deserved it. Now we are more likely to vote for a professional who was credentialed in another world; we seem to find comfort in the training that backs up the degree. Or we choose a successful business person, reasoning that what works in the world of enterprise should carry over to the church. But we watch carefully, ready to withdraw our support if we perceive an empire being built or heavy-handedness setting in.

     Does the church have any real authority over our lives and over choices of ours that matter? Individually we decide how much to yield, which piece, to whom, and for how long.

SEVERAL MYTHS

     Some things are undiscussable in families. Among them are myths, held too sacred to be challenged or too fragile to be examined. Usually we decide that more is to be lost by picking them apart than by letting them stand. It can require a lot of energy to move in on a myth. But in the interest of good family health, and knowing that a written page can be more easily ignored than a voice in a circle, here are myths that I believe bear some respectful dissection.

     1. "Mennonites are good at conflict." We mean that because we are committed to making peace (and building and keeping it-and whatever other verbs are proper to include here), we are good at helping other people resolve their conflicts. That is often true. But an extrapolation tempts us here. It is not necessarily true that Mennonites are good at resolving conflict among themselves. That is the painful truth that wants to hold hands with the myth.

     Because we Mennonites love peace (who doesn't, to be fair?) and have come to be identified with efforts at peace-building, we are especially appalled by our own anger and disappointed in our inability to be direct about a situation or person who upsets us.

     We are capable of savagery. Sometimes I wonder whether, in spite of all of the training and seminars, degrees and titles in peacemaking and reconciliation, we are any better at handling conflict, reconciliation and Christian peacemaking than we were before we became "professionals" at it.

     2. "We have progressed to being quite broad and very inclusive as a church." We want to be a people of love. We would like to extend mercy without bounds.

     Our recent history is full of discipline, often carefully adhered to, sometimes doggedly enforced. We would like to right those wrongs; we blanch at being thought too restrictive, by insiders or onlookers.

     We want to invite others to join our fellowship, our faith family. We see some image, we have some bodily form in mind, when we express that wish. But how will the church keep its shape and its identity when we want to welcome everyone, when we want to exclude no one, despite their behavior?

     Those of us who are most concerned about not eliminating anyone from becoming part of us seem to find it particularly difficult to embrace those who have more conservative theological or political points of view. Our broadly "inclusive" impulses seem to cut mainly in one direction.

     3. "We modern Mennonites are on a faithful continuum with the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century." We perceive ourselves to be the staunch and loyal ones, having capably selected the proper path, secured the essentials and dodged the distractions, inconveniencing ourselves and even sacrificing whatever was necessary.

     We don't mean to overdo it, but often a subtle tone of judgment can creep into this softly spoken assertion. The target of our judgment is less often our Christian sisters and brothers of other communions and more likely our own "cousins," those Mennonites or Amish who we believe put the emphasis on minor points or have strayed toward fundamentalism.

     We seem to hold some abstraction in our minds that represents the defining points and practices of early Anabaptism that we now, too, live by. It may be worth pulling out the Schleitheim Confession and comparing its statements with our behavior and beliefs. We may be surprised to see who has drifted-or how impractical, and possibly uninspiring, the old documents are.

SOME FAMILY SECRETS

     When I was growing up, my parents would occasionally entrust my brother and me with some information or opinion they thought we ought to know. Sometimes we already knew. The point was that this was material for insiders, not to be broadly shared.

     I bring no news in this regard. Instead, I wish to make a few observations that are probably obvious, if not often acknowledged.

     1. We worry about being thought to be too narrow, which is closely related to our fears about being thought to be backward.

     We believe we will suffer for the important things, if need be, but we hate to be embarrassed.

     Somehow we are convinced that we would choose jail or exile and give up our bank accounts and investments if we were asked to violate our faith. But we find it nearly impossible to say no to a membership applicant to our congregation or to refuse to participate in a neighborhood effort that compromises our principles. Many of us are simply fed up with being odd.

     2. Our church agencies can behave like principalities. Nervous about how to handle power, how to maintain their market share (if not increase it) and how to keep their funds flowing (if not grow them), these institutions can be heavy-handed, manipulative, obsessed with public-relations. Congregations, schools, retirement communities, mission boards, insurance and mutual aid organizations, district conference and denominational apparatus. They do plenty of good-and, now and then, some harm.

     3. We have a seepage problem. Some of our people are drawn away to churches that offer a more outspoken piety, often flavored with conservative politics. Others feel the squeeze from the church if they become highly successful in business, and so they drift off. Many of our children never become members, or they grow quietly distant and drop out. They may be lured by the promise of prestige, power and prosperity beyond, or they may be disillusioned by the little passion they perceive within the church. Perhaps we haven't sufficiently called them.

     Despite all our efforts at missions, we haven't found a way to stem the loss from within.

     4. We have the ability to be distracted by the wrong things. Recently, structures and details have nearly consumed some wings of the church. Focusing on too small a sphere can lead us to put too much energy into too small a task. The neighborhood and the congregation are primary, but they are not the whole. The Mennonite church is increasingly a global body, and we have family responsibilities to each other. And privileges and resources from the same.

     This family we have outside the West may have some thoughts about where we should be putting our energy these days, about what is central and what is peripheral. We may be a bit lost right now; we seem not to be fully certain about what really matters. It may be time to seek some counsel from our sisters and brothers elsewhere in the world, many of whom live against the hard bone of inhospitable settings.

     5. We are more apt to agree about the questions that swarm around us these days than about their answers.

     Apparently certain classic stakes have been driven deeply into many of us: there is an essential connection between what we believe and how we live; we need the company of God's people in order to be faithful; our loyalties so shape our lives that we are of necessity different from the world we live in.

     But what is the proper mix of these elements? How do they work themselves out within each of us, and in our life together? Who decides how it shall all come to be? About this we have unending debates.

     In other words, if we were to plan a seminar about how to live as faithful Mennonite Christians, we could probably agree on the agenda and the subjects of the main addresses, but it would be hard for all of us to accept the same conclusions.

QUESTIONS WE HAVEN'T YET ANSWERED

. . . AT LEAST NOT TO OUR OWN SATISFACTION

     1. What beliefs and behavior should finally define us?

     2. Is "love," in the end, our only ethic? Should all our other principles and convictions flex before it?

     3. Where should our borders be? How elastic should they be?

     4. How do we engage the world without becoming it? What safeguards do we have in place?

     5. How much diversity can we bear and still be a people?

     6. Are there sufficient theological and praxis solutions in Anabaptism to cover the realities of professionals' lives? Can our theology and praxis stretch to include the major institutions the church has built?

     7. Will we find a way to have our racial and our gender differences enrich us rather than anger and fray us?

     8. How do we cultivate a vital sense of the Transcendent God, of the redeeming activity of Jesus, of the enlivening place of the Bible, in our prosperous and secular settings-where thoughts of sacrifice and suffering seem not only archaic but meaningless?

     It is the Troubles that elbow their way to the front when we think about the well-being of the church at this historic moment. But the church's buoyancy and health, often expressed in unexpected places, cannot be denied, dare not be overlooked. A mix of diligence-and of surprises we can't quite imagine-may carry us through.

     In a recent churchwide convention we discovered again that we can't always find satisfying resolution to our differences by endless discussion. Despite the employment of our best minds, intentions and strategies, sometimes we can't reach agreement. But we can, even in those moments of utter exhaustion, still sing together. I don't find that an easy escape or a denial of our differences. Instead, it's reaching for a substantial prop that we have been given to help guide us along the way.

     Some years ago when we lived in New York City as students, a bunch of young-ish people, born into Mennonite families whom they had fled, ended up in scattered apartments within a few blocks of each other in the Village. In their chosen exile from their faith commuities, they had nearly formed a new one. Not only did they live fairly close to each other, but they also got together now and then to sing from the Mennonite Hymnal.

     Maybe it was just their version of going dancing like homesick Irish, or eating goulash like far-flung Hungarians. But the hymns they sang had texts, preachy words, here and there condemning words, words of faith and belief. Those songs offered them a foothold until they figured out where to step next. We may find it helpful to let our treasure of music do the same for us.

     Recently, a group of seven Mennonites-one each from Congo, Guatemala, Germany, Canada, and the U.S., and two expatriates from France-gathered from around the globe, found they shared a remarkable amount of common ground. These Mennonites spent a week talking with six Roman Catholics in Venice about their churches' often ugly past and a possible future of forgiveness and shared witness. Neal Blough, one of the participating Mennonites who has lived in France for many years, reported that the Mennonites discovered they had considerable "commonality of convictions, in spite of our very different origins. Yes, there is a worldwide recognizable Mennonite identity," he reflected.

A part of the Mennonite contingent, Nzash Lumeya from Congo, observed the Mennonites uniformly referring to the Sermon on the Mount as primary source material for their theology and ethics.

That looks hopeful.

There may be a lift for us if we pause long enough to allow ourselves to be ministered to, especially by our sisters and brothers beyond our borders, if we vulnerably confess our differences, if we allow music to displace talking for a while.

The problems and the imponderables won't disappear, but we may get a reprieve-we may even be saved-from cynicism and despair.


*  Phyllis Pellman Good of Lancaster, Pennsylvania is an editor with Good Books, curator of The People's Place Quilt Museum and communication consultant for Mennonite World Conference.

 

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