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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
1. We worry about being thought to be too
narrow, which is closely related to our fears about being thought to be
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
Good of Lancaster, Pennsylvania is an editor with Good Books, curator
of The People’s Place Quilt Museum and communication consultant for Mennonite
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