April 2002 Roth


When Mennonites in North America turn their attention to the Russian Mennonite story, the narrative is typically anchored by a few key dates: Catherine the Great’s invitation to settle the fertile farmlands of the Ukraine in 1789; the formation of the Mennonite Brethren in 1860; the first great migration out of Russia to the western states and provinces of North America in 1874; and, of course, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent years of confusion and tumult that led to more migrations to Canada and South America. At this point, the focus of the narrative almost always shifts to North America (with a few glances southward to Mexico and South America). This is a familiar story, frequently recounted in textbooks, reinforced in the scores of immigrant family histories, and captured in image and sound in dramatic renditions like the movie And When They Shall Ask.

By contrast, the story of those Mennonites who remained in Russia following the revolution, and the fate of those believers in the newly established Union of Soviet Socialist Republics during the Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, has remained largely hidden from sight. That history, as it is slowly coming to light, is a painful one. Persecuted both for their German ethnic identity as well as for their religious faith, the Mennonite communities that had survived the Russian Revolution faced a series of devastating blows in the decades just before and after World War II. Most traumatic, perhaps, was a series of policies initiated by Joseph Stalin that scattered families to widely distant locations, aggressively challenged the religious instruction of children, imprisoned or killed much of the church’s leadership, and forced Mennonites to face basic questions regarding identity and survival. Notwithstanding several isolated contacts with North American leaders, the details of this history-the story of the Mennonite experience in the Soviet Union-was nearly lost to those in the West.

During the last two decades of the twentieth century, however, sweeping political reforms in the former USSR and relaxed restrictions on religious practices have made it possible for ethnic Germans-perhaps as many as 300,000-to emigrate. Among these so-called Umsiedler, approximately 100,000 of Mennonite descent have relocated in Germany bringing with them numerous stories about life in the Soviet Union and their struggle for survival.

In this issue, historian Walter Sawatsky offers a fascinating and provocative account of Mennonite theology in the Soviet Union from 1925 to 1990. Sawatsky challenges the notion that those who lived through these difficult years lost their identity as Christians or as Mennonites. In his essay he traces a consistent succession of leadership, both male and female, who not only preserved the teachings of the past but creatively reshaped a Mennonite theology of grace, suffering, discipleship, peace and mission. Sawatsky suggests that this theology-hammered out on the anvil of persecution and suffering-might actually provide a more helpful paradigm for the contemporary global Anabaptist church than the Anabaptist Vision model that emerged within the pluralistic and relatively affluent context of North America. Sawatsky, who has traveled extensively among the Umsiedler in Germany, along with Mennonite and Baptist groups in the former Soviet Union, is Professor of Church History and Mission at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

John Howard Yoder, perhaps the foremost twentieth-century interpreter of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology, continues to be the focus of a great deal of scholarly attention. In recent years, scholars have paid increasing attention not only to the substance of his teaching but also to the manner in which Yoder made his arguments. Margaret Pfeil, Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Joseph’s University, describes Yoder’s pedagogical approach as one of “humble inclusion”-a kind of “intellectual hospitality” consistent with his own commitment to biblical nonviolence. Those who knew Yoder well also recall that he could be very sharp, even acerbic, on occasions, especially when engaging other Mennonites. But Pfeil’s essay testifies to Yoder’s gracious rhetorical style, especially when engaging ROTC students in a course he regularly taught at the University of Notre Dame.

Yoder is widely recognized, of course, as one of the twentieth-century’s most influential advocates of pacifism. The name of Edward Krehbiel, on the other hand, is scarcely remembered at all. Yet for a full decade Krehbiel was among the nation’s leading proponents of peace. Although he left the Mennonite church shortly after enrolling at the University of Chicago in 1904, Krehbiel worked tirelessly in a variety of peace efforts in the years leading up to World War I, building especially upon his popularity as a teacher and lecturer at Stanford University. Gerlof Homan, Professor of History Emeritus at Illinois State University, has compiled an extensive record of Krehbiel’s work as a peace activist. The result is a fascinating biography of a man whose commitment to peacemaking led outside the familiar territory of the church.

Finally, we are happy to include a thoughtful review essay on the complex and difficult subject of homosexuality and the church. Willard Swartley, a widely respected biblical scholar and Professor of New Testament at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, has reviewed four recent books on the subject. Undoubtedly, his will not be the last word on this controversial topic, but readers looking for a helpful guide through the maze of print literature and the furor of public debate would do well to start with this essay.

– John D. Roth, Editor

The Mennonite Quarterly Review