April 2003 Kraybill

Reflections on Growing up Mennonite in Lancaster County


The Mennonite church where my family attended was more than ten miles from our home, which seemed like a vast distance to me as a child whose primary activities unfolded within a two-mile radius of my house. Nevertheless, every Sunday we got into the family car and drove west through the rolling Pennsylvania countryside dotted with small towns, dairy farms and old stone houses. Finally, we turned off the main road onto a country lane lined with corn fields and massive spreading trees. On the final approach, as we rounded the last corner, my siblings and I strained our eyes for the church in the distance. The first one to see it sang out, “I see the church first!” And there it was-a small, simple white frame meetinghouse in the middle of the cornfields, large trees around the parking lot, a red brick schoolhouse on one side, a cemetery on a slight rise on the other. Sometimes, as we drove, I sat in the back seat with my eyes closed, following every turn in my mind, always knowing exactly where we were by the motion of the car.

Decades later, I can still replay that trip in my mind-like viewing a silent travelogue through a familiar yet strangely distant land. My life journey has taken me far afield from that simple cemetery with graves of my extended kin, the schoolhouse where my grandfather taught school and where I knotted comforters and rolled bandages for the mission field, and the spare, unadorned meetinghouse where I was baptized as a member of the Mennonite church. I am far away now-physically, emotionally and theologically. Even though I can never go back, this place, together with all it represents, has shaped me as nothing else ever has. The congregation and its belief structure are at the center of my inner geography and continue to be the fundamental coordinates by which I orient myself, even if to define where I am not.



As I reflect on my Anabaptist-Mennonite upbringing and its influence on my life, two themes dominate my memories: separation from the world and judgment. The first of these, separation, is remarkably well summarized in Romans 12:

1: I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

2: And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

3: For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith [….]

10: Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another;

11: Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord;

12: Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer;

13: Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.

14: Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.

15: Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.

16: Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.

17: Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.

18: If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.

19: Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

20: Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

21: Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

Month after month, year after year, without the enforced discipline of a prescribed lectionary, sermon after sermon reverberated with the themes of this chapter of Romans, shaping my theology and ecclesiology. The meanings of these verses are much less apparent to me now than they were when I was a child. But in the community of faith in which I grew up, opaque, difficult phrases such as “Present your bodies a living sacrifice,” “Be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds,” “Bless them which persecute you” and “Heap coals of fire on [thine enemy’s] head” were the familiar refrains of daily life that needed no justification or explanation. They instilled in me the value of self-denial and the surrender of personal aspiration to the larger good of the community. I accepted without question the mandate to follow Jesus in every aspect of life and the call to live in service to others. I took for granted that “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Mt. 14:7). As a child, on some level, I understood that most would not choose to follow this difficult path. At the same time, I took for granted the stability of shared values and the reassurance of common purpose that gave the community its foundation and bound its members together.

Thus I grew up knowing that I was profoundly unlike the society around me, even though was not raised in isolation from the larger culture. In my home, education, literature and the arts were valued, and the broader world was always visible-from conversations about world missions and current events around the dining room table to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the radio every Saturday afternoon to regular shipments from the Book-of-the-Month Club. Nonetheless, the world view indelibly imprinted on my psyche was one of separation and dichotomy. We were different: in our dress, in our behavior, in our beliefs. God called us out of the world to be a separate people. We were part of the thread of God’s faithful believing church throughout history-from the New Testament church to the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century to the faithful Mennonite community of the present.

My differences from my non-Mennonite classmates went far deeper than the fact that I did not have access to a television, go to movies or dance. I felt a real connection with the Anabaptist martyrs and took for granted that persecution was inevitable for the faithful, even in the present. I was transfixed by The Martyrs Mirror[2] and its graphic stories: Dirk Willems’ giving up his opportunity to escape death by turning back to rescue his pursuer who had fallen through the ice, Michael Sattler’s martyrdom, and Maeyken Wens and her tongue screw. I read and reread children’s books that would probably be banned today in some school libraries.[3] Modern narratives of martyrdom also influenced me deeply and presented a standard of behavior for emulation. I was captivated by the story of Jim Elliot and his fellow missionaries murdered in Ecuador in 1956, and I pored over gruesome photos of their floating bodies punctured with spears.[4] I was also intrigued by the story of Clayton Kratz, a young Mennonite man who disappeared in Russia in 1920, presumably murdered by the Red Army while working for Mennonite Central Committee. That story held particular poignancy for me because Clayton’s childhood home and congregation were close to where my mother grew up.[5] He was a martyr with whom I had a personal connection.

If these grizzly stories of torture and death were part of the air that I breathed as a child, so also was the assurance of God’s tender care-not just as an abstract concept but as a literal cloak of protection for the thirty or so families who worshiped in my small white frame church in western Lancaster County. Nearly every Sunday the minister gave thanks for freedom from persecution and for the right to worship in peace; he always prayed that we would remain faithful in times of persecution to come. Even more remarkable was the frequently recounted narrative of God’s protection of the congregation in the face of the military’s threats to seize its land prior to the declaration of World War II-an act that would have jeopardized the very existence of the community.[6] The reciting of this story as a defining event in the history of the congregation reinforced the fundamental assumption of my childhood that God was not simply faithful to his chosen people in the generic and spiritual sense; he actively intervened in history to safeguard those who trusted in him.[7]

All of these factors combined to shape my identity in terms of separation from the society around me. I grew up assuming a deep chasm between the faithful Mennonite community and the world. Choosing faithfulness meant both God’s special care and the threat of danger from the forces of evil. One had to make choices between stark, clear-cut options. There was no room for ambivalence, indecision or nuance. The lines were drawn, and every aspect of one’s behavior-the clothing one wore, the company one kept, the ways one used leisure time-had significance in demonstrating one’s loyalties.


The second theological theme that shaped my Mennonite childhood was judgment, both personal and cosmic. Ironically, despite the tradition’s de-emphasis of the individual and devaluing of personal expression, it incessantly focused on self-examination, personal piety and the minutiae of everyday life. Everything mattered. No action or activity was inconsequential. While I learned the valuable lesson that how one lives one’s life matters and that actions must be consistent with beliefs, I also assimilated an attitude of ongoing anxiety that my behavior was not acceptable. I was obsessed with what others thought of me. Would the bishop or the minister think that my skirt was too short or that my hair wasn’t long enough? Early on, I learned the importance of conformity and the negative consequences of any self-expression that did not coincide with the community’s norms. In other words, nonconformity with the world meant conformity within the community. Specific instances are burned into my mind. A girl about my age was not allowed to take communion one year because her hair was too short. More accurately, she did not comb her hair in a way that disguised its length. Others, with hair no longer than hers, were acceptable within the community because they tucked their hair into a bun. Thus, I learned the value of not drawing attention to myself by being different.

This personal anxiety was magnified in the context of more general cultural trauma. Along with others of my generation, as a child I absorbed the angst of the 1950s and early 1960s: the constant threat of nuclear attack and regular air raid drills in school, the all-pervasive fear of communism, the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962), and President Kennedy’s assassination (November 1963). My sense of foreboding intensified as the decade unfolded and as I became more aware of world events: the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and escalation of the Vietnam conflict (August 1965), the Six-Day War (June 1967) and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (1968). All of these events, and in particular the dramatic events in Israel and the Middle East we were told, were the “wars and rumors of wars” that were the “signs of the last times.” All around me were calls for conversion before it was too late. I lived in terror that the world would end before I was ready. Matthew 24 was the text of many sermons that enflamed my sense of dread:

6: And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.

7: For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. [. . . ]

34: Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.

35: Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.

36: But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.

37: But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

38: For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark.

39: And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

40: Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.

41: Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.

42: Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.

To bring home the meaning of this text, the minister updated the scenario of the coming of Christ. Husband and wife will be sleeping in the same bed; one will be taken, the other will be left. The faithful will suddenly disappear from workplaces and from behind the wheels of moving vehicles, resulting in chaos and terror for the unbelievers left behind. I took the message to heart. More than once, I came home from school to find no one in the house. I was terrified that Jesus had come and that I had been left behind.

Inevitably, personal anxiety and cosmic judgment coincided, resulting in intense private trauma and a profound shaping of my sense of what it meant to be a Mennonite. I knew that to avoid being left behind when Jesus came, I had to accept him as my savior. However, becoming “saved” also meant joining the Mennonite Church and taking on the church’s discipline and, in particular, wearing a head covering. Despite my general attitude of compliance in most areas of my life, I stubbornly resisted putting on a covering. It seemed so unfair to me that only girls were forced to make such a public, visible commitment, and I wished that I were a boy so that I could accept Jesus and join the church without changing my appearance. For years, I fought sleep, reading late into the night or listening to baseball games on the transistor radio under my pillow, terrified that I would die or that Jesus would come before morning. In either case, I knew that I would go to hell because I was not saved or a faithful Mennonite. In my young adolescent’s mind, they were one and the same. For years, I made pacts with God, pledging that if he preserved me for one more night, I would accept Christ and join the church the next day. And for years, in the morning light, I continued to resist taking on the discipline of the Mennonite Church despite the personal assurance of salvation that it would have brought. Finally, in the summer of 1967, after the particularly terrifying events of the Six-Day War, I went to church camp, having decided in advance that I would accept Jesus as my savior during that week. During a campfire program, I followed through on my resolve and responded to the pastor’s “invitation.” The sense of relief outweighed any other emotion. In the spring of 1968, at the age of fifteen-many years after my Sunday school classmates had taken the same step-I was baptized as a member of the Mennonite Church and began wearing a covering to school. About this time I also first experienced various physical symptoms often associated with unacknowledged anger and depression, including severe stomach aches and lower back pain.

In retrospect, I see this difficult time in my life as emblematic of one of the lasting imprints of my Anabaptist-Mennonite upbringing: an intense struggle between genuinely valuing the community and trying to live up to its expectations, all the while exploring within my tradition and myself a nonconformist, noncompliant streak that seeks expression.


Despite the fact that everything in my upbringing required clear choices and stressed the impossibility of vacillation, my taking leave of the Mennonite Church has been a meandering journey with no straight trajectory, one that cannot be linked to a particular moment, a specific event or a deliberate decision. A slow process that has wound through many decades, it continues into the present. Here, I can only attempt to identify some of the significant landmarks in this pilgrimage.

Even during my adolescence, I was never entirely comfortable with the crisp categories that I used to define my life and world view. My non-Mennonite peers from the public schools that I attended danced and wore makeup. Their parents smoked and drank, and their older brothers went into the military. They had been baptized as infants (anathema within my world view), yet they went to church regularly and prayed just as I did. I could never find a convincing explanation for their piety. Nor could I come to a satisfactory understanding of the Lutheran and Reformed churches they attended. According to the “believers church” narrative that formed the foundation of my thinking, those other churches were associated with the persecution of Anabaptists. Another puzzle was how to comprehend the widespread admiration within the Mennonite church for Billy Graham, George Beverly Shea and other high-profile evangelicals.

My first realization that some aspects of Mennonite piety and practice were cultural came when I went away to a Mennonite college. There I learned that not all Mennonites had the same notions of what it meant to be faithful to Paul’s injunction in Romans 12 to “be not conformed to this world.” It was liberating for me to realize that the “plain” styles of dress that were central to the lifestyle and religious practice of my congregation were cultural remnants of an earlier historical era.[8] Later, this awareness was expanded during the three years I spent living and teaching in a Russian Mennonite community in western Canada, where I learned about vareniky, rollkuchen, bubbat and zwieback, and introduced my new Mennonite friends to chicken corn soup, shoofly pie and apple butter. On the Canadian plains I also learned that there were many ways to be conservative other than by means of distinctive dress.

As my education continued throughout college and then in seminary, another crucial milepost in my intellectual and spiritual journey was my introduction to textual biblical criticism by Mennonite scholars such as Willard Swartley, Millard Lind and David Schroeder. Their deep faith, combined with their commitment to academic rigor, impressed and exhilarated me. My own faith and identification with the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition were reenergized by these first glimpses of a different way of understanding the nature of truth. This awakening also marked the beginning of a process of critically evaluating history and reassessing axioms that I had previously accepted as literal, revealed truth. From there progressed the slow discovery of the concepts of myth and cultural relativism within which I was forced to re-evaluate my faith.

Beginning graduate study at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School was the most significant step in this process, although not, perhaps, for the obvious reasons. I came to Chicago determined to avoid the stereotypical path-go to the secular university, especially to study religion, and lose your faith and Mennonite affiliation. After all, I believed that I had a fairly sophisticated understanding of biblical criticism, theology and other faith traditions. In seminary, I studied Barth, Bultmann and Tillich with much interest. I read Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament[9] with great enthusiasm and prized my copy of the Synopsis of the Four Gospels.[10] Between my second and third years in seminary, I spent three years teaching Old and New Testament at a Mennonite bible school in Canada, trying to explain to my devout students that myth did not necessarily mean “false,” that truth went beyond literal facts and that to “take the Bible literally” was not as straightforward as it sounded. I did not anticipate many surprises at Chicago.

Chicago’s challenges came from unexpected directions. The first was the experience of a new community. Many years earlier I had shed the rigidity of my childhood upbringing and recognized the diversity of faith across various Christian traditions. However, I did this primarily in the abstract as I moved from one Mennonite setting to another. In Chicago, for the first time, I developed close friendships with individuals deeply rooted in other religious and cultural traditions: Irish Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Jewish, German Lutheran and Dutch Reformed. I learned to know other men and women struggling to understand the relationship between their faith and ethnic identity, just as I was. I devoured Chaim Potok’s The Promise, The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev[11] and identified with the struggles of the main characters to find their places between the world of Hasidic Judaism and secular society. The uniqueness of my experience seemed less and less apparent within the larger scheme of things, and gradually most vestiges of feeling part of a special group of people whose ethnic and cultural practice equaled religious faithfulness began to slip away.

The second factor in the fundamental shift in my thinking came from my introduction to the disciplines of cultural anthropology and sociology. At Chicago, for the first time, I studied religion as a human phenomenon within which Christianity and Anabaptism took their places. It is impossible to overstate the intellectual and spiritual challenges that resulted from the necessity of seeing my own religious faith and traditions-Mennonite, Anabaptist, Protestant, Christian-as part and parcel of humanity’s “sacred canopy,” to use Peter Berger’s term, instead of being categorically different. At Chicago, my distinction between faith (Truth) and religion (a human construct) crumbled.

My first oblique introduction to these ideas had come many years earlier at the University of Strasbourg in France, where I took a course in the history of religions as part of my junior year abroad. The class included students from French-speaking Africa, some of them from very traditional cultures as evidenced by tribal tattoos and scars on their faces. When Professor Marcel Simon described the ritual of sacrifice in primitive societies in terms of magic, they protested and demanded to know how their belief was any different from the Catholic belief in the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during the celebration of the mass. Simon responded calmly that there was no difference whatsoever. My notes from that day (January 15, 1973) read: “La magie de l’un, c’est la religion de l’autre” (one person’s magic is another person’s religion). This statement impressed me greatly but disturbed me not at all. In 1973 it was easy to understand my own faith system as Truth, completely unrelated to the magical, superstitious religion of tribal rites of sacrifice and the Catholic mass. Only many years later did I begin to recognize myself in that statement, and not until I got to Chicago did I start to confront the resulting implications.

It is impossible to recount here all the scholars who contributed to the slow changes in my intellectual orientation. Clifford Geertz was particularly influential, especially his discussion of the a priori nature of religious authority.[12] Peter Berger’s analysis of religion as a human social construct challenged me greatly,[13] as did Ernest Becker’s powerful characterization of the human condition, including all religious activity, as driven by the need to deny the finality of death through the creation of “hero-systems.”[14]

Closer to home, it was disquieting to read Ernst Troeltsch’s characterization of Anabaptists as a “sect-type” within Protestantism. It was not Troeltsch’s generalizations that jarred me as much as the simple fact of seeing “Mennonites” listed in the Table of Contents in Volume II, Section 4, alongside “English Baptists, General Baptists, Levellers, Diggers, Millenarians, Pietism, Moravians, Methodists, Labadists, Modern Sects (including Salvation Army, Adventists, Irvingites, Darbyists, and others), Christian Socialism, and Tolstoi.”[15] Troeltsch posits that all of these groups share the following characteristics from the point of view of social doctrine: “a society founded on a voluntary basis apart from the State, Perfectionism, asceticism expressed in hard work, a conservative-middle-class outlook, even where their political attitude is theoretically one of bourgeois Liberalism.”[16] When examined from this sociological perspective, the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition cannot claim a special divine origin; it is one humanly constructed “hero-system” among many.

The cumulative result for me of these intellectual experiences was the gradual emergence of a new intellectual framework characterized by a recognition of the human and social origins of all religious traditions along with a transformed understanding of external authority and personal responsibility. These fundamental shifts in my thinking, along with growing discomfort with some of the Mennonite Church’s positions (particularly those regarding homosexuality), crystallized gradually into the recognition that I no longer considered myself a practicing Mennonite. Even so, my Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage remains a central part of my life story.


One of the most persistent and pervasive influences of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition on my life has been its profound shaping of my basic tools for processing information and my lens for viewing the world. Over the years, I have slowly become aware of my instinctive tendency to view situations in terms of the dichotomies of my childhood-good/evil, right/wrong, inside/outside-and to make quick judgments using the measure of a grid that demands straight lines and square corners. This deeply rooted drive to simplify stands in stark contrast to my actual experience of the world as a place of profound ambiguity and irony.

This engrained thought pattern has also influenced my reflections over the years on the meaning and value of my Mennonite heritage. Not surprisingly, I still find myself falling with ease into an analysis that defines my past in terms of clear-cut categories: This idea was good; that one was bad. This experience was nurturing; that one was destructive. This aspect of Mennonite life was mere culture; that one was true to the spirit of Anabaptism.[17] However, the reality is an intricate and sometimes painful dialogue between the past and present in which my heritage continues to influence my life and thinking in powerful and complicated ways that are not easily characterized or simply explained. Some elements of this ongoing conversation follow below.

Community and the Diminishment of the Individual

The fundamental egalitarianism practiced by my Mennonite church community and the primacy of the community over the individual as taught by my heritage are deeply rooted and have influenced me greatly. One simplistic example consists of my earliest memories of addressing everyone at church, including the bishop, by first name. Titles and honorifics were never used in that context, even by the youngest in the community. As a result, I have always found it surprising when friends instruct their children to address me as “Ms. Kraybill.” The Anabaptist teaching that all are equal in the eyes of God and the tradition’s emphasis on a simple, modest lifestyle are ideals toward which I continue to strive. I treasure this grounding in the values of simplicity and equality, particularly in a society so obsessed with material things and conspicuous consumption.

However, the powerful experience of the community as a leveling force has also had other consequences for me. Despite the fact that the martyrs who lost their lives for their faith were consistently held up as exemplars, my tradition has tended to pull me in the direction of conformity rather than courage. The impulse to mold myself to the overall expectations of whatever community I am in, rather than pursuing my own independent vision, has been powerful. As a child, I was steeped in the notion that quirky, individualistic behavior was prideful; artistic self-expression was good only when it served the overall goals and values of the community. As an adult, I continue to wrestle with the tension between my desire to cultivate my own drive toward creative expression and the deeply rooted pragmatism of my heritage, between the personal urgency of self-actualization and the engrained duty always to put the needs of others before my own.

An ancillary question involves ethics. How does one develop a strong personal ethic when the community plays such a prominent role in defining right and wrong? When I moved outside the purview of the community’s rigid rules and norms, I was dismayed to discover how poorly developed my independent ethical framework was. It was a difficult, but important step for me to realize how much my moral sense and decision-making processes were based on rules, community expectations and fear of punishment and shame rather than on a robust and consistent personal ethic.

The Exhaustion of Discipleship

The Anabaptist-Mennonite ethic of service, the valuing of work and the imperative to live a life consistent with one’s faith have influenced me profoundly and continue to challenge me to examine the ways I use my time and resources. Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite Central Committee and voluntary service programs of various kinds are models for responsible behavior in a society driven by indulgence and self-interest. However, I continue to struggle to find guidance within the Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage on issues of self-acceptance, moderation and respite. Our so-called perfectionist tradition is very good in setting high ethical standards; however, it provides less guidance about rest and self-nurture. When has one tried hard enough when one is expected to follow the example of Jesus to death? How does one come to terms with human limitations when the model is self-sacrifice? How does one define a functioning theology of grace within the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, which is centered on discipleship? How does forgiveness-of oneself and of others-function within a faith community that is so deeply committed to obedience and accountability in every aspect of life? How does one keep self-examination from becoming self-flagellation?


My forebears’ insistence on the radical separation of church and state, regardless of the consequences, has become an essential part of my world view. The sixteenth-century Anabaptists’ refusal to baptize babies, participate in government, serve in the military, or wear uniforms-all as expressions of their conviction that they were citizens of a Kingdom that was not of this world-has greatly influenced my growing discomfort with the blurring of the lines between religious faith and the political establishment so pervasive in our present society (e.g. “In God we trust” on our currency, prayers opening sessions of Congress, and pending state support of religious schools and charities).

And yet, I am not attuned with the Anabaptists’ basic political ethic-that the state, with its sword, is ordained by God.[18] This view of the state, along with the traditional Anabaptist-Mennonite response of quiet witness and withdrawal (“Die Stille im Lande”), results in an unresolved dualism that does not provide me with adequate guidance for living responsibly in our complex world. I find this to be particularly the case in light of events that are currently unfolding, in response to which our political leaders define the world in terms of “good” and “evil” and call on citizens to declare their allegiance.

Loving One’s Enemies and the Ambiguities of Pacifism

The church-state issue is intimately tied to Mennonite-Anabaptist teachings about nonviolence. The pacifist perspective of my tradition remains at the core of my personal ethic. I find violence of any kind abhorrent; I feel its horror at the core of my being. This conviction is also reinforced by the simple observation that violence breeds violence and resolves nothing-the current situation in the Middle East serving as a tragic case in point. However, my Anabaptist-Mennonite pacifist tradition of nonviolence at all cost has left me unprepared to deal with the complexities of the modern world. In our interdependent society, it is not as simple as it was for my grandparents to say that “we are not of this world.” What is the appropriate response to the Hitlers, Saddam Husseins, Milosovics and Osama bin Ladens of the world? Turning the other cheek to an individual is one thing, but turning it to an aggressive, destructive state intent on slaughter is another issue altogether. For me, there is no longer an easy answer to the question of whether it was right for the United States to have intervened with military force in the Balkans or whether it should have gotten involved in the bloody tribal conflict in Rwanda or what it should do in future situations of a similar nature. As a committed pacifist, I believe I know what my personal decisions would be if I were ever faced with the requirement to take up arms. But as someone who also seeks to be a responsible and responsive citizen, fully engaged in this world, I am uncertain about how to deal with issues of institutional evil and the real human suffering that it creates. The question remains: What does it mean to live ethically in a society where corruption and evil are threaded through the structures of everyday life and where compromise is an unavoidable fact of being alive? The stark dualistic Anabaptist view of the state and the traditional Mennonite responses of martyrdom, withdrawal and quiet witness no longer satisfy me.[19]


Compassion and Inclusion

In the months since September 11, 2001 I have reflected at length on my responses to those horrific events. My immediate reaction, as the second plane hit the World Trade Center, making it clear that the first collision was not an accident, shocked me: “How dare they do this to us? We can’t let them get away with it” was my first, reflexive thought, even though I had no idea who “they” were. This response jarred me on several levels. First, I was surprised by how easily I slipped once again into a dichotomized view of reality-a simple division of the world into those within the circle and those outside-reminiscent of the pervasive “us and them” categories of my childhood. Second, and more troubling to me, was the realization that for the first time in my life, I instinctively identified myself with the United States as a political entity. As I did decades earlier, I aligned myself with “us,” not “them.” However, the “us” in this instance was not a small, rural congregation or a persecuted religious sect, but the most powerful and heavily armed nation in the world.

In the succeeding months, I have struggled to find a perspective that both acknowledges the horror of the attack and refuses to accept the dichotomies implied by the patriotic anti-terrorism bandwagon. This search is emblematic of my ongoing quest to find a new language that builds on my heritage that I treasure, but that also takes into account my desire to live responsibly and fully in this world. There have been few good models to follow. To acknowledge that many societies perceive the United States to be an imperialistic, oppressive presence in the world is not to justify the attack or to claim that it was deserved. But on the other hand, I cringe at the hypocrisy of American leaders posturing as God’s agents of justice, marshaling global resources against the forces of Evil. The question remains: How does one maintain an open stance toward others with radically different perspectives without falling into a toothless relativism within which it is not possible to assess right and wrong? How is it possible (and is it responsible’), in this time of national crisis, to try to understand the motivations and convictions of others who are radically different without denying one’s grief and rage as a citizen of this country?

I seek a language that condemns the attacks themselves while at the same time acknowledging that some people hate this nation and what it stands for. I search for a different voice-one that neither abdicates all responsibility for making any moral judgments about the events of September 11 (a position often too simplistically labeled as “postmodern relativism”)[20] nor insists that these events have clarified an absolute choice between “Good” and “Evil.” As I pursue this quest, my Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage is both the path from which I diverge and the foundation on which I build.

Leaving Behind the World of Dichotomy

President George W. Bush, in his address to Congress and the nation on September 20, 2001, appropriated the language of Jesus in Luke 11 to demand that the world make a choice. According to Luke, Jesus said, “He that is not with me is against me, and he that gatherest not with me scattereth. [21]” Bush stated, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”[22] It is instructive to compare this remarkable statement, pulsing with the call to religious conversion so reminiscent of my childhood, with another account of Jesus’ words in Luke 9:50: “And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us. And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” I do not have the space or the expertise to examine in any detail this paradox of seemingly opposing statements, both allegedly from the mouth of Jesus and both in the Gospel of Luke. However, citing it serves to demonstrate that there are multiple, sometimes contradictory, strands within the biblical texts in which universalism stands in tension with particularism and inclusion wrestles with exclusion.[23] The Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition has built consistently on the foundation provided by the particularistic, exclusionary themes within the teachings of Jesus: discipleship, purity, separation, suffering. I find myself compelled to explore other themes in Jesus’ teaching that are equally powerful but sometimes under-emphasized in my tradition: grace, joy, unconditional love and overflowing abundance.

The events of 9/11 challenged me to reexamine my tradition and my place within it in ways that nothing else ever has. It is startling to hear national leaders echoing themes from my Mennonite childhood. As they outline clear-cut dichotomies, demand an unambiguous choice between good and evil, and deny the possibility of vacillation or indecision, I see a world that I have chosen to leave, a place where I can no longer live.

The question then becomes: If clear-cut dichotomies of good and evil are no longer effective paradigms for understanding the world and our place in it, what replaces them? Even though I don’t know the answer, I find direction in my Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition’s emphasis on love-for the enemy, for the estranged, for the downtrodden, for the despised. Love broadens our focus and widens our horizons. Love challenges rigid notions of right and wrong. Love is inclusive. Love suffers, but it also laughs.


The geography of my psyche was definitively shaped by the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition as I experienced it during my childhood. Even though I no longer consider myself a practicing Mennonite, I will never be anything other than a Mennonite in my religious sensibilities, ethical orientation and cultural heritage. I now live in a world far removed from the one in which I grew up. Today, I draw on paradigms for understanding truth, authority and personal responsibility that are very different from the ones that I instinctively resorted to in the first half of my life. For the most part, these worlds now co-exist within me, active participants in a continuing dialogue.

That has not always been the case. During my first year at the University of Chicago, night after night I had nightmares in which I was confronted by persons from my childhood who enumerated my sins and declared that I was headed to hell. (To add to the graphic imagery, in these dreams I was always standing on one side of a fence and my accusers were on the other.) Twenty-two years later, the collision between those conflicting realities is no longer so violent. In fact, the imagery of careening between two conflicting worlds is no longer an apt one to describe my life journey. Not only do I live within far more than two “worlds,” but also my reality is better characterized as a confluence of many currents-intersecting, commingling and then diverging once again, reordered and transformed. One thing I know for certain is that the waters will never be stagnant, and for that, I am grateful. The vortex that is my life is sometimes unsettled, sometimes painful and always challenging. There is no other place where I can or want to live.

[*]Mary Jean Kraybill is Associate Dean for Development and External Relations in the Division of the Humanities at the University of Chicago.
1. All biblical quotations are taken from the King James Version.
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[2]. Thieleman J. van Braght, The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977).
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[3]. E.g., Elizabeth Hershberger Bauman, Coals of Fire (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1954).
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[4]. Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor: The Martyrdom of Five American Missionaries in the Ecuador Jungle (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957).
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[5]. Bauman, Coals of Fire, 111-18.
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[6]. In January 1942, as the war effort accelerated in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the War Department proposed a munitions plant for an 11,000-acre site in southwestern Lancaster County in East Donegal, West Donegal and Conoy townships, displacing 186 farms. Many members of the congregation would have lost the land that had been in their families for 200 years. On Friday morning, January 16, 1942, a prayer meeting was held at the meetinghouse. Early on that same day a delegation of business leaders, farmers and politicians traveled to Washington to meet with Col. J. P. Harris, who was responsible for choosing sites for the War Department. After stating their case, they handed Harris a telegram stating that the congregation “is gathered at the Church praying right now for the preservation of their loved homes and farms.” Harris is reported to have stated, “Go home and tell the folks that their prayers are answered. There is no intention of taking that site now.” As recounted in “The Army has a Heart” by H. M. J. Klein, paper read before the Lancaster County Historical Society, published in M. Luther Heisey, ed., Historical Papers and Addresses of the Lancaster County Historical Society 50:6 (Lancaster, PA, 1946), 129-40.
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[7]. Other reasons why the War Department might have changed its mind-the loss of valuable farm land desperately needed for the war effort, political pressure from prominent businessmen and politicians, and the potential destruction of historic landmarks, including the 200-year-old Donegal Presbyterian Church with its “Witness Tree”-were never mentioned.
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[8]. Melvin Gingerich, Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries (Breinigsville, PA: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1970).
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[9]. Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. 2nd ed. (New York : Oxford U. Press, 1968).
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[10]. Kurt Aland, ed. Synopsis of the Four Gospels, Greek-English Edition. ([n.p.]: United Bible Societies, [1970]).
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[11]. Chaim Potok, The Chosen (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1967); The Promise (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969); My Name is Asher Lev (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1972).
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[12]. “. . . religious belief involves not a Baconian induction from everyday experience-for then we should all be agnostics-but rather a prior acceptance of authority which transforms that experience.”-Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 109.
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[13]. “Religion implies the farthest reach of Man’s self-externalization, of his infusion of reality with his own meanings. Religion implies that human order is projected into the totality of being. Put differently, religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant.”-Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969), 28.
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[14]. “It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. . . . The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count.”-Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (NY: The Free Press, 1973), 5.
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[15]. Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (Chicago, U. of Chicago Press, 1976), esp. 2:457 (for the Table of Contents of Vol. Two, Section 4).
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[16]. Troeltsch, Social Teaching, 2:725.
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[17]. It is tempting to sabotage these observations as a whole by characterizing my experience of growing up Mennonite as the peculiar product of a corrupted, cultural form of Anabaptism. However, one of the major changes in my thinking over the years has been to realize that religious traditions exist only in actual historical and cultural contexts rather than as idealized forms, abstracted from history and human experience. Thus, I write without apology about my particular experience of growing up Mennonite and female in a rural Lancaster Conference congregation in the 1950s and 1960s.
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[18]. Harold S. Bender writes in The Mennonite Encyclopedia, “The Anabaptist political ethic with its dualism of holding that God ordained the state with its sword, yet claiming that the state’s operation involved non-Christian principles, remained finally unresolved in Anabaptist thinking. The state operates on principles of its own, ordained by God, which parallel the principles of Christ’s kingdom, and are not in accord with it. But what of that? [Hutterite] Paul Glock’s answer to the problem was simply, ‘Who will quarrel with God’s ordination””-Harold S. Bender, “State, Anabaptist-Mennonite Attitude Toward,” ME, 4:611-17.
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[19]. An irony of Anabaptist history that I won’t discuss in detail but that must be acknowledged is that throughout their history Mennonites have had a harder time loving their brothers and sisters than loving their enemies. This reality of discord within a “historic Peace Church” is well documented in Fred Kniss’s study of more than two hundred instances of conflict in Mennonite communities in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and Indiana between 1870 and 1985. Kniss argues that two defining paradigms at the core of Mennonite culture-traditionalism and communalism-are themselves sometimes seriously at odds.-Fred Kniss, Disquiet in the Land: Cultural Conflict in American Mennonite Communities (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U. Press, 1997).
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[20]. In an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, October 15, 2001, Stanley Fish argues that it is overly simplistic to deny any ethical compass to postmodernism. He states, “Postmodernism maintains only that there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one. The only thing postmodern thought argues against is the hope of justifying our response to the attacks in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone, including our enemies. Invoking the abstract notions of justice and truth to support our cause wouldn’t be effective anyway because our adversaries lay claim to the same language. . . . At times like these, the nation rightly falls back on the record of aspiration and accomplishment that makes up our collective understanding of what we live for. That understanding is sufficient, and far from undermining its sufficiency, postmodern thought tells us that we have grounds enough for action and justified condemnation in the democratic ideals we embrace, without grasping for the empty rhetoric of universal absolutes to which all subscribe but which all define differently.”
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[21]. Luke 11:23. See a similar citation in Matthew 12:30.
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[22]. President George W. Bush, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People,” September 20, 2001, as cited in http://www.whitehouse.gov.
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[23]. See Regina M. Schwartz’s provocative discussion of plenitude and scarcity in the biblical tradition, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1997), x: “[the biblical] narratives have become the foundation of a prevailing understanding of ethnic, religious, and national identity as defined negatively, over against others. We are ‘us’ because we are not ‘them.’ Israel is not-Egypt.”
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Growing Up Mennonite in Lancaster County