The Pros and Cons of Ethnic Mennonites

This originally appeared on my own blog Abnormal Anabaptist. Tim has posted his article here so I thought it would be a good idea to put like with like.

Fellow MennoNerd Chris Lenshyn posted this morning an article presenting the tension that exists between those of us who are ethnic Mennonites (like me) and those of us who have found their way into the Mennonite denomination from other traditions (through various methods and such).  Let me quote a little bit of what Chris shared (the full article can be found here):

Today, as people continue to wonder and explore Mennonite Anabaptist faith, ethnicity as part of a rich, earthed history, is both gift and burden.

Mennonite Anabaptist practice which facilitates a deep radical’ism’ tends to come face to face with the ‘way things have been done before’ of ethnicity.  It appears that to be an ‘ethnonite’ is to carry an unrelenting commitment to a past that is not informing the present.  Rather it is a past that is losing it’s grip on the present by carrying on with what Van Steenwyk calls, ‘cultural hang-ups.’

It’s tragic really, to think that in some circles, to not be Mennonite by ethnicity is to not be slighted in community.

Chris goes on to ask a few questions:

Where do you see the implications of this dynamic of “Mennonite or Ethnonite?”  How can the joys and baggage of the past inform the practice of Mennonite Anabaptist faith today?  How can newness, or new people rejuvenate current Anabaptist Mennonite praxis?

I originally wrote a long response as a comment on his blog but I thought it would be better to let the comment space be available to a lot more folks without being intimidated by a long comment and to offer my reply via blog.

First of all, the “ethnicity” of being Mennonite within a congregation has a serious danger of creating cliques of those who are “in” and those who are “out”. I’ve seen it happen. People who are not ethnically Mennonite but have found something good within a Mennonite congregation end up, for the most part, on the outside looking in. They are accepted warmly, invited in, but those close ties and connections don’t happen easily because you cannot play the “Mennonite Game” of family connections and such and historical rootedness. Especially in congregations of a long history with very strong family roots, non-ethnic Mennonites have a hard time breaking through that wall. You end up with a divided congregation with two groups that are at odds when it comes to preserving historical traditions and breaking out in new ways. At worst, you end up with a congregation where those who are not “ethnic” slowly fade and peel off the outside. They never get the roots and so end up moving on to someplace where they can find that community they desire.  This is the obvious “con” of the ethnic Mennonite church.

However, there are some historically ethnic Mennonite congregations that some how have broken free of this trap. I’m not entirely sure how it happens, but they end up being able to enjoy and celebrate the stories of the past while still allowing God to bring in “new blood” and new people. Perhaps it is a matter of the general honesty of recognizing that there are important things to hold on to (radical discipleship, service to others, living a Jesus centered gospel, etc.) and things that are just temporary (family ties, worship styles, German/Russian/Swiss culture, etc). It is, I guess, a bit of wisdom that permeates where people are honest about their ethnicity and realize that it is just another culture like someone from Puerto Rico or someone from Korea. We have a Mennonite Culture that can blend with puertorriqueño culture and with Korean culture.

What we need are stories from all the cultures. Chris asks about blending… we need people who can tell the Mennonite ethnic stories in ways that don’t come across as “this is the way things are and that is the end” but more on the lines of telling the stories as just threads in the larger tapestry. There needs to be a hospitality where people from other cultures can weave their own threads of their cultures into the tapestry of Anabaptism and Mennonite churches to be able to reveal how those streams of Christian theology inform and inspire people of other cultures. Swiss/German or Russian Mennonites are only one little piece of the larger picture. If we who are ethnic Mennonites (of which I am one) can set aside our cultural pride, can wash the feet of those who come from other cultures, can even sacrifice our own culture to allow someone else space, then I think we can see how those “new” people can add to our communal experience of Christ.  This is the pro.  That we bring into the tapestry a thread of history that becomes part of the larger whole but where we, because of the Anabaptist conviction of sacrificial service, give up our place of “status” to allow others to grow.

How would you answer Chris’ questions?  How can that ethnic culture benefit a congregation and how can it create problems?

Along with Chris, I’d encourage you to read the original article that started this all by Tim Nafziger over at The Mennonite, Revisiting Anabaptist Camp Followers.

Comments (2)

  1. Philipp

    Correct me if I read carelessly, but: I don’t see any pros listed in what you wrote. I only see 1) cons and 2) breaking free from those cons and recognizing that you’re only part of a whole.

    Which is fine. But also unsurprising.

    So – are there actually benefits that come with tribalism? As a non ethnic Mennonite, I’d say yes, sure. You?

  2. Robert Martin (Post author)

    Actually, Philipp, what I was trying to imply is that the ethnica mennonite, by breaking free of the con, actually have a pro of adding a unique flavor to the whole. There is an advantage to that tribal history. It informs and enhances the experience. As others come into the Menno tribe from outside, some have expressed a sense of a lack of such rootedness. This is what an ethnic Menno can add… they can adopt such people in a welcome, hospitable way and accept them, whole-heartedly, into that history with no strings attached.

    This is a serious challenge, though, as it is VERY easy for such an ethnic Menno to exhibit a “superiority” because of their rootedness. But if done properly (and I’ve seen it done properly), it becomes a grafting on, much like the Gentiles were grafted into the church in Paul’s era. They gained the history of Judaism without having to be Jews and could feel like they were a central, core part of things.

    Does that help?


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