Mennonite Church (global?) identity

(This was originally written as a response to Eric’s article on “Calling the church to go pee pee,” but I decided that I don’t really want to be associated with Eric, and my post brings up some new issues. So I deserve my own [first ever] post. And since it’s my first post, I apologize if this topic has already been discussed enough. I haven’t been keeping up with all the posts over the past months.)

Good thoughts, bro. Like you, I wonder about the drive to look back to the “original” Anabaptists as a model for our developing church identity. A few weeks ago, Brian McLaren came to Goshen College and hosted a meal for a select group of AMBS and GC students interested in the future of the Mennonite Church. The discussion quickly turned to the developing identity of the Mennonite Church, and the growing feeling among young people that there’s a lack of intentionality about the formation of that identity. Not surprisingly, pacifism was the first thing mentioned as the central point of Anabaptist/Mennonite identity, and Brian encouraged us to emphasize that aspect in the future. There was a clear sense that what the Mennonite Church really needs is to return to the perfect example of the 16th century Anabaptists.

Let’s not be nostalgiac about the early Anabaptists. They certainly had a lot of things going for them, but we’re a different Church today. Pacifism was not the central belief that held the Anabaptists together. In fact–despite the narcissistic attempts of H.S. Bender and John Horsch to convince people otherwise–not all of the early Anabaptists were even nonviolent. I’m not trying to dwell on the tiring debate over the Münster Rebellion and definitions of Anabaptism, but I think it’s time that Mennonites admit that we don’t actually want to immitate traditional Anabaptists. Don’t get me wrong–as a history major, I have to care about the past. I’m deeply attached to the Anabaptist tradition, and I highly value my Mennonite heritage. Part of valuing history, however, is being willing to recognize events and ideas that aren’t worthy of being repeated.

I agree that pacifism should be a central theme of the emerging Mennonite identity, and that our modern nonviolence owes much to the teachings of a specific group of the early Anabaptists. But let’s claim that pacifism for the future church without rewriting it into our history–let’s recognize it as something that the modern church needs to emphasize, but not something passed down to us from God through our saintly friends in Zürich. This gives us the theological freedom to grow beyond our origins and to develop theology that’s relevant today.

Enough ranting about the 16th century. On a similar note, I wonder what defines “Mennonite” today in the global community. What balance are we looking for between a common identity and diversity within the church? This past April I visited a church in South Africa that’s a member of Mennonite World Conference. It’s counted as a Mennonite church by MWC, but they know hardly anything about Mennonites, and they don’t call themselves Mennonite. Nothing about the church struck me as particularly Mennonite in any way. Is that okay? Does that betray my Western (racist?) ideas of who Mennonites are? Is the global Mennonite Church simply a place for intercultural conversation, or does it represent a common vision or common beliefs? I’m very committed to the North American Mennonite Church, but am I committed to the global Mennonite Church? I don’t see why I should push my Western white theology on them, but that’s what my Mennonite identity is based upon: European and North American white people.

More questions than answers, but that’s how I escape from the confines of daily academic writing, when I have to pretend to know stuff.

Oh, and since this is my first post: I’m a 3rd year History and Bible/Religion double-major at Goshen College. Eric is my big brother. I’m Jonny Meyer, but when I write about the Church I go by J. Alan Meyer because it’s more pretentious. Plus, who can argue with the tradition of J’s? J. Lawrence Burkholder, J. Denny Weaver, J.R. Burkholder, J. Daryl Byler, J. Howard Yoder (okay, maybe a stretch), etc. I care about the Mennonite Church–as defined by me–and I like watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Comments (3)

  1. jdaniel

    J. Alan,

    Congrats on the first post. I agree; It’s hard to argue with the J. My dad’s second cousin (I think) is also J. Daniel Hess and was a professor at Goshen College and a writer. I’m not sure why the first initial makes any difference, but aside from being a pain in the neck for standardized tests, it has served me well so far. Hopefully my second cousin once-removed doesn’t mind sharing (Does knowing what one of those is have something to do with my Mennonite culture?).

    Anyway, I thought it was interesting that you mentioned the concept of pacifism being “passed down to us from God through our saintly friends in Z\rich.Non-resistance is the (historical) term for this that I am familiar with. It was a pretty big deal in the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite Church (and presumably elsewhere), keeping Mennonites out of politics and the practice of law and earning Anabaptists the reputation of being “the quiet in the land”. But non-resistance in its most literal interpretation (more passivist than pacifist) is clearly not what Anabaptist affiliated organizations like CPT and arguably MCC are about today.

    I know a number of Mennonites, influenced by the writings of Walter Wink (among others), who would view Jesus’ life and teachings as a call to active non-violent resistance (with the kicker: Love for Enemies!) rather than simply a passive non-resistance.

    The heritage forged by earlier Anabaptists may make our approach to certain issues (like non-violence) a bit easier, but you’re right, in many ways we probably don’t want to “immitate traditional Anabaptists“; we want & need to be relevant today, just like Jesus was (and is).

  2. eric

    welcome to YAR little meyer (my counter to the ‘j’ prestige (i’m jealous)). I like your question of global mennonite-ism. sure, there’s no reason to push western ideals onto another culture, but take that one step farther back: why even call it mennonite?

    could we just admit that our ‘mennonite ideals’ (as though they actually exist in a concrete way (it’s so hard to be a non-creedal church, isn’t it?)) DO come out of western tradition. Why should we even claim to (or try to) be global in that sense?

    questions are so much more fun than answers. that’s why i dropped history and went with theatre… i don’t have to pretend i know anything.

  3. Anne Meyer Byler

    In terms of “what makes a global Mennonite,” you could refer to the 7 “Shared Convictions” coming out of Mennonite World Conference: A Community of Anabaptist-related Churches, adopted after years of global discernment in March of 2006. ( ) I’m sure you could pick holes in it, find Mennonites who aren’t living that way, or don’t believe it, but that’s the messiness of a church that isn’t obsessed with purity….

    In terms of individualism, it seems the best way to counter that would be along the lines of #6–gathering regularly for worship…that is of God. It may depend on where you start, but if you believe that there is a God who does care intimately for his/her children, and is somehow at work in them–and best when they are listening–together– to various revelations over history, then the broken/transforming church makes sense, locally and globally I’d say. (I’m not sure yet about that kind of community being electronic–I kind of doubt it, but that could just be the sign that I am an OAR “old Anabaptist radical” and not a YAR…)

    I’d say “Mennonite” is just one facet of the church universal, and if I were born into a Buddhist family, I’d likely be a conscientious Buddhist, but might as well bloom where you’re planted, or else migrate and bloom somewhere else, or else graft and create something new, I suppose, which also happens all the time in church history…. Anne

Comments are closed.