Immigration Through the Lens of Anabaptist History

This piece was originally published in the AMIGOS Update for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada for May (see their archive for more info about AMIGOS).

“To authentically respond to immigration,” according to the recent MCC US Immigration Listening Report, “whites must start by seeing immigrants as ‘us’ instead of ‘them.’ White communities and churches who until now have taken little action on behalf of immigrants, must start viewing newcomers as esteemed members of God’s family — just as deserving of justice and love as church friends and immediate family members.”

How do those of us then, who fall into this category, work toward a change in perspective? Could it be that we Mennonites of European descent have forgotten our own history? Perhaps in comparing current themes — government guidelines for immigration, stereotypes faced by recent immigrants, and the role of economic instability in causing people to leave their homes — to our own immigrant histories, the categories of “us” and “them” may become much less distinct. Although the family stories of long-time immigrants are not identical to what is happening today, our history connects us in striking ways with the stories of recent immigrants.

Therefore, as we engage the narratives of our past, first we move to Switzerland in the seventeenth century where government officials did their best to suppress the Swiss Mennonites through heavy fines, land seizure, the threat of capital punishment, and deportations. John Roth notes in Letters of the Amish Division, how a few decades later some Mennonites “defied the mandates and threats of the Swiss government and secretly returned to Switzerland to rejoin their families or to claim their possessions.”

As the nineteenth century drew to a close Mennonites living in Russia were immigrating to the United States. Although, welcomed eagerly as industrious and honest farmers in rural Kansas, the Russian Mennonites were also stereotyped in different ways by their neighbors. In 1880, Scribner’s Monthly published an article on Kansas farming and included a section on the Mennonites in which they asserted that “for next, perhaps, to its unquestioning faith in baptism, the Mennonite heart hugs the watermelon above all things.”

In 1882 the Atchison Champion of Kansas noted of Mennonites that “the people were like their houses, useful but ugly.” Two decades later Atchison published another article, concluding that, “They must learn the lesson of citizenship in a free country, which will not tolerate the bartering of their choice at the ballot box, or abject obedience to petty local magnates; their religion must be softened; in a word they must learn to be Americans.”

Our last encounter takes us to the early twentieth century, to the Mennonites still living in Russia. After the Revolution of 1917, disease and famine plagued the Mennonites and by the early 1920’s it was clear that they would not recover the economic well-being they had known in more secure times. In Lost Fatherland, John Toews states, “Emigration was an elemental survival tactic which, though ultimately aimed at achieving freedom of thought and religion, had as its primary object the conservation of life.” He goes on to note, “most of the emigrants were fleeing from a land they felt had no future for them. The farms which had sustained them as a distinct minority for over a century were gone.”

For Mennonites of European descent, these are powerful stories of our immigrant history. We see our families facing the choice of entering a country illegally, the unfairness of stereotypes, and loss of economic stability. Through these glimpses into our history, may we be better informed of our own identity and increasingly empathetic in our response to those whose immigrant stories are more recent.

Comments (6)

  1. jurisnaturalist

    As believers, how can we even use the term immigrant? To do so recognizes a state’s authority to determine arbitrary borders enforced at the point of a gun. No. Boundary lines among individuals are legitimate, the result of mutual agreement about what is “mine” or “yours” delineated to reduce transactions costs and generate reasonable incentives structures. Boundaries between states are battle lines over competing claims to tax people, or conscript them for expansionist purposes.
    Migration is a natural phenomenon led by market processes. Why is it a crime for a worker to migrate from Mexico City to Omaha, but not for one to migrate from Buffalo to Raleigh? The entire issue is wrongfully framed by legitimizing the state’s claim to sovereignty.
    Nathanael Snow

  2. tomdunn

    Great post. This is just another point that shows how we as Christians should be completely apposed to any type of restrictive immigration laws. I remember Joe provided another perspective a while back.

    I would be interested in discussing what Nathanael mentioned. Over the last couple of year I have found myself leaning more towards a two kingdom theology as my cynicism of governments has grown. Isn’t it the role of any government to protect itself, provide for its people, etc. In so doing, said government/state is inherently going to contradict the message of Jesus. The state’s job is to look out for #1, the whole job of a follower of Jesus to love the Lord, and look out for others, forsaking yourself in the process.

    I went to Bluffton University where the tradition two kingdom theology was looked at as a “has been” and they taught that now everything, even state governments, are under the Lordship of Christ. I can’t argue with the idea, but in practice it seems pretty hopeless to me.

  3. Joanna

    Thanks Nathanael and Tom for your thoughts. You both raise important questions about how we approach and think about migration in light of the present situation in the United States (and around the world).

    I agree with you Nathanael that in many ways we have let the state define the way we talk about migration. I had not earlier thought about that fact, so your point is one I will continue to process. I wonder though, is the way we talk about this issue dependent on our audience? It seems like on YAR we could have a good discussion about the state’s role in defining the debate, yet if we were presenting this to a more rural Mennonite congregation, would they be able to latch on? In those situations it seems important to decide what message we’re trying to communicate. Are we encouraging/challenging them to be more open to recent “immigrants” in their community or are we trying to explain how the church has allowed the government to dictate how the issue is framed? Perhaps it is possible to have both discussions, but in most cases it seems like a little much (especially if the issue hasn’t been discussed in the past). I acknowledge that I could be taking the easy way out here, so please correct me if this approach seems too cautious.

    Tom, thanks for bringing up the two-kingdom/Lordship of Christ divide. I grew up with two-kingdom theology and more recently have been trying to wrap my mind around the Lordship of Christ understanding. I would be interested to hear more about how you’ve grappled with these theologies since you and I have moved in opposite directions. But, more importantly, how would you see the two different theologies informing a response to migration? Would the approach differ based on one or the other?

  4. tomdunn

    My grappling with the above theologies has happened as I have received doses of reality. As I have thought about what it means to be a Christian, as I have concentrated on how Jesus lived and what he taught, it has slowly dawned on me that it is impossible to have, and there never will be a government that even comes close to taking the words and actions of Jesus seriously. In a word, I have given up on governments. As I mentioned earlier, and as Nathaneal talked about, governments look out for themselves at the expense of others. Christ (and therefore all followers of Christ should) looked out for others at the expense of himself/themselves. A government that does this will not exist for very long.

    You asked how this way of thought informs a response to immigration. Mostly, it just lowers my expectation of the government, but it doesn’t really change how I live. I still try to build bridges towards the immigrant community, and do what I can to make them feel at home here. I get really pissed off when I hear people talk about “building up the wall,” or other things to cleanse America of people that have been labeled illegal, but after I take a couple of deeps breaths I think, “Well, that is a normal response for a government/people that is not seeking to follow Christ….they’re just looking out for their own best interest.” Although I think this is shameful, I think it is reality, and this reality informs my theology.

  5. Skylark

    Nathanael is asking questions that threaten the structure of politics, our assumptions about how the world must be set up. Of course that’s going to be too much for a lot of people. Maybe we can nudge people into that direction through discussing how to welcome newcomers to the regions in which we live.

    It struck me in a different way, this week, as this evening I’m moving my furniture into a new apartment in a town I’ve never lived in before. I just got back from five months in Bolivia (and two weeks in Guatemala). Although I’m jobless, few potential landlords doubted I will find a job that can support me. My educational and work history, combined with my familiarity with the area, probably give this impression. I can count on my ethnicity and national background not to count against me here. If I were moving from a country outside the US and/or had a darker-complected appearance… who knows if anyone would have been willing to rent to a person who is currently unemployed?

    Taking deep breaths helps me, too, Tom. It’s easy for me to get agitated when discussing this issue. I have to remind myself that biting anyone’s head off won’t change minds or lower defenses.

  6. JennaBoettger

    In Shane Claibornes book Jesus For President he talks about the idea that as Christians we should be a part of the political system, but spend less time trying to change the system and more time trying to be our own system. He points out that Jesus wasn’t trying to change the Roman empire but rather to form a new society within it that functioned by a different set of rules and social norms open to all who wanted to join.
    If you look at it from that perspective it’s easier to understand and respect that the government has to do things (sometimes bad things) because they fit it’s agenda, while we as Christians do what we know to be right even if it breaks the law and gets us in trouble.

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