Dearth of mirth

Jesting no longer the sin it used to be

Mar 2, 2015 by

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Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Protestants don’t recognize the pope as the head of the church. And Mennonites don’t recognize each other in the liquor store.


Historically, Mennonites have been known more for stoic sternness than a sense of humor. Filmmaker Orlando Braun is working to change that with a “docu-comedy” coming this summer called That Mennonite Joke, which investigates the roots of humor in Low German Mennonite culture.

Humor is a complex and tricky phenomenon. In her 1989 survey of humor in the Mennonite Encyclopedia, Katie Funk Wiebe writes that seriousness was long a biblical virtue in many Mennonite circles. Eph. 5:4 was the basis for avoiding obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking. Matt. 5:34-37 implored Christians to speak only the truth and avoid tall tales and other frivolities.

John Holdeman, founder of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, wrote that “All . . . jesting and joking . . . are works of the flesh, and if we live therein we lack of that holiness which is taught in the Scriptures.”

In 1908, Daniel Kauffman of the (Old) Mennonite Church interpreted Eph. 5:4 to rule out “church entertainments, banquetings, revelings, foolish talking and jesting.”

In 1900, the Mennonite Brethren at their General Conference sessions asked members to “desist from jesting and joking, whether verbal or in writing.”

The Kleine Gemeinde (little church) — now known as the Evangelical Mennonite Conference — taught children “to take life seriously and, therefore, laughing and joking was frowned on.” Kleine Gemeinde founder Klaas Reimer — my great-great-great-great-grandfather — was a man with a mixed legacy. Earlier scholars characterized him as narrow, uneducated and ultraconservative. More recent scholars have given him a softer edge, painting not a fanatical legalist but a farsighted leader envisioning a “pure” Anabaptist church.

Ridicule from more mainstream groups — be they other Anabaptist streams or wider society — likely strengthened all of these groups in their principles. While some especially conservative bodies continue to warn against excessive mirth, Mennonites of all stripes today appear to cultivate a more jovial outlook than they did a century or more ago.

“I could do an entire hour of making fun of Mennonites, and they’d eat it up,” says comedian Matt Falk, host and subject of That Mennonite Joke. “They can most certainly laugh at themselves, if they know they aren’t being attacked.”

Even people of peace don’t have to pull their punch lines all the time.

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