Opinion: Starting at the end

Those who discovered Mennonites backwards see things differently

Jun 5, 2017 by

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The video begins with a map of Western Europe, a dot hovering over Zurich. The scene shifts as a voice with a Pennsylvania Dutch lilt describes the baptism of Felix Manz in 1521. Woodcut pictures cross the screen in this video produced by Lancaster Conference on the origins of Anabaptism.

The scene switches and the map returns as arrows emerge from the dot stretching to other parts of Europe, then around the world. This is the single-origin story of the Mennonites — one defining moment that brought our church into being.

Imagine this is not the story you learned of Anabaptism’s emergence. Imagine, instead, that you discovered Anabaptism as a movement of multiple origins, intersecting and diverging. Imagine you read 20th-century leader Guy Hershberger second and contemporary voices Felipe Hinojosa, Malinda Berry and Chris Huebner first. Imagine you know Harold S. Bender, the father of Mennonite studies, through the lens of the poet Julia Kasdorf. Imagine you assumed Mennonite heritage sites included Nigeria, Philadelphia and South Texas as much as Russia and Germany. Imagine you have always thought of John Howard Yoder as both a sexual predator and a theologian.

Imagine no one in your family was ever ordered by a Virginia Conference bishop to cease purchasing life insurance. Or that no woman in your family had to decide to stop wearing a prayer covering or an extra flap of cloth over her chest. Or that there was never a time in your experience when women were not preaching or ordained as pastors. Imagine you have lived your entire adult life with a conglomeration of “old” Mennonite and General Conference Mennonite polities trying to make sense together.

More people like me are being drawn to Anabaptism — people who come to Mennonite churches from other traditions. In time, this is the story that will become typical among us.

We’re learning that Mennonite Confessions of Faith were dynamic and porous and changed over time. We’re learning that the origins of Anabaptism were messy and disputed. We’re learning that the attempts to fix this messiness, and to make it conform to Protestant denominational norms, cemented beliefs and practices in ways that may be antithetical to our identity.

Not Mennonite enough?

It’s not uncommon for people like me to hear in the subtext of traditional ethnic Mennonite dialogue that we are not Mennonite enough. That we do not understand the polity or the traditions. That we must learn how to be Mennonite as they are Mennonite.

I hear wistful sighs about the days when the church was made up of real Mennonites. The rest of us are interlopers.

That judgment is too easy. Claiming first-generation Mennonites don’t understand church polity is a cheap way to get out of the discomfort of an evolving tradition. Rather, what Mennonites are experiencing is a generation of pastors and church members learning to be Mennonite in a different way. Who have new texts before us. Who have learned history differently. Who have been exposed to an alternative set of Mennonite voices and traditions held up as authorities. This doesn’t mean that we are ignorant of the past but that we’ve encountered the past differently.

It’s easy to assume a pastor or a congregation simply needs more education before we are ready to claim them. The reality is that more and more younger Mennonites have identities like mine. More of us come from non-Mennonite seminaries. More of us trace our origins to Latin America and Africa. More of us assign a different value to authority and cohesiveness.

One way to greet this difference is to hunker down, to entrench the church in name games and genealogies. Or we can think of Mennonites like me as a sign that Anabaptism is doing what it has always done — rediscovering Scripture, looping back on Christian tradition, always reforming the thing we have assumed to be constant.

Maybe we’ll discover traditional ethnic Mennonites and newer Mennonites have gifts to share with one another. Maybe we’ll find new Mennonites help us draw near to the claim made by Manz, Janz, Denck and Mar­peck centuries ago: We are a church made by conversion, not constituted by birth.

Melissa Florer-Bixler is pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina.


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  • Kevin Miller

    These are powerful and beautiful lines:

    “We can think of Mennonites like me as a sign that Anabaptism is doing what it has always done — rediscovering Scripture, looping back on Christian tradition, always reforming the thing we have assumed to be constant. Maybe we’ll discover traditional ethnic Mennonites and newer Mennonites have gifts to share with one another. Maybe we’ll find new Mennonites help us draw near to the claim made by Manz, Janz, Denck and Mar­peck centuries ago: We are a church made by conversion, not constituted by birth.”

    They capture what I experience working with a small group of youth who are ethnically diverse and with some from traditional Swiss-German Mennonite backgrounds and others from Asian and African heritage whose parents have adopted Anabaptist Christianity. Your words are hopeful ones that chart a forward path for the Mennonite movement.

  • Evan Knappenberger

    Imagine that John Howard Yoder wasn’t actually a sexual predator, but a complicated human being like any other; imagine that there is more to the Mennonite story and identity than even the new generation of historians you have named have explicated. It seems that your version of Mennonism is just the latest in a long line of such, destined in a generation to be just as laughable as any other. Maybe in a hundred years people will talk about your values in an equally mocking tone?

    Evan Knappenberger

    • Dayna Olson-Getty

      Dear Evan,

      Can you help me understand how Melissa’s words come across as mocking? When I read her post, I hear a deeply committed Mennonite pastor asking to be taken as seriously and welcomed as fully as someone who can trace his family history in the Mennonite church back many generations. Given our Anabaptist theology of conversion and shared church leadership, that seems like a perfectly reasonable request.

      Being dismissed under the guise of lack of education or lack of experience, as Melissa describes, is a real problem that I have noticed and personally experienced as well. And the experience of coming to the Mennonite church through the contemporary lived community of the church is one I share as well.

      The first Mennonite congregation I joined was in Los Angeles, the first Mennonite assembly I ever attended was a meeting of the leaders of Mennonite World Conference, and my first teacher of Anabaptist polity was Juan Martinez, a Hispanic theologian who spent nearly a decade teaching at the Latin American Anabaptist Seminary in Guatemala – so like the new Mennonites that Melissa describes, I first learned about a Mennonite church that is global, that spans races and cultures, and that fully affirms women in ministry. It was nearly a decade before I personally experienced the Mennonite church that is rooted in Lancaster and Harrisonburg and Akron or that remains ambivalent about women in leadership.

      I continue to find myself surprised and deeply disheartened when others in church leadership seem to be unaware of or unresponsive to these realities.Those feelings only deepen when those of us who are newer Mennonites are not as welcomed or valued as those who have family connections and history in the church.

      And, can you help me understand why you chose to describe John Howard Yoder as ‘a complicated human being like any other’ rather than a sexual predator? As you may know, historian Rachel Waltner Goossen worked with primary sources and has extensively documented the fact that John Howard Yoder did engage in abusive behavior with more than 100 women (https://themennonite.org/feature/failure-bind-loose-responses-john-howard-yoders-sexual-abuse/), and that Mennonite church leaders did intentionally cover that abuse up rather than appropriately addressing it, despite multiple victims coming forward to report the abuse (https://themennonite.org/opinion/misconceptions-victim-blaming-yoder-coverage/).

      I am particularly troubled by reluctance to name John Howard Yoder’s behavior as abuse because there is no way that we as a church can adequately address and stop such behavior if we are not willing to first honestly name it for what it is – violent and abusive behavior. When we misname it as “an affair” or just the behavior of “a complicated human being,” we are engaging in deception that continues the pattern of covering up abuse (and sometimes even covering up the coverup, as has recently been the case in my own conference) that continues in the Mennonite church to this day.

      If you or someone you know are behaving in ways that are similar to John Howard Yoder’s behavior toward these women, please know that you are not just behaving as a complicated human being like any other, you are violently violating another human being. Anyone behaving in such a way urgently needs to seek help in ceasing the behavior.

      Blessings in Christ,

      Dayna Olson-Getty

    • Dayna Olson-Getty

      Dear Evan,

      Can you help me understand how Melissa’s words come across as mocking? When
      I read her post, I hear a deeply committed Mennonite pastor asking to be taken
      as seriously and welcomed as fully as someone who can trace his family history
      in the Mennonite church back many generations. Given our Anabaptist theology of adult
      conversion and shared church leadership, that seems like a perfectly reasonable
      request.

      Being dismissed under the guise of lack of education or lack of experience,
      as Melissa describes, is a real problem that I have noticed and personally
      experienced as well. And the experience of coming to the Mennonite church
      through the contemporary lived community of the church is one I share as well.

      The first Mennonite congregation I joined was in Los Angeles, the first
      Mennonite assembly I ever attended was a meeting of the leaders of Mennonite
      World Conference, and my first teacher of Anabaptist polity was Juan Martinez,
      a Hispanic theologian who spent nearly a decade teaching at the Latin American
      Anabaptist Seminary in Guatemala – so like the new Mennonites that Melissa
      describes, I first learned about a Mennonite church that is global, that spans
      races and cultures, and that fully affirms women in ministry. It was nearly a
      decade before I personally experienced the Mennonite church that is rooted in
      Lancaster and Harrisonburg and Akron, that sometimes conflates Swiss-German cultural norms with ecclesial commitments, or that remains ambivalent about women in
      leadership.

      I continue to find myself surprised and deeply disheartened when others in
      church leadership seem to be unaware of or unresponsive to these
      realities.Those feelings only deepen when those of us who are newer Mennonites
      are not as welcomed or valued as those who have family connections and history
      in the church.

      And, can you help me understand why you chose to describe John Howard Yoder
      as ‘a complicated human being like any other’ rather than a sexual predator? As
      you may know, historian Rachel Waltner Goossen worked with primary sources and
      has extensively documented the fact that John Howard Yoder did engage in
      abusive behavior with more than 100 women, and that Mennonite church leaders
      did intentionally cover that abuse up rather than appropriately addressing it,
      despite multiple victims coming forward to report the abuse.

      I am particularly troubled by reluctance to name John Howard Yoder’s
      behavior as abuse because there is no way that we as a church can adequately
      address and stop such behavior if we are not willing to first honestly name it
      for what it is – predatory and abusive behavior. When we misname it as “an
      affair” or just the behavior of “a complicated human being,” we
      are engaging in deception that continues the pattern of covering up abuse (and
      sometimes even covering up the cover-up, as has recently been the case in my
      own conference) that continues in the Mennonite church to this day.

      Anyone who is behaving in ways that are similar to John Howard Yoder’s
      behavior toward these women needs to know that he or she is not just behaving
      as a complicated human being like any other, but abusively violating another
      human being. Anyone behaving in such a way urgently needs to seek help in
      ceasing the behavior.

      Blessings in Christ,

      Dayna Olson-Getty

      • Evan Knappenberger

        Dear Dayna,

        Yes, I can help you. I am happy to talk in person if you like, as this is not the best forum for conversation.

        First of all, John Howard. I cannot hope to do justice to this issue here, so a brief outline. Rachel Goosen’s overhyped article is one-sided, dismissive of possible alternative explanations, and even verging on the hysterical. It is most defintely NOT dispassionate. There is a lot of conversation around this issue, and I have talked to several dozen people who knew John personally, who take issue with Rachel’s characterization of him as a predator. There are several problems with her chactature, the least of which is the reductionism going on with sexuality and theology; things get more interesting when comparisons start getting made with John and Marlin and the Roman Catholic abuse factory. Let’s not pretend that John was even close to the scale and scope of the archetypal priest who might abuse five hundred boys over thirty years before getting protected immunity from the Vatican.

        Context matters. The context of MCUSA is that we don’t ever talk about sin because it’s uncomfortable. Unless it’s sexual sin, then we go bananas over details and lose all perspective.

        I could go on at length here. Mostly what I take issue with is the use of monstrosity: I both abused and was abused in the military. I had people killed for no good reason in Iraq. Nobody in any church, Mennonite or otherwise, really wants to deal with that very real and very widespread problem, with me or with any veterans. Why? How is John Howard’s mostly consensual (only violent in the sense that it occasionally invoked gender disparities and hierarchical powers) behavior so bad that it outweighs the fact that I literally tortured people in Iraq, or that we systematically sexually abuse millions of American servicemen and women? Really, the underlying problem here is a culture of scapegoating which continues to claim careers and ruin legacies because of a sexual impurity fetish in the liberal Mennonite church.

        I met a sex offender in the Southeast Mennonite Church, and he was actually successfully rehabilitated in that community. The only sex offender I know that tried to go to church in VMC was run off by a mob of angry people calling themselves “advocates.”

        Second of all, you asked about the mocking tone. Did we read the same article? I was not raised Mennonite, I am not from a Mennonite family; I am not personally offended, but I find the tone offensive. The whole premise of this article was negative reaction to cultural Mennonism. I used to mock it too, until I started having relationships with Old Orders and conservatives who are literally my neighbors. I would never dismiss their values, e.g. the fact that they disallowed insurance in Virginia conference, to their face. It’s disingenuous to claim to be open to other cultures but to be dismissive of conservatism. This is the very point that keeps institutions like FOXnews in existence. It obviates the entire raison d’etre of pluralism.

        I am so tired of the people who pretend to stand up for justice devolving into ethical reductionism. It’s disheartening. I think I am among the last of the many many people who would agree with me on these issues to continue hanging around in Mennonite circles — everyone else abandoned that ship long ago, or will soon.

        v/r
        Evan

        • Brian Arbuckle

          Given that you are a complicated human being you are absolved of your acts of killing and torture.

          • Evan Knappenberger

            That’s exactly my point.

            evan knappenberger

          • Brian Arbuckle

            I’m being sarcastic here, by the way.

        • Brian Arbuckle

          “I had people killed for no good reason in Iraq.” How did you do this? How does an enlisted member of the Army, an intelligence analyst, “have people killed”. Furthermore you say, “I literally tortured people in Iraq”. Really!? You personally did this? As a 96b10. Wow!

          • Evan Knappenberger

            Yes, on both counts. First off, I worked as a targeting analyst for some time for 1/4ID, making targeting packets on HVI’s. I would often be called upon to justify special ops on suspect Iraqis. Also, I worked in the S2 of 1 STB and 1BCT Fusion; part of my duties at 1STB involved detainee ops… so yes. I’ve testified about it publically for ten years now.

            evan knappenberger

          • Brian Arbuckle

            You personally “had” people killed. You personally “tortured” people. And now you “were called upon to justify special ops”. What was your rank? What was your pay grade? What was your mos and special qualifiers? What was your pay grade upon discharge? I’m pretty skeptical, filled with doubt about your claims. “Testified”. Are you sure that’s the appropriate word? Where have you given this testimony? Was it under oath? Is it a matter of public record?

          • Evan Knappenberger

            Well, I testified to he UN Human Rights Commission for Iraq, as well as several other commissions at the UN. I testified at Winter Soldier Portland, as well as in the Washington Post, Sojourners, and many other respectable publications. I talk about it regularly in college classes in this area. It’s all very public.

            I don’t particularly appreciate your tone of skepticism, but I will answer your questions anyway. I did have people killed, both in my role at the battalion S2 and in the targeting section of the brigade S2. My very first day in Iraq there was torture of detainees.

            Were you ever in a war? Do you not understand the kind of things that happen in war?

            Evan Knappenberger

          • Brian Arbuckle

            You’re being very evasive. Why are you ignoring the majority of my specific questions? You are using language that indicates that you were the personal agent in “having” people killed. How did you do this? Did you give the order to have them killed? What means did you use to kill those whom you “had” killed? And those you tortured. Did you personally torture them or not? Or did you “have” it done. If you had it done by what means did you “have” it done. I don’t think you had anyone killed nor do I believe you tortured anyone. I don’t believe you had the requisite rank or position to “have” people killed. You didn’t, did you? So why are you choosing to use language that implies that you had such rank or authority or position to do this? What are you hoping to gain by the use of such language? Do you really expect me to believe that people were killed or tortured because Private Knappenberger (or specialsit or even sergeant) gave the order. Poppycock!!

            As for me, I have nearly 11 years of Army service. All of which, by the way was in the infantry…combat arms not combat support. None of the guys I served with would believe the tale you tell…not even the dead ones!

          • Evan Knappenberger

            Just because you spent 11 years hiking around in the woods and can’t imagine a soldier fighting in an actual war doesn’t mean I’m lying. If you want to read the story just google it, it’s all over the internet. I’m not gonna argue with you about the specifics of my service.

            My point was to do with Mennonites and John Howard Yoder, which I’m guessing you’d probably agree with.

            Evan Knappenberger

          • Rachel Stella

            This discussion has run its course and gone off topic. Comments in this particular thread are now closed.
            — Rachel Stella, web editor

        • Dayna Olson-Getty

          Dear Evan,

          I did not read Melissa’s words as mocking, only as noting very real and important historical and cultural differences that continue to shape leadership practices and polity in different ways. As I have come to know VMC from a within a community rooted in ethnic Mennonite history, I’ve seen those differences very clearly myself.

          For instance – Virginia Mennonite Conference and mission board executive committees instituted racial segregation in VMC congregations from
          August 1941 – July 1955. They ruled that communion, baptism, foot-washing, and the holy kiss could no longer be practiced in racially mixed (black and white) gatherings in VMC. One of the few integrated congregations in the conference at the time was located in the neighborhood where I now live. This decision came just months after the first black members officially joined that congregation. (This piece of Mennonite history is recorded in Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries by Tobin Miller Shearer.)

          When I moved into my neighborhood and began to get to know my neighbors, I was surprised at how warmly I was welcomed by African American neighbors when they learned that I am Mennonite. Many of them told me about attending VBS at the Mennonite church and credit that congregation with giving them their beginning in Christian faith. But none of them are Mennonite today. And I can’t help but conclude that that is at least partially due to this policy that, as far as I can tell, VMC leadership has never repented of, only repealed.

          Views about how marginal or central racial justice is to a life of Christian discipleship, the authority of conference leadership vs congregational authority, the value of ecclesial disobedience in the face of unconscionable decisions, and even whether it’s safe to drive through my neighborhood (it is) are all shaped by this history.

          Similarly, musical instruments were banned by the VMC bishops from 1927 – 1947. I recently heard an account of this from a member of my church whose grandfather was a VMC pastor during that period. Her mother loved to play the piano and the bishops’ decision meant that she was required to get rid of her piano. Instead, she hid it in the attic for 20 years. The whole family kept the secret in order to avoid her grandfather being punished by the bishops.

          These historical experiences do deeply impact the way those who lived them or whose family members lived them view current church leadership practices and polity. And those ways of seeing polity and church leadership
          practices are often very different from what I have experienced in congregations where most members have entered through different historical streams of the Mennonite church, for instance a stream which emphasizes congregational discernment over top down decision-making, that values honesty and dialogue over conformity, or one that has practiced interracial relationships as essential to Christian discipleship.

          In response to your dismissal of John Howard Yoder’s predatory behavior –
          there is ample documentation that his behavior was abusive, and a very strong consensus among historians and theologians that he frequently violated women in ways that exploited his power and status, as well as sometimes used physical coercion. Rachel Waltner Goossen writes, “Yoder’s advances included making suggestive comments, sending sexually explicit correspondence, and surprising women with physical coercion…Yoder’s activities ranged across a spectrum from sexual harassment in public places to,more rarely, sexual intercourse.”

          The best sources for understanding the lasting destructive impact of his
          behavior in the lives of many of these women are the narratives of the women themselves. Several are included in Ruth Krall’s book The Elephant in God’s Living Room (available online on her web site), on the Our Stories Untold blog, in Rachel Waltner Goossen’s article (available at bishop-accountability.org), and in a paper written by several Yoderian scholars (Scandalizing John Howard Yoder, by David Cramer, Jenny Howell, Jonathan Tran, and Paul Martens, available on theotherjournal.com)

          I’ve sometimes wondered if it would help those who are still unable to see Yoder’s behavior as abusive and predatory to imagine how their perspective might be different if the targets of Yoder’s sexual predation had
          been the men in his life. How would we see this history differently if Yoder’s male colleagues and students had been asked to submit to sexual harassment, fondling, sexual aggression, and verbal or written sexual violation in the course of seeking to study with, be mentored by, or collaborate with him?

          What if it had been Stanley Hauerwas, Glenn Stassen, Mark Thiessen Nation, Ted Grimsrud, and John Paul Lederach who had been forced to choose whether to tolerate Yoder’s sexual “experimentation” and its potentially devastating impacts on their bodies and lives, to report him to unresponsive church leaders, or to cut off contact altogether?

          I suspect that, in addition to the trauma endured by the women that John Howard Yoder targeted and the traumatic ripple effects in our church and institutions, we have another significant loss we haven’t yet accounted for – a whole generation of women theologians and church leaders who would not or could not accept these terms of engagement Let’s not lose another generation by denying that such behavior is indeed abuse.

          Blessings in Christ,

          Dayna Olson-Getty

  • Berry Friesen

    Between those who cherish tradition and those who deconstruct tradition, there is indeed a significant “difference,” even if all claim to be “Anabaptist.” So how do we bridge that difference?

    Florer-Bixler describes two possibilities (“One way to greet this difference is to hunker down, to entrench the church in name games and genealogies. Or we can think of Mennonites like me as a sign that Anabaptism is doing what it has always done — rediscovering Scripture, looping back on Christian tradition, always reforming the thing we have assumed to be constant”). The first is a strawman, a rhetorical device. The second privileges reform, change and what is new.

    Thanks be to God, there are other possibilities. We live in a culture that increasingly finds faith-based ritual and practice to be anachronisms. We need both those who cherish tradition and those who connect and translate that tradition into contemporary terms.

  • Rainer Moeller

    I don’t think that “natives” are generally traditionalists and “immigrants” antitraditionalists (modernists or back-to-the-roots “reformationists”).
    Werner Elert in his “Morphology of Lutheranism” observed that there’s a natural change within the “natives”: The founding generation is completely convinced of their ideas, the sons see themselves as bearers of a revered tradition, the grandsons feel themselves hampered and restricted by this tradition. In those cases an immigrant can play an important part – if he has left his native group out of dissatisfaction and has joined the new group just because their peculiarities suit him, he may help to defend these peculiar traditions against the disgust of the “grandsons”.
    On the whole I think that the Anabaptists have a lot of traditional peculiarities to be saved: withdrawal, economic independence, a cautious distance from market economy etc.

    • Matthew Froese

      I’m not sure which is more common, but it certainly does happen that the zealous convert is more driven to strict adherence to tradition than someone raised within the tradition as you are suggesting. Wasn’t that part of the Mennonite/Hutterite split?

      I certainly recognize what Melissa Florer-Bixler has found in my own experience as well. My first time at an area church conference the first questions I heard most often were about family connections rather than faith.

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