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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