Our troubling Mennonite inferiority complex

Nov 16, 2018 by

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“Many American Christians simply assume that the state has no business dictating church beliefs or practices, that a church should be a gathered body of believers rather than a net that that scoops up everyone within the area of a parish, and that baptism is a step of obedience upon profession of faith. What most do not know is that Mennonites were the first (surviving) group of Christians to insist on these things, and that they died by the thousands for doing so.”
— “You May Be More Mennonite Than You Think” (Christian History & Biography, Fall 2004)

I’m all for practicing the kind of “demuth” (DAY-moot, the German word for humility) most of us Amish and Mennonites have had drilled into us from birth, but it saddens me to see more and more of my fellow Anabaptists becoming apologetic about their identity. Many congregations are dropping the Mennonite label from their church name, or are leaving the denomination in favor of becoming a part other more generic or widely accepted brands of Christianity.

I understand that, and Menno Simons himself, an early leader (though not a founder), of the movement would have never chosen to have this or any group named after him. The Doopsgezinde (baptism-minded) faith communities in Holland and Friesland, where Menno had considerable influence, simply became nicknamed Mennonists because of his prominence, and the name was eventually adopted by the Swiss Brethren and others who represented the third wing of the Reformation, “free churches” that were under the rule of neither Protestant- nor Catholic-controlled jurisdictions.

Perhaps their most priceless legacy, one we now take for granted, is their belief in freedom of religion. Anabaptists (re-baptizers, or adult baptizers) stood for the right of every person to make a personal choice as to how, or whether, to define and to live out his or her faith, independent of the dictates of the state. In 16th century Europe, infant baptism was not only a seal of membership into the state-run church of one’s birthplace, but it was the official registration necessary for having full rights as a citizen.

A second legacy, and one that hasn’t yet caught on like the first (though in God’s plan it eventually will), is that of a people who take Jesus’s way of nonviolence seriously, even to the point of refusing to fight in the wars of whatever nation in which they live. Unfortunately, not all Mennonites around the world have always been consistent with this, but at the heart of their movement is the conviction that Jesus came to usher in a rule (kingdom) of radical cross-bearing love for all, even our enemies. Never in history has this conviction been so needed as today, and Jesus and all of the prophets see this as the forever future of all God’s people of faith and good will.

A third legacy is the conviction that believers are to be a part of simple, self-governed communities of faith that don’t need elaborate buildings, professional clergy or complex liturgies, but that the church is wherever people gather together to support and care for one another and nurture each other in their faith.

Again, this may no longer represent all Mennonite-related groups, but at their core is a commitment to a daily life of service to others that reflects the spirit, not merely of Menno, but of Jesus himself, whose radical life and teachings are seen as needing to be taken seriously.

Add to all of this the legacy of a rich history of martyr stories chronicled in the Martyrs Mirror. Here are over 1,000 pages of heroic tales of men and women of unimaginable courage and conviction who were tortured and cruelly killed for their faith at the hands of both Protestant and Catholic state church persecutors. And there is the Ausbund, the oldest Christian hymnal in continual use, still cherished by many Old Order Amish groups today, that contain many accounts of these martyrs.

Then there is the largely overlooked 1,000-page Complete Writings of Menno Simons, which represents inspirational teaching on a Christ-centered faith that was, and still is, well ahead of its time, and is free of some of the anti-Semitism and calls for violence against people of differing beliefs that was characteristic of the writings of many of his fellow Protestant reformers.

With all due Mennonite humility, one could also cite the contributions to mental health reform brought about in part by conscientious objectors during World War II who served in terrible state-run psychiatric institutions, and who helped establish ten different mental hospitals and treatment centers in the United States in the second half of the last century. And Mennonite Central Committee, a worldwide relief and service agency, has had a worldwide impact disproportionate to the size of its supporting constituency, and its PAX program (volunteers serving abroad) became a model for President Kennedy’s Peace Corps.

One could also mention the good work of Mennonite Disaster Service, and the promotion of worldwide restorative justice programs spearheaded by people like Howard Zehr and kept alive by Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Then there is the invaluable witness of Christian Aid Ministries, a relief and service ministry of more conservative Anabaptists that now rivals Mennonite Central Committee in its worldwide outreach and in the size of its annual budget. And we can’t overlook the quiet but compelling witness of the Amish, one of the fastest-growing groups of Christian believers in the U.S., and its powerful testimony of peace and grace demonstrated in the Nickel Mines School shooting in 2006.

In the area of world missions, Mennonite church plants in Africa and in the Far East have grown exponentially, with far more Mennonites in other parts of the world than here in North America.

Should any of this result in a spirit of pride on the part of this small part of God’s worldwide church family?

Of course not, but let’s get over our unhealthy inferiority complex. And maybe thank God for whatever kingdom impact God has made through a minority family of faith that has a history of some bold ideas that are ahead of their time.

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation, and blogs at harvyoder.blogspot.com.

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