‘Mennonite’ isn’t the problem

Apr 26, 2019 by

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I could not disagree more strongly with Ryan Ahl­grim’s suggestion that the name “Mennonite” be thrown on the trash heap of history (Blog, “It’s time to change the Mennonite name”).

I believe the fact that “Mennonite” is not well-known is a strong point in its favor. In my experience, folks want me to explain why I am not driving a buggy or wearing a beard with no mustache — and in the process I can explain our the­ology as well.

I have never had anyone run away screaming in fear upon learning I am a Mennonite. In fact, almost all express curiosity about what a Mennonite is and believes.

I am a member of Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Ariz., part of the Phoenix metropolitan area, the fifth-largest city in the United States. A growing proportion of Trinity’s community does not come from traditional ethnic Mennonite backgrounds. The fact that “Mennonite” is part of our name has not gotten in the way at all. The name has no negative connotations. Any lack of appeal to outsiders is due only to hiding our light under a bushel.

The fact that “Mennonite” was a label given to our ancestors by their opponents is another positive. The denomination has survived for 500 years despite persecution. Its continued use demonstrates “we will not be shaken.”

I believe many congregations that delete “Mennonite” from their name do so because they disagree with the positions of Mennonite Church USA and are ashamed to be associated with that denomination.

They are free to take that position, but I agree with Ahlgrim that when we do not use the name of our denomination we become distanced from it and tend to lose its distinctive theology.

The answer is not to change the name but to emphasize its positive and distinctive aspects: the unifying theology of its peace witness, believers baptism and its full allegiance to Jesus.

We need to be reminded of our peace witness, but “Peace” is not a good denominational name. It is too generic. More important, we have fallen woefully short of our calling to witness for peace.

Our witness against the U.S. war in Afghan­istan, the conflict in Ukraine, the U.S.-sponsored war in Yemen, the U.S. bombing of Syria and the Israel/Palestinian conflict has been silent. One way to get our Mennonite name out from under a bushel would be to speak truth to power against the wars our government supports.

I suppose “Peace Churches” would cause folks to think we believe in peace, but we would have as much explaining to do as we currently do with “Mennonite.”

For those who feel called to  remove “Mennonite,” it would be simpler to continue the practice of leaving it out of congregational names — as many in my conference, Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference of MC USA, do — rather than renaming the denomination.

Ahlgrim acknowledges that deleting “Mennonite” would distance us from our 500-year history, which I believe would be a tragedy.

If we have become “a cultural artifact,” as Ahlgrim suggests, it is not because of our name.

Kurt Goering attends Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Ariz.

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