Ethnic or faith heritage?

Canadian declaration a chance to share our story

Jun 24, 2019 by

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It’s innocently called shorthand. The word “Mennonite” can be used to describe a theology, or an ethnicity, or both. Each is valid in its own way. But painful damage is done when we disregard a faith decision and focus instead on family trees.

Canada’s recent declaration of an annual week in September as Mennonite Heritage Week was meant to be a celebration, but reactions reveal there is no such thing as a win-win in politics, even in Canada. One critique suggests “Mennonite heritage” focuses too narrowly on people with Germanic roots. Does a celebration of “heritage” leave out Mennonites from a host of ethnic backgrounds who have chosen believers baptism but lack Mennonite ancestors?

In debate comments Feb. 27 in the House of Commons, Conservative Member of Parliament Ed Fast introduced the declaration. He spoke at length about Anabaptist history in Europe and the migration path of many Mennonites to Russia and then to Canada. It did not help that he mentioned Jonathan Toews among a list of “Mennonite” hockey players. The star of the Chicago Blackhawks has relatives in Mennonite churches but lacks Mennonite church membership. A certain last name does not a Mennonite make.

But Fast does deserve credit for noticing Mennonite diversity. “The Mennonite community is incredibly diverse,” he said at the time, “and has invested heavily in building a community that is tolerant and prosperous, where we care for one another and are generous with each other.”

Rather than throwing up their hands in despair about further blurring of the ethnicity/theology identity line, Canadian Mennonites should take advantage of free national advertising to tell the story of who Mennonites are and what we believe today.

Richard Thiessen, executive director of the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Abbotsford, B.C., acknowledges many Mennonites define their identity in ethnic terms but believes historical societies and museums can expand people’s idea of what it means to be Mennonite. At his facility, visitors are greeted first by Mennonite World Conference’s membership map.

“It’s pretty obvious that Africa has the most Anabaptists, and we try to highlight that as people walk in, that this isn’t just a movement of people whose parents grew up in Russia and spoke German,” he told MWR. “. . . I enjoy living with that tension.”

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