Transnational Mennonite Studies Conference on Anthropology

Nov 13, 2019 by

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“My personal experience after almost 50 years of researching and writing about Mennonites is that Mennonites have been active participants in the world and as such they have contributed to change and not just been victims of change.”

This comment by James Urry of Wellington, New Zealand, in his keynote address on Oct. 25 may well summarize the theme of the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies conference, “Mennonites and Anthropology: Ethnography, Religion and Global Entanglements.”

The Oct. 25-26 event was sponsored by the University of Winnipeg, the D. F. Plett Historical Research Foundation and the University of Victoria at Wellington, New Zealand. Spread over ten sessions and featuring 30 speakers from New Zealand, the Netherlands, England, Albania, Switzerland, Paraguay, Japan, the United States and Canada, the gathering in Winnipeg constituted the first international conference on Mennonite anthropology in the world, according to organizer Royden Loewen.

Presenters unpacked the “global entanglements” that have characterized Mennonite presence in various parts of the world, particularly in frontier areas or in new initiatives. Although the focus of the conference was anthropology, presentations examined what it means to be Mennonite from different perspectives:

— from the relationship between indigenous people in the Paraguayan Chaco and Mennonites to the creation of fair-trade outlets by Ten Thousand Villages;

— from 1890s Mennonite evangelism among the Cheyenne to 1960s evangelism/church planting in French-speaking Quebec;

— from fieldwork in oral history among the Campos Mennonites and indigenous people of Mexico to an examination of luxury in Paraguayan Mennonite colonies;

— from a treatise on how Mennonite church rituals serve as a mechanism to maintain connection when on the move from country to country to a report on interviews with participants in the Steinbach Pride march;

— from a discussion of the collection of indigenous artifacts by H. R. Voth as missionary among the Hopi to an analysis of a Mennonite skeleton accidentally unearthed near Kleefeld in 1995;

— from the story of Mennonite resistance to government-mandated digital chips on cattle in Belize to a MEDA-initiated charcoal project among the Ayoreos in the Chaco so successful that it defeated its own gameplan.

A sampling of notable comments, in no particular order, may provide an idea of how complicated the topic is:

— one group of Mennonites should not claim ownership of Mennonitism;

— the ability of Anabaptists to opt out of the dominant narrative is really a part of “white privilege” and may therefore not be effective in carrying out social justice;

— there is no pure Gospel (without cultural context);

— Ten Thousand Villages is a strictly secular business where compromises are made;

— the majority of indigenous workers in the Chaco are temporary workers, many allowed to live and hunt on what was their ancestral land in return for clearing the bush, but never able to rise out of accumulated debt bondage;

— will I (as a convert to Mennonite faith) ever be Mennonite enough?

— in Paraguay the life of Mennonite simplicity is gone in favor of a prosperity gospel mentality;

— to “Christianize and Civilize the Heathen” (was the evangelical mandate of the first Mennonite missionaries to the Cheyenne in the 19th century), and to “teach work” (was the main cultural mandate);

— why does Mennonite faith result in inequality in social and economic life in the Chaco?

— What is a truly autonomous church (in a mission setting)?

— how are Biblical stories told to other cultures?

— what does non-violence look like in prison?

— missionizing also transforms the sending church — missions modernized/liberalized Mennonites, not the reverse.

Although these comments have been reconstructed from hasty notes, they provide insight into the spectrum of ideas that surfaced during the conference. It became clear that the contributions Mennonites have made to change in the larger world are indeed complicated, as indicated by the conference sub-heading, “Ethnography, Religion and Global Entanglements,” and not all have been positive.

A theme familiar to Mennonites surfaced as well: how to describe the various types of Mennonites, those of ethnic North European background (with their own diversity), as well as those who have “become” Mennonite in a larger global context.

Selected papers from the conference will be published in the 2020 Journal of Mennonite Studies.

This post originally appeared in Heritage Postings, the newsletter of the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society.

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