Friday, February 17, 2006

Why Mennonite?

Some people may be thinking: Dan, I knew you in [high school] [college] [just a few years ago], and you were vaguely [Catholic] [Agnostic] [Unitarian] [Quaker] at the time and not terribly pious. What’s with the whole Mennonite self-identification thing? Is this some kind of over-reaction to finally being able to grow some facial hair?

Sadly, no, I am still unable to properly grow facial hair. I think one of my ancestors must have some secrets about who, exactly, they procreated with.

But, yes, I do self-identify as a Mennonite these days. In fact, I would be a card-carrying Mennonite, if they issued cards. (This is actually a little joke about Mennonite registration. See Anabaptists, History Of, for why you should be rolling on the ground laughing hysterically right about now.)

Here’s how’s those pesky Mennonites got their claws into us: We wandered into a Mennonite church eight years ago just looking for the More With Less Cookbook, assuming that they would have some sort of money-changing table in the sanctuary where you could buy the book, and maybe also get some discounts on indulgences, since we heard that Mennonites were pretty cheap.

Instead, we were surprised to hear a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount. And, not just one, but a whole series of sermons over the next few months, focusing on how Christians should be servants to others and maintain an attitude of mutual respect and humility. I was so disappointed. I had all but given up on Christianity, due to its proclivity to turn its followers into self-indulged, judgmental hypocrites, and now I would have to re-examine this beloved stereotype.

With their toleration for my more inclusive world views, I’ve learned that there can be a voice within Christianity for service, simple living, peace and justice, and a witness against militarism and the “redemptive” violence that so permeates our culture today. Mennonites aren't the only denomination with these values, but they were at the right place at the right time for me. Plus, they don’t wear those “simple” (i.e. unattractive) clothes anymore, and they sure can cook and sing.

I’m obviously not an “ethnic” Mennonite. This merely means that I don’t have an Otto or Yoder as a relative, and when I meet other Mennonites, they usually don’t try to figure out if they are related to me. This is a good thing, since “Schreiber” is a tip off that my German ancestors probably oppressed their Anabaptist ancestors somewhere along the way, or at least transcribed the orders to do so.

Instead I’m calling myself a “Modern” Mennonite, because it fits, alliteratively speaking, and because I want a way to exclude ethnic Mennonites in casual conversations.

For example:

Random Ethnic Mennonite, engaging me in conversation: “Oh, you’re from Champaign. Are you related to Eli/Harold/Peter Otto/Yoder/Kaufman/Dyck?”.
Me: “No, I’m a Modern Mennonite”.

Disclaimer: Please don’t mistake anything I say in this blog as being typical, representative, characteristic, standard, reliable, trustworthy or authoritative on Mennonite theology, beliefs, principles, opinions, views, policies, politics, affairs, traditions, practices, customs, rituals, ceremonies, or habits. I just like calling myself a Mennonite, that’s all.

That said, it is totally true that a “real” Mennonite believes every letter, stroke, and mark in the Mennonite Confession of Faith and will punch you in the nose if you challenge them or disagree. But secretly, most of them like the Vision Statement a lot more.

My own views will be left as an exercise to readers of the blog.


Anonymous said...

As a full blown ethnic mennonite i would like to welcome you once again to our fold. I must say I have wandered from the church going part of my heritage.. but then again i've got plenty of cook books. nice site menno..

Jonathan said...


Looking forward to your next entry where you break down the Modern Mennonites and Ethnic Mennonites into subcategories with psychographic profiles and full descriptions. The Otto/Yoder/Kaufman/Dyck clan in Kansas City reads like Kaufman/ Goertz/Kliewer/Penner but they all still know how to play a good game of Rook.


Anonymous said...

I found your site in the usual way--wandering like a dog in a field with all kinds of different scents surrounding me--hmmm, which path to take? I chose this one.

Thought you might be interested in the path. I have been writing a novel since 2004, with undercurrents of ecology and pacifism worked into the story.

I had to move a character from somewhere back East to Idaho during the Civil War and wanted something unusual, somehow linked to Idaho's goldrush, but not in an obvious way. Also, this character is a rather rash sort of person, he changes his life suddenly and dramatically throughout the novel.

Baffled, I thought I would turn to my Great Aunt's genealogical research efforts for a clue and despite having her book lying around for more than 20 years, I finally began to read it.

I have always been vaguely aware of the Mennonite connection in my ancestry, but never had a sense of why our branch of the family is no longer Mennonites. My Great Grandfather apparently ended the connection, though he did good works for many people and saved many families from starving to death during the Great Depression by giving away food from his store.

I'm descended from Virginia's First and First Mennonite bishops depending upon which story you ascribe to: Bishop Henry Shank and Bishop Henry Rhodes. Their descendants later married to eventually bring me into this world.

As I started to do the research I began to get a full sense of what it meant to be a Mennonite during the Civil War in Shenandoah Valley. Many were virilently against slavery and were pro-union (though of course anti-war), but were forced to vote in favor of succession because of death threats made against them.

All this history was lost to me because each generation of my family always seemed to have a problem with religion and my father rejected it altogether, although at 91 he goes to church for social reasons. My sister continued the tradition of rejecting a church by becoming a Buddhist. I think this moving from one faith to another in the spirit of rejecting corruption is in our family bloodline. I never met her, but my grandmother hated hypocrisy among Christians and disliked going to church. My mother doesn't go to church for the same reasons.

As interested as I am in religion I don't think I could ever join one, though I applaud you for having at least some more interesting reasons for coming into the fold.

As for me, I think it would be impossible for me to sit still with any religion, except perhaps the great church of the universe.

Even my brother said to me that I would be thrown out of any church within a day. Oddly, a psychic I consulted with confirmed this, saying to me once that if I joined a religious order on Sunday I would be thrown out on Tuesday. Could there be such a thing as genetically based reformation tendencies? I seem to have it in my ancestry and it resides within me down to the present.

Anonymous said...

I am kind of curious if you have done any genealogical research on your own line. You mentioned that your 'Schreiber' line most likely oppressed the Mennonites, but there were a lot of religious minority in Germany before Germany became Germany. ie when they were just a collection of tribes. I am curious because Schreiber happens to be one of the last names associated with the church that I grew up in. It does not actively call itself Mennonite because early in its history, it tried not to call itself anything. (An extension of the extreme humility that permeates the church, as I am sure you have discovered by now).

Dan S said...

Actually, the Schreiber line is Catholic and they came over around the turn of the century (1900s). However, a story is told that they came over to avoid the draft, although which draft is not clear, so maybe they were pacifist Catholics. Anyway, I think Lutherans and other protestants did the bulk of the oppressing of Anabaptists, so I'm probably in the clear. But, it still makes for a good line...

Anonymous said...

So how do you "become" a Mennonite? My grandmother was Yoder, but left the Mennonite faith. I was raised Christian, and I don't see any dofference other than the permissiveness of Christians, of which I do not agree. I have wondered how I can claim my right of being Mennonite?

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Even if you are a "Modern Mennonite," you are still continuing a long tradition of arguing about what that means, so that is great.

Before I tell you one of the two Mennonite jokes I know, I will tell you my folks came over in the boat of 1872. I understand the local First Nations referred to us as the People with No Shoes that first winter.

I was not brought up on the Book of Martyrs, though I have heard about all the torture of ancestral believers and so forth.

So a Mennonite is rescued from a desert island. His rescuers notice a number of buildings and ask, "What is that building over there?"

"Oh, that is my home," he says.

"And that building over there, what is that?"

"That is the Church I go to," he replies.

"And the third building, over there, what is that?"

"Oh that?" he replies, "That is the Church I USED to go to."