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2010-07-01 issue:

Being Mennonite

It does not mean being Swiss-German.

by Karl Landis

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How many times have you heard someone say, "That is so Mennonite" or, "I hate to be overly Mennonite about this, but. ..." How about, "That's not a Mennonite name." What do you think people mean when they say these things? After reading this article, I hope you'll never use any of these phrases again.

I cringe whenever I hear someone say one of these things because they remind me that many of us, at least those of us from the mostly Swiss-German part of the denomination, still largely confuse being Mennonite with being Swiss-German. I suppose it is not too surprising that any body of ideas represented for several centuries predominantly by one ethnic group will end up being interwoven with and confused with that ethnic group’s culture. But it is high time we do away with that confusion.
Because Swiss-Germans tend to be emotionally restrained rather than expressive, tend to avoid conflict rather than deal with it directly, tend to pinch pennies rather than spend money freely, tend to defer to other people rather than step forward themselves, these traits have been mistakenly associated with being Mennonite where most Mennonites have been Swiss-German.

Because Swiss-Germans tend to be passive-aggressive in dealing with conflict, some confuse this with a Mennonite approach to conflict even though there is nothing in our confession of faith or our core values that calls for us to deal with conflict in this way. It's just a bad cultural habit that Swiss-Germans pass on. We desperately need people from other ethnic backgrounds to help us develop healthier, more effective ways to deal with conflict. Our “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love” document calls for us to deal with conflict in more direct and assertive ways, but to be honest, that continues to be a stretch for most of us who are Swiss-German.

Swiss Germans tend to mistake confidence for pride—and have for centuries. One Mennonite congregation I know is recovering from a recent struggle over this very issue. When the new pastor arrived, he could not figure out why it was so hard to identify and recruit leaders in the congregation. No one seemed to believe in themselves enough to take any responsibility. After further investigation, he discovered that the people with leadership gifts, the people willing to take initiative and responsibility, had all left after being consistently undermined and relentlessly criticized for being proud.
Why do we refer to this as "Mennonite" behavior rather than "the dark side of Swiss-German culture"? Is there anything in our theology that calls for us to be passive-aggressive or to confuse confidence and pride? We call these behaviors Mennonite simply because many of us have behaved in these ways. In fact, they are based on a caricature of biblical humility that has shaped the habits of Swiss-German families.
This is even clearer if we associate positive things such as quilting, eating scrapple or sauerkraut, canning or hunting with being Mennonite. These are simply cultural practices of rural Swiss-Germans and have nothing to do with our confession of faith or our core values.

Another question worth pondering along these lines is, How many plain Mennonite groups in the United States are predominately made up of or led by people from ethnic groups other than Swiss-German? The dearth of such groups is a clear indication that there are ethnic and cultural boundaries in place around this approach to the Christian faith.

One of the tremendous potential benefits from our intercultural and international partnerships, including those in Mennonite World Conference, is the opportunity to rethink what it means to be Mennonite in ways that are not so confused with specific cultural expressions. These partnerships give each national or ethnic group the opportunity to examine the ways in which our culture is intertwined with our theology.
Many of the distinctives of Lancaster Conference Mennonites described in John Ruth's book The Earth Is the Lord's are theological in origin but cultural in expression. Living under the cross, nonconformity, nonresistance, simplicity, humility, community discernment—all are theological insights or convictions that need to be lived out in specific ways to have meaning in the real world. But they can all be lived out in a variety of ways. The ways various Mennonite groups have lived them out over the centuries have been specific to the times in which they lived and the cultural habits they inherited.

For example, the fact that Lancaster Conference Mennonites chose to live out these convictions in strict, closed communities that were distinctive in dress and culturally separate was clearly a result of a tightly knit, Swiss-German farming community responding to the challenges of its time. While these communities extended mutual aid, they were also tightly bound by shame and guilt. We tend to overlook the likelihood that Mennonites from a Dutch merchant community, an African American farming community, a Vietnamese immigrant community or a Hispanic laborer community responding to these same challenges would have responded in different ways, even though they would have been grounded in the same theological convictions.

Yet because most of those who have carried the Mennonite torch for so long in the eastern United States have been Swiss-Germans, our particular incarnation of Mennonite values came to be confused with what it means to be Mennonite. John Howard Yoder concluded in 1970 that the primary focus of the Mennonite denomination had become the preservation of ethnic Mennonitism rather than the proclamation of the true gospel in word and deed.

I long for the day when being Mennonite means we have released each other to develop a wide variety of ways to do the following:

• call people to a meaningful personal relationship with Jesus;
• take the Lordship of Christ seriously in how we read Scripture and in our theological work;
• follow Christ faithfully and together in daily living;
• be true contrast communities in our local   settings;
• love each other and extend mutual aid in extraordinary ways;
• live out reconciliation in our congregations and in our communities;
• interact with public culture in noticeably God-honoring ways;
• work together toward peace rather than resorting to violence;
• practice grace-filled discipline in following Christ together.

So the next time you hear someone associate being Mennonite with Swiss-German cultural habits, don't fall for it. Be sure to confront them directly rather than complaining about them behind their back. Remind yourself that just because some—maybe even many—Mennonites behave a certain way doesn’t make it a defining characteristic of what it means to be Mennonite.

Let's change the connotation of that phrase from "someone who acts Swiss-German" to "one who excels in living out our highest theological values in a compelling and winsome way." Would not that be a much better way to think about what it means to be Mennonite? It might even be something we could aspire to.

Karl R. Landis is director of leadership development for Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite

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