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2012-10-01 issue:

The danger of a single story

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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In a now-famous TED Talk called “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns against the human tendency to describe a people (or a tradition or an individual) on the basis of a single story.

Reading only British children’s books while growing up in Nigeria, for example, led Adichie to assume that fiction was populated exclusively by white children who ate apples and played in the snow. Only much later did she realize that brown-skinned children eating mangos might also be worthy subjects of literature.

When Adichie came to college in the United States, her roommate could scarcely believe that middle-class, educated Africans existed—the African story she knew, based on news reports and vague impressions, required characters who were poor, hungry and illiterate. Describing a group with a single story, Adichie insists, is an exercise of power. “The single story creates stereotypes. The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Adichie’s concern is not new, perhaps especially to Mennonites. Only a few decades ago, standard accounts of the Reformation refused to recognize the Anabaptists as legitimate actors in the history of the church. And Mennonite historians themselves have debated vigorously over whether Anabaptism itself should be described as a unified, heroic narrative or as a host of intertwining, competing—and sometimes even contradictory—stories.

This is why the recent publication The Jesus Tribe: Grace Stories from Congo’s Mennonites, 1912- 2012 (Institute of Mennonite Studies/ISGA, 2012) is so significant. Between 2009 and 2011, a group of Congolese Mennonite researchers set out to gather stories that would tell the history of their churches, now numbering some 225,000 members.

The project faced enormous challenges: the cultural complexities of engaging eight different ethnic groups; the travel logistics of reaching remote villages on muddy roads; the time-consuming work of transcribing, translating and editing the interviews; and then the daunting task of selecting from 500 interviews the 88 stories included the new volume. The result is not only a collection of entertaining, informative stories. At a much deeper level, The Jesus Tribe offers a powerful witness to the necessity of multiple stories.

Many of the shelves in my office are heavy with books on theology, history or ethics related to the Anabaptist-Mennonite story in its European or North American expression. From the 16th century to the present, it would seem, the arc of Anabaptist history is an unfolding narrative about, well, us—our experiences, thoughts, conflicts, deeds and mission efforts. Yet the stories in The Jesus Tribe describe a dynamic, expanding Anabaptist church that looks different from the tale I usually tell. Encountering the history of the Mennonite Church of Congo or the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo should challenge North American Mennonites to rethink what it means to tell “our” story.

In a similar way, the stories gathered in The Jesus Tribe should complicate the way we interpret the history of Anabaptist churches in the global South. The occasion for the book was the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Mennonite missionaries to the Congo, and many of the stories appropriately relate experiences told from the missionary perspective. But most of the stories in the collection are written by Congolese, describing the work of Congolese pastors, missionaries, lay leaders, hymn writers, doctors and teachers who oversaw a period of sustained growth in the Congolese Mennonite church long after the missionaries were formally expelled in 1960. North American missionaries never disappear entirely from the narrative, but they are no longer the lead characters in the drama.

Finally, readers of The Jesus Tribe will discover that the internal history of the Congolese Mennonite church cannot be told as a single story. Beneath the moving stories of generosity, sacrifice, courage and faithfulness runs a fierce, persistent undercurrent of church conflict—conflicts over money and property, over ecclesial offices and authority, and, most recently, over practices such as the ordination of women. Where there is conflict, there is always more than one story. Indeed, here one might have wished for even more stories that would make the conflicts more understandable.

Centennial celebrations are almost always the occasion for an “official” history. Instead, Congolese Mennonites have blessed the global church with a multitude of stories. As Adichie concludes, “when we realize there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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