On “Ethnic Mennonites,” Radical Welcome and Theology

Last week, the Mennonite World Review blog was hopping. Not only did they feature a highly popular discussion on church, but they hosted a conversation about the term “ethnic Mennonite” and Mennonite exclusivity. In one of the posts that started the conversation, Robert Martin and Chris Lenshyn reflected on the question, “Mennonites or Ethnocites?” Lenshyn writes,

Mennonite Anabaptist practice which facilitates a deep radicalism tends to come face-to-face with the ‘way things have been done before’ of ethnicity. It appears that to be an ‘ethnonite’ is to carry an unrelenting commitment to a past that is not informing the present. Rather, it is a past that is losing its grip on the present by carrying on with what Mark Van Steenwyk [in another article by Tim Nafziger] calls, ‘cultural hang-ups…It’s tragic really, to think that in some circles, to not be Mennonite by ethnicity is to be slighted in community. For Mennonites to grow in this particular time and place is to invite all people, no matter what ethnicity, to participate in the practice of Mennonite Anabaptist theology.

This trope is certainly one that has been popular in Mennonite circles over the course of the past few years. Mennonites must take seriously the critique that we have developed ethnic enclaves which have made newcomers to Anabaptist feel unwelcome. That we’ve developed “in group” conversations and knowledge that grow out of a particular ethnic group history. As a denomination with overcoming anti-racism as one of its core institutional priorities and missional as one of the most popular, if ambiguous, “buzz words”, we can’t NOT take these critiques and conversations seriously.

However, there also seems to be an undercurrent within these conversations that what it will take to really achieve good welcome and Anabaptist inclusivity is some sort of “theological nakedness,” or a theology that has been stripped bare of any cultural trappings. These arguments can be seen in many places, but for the sake of this blog, I’ll just highlight a few. Former Trinity Mennonite Church pastor, now a leader at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., Shane Hipps has pointed to culture as the primary barrier to inviting people to take up Anabaptist theology. At a 2008 conference Hipps used the metaphor of a pristine lake to describe Anabaptist beliefs, but noted that the lake was being choked by the weeds of traditional culture. He said, “Your ‘weeds’ are born of the fact that you’ve married your faith and your culture. Parts of your culture have nothing to do with Anabaptism and Jesus.” Another popular proponent of Anabaptist culture, Greg Boyd, offers comments in a similar vein. Boyd says, “Be as scandalously flexible with the cultural non-essentials as you are inflexible with kingdom essentials.” He has urged Mennonites to do away with as many cultural trappings as possible, leaving them free to offer their real “treasure”: a distinct theology and ecclesiology.

This perhaps finds its most clear expression in the popular book, The Naked Anabaptist. Here Stuart Murray suggests that it is important for Anabaptists to be vulnerable – hence the nakedness – (a claim I certainly agree with), and notes that Anabaptist theology will always, in fact, be “clothed in particular cultures.” In short, as my husband Justin Heinzekehr writes, Anabaptism can’t get completely naked even if it tries. However, Murray goes on to identify what he considers “seven core convictions” which get at the “essence of Anabaptism” and are an attempt to “strip back the historical and cultural accretions” that have piled onto Anabaptism. These core convictions include: Jesus as primary example and teacher; Jesus as the focal point of God’s revelation; a rejection of Christendom and its assumptions; a commitment to being communities of disciples; and a sense that peace is at the heart of the gospel message. In a similar vein, author Palmer Becker has tried to distill Anabaptism down to three primary foci in the booklet, What is an Anabaptist Christian. Becker suggests that to be an Anabaptist means to believe that, “(1) Jesus is the center of our faith; (2) community is the center of our lives; and (3) reconciliation is the center of our work.”

These lists are helpful, and there is much that I find to agree with and believe in, too. It is worth noting, however, that the majority of these formulations (and the critiques listed here) have been put forward by white males who have been drawn to Anabaptism. They each bring a unique perspective and cultural lens to bear when they study what it means to be an Anabaptist and a Mennonite. How would these lists of convictions look different if they had been developed by a woman? Or by first-generation immigrants living in Los Angeles? Because that’s the thing, as Murray noted, theology, and even our interpretation of history, can never be completely free from our cultural belonging. And in fact, it is, in some ways, a political act to develop these lists of core beliefs (not that our communities should not still struggle to do so together), and to determine what stays and what is not listed.

It’s not that I’m not on board with the project that Boyd, Hipps and Murray are suggesting: I certainly want us to find ways to be radically welcoming, and I have been challenged by my friends and fellow Mennonites in Los Angeles to broaden my picture of what it means to be Mennonite. I also realize that, as someone who could herself bear the label of an “ethnic Mennonite,” it might get dicey for me to be engaging these conversations. But I’d like to suggest that when we point to finding one shared set of theological assumptions, free from any cultural trappings, as the way to move beyond exclusivism, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

I believe, that theology is inherently wedded to particular cultural constructions, and we should not desire that it not be. It is a beautiful thing to visit a Nigerian congregation and to hear from the leadership that they have been drawn to Anabaptism because of its emphasis on the Holy Spirit and its compatibility with Pentecostalism. This is not something that I would have naturally thought of, but their new reading of Anabaptism has opened this fresh perspective. It is thought-provoking to visit Mennonite congregations who have very different conceptions of leadership than I do, and for whom a flat, non-hierarchical ecclesiology would not work, but who value the message of Jesus and the peace story.

Rather than trying to distill our theology down to some clear cut set of core theological assumptions, or even a set of core practices, I believe that we need to come to peace living with a multiplicity of understandings of what it means to be a Mennonite and an Anabaptist. And we who come from Swiss-German or Dutch traditions, and have borne the label “ethnic Mennonite,” need to let go of some of the power that we have wielded to define who and what an Anabaptist (and an Anabaptist church or community) looks like. If we want to be welcoming, we will need to understand the ways our own theological assumptions have been shaped by our culture, and own that.

Four-part hymn singing, baked goods and relief sales, potlucks and peace activism have been key mechanisms that have shaped my theology: they are not just empty cultural trappings that can be discarded. But I do need make space for other cultural expressions of faith and Anabaptism to enter into my community, congregation, denomination, etc., and I need to celebrate their inbreaking. And I need to be prepared to radically welcome the next person who walks through my “church doors,” figuratively or literally, even if it means that church as I know it will change.


Filed under Church

  • Jake Short

    While I do agree that Anabaptism often gets hung up on its traditional cultural roots (Swiss/German/Dutch), I think the same could be said about any religion or denomination ulitmately. The fact Pope Francis is from Argentina made huge headlines, despite the Catholic Church being almost 1,500 years older than Anabaptism (but Francis is still of mostly Italian descent, so can we really claim he’s that far removed from traditional Italian Catholicism?). The Anglican Communion is still governed by the British sovereign and is very intertwined with the monarchy. Orthodox Jews are expect to dress and live a certain way, which makes them stand out against mainstream culture.

    My point is, Anabaptism isn’t the only one suffering from culture, and like you said, I don’t think culture is the true problem. It’s when we get hung up on it and equate culture with religion is when it becomes a hinderance. Besides, we can’t help that our theology was born in the 1500s in German-speaking Europe; if we had come from the Greek Orthodox Church instead, we might be joking about who makes a better baklava and whether our families originated from Thessaloniki or Athens, but ultimately culture would still be a problem on some level.

    I too appreciate how people all over the world have come to Anabaptist theology through many different ways, and in turn, MWC and related Anabaptist groups have become quite pluralistic. It was absolutely wonderful how MWC Paraguay ’09 created a wonderful picture of the Anabaptist family, especially through the different music and use of many languages.

    I do wish though that we could integrate different worship styles more into our churches. I think growing up with more African-American spritiualism might’ve been really good for the skeptic in me; it’s something I always enjoy the few times I’ve been lucky to experience it.

    • Hannah

      Jake – Yes, lots of good reflections here. I think we do need to be moving towards much more integrated forms of worship. And I also think you’re right: we are not alone in these conversations. Culture and church have been intertwined every since the early days — think about how Greek and Roman cultures have shaped us! But I guess where I would even push a bit further is to say that we can’t even completely divorce culture and religion: they are totally bound together. I guess I would just push us to make space for all of the myriad cultural expressions that are out there, rather than simply trying to abandon one Swiss/German or Dutch expression. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • An excellent engagement, Hannah, and you do bring up a good point. We cannot ignore that theology is expressed in a cultural context.

    I do think the effort of defining “core” theological points is important. If we’re going to call ourselves “Anabaptist”, what does that mean? However, if we’re going to say, “This is how to BE Anabaptist”…that’s a different story. The core points that Murray brings out are good foundational points to talk about and then look at how they get expressed.

    But, in truth, your last sentence is where I am aiming for.

    I need to be prepared to radically welcome the next person who walks through my “church doors,” figuratively or literally, even if it means that church as I know it will change.

    It is that last part, knowing that the church will change if people of other cultures come into it, that is the crux of where I’m coming from. The “outside looking in” feeling some get comes from, I believe, a refusal to hold lightly to our culturally based traditions and, therefore, folks who don’t adopt our culture aren’t “welcome”.

    Again, a great engagement. I appreciate the continuing conversation and I hope such conversation continues.

    BTW… I sent you a notice the other day about listing your blog on the MennoNerds.com site. The offer still stands, if you’re interested. 🙂

    • Hannah

      Robert – Yes! I am notoriously bad at checking The Femonite e-mail, but I will check it out and be back in touch. I agree with you that it’s good to wrestle with core convictions, but I think that I would probably push a bit further and say that any statement we make about what it means to be Anabaptist is always going to be particular and personal. I know that it can get messy then, but I’m not sure we can ever have a clear cut definition of who or what Anabaptism is beyond looking at trends and identifying our own particular community’s way of being Anabaptist. Everyone’s sense of what is “core” would differ. So, while it’s a really helpful exercise as an individual or a community to articulate what we hold to be central, I think we’ll always have to hold those things lightly, and those things can’t actually be what binds us together as a denomination. Even what the narrative of Jesus means to us (and therefore how we’re called to live) is quite different in some cases.

      But I think you are right that we are definitely on the same page: we both desire for Mennonites and Anabaptists to become much more thoroughly welcoming and to not be afraid to change!

  • Naomi Yoder Harris

    Good to find your blog and read your perspective on this. I want to pick up on the first point you made: “Mennonites must take seriously the critique that we have developed ethnic enclaves which have made newcomers to Anabaptist feel unwelcome. That we’ve developed “in group” conversations and knowledge that grow out of a particular ethnic group history. ”

    I would put a slightly different twist on that first sentence by saying that because it (historically) developed IN homogeneous enclaves, the Mennonite Church needs to overcome (in the sense of being conscious/aware, not embarrassed or guilty) the cultural assumptions and biases that are impediments to true inclusiveness.

    In New York City Mennonite churches (there are 17), we have people who were baptized as Mennonites in their home countries before coming to the U.S., people who came from rural Mennonite enclaves, people who grew up in other faith traditions or none at all…you get the idea. We definitely do not look and sound the same. We speak different languages. Our worship services all have their own flavor, our congregations all have their own leadership styles and emphases. Within the same City, we are operating in different contexts, we are from different cultures. We do not expect or desire that the outward expression, the manifestation of our commitment to Christ and the community of believers, would look or sound the same. But we love each other, work together, are connected as sisters and brothers serving Jesus.

    The pastor of my church, Infinity Mennonite, is a former Baptist. He says we “loved him into the Mennonite Church”—about which he initially knew nothing, outside of a few personal connections. And we say he was becoming an Anabaptist Mennonite long before he knew what to call it. In general, the people in our churches don’t really care about the fine points of theological debate or what you identified as “‘in group’ conversations and knowledge.'” Frankly, I don’t think that’s even noticed, for the most part. What is noticed is when people seem dismissive, or aloof, or uncaring.
    What has a tangible impact is needing resources that aren’t available (either because there aren’t enough or we need a different kind).

    As I write this, I realize that another way to frame my objection to the “ethnic Mennonite” construct is this: Because there are so many ways to “be” Mennonite, and so many ways to become Mennonite, and so many ways to grow up Mennonite, it is counterproductive to isolate/identify a single tradition as being “The” way to be an “ethnic” Mennonite. (We are believers, God’s children, joint heirs with Christ; not a genetic line.) It’s confusing to people who haven’t been exposed to the particular way of being Mennonite that the phrase is supposed to encompass. And for the Anglo/Euro-Mennonites who use the term, it reinforces an unhealthy (unconscious can still be unhealthy!) entitlement that comes along with it. Better that we should all just say where/how we grew up. Tell the story; drop the shorthand. A few “extra” words could mean that we’re really considering what we really intend to convey.

    Thanks for thinking and writing about this.