What Does It Mean to Be a Mennonite? John D. Schrock, April 1999 (United States)
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What does it mean to be a Mennonite? What do we, as relatively affluent, North American Mennonites, have in common with our early Anabaptist ancestors? How do we differ? Should these differences be viewed as problems? The question of what it means to be a Mennonite is a big one, not something that can be explored fully in the space allowed. Many aspects of Mennonite faith set it apart from that of other Christians, and I will examine a few of these that are most important to me.
Like our Anabaptist ancestors, the biggest issue that sets Mennonites apart from other Christian groups is our belief in nonresistance. The early Anabaptists were tortured and killed just for being Anabaptists. The brutal persecution that the early Anabaptists had to face no longer exists in the Mennonite world that I have known, so it is difficult to truly know how we would react to such adversity. However, I can say with certainty that if I were forced to renounce my faith or die, I would choose death. I believe this very strongly, and I am sure many other Mennonites feel the same way. Having said that, I am very thankful that we live in a country where we are free to worship as we choose. Some people believe that some persecution would be good for the Mennonite church, forcing Mennonites to cherish their faith rather than taking it for granted. I don't think the Mennonite church needs to live with persecution in order to be an active, growing church. A better approach, in my opinion, would be to accept our position as a persecution-free church and use that to further the kingdom of God.
Another aspect of nonresistance is the refusal of Mennonites to go to war. Throughout history, Mennonites have consistently shown their opposition to war, and modern Mennonites are no different. There have been no "major" wars in my lifetime, so this has not been as significant an issue as it was for my parents' and grandparents' generations. Again, I think that if this issue ever did come to the forefront, modern Mennonites would remain faithful to their nonresistant beliefs. If World War III started tomorrow and the draft was reinstated, I believe the response of my generation of Mennonites would be very similar to my parents' response to Vietnam or my grandparents' response to World War II. We would refuse to enter the armed forces and would initiate and actively support nonviolent peacemaking efforts.
Another important principle that most modern Mennonites hold is a commitment to simple living. Many Mennonites would argue that this commitment has been lost, and they would be right, to a point. Certainly there are some Mennonites who live in big houses and drive expensive cars, but there are many more who do not. I think this issue needs to be looked at in a certain context. Obviously, the average North American Mennonite is wealthier than most other people in the world. Also, the average Mennonite would probably be considered wealthier than most of the early Anabaptists, although this may be an unfair comparison. Nevertheless, relative to the society in which we live, it seems to me that Mennonites live more simply and place much less of an emphasis on money than do our neighbors. There are many wealthy Mennonites, but I would argue that most of these wealthy Mennonites give a larger portion of their income to the church than do wealthy members of other denominations. The basis for my assertions comes from observing my home congregation. I know several members who own very successful businesses and undoubtedly make a lot of money. I can also tell the amount of emphasis they place on money by looking at the houses they live in and the cars they drive. It would be impossible to tell that these people were very rich by observing their lifestyle. I don't think you would find this phenomenon as consistently among members of other denominations. This emphasis on simplicity is a struggle for North American Mennonites because we are relatively affluent. However, this tension would not be there if the commitment to simple living no longer existed.
An aspect of Mennonite faith that I find very appealing is the view of the church as a community. I experienced this growing up in a Mennonite church, and I have experienced this here at Goshen College. All people have a need to be part of a group, and it only makes sense that the church should work to fill that need. This is probably something many Mennonites take for granted, something that isn't missed until it is gone. I know of non-Mennonite churches in my hometown where members remarked that no one noticed when they missed church, and this was appealing to them. Certainly churches like these have their place, but I am grateful that my church was not like that. At my church, if you miss a Sunday morning service, you get sent a bulletin and newsletter for that day. The feeling of being a family is very strong. My parents have told me about members of our congregation who were laid off from their jobs and struggled to buy groceries. Church members quickly responded and soon they had plenty of food. Our church, like many other Mennonite churches, has a special fund designed to help people such as these. It is very comforting to belong to a church where you are always looking out for the well being of others and you know others are doing the same for you.
There are other aspects of Mennonite faith that set Mennonites apart from other Christians. Some of these would be the refusal to swear oaths, the reluctance to become involved in government, and mutual aid, among others. These uniquely Mennonite beliefs are all very important to me, and I cherish them. My idea of what it means to be a Mennonite has changed a lot throughout the course of my life, and I'm sure it will continue to change. The Mennonite church has changed and will continue to change, and I pray that it will always hold to the core beliefs that have made it the strong, active church that it is today.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.