Getting Beyond the Bubble, Andre C King, April 1999 (United States)
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I am a Mennonite now, I am sure, but I have spent my fair share of time outside The Bubble. I am of Mennonite heritage, was raised Mennonite in many ways while attending a Methodist church during the high school period, ditched the whole Mennonite scene for a few years, and am now back, smack dab in the middle of the Mennonite educational system. Defining Goshen College as a bubble-which is a part of the larger Mennonite Bubble-means many things. It describes the intangible division between the modern Mennonite community and the rest of the world, much like the traditional dualistic perception of God's creation defined at Schleitheim; the Bubble itself provides a sheltered atmosphere for Mennonites-such as GC students-to at times escape some abrasive aspects of the world and remain somewhat comfortable in the company of like-minded individuals; and perhaps above all, it fosters a collective sense of identity with which to interpret theological questions of life. From how we perceive whether Mennonite denominationalism matters, to upholding the religious core of Anabaptism defined in the religiously frenzied sixteenth-century, to acknowledging Mennonite reality in the context of our modern world, The Bubble forces those claiming the Mennonite mantle-such as myself-to strike some sort of balance between the often soothing retreat of inter-Mennonite activity and the pressing needs and reality of the outside world. This question of how to set up and maintain The Bubble has continually arisen in Anabaptist circles. Some, such as the Jakob Amman and the Amish opted in 1693 to retreat from the world-indeed, to make The Bubble nearly impenetrable. Others, like the Mennonite Brethren in mid-nineteenth century Russia welcomed outside Pietistic influence, relaxing The Bubble a bit to allow a few alterations to the Mennonite way-of-life. And now, as North American Mennonites at the edge of the 21st century, we are faced with figuring out how The Bubble fits into an increasingly shrinking modern world. For myself-and perhaps for most Mennonites seeking to better understand the entirety of God's creation-being a Mennonite today means escaping The Bubble at times and venturing out into the rest of the world, all the while steadfastly preserving the best of what Mennonitism has to offer.
To begin with, denominations are important, and for Mennonites, that means our shared experience is unique and matters-not only in the sense of defining exactly what it is that this group of Anabaptist descendants stand for, but also in providing an identity with which to discern Christian meaning. The many gifts of Mennonite denominational existence-a pacifist understanding rooted in moral ideals which Christ envisioned, understanding why you're getting baptized, and the largest social perk, knowing that you share a mutual friend or relative with the majority of Mennonites you meet-are things to be savored. And these gifts persist for us modern Mennonites to enjoy and be proud of because the core of denominational distinctiveness has been preserved by the Michael Sattlers, Menno Simons, Guy Hershbergers, and the Harold Benders. Believer's baptism, avoiding oaths, adherence to pacifism, and preserving a community of believers are staples of the Mennonite Bubble that have carried the movement to us today.
If we are to claim the Mennonite way of life, these must be preserved-not because they are infallible ideas to which every Christian must adhere, but because they shape a fine Christian reality which makes the Mennonite denomination unique. The ideas are the very foundation upon which a Mennonite must stand, the reason The Bubble keeps some sort of shape.
Yet this is no easy task, this denominational fidelity. We also need the brilliance of a John Howard Yoder to kick Mennonites in the trousers now and again, prompting us to revisit the Anabaptist Vision or figure out how pacifism fits into the immediate reality of social injustice. Mennonites need the literature of Julia Kasdorf to foster rich religious discussion between three different generations, forcing Mennonites to hammer out, at times uncomfortably, what modern transitions mean for the future of the Church. Being a Mennonite means listening and engaging in these conversations, accepting the occasional poke at one's religious comfort zone, and embracing the opportunity to better understand Mennonitism. In all, there is a need for dynamic interplay within The Bubble to continually resolve the wrinkles that inevitably arise when stretching the dense fabric of Mennonite denominationalism.
But so far in this examination of Mennonitism, I haven't ventured outside The Bubble. Being a Mennonite in the 20th century-where airplanes and the Internet have seemingly made the earth smaller-also means realizing that easily accessible ideas continually arise and move throughout the world, some helpful and some frightening, each threatening to penetrate and influence the dynamics of living within the Mennonite Bubble. Times have changed from when Conrad Grebel and Jakob Hutter huddled their religious kin into tightly knit groups, establishing underground networks of Anabaptist congregation and communication to keep radical Christianity alive. Our modern context, at least as Americans, is tremendously different. Democracy screams "do what you want" and religious persecution for most Mennonites is not a reality but something to be read about in books about martyrs by Thieleman van Braght. Political participation doesn't seem as bad as when early Anabaptists avoided it, in fact some Mennonites feel obliged to actively persuade the government to shut down inefficiencies and military failures; there are job opportunities in all sorts of economic sectors to make a respectable-perhaps even highly profitable-living for a faithful Mennonite family; there is even the possibility to buy life insurance from a company with the Mennonite name on it. In a very real sense, the "other part" of the dualistic kingdom described at Schleitheim can very easily-and without much fuss-be an integral part of modern Mennonite existence.
The options then, are to carefully defend, respond, or accept these influences from outside the Bubble. The way I see it, we mustn't kid ourselves-the Mennonite church has and continues to acknowledge larger issues in world culture whether it fully admits to it or not. Pietism snuck its way into Mennonite hymnals, church services, and spiritual renewal under Peter Weber in the late eighteenth-century to the horror of some and the delight of others. What we say about larger questions of homosexual existence and how we define their role in the Mennonite congregation will have a profound impact upon church methodology of scriptural exegesis and congregational openness in the next century. How modern American Mennonites handle their increasingly middle to upper-class status has implications-much like the Dutch Mennonites in the seventeenth-century-for the possibilities, good and bad, of mixing wealth, luxury, and religion. In all, the shaping of Anabaptist faith by sources outside the immediacy of the Mennonite Bubble-be it Pietism, homosexuality, worldly wealth, or a plethora of other issues-is a historical fact. With one eye on core values and the other eye how the times are changing, being a Mennonite in our modern context means increasingly recognizing the necessity of reconciling The Bubble with the condition of the world around it.
With influence as a definite presence, how then, ought we as Mennonites interact with the non-Mennonite world? As stated above, our Anabaptist sisters and brethren such as the Amish and the Hutterites opted for seclusion rather than taint their Anabaptist community with the sinful soot of the outside world. On the other hand, some Mennonites, including the workers of Mennonite Central Committee and the increasing numbers of Mennonite missionaries in foreign countries, seemingly take delight in stepping outside The Bubble to witness Mennonite existence to "the other side" of the dualistic kingdom. Where is the elusive balance between clinging to and getting beyond The Bubble of Mennonite life?
Given that the example of Jesus Christ is the foundation for the Mennonite discipleship, emphasis on community, and nonresistance articulated by Harold Bender 56 years ago, we as Mennonites must recognize that Jesus Christ is at the most basic our human example for which to strive. We must further recognize that Jesus was no permanent recluse, no perfectionist staying indoors to avoid contact with another human beings-regardless of ideological, health, or other differences. He dwelled among the poor, dined with tax collectors, and conversed with sinners. As our paradigm, we modern Mennonites need in some way to respond to this Christ. Somehow against the carefully crafted Bubble which we have inherited-and which brings us a defined core of beliefs while also remaining a comfortable barrier between our community and the world-we must find ways to move beyond the confines of The Bubble to actively engaging in the world the way Jesus showed us.
In a world where ideas move swifter and transportation is increasingly easier, indeed where notions of democratic participation beg for voices of morality and dignified principles to improve the human condition, there is little excuse not to understand how the Mennonite way of life can augment and alter our nation and subsequently the greater world. We, as Mennonites, know well the amazing religious creativity and insight of John Howard Yoder or J. Lawrence Burkholder, but two doors down from the flourishing Mennonite mainstay of Goshen College, a person may not even know what a Mennonite is. As a highly structured Bubble with a solid sense of stability, being a Mennonite in my mind means using the benefits of our Bubbled existence to improve-or at least in some way positively shape- the plight of the entirety of God's earth. In this way, the fruits of Mennonite existence can be more fully realized by ourselves as Mennonites-and perhaps more importantly, ascertain the opportunity to share the Mennonite way of life with as much of our shrinking world as possible, both inside and outside The Bubble.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.