When I first joined the Mennonite church, I was welcomed into a rich tradition of customs, language, and food - vey delicious food. Potlucks opened my eyes to the variety of foods that, for most Mennonites, were just common. Platz, borscht, fleisch perishky, and of course Easter paska, all became instant favourites. I still haven’t tried rollkuchen with watermelon, but that is next on my list. (Visit Mennonite Girls Can Cook if you want to learn to cook this food.)
As I learned more about Mennonites, I learned about the radical reformation of the 16th century and the movement of this group of Christians to places like Russia, the Ukraine, Canada, the U.S., Germany, Paraguay, and more. In fact, I learned that there are German-speaking Mennonite communities in places I would have never expected.
As these Mennonite groups moved from place to place, escaping persecution and finding refuge in different countries, one could see the importance of their community life. As they went, they held on to the language, customs and traditions of their ancestors. Mennonites grew, not just as a community of faith, but as a heritage group. As we look back on the Mennonite story, it is very difficult to separate faith and culture.
It would be an interesting exercise to ask Mennonites today why they think they are Mennonites.
Some people I know believe they are Mennonites because their parents and ancestors were Mennonites. Their family has been a part of the Mennonite church for generations, but they no longer are. They are proud of their heritage and see being Mennonite as part of their story. If they marry someone who is Australian, for example, and they have kids, they might say that their child is half Australian and half Mennonite.
There are also others, like me, who did not grow up in the Mennonite church, but are now active members. I don’t have “Mennonite blood” in me, but for some reason, I believe I am Mennonite. So the question is, who is the real Mennonite? Or better asked, what does it really mean to be Mennonite?
I love Mennonite history. We have a lot to learn from the people that went ahead of us, and we owe a lot to them for helping shape the Anabaptist faith tradition. There is nothing wrong with that, and in fact, we should celebrate it. But I believe that the Mennonite fusion of faith and culture has done a disservice to our past and may continue to do so to our future.
Learning from our Past
Can you imagine what Menno Simons, Georg Blaurock, or Pilgram Marpeck might say to us if they found out that we were calling ourselves Mennonites just because our parents were Mennonites? I think they would be quick to remind us of their own story.
Early Anabaptists stood against the church’s practice of infant baptism. The thought that people could become Christians just because their parents were, didn’t seem to fit their understanding of Scripture. And so, in what was seen as treason, they refused to baptize their infant children and instead raised them in their faith tradition that allowed them to come to their own confession of faith in Jesus. Some of the first Mennonites even got re-baptized as adults (from which the name Anabaptist comes from).
To be or become Mennonite in the 16th century had nothing to do with bloodline, culture or tradition. It had to do with a certain confession in Jesus Christ and a willingness to enter into radical discipleship. Early Anabaptist confessions, like that of Schleitheim, said nothing about heritage. Although Mennonites carried their traditions and culture with them as the migrated, those were never what it meant to be Mennonite.
Looking to the Future
In North America, the Mennonite faith has become so connected with a certain people group that I’m afraid it might close the door for others of a different heritage to experience the life-giving Anabaptist tradition. If, when people think of Mennonites, they think of white Europeans, Low German and rollkuchen, then we haven’t helped them understand what being Mennonite is all about. Mennonite World Conference is a prime example for us that Mennonites come in all kinds of shapes and colours. Country, culture, tradition, and heritage (as great as they are) are all secondary to confession.
I was welcomed into the Mennonite church not because my parents were Mennonite, or because I could prove that I memorized 606 (our beloved Doxology), but because of my confession in Jesus Christ and my willingness to live in community with my church. As an outsider coming in, what drew me in was the Mennonite understanding of leadership, baptism, peace and non-violence, community, discernment, witness, and a Jesus-centred faith. Race or heritage shouldn’t matter, and frankly neither should the church you go to. You can be a professing Mennonite in any kind of church you want to be in.
If we Mennonites want to reach our world with the life-changing message of Jesus, and if we want our neighbours to be intrigued by how we choose to follow Him, then we need to refocus our attention on what makes Mennonites, Mennonites. We have something quite unique to offer the world in the way we do faith and life together. It becomes more accessible to the world around us when we take down the barriers of Mennonite culture and tradition, and welcome any and all to participate in God’s larger plan for the world.