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Two sides of being Mennonite Brethren

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When we’re young, we’re often identified in relation to our parents (“so-and-so’s kid”). At some point, our parents become known by us (“so-and-so’s mom/dad”). Throughout our life, we take on identities – or have them applied to us.

As Mennonite Brethren, we have a dual identity – in fact, two of them.

1. We’re both Anabaptist and evangelical.

Those two traditions – separate in their histories but overlapping in their priorities – influenced the 18 households who gathered in 1860 to do church together according to their understanding of God’s call.

Both movements are concerned with following Jesus and with studying Scripture as a guide to wisdom.

The Anabaptist aspect of our Mennonite Brethren identity sometimes seems neglected.

We’re embarrassed of bonnets-and-buggies stereotypes even as we pride ourselves on our frugality, humility – and ability to find a cousin connection in any social setting. But those are tied to our other dual identity (more below).

Eager to shed stereotypes, congregations name themselves “community churches.” Pastors from other denominations take MB pulpits without full awareness of our history and the theological emphases that go along with our weird name.

On the other hand, the evangelical part of our identity has received much attention lately – much of it not good.

We want to distance ourselves from the unChrist-like behaviour of others who share the name.

In two Viewpoint articles, Isaiah Ritzmann and Paul Cumin explore their reasons for feeling uncertain about identifying as evangelical at all. Taking perspectives that will not be shared by all readers, these authors challenge us to consider what is useful and what is destructive within the evangelical part of our hyphenated tradition.

2. There’s another possible dual identity lodged inside the name Mennonite, as was highlighted recently by member of Parliament Ed Fast who introduced a private member’s bill to celebrate Mennonite Heritage Week.

For those whose ancestors came from Ukraine, the word Mennonite is a name for a subculture including foods (much of it adapted from Ukrainian cuisine), a language (once the lingua franca of the Hanseatic league), and a stable of surnames (Toews, Giesbrecht, Penner).

Taking “be in the world but not of it” perhaps a bit too seriously, generations of Mennonites kept together, seeking economic opportunity as much as fleeing persecution as they settled several regions of continental Europe and eventually forming colonies as far away as the Holy Land and Latin America.

The characteristics this group developed inform the Mennonite “heritage” claimed by a Toews who hasn’t darkened the door of a church for decades.

In Canada, Mennonite “heritage” offers the opportunity to explain the complexities of our identity. But in the context of our worshipping communities, let us agree that when we say Mennonite [Brethren], we mean people who commit to following Jesus as the centre of our faith, community as the centre of our life, and reconciliation as the centre of our work.

In church, let us agree that “Mennonite” refers to how we live this faith, not to the sociocultural peculiarities of the groups that moved to North America from Russia or Switzerland.

After all, the Mennonite/Anabaptist movement began as a voluntary faith, chosen with adult reasoning and lived out in deliberate actions – the very antithesis of a received culture and family names.

Our brothers and sisters in ICOMB and Mennonite World Conference remind us that European-origin Mennonites no longer make up the majority. Instead, a typical Mennonite/Anabaptist may be a dancing worshipper in DR Congo or courageous peacemaker in Colombia.

A model of this identity who inspires me isn’t a Schmidt but a Suárez. In Colombia where the 60-year civil war has called an uneasy truce, Mennonite Oscar Suárez is a conscientious objector to compulsory military service. Transformed by Jesus and supported by his church community, he chooses nonviolence – even though it hurts. Oscar can’t follow a conventional path to teach and shape young people because the government won’t hire teachers who don’t have a military ID. This is what it looks like to be Mennonite by choice.

Our identity is complicated. But it shapes us whether we recognize its influence or not. As you read this issue – and continue the conversation by attending the EQUIP study conference (see page 17) – consider how we are formed by these streams and how it shapes the way we read Scripture.

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