What is a Mennonite?

This week we welcome Ed Janzen as our community guest blogger.

Is it about who gave you birth?  -the roots of your family tree?

Is it about what you eat?  -the recipe book it came from? -how you got it? –whether it’s fair trade or local?

Is it about spirituality? –whether your pray? –what you sing? –where your beliefs come from? –whether they matter?

The term ‘Mennonite’ has been used to apply to all three of these phenomena.  The perplexing, disturbing and sometimes beautiful thing is that there’s no authorized body to declare which is the right usage of the term.  For most Mennonites, some combination of the three is probably the most accurate.  In fact for most people in general, some combination of pedigree, lifestyle and spirituality helps to tell the story of who they are and what their life is about.

The funny thing about Mennonite pedigree and its family tree is that it looks more like what forest biologists might call a rhizome network than an oak tree planted from a single acorn.  Mennonites – also known as Anabaptists – popped up throughout Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages, as part of the Reformation.  It was a religious movement – they believed in baptizing adults when everyone else was baptizing babies; they formed communities of spiritual allegiance to Jesus instead of to princes of the land; often they were on the run from authorities; often they wound up in prison; often they were tortured and many were even killed; they left a spiritual legacy of active faith in Jesus, nonviolence, mutual care and support, and, lots of migration to avoid persecution.  The princes and the priests often thought of them as a boil on the butt of Europe.  They weren’t perfect, some weird communities formed.  It’s amazing they lasted long enough to become a movement that has lasted this long.

It’s that migratory history and, like many Protestant movements during colonialism, missionary efforts that spread the movement here and there throughout the globe.  In fact, through the course of history, that movement was so effective that currently there are more Mennonites in Africa than in North America (679,053 v. 529,108) [1].  Ironically, Europe, the birthplace of Mennonites only lists 64,575 Mennonites.  What’s even better is that wandering through all those places made the Mennonite menu and dinner table more rich, diverse and tasty.  It also made for great potlucks and if there’s anything that explains what community means; it’s the potluck dinner.  The potluck dinner means you bring what you can, you receive what you need; everyone is welcome, everyone is cared for.  The commitment to justice and peace naturally flows out of the potluck experience.  It’s a pretty spiritual thing.

And that raises the question of praying.  It’s hard to have no spiritual awareness or sensitivity in life.  The spirituality of Mennonites is based pretty heavily on Jesus, on his stories, his miracles, on how he handled persecution (which may be where Mennonites got their pacifism).  But the most weird piece of Mennonite spirituality is that death and resurrection thing of Jesus.  It’s a mystery that has more to do with hope than intellectual certainty.  It’s this hope that makes Mennonites unpredictable and very diverse – you’ll find some very conservative Mennonites and you’ll find other Mennonites who are more radically inclusive, open to all people – queer ones, military ones, corporate ones, leftists, anarchists, political wonks.  There’s almost no end to the list.  What’s amazing is that such a diverse group of people, with diverse beliefs and diverse lifestyles often enjoy the same spiritual music and sometimes even wind up singing together.  It’s weird how it all comes together.

So don’t be surprised when in one day you come across someone driving a horse and buggy down Highway 85, have coffee with a Mennonite social worker at the Queen Street Commons or buy a loaf of bread from a Mennonite baker.  Best of all, enjoy what you learn about each one.

Ed is passionate about new directions for church and loves to go sailing on Lake Ontario on his boat, Freestyle. Ed serves as chaplain at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo and also on the board of Pastors in Exile.

[1] http://gameo.org/index.php?title=World_Mennonite_Membership_Distribution

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