Not that kind of Mennonite

I watched “Pure” this week. You know, the new CBC drama about Mennonite drug dealers in Southern Ontario. Like so many other critics this week, I was concerned and uncomfortable just minutes into the show. The Mennonites portrayed are patriarchal, violent and insular. Of course, patriarchy, violence and insularity do exist in some Mennonite communities. My real concern with “Pure” is its lack of nuance. It talks only of “Mennonites”, without giving any indication that there are in fact hundreds (thousands?) of different ways to be Mennonite. Actually, the supposed Mennonites of “Pure” are really a mashup of quite a few different Anabaptist groups. See Luisa D’Amato’s article Nothing Pure in CBC’s Mennonite Series.

The “Mennonites” I saw on screen hold almost nothing in common with my experience of what it means to be a Mennonite, let alone that of my Mennonite friends of Congolese or Chinese origin. 

My frustration and disappointment with “Pure” feels familiar. When I was in grade 12, one of two Menno kids in a big GTA public high school, Miriam Toews book “A Complicated Kindness” found its way into the English curriculum. It wasn’t long before students and teachers alike began coming up to me in the hall and asking strange questions like “is everything ok at home?” You see, they knew I was a Mennonite, and they had just read this book by and about a Mennonite, so they figured that I probably came from a home and a church that were just as repressive and patriarchal as the ones Toews described.

My best friend was quick to set everyone straight. She had been coming to Mennonite summer camp with me for years and had spent enough time in my home and my church to know that there was no need for concern.

“Oh Jessie’s not that kind of Mennonite,” she told the curious and concerned alike, “she’s the kind of Mennonite that wears Birkenstocks and goes and lives in different countries and stuff.”

She was right. I’m not that kind of Mennonite. I wasn’t the “A Complicated Kindness” kind of Mennonite ten years ago, and I’m certainly not the “Pure” kind of Mennonite now. So what kind of Mennonite am I? My 18 year old self was happy to be identified with the Birkenstock wearing, world travelling ways of my friends and family. Now I think I’d like to be lumped together with the kind of Mennonites who care a lot about the earth, the kind who live simply, the kind that ally themselves with folks experiencing oppression, the kind who try and take Jesus’s words and actions seriously. 

Where’s the tv show about that kind of Mennonite? Or maybe I should ask myself, how am I promoting that kind of image of what it means to be a Mennonite?

Beyond my own feelings of being mislabeled and misunderstood, I think there’s a deeper lesson here. In what ways do I perpetuate the sort of stereotyping evident on “Pure?” I’m not talking about Mennonites any more.  I know I’m guilty of stereotyping other faith groups in this way.

Surely there are a thousand nuanced ways to be Muslim or Hindu or Jewish as well. 

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