‘Mennonite’ not eaten here

January 19, 2011 | Viewpoints | Number 2
David Martin |

As I look into the future, I find myself grieving the death of the Mennonite church. My sense is that the Mennonite church as we have known it is dying and that there is nothing that we can do to stop its eventual demise. As Mennonites integrate into the broader society, the close-knit communities that have shared a common Dutch-German or Swiss-German ancestry and cultural experience are beginning to slip away and die. I find a part of me grieving this loss.

What I also grieve is the way that we have sometimes allowed history and culture to become synonymous with the Mennonite faith. I am disturbed when being Mennonite appears to have more to do with a particular lineage, or is associated with a furniture brand or with ethnic foods like shoofly pie or zwieback. There is nothing “Mennonite” about the foods we eat.

What I find myself celebrating these days is the way that new adherents to the Mennonite faith are compelling us to re-examine what it truly means to be “Mennonite.” Mennonite Church Eastern Canada is now worshipping in 13 different languages on Sunday mornings, so if you are going to talk about “Mennonite food,” you had better start including some of my favourites, like Korean bulgogi, Laotian spring rolls, spicy Amharic dishes, or Hmong na vah.

In terms of Mennonite history, our stories of persecution also need to include the flight from oppression in Colombia, Laos or Sri Lanka, and not just from Russia or Switzerland. When non-westerners make up the majority of Mennonite World Conference, we here in Canada need to come to grips with the changing times and understand that being Mennonite is about embracing a theological and biblical identity, and not a cultural one.

I am encouraged by the popularity of Stuart Murray’s book The Naked Anabaptist. It represents the hunger within our congregations for setting aside the family histories and the ethnic associations, and embracing a renewed identity for the Mennonite church that is rooted in Scripture and theology. For the church to thrive and be relevant for a new generation of believers, we need to offer them more than a shared history and cultural experience. Culture and history are wonderfully enriching, but they must never displace the heart of what it means to be an Anabaptist-Mennonite. So please watch your language: Let’s keep the food Chinese, Hispanic, Ukrainian-German or Pennsylvania Dutch, but not “Mennonite.”

Perhaps we even need to downplay the culture of our founders in order to make space for the new cultures that are beginning to embrace the Mennonite faith. To use Jesus’ words, “. . . unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). What is it that needs to die in the Mennonite church today so that it can be reborn and revitalized as a multi-ethnic church embracing one faith and one Lord?

David Martin is executive minister of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.

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Response to David Martin article “‘Mennonite’ not eaten here” in the Jan 24, 2011 issue

Eat Paska together and be glad - ‘Mennonite’ eaten here!

David Martin’s recent article raises a number of interesting questions but it requires a response. (1) He finds himself grieving the coming ‘death’ of the Mennonite church. (2) He notes that Mennonites are integrating into the dominant broader society but bemoans the lingering connections of the church to a culturally distinctive way of life. (3) He lauds the Murray book Naked Anabaptist as a book which highlights the need to toss aside history and culture in our search for ‘pure’ Anabaptism.

There is a natural connection between culture and being Mennonite and rather than ‘grieve’ this connection, we should celebrate it. Yes, religion is more than culture, but it is also culture. How could it not be? There is no easy distinction between religion and culture since one’s beliefs are always connected to community. The beauty of Christianity is not that it destroys the significance of culture but rather that different communities of Christians from around the world can work to be the people of God on the strength of their culture and history.

Mennonites, perhaps more than most, have been aware of the need for our beliefs to find life and meaning in how we live. From the beginning, Anabaptists have said that more important than vague intellectual commitments, we are a church explicitly based on lived community. If that is right, then how we work, what we spend our money on, the tv shows we watch, the books we read, and what and how we eat all matter, are all part of the vast mosaic of ‘being Mennonite.’ And this is true no matter where in the world you happen to be. The fact that there is no simple connection between religion and culture doesn’t mean that the connection isn’t there.

But perhaps I am missing the point of the article. The worry seems to be that the Mennonite church in Canada will somehow neglect or fail to recognize our connections to Mennonites around the world if we call zwieback ‘Mennonite Food.’ Do we really believe that there are those who who think that Mennonites from Africa aren’t true Mennonites because they don’t eat paska every Easter? Seriously? Why then is our hymnal so full of songs from communities around the world? Why do delegates from the World Conference return with stories and anecdotes of cultural expressions of Mennonites from around the world? Why are we so willing to celebrate other cultural expressions of being Mennonite yet so eager to deny our own connection to our history? If we deny this connection, don’t we also deny an essential component to what has made our faith sustainable over the years? Isn’t the denial of the cultural significance of religion simply an expression of the modern western secular striving to make faith irrelevant to life?

Perhaps it would be helpful to examine the main points the article makes. (1) He grieves the coming death of the Mennonite church. One wonders if he simply means that the Mennonite church is changing. But why then speak in such stark terms? Was there ever a time when the church wasn’t changing? He mentions the “close-knit communities that have shared a common Dutch-German or Swiss-German ancestry,” but one seriously doubts whether these communities ever thought being Mennonite was synonymous with culture despite the reality that lived cultural connections have always served to sustain the faith. How else could they become close-knit? It seems odd to mourn the loss of close knit community by decrying that which allowed them to be so.

Furthermore, isn’t the fact that we in Canada can trace our connections from the Netherlands to Prussia to the Russia to Canada (or from Switzerland to Pennsylvania to Ontario) evidence that Mennonites have never let cultural identity override religious commitment? I trace my heritage back to the Netherlands but there is little if anything culturally which connects me back that far. Most of my Mennonite cultural inheritance comes from Russia, and specifically the Ukraine. The foods I grew up with (borscht, platz, pershkie, zwieback, etc.) became part of the Mennonite culture hundreds of years after Conrad Grebel and Menno Simons. But they are an important part of who I am as a Mennonite since they connect me to my past. They have been a part of the lived expression of the community of faith that came before me.

It has been many years since I had the pleasure of eating my Oma’s pershkie since she passed away some time ago but I have recently taught myself how to make them. And in doing so I recall my Oma, the struggles she had in Russia in the 1920s, the journey to a new life in Canada and my memories of her. In so doing I am connecting with my past in a way that an abstract theological identity can never accomplish. That food is a bond is something the church has always known. Language is similar: there is nothing inherently special in the German language but it is the mother tongue of my parents and my grandparents. Long ago I joined a German speaking youth group in Winnipeg and I still remember one evening being part of the group singing German Christmas carols (the same ones my parents and grandparents would have sung) to the elderly members of the congregation. I can’t think of another time I felt more connected to my identity as a Mennonite than I was that night.

Yes, the foods I grew up with will be less significant to the next generation and German is spoken less and less in the Mennonite church but that is not because culture has suddenly become irrelevant. Rather the issue is whether we will provide as rich a cultural inheritance to the next generation as was provided for us.

(2) “Being Mennonite is about embracing a theological and biblical identity, and not a cultural one.” In other words, being Mennonite has little to do with the day to day living of your life. But of course this is impossible since the theological and biblical identity you commit to cannot help but find a cultural expression. However, I can’t help but admit that he is not alone, there are those who do believe that religion and culture should be kept separate. In fact this is the dominant approach of our western secular culture (ironic that the cry to separate culture from religion is itself cultural). We live in a western society that tolerates religion as long as people don’t take it seriously as having implications for how one lives in and responds to the broader culture. Is this the identity Martin espouses? Are we looking for a vacuous unity where we can all be Christians as long as it implies nothing?

So the question again is whether we will provide as rich a cultural inheritance to the next generation as was provided for us. We can’t avoid providing something and it won’t be exactly the same as what came before. Our cultural identity should reflect our theological and biblical identity, but rather than think of these as neatly defined and separate entities we should be aware that it is all part of the package of who we are. And we should celebrate the whole package in our churches and in our daily lives.

(3) The article claims that The Naked Anabaptist rightly identifies the ‘core’ principles of Anabaptism and disregards any aspect of Mennonite culture as irrelevant. Why I find the premise of this book strange I have perhaps have already made clear, but the book is interesting in that it claims that by focusing on the ‘core,’ Anabaptism will be more accessible to outsiders. The worry, however, is that the accessibility the book seeks is one empty of content. Anabaptists have always understood that to be a Christian is not a matter of abstract theological commitments but rather to work out together what it means to live one’s day to day life in accordance to the will of God. Such working out by a community will necessarily develop into a set of traditions and a culture. If we seek accessibility by removing the significance of day to day life we gain it only at the cost of subverting the Gospels.

None of this is to say that because my Opa used horses in Russia for transportation that I must also do so now or that there is a straight line between the gospel accounts and eating paska. Nor does any of this suggest that Mennonites in Ethiopia, England, Loas, Korea or elsewhere are bound to follow the exact traditions of my background. But if they take Anabaptism seriously they will develop their own and pass them along to those who follow them. If those who discover Anabaptism want to find out more, they can read books and academic accounts but if they really want to know what it is, they should attend an Anabaptist church. And if this isn’t possible in their area, they should form one (if they really want to know).

Finally, I look forward to Easter when I will eat paska and be glad that in eating Mennonite food I am, if only in part, living my faith.

Thank you Ramon Rempel for your on-line response to the article “Mennonite not eaten here.” It is very well stated.

The church that I attend invites all ethnicities. We share our stories. Even though the potluck tables are still heavily Russian-Ukraine oriented this is changing as our own cultural fabric evolves. This is how it should be. My mother (now passed on) and her sisters have poignant stories of their life in Russia. I will pass on those stories at every opportunity. Like Ramon, I feel a connection to those stories when I eat zwieback and borscht. When I eat foods from other ethnic groups, I share in their cultural identity. This is part of the community that we are building today. I will not shun my cultural heritage, as I do not expect others to shun theirs. We break bread together and live our Mennonite lives as a church community embracing all comers and their faith journey in all its’ expressions. Apart from strict theology, this is also what I think it is to be Mennonite.

In regards to food specifically, is it possible to separate ethnicity from the word Mennonite? Google “Mennonite food” and view the many sites that not only delve into the cultural history of such foods but direct the readers to recipes and places where these foods can be found and purchased. Of special note is, The Kitchenhood of all Believers by Matthew Bailey-Dick at; www.goshen.edu/mqr/pastissues/apr05bailey.html

How far should we take the naked Anabaptist concept? Whether in the context of food or historically how a sermon is delivered, I find the idea of naked Anabaptism to be interesting as a concept only.

Let me recount a cultural experience that I had. My parents passed on to me the culture of praise through song. In the final days of my mothers’ life when she could no longer speak, I would often sing to her from the German and English hymnbooks at her bedside. I was aware that other residents of “The Home” would stop outside the door of the dimly lit room to listen. One night as I sang I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder. I was startled and stopped. It was my church pastor. He encouraged me to continue and said, “It is a wonderful thing that you are doing. We are all listening.” So I continued and ended the session as I often did with the song taught to me in infancy “Mude bin ich geh zu ruh.”

For some reason I felt so…Mennonite that evening. Was I wrong to feel that way? Should this feeling embarrass me? Should I deny my cultural heritage? Should I separate my cultural heritage from my theology? Could I do so even if I wanted to? I think not. In a way, was I not living the theological nakedness of Matthew 25:40 within a cultural context? I was ministering not only to my mother but also to the others listening at the door.

“Let us break bread together, Let us drink wine together, Let us praise God together on our knees.” (Hymnal #453) In so doing, let us share our stories, our food, our songs, and our faith, celebrating and building our evolving Mennonite theological/cultural community richly and pass it on to those who follow.

It is not our reputation as pacifists that makes us good Mennonites and Christians; it is separation from the world and the worldly that makes one a true Christian (Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 6: 14-17). Even though the earth belongs to the Lord, Satan runs the world thru freewill decisions humans have made (2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2; Rev. 12:9).

In order to be true Christians we must not be worldly and we must not accept worldliness. God is Love. Christian love is completely different from the versions of association and affection that the world offers. All the changes that the world and the lukewarm are clamouring for Mennonites and Christians everywhere to accept are not from God. They are from Satan (Rev. 3).

Both Jesus and Satan came to this earth to separate us into two distinct and completely opposite groups: Christian and non-Christian-anti-Christ (Luke 12:51; Matt. 10:35). There is a spiritual war going on (Eph. 6: 11-12). It is impossible to serve two spiritual masters. Lukewarmness places an individual firmly into the non-Christian group. Not only is God’s gate to life everlasting very narrow, but the road is narrow as well. The Bible stipulates that there will be few individuals actually found on it (Luke 12:51; Matt. 7: 13-15).

During the Reformation, the Anabaptists who became Mennonites and Amish separated from the Catholic church and the Reform church. They were convicted that infant baptism was not scriptural and baptism as an adult believer was scriptural, which was the exact opposite of what the most powerful state church practiced and enforced. “Being separate from the world” is just as biblical as doing the Great Commission. In fact, being a true Christian requires us to do both.

Growing up Old Order Mennonite and much later becoming a Christian and being baptised in a modern Mennonite church, I have witnessed how the Old Order Mennonites have failed in accomplishing the Great Commission, and I have witnessed a modern Mennonite church that failed in remaining non-worldly. We Mennonites can be obedient to the Great Commission while obediently not being a part of “the world,” and we must.

If we want true Christian reform we must search for the truth, hold fast to the truth, and be repentant non-conformers to all the lukewarmness and worldliness that is from Satan (John 8:32).

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