The past as prelude

January 5, 2011 | Editorial | Number 1
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

As a people of hope, what should we, as a Mennonite faith community, expect on the road ahead in 2011?

If the past is prelude, as the adage goes, there are road signs, some of them giving helpful direction, others giving us warnings. At the risk of oversimplifying, we will deal with only three: cultural shifts, ecumenism and a new mission/service focus.

Since many Mennonite families are only one or two generations away from the exodus from Russia and eastern Europe in the 1920s and beyond, we are very conscious of our Russian/German/Dutch immigrant roots, evidenced by the large number of letters to Canadian Mennonite in 2010 as a response to the “Mennonite DNA Project” story.

One writer put the issue rather succinctly: “The majority of North American Mennonite churches still have a core of descendants of those survivors of history. While most are making very real efforts to open up, welcome and integrate believers of different backgrounds, this need not mean the denial of who we are and, yes, of ‘where we came from.’ ”

Well said.

The growing edge of our denomination, however, is not occurring in this sector of our population, but rather a quite different  “ethnicity” is emerging, made up of Asian, Latin American, African and Middle Eastern immigrants. While enthusiastically embracing our Anabaptist theology and ethos, they bring a more charismatic energy to our worship and assemblies, and are rightfully asking for a place in our leadership circles.

Will we make room for them at the table?

And in a changing political/socio-economic Canadian culture, we are not as sure as we were, in our more isolated communities, of just who we are. Are we a part of the rapidly emerging Christian right so vividly described in Marci McDonald’s recent book, The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada? In her wake-up call, she writes that the “emerging Christian right may look and sound different than its American counterpart, but in the five years since the prospect of same-sex marriage propelled evangelicals into political action, it has spawned a coalition of advocacy groups, think tanks and youth lobbies that have changed the national debate.”

Have we inadvertently taken up the cause of this increasingly loud and raucous movement—some 3.5 million strong, according to McDonald’s estimates—complete with their public square agenda opposing abortion, homosexuality and public education, and embracing Zionism—rather than holding to our Anabaptist position of viewing any “nationalism” with suspicion and advancing God’s kingdom values of invitation, peace and wholeness, rather than separation by engaging in the prevailing culture wars?

And in a new era of ecumenism, should we not embrace the urge to reconcile past theological differences, such as has happened with us Mennonites accepting the Lutheran gesture of forgiveness for past persecutions, and extend our own words of repentance to Canadian aboriginals in the horrific era of residential schools that robbed a people of their culture?

This is tricky terrain and we must walk carefully, as some of our theologians have cautioned us. These “holy moments” should not tempt us to self-righteousness, nor have us make celebrities out of our martyrs, but should rather instruct us in shaping a blueprint for future sharing of the good news of Jesus in our communities.

The Lutherans, who not only have reconciled with Mennonites, but are seeking “eucharistic hospitality” where Catholics would be able to receive communion at a Lutheran celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and Lutherans would be able to do the same at a Catholic mass, are modelling for the larger Christian community a paradigm that makes the sharing of the gospel a far more effective act of grace.

Our former strident doctrinal stands and closed religious cultures have engendered wars, split families within communions and left the younger generation disillusioned with organized religion entirely. So why not try a new approach?

And finally, as a helping communion, Mennonites need to examine both the motives and effects of our noteworthy charity efforts here at home and around the globe. Are we giving and serving so generously because of our need to feel superior, or do we want to open ourselves to new paradigms of empowerment for these same recipients, so their needs can be met by their own ingenuity and resources?

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