Readers write

August 27, 2013 | Viewpoints | Number 17

Portrayal of Old Colony Mennonites called ‘irresponsible and unethical’

Re: “Ministry in a very different world,” July 8, page 4.

I am troubled that Canadian Mennonite would represent a group in the way that the Old Colony Mennonites of Durango Colony are portrayed in this article. Old Colony Mennonites are not given the benefit of the doubt and they are silenced by such categorical and harsh judgments as:

  • They live in an “emotional, physical and spiritual vacuum.”
  • They are “impoverished in every aspect of life.”
  • “[T]he church restricts them from basic freedoms.”

Making such a negative assessment of Old Colony Mennonites is possible in this article because of its implicit assumption that Canadian Mennonite forms of religiosity are normative and the faith of Old Colony Mennonites, which differs significantly from most forms familiar to Canadian Mennonites, is aberrant and harmful. If categories of religious life that are familiar to Canadian Mennonites are the only tool used to assess Old Colony Mennonite faith, then, indeed, all we can do is judge it.

But I think there can be another way in which we take seriously Old Colony Mennonites as they represent themselves. Every society, including ours and Old Colony Mennonite ones, has its dark side where the vulnerable, those who don’t fit and those who threaten the status quo are hurt and displaced.

I believe there is a time and place to ask hard questions about groups of people different from ourselves, especially if we have committed ourselves to live with them for four years, as the Penners have. But doing so without first honestly examining our own assumptions and motivations—doing so with the naïve un-self-critical approach that this article models—leads to an unfair and skewed representation of a people. This is irresponsible and unethical.

But in the end, it is ourselves to whom we do the greatest disservice. We create a sterile—perhaps even vacuous and box-like—environment in which we can be confident that we are right, but in which the richness of genuine human-to-human interaction with others who challenge our status quo is absent. We impoverish ourselves in so many ways—mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually—when we try to re-form Old Colony Mennonites, or any other group, in our own image.

Kerry Fast, Toronto

Online article ‘brilliant, brave, sympathetic’

Re: “The ghost rapes of Bolivia”.

I would like to thank the reporter Jean Friedman-Rudovsky for her brilliant, brave, sympathetic and insightful reporting of the horrific story of the horrific so-called “ghost rapes” in the traditionalist Mennonite community of Bolivia. She does not vilify the Mennonites or their traditionalist project, but rather zeroes in on the specific systemic factors that contribute to the making of such a pervasive community horror.

The factors she lists in an insightful online interview include “a lack of checks and balances, warped use of forgiveness, lack of sexual and reproductive health education, and a religion that tells them that their time on earth is meant for suffering, so when something bad happens, you just accept it, rather than raise a fuss, particularly if you are a woman.”

In the same interview, Friedman-Rudovsky further reflects that, “whenever you have a group that sees itself outside the limits of the rest of society and that values the reputation or integrity of the group over the safety and protection of the individual, that commu-nity is more likely to be prone to sexual abuse.”

I hope the Mennonite church-based communities of North America take this story and insightful analysis as a challenge and opportunity to embark on a serious process of self-reflection and wide-scale internal revisioning, since these “systemic factors” and attitudes—along with the harmful effects on the intimate and social lives of women and men—are widely prevalent throughout the Mennonite world, even if not as dramatically expressed as in Bolivia.

Di Brandt, Brandon, Man.

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