Healing the Mennonite class divide

August 27, 2013 | Viewpoints | Volume 17 Issue 14
Will Braun | Senior Writer

The recent coverage of three issues raises the delicate question of how we mainstream Mennonites relate to our more traditional Anabaptist cousins, especially when their troubles surface.

In August, New York-based Vice magazine ran a lengthy article entitled “The ghost rapes of Bolivia,” to which Canadian Mennonite provided links on its website and Facebook page. It revisits the horrific five-year-old case of numerous men from a Mennonite Colony in Bolivia who gassed and raped dozens of colony women and children.

This summer, national media also reported on the case of government officials in Manitoba apprehending children from a traditional Mennonite community due to allegedly harsh punishment by 13 adults in the community. (See “Old Order Mennonite community in turmoil,” July 8, page 16).

Finally, I wrote an article for this magazine in which Dave and Margaret Penner described profound dysfunction among the Low German Mennonites of the Durango Colony in Mexico, where they worked for four years with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

Canadian Mennonite has taken some sharp criticism for my article (“Ministry in a very different world,” July 8, page 4) and the Vice story. This is an important conversation. What is an appropriate response when our cousins in the faith experience difficulties?

Part of me wants to defend them. No person or place is all bad. The good should also be highlighted.

I also remind myself that we have important things to learn from traditional people. As a kid, I recall my dad making this point in reference to our black-clad old-school neighbour. We can learn much about simplicity, humility, community and resisting worldly influences.

I also feel a sense of responsibility to the victims of dysfunction. In defending these communities—or shifting focus to their strengths—one runs the risk of defending the indefensible. If our defence glosses over the trouble, it can leave oppressed people hidden behind a cloak of idealized sensitivities.

In short, I think an appropriate response to troubled traditional Mennonites is one that embodies respect, responsibility and a sense of reciprocity. Respected Mennonite historian Royden Loewen accused the Penners and me of presenting the Durango Colony as a problem. In his critique (“Boxing up the Old Colony Mennonites,” Aug. 19, page 14), he said the portrayal of the colony was dehumanizing. It’s a point worth considering.

The Penners spoke bluntly about the dysfunction they encountered, although they requested that I not publish the more graphic examples they shared (unlike the “ghost rapes” story, which lays the truth bare in horrific detail). The main message I heard from the Penners was this: Tremendous need exists in the colony, people are yearning for change, and we have a responsibility to respond.

The Penners also spoke with great warmth and affection about the people—people who willingly participated in the programs MCC offered and came knocking at the Penners’ door at all hours. I could have emphasized this more.

One could say the article about the Penners presented the Durango Colony as a problem, or one could say that it told the story of people who immersed themselves in a community for four years; developed a remarkably broad range of spiritually rooted, caring relationships; and encountered profound problems along the way. That is a credible and vital message.

I think it is worth saying that women and children suffering various forms of abuse do not need an academic defence of their church or culture. What they need are people on the ground to help provide safety and healing. The same could be said of the abusers. That is our responsibility as a family of faith. Of course, the work of intervention and healing must be done in a way that is dignifying and culturally sensitive.

Other people will strike the balance between respect and responsibility differently than the Penners. Those perspectives are also of value. That is why I contacted both Loewen and MCC, which also responded in print to my article (“A different take on ‘a very different world,’ ” Aug. 19, page 13). I wanted to better understand their perspectives. We had constructive exchanges.

I also wanted to ask them about the piece of this puzzle that weighs most heavily on me: the fact that in southern Manitoba—I can’t speak for other parts of the country—Low German-speaking Mennonites have long been segregated and treated by us as an underclass within the Mennonite community. This is a collective sin. I confess my part in it. I have a deep sense of unfinished spiritual business, something I have never heard a Mennonite leader acknowledge.

In my view, those of us who care about traditional Mennonites must take seriously this legacy of segregation. 

Share this page: Twitter Instagram



Thank you for this article. For me the crux of the issue is the last paragraph. I wish you had said a bit more on this topic (is the article printed in its entirety, it almost looks chopped off?). The "segregation" of Low German Mennonite is key to addressing these issues. Bad things happen in all communities, each community has its mechanisms that lead to systemic problems. But how (and really why) we choose to highlight them is key. And I agree with you that, "I feel a sense of responsibility to the victims of dysfunction. In defending these communities—or shifting focus to their strengths—one runs the risk of defending the indefensible. If our defence glosses over the trouble, it can leave oppressed people hidden behind a cloak of idealized sensitivities." Herein lies the reciprical problem, when people exigete the problems from the "segregation" framework the presenting issue no longer the problem. The presenting problem--as serious as it is--becomes but a pawn in further and deliberatly denigrating a community being segregated. The problem is the inherant need to keep pointing out the bad things in a community of people whom we don't like (or see as inferior, or maybe we are embarrassed by them because of their version of Mennonite thought and life--it´s a way of distancing our Mennonitism from theirs). So yes, oppression needs to come to light, but let´s examine our prejudices so as not to explicitly or even covertly make extra hay from others' disfunction.

Add new comment

Canadian Mennonite invites comments and encourages constructive discussion about our content. Actual full names (first and last) are required. Comments are moderated and may be edited. They will not appear online until approved and will be posted during business hours. Some comments may be reproduced in print.