I am pondering yet again the “Mennonite” label, and what it means for us today in Canada. There are three things that recently provoked these questions.
First, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) funded historical research on its historical relationship with Nazism. MCC is bravely facing new understandings of its own history. However, MCC’s connections to Nazism from the 1920s to the ’40s are not in isolation from Mennonite churches. Is that our own history? Who were those Mennonites? Is that not us?
Second, Mennonite communities in some parts of Canada are the communities currently with the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates. Journalists and the public do not seem capable of distinguishing between “those Mennonites” and Mennonite Church Canada, which recently released a statement saying that there are no religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccinations in the Mennonite church. Our stance with those unvaccinated Mennonites is often to distance ourselves from them and explain that those Mennonites are not us.
Third, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation brings to light better understanding of the multigenerational harm of residential schools to Indigenous children and their families. The church—mostly Catholic, and some other denominations, with a few Mennonite schools—played the primary role in implementing governmental and societal desires to “take the Indian out of the child.” Again, is this not us?
I have extended family members who are choosing to stop identifying as Mennonites. That is one response.
How do we, as a Mennonite church, look to our past and also to our future?
Germany, as a country, has chosen an intentional path of educating its children and adults about Nazism in its history. The grassroots movement is to place Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”) in the pavement all over Europe, marking the places and spaces of Jewish people and others who were killed in the Holocaust. There are many large memorials in Germany, so that people know, understand—and don’t forget—the wrongs that were done nearly a century ago. History informs the future.
Canada is just beginning to do the same in regards to the wrongs done to Indige-nous communities over the centuries. There is so much more to be done.
As a Mennonite church faith community, we need to better understand and acknowledge the harms in which we participated, whether actively or passively, historically or currently. We need to accept our responsibilities, as part of the wider church and as part of the Mennonite church, for the wrongs that were/are committed in our name. We need to know our history in order to acknowledge harm and inform our future.
MCC and various historians are doing important work in understanding our historical relationship with Nazism. We all have a responsibility to learn more, particularly to understand why so many Mennonites were drawn to this worldview. We need to acknowledge harm and inform our future. We have work to do.
Mennonites in Canada have Indigenous-settler working groups along with staff in Winnipeg, who help us to acknowledge harm and to take actions that reshape our future. We have work to do.
And the culturally conservative Mennonites who are so wary about COVID-19 vaccinations? Where are the church-to-church relationships where discussions can take place about theology and worldview as Mennonites? We have work to do.
Arli Klassen’s family has a complicated history with Nazism, government schools for Indigenous children and culturally separate Anabaptist groups.