I suppose it was about 25 years ago that a close friend of mine, at the time a Mennonite pastor in the Midwest, stirred up a hornet’s nest by writing a letter to the editor of the Gospel Herald, the weekly denominational magazine. Signed “name withheld,” this letter raised the possibility that maybe Mennonites should rethink their knee-jerk rejection of alcohol (I have to confess that I am going totally by memory here; I don’t recall anything specific about my friend’s argument).
For weeks, it seems, the Herald was filled with letters to the editor ripping into my friend for suggesting the worst of possible heresies. And I am pretty certain that no one wrote a letter defending his points (I certainly didn’t). To suggest that Mennonites should accept the validity of drinking alcoholic beverages simply was outrageous.
Now I knew back then that quite a few Mennonites did indeed drink, but they couldn’t do so publicly it seems (like the old joke—what’s the difference between a Mennonite and a Lutheran? the Lutheran will say hi to you in the liquor store).
Over these past 25 years surely the number of Mennonites who do drink and who accept drinking as acceptable surely has increased pretty significantly. And, maybe as a sign of changing times, the current denominational magazine—now called The Mennonite—recently carried an article about a Mennonite family that has started a vineyard producing fine wine.
Well, maybe things haven’t changed so much after all. This article has also unleashed a firestorm of angry letters of condemnation. And once again, as near as I have noticed, not one letter has been published defending either the family for their vineyard or the magazine for running the article.
This is interesting. Because in fact I do imagine drinking habits among Mennonites have changed a great deal over the past generation. It’s not surprising that some people would be upset about those changes and would raise their voices in protest. But what is surprising, perhaps, is that still no one will raise their voices in defense of the changes.
If it’s okay now to drink (in moderation, of course) and the numbers of drinkers have increased significantly, why does it seem that no one is willing to defend this change? I have to confess that I don’t know the answer to this question. I’ve been a member of the Mennonite church now for nearly 30 years, been a pastor for most of those years, have lived in Mennonite communities in all four US time zones, have come to the point where I have thought I understood Mennonites pretty well. But I don’t understand this dynamic about alcohol.
Let me give an example. Kathleen and I joined the Eastern Mennonite University faculty in 1996. We had come to the point in our lives where we enjoyed a beer or a glass of wine on occasion. However, we noted that EMU “Community Lifestyle Commitment” (CLC) explicitly required faculty to abstain altogether from alcoholic beverages. We really wanted to be at EMU, so we signed the statement (with heavy hearts) and agreed to ourselves that we would follow it.
And so we did for our first several months. We made good friends with another couple just starting at EMU who shared our perspective on this issue (that is, they also with heavy hearts had agreed to be teetotallers). Then one night, the four of us went out to eat together, chafing together that we couldn’t have beer or wine with our dinner. Then on our way out of the restaurant, we walked by an EMU colleague sitting there with a class of beer!
When we got in the car, I said, did you see Dave in there drinking a beer? Yes, our friends said, and you know what, we were at a party last night with an EMU administrator who told us all that drinking actually is fine as she downed several beers. What the hell? The final straw came shortly afterwards when I learned from some friends who were not affiliated with EMU that they had gone out to eat with EMU’s president and wife—who had ordered a bottle of wine for them all to share! So I went out the next day to buy a six-pack.
It turned out that just about all of the EMU faculty and staff that we became friends with also partook on occasion. But still, the CLC stated this was not allowed. Rather than talk it out though, a couple of years later the EMU administration quietly reworded the CLC to (I’m going here off the top of my head without looking it up) say no “misuse,” not no “use.”
Well, it is a relief to not have to feel like one is breaking the rules when one orders a Jefferson Reserve Stout with one’s dinner. But how strange. Based on the letters to The Mennonite about the Mennonite vintners (who coincidentally live here in Harrisonburg), this is still a pretty big deal. But it can’t be discussed. It can’t be defended. Doesn’t that seem a bit unhealthy?