Mennonites and “separation”: More ruminations

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2015

My first encounter with Mennonites, now nearly 40 years ago, came in the context of my interest in the intentional Christian community movement, specifically Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois. I spent a week at Reba in the summer of 1976, and received a crash course in communal living. That was the beginning of a great adventure. About that same time, I also became very interested in the Mennonite peace tradition.

I am not sure how long it took before I began to learn a bit about the shadow side of the Mennonite story. I suppose it has been the flip side of the community ideal that Mennonites have also tended to break fellowship with each other. It is a sign that they take their relationships quite seriously—as well as their ideals of rigorous discipleship. But surely the countless splits that have characterized the tradition for hundreds of years have rarely been healthy or life-enhancing. Generally, they have been demoralizing and rancorous.

So, the current dynamics in the orbit of Mennonite Church USA are not new in the history of these communities. Our present day anxiety and distress are not unprecedented. At the same time, it is likely that each season of division has its own distinctive characteristics. One question is whether the tendency toward division is simply a bad thing, or maybe (at least at times) reflects laudable convictions. Maybe separation within the fellowship is not always undesirable.

One of my most direct encounters with the Mennonite way of division came about 25 years ago when I was a young pastor in a Mennonite conference out west. I actually unwillingly played a role in a schismatic moment. When I was being considered for ordination, several pastors in the conference raised strong objections to my candidacy due to theological concerns. It took several painful years, but the conference leaders finally decided to go ahead and ordain me. At that point, two pastors led their congregations out of the conference (there was also, simultaneously, the ordination of the first two women pastors—one of whom happened to part of my tiny congregation). A third pastor failed to get his congregation to leave, and resigned his pastorate instead.

I have not maintained many contacts in that conference, so I don’t know much about the long-term legacy of the splits. But I was told by numerous people in the decade following the “divorce,” that things had actually worked out pretty well. The conference was more peaceable, and the congregations that left seemed happier and continued to fellowship with conference churches through Mennonite Central Committee and other inter-Mennonite efforts. In both the towns of the departing congregations, new Mennonite congregations were formed by those who desired to remain in the conference (and both still exist). So, the division was not the end of the world and perhaps even had positive consequences. Though I’m sure a lot of pain still lingers as well.

So, the question of Mennonites and “separation” is not a new one—and not a simple one.

The first Anabaptists

The Anabaptist movement arose in a time of great flux and ferment in western Europe amidst the emergence of the Protestant Reformation. There were a lot of new movements, forcible splits, reform efforts, renewal movements in this era-changing moment. As with Martin Luther, who did not originally set out completely to split from Catholicism and create a new movement, so it appears that at least some of the earliest Anabaptists also did not set out to split completely from the newly established Protestant churches. They started out—at least those in the Zurich, Switzerland, area who are generally seen as the first re-baptizers in January, 1525—as a reform movement who wanted Protestant leaders such as Ulrich Zwingli to take their reforms to their logical conclusion (and create a church free from government control that would baptize only believers).

Surely we may see the seeds of separatism in these early radicals from the start. They did argue from the beginning for separation from worldly activities such as war, the gathering of many possessions, and a culturally accommodated church. But they argued for the entire church to follow this path, not for the need to create tiny dissenting and separate congregations. John Howard Yoder made the case for this reading in his doctoral dissertation, published in English as Anabaptism and Reformation in Switzerland in 2004 (originally published in German in 1968).

Yoder studied several formal theological dialogues that were held between Anabaptist leaders and Reformed Church leaders. Yoder suggests that these dialogues make it clear that the Anabaptists wanted to stay connected with the broader Protestant church and that the severing of the relationships came at the initiative of the Reformers. The Anabaptist ideal, it would seem, was a combination of a strong commitment to separation from worldliness and a desire for Christian unity.

As it turned out, the “mainstream church” of the 16th century, both the Catholic and Protestant wings, was not interested in unity—certainly not with the Anabaptists (who met their deaths by persecution in both Catholic and Protestant territories) but, of course, not with each other as well. A historical sense of the dynamics of separatism in the Anabaptist tradition should keep in mind that the movement arose in an era of tremendous Christian-versus-Christian violence; an environment of constant deadly wars for several generations following Martin Luther’s initial break.

It’s not surprising that the Anabaptists would have quickly come to combine a sense of separation from the world and from the mainline churches. Certainly one element of this move was the profound trauma of the experience, a trauma that perhaps became embedded in the Anabaptist soul over the following generations of persecution.

It is interesting that as the sense of hostility toward Mennonites from mainstream churches eased in Holland during the 17th century, the sense of commitment to Anabaptist ideals seems likewise to have waned. So an effort was made to rekindle the passion by collecting stories of past traumas (The Martyrs Mirror). This effort did seem to have had the effect of providing comfort for later Mennonites who experienced persecution. However, to some degree at least, this happened by reenforcing the originating trauma, even for those who did not themselves directly face traumatizing events.

“Church discipline”

From early on, Anabaptist groups sought to strengthen their sense of separation from worldly dynamics by the exercise of “church discipline” that would seek to keep people in the church faithful to their rigorous calling—or create a sense of separation between the offending member and the congregation. Menno Simons himself urged the movement toward high expectations of members and the use of pain (or threatened pain) to enforce those expectations. Hence, “separation” came to mean several things—not being conformed to a sinful world, not being part of an accommodationist church, and not maintaining fellowship with Christians perceived as too worldly.

The practice of church discipline, when it was justified, was framed as an exercise in tough love—”the Lord disciplines those he loves.” It was seen as notable that Anabaptist/Mennonite discipline, in contrast with the way the mainstream churches had disciplined the early Anabaptists, did not involve physical violence. However, it seems nonetheless that the practice of church discipline among Mennonites quite often was not characterized by compassion or a generosity of spirit. The lack of physical violence did not mean that the disciplining process did not lead to a great deal of psychic violence. It’s almost as if the Mennonites did accept the validity of punishing deviants—as their forebears had been punished by the mainstream churches—even if they refused to imitate the physical violence of the Catholics and mainstream Protestants.

It’s hard to estimate the psychic violence visited upon Mennonites over the years by their own faith communities. In recent years, some Mennonite visionaries have pioneered efforts at trauma healing (e.g., Eastern Mennonite University’s STAR program). I have been part of conversations where the question has been raised whether the Mennonite tradition could be insightfully interpreted in light of the past experiences of trauma going back to the 16th century origins in the midst of terrible persecutions. I’m not aware of any rigorous efforts to pursue this angle, but surely it would be useful for growth in understanding.

However, just as pertinent may be an accompanying analysis that would consider the impact of self-inflicted traumas in the tradition due to strict church discipline practices and a more general sense of communal coercion to conform. Perhaps the post-traumatic stress disorder dynamic in the tradition has as much to do with ways of practicing “church discipline” as with outside persecution. Certainly, in more recent generations in North America, the stories of trauma that are told usually have to do with hurt visited by the church more than the outside world.

A difficult paradox

The Mennonite traditions of rigorous understandings of the Christian life and the tendency toward separation contribute to a paradox for an idealistic, first-generation Mennonite such as myself. On the one hand, I became a Mennonite in large part due to the rigorous notion of discipleship the tradition has espoused and often embodied. Peace theology, generations of conscientious objection, tremendous works of service, and creative responses to disasters and economic development. The Mennonite context has provided the generative dynamics that have contributed to the emergence of restorative justice, conflict transformation, and trauma healing.

On the other hand, there is this long and troubling tradition of painful conflicts inadequately handled, “nonviolent” coercion, excommunication and shunning, using threats to leave as a lever to shape denominational practices and policies.

Are these two inextricable sides to one coin? Can you have embodied rigorous discipleship that counters the domination system of the wider world without the shadow side of internal conflictedness and seemingly endless splits and rumors of splits?

What’s to be done?

As I wrote in previous posts, it is difficult right now to be optimistic about the future of Mennonite Church USA. Perhaps, to allude to what Martin Buber wrote in I and Thou about 100 years ago, our biggest problem is a belief in “doom.” Pessimism and, even perhaps more, fatalism seem common in what I hear from Mennonites these days. There don’t seem to be many feelings of loyalty or affection toward the denomination itself. However, it could be (I hope) that feelings of loyalty toward the best elements of the Mennonite tradition may still exist. Perhaps this time of crisis might clarify some of those feelings.

Regardless of the precise future of denominational structures, all who do feel connected to the ideals of the tradition have the capability to work to sustain those ideals. An idea that I feel attracted to that might help this kind of work is that we would do well to draw on the biblical notion of election or chosenness. Problems in the biblical tradition have arisen when the sense of chosenness has been misunderstood.

The basic message of the Bible, I believe, is that God chooses a specific people in order to bless all the families of the earth. The point of the chosenness is never for the sake of the chosen people themselves, at least not for them alone. The point of the chosenness is never that the chosen people should create institutions that then claim some of their highest loyalties. The institutions are always dangerous because they can take the place of the vision to bless others—they can become ends in themselves instead of being, at best, means to the ends of blessing.

Perhaps if Mennonites could somehow come to hold their institutions more lightly and focus more on how they can bless others, some of the perceived sense of crisis in the moment could dissipate a bit. Holding institutions more lightly could lead denominational leaders to worry less about keeping the denomination together and more about doing the challenging and difficult peace work that could impact the broader world. And it could lead those who feel they must separate from the core denomination to pause and reflect—and to appreciate more the ways that participation in the broader Mennonite fellowship helps them better to witness to the gospel of peace.

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7 thoughts on “Mennonites and “separation”: More ruminations

  1. You suggest that institutionalism and work to “impact the broader world” compete for our attention. I’d suggest that, at least since the early 20th century, these two have actually been contingent on each other. “Holding institutions more lightly could lead denominational leaders to worry less about keeping the denomination together and more about doing the challenging and difficult peace work that could impact the broader world.” – quite the opposite: the restless desire to “fix the world” has, in fact, given birth to much of the Mennonite institutionalism we know today. Leaders have, in various ways, articulated that a united body (as opposed to tribalisms) is necessary so that we can be effective world-changers, and have the loudest voice possible. And being world-changers, in return, requires strong and well organized institutions, structure, branding and all. The two ideals, then, are not so much competitors – they can just as well be seen as flowing from the same stream, a stream that has long fit both liberal and evangelical variations within the Mennonite world.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to respond, “pgollner.”

      It seems to me that you use the term “institutionalism” in a strange way (and it’s not a word I use in my post). I agree that “strong and well organized institutions” have been and will continue to be crucial for Mennonite efforts to be “effective world changers” (in my personal experience these includes Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and Eastern Mennonite University).

      But these institutions, when they are serving their best purposes, are serving the mission of blessing others. I would think “institutionalism” is when concern about the survival of the institution threatens to overshadow concern about its mission. That may or may not be the case with MC USA (which is the institution I most have in mind in my post) right now—but I fear that the current anxiety may stem more from concern about the institution simply continuing to exist than seems ideal.

  2. Yes, let us drop the “ism” and use the kind of convern for unity as you have outlined it. It seems to me that there is little precedent in recent Menno history when “holding institutions lightly” has resulted in greater focus on being “world changes,” as I put it. A united institutional front, post-tribal, pan-ethnic has always been employed as serving the posture of “impacting the broader world.” In return, being relevant and culture-shaping, we have heard, requires unified institutions (i.e. the “lets just stop fighting, and change the world instead” refrain) (Full disclosure: this is Philipp Gollner, PhD candidate at Notre Dame)

    1. I’m sorry, Philipp, that I missed your comments from a week ago when you posted them. I hope you’re still around.

      From your further thoughts, I’m a little confused. Are you actually suggesting that the evolution of the Mennonite “sense of self” (at least in relation to the Mennonites who are part of MC USA) in the past couple of generations toward hoping to be “world changers” has made “a united institutional front” more necessary—and hence has actually changed the meaning of “Mennonite” in ways that are not necessarily good? And probably made our current sense of institutional crisis more likely?

      So, “holding institutions more lightly” might actually be a good idea, but it is not really very compatible with Mennonites being “world changers” (a task that has inherent tensions for traditional Mennonite faith)?

      If this is what you are thinking, I think you might be on to something.

  3. Ted, I like these ruminations. It makes me think again, though, about the relationship between institutions that are primarily being-oriented (i.e., denominations, conferences, collections of smaller groups, focused mostly on identity) and those that are action-oriented (i.e., MCC, MDS, universities, etc.).

    As someone who has been involved in conference leadership for awhile now, but who also strongly supports the action-oriented institutions, I feel that it’s very easy for people to criticize and dismiss the being-oriented or identity-focused institutions like conferences and denominations, in part because they don’t seem all that important or valuable, and in part because they tend to be the locus of contention. It’s hard to point at things they “do” or “produce”, especially compared to MCC, MDS, or EMU. But I think that’s precisely because their focus is different.

    Conferences and denominations, at their best, are simply a collection of congregations (or conferences, in the scaled-up case of MC USA) that are working together to make themselves stronger and more healthy than they would be as separate, autonomous congregations. So when I was moderator, I tried to get people to see “conference” not as some monolithic thing “out there”, but something that their congregation was an organic, integral part of. I.e., “conference” = “us”.

    When Mark Vincent gave us some counsel as our conference was considering a fundraising campaign, he suggested asking all conference institutions (i.e., action-oriented ones like our camp, school, retirement communities, etc.) to provide some funding to conference. At first, I couldn’t understand why they would want to. But his argument made a lot of sense.

    Vincent’s argument, mediated through many years of faulty memory and interpretation by me, went something like this: if it weren’t for the conference, i.e., the collection of Mennonite congregations in this region, we wouldn’t *have* these action-oriented institutions in the first place. These institutions were started and supported by Mennonite congregations for decades. Just because they seem quasi-independent now doesn’t mean that they aren’t still highly dependent on these congregations, i.e., the conference. So it’s in the interest of both groups to symbiotically support one another. And to act as if one (conference/denomination) is not important to the other (schools, camps, mission agencies, etc.) might be mistaken.

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