Chantal and I rarely make a point of going to art exhibit openings but on occasion we pass by them and end up wandering in. We recently walked through a photo exhibit with massive images measuring around 4×8 feet or so. They were in black and white and included a single human figure ‘blended’ into some aspect of nature, mostly wood if I remember correctly. The theme was straightforward enough particularly in relation to the artist statement. What I remember from the statement was some comment about the artist’s connection to nature and how they could ‘feel it in their bones’. This sort of statement is common and I remember mentioning to Chantal that I have never understood this sentiment. I cannot relate to this experience but I am beginning to relate this inexperience to my faith tradition.
Mennonites are constantly at the work of self-definition. Our greatest defining feature of the Protestant era is arguably our reclaiming of baptism as an adult decision. This action was both illegal and heretical. It uprooted what grounded us as our birth right. It also spawned a genus of Christianity that while numerically small has spiraled into leagues of denominations never mind all the individual congregations that decided to go it on their own for the sake conviction. This faith suffers little nostalgia and preserves no stable tradition for more than a couple of generations (though within those generations nostalgia can be fierce). It is a faith constantly forgetting and pulling up stakes. I write this all without a clear sense of whether I should call it good or bad.
Approaching middle age I am beginning to see patterns in my life reflective of these faith dimensions. I instinctively disdained ‘medieval’ church architecture and after a brief flirtation with Anglicanism have disregarded both ‘high’ liturgy and systematic theology. I have been drawn to the image of the orphan never really knowing the obligation to family either biological or ecclesial.
Recently, I did resonate with Daniel Boyarin’s reading of the biblical text in relation to land and identity saying that our identity is not one of claiming true origins “but one of always already coming from somewhere else.” (A Radical Jew, 252). This is a nice turn of phrase but painful as he works it out in relation to his Jewish heritage and connection to the Land and his hesitation to fully support indigenous land claims around the world because of how it has played out for the state of Israel.
There is an irony and a danger in the discontinuity of the Christian and Mennonite faith. The irony is that for Mennonites we have no choice in our choosing and that choosing then becomes inescapable. There are of course those who never really choose and simply drift through life on the current of their time and place but for Mennonites that current consists of those who have made choices. The field of Mennonite literature, confessional theology, and denominational gatherings are saturated with questions of identity, of finding a core ‘essence’ of locating something on which to build unity. Our most enduring quality appears to be an obligation to choose. This comes close to my current working definition of being Mennonite.
The danger is that in choosing we constantly open ourselves to the unnamed and seemingly invisible investments of power in the present age. Mennonites are known for their resistance to the world but increasingly there is an awareness that something was lost after the first generation of protest and that much of the resistance to the world for Mennonites was passive complicity to the powers of the world. Mennonites were indeed willing to move from their homes out of their sense of conviction but it was often a move to a place of privilege at the cost of local and indigenous people of a particular time and place. And in the present many North American expressions of the Mennonite church are little more than defensive postures consciously or unconsciously expressed to preserve and insulate ways of relating both from the influence and the criticism of outside perspectives . . . in the name of God (or well, the Bible).
I think there is opportunity in this obligation to choose but I do think the opportunity will only come with some sense of awareness. To return to Boyarin, the pursuit is not towards ‘true origins’ or essence (as he says there has never been an essence to essentialism) but in the creative reworking of our faith materials. To play off Simone Weil we must begin to acknowledge that peace like justice is fugitive and that our choosing is always an opening to attentiveness to suffering and to affliction and to encamp in places that provide relief to the afflicted and resistance to oppressors.
To be clear this is no claim on those indigenous forms that explore the manner in which one can ‘feel something (the land, animals, the water, the sky, etc.) in their bones’ in ways that reconnect and rejuvenate lives and communities. This is rather a confession of one who seemingly cannot become indigenous one who has been compelled to choose and can seemingly only choose again, and again, to be Mennonite.