The future of the Mennonite Church After Identity: A review essay

Robert Zacharias, editor. After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015.

I grew up in the Mennonite stew of southern Manitoba. I began in the Sommerfelder Mennonite church but stopped attending around junior high. My parents were regular but not devote attendees. When I was old enough to stay home they never forced me to go. I flirted with Bergthaler and Mennonite Brethren youth groups until I committed to the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Church with baptism and membership. I had a short but formative liaison at St. Margaret’s Anglican church in Winnipeg, Manitoba (that is, Winnipeg’s ‘Mennonite’ Anglican Church) and was later caretaker of an apartment block run by an inner-city Baptist church. Then before I knew I had left home for good and found myself functionally estranged from the Mennonite church. I did not think much of this reality at the time because it felt as though all options were open to me. I could go wherever the Spirit led. But after a failed run at academia I began looking into pastoral ministry. Open to all but finding none I soon realized that I could not pastor ‘from everywhere’ and found that though my theological trajectory had carried me far from my church of origins I found myself to be, in the end, Mennonite.

I enjoy recounting this path from time to time and offer this simply as an acknowledgement that I have been choosing to be Mennonite all my life. This is my lived experienced of being Mennonite, the paradoxical obligation to choose (and I am increasingly aware that as a straight white male the emphasis on my experience was more on choose than obligation). It was after all as a Mennonite that I felt able to choose to not be Mennonite. There is no resting in the roots of being Mennonite; no ordered ontology of the Catholics, no overwhelming imagination of the Anglicans, and no civic belonging of the Lutherans. There is no being Mennonite apart from my subjective engagement with it. This tradition of choosing has created a rich texture (unescapable net?) of being Mennonite. In my experience this fabric can be stretched to tearing with the willingness to ‘go all in’ and gamble that identity completely and other times I can wrap what has been woven around me for warmth and comfort. As Mennonite I reject sovereign and idol wondering whether atheism is the only truth faith all the while establishing myself in congregational ministry and serving on my national church board. Such are the tensions, paradoxes and the necessary contingency of being Mennonite . . . or so I claim.

I offer this brief confessional as an initial response to reading and reflecting on the collection of essays in After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America edited by Robert Zacharias. The essays emerged from a conference by the same name held in 2013. Working through the essays I was quickly drawn in by the blend of rigorous and playful responses to the question of identity and the speculation of what and whether we can see beyond its seemingly endless demands. The responses span the disciplines from anthropological (Julia Spicher Kasdorf), historical (Royden Loewen), sociological/economic (Paul Tiessen), to queer and feminist oriented (Ann Hostetler and Daniel Cruz Shank). As the book progresses even more space is provided for the poetic (Jeff Gundy and Jesse Nathan), playful (Hildi Froese Tiessen), to what might now be called the ‘classically’ postmodern or carnivalesque (Di Brandt). As one could expect with the various voices and disciplines gathered that there is hardly a clear or unified response to reflecting on the phrase after identity.

Clearly evidenced within this diversity is a strong experiential and intellectual commitment to engaging the question of both being Mennonite in general (whatever that does in fact mean) and how this thing(?) relates to past, present, and possible literary forms. This is good news. So does that make it gospel? Can Mennonites and the Mennonite church (the church being a sort of spectre haunting these essays) hear the message(s) offered? I tried to listen. This what I heard.

In these essays I heard generative and exciting conversations among Mennonites outside the Mennonite church. I do not assume to know how these authors do or do not connect with local congregations but I can observe (as one deeply implicated in the formal expressions of the Mennonite Church) that conversations are happening in these pages that are not readily happening in the church. While Mennonite Church Canada (my denominational context) is attempting to ‘create space’ for those once excluded from the church due to their sexual attractions and as our entire institutional structure is being reconfigured After Identity reminds us that being Mennonite is not under the church’s control and will not yield to our highly nuanced discernment processes and desires for brand control never mind confessional agreement. This is neither good nor bad. Staunchly conservative churches that break off from the larger body without any care for due process remain Mennonite but so too do those whose personal investments remain in the gravitational pull of various Mennonite ‘centres’ of culture or experience even if those commitments no longer include congregational life or even faith. Why can I say this? Because that is how the term Mennonite and its experience occurs. This is what follows from the rejection of both the pope and infant baptism.

So the voices and conversation in After Identity are important to the church because our notion of being Mennonite (for those of us engaged in church processes) is not in our control and it would be irresponsible and perhaps unfaithful not to listen, not pay attention to those working outside our shifting parameters; not that we always need to agree (we never do). In many ways it is these voices working outside congregational processes that can help us see how we have been impacted and entangled in the world around us. Royden Loewen demonstrates how critical voices in Mennonite literature relate to larger critiques of modernity in the West that tended to happen earlier in other North American cultures. Whereas Mennonite readers tended to view these critical voices in Mennonite literature as attacking Mennonite faith itself Loewen notes that these authors usually “do not even castigate rural Mennonite communities for their agrarian primitivism. Rather, they almost uniformly critique aspects of modernity: that is, small-town, bourgeois, materialistic, and evangelical binaries” (44). Have we stopped to consider that some of these authors were largely critiquing modernity in Mennonite dress? Paul Tiessen’s essay demonstrates how larger corporate or economic forces affect our self-identity tracing the promotion and even cover of Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many framing how many Mennonites were going to interpret the book offering the brazen interpretative lens on the original cover introducing the author as someone who writes “of prejudice and bigotry erupting to destroy the people of a small Canadian community”.

Other essays demonstrate that those who suffered abuse within Mennonite communities and congregations could hardly remain within them and so in particular we must listen to those who identify as Mennonite (whether they want to or not) and continue to tell the stories of their experiences after having left the church. We need to listen outside the church because those voices were rejected or even abused inside the church. Several essays acknowledge trauma as a particular motivator for the production of various novels and poems (see Ann Hostetler’s essay as one example). Mennonite churches need the voices of those Mennonites (and Mennonites they are) outside the church who are apathetic, antagonistic, or differently invested in matters of being Mennonite otherwise we will simply remain immature, impoverished, and complicit in the shortcomings and abuses within the church. Referring back to my own experience in relation to the Mennonite obligation to choose the emphasis for many who have suffered abuse in the church shifts onto obligation. Obligation to forgive. Obligation to keep quiet. Obligation to stay. Obligation to leave. All these obligations with the supposed contingency of ‘free choice’, of doing the right thing.

While I maintain that the church would be wise to listen to those Mennonite voices on the fringe or outside formal church life I was also reminded that no one is immune from becoming insulated in ways that produce insensitive if not prejudicial accounts of identity. The issue of race and ethnicity was brought up in numerous essays. In several of these essays race was named in a way that noted the racial homogeneity of Mennonite writing in North America and in turn our fixation on Mennonite identity in relation to European descent. In some respects Di Brandt’s essay “In Praise of Hybridity: Reflections from Southwestern Manitoba” was an attempt to address the racial limitations (as well as other limitations) of the Mennonite imagination. I found Brandt’s essay both the most evocative and most problematic in the collection. Brandt succeeds in what she sets out to accomplish. She begins with her subtitle suggesting the focus and particularism of acknowledging her local place in the world. And then in the first line asks simply, “Who are we?” From that question and from her small patch of soil Brandt’s thoughts begin spiral out asking questions of our connection to history, land, blood, citizenship, and intellectual genealogies. Each of these connections open further asking who gets privileged and which connections get followed. She notes how one element of Mennonite identity has precisely been the policing of identity. In light of this practice she asks, “What if we went the other way? What if, instead of spending so much (often vicious) energy policing our borders and controlling each other’s creative expressions, we accepted the carnivalesque multiculti hybridizing, and especially liberatory, influences of modernization and the postmodern on our imaginary and social practices?” (128). From there Brandt goes on to demonstrate that there is almost no where a Mennonite cannot look to connect to the influences of past and present so long as there is a willingness to follow unfamiliar paths. Brandt cites connections with figures as diverse as Hildegard of Bingen, Karl Marx, and David Foster Wallace.

I am deeply sympathetic to Brandt’s approach. To put it in theological terms I value the move away from the enforcement of a ‘transcendent’ or divine bestowing of identity to an ‘immanent’ navigation of identity in the midst of lived experience. However, in as much as I was invigorated by her account I was also troubled by it when I returned to her initial question “Who are we”. Early on she referenced poetry she is currently writing inspired by Daoism in which she states, “I was delighted to discover how many of the concepts and practices were familiar to me: I’m a Daoist, and I didn’t even know it!” (126) Then later as she probes the possible connections of those who may have influenced Mennonite identity she wonders why we do not engage “with anyone, or everyone” (133). I understand the playful and intentional (or potential) irreverence of her approach but in taking her question of identity seriously as well as her response the only answer I could possible give is that we are white. I know of only whiteness that would consider itself able to move with such agility and freedom. Whiteness has been described as an invisible norm that is able to move fluidly over any surface or practice appropriating when interested and denying presence when convenient. Critical Race and Black studies scholar George Lipsitz has called whiteness, “the unmarked category against which difference is constructed, whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its rule as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations” (cited in George Yancey’s Look at White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness). To be very clear I am not suggesting Brandt reflects any sort of conscious racism (her intent is certainly quite the opposite) and there remain ways of reading her essay outside of a racial lens but her approach reflects how easily an attempt to break one mold of identity formation potentially slip into another when race and whiteness is not named (later in his book Yancey will speak about how easily racism can ‘ambush’ white thinking and expressions catching us off guard). In as much as Mennonites are beginning to understand how our identity has often limited our ability to address issues of racism we must also be mindful of the larger cultural formations of race consciousness and whiteness that continue to shape our identity.

So while we in the church needs to listen to those Mennonites on the fringe we also cannot assume that our fringe voices, our prophets, are sufficient in naming the injustices that all too easily become tangled up in our identities. Brandt’s essay offers both a way forward in its active dismantling of often arbitrary or even oppressive boundaries while also reflecting a cautionary example of how deeply embedded we are in the formations of our (white) identities.

After reflecting on my own journey and engaging these authors I am encouraged that the question of identity does not lead necessarily to narcissistic abstraction or fixed boundary marking. After Identity demonstrates a willingness to put traditional notions of Mennonite identity at stake and to uncover or reimagine past values. This is good news.  The good news is that Mennonite identity is a vigorous and unsettled expression. The good news is that there are meticulous and energetic individuals engaged in examining and exploring Mennonite identity well beyond the walls and processes of Mennonite churches and denominations. Through testing identity in this way we open the possibility to increase our flexibility, develop a rich texture, and find greater capacity for creative expression. This is good news for Mennonites and for Mennonite churches and we would be wise to listen and give thanks. To be clear this will not keep Mennonites in the church nor attract new members (though these things may happen). Through misstep, ingenious insight, or divine intervention we may lose the wager and find our notion of being Mennonite left with only a trace of discernible identity. But that was never what the wager set out to gain. We forfeited that right with the rejection of the pope and infant baptism. We have pulled up stakes on the settled question of identity and are responsible now to hear and speak the good news wherever we find ourselves responding in ways that keep us all accountable beyond our own agendas, perspectives, and prejudices; beyond our own identities, willing to consider communions and creations after identity.

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