Every time I get off the train, drive 45 minutes south of the nearest city, and breathe in the fresh and familiar farm air, I am reminded of a very vital piece of my past. A part that is missing and yet forever will integrally be part of who I am. A part that has transformed my life and changed the very core of my theology. That part is the fact that for my most formative years, I was raised Mennonite.
Oftentimes when I tell people that I have a theologically Mennonite background I am met with the strangest looks. People ask me “did you have electricity?” “Did you have a car?” and “Were you allowed to go to school past eighth grade?” These questions are rightly raised because there are a wide variety of Mennonite groups ranging from the most conservative (horse and buggy types) to the more liberal (ordaining women and beginning to embrace LGBTQ rights) streams. I find myself somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.
For me, being Mennonite has always been more than simply a theological construct. It’s been my identity – an ethnicity that has embraced me even as I have embraced it. It’s been a culture, a place where I have been included and been free to be myself.
In this short post, I’d like to highlight three specific lessons I learned from my Mennonite upbringing that I would encourage everyone (regardless of your faith tradition) to also consider embracing:
1) Mennonites care about the earth.
Mennonites care about the earth both from a stewardship and a social justice point of view. We care about the environment and the dangerous effects that pollution is bringing to this world. We care about farming, about soil and the earth. We know that God entrusted it to us and so it is our duty to respect it and keep it thriving. That’s why Mennonites try to live a simple life. We reject war and violence not only because we feel that Jesus taught us to live a peaceful life, but also because it ravages our world. We try to be ethical about our meat consumption, to limit out-of-season fruits and vegetables, and largely to grow our own food whenever possible. Obviously this is not always possible because some Mennonites live in larger cities, but whenever we can, we try to look beyond ourselves and think about future generations.
Mennonites also care about the people who live on this earth. We care about the “least of these” – the downtrodden, depressed, and disillusioned. We believe that no one is greater or less than anyone else. This attitude results in us spending countless hours feeding the poor, visiting the orphan and widow, and protesting on behalf of the innocent. In everything we do, we seek to make our world peaceful and just – believing that peace and justice first begin with us.
2) Mennonites care about community
Often people who visit Anabaptist communities (particularly Mennonite and Amish) will remark that we are a close-knit community. Sometimes this can be to our detriment. For example, although certainly not all Mennonites fall into this category, many of us find it hard to reach out to people who are not within our group. Of course, we will stop and help anyone in the name of social justice, but when it comes to actually joining the church, many converts have remarked that they have never truly felt like a part of us because we are just so culturally confined. Other times, this close-knit circle can be downright irritating – who really wants everyone in the town to know their business before they have even officially told anyone?
Yet, at the same time, there is a profound sense of community that Mennonites enjoy that I think we can all benefit from. In the Mennonite church, decisions are made communally. Shunning hierarchy, we seek to hear the opinions of everyone present. We seek what is best for the community and if someone has fallen upon hard times, you can be assured that the community will surround this individual with prayer and material support to enable them to get through it. Mennonites don’t keep a record of who has helped who – it’s just expected that if someone needs your help, you go help them. I think if everyone in our society followed this principle, we’d be a lot better off.
3) The Old Order Mennonites Shun Technology
Obviously, I don’t practice this one. I have a personal blog, a laptop computer, and a cell phone. However, even though I own these amenities, I still believe there is much wisdom in what the Mennonites and Amish do by eliminating and avoiding technology.
Over the years, I have seen how technology has brought destruction to many. People become caught in pornography because it’s easily accessible to them. People start having impersonal online communication rather than face-to-face interaction. Our culture has become sedentary because of the computer and so our children aren’t forced to go outside, play, and meet the neighbours.
I’m not here to condemn technology altogether, but I would challenge us to limit our interactions with anything that is not human contact. I’m not saying it’s bad to have a Facebook account or Twitter – I have both. I’m not saying it’s wrong to text or to email. But what I’m saying is that people need to come first and technology needs to come second. We can’t let technology run our lives, instead we need to be discerning about how to use technology for the greater benefit of all involved.
I may no longer be fully Mennonite, but I still carry these important traditions close to me. They are traditions I hope to instil in my own children and grandchildren someday. I’d also like to encourage you to consider them yourself. By being good stewards of the earth, living communally, and limiting technology, I believe we can create a thriving world of peace, harmony, and love. A world that all are invited to take part in.
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