Goossen’s essay is an important look at the way European Mennonite identity has been used in the service of assimilation into dominant culture. In the United States, that has often meant “into whiteness.” At their most dramatic, these stories allowed Mennonites to fit with martyr narratives in “German Freikorps and Mussolini’s Black Shirts” (Goossen, 9)

The history of European Anabaptism is varied. Goossen rightly points out the way that history has been used to emphasize assimilation into whiteness and dominant culture. But it can also be used to emphasize dissent in the context of U.S. society. In wrestling with ethnicity, a willingness to acknowledge and grapple with social location and power is crucial. In our history, Mennonites have mostly only been able to see ourselves as victims of the state and as aspirants to white supremacy. Understanding this history is crucial to recovering what we might call the transformationist or queer elements of our tradition. Throughout this essay, I will use the term by drawing on Rodney J. Sawatsky’s 1992 model of four streams of Anabaptism: Separationist, Establishment, Reformist, Transformationist (Sawatsky, 151). Here’s a short summary:

 

Anabaptist Stream

Emphasis on (Non-)conformity

16th-Century Corollary

Separationist

Social/cultural non-conformity to the world

Swiss Brethren with Schleitheim Confession

Establishment

Biblical nonresistance/personal holiness

Menno Simons

Reformist

Discipleship of Christ/service to the world

Pilgram Marpeck

Transformationist

Political/ideological nonconformity to the political powers

Hans Hut and apocalyptic Anabaptists

Sawatsky describes the Separationist and Transformationist streams as “social sectarian/separatist” and the Establishment and Reformist streams as “denominational/integrationist” (150). This model can be useful for understanding the different approaches of Mennonite leaders and writers I will be reviewing.

 

Patriarchy, colonization and anti-queerness among Mennonites

Restorative justice practitioner Elaine Enns is one of those working to challenge Mennonites to move beyond the “victim only” understanding of themselves. While acknowledging the very real impact of trauma in the Russian Mennonite community she grew up in, Enns points out the patriarchal lens in these stories:

“Our popular communal narratives tend to relate a heroic story of a hardworking, faithful, resilient people, which include some kinds of violence that Mennonite endured (e.g., murder, disappearance, or robbery), but leave out (or allude to only obliquely) contradictory or shameful experiences such as rape and sexual assault.” (Enns, 4)

 

She also notes the absence of the Young Chippewayan, on whose stolen land her family settled, from these narratives. Enns notes this complicity in colonization among Mennonite settlers in other countries (Ukraine and Paraguay) and goes on to call for Mennonites to take “historical response-ability” for these patterns by telling the whole story (6-7). Enns lays out a vision for a Mennonite ethic of “restorative solidarity” in a 2015 article for the Canadian Mennonite in which she points out that “Mennonites have historically endured experiences of violence and displacement, which could potentially help us empathize with the suffering of Indigenous people” (Enns, “Facing History,” 2). Enns is part of the transformationist stream that understands the Anabaptist tradition as a call to challenge the white supremacy and domination endemic to U.S. history and our current political moment.

Mennonite literature critic Daniel Shank Cruz uses the lens of queerness to understand how a new generation of queer Mennonite authors (Casey Plett, Stephen Beachy, Jan Guenther Braun) are undertaking a related project to the one Enns proposes. These writers explore the contradiction between Mennonite narratives of exile and inability to stand in solidarity with their LGBTQ children. Like Enns, Cruz challenges Mennonites to move beyond their homophobia and recognize the lost subversiveness of our tradition:

“Although historically Mennonites themselves have been culturally other and the early Anabaptist tradition epitomized queer transgressiveness, this position has largely been lost in North America, and the official Mennonite community now participates in the marginalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) persons. Engaging with queer theory is one way for Mennonites to return to their liberating roots.” (Cruz, loc. 3325-3329)

In his focus on the intersection of queer and Mennonite texts, Cruz calls on his readers to highlight and “pay attention to the radical products of this hybridity” as part of a “long tradition of Mennonite novelists and poets writing as activists” (loc. 3285).

 

Mennonites and whiteness

In his article “How Mennonites Became White: Religious Activism, Cultural Power, and the City,” Philipp Gollner explores the way “activist” Mennonites were key in the assimilation process in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One example he cites is the Sunday school movement of the late 19th century. Its critics understood the way in which the movement took on the values of dominant white culture in the United States. “Mennonite Sunday school activists, the critics charged, had accepted the ‘lofty spirit of this nation’ and ‘the high and most popular and warlike Christian denominations’ as models” (172). Gollner looks at the explicitly white supremacist project of the social gospel movement to assimilate immigrants, as exemplified by Alexander Sutherland in John Funk’s Herald of Truth in 1893, which “called Mennonites to cooperate in ‘an evangelical conquest,’ to reform immigrants whose ‘customs, beliefs and inherited tendencies’ were ‘not favorable to a healthy social or religious development [and] a standing menace to national freedom and stability.’” In Sawatsky’s four-streams model, these can be understood as leaders in the Reformist stream, challenging Mennonites “towards Christian responsibility for the world” (Sawatsky, 150).

In the 1910s and ’20s, Mennonite writers integrated the values of white civilization into their self-concept of the Mennonite tradition in the United States. In his essay “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege,” Goossen looks at how a 1911 book of Mennonite history (and, implicitly, identity) by Christian Mast emphasized that Mennonites are “stern, sterling and frugal” and “Teutonic,” which basically meant Aryan or super white (Goossen). Mast drew on explicitly racist view of indigenous people, calling them “savages” (Goossen).

World War I in particular reminded Mennonites of their “otherness,” both by their nonresistant position and by their widespread use of German, now the language of the enemy. In this period, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson said, “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready” (Sharp). Both sets of my Swiss-German Mennonites grandparents (all born in the 1910s) made the decision not to teach my parents Pennsylvania Dutch after their ancestors had kept the language alive for generations. This was a step towards whiteness and away from a “queer” identity, both in its past usage as odd and deviant, and in current usage in the context of queer theory.

Mennonite emphasis on service can also be read in this light. Certainly that was central to the push to have Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps accepted by the U.S. government as an alternative to military service in the lead-up to World War II. John Sharp tells this story in his biography of Mennonite leader Orie Miller. Miller was part of building the Mennonite institutions that were critical for ethnically German Mennonites to move off the farm and into mainstream, white, U.S. society. The pressure put on him by the fundamentalist and anti-communist conservative wing of the old Mennonite church during this period was prescient – they recognized the assimilation that would come with the CPS camps. Sharp notes:

“The exposure of participants to one another and to a world in need eroded traditional boundaries of separation, nonconformity, and identity. It led young men and women to rethink traditional nonresistance and generated a move toward active peacemaking with a concern for social justice.” (Sharp, 231)

Like the critics of the Sunday school movement 50 years earlier, those opposing the project understood the role CPS camps would play in assimilation into white U.S. culture. We can understand this conflict as one between the Separationist stream, focused on nonconformity, and Reformist stream, pushing the church to engage with social problems (Sawatsky, 150).

Miller was a key figure in building reformist institutions such as Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), Mennonite Mutual Aid (MMA) and Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA). He understood the emerging wealth and modern tools (i.e., telephone and jet transportation) that were newly available to white upper- and middle-class Mennonites in this period as opportunities for Mennonites leaving the farm to move into voluntary service work around the world. The institutions he built can be understood as a key success of reformist Anabaptists and in Mennonite respectability politics over the past 100 years.

In 1959, Harold S. Bender’s article on an Anabaptist approach to history de-emphasized the embarrassing subversiveness of Thomas Müntzer and Münster, which historians from the dominant culture had highlighted in their dismissal of our heretical tradition (Bender). This was the culmination of decades of work in this area that Bender had done alongside Miller. Bender’s response was an effort to legitimize this history into the mainstream, another important part of the reformist Anabaptist project.

The following decades brought both dramatic assimilation and, among some, a recovery of the transgressiveness of the Anabaptist tradition. Perhaps none more embodied this challenge to dominant white culture than Vincent Harding. Harding was a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and wrote his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. His work is solidly in the Transformationist stream that focuses on liberation from oppressive political structures and “may advocate confrontation, nonpayment of taxes or other means” (Sawatsky, 150).

In 1967, Harding wrote a prophetic challenge to the peace section of the Mennonite World Conference. He explicitly named “the power of Mennonite prestige, the power of middle class respectability, the power of whiteness” that Mennonites benefited from, and their willingness to engage with mainstream political structure in their own interests. He urged Mennonite scholars to engage with revolutionary leaders (“Voices of Revolution”). In his sermon to the whole assembly, he challenged Mennonites to move beyond quietism:

“March out, saints, and be counted. March out of the buildings, march out of the denominations, march out of the churches if need be. March out of the conformity and the terror of the roaring night. You have nothing to lose but your lives and a world to gain. The master is already on the road and he says, I am the way, follow me.” (“The Beggars are Marching”)

In Tobin Miller Shearer’s essay “Moving Beyond Charisma in Civil Rights Scholarship: Vincent Harding’s Sojourn With the Mennonites, 1958-1966,” he chronicles Harding’s work among the Mennonites in depth, and his efforts to cajole Mennonites into “immediate, concrete political action” (238). A 1961 rebuttal of Harding by Edgar Stoesz, an MCC leader at the time, outlines the Reformist stream’s rebuttal: “As we refrained from participating in its annihilation, but helped later to reconstruct Germany, so we decline to participate in the interracial conflict but seek rather to bring reconciliation and goodwill” (Kehrberg).

At the same time, MCC workers contributed to this emerging Transformationist stream during the 1960s and ’70s. They witnessed firsthand the flow of resources from the countries where they worked to the United States. In “Seeking Places of Peace: A Global Mennonite History,” Royden Loewen and Steve Nolt mention the work of a Mennonite man who was influential in my own journey into peace and justice work.

Blake Ortman, MCC representative in El Salvador, noted prophetically that the “role of the Church should be to announce the Kingdom of God and denounce all that opposes the Kingdom.” And if that kind of political action became impossible, he said, then “one can only live with the suffering people and say to them: ‘Our cry goes with you to God and God has not forgotten you’” (46). Other Northerners reminded the Latin Americans that although “true Anabaptists rejected [the] violence” inherent in Liberation Theology, there was “ample material in the Anabaptist tradition to reconstruct a very radical theology” (loc. 5830-5835).

Again, I see this spectrum in my own family. My mother grew up wearing a cape dress and covering, but she and nine of her siblings have abandoned this part of the tradition. On the other hand, my mother’s sister Rhoda and her husband, Harry, left Lancaster Mennonite Conference when they married to join what is now Pilgrim Mennonite Conference. In a conversation with my uncle Harry, who did not grow up Anabaptist, he told me about how his experience serving in the military in World War II led him to see the value in the “uniform” of plain dressing Mennonites that set them apart. In many ways, this community is far less assimilated into dominant U.S. culture than Mennonite Church USA, as they reject everything from radios to card parties (“Decrees,” 35). Participation is forbidden in “protest demonstrations or the so called peace movement,” which has a whole section to itself in their 2015 “Decrees” document (32). This conference embodies the continuing Separationist stream within Mennonites in the United States.

Understanding the Transformationist stream of Mennonite identity through history can offer a powerful collective foundation for resistance to the dominant culture in our society, but for too long, Mennonites have focused only on the parts of our tradition that fit with assimilation into dominant culture and our respectability. Building on Goossen’s work, what would it look like to stop viewing our history as Mennonites in a triumphalist way that focuses only on our martyrdom, and instead recognize the complexities of our assimilation into dominant culture and resistance along the way?