This is an independent blog and is not affiliated with any particular church, group or conference. The term Bruderthaler refers to a specific ethnic or cultural Mennonite heritage, not to any particular organized group. All statements and opinions are solely those of the contributor(s). Blog comprises notebook fragments from various research projects and discussions. Dialogue, comment and notice of corrections are welcomed. Much of this content is related to papers and presentations that might be compiled at a future date, as such, this blog serves as a research archive rather than as a publication. 'tag

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Temporary Temporal Allegiances

 Vanished Kingdoms

“Here’s another book on your part of the world – are you interested in the review?” a friend asks me as he hands over the latest Sun-Times (Sunday, 08 Jan).

“I would be if I wasn’t so behind on the Pinker reviews,” was my lamentable answer.

Normally, I put all such reviews into a file to go through for the next year’s book list – books that pertain to the 500 years-old Mennonite Anabaptist history and ethnic identity. “My part of the world” varies between the former Assiniboia region straddling the border prairies between the US and Canada to the Prairie Midwest (that’s you – Omaha, Hutchinson and Sioux Falls) to the blurred historic region of West Prussia, Danzig and Poland south to Ukraine and the Russian Kuban. Russländer Anabaptism is more an ethnic archipelago than a single geographic heritage.

Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms is the book in question. Davies’ latest (released in the EU last October) is a history of kingdoms and European nation states that no longer exist – many of them in the historically volatile Central and Eastern Europe. Seemingly Davies spends quite a bit of time exploring the various historical incarnations of Poland (including Sigismund’s Kingdom in which the first refugee Mennonites from the Netherlands weathered) to West Prussia and the small fledging nation of Rusyn that existed only for a single day, being once liberated by Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia then immediately absorbed by Ukraine.

“Thanks but with Bloodlands and Forgotten Land on the reading list for 2012 – I think we’ve had enough ‘forgotten’ history for a while,” I determined after reading the review.

Yet while dismissing the book’s long-term interest to the Russian Mennonites, I do perceive three potential interests for Mennonite readers in Davies’ book.

Kingdom of Munster

First, competent and interesting histories on the former realms that did in fact shape the early Mennonite identity are hard to come by. Davies’ book is purported to have decent historical sketches of Burgundy, whose absorption into the Hapsburg Realms enabled the importation of the Spanish Inquisition into Belgium against the Mennonites, Amish and others. Already mentioned is the Kingdom of Poland that offered early Dutch Mennonite refugees shelter under King Sigismund II Augustus and Sigismund III Vasa. Additional mention may or may not include the independent realms of the Hansa cities and the Soviet Union – the latest European empire to drop completely off the map of Europe.

Second, the fate of many of these kingdoms, nations and states mirrors those of the Mennonite “realms.” Purportedly, Lichtenstein might have existed once as a more-or-less Anabaptist state. The city of Münster was famously taken over by radical Anabaptists and proclaimed as an independent Anabaptist realm (ready for Christ to come down and take control). Chortitza and Molotschna, former more-or-less exclusive Mennonite colonies in modern Ukraine, once formed a self-governing Mennonite diaspora. The Russländer Soviet Republic no longer exists. While the royal Mennonite reserves of Manitoba and Saskatchewan are still dominated by Mennonite heritage culture, they are no longer ‘homelands’ of the Mennonite culture and ethnic identity. The United States is littered with Mennonite towns that no longer exist – Litchfield, NE, Choteau, MT, Larslan, MT, Volt, MT, early settlements in Texas and countless others.

In many ways, the Mennonite ethnicity (both Russländer and American Amish) is a history of a successful ethnic identity that has after 500 years, failed to achieve geographic self-determination. Davies’ might offer some interesting parallels – though he only deals with actual kingdoms and states – not ethnic regions.

Third, the rise, fall and eventual disappearance of the nations treated by Davies, by their sheer numbers, might indicate that traditional Anabaptist dubiousness over the concept of the nation state, its protection and appointment by God (or Allah) and the folly of killing to defend such transitory notions in war, might just have a point. It is an odd expectation prevalent in the United States especially, that nation-states are eternal and experience the benevolent protection of a supernatural being – the USA is hardly the first nation to enlist ‘theology’ in defense of the state. Most Old Testament nations had their sponsoring, official gods and goddesses that had to be deposed and disposed of one-by-one by the Hebrew YHWH.

While the United States has proven surprisingly durable as a nation-state, even it has had its problems – often forgotten. In 1805, Aaron Burr, Jr. was up to something controversial in the Ohio Valley and Louisiana Territory. The US Civil War almost split the nation in half geographically. Secessionists in Texas, Montana and Alaska continually threaten to leave the Union and territorial questions regarding Native American Sovereignty and potential US-states such as Puerto Rico remain unresolved to this day.

Canada, which did not form completely until 1949 (more recently than most realize), has also had its problems staying together. While still trying to absorb First Nations peoples and territories into an effective union, differing political perspectives continually threaten Confederation with French-speaking Quebec and libertarian-oriented Alberta seemingly see-sawing in a constant threat to separate from an “Ontario-dominated Canada.”

That either the USA or Canada will survive in their present form into the 22nd Century would be expected but is hardly a given. Already gone are Franklin, the California Republic, the Republic of Texas, The Confederate States of America (CSA), the Republic of Manitobah, The French Empire (apart from two small islands of the East Coast – Saint Pierre and Miquelon), the Spanish empire, the Russian Empire and numerous theoretically independent First Nation republics, states and kingdoms. While most of these “republics” were peacefully absorbed, those of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Great (Choctaw-Cherokee) Confederacy, the CSA, Manitobah, Puerto Rico and parts of the Mexican-American annexations could be seen as more contentious. On which side would a good Anabaptist citizen be? What about the future – how would one theoretically decide?

For most Russian Mennonites, the boundary between the USA and Canada has historically been ignored as an Anglo-American inconvenience not conforming to Mennonite cultural realities. Nor are Russian Mennonites the only group in this dilemma – the Icelandic community of the Red River Valley in North Dakota has strong ties to the Gimli Reserve in Manitoba. Hutterites are notoriously bi-national in North America. Disputes of the dual-nationality of many Native American Tribes remains in dispute to this day – the Metis, the Assiniboine, the Cree, the Sioux and perhaps the Mohawk to the east. Because the USA and Canada have been allies for most of our history in North America we have never had to consider whether or not we would support taking up arms against our brethren and sistren ( ; ) ) with whom we have more closely identified than with our fellow nationalists.

What about in Ukraine? Would we have sided with the Ukrainian nationalists or the Russian-minority separatists? Culturally, linguistically and ethnically we do not clearly fit on one side more than the other.

As much as people have taken fun pot-shots at Goshen College for its controversy over the National Anthem, one could suspect that if it came down to it, questions of Mennonite nationalism against fellow Mennonites are still unsettled.

That being said, Davies’ book offers a corollary to the third statement.
Though not Mennonites, recent Presidential electoral bids by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Governor Rick Perry (TX) proved divisive between liberal Mennonites and conservative Mennonites – especially in the traditionalist versus Evangelical debates. At least two items featured in that split – contemporary religious uncertainty over the state’s right to dictate morality to individuals (on both sides of the political spectrum) and as Ryan Lizza pointed out in his 15 August 2011 essay in The New Yorker, Bachmann’s acceptance of the Christian Far Right’s concept of Dominionism – a political theology that God has called certain individuals forth to establish and lead a “Christian” nation. Perry has been similarly identified with the movement in Texas.

Dominionism apparently claims roots in Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto (though I readily question their claim). Just as God might call a young man or woman to the mission field or to ministry in the church, apparently, many Fundamentalist Christians feel that God calls others to be political leaders (Dominionism at its most benign). More worrisome supporters of Dominionism seemingly call for the pursuit and establishment of a Fundamentalist Christian nation based on Biblical law similar to goals by Islamic fundamentalists to establish political Sharia law in their secular nations (often moving far beyond desires to charge women who have abortions with murder or to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples).

Many Anabaptists would object to Dominionism in that they view Christianity (or Anabaptism at least) as a voluntary association that separates itself from the “world” instead of seeking to dominate or rule the world. Anabaptists believe strongly and historically in clear separations between church and state. Many Anabaptists, as a minority Christian church and ethnic identity, have too often been persecuted by “Christian” or “religious” governments to want to see new ones put in place. And finally, many Anabaptists believe that Christ’s kingdom is a spiritual entity, not a geographic or political entity though one that will eventually be recognized and established on earth by Christ in person.

Davies’ book serves as a useful reminder to us that human history is volatile and passing. Christ calls all of his followers to discipleship and spiritual discipline – but clearly, in that many of the nations mentioned by Davies were “Christian,” Christ does not seemly ally himself with any particular nation and guarantee its long-term survival. The Münsterites were basically early Dominionists and a huge embarrassment to future generations of Anabaptists. Whether we subsequently chose political neutrality out of political necessity for survival or out of theological conviction is relatively moot. That this is a formative belief in the Mennonite identity is more or less established – both religiously and ethnically. Davies’ book indicates that while such neutrality is often politically unpopular with our neighbours and fellow citizens, it yet demonstrates a long-term political astuteness and a realistic reading of history.

Apart from a strong commitment to internationalism, my own opinions on pacifism, non-resistance and Dominionism are in fact relatively neutral. I do believe that all things are ordained by God and exist by God’s direction. On the other hand, I also feel that war and nation building are like all of humanity’s efforts – mere vanities. While I am not sure that I would never support war again in the future (yes, I once was a Just War supporter), scholarship such as Davies’ indicates that traditional Anabaptist perspectives remain realistic, viable and pertinent, even if they are no longer, or rather are not currently, in vogue. It is good to be reminded that there are alternatives and good reasons to consider them – just ask the former Christian rulers of Byzantium, Burgundy, Neustria, Navarre, Poland-Lithuania …  
Vanished Christian States in Europe

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