Would a symbolic ethnic flag violate core principles held by many Mennonites over the propriety of saluting a national flag? Well, no, yes and maybe…
Evangelical Mennonites are traditionally split over displays of overt patriotism. Statistically, they had a higher than average participation in alternative service during World War II and were amongst the leaders in protecting freedom of conscience and religion during World War I. However, the Baby Boomer generation has been much more heavily influenced by United States-style Evangelical Patriotism – possibly on account of cultural embarrassment during the Vietnam conflict, increased rates of political and cultural assimilation and a lax or completely lacking effort by elder generations to train their progeny and to pass on many aspects of Anabaptist cultural heritage (for instance, Non-Resistance, foot washing, the German language, an agrarian lifestyle).
Today, there would be little apparent negative ideological impact regarding the adoption of or use of a symbolic ethnic flag to help pass cultural heirloom traditions to future generations, and much positive cultural value in utilizing such a tool to simplify and codify this inter-generational transference of narrative and values.
Regarding more traditional Anabaptist communities, historical statistics in the United States indicate that anti-flag sentiments amongst the dominant Anabaptist groups in the 20th Century have been held by a strongly motivated, vocal minority and are tolerated by a sympathetic if dissenting, non-dogmatic majority.
The basic question actually seems to revolve around two core Mennonite heritage values – non-participation in the magistracy and non-resistance pacifism, both of which might be summed up in a religious cultural determination to maintain a distinct moral identity separate from that of the host nation state.
One question that needs to be more fully explored is whether or not this is an historic understanding of an historic value, or if it represents an emergent Modern or Postmodern restatement of a previously shared cultural heritage value.
Amongst Russian Mennonites or Russländer, one finds numerous emphatic declarations of love, gratitude and thankfulness directed towards the Czar. The appropriate response to the nation-state was seemingly one of not-resisting the good or evil that one received from the God-established civil authorities yet thanksgiving that God had provided a protective and benevolent ruler. While a flag was not displayed in Mennonite sanctuaries, it was not necessarily the custom to do so amongst non-Mennonites either. According to GAMEO, the on-line Mennonite encyclopedia, the practice of displaying national flags in church sanctuaries began in the United States during the Spanish-American War in 1898. While GAMEO indicates that the Mennonite Church congregations have never displayed flags in their sanctuaries, it has been common practice amongst the Russian Mennonites to do so, including the Brüderthaler, the Mennonite Brethren (MB) and the General Conference (now part of the Mennonite Church-USA/Canada). Photographic evidence indicates that this practice has been common since at least World War I and while many Russländer congregations were still segregated by gender.
As late as 1997, there was some hesitancy amongst some Mennonites amongst the Mennonite Brethren to support groups such as the Boys Scouts or church AWANA clubs due to their mixing of church and state by honouring the flag during their programming, but this was a decidedly minority perspective and many MB, EMB, GC and FEBC churches have been enthusiastic supporters, especially of AWANA clubs (the FEBC currently supports a missionary position serving with the head AWANA organization).
The GAMEO article also indicates that display of the national flag is less “controversial” amongst Canadian Mennonites stating that since it was adopted only in 1965, that the Canadian flag is less stigmatized by militant patriotism and empire. Personally, I am not sure that this surmise holds a lot of water in that there are older versions of a “national” Canadian flag and Canadian relations to the Union Jack of Great Britain (the United Kingdom) would bear similar stigmas as would the Stars-and-Stripes of the United States.
Seemingly, the current controversy might stem from a reluctance to associate Mennonite religious values with those of what might be perceived as a militant American imperialism – an understanding that probably gained greater currency and evolutionary momentum in the anti-war and anti-nuclear weapon protests of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. As such, this current stance would indicate the cultural evolution of previously more simplified heritage values. In other words, current anti-flag sentiments might have evolved into political statements that are legitimately, perhaps even uniquely Mennonite in character but are neither dominant over or exclusive of other descendent heritage value perspectives such as the more tolerant stance amongst Evangelical Mennonites and other Russländer.
Use of a symbolic banner to preserve and identify the Russian Mennonite heritage would bear no ties to a particular empire, politics or military tradition and would not represent a political entity – in other words, it would not differ significantly as a value or identity carrier than does the Peace Dove Cross logo of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
The one danger that such a banner could pose would be to make others feel excluded from the Mennonite religious identity. That would be both regrettable and inappropriate. Used properly and in the context of a diverse religious congregation, the Russian Mennonite banner should simply represent the heritage of the Russian Mennonite ethnic experience and help to remember and honour their contribution to the building and evolution of the Mennonite religion, the greater national identity and individual families – alongside numerous other ethnicities such as the American Yankee identity, the Latin American Mennonites, the churches in India, Vietnam and Ethiopia and any other ethnic identity that is normally acknowledged and celebrated with cultural and ethnic symbols, including those incorporating or based on national flags.
Importantly, the Russian Mennonite Banner should not be confused as being the Mennonite flag – the Russian Mennonites are only one constituent building block of modern Anabaptism, amongst many others. Importantly also, the greater number of ethnic Russian Mennonites no longer attend Anabaptist-related denominations, if they attend church at all. The flag is meant to represent their contributions to the ethnic diaspora as well.
A flag is only a symbol, a cultural tool of identity, bearing only the power, authority and meaning imbued to it by the viewer. When such a tool can serve a valuable, positive service, its adoption should be considered. These are the arguments for a Russian Mennonite ethnic or heritage flag.
Recommended:Mennonites and the Flag by Susan Mark Landis, Minister of Peace and Justice