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

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Hauerwas at the Table - Aggregated Conversations

(c) Ian W. Scott -- Mausoleum scene - Dinner Party ca 25-1 BCE
    I could image having had a wonderful dinner the other night with an assortment of professors from mixed disciplines.  The food would be amazing – asparagus, Levantine couscous, pork shoulder and four other courses.  The conversation – exceptional.  As usual, I would expect to be grilled as to who the Mennonites are, why I care about their social history and why others should be interested as well.  Then would come the kicker – Who can one read to better understand our ideas, our culture and our theology?
    “Um, well, no-one really – I mean there is Stanley Hauerwas – he’s not exactly ‘not’ Anabaptist, and the American Mennonites seem to like John Howard Yoder a lot.  We don’t actually have anyone from our side – I mean, we normally just take our cues from American Evangelicals like Dobson and Jerry Falwall – but American Evangelicals don’t tend to be pacifists – they er, um tend to be pretty heavy into politics – more so than Mennonites have been.”  Humiliation in the intellectual sense.
      Do the Russian Mennonites have their own intelligentsia?  To whom could we refer others to learn our story?  Our theology?  Our cultural values?  Our ethnic identity?  Do we even still have one?
    “Well, sir,” addressing me, “ – I looked up your Mr. Hauerwas – asked a few colleagues from Notre Dame about him – how much do you really know about him?”
   My response,  “Umm, he’s more-or-less considered to be the heir of John Howard Yoder who was very well respected in Mennonite circles.  Many consider Hauerwas to be the most viable witness for Christian pacifism at the moment... my current pastor studied under him...”
    “Well, let me tell you that most of his colleagues consider him to be a bit of a jerk -- brilliant but a jerk.  He’s very well-known and seems to be a pacifist but a really unpopular personality.  Are you aware of his social stances – for instance that he’s an admitted homophobe?”  (Recall that same-sex marriage is a political hot button issue at this time and Chicago rightly prides itself on its inclusive diversity.)  “Apparently he outed one of his colleagues to the department and destroyed his [the colleague’s] career… and was rather glibe about the whole thing as though it were the natural thing to do…”
    “Yeah – I don’t know.  I guess that Hauerwas does not really consider himself to be an Anabaptist – actually, he seems to pretty-much opt out of defining himself or holding himself overly accountable to any identity or idea really – he’s very good at that, but he does make people think and he does present an Evangelical alternative to the Far Right – so I think that is why we claim him or have adopted him or whatever… John Howard Yoder, who was Mennonite, was definitely his mentor...”
    “So are Mennonites homophobic then?  Do they have a stance on gay marriage for instance?”
    “It’s complicated.  A lot of Mennonite and Brethren churches are what we call ‘welcoming’ meaning that they accept openly gay individuals as members – but no, most Mennonite churches would side with the Far Right on that one.  Anabaptists weren’t always quite so homophobic – while we haven’t been exactly pro-gay historically, the majority homophobia seems to be more or less a political value we adopted in America – like worrying about contraception or women in the workplace – a lot of these are adopted values that we were taught here – most of it is more about politics rather than theology.  They just were not priorities in the hardworking rural Mennonite farm villages.”
    “So Mennonite’s are no longer pacifists, they don’t take a very positive stance on social issues and they are basically Conservative Protestants -- is that what you are saying?”
    “No, not at all.  Mennonites were actually the first Radicals – Anabaptists have died as martyrs rather than to fight in or support the needless suffering of wars.  They were the first to make the radical leap into a Western Humanism that demanded that if Salvation was a personal issue between the individual and God, that each individual must be able to read and discern the Scriptures for his or her-self and must be trained in Europe’s first attempt at comprehensive, universal child education.  We invented the public kindergarten (well, the Hutterites did).  In fact, did you know that the Hutterites have shared all goods in common for almost 500 years – they perfected the Post-modern communal, anti-materialistic society before there was even a Modernity – and accomplished what the Soviet Union with all its wealth and military power failed to do.  A belief in a God-given human dignity led those early Anabaptists to question the place and power of the Church over the individual and then to question the necessity of all those petty kings, dukes, counts and Christian Emperors.  The Anabaptists were the first Modern democrats.  It’s just that with all of the persecutions and the constant pressure to assimilate, we just sort of gave in.  Now today, we are pretty much just like everyone else.  I’m just trying to figure out if there is still a separate identity to study and try to preserve.”
    “So the question is more – ‘Where did your people go wrong?’ than ‘What do you believe?’”
    “Yes, I suppose.  I guess that sometimes I am not sure if I am writing a eulogy or about something that still has a future.  All I know is that my grandfather believed in our culture, and while my father, like most in his generation, has no real Mennonite self-awareness, that generation neither has any real answer for why they have changed, only a firm conviction that they are now more ‘Christian’ – it’s like that Bible that I just purchased with the book of Sirach – when we used the German Luther Bible, we often quoted from the book of Sirach like any other book.  When we switched from German to English, we used the English King James and no longer considered Sirach to be a book of the Bible.  We just dropped it with no explanation or looking back.  The English church was a whole new paradigm.  The same thing happened with Mennonite teachers and books – most of which were in German.  We just dropped them and ordered new English materials from the American Evangelicals – sort of like a mass conversion.  The only real question is whether we ‘converted’ to English-style Evangelicalism willingly by choice or if it was forced on us by restricting our access to our ethnic heritage and language.”
    “So Mennonites just stopped being pacifists?”
    “Yep – a lot of people had sacrificed for their faith during the World Wars and I guess that the Vietnam generation just got tired of being different.”
    “So then are you aware of other groups – have you ever heard of Dorothy Day or the Catholic Workers’ Movement?”
    “Of course.  I get along very well with the Catholics – I went to a Catholic school and quite frankly, while I learned my values from my grandfather, the Catholics taught me how to justify them.”
    “Well then, did you know that many of them – some say up to 25% of them went to jail for their beliefs?”
    “Yes, but hang on … the Mennonites had always been willing to suffer for their beliefs – but like my dad – he just doesn’t consider himself to be Mennonite.  And, bluntly, it is one thing to go to jail for your beliefs and quite another to try to find a job and support a family with a criminal history – even for conscientious objectors.  I mean, yeah, regrettably, priorities shifted with that generation, but who’s to say…”
    “So your people sold out?”
    “No – the Mennonites did not sell out.  Many individuals, in fact, most – there should be as many as 200,000 ethnic, therefore potentially religious, Russian Mennonites in the United States – there are only 14,000 today that can be readily identified as such – so most individuals simply left the ethnicity, assimilated into the larger American culture, joined churches where they could get jobs and kept their heads down.  Many continued to support missionaries …”
    “So then they were bought out by the American dream? …”
    “Well, you are kind of trying to argue both sides there – did the majority of ethnic Russian Mennonites in the United States sell out if they went to American schools, got good American jobs, married into American families, learned American English and now support the American military and American politicians?”
    “So what happened to your leaders then?  Did they support this or did they try to prevent it in any way?”
    “We don’t really have any – those who were more Mennonite just sort of died out and were replaced by non-Mennonites…”
    “Then you are trying to resurrect the former Mennonite culture?”
    “No.  That’s the thing.  The Mennonite intelligentsia has always been the community – not a small group of individuals.  Even Menno Simons was less a leader than he was a spokesperson.  So it would be impossible for anyone, including myself, to ‘resurrect’ Russian Mennonite culture in the US.  It is something that is lived, not learned.  I am merely trying to figure out if there is enough left of it that it can still be lived or if the remaining pieces and memories are too fractured and polarized to continue on.  That’s what I meant – am I writing a eulogy or am I helping to preserve a meaningful identity.  Actually, one of the biggest differences between Evangelical Mennonites and Evangelical Baptists is not pacifism but rather the idea that faith and culture is lived and absorbed, or at least nurtured, within the community rather than being ‘taught’ by a preacher.  If you are living your faith, then ideals such as pacifism and faith come naturally.  It is only when you are agreeing to accept a preconditioned set of ideals that you are taught that you have the opportunity or need to force someone else to accept that list of truths.  There is a lived truth and there is a written truth – for Mennonites that is the Old versus the New Testament – a written law or a living Saviour.”
    “So you are going to write this all down, collect everything you learned from your grandfather and then be able to explain to your fellow ethnic Mennonites what this is all about?”
    “No – that’s just not how Mennonite culture operates.  You can’t just give someone a list of rules to follow and then say that if you follow these rules, then you are a Mennonite, or an Amish, or…”
    “But isn’t that exactly what the Amish do say?”
    “Well no.  It is not about what you say as much as about how you live your life.  If you keep the rules or the Ordnung – all you have done is met the “legal” preferences of the ethnic Anabaptists – but Anabaptist ethnicity is inseparable from Anabaptist faith – it is about being in community, being in the Word, bearing Spiritual fruit and being faithful stewards – it is about agreeing to be part of the community – a community with Christ at its head `and having a personal relationship with Christ as a member of the community.    The idea is almost that of a communal faith combining the faith of the individuals into something greater than just the one.  Nor is it something that one can do by oneself – fellowship requires more than one.”
    “OK, so then where are you getting your information?  What books are you reading?”
    “Well, that’s the whole point – unlike almost all other Christian churches and sects, we really don’t have an intelligentsia or a ‘leader’ or even a ‘council.’  Everyone is subject to their individual conscience within the context of the faith community and an active, Pietist relationship with Christ in the Holy Spirit.  The community is our intelligentsia.  We don’t have a Pope or a James Dobson or anyone else that tells us what is right – it is more or less lived.  … So what I am doing is not so much theology or history but rather sociology – studying how this faith or community is lived – and how our narrative or identity is formed and maintained – it is all wrapped up in the sociology of the community.  So my challenge is that if it exists in sufficient strength, to help identify and strengthen a self-awareness and understanding of this community, how it functions and how it can be strengthened.  Or, if I am in fact writing a eulogy, to leave a sort of owner’s manual behind so that others might someday resurrect the Anabaptist spirit.  I mean, I think you can be a Christian without being a Mennonite – a better question is whether you can live a truly Christian life outside of the faith community.  So if you want to know what our ideas are, to understand our theology and to meet our intellectual leaders, well, then you simply have to visit a Mennonite church and immerse yourself in an Anabaptist community.  That is why sociology is more meaningful to us theologically than would be a written creed.”
    “So from your perspective then, you are not asking ‘Do Mennonites still believe?’ as much as you are asking ‘What went wrong with the process so that so many Mennonite left the community?’?”
    “Exactly, er… I think.”
    “So then, I am a bit confused… do you consider ‘ethnic’ Mennonites who have left the community to be Mennonite?”
    “Honestly, I don’t have an answer to that.  Better questions are probably whether the greater American society into which we have assimilated can fulfill the same function of the former Mennonite gemeinde or shtetl or if not, whether the secular Mennonite ethnic identity retains enough of the communal identity to fill in the existential gaps or if the spiritual Anabaptism is being lost in America, or whether preservation of secular ethnic traits could someday serve as a guide or map back into an active spiritual community…  or I guess, that if the faith community is not necessary, is it all just a big ol’ waste of time.  Again, I honestly don’t have any answers yet.  For the most part, my sense of community is with a generation that has largely died off – in many ways, this is my attempt to connect with the survivors to determine what it is we intend to do…  if anything…”
    “So then how does Hauerwas fit into your understanding…”
    “That’s exactly the point, I guess – Hauerwas does fit into all this in that he is one of the most intellectual apologists for Christian pacifism today – but no, he is not our ‘intellectual ’ – he might not even be Anabaptist.  It all works in that while we do not really have any single intellectual leader to which we might point, we instead have the community.  Individuals come and go – and most individual leaders fail – so even if Hauerwas is a rude, unlikeable bigot – he is just a person.  He might be good at explaining what we believe as Christian pacifists, but he is not ‘us,’ nor is our faith based on his ideas.  But that is also why he doesn’t have any ‘followers’ in the sense of a Dobson or a Roberts either – he is a gifted individual with strengths and weaknesses but he neither defines nor is defined by the community, nor is anyone else.  In the old days, we often chose elders, bishops and preachers by lot – all adults, well, all adult males were expected to be able to preach and to lead with no special preference – and the system actually worked because no one had all of the responsibility, no one held all of the authority and most questions were worked out consensually as a group of equals.  It is, er was, a great system.  The question, as I keep alluding to is really whether or not it is sustainable.  And I just want to point out that even if it fails, this group intellectualism is actually yet another great example of these ‘backwards’ Anabaptists being Postmodern waaaaaay before their time.  Did it work?  I don’t know… that’s why I’m back in school, right?” …

1 comment:

  1. Title Changed from 'Mennonite Intellects' on 21 Feb, 2012, 14:30 pm


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