Addiction, drugs and alcohol in the Anabaptist community have become much more visible since the documentary Devil’s Playground came out in 2002. There should be no surprise. Long known for presenting a public profile of simplicity and sobriety, the tight Mennonite (and Amish) communities have long sheltered a growing, if hidden, confrontation with drugs and alcohol.
The old Mennonite joke (which has also been applied to other cultures) goes something like this:
The joke goes to the heart of the matter – Mennonite culture is just like any other – we like our beer (or wine) and we like to experiment and explore. However, in the 20th Century, alcohol, tobacco and drugs have become increasingly taboo and unacceptable for church members. At the same time, the assimilation of Mennonites into non-Mennonite culture had dramatically increased the amount of alcohol consumption and drug use. Somewhat problematically, much of this use is hidden or does not begin until Mennonite youth leave their hometowns. Even within towns, it is difficult to understand if there is a different impact in the ethnic Mennonite community contrasted to the larger society. We just blend in too well when we want to.
Yet, having grown up in an isolated Mennonite community, relatively sheltered from drugs and alcohol, scenes from The Devil’s Playground were only all too familiar – not that we had parties of underage Mennonites drinking, but rather, often when Mennonite youth “party” with non-Mennonites, our lack of experience with alcohol leads to binge drinking and often a relatively naïve and helpless drunkenness. My first drink was what I actually thought was a harmless Kool-Aid. I had no idea that I had just had my first drink or that a Kool-Aid tends to be a highly alcoholic punch blend of rather nasty toxicity. I mean, we used to drink Kool-Aid at Bible camp and DVBS, right? Not the same thing.
The lesson is not that we have these issues or that those who experience them are sinning or failing or bad persons but rather, that like sex ed, we probably need a more pragmatic education in drugs and alcohol and how to handle or avoid them. The world is now too small for us to hide from these issues, and as Steinbach, Man., recently determined, it can no longer be kept outside of the community.
In my case, I had been fortunate to have many friends outside of the local Mennonite community who were also strong Christians but a lot more worldly wise – well, and my family was way too poor for me to have access to anything with which I might get into trouble. But even with such friends and precautions, alcohol was definitely readily available to others through similar friends and even smuggled into school events (sometimes the problem with avoiding the appearance of evil is that appearances are usually deceiving).
Alcohol abuse is not new to the Mennonite experience. The diaries of life in 19th Century Chortitza and Molotschna are replete with incidents regarding alcohol – seemingly it was not a sin to drink per se, and drunkenness was very frowned upon (not dissimilar to today) but the occasional binge drinking parties at weddings and family gatherings were quite common and could, and often did, lead to trouble. In his published diaries, Rev. J. D. Epp bemoaned the impact alcohol was having on the youth of the colony and the fights that seemed common when other-wise close, sober Mennonite neighbors became loosened with drink.
I am not sure that our own Mennonite education was the most effective at discouraging drinking (our sobriety was probably as related to the sheer distance between our community and the neighboring towns as to any educational outreach). Yet, our Christian Lifestyles teacher probably did get one thing right – the sin (or problem) with drunkenness or addiction was that you were giving up control of your life and your morality to an inanimate substance – the relationship between the terms alcoholic spirits and evil spirits was readily brought forward.
Regardless, I was glad to see that the Mennonites of Chihuahua Mexico have determined to be a bit more proactive.
Writing for Terra TV, Enrique Lomas reports the recent success efforts by the Mexican state have met with attempting to curb increased alcohol use amongst the Mennonites of Chihuahua before it becomes a problem. The Ministry of Social Development under Edgar Aragon has been providing student education for Mennonite youth to serve as addiction prevention counselors amongst the Mennonite community.
Concerned that Mennonite youth, whom he realizes were once well sheltered by the high morality and strong religious sense of the Colonies, have increasingly been introduced to alcohol by the surrounding Meztizo culture, Aragon has begun training young Mennonites to better understand and resist addiction, especially due to alcoholism.
Considering the growing problems with addiction in the world-wide Russian Mennonite diaspora and in surrounding communities, this sounds like a great pre-emptive program that might serve as both a model and a warning that no ethnic group, no matter how religious or isolated is immune to today’s social temptations.