This blog is mostly concerned with examining the construction, maintenance and viability of a specific ethnic religious identity. While no one really bothers getting excited over such a project, it is none-the-less a bit controversial – not in its particular expression but in the perception of its aims. Does this project contribute towards the preservation of a particular and valuable ethnic “particular’ experience or does it contribute towards further divisiveness and discrimination.
It is important to reiterate that just because one identifies a particular ethnic experience as viable and worthy of study, that one does not necessarily denigrate or negate the viability and value of all other ethnic or ethnic-religious experiences. Just as a single rose can be examined and cultivated along with many other roses in the garden, or just as the genus rosa is worthy of study but no more so, nor more to be preferred than is iris or syringe or paeonia… each is worthy, necessary and valued both in and of itself and also for the contrast and complementary impact each unique group has on the others and on the inclusive group as a whole.
Nor is this conundrum the sole propriety of the ethnic Mennonites, or even of ethnic-religions in general. Similar questions and dilemmas have been grappled with in many other examinations or manifestations of “unique” identity – at various national or regional Jewish heritage institutions, at the Swedish-American Museum (SAMAC) in Chicago, or even in defining participation in and inclusion in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights now under construction in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
At the same time, while we prefer to tear down barriers, to foster inter-group cooperation and shared identities, questions remain as to whether or not such well-meaning and lofty goals are not merely the new politically correct code words for cultural assimilation and enforced cultural proscription – think in terms of the rights and existence of unique Native American and First Nations cultures in the North American West and Far North, aboriginal rights in the Chaco or the rights of Muslims to self-identify and maintain a unique cultural perspective in the larger context of Western Europe.
The aim of this essay is not to resolve these matters but rather to give them air and light – to admit of their complexity and to encourage greater and more tolerant dialogue in all respects. The Canadian Museum of Human Rights evolved from tighter, more restrictive concepts as a Holocaust museum, a museum of genocide and now a positive institution embodying the concept of Human Rights. The LGBT center has expanded programming into issues of youth homelessness, the aging with chronic diseases and other larger social areas of expertise gained by the recent painful history of LGBT civil rights attainment in North America. The Swedish in Chicago (SAMAC) has evolved into a museum of immigration specializing in youth and children’s programming.
All of these institutions have grown beyond earlier, more narrow cultural and ethnic identities into something beyond what they originally stood for. Yet, there is a seemingly common trend – that previous ethnic identities, cultural strengths and ethnic narratives have in a sense specialized – given certain groups either a level of experience with certain types of experiences (such as immigration, civil rights attainment, or surviving genocide) or a cultural wealth that augments the collective experience (not dissimilar to Augustine’s concept of a common culture that borrowed from various ethnic expertises – Roman governance, Greek philosophy and Hebrew religion).
However the dialogue evolves and progresses – it is important for it to remain respectful and inclusive. The embedded graphic produced by the Illinois Mennonite Conference, is an excellent visual example of how these goals might be pursued at the same time – and in a mutually empowering, catalystic manner: