|The Divided Kingdom, à Church of Latter Day Saints.|
Legacies of Division
It has been a busy month – the Wenger Mennonites, Sam Mullet’s guilty sentence for in-faith hate crimes and an informative roundtable with AIMM representatives and church leaders from Burkina Faso and Congo / Zaire. What do all three of these events have in common? They all deal directly with the Mennonite culture’s legacy of division.
This morning (being Sunday, 23 Sept), I lay in bed listening to Minnesota Public Radio (MPR)’s broadcast of Krista Tippett’s interview with Focus on the Family president Jim Daly and Gabe Lyons, founder of “Q,” an Emergent Evangelical group.
Tippett focuses on three topics – namely the efforts by Daly and Lyons to create a new, impactful and yet more caring and human face of Evangelicalism, on their outreach to gays, pro-Choicers and Muslims (the perceived traditional enemies of Focus on the Family and faithful Evangelicals everywhere) and the controversy this new leadership has generated between generations within the American Evangelical movement. (For instance, Daly indicates that 65% of Evangelicals under the age of 35 support the concept of gay marriage – currently an almost violently divisive issue in Minnesota’s current electoral cycle.)
A veteran of Minnesota’s inter-Mennonite culture wars of the late 90s, my first reaction was to groan and suspect that Focus was merely adjusting to future realities in fundraising. Focus and its officers have made a lot of money off the anti-abortion, anti-woman, anti-gay coalition in the past. To me, Daly’s awareness of future trends signaled a bellwether alert that future contributors might be alienated by a legacy of such hard-core political preoccupations – and a growing reputation for negativity, and um, err, well – something akin to “not exactly loving” attitudes towards others.
Regarding the Wenger Mennonites, I admit to being a bit behind the times. Horse-and-Buggy Mennonites: Hoofbeats of Humility in a Postmodern World by Donald Kraybill and James Hurd came out in 2006, but I was only just fortunate to come across a used copy this week. In this book, the authors explore a church division within the Old Mennonite Order that occurred in 1927 over the use of the automobile. From a small group of 50 dissenters, the Wenger Churches have grown to a population of some 16 thousand persons. Truly a successful legacy of dissent.
“How does one take this story?” I wonder. “Should I celebrate diversity and a commitment to faith and cultural traditions, um, err I mean principles? Or are the authors celebrating a culture and legacy of division?” These small questions take on a larger significance to a Brüderthaler Mennonite whose own culture split from the Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites and the Russian Mennonite’s General Conference in the 1870s and 1880s. “Are/were the Brüderthaler similarly a legacy of division?”
The AIMM (Africa Inter-Mennonite Missions) Roundtable on Mennonite Missions’ legacy and an on-going commitment brought up similar questions. Grimly stark against the celebration of 100 years of inter-Mennonite cooperation and growth within Africa was the number of churches who equally shared in this legacy and celebration but were no longer part of the community – the Mennonite Brethren (MB), the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches (EMB) or even the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches (EMC). Certainly, they had not absented themselves in the cause of missionary zeal or a commitment to Evangelical missions? Has Peace become such a divisive theological concept that we can no longer celebrate even our past successes and cooperation? How sad the legacy of divorce, made so much the worse for the past success of a formerly close relationship now gone bad. I am sure the French have an appropriate phrase for this.
While the roundtable was a brilliant success and greatly informative, not to mention a good conversation between our Muslim Somali (from Djibouti) host’s conversation with our African leaders, or some of the best roasted goat I have ever encountered. But, there would be one final reminder of division. A Mennonite whom I did not yet know introduced himself and asked which church I was with. I replied that I was of Brüderthaler heritage and remained a strong supporter of AIMM as it was part of our family legacy as well. I also identified myself as a worshiper with a congregation in Evanston and one in St Paul.
“Have I ever been to [he named another local Mennonite congregation]?” he asked.
Without thinking, I replied, “No, that church is a bit too political for my tastes. I prefer to worship where I can focus on God and not worry about politics.”
Note to future self – excellent roast goat, savory samosas and sweetened Somali coffee can make one say things one really wouldn’t say on purpose – next time stick to quiche and a nice latté .
Of course, the person in question was from the church in question. “Well, I think we’ve worked through a lot of those divisions and both congregations tend to get along pretty well at present,” he thoughtfully responded.
“Well, sure, but then if you get along alright now, what does that say about the split? Are you reuniting now that things have calmed down and the divisions have become less important, or will both congregations continue to needlessly struggle in a legacy of division? How long will that last?” I wondered to myself – silently. “How long will we have to explain being Mennonite in Minneapolis as a political division between Republican Mennonites and Progressives Anabaptists rather than as a united church faith heritage?”
|Sam Mullet, courtesy NBC TV|
Finally, a federal court in Ohio finally found Sam Mullet and 15 of his co-sectarians guilty of hate crimes for assaulting his fellow Amish leadership and forcibly cutting off hair and beards as a sign of spiritual humiliation. How did all of that start? Rather predictably, I’m afraid – it started over a church split. [Note that it has not passed my attention that while Mullet’s presumed immoral leadership of his break-away sect, including potentially having forced women into adultery, was seemingly included only in the testimony against the church and did not contribute to any specific charges regarding such abuses by a church leader on his congregation.]
While I can only agree with the verdict reached, I am also somewhat concerned that the Mullet precedent will only make churches all the more willing to agree to establishing separate paths in the future. Instead of being able to hold ourselves mutually accountable to the fellowship, as is the Anabaptist way, it may now be too much easier, a lot more legally advisable and a lot safer to just agree to go our separate ways. That would truly be the most regrettable legacy of division – a legacy that looks all the more permanent the further on we go.
Is this truly how we want to be remembered?