Mennonites and Wilderness
Faith Mennonite’s sermon on 02 September was “Learning from the Wilderness,” (Deut 4:1-2, 6-9; Mark 7:1-8; 14-15, 21). Dan Leisen and Gerald Schlabach spoke on their wilderness experience at the International Boundary Waters, a popular national wilderness area that excludes all forms of modern convenience that do not run on muscle power alone. I took two observations away from this presentation – both men departed from my traditional understanding of the Deuteronomy passage as pertaining to the development of the interior life of the individual and of the congregation. Instead, they focused on the rules that allow you to enter the wilderness, such as “Leave no trace.”
Heidi Wall Burns wrote her masters’ thesis at Iowa State on changing perspectives of “wilderness” in United States’ literature – indicating and exploring shifts between fear and terror to Romanticism and Exploitation to Preservation. Leisen and Schlabach would seem to be representative of the latter.
Similarly to American culture, the Mennonites have gone through many different periods of fear and romanticism regarding wilderness. The 1860s and 1870s were decades of unrest in the frontier amongst the Cherokee, Sioux and other Western tribes – the Custer incident occurred as late as 1876 – two years after the initial immigration of Russian Mennonites to Nebraska and Kansas. The Sioux Uprising of 1862 enabled Federal troops to evict the tribes from treaty lands in southwestern Minnesota, further opening up space for Mennonite expansion into that area as well.
These “Indian troubles” were greatly exploited and exaggerated by Russian officials in Ukraine attempting to discourage immigration to the New World by the Mennonites and other Russländer. When the immigrants first arrived in Nebraska, or later in Manitoba and Montana, many were apparently quite unsure as to what to expect.
Now, about 150 years later, the Mennonites have experienced similar periods of initially fearing the wilds and terrors of the frontier plains, to being determined to tame, settle and exploit these lands in support of their families and churches, to the romanticized need to withdraw into the mythical wilderness to escape the pressures and complications of modern and postmodern lifestyles.
Burns traces these changes in perceptions through the writings of William Bartram, Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold:
“In the eighteenth century, William Bartram approached nature as a scientist and an explorer. His perception was that the wilderness was an infinite resource that, if tamed, could provide immense economic gain for society. He also wrote about the violence in nature, for in the eighteenth century there was little understanding of and a great fear of the unknown wilderness. Bartram journeyed through the wilderness, battling the violent elements, and published his observations and discoveries in the hopes of creating new economic opportunities to further economic growth. … [Inspired by Bartram’s writings] this movement caused the frontier to be pushed further west as the settlers swiftly subdued and conquered the wilderness,” (Wall Burns, p 1-2).
“As industrialization and economic progress burgeoned into the nineteenth century, writers took notice of the toll this progress was taking not only on the wilderness, but also on the people embroiled in the push for civilization and industrialization. Writers such as Henry David Thoreau began to write about the necessary relationship between humans and nature for intellectual, spiritual, and physical health. Thoreau wrote of nature’s unparalleled ability to provide respite from the noise and pollution of an ever-increasing[ly] industrialized populace,” (Wall Burns, p 2).
“… Writers of the twentieth century realized that the wilderness was fast disappearing and was in serious danger of obliterated by urbanization and economic exploitation. … Aldo Leopold observed the incalculable losses of the vanishing wilderness, and … focused [his] writing away from mere environmental awareness to a starker crusade for the preservation and protection of the remaining wilderness. … Leopold’s writing presents a stark contrast between the once thriving wilderness depicted in eighteenth-century writing and the extensive destruction of the natural habitat that he has been witnessing in the twentieth century. …” (Wall Burns, 3).
|Westward the Course of Empire (1861), Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze|
In my estimation, the Mennonite historic archive, in contrast to Wall Burns’ thesis, indicates a key difference between Mennonite intellectual culture and American Mennonite culture. Interestingly, we both start from the same point – a terror and fear of the unknown mitigated by a need for land and natural resources. In this, we might find a commonality between the letters and reports of Jansen and of the Sudderman Commission and essays in the Mennonite press of the time.
Where the Mennonites might diverge from the American literary tradition is in Wall Burns’ second stage. While upper-crust American culture went the way of an agnostic faith in nature (consummated both in the writings of Thoreau and in the somewhat more controversial doctrine of Manifest Destiny), the Mennonites and many of our more Pietist Scandinavian and German-American cousins read the wilderness with a different slant – the wilderness as spiritual metaphor.
For these Mennonites and Pietists, the path through the wilderness led not through the canon of literature but rather through the religious canon of the Torah and for Mennonites, an additional journey through the our heritage histories and genealogies of the Martyrs’ Trek – the embodied metaphors for our spiritual journey through the spiritual wilderness and our historical journey through the political and cultural wilderness – exemplified for us every day on our farmsteads across the prairie – thanking God for what we have been given while striving hard to improve upon this inheritance and pass it on to future generations and to more adequately finance a growing commitment to foreign and home missions. To the Mennonites, wilderness was less ne Wiltness and more ne Eed (desolate area). Ne Eed was a garden to which we had been called to cultivate and make bloom. (Was this not literally the charge we had been given by the princes of the Vistula, by Catharine in Russia and the legal covenant with Victoria’s representatives in Manitoba and between railroad officials in Nebraska, Kansas and Minnesota?)
A further gap might seem to widen with the North American Mennonites. Many of us are the first of the last seven to ten American generations off the farm and the first true Mennonite urbanites in our family lines for four centuries. For us, the wilderness has become an ancestral nostalgia for having grown up in rural America – an America most of us have now left for a chance at higher education, a better job and our turn at the great shopping mecca of America’s suburbia.
|Your blogger @ Tombstone Wilderness Area, Yukon, CAN|
In the church service, Leisen, Schlabah and Noah Kreider Carlson shared the changing perspectives and spiritual imagery of the term wilderness of the urbanizing Mennonite culture based on their experiences in the International Boundary Waters.
Kreider Carlson spoke to the children’s group talking about the need to bring everything you are going to need with you – being self-sufficient and responsible. Kreider Carlson also spoke of having been ill on his trip – a trip of five weeks and how one had to carefully consider whether to tough it out and go forward or to communicate with the emergency teams to be evacuated.
While he did not have time to go into greater detail with the children, or to provide a lot of extrapolation, Kreider Carlson’s experience does illustrate some of key similarities with that of our ancestors. The need to be self-sufficient and responsible is something with which our forefathers would commiserate – especially amongst the Russländer. Stories of the great care that had to be taken when leaving the comforts of the old villages in Russia for the frontiers of North America, are common, as is the knowledge that those Mennonite refugee immigrants had little idea as to what was actually in store for them.
Just as Kreider Carlson proceeded with faith in his fellow travel companions and in the companies from which he purchased his equipment and supplies, the Mennonite immigrants had only themselves and their faith in God – whom they simply had to trust would protect them and provide for their needs.
Often times, the Mennonite culture has been criticized for having been overly independent during and after immigration. But during this time, there was no one else to look after them. In leaving Russia, they lost their citizenship and their homes. Most would not be able to return if things did not work out in the new lands. So they took what they knew and moved their entire culture with them. They should be celebrated for this – not viewed with suspicion or judged.
Similarly, it would be good for us to remember that even though today’s immigrant wilderness is urban rather than on a rural frontier, we should remember to be more tolerant of today’s refugee immigrants who seem slow to adapt or to learn our languages. While simple economic migrants move with a certain expectation and perhaps even knowledge of what lies ahead for them, and can often return home if things do not work out, refugee immigrants seldom have these comforts and are simply striking out in faith in their spirituality and in the people of their host country to provide for them and keep them secure. That is a lot of faith for others to demonstrate in us.
Being sick is an additional commonality between both time periods. My own great-grandmother Katharina Fast Wall often told how she almost died from a simple sliver she received crawling into the covered wagon on their way from Texas to Colorado. She contracted blood poisoning from the dye in her stockings and there was little anyone could do but to treat her with the supplies on hand and to call out to the available authorities. To Kreider Carlson, those authorities were the dispatch team for the airlift ambulance. Fast Wall could only depend on the authority and provision of God – a lesson for all of us to remember when we consider the vitality and strength of our immigrant ancestors’ faith.
Mennonite Interior, Kansas, USA[Note: In the Russian Mennonite culture, there are two heritage treks to which one might refer – the Martyrs’ Trek (Trek of the Martyrs) which commemorates the centuries long journey from persecution to persecution from the cantons of Switzerland, down the Rhine River to the cities of Hanseatic Belgium, Amsterdam, then for some Münster, for others, Danzig, the Vistula, Russia, the United States, Canada (or Kazakhstan), and for some further on to Paraguay, Mexico and Belize. It is a story that as of yet has no end. The other trek, known as the “Great Trek,” refers to the journey of those Mennonites in Russia who traveled from the settlements and colonies of the Russian Kaban east into the high mountains of central Asia.]
Leisen, a Postmodern, urbanized Mennonite, sees the wilderness as a sort of sanctuary from the everyday noise of his life in the city and a place to remember the joy of God’s provision. Being vulnerable is what sticks out for Leisen – being vulnerable to potentially harmful experiences. Leisen draws from the Anabaptist heritage drawn from the Torah – for him, the wilderness reminds him of his dependence on God. “With appropriate preparation and God’s protection, all will be ok.” The wilderness is something to experience, strive through and survive to experience increased spiritual understanding and ardour – a sort of spiritual boot camp with correlations to his everyday life – be prepared and trust in God.
Leisen indicates that there are rules or guidelines for the wilderness experience:
a. Know where you are goingb. Bring enough food and gear, not too much nor too littlec. Double checkd. Leave no trace
These are the same guidelines one could establish for one’s spiritual life – though I might recommend restating (d) as “do no harm” in this context.
Leisen also seems to underscore Kreider Carlson’s perspective to be prepared. Hearing Leisen’s presentation, I noted a distinct emphasis as wilderness or wild-ness as a sanctuary – a place to get away from the world. In the language of Wall Burns, Leisen represents a Mennonite in the Romantic wilderness phase of Thoreau. As an urbanized Mennonite, Leisen no longer looks towards the potential of the wilderness to be tamed to support a family and a growing international missions commitment, rather, Leisen is seeking out the restorative effects of the wilderness period – “nature’s unparalleled ability to provide respite from the noise and pollution of an ever-increasing[ly] industrialized populace,” (Wall Burns, ibid).
A concern to “leave no trace” reflects Leisens participation in Wall Burn’s third phase – noting the need to take care of and preserve the wilderness experience from which he learns and recharges his spirit.
One could find a spiritual parallel with this last phase in being careful to not pollute the resources on which we all depend. Could one apply this to the church, family, home and personal spiritual environment in which one places oneself? Clearly implied would be the need to take responsibility for and care of the social and spiritual environments in which God has placed us.
Schlabach referred to the 10 Commandments of the Wilderness – guidelines to which one must adhere to be allowed in. In his experience, he must be allowed in and in order to be allowed, he is required to periodically review the stated general rules and renew the covenant to abide by them. Schlabach admits that at this stage in his life, he often doesn’t bother, but has rather internalized the rules – in fact, the positive habits he has developed preclude breaking the rules.
4 Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.(NIV courtesy Biblegateway.com)
Schlabach relates this directly to his spiritual life. Noting Deuteronomy 4:1, he must know the rules and keep them in order to be allowed within the land that the Lord has promised. But these laws must be internalized. “You must know the rules, but not to keep them but rather to experience the fullness of the experience. The Grace of the Torah allows us to participate in the life enabled by the rules.”
Schlabach also indicates the movement from Wall Burns’ second stage of internalization (Thoreau) to that of active protection (Leopold) by bringing up the legacy of Sigrud Olson and the concept of the “Land Ethic.” Olson’s land ethic notes that our experience is based not solely on our own actions, attitudes and internalization of the rules, but rather that it is “the cumulative habits of others,” that really establishes the quality of the experience. This is a direct reference to the importance of discipleship within the church.
|Sigurd Olson, conservationist|
"Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium."
~ Sigurd Olson courtesy Famous Quotes
Where do we go from here? Well, not all Mennonites are in the same stage. The Mennonites of the Chaco have learned to survive and support themselves off the local environment. Now they are realizing the increased need to preserve and augment that environment – both within Mennonite society and culture, and under the increased oversight of global environmental watchdog groups.
Mennonites in the emerging or developing world are calling for assistance and technical help to exploit their own environments, such as in the Congo, – both to support themselves and their families, and to establish their own independent infrastructure to support church growth and missions. How we acknowledge and respond to their legitimate perspective and need should be will informed by the challenges and successes of our own evolution through Wall Burns’ stages in modern attitudes towards the environment. We will need to learn tolerance for their differing perspective and respect its legitimacy while sharing from our post-exploitive perspective to help ensure that the environment is able to meet both their financial needs and that of a sound spiritual connection to the nature that supports them.
As for Mennonites in North America, we are still struggling with our own perspective – the need to improve the farms and exploitation of the environment to feed our families and support our churches, combined with the need to preserve our spiritual heritage – a sort of natural spiritual preserve (and place where our cultural ethnic heritage might be passed on to succeeding generations).
Interestingly, Wall Burns’ decision to trace development of these perspectives through literature seems quite sound. Perhaps the best way to do this is to remember to come in from the wilderness and to share each other’s experiences in a respectful dialogue, for literature is nothing if not a dialogue, that seeks to share and shape wisdom for all. Hopefully these conversations will be less concerned with enforcing rights and rules against other perspectives and more bent on understanding how responsible guidelines might be internalized to help meet the needs and expectations of everyone.
As the African church leadership has indicated, perhaps this is the second phase of our charge to reach the world for Christ and to bring them into an economic dialogue on the environment.
In that vein, I have often wondered why Mennonite heritage institutions of higher learning have failed to developed active agricultural and foreign studies research capacities commiserate with their Biblical and religious studies? How else are we going to meet this second spiritual challenge and lead part (b) of the missionary dialogue? We still have a lot of work to do.
Heidi Wall Burns, wilderness, spirituality, Pietism, environmentalism, Dan Leisen, Gerald Schlabach, Noah Kreider Carlson, Chaco, rules, dialogue, Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau, Urbanization, rural lifestyles, generational transitions, universities