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

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Mennonites and Democracy

courtesy of
ne Re'jiarung derjchem Folkj

  I n the 29 Oct 2012 issue of Mennonite World Review (MWR), Berry Friesen pondered the question:  If neither major candidate sufficiently reflects Christian values, why support one?  

    Inside his essay, he ponders not voting -- not as a return to Mennonite "quietism" or "separation from the world," but rather as a political statement.   But once we, as an ethnicity or as individuals, have determined the possibility of voting or have actually voted, our participation in the democratic process would seem to co-opt us.  Our decision to vote or to not vote merely reflects our general agreement with one or none of the available candidates -- to not vote is still to vote.  

    I would submit that the only way one could remain free to reflect a personal stance rather than a united democratically corporate stance within the larger society, would be to refrain from voting altogether.  In placing ourselves "outside" of the system, Anabaptists become an "Other" that is not associated with the "system."  We are then freed to express our own political perspectives and pursue personal and social policies that most conform to our individual consciences and within the general consensual guidance of the congregation.  But we can only be an "other" if we are not part of the system.

    In reading both Friesen's essay and the Voter Pledge - Election 2012, I remain skeptical that once one has voted and identified as part of the "system," that one is then able to arbitrarily not vote and participate as an "other."  To be both within and outside of the process would indeed be a great position, but does not seem plausible.  Worse, if one can choose to participate or not to participate, one faces the possibility and appearance of being able to be bought -- or of positing an untenable position of having the right to participate or not based on the benefit accrued to one's own belief and/or ethnic group -- generally the least ethical and most despised of democratic participants.

   To my mind, voting bears on at least four basic Anabaptist principles:  non-resistance, the oath, the magistracy, and the separated kingdom.  Participation in even a democratic election would/has require(d) adjustment and accommodation to each of these basic heritage values.

    Disturbingly, pressure to change or accommodate in each of these areas has come from outside the Anabaptist tradition and seldom from a compelling interior necessity.  Also, regardless if you are supporting candidates to the left or the right, the decision to support and look to outside authorities to address issues or to provide leadership in matters pertaining to the greater world has often been accompanied by a weakening of internal Anabaptist ties and resources.

    The Mennonite witness of not owning slaves and of aiding and sheltering escaped slaves has historically spoken much louder than did our votes for civil rights during the 60s. Similarly, it is to the eternal regret of the Russian Mennonites that we did not do more privately to shield and protect victims of the Holocaust in Ukraine and Germany, rather than depending on political officials to do what we should have done.

    As a former intern for both the United States Congress and the Senate, I greatly respect and appreciate our democratic government and the necessity of voting.

    As a Mennonite, I respect the powerful witness and impact of a truly separated walk.  In voting, we are implicated in the policies and activities of the government – be they positive, negative, civil, military or magisterial.  This implication prevents our ability to serve as an historic and cultural “Other” who is able to critique, support, challenge and observe our fellow citizens – whether from a perspective on the right or the left.  This is a lesson we have learned again and again throughout our history and always to our detriment.

    Will this group be able to effectively explain why they have chosen to vote at certain times and not others?   They have perhaps naively and unwittingly opened themselves up to various charges of intolerance against diversity.  As an Anabaptist, the last thing I want non-Anabaptists to take from our cultural witness is the perception that we, as a cultural group, must be catered to or we will not vote, or that we find it increasingly difficult to vote for persons who are increasingly culturally different from ourselves.  

    Regarding the use of drones, for instance, this group might say that they refused to support candidates who approve of such violence, or, more powerfully, belong to a group that eschews participation in the democratic process entirely.  They are not part of that system at all and are thereby  able to reach out to their fellow human beings based on the strength of their own faith and heritage without having to factor the world’s political and military priorities into those basic relationships.  In other words, where is the difference in stating that I belong to the system and would vote but could not vote for this position, or stating that I voted for this person but do not support this position?  It seems irrelevant.

    I  do plan to vote.  But, I strongly mourn the days when the Anabaptist diaspora was able to look the nations of the world straight in the eyes and state that while we are in this world, we are not of it – and be believed.  As such, voting did not free us, it may have permanently co-opted us into giving up such freedom and our freedom to bear an unbiased witness.


(adapted from Steven Wall's response to Berry Friesen's piece in the Mennonite World Review, 30 Oct 2012). 

(updated added 07 Nov, 2012) …

   Of all the essays that I have written, I found this to be of the greatest conflict between my heritage values and my personal “American” values.  Spending some four days volunteering in last-day efforts to get out the vote in the 2012 United States’ Presidential elections, I find myself both in a compromised position regarding voting and participating the magistracy, and in good company as I was joined by at least a half-dozen other Mennonites and a couple of Quakers in our joint effort to get out the vote.
    At the same time, I was officially challenged at least three times by non-Mennonites regarding this hypocrisy – being Mennonites who were voting.  And non, none of the challengers were, regrettably, readers of the blog.
    The three challengers were of a diverse background.  One is a journalist who studies at Notre Dame in Indiana.  A second challenger is a public librarian in the St Paul Public Library system.  The final challenger was a fellow-phone banker who happens to be a fellow conservative / Evangelical Christian from southern Nigeria.  I mention this only to illustrate the fact that our traditional aversion to voting is actually quite well known by non-Mennonites or the Inglisher – in fact, it is known around the world. 

   While I feel that it is most often appropriate to participate in democratic elections, I am also correct in perceiving the small confusion with which the world views our activities – and the potential to speak with the authoritative cultural voice of “the other” were we to stick to our cultural guns and vote with our hands and our hearts rather than with our ballots and our wallets.

    Whether you, my fellow Mennonites of ethnicity and faith, chose to vote or to not vote, you have my full support.  Yet, let this serve as a cultural reminder that the price for being “different” and for being a cultural witness is that others are in fact watching what we do and how it measures up to what we say.  Even if we, as individuals, no longer attend an Anabaptist congregation, dress in Plain Clothes or even continue to live in a traditional Mennonite or Amish community, we are still a witness to our culture and a testament to our heritage.  Like-it-or-not, the Martyrs’ Trek might seem increasingly irrelevant or even just inconvenient, but there doesn’t seem to be any actual exit  from this trail – we will always continue to be connected to and interpreters of our Mennonite and Amish heritage – whether this is a positive or a negative connection is often up to us.  We can embrace it, or like the Bitter Poets of Canada, we might fight it, but it seems deceptively difficult to sever.

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