There’s a lively discussion current now on one of the Mennonite chat rooms online. It’s about the existence—like a newly discovered tribe of Yeti, I guess—of “Cultural Mennonites“.
Here follows a sizzling grenade I decided not to lob into that chat room (too much collateral damage) but, well, I wanted to share…
As Religious Mennonites will confirm, Mennonite is a religion. I feel it’s a good one, as these things go. The doctrine of peace & non-violence, above all, and the notable generosity and charity inherent in Mennonite churches are, indeed, “full of grace.” The Mennonite Disaster Service is the Gretzky of volunteer disaster relief in North America.
Many—myself included—feel Mennonitism also has a distinct, modern (awakened in the 1960s?) cultural derivative. It was during that turbulent period when the idea of being a Mennonite without baptism or a deep commitment to church life first began to gain acceptance. Around the same time that divorce, irrespective of the Sermon on the Mount, first started on the path to toleration within the plenary Mennonite church.
“Cultural”, btw, has interesting roots, for the etymologically inclined. “Tillage”, indicating to me that culture is tilled, or incorporated, into its subject – an individual, a gathering, a congregation, a population, a society. That root has a lot to do with why I believe I am part of the Cultural Mennonite phenomenon: I was born and raised—innocently so, but without my direct adult consent—in the cult of Mennonite. My childhood nuclear family did not attend church but in all other ways, my extended family and our community was as Menno as Dirk Willems.
The complex and often contradictory Mennonite culture was TILLED into me from birth and it continues to exert itself on me even as I cast aside the learned knowledge of others and depend more on my own experiences and my familiarity with the world.
My formative influences were different than those of my Religious Mennonite kin & kith but also far different from my non-Menno “import” friends.
I see the Cultural Mennonite emerging as a distinct sub-set because of their (my) “half-breed” existence, suspended between disparate worlds.
Those who disavow a stand-alone cultural variant often point instead to a kind of “Mennonite Imposter” creed. I and several of my antecedents are seen to be of this lowly pretender ilk. I tend to object, but maybe I should embrace this tag even if it is pejorative and imposed by others?
I’ll propose a fourth iteration: “Smoking Jacket Mennonites“. Those who gather in a shadowy, virtual quorum and represent the interests of:
- industry & commerce
These subverters (a “den of thieves” according to one angry historical observer) are connected via interlocking directorate. They gather within the friendly, hallowed confines of the church’s tax-exempt status where they typically hold high rank or are able to exert influence by proxy.
One SJM prerequisite is membership in the Religious Mennonite superstructure. Or just good’ol wealth and power. Ideally both.
Membership to SJM, the leadership elite, is by subtle invitation. Its congregation comprises fewer women than men. Likewise, there are not many “fringe” members: those financially challenged, POC, First Nations peoples, and LGBTQ are not strongly represented cohorts. By extension, those overtly tolerant of the non-mainstream or accused of “liberal extremist” social beliefs need not apply either.
These are not hard membership rules. But like the current U.S. Cabinet, it just tends to work out that way. Gender, race, wealth and social standing (or close association to wealth and power) are predictable. Good hair, a tan, and nice teeth are increasingly helpful for videos, podcasts, and evangelizing, but those attributes are furniture, not architecture, and in the hands of a deft PR shop, could be re-framed as a weakness. “He’s almost too pretty to be taken seriously.”
Smoking Jacket Mennonites are not the first or the best at this specious, old-boyistic full meal deal of [wealth creation] & [worship of the divine], but are starting to really get the hang of reciprocal back-scratchery. I can see a Doug Ford getting a standing “O” in the right sanctuary, at the right time. Maybe he already has.
In conclusion, I don’t believe I am a “Non-Mennonite”. Nope, that just does not fit; that thread is too coarse. I definitely feel I am a “Mennonite“. In fact, I have an undeniable, unshameable set of Menno credentials and antecedents, but I am not a member of a Mennonite church so some would keep me on the büte with those who don’t know the difference between Ditsied and Jantsied.
Seeking a finer definition, you can go right ahead and call me a Religious Mennonite (if you’re willing to accept a highly non-conformist definition) or use the Cultural Mennonite tag, or brand me as a Mennonite Imposter – I’ll accept any of those labels without complaint.
As for the arm-waving megafellas of the Smoking Jacket Mennonite elite, I don’t qualify, I don’t have the price of admission, nor do I seek entry to the club. You guys go on without me.
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Two stories that grab a root and dig at these themes:
“I am Otter” in The Machinery – A Literary Collection
Literally Stories presents a satiric peek at Big Church in, “The Business of Saving Souls”