I have told the story before of my flirting with Buddhism in my 20’s (I loved Jesus, but needed to see other people), and how a Buddhist monk told me I was a shitty Buddhist, but that everything I was looking for in Buddhism could be found in Christianity. He introduced me to Thomas Merton, who introduced me to Dorothy Day, and then it was off to the races.
What I haven’t said is that Christianity seemed repugnant to me. I mean, I loved Merton and Day, but it was really obvious I couldn’t be Catholic. It was early days for my developing social conscience, but I couldn’t be part of a system that made sure I would never be led by women. I was really clear the Evangelicalism of my childhood held nothing for me. It was not interested in answering any of the questions I had, and their focus on the angry God who must be placated – the god who was pissed and took it out on his kid instead of on me – nauseated me.
But when I found the Mennonites, it was like coming home. As I said when I was credentialed for ministry, “It’s not so much that being Mennonite made sense to me, but rather it made sense of me.”
The other night in a meeting, I said that being a Mennonite was the last stop for me. That were I not able to be Mennonite, I couldn’t be Christian. I was on the way out the door when I found this place, and if I can’t be here, then I will keep on going.
There was a gasp in the room, a room filled with Mennonites.
Obviously, there is some hyperbole there, but the reasons I became Mennonite are still there for me:
- The centrality of the example of Jesus.
- The practice of peacemaking and non-coercion.
- The idea that God is best experienced and scripture best understood in community.
- The separation of church and state.
- Choosing the words of Jesus (specifically the Sermon on the Mount and The Sermon on the Plain) as the “canon within the canon” (to use a Lutheran phrase) instead of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
There are other reasons, but those are the main ones that drew me in. And I recognize that some of those things can be found elsewhere. I know some Baptist folk who agree with all of that, but it isn’t because they are Baptist. And I know some Catholics who would agree with most of that, but it isn’t because they are Catholic. But all of those things are pretty baked into Mennonite life and theology.
And, I will be the first to say that like pretty much everyone else, Mennonites look better on paper than in reality. Some of the most coercive, passive-aggressive folk I have ever met were Mennonites. You can find Mennonite churches with US flags in them (although, thankfully, they are rare) and some Mennonites are so desperate for acceptance by the mainstream culture they have become Evangelical in their thinking.
But none of that matters to me, because we have an obligation, when examining a system, to see what it aspires to be, rather than what its current state is. And the paper version of what it means to be Mennonite is what I fell in love with, and converted to, and the way I now understand what it means to be Christian – or put another way, I’m not interested in being a Christian who doesn’t hold those values as central to their faith, or belonging to a community of faith where those things are not central.
A friend once said he was baptist, not Baptist, and that the lower-case b was important to him. I feel the same way – I am not Mennonite ™, but mennonite. It is sometimes hard for me to stay with Mennonite Church USA, and I know that there have been times it has been hard for them to stay with me. We may not always tarry together, and I don’t judge others for having already left.