Ethnocentrism and DGR Mennonites

I found out recently that Klassen’s, Wiebe’s, Neufeld’s, and yes, Warkentin’s are not the only ethnic Mennonites. Let me explain…

At the M.B. study conference, Bruce Guenther, in his wonderful presentation on Mennonite history, helpfully challenged what has become a realistic hurdle for Mennonites in relation to their past; namely, ethnocentricity (the belief in the inherent superiority of one's own ethnic group or culture). In the historical complexity that defines Mennonite identity one of the legacies is a close identification between the Dutch-German-Russian (DGR) heritage that many members of Mennonite churches call their own. While there is incredible value in recognizing the distinctiveness of this ethnic heritage, the challenge is that these DGR’s are often referred to as the true “ethnic” Mennonites, with all others being “non-ethnic” or “religious” Mennonites (does that mean the “ethnic” Mennonites are not religious?). The obvious result has been an ethnocentricity that pervades Mennonite identity, which in turn creates unhelpful and often hurtful divisions between those on the “inside” and those on the “outside.” Now, do not get me wrong, the DGR heritage that has shaped Mennonite theology should not be ignored, but in the multicultural reality of the 21st century where membership in Africa has grown over 200% in the last twenty years (Leo Driedger, Mennonites in the Global Village), perhaps it is time to reconsider how we define who is a “real” Mennonite…

So next time you hear a Klassen, Wiebe, Neufeld, and yes even a Warkentin, claim that they are Mennonite on the sole basis of their ethnic heritage, perhaps you can take that as an opportunity to gently rebuke them. Then you call tell them of this snappy new acronym people are using all over the place in recognition of their heritage: “DGR!!!”

Kingdom of God and the Stories We Tell

In my last post I raised the question of what the kingdom of God looks like in our world and how people can participate in it. To be quite honest, I am not sure that there is a prescribed formula for how God’s kingdom exists and how we are supposed to participate in it. The biblical narrative provides many glimpses into aspects of the kingdom (i.e. Israel’s mission to be a light to all nations) and Jesus’ ministry as the declaration of the reign of God’s kingdom here on earth (Jesus whole ministry – incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension – is the confirmation of God’s kingdom). In a sense it is God’s redemption plan to bring shalom to all of creation. Not mere peace or harmony, but the unity of all things in living out their full potential of what they were created to be. Not exactly clear, when it comes to practically explaining it…

And then there is the admonition for Christians to participate in God’s kingdom, another vague concept practically speaking… We do have glimpses into this from the biblical narrative such as the Old Testament call for Israel to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). In the New Testament Jesus summarizes kingdom participation as loving God and loving your neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). But what does this look like? Would it not be easier to just give me the list of practical actions that I can sign up for that ensure my name is on the “kingdom list” (along with a snazzy t-shirt and promotional material, of course! J)? Well, I am sorry (not really…) to admit that participation in the kingdom of God is not a prescribed entrance into a cool club.

So we are back to the question, “What does the Kingdom of God look like?” This is where I am becoming increasingly convinced that we need to be telling more stories in the area of Christian theology. And I do not just mean as a footnote to the scriptural principles we explicate ad nauseum. Stories are not just an after-thought of theology; but rather they form the very context in which theology lives and breaths. In the words of my man Stanley Hauerwas, “We know who we are only when we place our selves – locate our stories, within God’s story.” As we place our stories in the midst of God’s story (presence of the kingdom bringing redemption to the whole of creation) we are drawn into a life that automatically presumes a certain degree of participation. The unique function of stories, and I think the great challenge for churches in our day, is that stories assume a certain organic character to them. Each one has a unique flavor that contributes to the larger picture. No formula here…

So when I consider this question of kingdom participation I give a hardy recommendation for a book I read this spring titled Treasure in Clay JarsThis book gives the account of six Christian communities in North America that are living stories of what kingdom participation looks like. The structure of these communities ranges from your typical mid-size church, to an inner-city ministry, to a house church and cover a broad denominational spectrum. What is especially important is that there is no formula to be gleaned to fill our ethical appetite. No, there are just stories. Stories of love. Stories of justice. Stories of mercy. Stories of loving God and loving neighbors in a manner that goes beyond any sole theological explication on the kingdom could ever go. In a way, stories can be the tie that binds theology and practice together…

So what does the kingdom of God look like? I guess I really don’t know… But if we start telling and listening to stories of how others have engaged with the kingdom we begin to see the awesome complexity of God’s work in this world. In a way, I have not answered the question of what the kingdom of God looks like in the practical sense that people may prefer. But considering the diversity of the world we live in, and the variety in the Christian faith when it comes to participating with God’s kingdom, I am okay with that…


Acquisition vs. Participation

Ok, here are some more thoughts on the conference.

I am always intrigued at what a shift in language can do in our framework for understanding faith. George Hunsberger, plenary speaker at the conference last week and coordinator of the Gospel and Our Culture Network, proposes a corrective for understanding salvation. What he suggests is a shift from explaining salvation as acquisition, towards understanding it in terms of participation (my ears definitely perked as I have already shared my affinity with the word “participation”).

When salvation is construed on the sole terms of our personal benefit (acquisition) it becomes centered only on the individual, which Hunsberger argues is a partial conception of salvation. Basically, this is the me-centered approach to Christianity, where salvation very easily becomes nothing more than a free ticket out of this world. In other words, salvation is individualistic and other-worldly, with very little to offer for life here and now.

Salvation as participation, on the other hand, focuses on language of the “reign of God” already in the world. While definitely not discounting one’s personal encounter with salvation (yes, this includes heaven!), the point Hunsberger is rightly making is that salvation is far bigger than our own personal aspirations to escape our lives. The question shifts from “how do I acquire my personal salvation to ensure entrance into heaven?” to “how do I participate in God’s reign here on earth?” The implication, of course, is that God’s reign is a present reality that we in fact can experience and participate with. So if we recognize that Jesus came not only to save individuals, but to fulfill God’s promise of restoring shalom to this earth through the presence of his kingdom, we can begin to understand the necessity and in fact the honor that we have of participating with him in this world.

I guess the next question would be: what does God’s kingdom look like? Well, that discussion is for another time…

We see then how a shift in language sheds new light on the life-giving topic of salvation. As we move from selfish acquisition to active participation we are led as individuals and the church to refocus our energies away from personal well-being towards the realization of well-being in the context of God’s reign in the whole world.

Culture, Gospel and Church

Last week I attended the bi-annual study conference of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Church (wow, our denomination is quite a mouthful!). The topic of the conference was “Culture, Gospel and Church.” Personally, I found the topic itself to be the most encouraging aspect of the conference. In years past it would not have surprised me to hear the topic of “church vs. culture” or “how to resist culture, 10 steps to creating a culturally resistant church” (the list could go on…). Thankfully the starting point for this conference recognized that Christians are “living inside our culture” (emphasis mine). In the past this likely would have read “the culture,” implying an implicit otherness of culture from the church. While churches do create their own culture to some degree, they are also always a part of the culture at large in which they find themselves, and to neglect or completely ignore this basic fact is inexcusable ignorance through which many people in the church are thankfully emerging from. Now, this is not to say that there was not much discussion (as their should be!) on the negative aspects within our culture (materialism anyone?), as a full embrace presents another whole list of dangers as a denial/rejection of culture does. I do think, however, that this simple recognition that Christians, and Mennonite Brethren’s in particular, are a part of culture is an integral starting point to any discussion of culture, gospel and church.

I plan on sharing more this week, so stay tuned…

(My friend Ryan has some good reflections on the conference as well if you are interested)

Out of Context

Every once in a while I encounter quotable comments that out of their context can be completely unhelpful, and oftentimes humorous to the out of context reader. Hopefully I can share some of these out of context gems as I encounter them.

Here is an example:

“Moral obligation is not a demand, it’s a gift”

Trying telling this someone facing an ethical quandary. It’s like telling a child you don’t have to clean your room, you get to!

Free Burma - Awareness is better than nothing...


Free Burma!

Know who we are in order to be who we are supposed to be…

Here’s a question I have been asking myself recently of church:

“What are we doing here? Does anyone really know?”

Have you ever wondered if the various practices in your church fail to match up to the theological foundations your church stands for? Do we, or others in our congregations even know what the theological foundations are that drive what it is we do on Sunday mornings and the various midweek programs that make up so much of what we define church to be?

If your answer is yes, or even maybe, to these questions, or ones similar that you have yourself, I want to let you know you are not alone! It seems to me that there is growing neglect to really engage with the theological identity of being a church. This is so much more than what song we sing, the color of Sunday’s bulletin, or which care group has the best ‘fellowship’ (aka. ‘goodies’). What I am getting at isn’t so much the practices, although these will inevitably be a part of the discussion, but the identity of the church. Do we really know who we are? And do we realize what the implications are for our practices as a church in relation to our identity? For example, if a church professes a love for God and love for you neighbor (most do, don’t they???), do its programs reflect that part of its identity? I am not suggesting churches are completely guilty of not properly reflecting their identity, but rather the fact that many people in churches, leaders included, fail to continually reflect on their identity as a regular part of planning and practice.

As many "contemporary" church congregations continually wrestle with how exactly they are to maintain their "contemporary" status, a question that is sadly left aside is this very question of theological identity. Call it ecclesiology. Call it a mission's statement. Call it a confession of faith. Whatever...

The point is we need to know who we are in order to be who we are supposed to be...