Mennonites: Are we a religion or an ethnicity? Although you might not get this impression from reading all the schmaunt fat jokes on the Daily Bonnet, I’m actually on the “religion” side of things on this one. That being said, I think there’s a middle ground, or perhaps a “third way,” we could view this topic.
I also acknowledge that my comments on these matters are not informed by a great deal of research. I’m not an anthropologist or sociologist or even an expert on Mennonite history, although I have a keen interest in all these areas. Nor do I presume that anything I have to say on these mattters is particularly enlightening or original. So, take my comments with a grain of salt. But here’s what I think on the whole ethnicity vs. religion debate.
“It’s my religion.”
By definition, to be “Mennonite” is to subscribe (to some degree at least) to Menno Simons’ particular interpretation of Christianity. There are various Mennonite denominations with many issues they might disagree on, but I think all who use the term “Mennonite” or “Anabaptist” as a theological distinction would, at minimum, believe in baptism by choice (not as infants) and, secondly, pacifism or non-violence. There’s much more to it, but I think these two distinctions would be found in all churches that use the term “Mennonite.” While individuals within these churches might disagree, there really is no theological reason to continue using the label “Mennonite” without at least these two things. The Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, for example, dropped the name “Mennonite” to become the Federation of Evangelical Bible Churches in the late 1980s when they decided the Mennonite peace position was no longer tenable for them. The point is, Mennonite, like Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal and so on, is one of a myriad of Christian denominations and, thus, has nothing to do with ethnicity. There are hundreds of thousands of Mennonites from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds who know nothing of schmaunt fat and Plautdietsch. Without any reservation, these people are true Mennonites. It’s not even a question. Conversely there are people who consider themselves ethnic Mennonites but who are theologically far from it. A strong case can be made to say that these people are NOT actual Mennonites, just as you’re not a Lutheran unless you are either a member of a Lutheran Church or a follower of Martin Luther.
“It’s my ethnicity.”
On the other hand, certain types of Anabaptist groups do, indeed, exhibit some elements of “ethnicity.” This applies to so-called Russian Mennonites, Hutterites, Swiss Brethren and so on. (I’m mostly going to talk about Russian Mennonites as it’s the group I’m most familiar with). The dialect of Low German spoken by Russian Mennonites called Plautdietsch is unique. It’s distinct not only from High German, but other forms of Low German as well. The food, while appropriated from other countries, has been combined in such a way that it has its distinctives. There are common surnames, songs, clothing, rituals, and so on.
One might argue that so-called Russian Mennonites actually belong to some other ethnicity. But which one is it? Ukrainian? Russian? German? Polish? Dutch (if so..then Flemish or Frisian)? While these people have, at various times, been influenced by and/or strongly associated with all these groups, this Plautdietsch-speaking, formavorscht and vereniki-eating, religiously conservative, yet also radical, group cannot easily be equated with any of them. Perhaps the ‘Russian Mennonites’ are a subculture of one of the others. But that raises its own problems as I’ll discuss.
Imagined Communities – In 1983, historian Benedict Anderson coined the term ‘Imagined Communities’ to describe how nations (and I will argue ethnicities as well) are socially constructed. They are “imagined,” held together in the minds of the people. In other words, there is something constructed, false even, about all nations and ethnicities. If the argument is that Russian Mennonites, for example, cannot constitute a distinct ethnicity since they originated as a religious sect, then this would discount many other well established national and ethnic identities, many of which are strongly associated with or delineated along religious lines.
Power – Scholar Max Weinreich noted that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy.” Indeed, some consider Basque as a dialect of Spanish. Perhaps, if the Catalans get their way and succeed in separating from Spain, this misconception will not be quite so prevalent. Mennonites, of all varieties, have traditionally taught non-violence and a separation of church and state. But, imagine, if one such group (say the rebels at Munster) had formed an army and declared a state. After a few centuries, it’s doubtful, in that situation, that anyone would question the legitimacy of this group as a distinct nationality or ethnicity.
And here’s the key: it is power that decides that Plautdietsch is a dialect and that the Russian Mennonites are, at best, a subculture or micro-culture or “ethno-religious group.” Russian Mennonites with borders and an army (an unfathomable thought) would be seen by the world as a distinct nation/ethnicity.
In this (unlikely and undesirable) scenario even the problematic aspects, such as the fact that every supposed distinction about Russian Mennonite culture has been appropriated from others, could and would be easily explained away. For example, to which nation does ceviche belong? Chileans? Peruvians? Ecuadorians? At some point someone stole it from the other, put a variation on it, and claimed it as their own. Russian Mennonites have done no different.
Every ethnicity, if you go back far enough, is a bastardized mish-mash of all sorts of other cultures.
Nazis – Although I haven’t yet read his book, I’ve read some of Ben Goossen’s intriguing comments on this topic, in particular his descriptions of those Mennonites who stayed in the Soviet Union. (It’s tempting here for me to point out all my direct ancestors immigrated to Canada in either the 1870s or 1920s and thus were not part of this group. But I’ll avoid mentioning that. Oops.) In this article for the Mennonite World Review, Tim Huber reports how Goossen suggests that the idea of the term “Mennonite” as an “ethnicity” originated after World War II, when the MCC was trying to get Mennonites out of the Soviet Union and had to come up with some other category than the undesirable, at the time, label of “German.” He also describes the near universal support for the Nazis by European Mennonites at the time. “Virtually all Mennonite males fought in Nazi regiments,” says Goossen, “whether they volunteered or were forced.”
It’s an interesting aspect of Mennonite history that’s worth learning more about. However, I think there is one major problem with the way this story is being told and interpreted. We’re told:
a) Mennonites are not an ethnicity and only adopted that way of thinking out of convenience after World War II
b) The term “Mennonite,” thus, should refer exclusively to followers of the religious group named after Menno Simons
c) “Mennonites” fought in Nazi regiments.
Can you see the inconsistency here? Who are these “Mennonites” who fought for the Nazis? If we use the ethnic definition it makes perfect sense. Yes, many “ethnic or cultural” Mennonites fought for the Nazis. But we’ve already been told this is not an acceptable definition (a point I agree with, by the way), so then we’re left with point B. A Mennonite is a follower of Menno Simons. And, as established earlier, Mennonites, by that definition, are pacifists. A Mennonite Nazi, or any kind of soldier for that matter, is an oxymoron.
If we are going to agree that Mennonites should be defined purely on theological grounds, then talking about “Mennonite males (who) fought in Nazi regiments” is an impossible statement. These males, whoever they were, were not Mennonites, not by the definition we just established anyway.
These issues are complex. I haven’t even attempted to define “ethnicity” or “nationality” or “culture” and make distinctions between them. I’ve kind of used them interchangeably. Nor have I discussed why this issue even matters. I mean, why do Russian Mennonites feel the need to cling to ethnic trappings? I don’t have an answer, other than that all people do. It’s probably about identity and community.
My main point, though, is that while I agree that the term “Mennonite” should be exclusively religious in definition, just as Baptist and Catholic and Lutheran are, I also think there is this sub-culture of people (currently called Russian Mennonites) in need of some kind of label. A new label!
So, what should we call this micro-culture people with this common immigration history, language, foods, and so on. (As established earlier, the combination of these things are distinct even if viewed individually they are not). The fact we’re even calling them a micro-culture is a problematic reflection of power structures. They’re not German. They’re certainly not Russian. They have little ties to the Netherlands anymore.
So, here’s an idea, that I won’t claim as my own. I saw it somewhere online. But how about using the term ‘Plautdietsch’ not just to refer to the language but the ethnic group that traditionally speaks it?
“Mennonite is my religion (or denomination). Plautdietsch is my ethnicity.”
It’s simple and solves most of the problems associated with the continued inaccurate use of the term “Mennonite.” How’s that? Even Ben Goossen should like it…I hope 🙂