After having so many Mennonite friends and acquaintances over the years, I have often said that if I had not been born Catholic and had to choose my Christian denomination, I would without a doubt choose to be a Mennonite! That is still true, and that despite my beginnings, just like Gordon Houser—in lovely “over the rainbow” Kansas!
We Catholic Kansans, ghettoized in a Protestant Republican state in the 1950s, could never understand why those Mennonites always voted Republican (at least in those days!). This always seemed to us like the political party of money, power, and war, which was exactly what Mennonites neither believed in nor lived. This group just did not make much sense.
Mennonites were a living example of Thomas Frank’s thesis in What’s the Matter with Kansas, that Kansas people are the textbook example of people who consistently vote against their own legitimate self interest—and don’t even know it. I could only conclude that they must be another confused Protestant sect. Yet Menno Simons, I heard, was a rather enlightened Catholic priest. So I remained the confused one myself for many years, and it took real Mennonites to un-confuse me. Or should I better say, re-confuse me?
At any rate, I finally got the historical explanation for their politics and eventually met real Mennonites in Cincinnati, Normal, Illinois, South Bend, Indiana, on the road, and here in Albuquerque, and all of my remaining prejudices and confusions vanished. Though they too must have their shadows, I myself have yet to meet a Mennonite I did not like or admire. Really. Why is it that one group can get so much of the gospel so right—and without a fully centralized authority mandating uniform belief or even requiring a fundamentalist or rigid reading of the Scriptures? And be nice besides! For a Catholic this was a major discovery and allurement. It told me that there must be another way to convene and deepen a Christian people, and whatever it was, the Mennonites seemed to have found it.
Well, I wonder if this book might not give you some strong clues as to precisely what Mennonites have found. I remember when Gordon as a young man used to write to me when I was a young priest in faraway Cincinnati. He was already on a good spiritual search then. I’m not sure how he discovered me, but he would seek my long-distance advice. You need to know that this was rather rare in the still-divided denominations of the 1970s. His humility humbled me.
Somehow the Mennonites seem to have found an inspired balancing act between practice, lifestyle, community, and Scripture. Their lovely “Franciscan” humility also keeps them strongly teachable and open. They seem to revel in self-deprecating humor, which is not so common among Christians. To use present categories, Mennonites seem to have found a fine integration of the best of very conservative gospel values with the best of progressive and critical thinking, especially in regard to the prophetic thrust of the gospel—yet without becoming righteous or dogmatic. How rare that is!
As a Franciscan, I would say about Mennonites what I have always said about St. Francis himself. He was a “fundamentalist” of sorts, but he was fundamentalist about the right things. Not demanding or judgmental of others but always demanding more of himself. Not emphasizing or arguing about doctrinal abstractions, but living and longing for what he called “the marrow of the gospel.” It was all about doing, not about believing ideas to be true or false. He told us to “Preach the gospel at all times, and only when necessary use words.”
Francis made the following of Jesus something joyful and adventurous, not dour and moralistic. This is exactly what I have seen in so many of my Mennonite friends—and in their music too. It is all about orthopraxy (actual lifestyle) for them, instead of our usual mainline obsession with “orthodoxy,” which far too often has been a mere cover for grossly self-serving and materialistic world views. Too much concern for being verbally and morally “right” has produced the exact opposite in too many Christians, it seems to me.
Mennonites seem to stumble along—sort of convinced they are half wrong and outside the mainstream of culture and academia—which ironically puts them at the structurally perfect and preferred place of the gospel! They prove what I have always believed and seen to be true: It is not that you “get” the Christian message and then people hate you and persecute you (which often merely strengthens the ego), so much as that the very state of exclusion, persecution, and failure allows you to actually get the gospel and forms of spirituality flowing naturally from it.
The early history of persecution by both Catholics and mainline Protestants got the Mennonites off to a good start. They knew that you could be quite “Christian” and still hateful, violent, and in love with power instead of Jesus. It became their continual exit strategy from “the system” and their ongoing entrance strategy into continuing growth, patience, humility, service, and gospel love.
That’s the way I see it, anyway. But read this inspiring book, and you will know how Gordon Houser sees it—which is much better.
Copyright © 2011 by Cascadia Publishing House LLC