I am a member of an ethnic tribal group called Mennonites and I love it. I love how it gives me a sense of roots, of connectedness and stability. I love sauerkraut and shoo-fly pie (well, actually, a sweeter, unhealthier version called vanilla pie). I am guilty of playing the “Mennonite game” to see how I connect to the larger tribe.
Why do I love my tribe? We have a history of over 450 years, and because at one time we were pursued as a result of our successful outreach, we had to circle the wagons and identify ourselves by our language, ethnic foods and radial beliefs—and hide.
I feel it in my bones when I hear folk music from the Alps of Switzerland and the Rhine River valley of Germany. I made a pilgrimage to the village from where my earliest ancestor emigrated and felt a touch of pride and an almost “holy” connectedness. I know where he is buried in the USA and carry a picture with my father and me standing beside his tombstone as a reminder of my tribal connectedness. I married a woman from Switzerland—the heart of the origins of this ethnic tribe.
Unfortunately, I am told from all sides that my tribe is dying, and this makes me sad. I see it in my own family—more than half of my 11 siblings have left the tribe. In the tribal institutions where I have studied and worked, fewer than half of our students are from my tribe. More and more of my colleagues are not from my tribe.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love these students and colleagues who don’t share my genetic and ethnic pool. Many of them show more fire for the radical beliefs that my ancestors died for than people from my own tribe. I love it when they challenge me to define more sharply my beliefs over and against my tribal identity.
Also, it’s not like I have remained buried in my tribal enclave. My tribe taught me to serve “in the Name of Christ,” and I spent seven years working in Mexico and Central America. I know well how to cross ethnic and linguistic barriers. I have many friends from those churches that my tribe established who have taught me unforgettable lessons in discipleship, challenging and deepening my faith. In fact, while my tribe is dying in North America and Europe, their churches in the Global South are growing by leaps and bounds.
It is also interesting that the radical beliefs that my tribe established 450 years ago are becoming attractive in a world where the Christianity of empire is breaking down. Stuart Murray reminded my tribe of this in Naked Anabaptist. Greg Boyd and his mega-church would like to affiliate with my tribe, but hesitates because of the sauerkraut and shoo-fly thing. Brian McLaren makes many references to my tribe, and even Rick Warren claims his Anabaptist roots and influence.
So here I sit, wanting to retain my rootedness and tribal loyalties but also wanting to welcome other tribal neophytes. Ted Grimsrud, in his provocative blog post “What Makes a Mennonite?” writes this: “. . . it is difficult to imagine a very positive future for Mennonite institutions. The theology will not die, but how much will it be linked with this specific tradition?” This is what caught me up short and made me reflect on my tribe and why I love it. I don’t want Mennonite institutions to die. I don’t want my tribe to die. According to Grimsrud, at least the theology will live.
Obviously the theology—the emphasis on discipleship, meaning the daily following of Christ and his hard sayings—is the most important element in this discussion. Thank God that will live. But what about my tribe? Is my identity, my connectedness worth sacrificing for the survival of the institutions? Instead, could it be possible to create a constellation of various tribes into a mosaic that honors individual ethnicities while clinging to the core of our common faith?