Of Mennonites and Powell River

One of life’s most wonderful experiences is enjoying two things that fit perfectly together like romance and a sunset, popcorn and a movie, or a favourite of my wife and I:  summer heat and the Shuswap.  Another one of these perfect combinations is Powell River and MCC (Mennonite Central Committee).

Powell River is my hometown located on the beautiful sunshine coast.  I do not make it over there as often as I would like but the place has a huge piece of my heart—even though I only lived there for the first six years of my life.  The beauty of the town is captivating to me and if any of you have ever watched the sun set in Powell River or spent long summer days at Palm Beach you will know what I am talking about.  Natural beauty aside, the primary reasons why the town of 15,000 remains so dear to me are because it was the place where my brothers, my mother, and I were born and it is the place where my maternal grandparents and many other relatives continue to live.

Even as Powell River holds a piece of my heart, so too does MCC.  The MCC is an international organization involved in many wonderful projects around the world which aim to help the world’s most marginalized people in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way (you can read about some of those projects in a previous blog or on MCC’s website).  My connection to the MCC comes through both my family background and through my personal experience.  My grandmother comes from a Mennonite ethnic background; she was raised in the small town of Yarrow located in the Fraser Valley.  Several of her siblings have volunteered at MCC stores in Vancouver—an opportunity not afforded to her as she has lived almost her entire adult life in Powell River.  As a Mennonite pastor I am very proud of my family’s heritage and I also delight in the obvious benefits of having a Mennonite background—rollkuchen anyone?  My personal connection to MCC is through the two summers I spent working in their thrift shops.  My time in those stores not only gave me the opportunity to learn about what MCC is doing to reach the vulnerable but also gave me an amazing experience of community which has shaped who I am as a pastor today.

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My love for MCC and Powell River therefore has me incredibly excited about tomorrow.  Tomorrow the MCC thrift store will be having its grand opening in Powell River and I have the privilege of travelling there for the day to participate in the grand opening.  Now you must understand that an MCC store opening in Powell River is an incredibly unlikely event for one very obvious reason:  there are virtually no Mennonites in Powell River.  The town does not have a single Mennonite church and although you can find the odd Mennonite last name in the phonebook no one will ever confuse Powell River with Abbotsford, Chilliwack, or Winkler. Nevertheless I am confident that this new store will thrive.  The people of Powell River know a good thing when they see it.  The MCC will offer them a chance to buy items otherwise headed for the landfill and in the process their purchase will be a gift for the world.  This is exactly the type of the thing that a community striving for local and global sustainability will latch on to.  I am also excited that my family gets the opportunity to support MCC first hand.  My grandmother will be helping out in the book department and my aunt will be sitting on the board of directors.  It brings a smile to my face to know that sometimes the most unlikeliest of combinations can go together even one as unlikely as Powell River and MCC.

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Mennonite Takeover?

My friend Jen sent me an article (found by clicking here) by Mark Tooley that caught my attention.  The article argues that Anabaptist groups are starting to push their beliefs such as pacifism and pseudo-isolationism on the rest of America.  Unlike traditional Anabaptist groups, Tooley argues, many new Anabaptists are not content with holding on to their beliefs such as pacifism in isolation but now demand that “all Christians, and society, including the state, bend to pacifism”.

The part of the article that I want to respond to is to Tooley’s argument that an Anabaptist attempt to influence culture at large betrays the foundational Anabaptist principle of isolationism.  In other words, Tooley is saying that Anabaptists’ behaviour is contradictory the way a woman committed to a life of silence would be if she tried to convince others of the benefits of her lifestyle through use of speech.

Tooley’s remarks are not without some merit.  There certainly are many Anabaptist groups whose separation from society is a part of their fundamental character.  Groups like the Amish and the old-colony Mennonites certainly fit this description.  It is likely that us mainstream people view would not view such folk as quaint if they spent their time trying to convince us that we would be better served to adopt their lifestyle.  Yet while such Anabaptsist groups are important, they remain a minority and so should not be seen as representative of Anabaptism as a whole.  The largest two Anabaptist groups in Canada are the Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite Church Canada.  Both groups are involved in domestic and foreign politics and actively engage in trying to make society more just.  An excellent example of such engagement is found in the work done by Mennonite Central Committee, an organization which I have had the privilege of working for and have blogged about here.

It is important to understand that when Mennonite groups engage with culture they are not behaving in a way that contradicts any of their fundamental principles.  This is because isolationism is not an ultimate goal of Anabaptism but is rather, in my opinion, a by-product of the heavy persecution which the founders of Anabaptism faced combined with the Anabaptist understanding of separation of church and state.  At the time of the Reformation, Anabaptists originally attempted to reform from within the church but were pushed out by the various powers.  Upon being removed they formed their own communities in which they tried to live according to the principles of Scripture.  Unfortunately the church was not content with merely removing them from the church as they saw these Anabaptists as a threat to their political and church structures and so they were killed.  Persecution of course, has the effect of causing communities to clam up and look inward for the purpose of survival.

In regards to the separation of church and state, Anabaptists believe that they are citizens in two separate societies:  the church and civil society (i.e. the state).  Early Anabaptists believed that the realm of state exists in order to provide order and stability.  Menno Simons (the founder of “Mennonites”) argued that the leader of the state ought to be free to use any force (short of death) to maintain law.  In this way, the state for Mennonites functions as sort of a lowest common denominator of morality.  It is supposed to meet the basic needs of its people but is not where Mennonites stake their ultimate identity.  For Mennonites the church is a group of people who believe in Jesus and wish to follow the ethics he laid out.  It is in the context of this community, therefore, that Mennonites act out their virtues.

Menno Simons

Menno Simons

Fast forward to the present North American context and you can see how these factors inform the current practice of Anabaptist groups.  Thankfully persecution no longer exists meaning Anabaptists are free to practice their religious beliefs in their community.  Also the powers of the state are no longer “religious” but secular.  This means that the state does not try to meet the needs of any one “special interest group” (Christian, atheist, Jewish, etc) at the expense of others but rather appeals to meet the most basic needs of all.  Thus people who belong to specific religious groups—including Anabaptists—are able to participate in the state but do so not to further the particular goals of their special interest group per se but rather to promote the “lowest common denominator” goals of the state.  However it is also true that there are issues in which an overlap between the concerns of society and the concerns of a particular religious group may exist.  In the case of Mennonite Anabaptists, issues of social justice such as universal health care, foreign aid, and sustainable development fall under this category and so explain why on they tend to be noticeably involved in such issues.  However Mennonites tend to shy away from issues which other Christian groups get involved in like Christian prayer in public schools because they see it as a confusion of the two categories of church and state.

One of many "water projects" completed by MCC

One of many “water projects” completed by MCC

What this means is that it is misleading to describe Anabaptists as isolationist.  Anabaptist groups such as the Mennonites remain committed to participation in the state through their understanding of church and state.  Mark Tooley and others need not worry, there is no Mennonite takeover in the works, no conspiracy, or secret agenda.  We Mennonites are just doing what we always wanted to be able to do:  behave in the ways appropriate to the church in the context of the church and in ways appropriate to the state in the context of the state.