Sunday, September 14, 2008

On comparing Europe and America

Recently a family member asked me if I thought America was the best place to live, and I said no. So they asked why I didn't leave. This seemed strange to me. Why would I leave just because I didn't necessarily think it was the best place to live? After all, I'm not all that interested in finding the best place to live and then living there. I was born and raised here, and it is a good place to live, even a great place to live. And I love it.

This conversation rang in my ears as I traversed Europe and wondered about how my ancestors decided to leave the Old World and come to the New. This has made a huge difference in who I am today, what language I speak, and even how I think. I wondered how I would like living in Europe. It seemed to me that I could enjoy living there. Of course just to be completely open, I have yet to travel somewhere where I could not imagine living, whether in Central or South America, Canada, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago or Utah. There are so many beautiful and interesting places on this planet. Okay, I must admit that I am way of a place as urban as New York City, though I have heard there are nice parks.

Mark Twain travelled to Europe in his time. In those days there were many people who were fawning over the Old World, and how it was superior to the US. Twain of course didn't take to such nonsense. He was very critical of Europe. He thought the food was horrible. But the prices were cheap, and so at one point when he was in financial trouble he lived in Europe to help make ends meet.

My how times have changed. Today it is the opposite, in my opinion. Living in Europe is very expensive, with the weak dollar this summer making it more difficult. But the food was fantastic. Europeans are not as good at fast food as Amerians, and in fact they seem to preserve the idea that meals should be slow and social affairs. But overall they are good at making good solid food. Americans are more willing to allow taste to suffer for the sake of convenience, and even, I would say, for the sake of appearance. The Red Delicious apple should be called the Red Atrocious. It is a beautiful apple that travels well but it tastes like wet sawdust.

Switzerland was a place where you could take public transportation almost anywhere. Even the most remote Anabaptist cave was within about an hour's walk from the closest bus or train. I love taking the train, and so there is a lot to love about Switzerland. I enjoy toy electric trains but I also love real trains. And of course the mountains in Switzerland are beautiful. But when I stayed with a Swiss family they had photos of the American plains so that they could remember the wide open spaces of America.

So while there is much to love about Europe, I find myself happy to be back home. There is much to love about America. The wide open spaces, the open society, the friendliness, the creativity, and the willingness to help each other out. The land is wide and beautiful, wild and varied.

A theme of Swiss Mennonites was Psalm 24: The Earth is the Lord's. It was their way of saying that God is the owner of the land and not their oppressive overlords. I think of it as a way of resisting immigration out of Switzerland. But it is also a way of affirming that the earth is the Lord's, and that God is found throughout the planet. This allows us to take seriously stewardship of the land wherever we are found. It means that as Christians the whole earth is a place where we can find a home. And in fact Christians are found throughout the world. I hope that my time in another country can help to foster more understanding between nations.

This is likely my final blog, at least for now. I am thankful for the time I had away and I am thankful now to be back home, in Elkhart County, Indiana, this part of the earth where my family was planted some 160 years ago. It is an interesting place, and a place where you can find beauty, if you are looking for it. The earth is the Lord's indeed.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Just how Swiss are Mennonites?

In my last blog I suggested that one way some Mennonites who were part of the Amish Mennonite tradition might still carry the Amish tradition with them is through their approach to discussion. I thought that some show a high ability to constructively dialogue and others have a tendency to avoid discussion altogether, preferring to just leave the relationship to working through it.

Now I want to look at a similar question for that part of the Mennonite church in America that comes from Switzerland, which is probably the majority of American Mennonites, though a slim majority today. Something that was unexpected to me as I learned a little about Switzerland during my 5 weeks there, is just how Swiss many Mennonites continue to behave. We no longer carry the language, nor many of the foods or specific traditions. But a number of aspects of Mennonite identity and behavior are national characteristics of the Swiss.

Here is the symbol of the Swiss nation, such as it is, the national assembly of the Swiss Confederation in Berne.

Now I do not want to suggest that Mennonites are simply Swiss. After all, there are some ways in which Anabaptists broke decisively with Swiss national culture, and of course quite a number of Mennonites were expelled from Switzerland for these differences.

I want to mention two obvious differences here at the beginning. The first is that one German word for Swiss, along with Schweizer, is eidgenossischer. What this word means literally is "oath comrades." This goes back to the oath ceremony of the three original Swiss cantons where they committed to helping each other gain independence from the Habsburg family of Austria. So taking an oath is part of the identity of the Swiss, and now these Anabaptists say that Jesus tells us to refuse oaths. That is not a way to win friends in Switzerland.

The second difference grows from the first. Part of taking that oath was a commitment to defend one another. This may seem strange to modern Americans, who perhaps think of the Swiss as the people who never fight in wars, but at the time of the Reformation the Swiss had a reputation as some of the most ruthless warriors of Europe. They were known for two things. First was their "take no prisoners" approach. We use this word carelessly, but it means that the Swiss would kill their enemies rather than imprison them. This was cheaper, but more ruthless. Secondly, they would keep the spoils of war. After all, their opponents were dead. This means that if you were fighting the Swiss the cost of losing was much higher than an opponent who was willing to imprison you once they had defeated you.

In the 1470s, some 50 years before the Reformation, the Swiss and their allies defeated the much larger forces of Charles the Bold of Burgundy and his forces. So their military prowess was well respected. So Swiss mercenaries were hired throughout Europe. It became so prevalent and the Swiss became so concerned about it that eventually the practice was outlawed. The one exception is that the Pope can still hire Swiss mercenaries, and so there are the famous Swiss Guards in Vatican City. I presume that the guards come from the cantons that remained Roman Catholic.

So now, in what ways do I think American Mennonites carry Swiss ways with them? Of course this is first of all seen in our family names, what we sometimes call "Mennonite" names. But they are really Swiss names. One of the strange things about being in Switzerland was having almost all the names sound familiar.

What got me started on this theme was reading Margaret Oertig-Davidson's book, More than Chocolate: understanding Swiss culture, which she wrote to help expatriates in Switzerland know how to get along there. I opened the book to a section on decision-making, and how if newcomers aren't careful, they may discover that the Swiss made a decision without saying it out loud. There is a kind of consensual decision-making that avoids outright conflict. As I read this, how I wished that someone had written such a guide from my Mennonite congregation, so that people could understand how we make decisions.

Supposedly our congregation follows Roberts Rules of Order. However we almost never vote on something until we are confident that everyone supports it. There is no idea that once you have the majority of the group behind your proposal that you can move forward with it. You must first respond to every concern voiced. And if you can't get consensus, or at least near consensus, then the decision is not made.

There is in Switzerland much more of a communal sense, that everyone is in it together. Many decisions are made by a vote of all the people. The country is ruled by a Federal Council, a group of seven equal-ranking people. Each one takes a turns being president of the council for a year. This emphasis on consensus, democracy, and communalism has a positive and negative side. When the Swiss fail, it is because they did not do something soon enough. In political systems where power is given to a few, both great success and great failure is possible.

One joke says that Albert Einstein said that if there is nuclear war he wants to live in Switzerland, because it takes 20 years for anything in Europe to land in Switzerland. The person who told me this joke went on to say that when the Swiss adapt a new technology, they then do it very well.

The book also talks about the importance of rules in social control in Switzerland. People are comfortable with the idea of following set rules of bevavior that must be followed. There is also a willingness for people to intervene and make sure the rules are followed, when a foreigner may think that it is better to just mind your own business.

The scholar Albert Debrunner thinks that this idea that the rules should be enforced by the people comes from the Reformed tradition in Switzerland. In Geneva John Calvin laid down strict rules of conduct and the elders went from house to house to make sure the rules were obeyed. Oertig-Davidson says: "Zwingliism and Calvinism were both characterised by communitarianism, in which it is not the priest who decides, but the whole group." (118)

The Swiss are also wary of self promotion. This kind of individualism goes against the communalism of the people. I find this attitude among Mennonites as well, where people compete to be the humblest rather than the best.

The book also describes the independence of the Swiss. They are not quick to ask for help, believing that they can handle things on their own. This is also part of the Swiss Mennonites in America. My dad was a pastor in a Mennonite congregation where most of the people were not from traditional Swiss families. He said it was a lot more work because people would ask for help from the pastor when they felt they needed it. In more traditional congregations you had to find out from other people when something was wrong.

A similar aspect of this is that Oertig-Davidson describes the Swiss as a coconut culture. By that she means that the shell on the outside is hard; it is difficult to get to know people. But once you are in the inside it is soft. She calls British and American culture peach cultures, soft on the outside. They are people who easily learn to know new people and very quickly start calling people friends.

My sense is that Mennonites are very American in this behavior. I am more of a peach than a coconut. But I would also guess that my Swiss heritage has influenced me in the coconut direction so that I am more coconut than many Americans.

And of course while the Swiss are not pacifist in theory, they are for all practical purposes pacifist. The last war they fought was in 1847. They are known as a place of peace in Europe.

These are just a couple of things I have noticed. I could mention more but I think I give the idea.

Now I do not want to say by all this that Mennonites behave like the Swiss. We are American in many ways. But I think there is something about our Swiss heritage that means we are more communal and less individualistic.

I also do not mean to suggest by this that this means that these aspects of Mennonite behavior are cultural rather than religious. They are both, since religion is always enacted in culture.

And finally, I do not mean by this that I think Mennonites must find ways to un-Swissify ourselves, making sure that we are somehow without culture so that we can welcome people of other cultures. There is no such thing as a cultureless person. And there is no reason to think that it is better to be simply American rather than Swiss American. In fact I think we will be much better at welcoming people of other cultures if we have a healthy and positive sense about our own culture, not so positive that it is chauvinistic. But it is also important to not be so negative about our cultural heritage that we denigrate it.

Church Discipline as Loving Dialogue

I want to write a few concluding blogs where I reflect on the bigger questions that have been at the back of my mind during my sabbatical. The first of these is church discipline, the issue that divides Mennonites from Amish. The Amish, in theory, practice a strict shunning, or complete social avoidance of those banned from communion. Mennonites, in theory, just forbid the banned from communion.

I say in theory about both groups because in my experience neither group is uniform in this practice. Participating in the Mennonite Church for 41 years, I have never seen someone banned from communion, though I do know that people have sometimes not participated when they felt they could not.

The father of one of my high school friends was a Mennonite who had been banned for leaving the Amish. Shunning in their family consisted of not eating at the same table. But otherwise they treated him normally. When I recently spoke to an Amish bishop in Shipshewana, he spoke about the shunning of his son. It sounded like the actual shunning consisted of the fact that they could not pass the common serving bowl directly to his son. They had to set it on the table before he could pick it up. To me this seemed like a way to follow the letter of shunning without the spirit of it. This is a long way from what I understand Jacob Ammann to have meant when he spoke of complete social avoidance of those banned.

One of the surprises of my time in Switzerland was learning that what the Anabaptists called persecution the Swiss Reformed called church discipline. They were attempting to correct the Anabaptists, making sure they attended "real" church, which is to say the Reformed church. The Swiss Reformed were famous for their strictness. One of the instruments of Anabaptist persecution were the Chorgerichts, or church councils. The pastor would gather with congregational leaders after the sermon and they would discuss who in the congregation was not behaving properly. So whether the sin was fornication, stealing, or being rebaptized, they dealt with it.

These are some of the instruments of church discipline in the Swiss Reformed Church in Berne. This is the Kafigturm, one of the prison towers in Berne that held Anabaptist and other prisoners.

And this is the Blutturm, or Blood tower, one of the notorious torture chambers used against Anabaptists and others.

So while it may be that the emphasis on church discipline has a lot to do with the Reformed roots of Anabaptism, the methods of disciplines adopted by Anabaptists were very different. The practice of shunning, which seems unconscionable to so many moderns, was in fact a very peaceful type of church discipline compared to drownings, beheadings, burnings, imprisonment, confiscation of property and family, and forced exile. Anabaptists refused to use state power for the church's purposes, and for that matter refused even to participate in the state's use of coercion against its citizens.

It may seem strange that the Swiss Anabaptists, who had avoided any divisions for their 170 years of existence, should divide on a small distinction between shunning and banning. Of course I write as someone who is part of the group who did not see any reason for the division. Why did Ammann insist on such strictness, we wonder?

Of course Ammann was not the first to insist on this strictness. He found support for his ideas in the Dordrecht Confession of Faith, a confession from the Dutch Anabaptists. Menno Simons, from whom Mennonites take our name, actually agreed with Ammann more than with his Swiss Anabaptist opponents. In fact, Menno Simons also shunned the entire Swiss Anabaptist church, as Ammannn did 150 years later. In that sense the Amish are more Mennonite than many Mennonites.

But not the Swiss. Unlike their brothers and sisters who migrated to France, Germany, and America, the Swiss did not take the name Mennonite and they did not adopt the Dordrecht Confession of Faith as their authoritative confession. Though they did continue to use it.

There is a collection of Anabaptist writings called "Golden Apples in Silver Bowls," that seems to come from the Palatinate but has Swiss connections. It contains several martyr testimonies, prayers and instructions on their use, and the Dordrecht Confession, though it softens the language in certain places in more of a Swiss direction.

It also has one of the most open statements about church discipline I have seen in Mennonite writings. The anonymous editor says: "If there were someone who had a thievish, adulterous, murderous faith, which would give him liberty in his faith to steal, murder, commit adultery, and similiar abominations: him or her I dare, out of fear of God, neither defend nor condemn, neither judge nor damn, outside the guidelines of my Lord's Word (the New Covenant). If such a person can support his faith on the basis of divine speech, I will let him work it out and carry the burden himself, even if my own feelings are contrariwise."

When I first wrote the above paragraph, I was going to say that this statement was a statement against church discipline. But I realized that I was wrong to say it that way. This is a statement about church discipline, and it even supports church discipline, but it is someone who has withdrawn all coercion from their use of discipline. The writer will only allow themself to use speech against this person who is so wrong about their faith. They have renounced not only sword and fire, but also social avoidance and even banning, all coercion. But what they have not renounced is their tongue. They will speak to the person and expect the person to speak to them to defend what they believe and do.

As I think about my own views of church discipline, I am sympathetic with the anonymous editor. When I was in a congregation that had a young member join the military, which for Amish and Mennonites is sin, I neither ignored it nor did we ban him from communion. Instead I spoke to the young man hearing why he wanted to do this, and I of course tried to dissuade him. And then with his foreknowledge I spoke to the congregation letting them know that we disagreed with his decision but we were not revoking his membership.

As I already wrote, I have yet to see someone be banned from communion in a Mennonite congregation. At times someone has been asked to step back from teaching or other forms of leadership because of divorce or military service, two forms of broken relationships.

So I find myself in the Hans Riest camp of the Amish - Swiss Brethren split of 1693. But I still have some hesitation. And the first hesitation has to do with this question of speaking to one another. What I admire about Jacob Ammann is that he was outspoken about his areas of conflict. He didn't hide his concerns for the sake of unity. He thought they should be dealt with openly and honestly. That is much better than simply ignoring sin or pretending like it isn't happening.

Of course on the down side, Ammann was very quick to move to shunning someone, so that very quickly Reist and others found themselves silenced by Ammann. Some years later Ammann renounced his hasty decision making, realizing that he had not adequately worked with the people that he shunned. He asked for forgiveness from Reist and his other opponents. Ammann did not renounce his conviction about shunning, but about the way he did it.

So what did Reist and others do? Nothing. In fact Jacob Gut in a letter recommends to his fellow Swiss Brethren that they do nothing. So now the Mennonite faction was using silence against the Amish faction, though in a behind the back way. That is, Gut was writing to those in his faction, rather than dealing directly with his opponents.

In that way I admire the honesty of the Amish, the way that they admit that there is disunity and sin when that is what there is. The practice of shunning is a way of taking the rupture seriously and hoping to resolve it by taking it seriously. There is the possibilityof reconciliation in this method which is impossible using Jacob Gut's form of behind the back silence.

In my introductory blog I mentioned the story of the Amish Mennonites, a group of Amish who in the 1860s began to move away from the conservative Amish, who eventually became known as Old Order Amish. Clinton Township, Indiana, where my family has lived since the 1840s, about 5 miles from my home, was one of the sources of this split. I wondered whether these Amish Mennonites, who by the early decades of the 1900s had merged with the Mennonites and simply dropped Amish, were in any way Amish. Is there something about their Amish history that remained with them, or was it completely gone?

As I came to the end of my sabbatical I felt like I had found nothing Amish about these Amish Mennonites, until I kept thinking about this issue of mutual dialogue. In the face of the intensity of the Amish commitment to church discipline and shunning, I think people adopted several ways of working with it.

One thing to say is that they were not like American Mennonites, many of whom, at least those from Swiss background, adopted hierarchical relationships foreign to their Swiss origins--they developed bishops who had charge of a whole district of congregations and who held ultimate authority on questions of banning, communion and baptism.

Contrariwise, the Amish developed no such hierarchy. The Amish have bishops, but bishop for them is the word we would use for senior pastor. A bishop has charge of one district, what we call a congregation, and because a district must fit into each home, since they have no church buildings, it never grows beyond 40 families. All districts are about the same size. And if you look at what the Bible says about bishops there is no sense that they must be a leaders of more than one congregation. That is tradition that developed after the Bible was written.

It is my impression that people who are Amish or come from Amish background have adapted in another way to this intense scrutiny of their lives. They either find the conversation needed to make these decisions too difficult, and so they are silent about any disagreement, or they become very articulate, and are quite able to discuss disagreements and concerns.

In general I have seen the majority of Amish background people as wary of conflict. Recently our congregation saw several Amish background people leave because of a worship innovation. When did they tell us about their concerns? After they started attending other congregations. They had moved in the direction of needing to be in unity or needing to leave. There was less middle ground for them.

But I noticed this tendency towards silence within my own life last year at the San Jose Mennonite Church USA convention. Silence popped up in unexpected ways. First, I met with a childhood friend who in adulthood became openly gay. He is one of a number of friends who have done this. From my perspective I am comfortable with their decision and I can understand why they do it. They have found themselvs to be homosexually inclined and they are open about that. So when I met my friend I wanted to show that even though I am a Mennonite pastor, a denomination that condemns all homosexual practice, that I would not let that get in the way of our friendship. We had a very nice lunch together. He asked me about my family and work, and I asked him about his work. It was only afterwards that I realized that we never talked about his homosexuality. I did not ask him if he had a boyfriend or ask anything that might clarify his family situation. In that sense I realized that I had practiced silence on this question that I worried might divide us.

I had a similar incident a couple of days later when in San Francisco we met with someone who had volunteered with Christian Peacemaker Teams and had been a member of First Mennonite Church in San Francisco. At some point in the conversation he said, "Now, don't freak out or anything, but I converted to Islam." From my perspective we did not freak out since we did not yell at him or ask him why he did such a terrible thing. What did we do? We didn't say a word about it. We just went on talking as if he had said nothing about it. I decided later, as I reflected upon it, that we had freaked out. By not saying a word, we had exercised a form of silencing, a form of silencing that is perhaps friendlier than the Amish practice of shunning, but also probably also less redemptive, because it is not honest about our perspectives.

And so I think of John Howard Yoder, the well-known Mennonite theologian, and his relatives. His sister's family is in the congregation where I pastor and and in another congregation where I am overseer. They are articulate and more comfortable with conflict than most people I know. And I think this training partly comes from the culture of the Oak Grove Amish Mennonite Church, where John Howard Yoder and his sister Mary Ellen Meyer grew up. This is an Amish congregation that eventually was no longer a member of the Mennonite conference because it was so congregational that it did not learn to work with the Mennonite hierarchy like some other Amish congregations did. In my mind this ability to talk about disagreements within the congregation rather than relying on hierarchical authority would seem like one result of the intensity of Amish discipline.

So these are like two poles in responding to Amish discipline. For some people it means keeping silent until you just can't stand it anymore, and then leaving or being shunned. And for others it means learning the ability to talk through disputes in a way that keeps people together. You need to learn the art of loving dialogue. In my mind, then, John Howard Yoder's ability to dialogue both with his own traditon and the wider Christian tradition is an outgrowth of the Amish commitment to deal with sin and disagreement in a way that is open and redemptive.

My other concern about being soft on church discipline grows out of William Cavanaugh's book, "Torture and Eucharist," where he describes the failure of the Roman Catholic Church in Chile to adequately confront Pinochet and the military as they tortured the body of Christ in that country. Eventually the church began to gain a voice in opposition to Pinochet and certainly it played a role in his ultimate downfall. But throughout this time the church continued to give communion to those who tortured. Within my group of mainline Protestant pastors who read the book with me, there was not much sympathy with the idea of banning from communion. For my part I started to think that maybe there are sins that reach the height of banning. This is what Cavanaugh was promoting in his book.

When a group wrote a resolution against conferences disciplining congregations for having gay members, I found myself sympathetic with the concern though disappointed with the wording. I am not against conference or congregational discipline when it is understood in the way that the Golden Apples in Silver Bowls editor describes it. I would envision sustained dialogue on disagreements, a dialogue that may last for decades, but that continues to be loving and based on Matthew 18. The dialogue itself is a form of discipline and it is necessary. What I am very hesitant to do is ban either individuals or congregations who come to have different convictions from the main body of believers. I would choose to let the word of God dwell within those with other perspectives until it comes to bear fruit in their, and our, lives. So speaking the truth in love is becoming increasingly important to me, and at the same time one of the hardest things for me to learn to do.