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.

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