125th Anniversary Remarks Given at Swiss Mennonite Anniversary Celebration
Gordon D. Kaufman
August 14, 1999
A little over nine years ago, I was asked to speak at a Kaufman family reunion here in Kansas. As the text for my remarks at that time, I chose two biblical passages, one from Isaiah in the Old Testament, and the other from the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. I want to use those same two texts for my remarks today, and to them I shall add two more, one from the prophet Amos, the other from Jesus. First let us hear the text from Isaiah, some verses from chapters 43 and 48:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?(43:18-19a)….
From this time forward I make you hear new things,
hidden things that you have not known.
They are created now, not long ago;
before today you have never heard of them,
so that you could not say,”I already knew them”(48:6b-7).
Now some familiar words of Jesus, as reported in Mt., ch.5:
God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous”(5:45).
And a rather similar sentiment from the prophet Amos, ch.9:
Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel? says the Lord.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?(9:7).
Finally, some words from Hebrews, ch. 11:
By faith Abraham…when he was called…set out for a place…not knowing where he was going(11:8).
The occasion that we are celebrating today–the arrival in the United States, and ultimately in Kansas, of the Swiss Mennonites from Russia–represented a dramatic new beginning for our foreparents. They were coming into a world very different from the one they had known; they would have to learn a new language, and get accustomed to a very different sort of culture and society than any they had known before; they did not know what might happen to them or to their children and grandchildren. But like Abraham, not quite knowing where they were going or what they would find there, they were making a move in faith. God was creating a new situation for them, and they were prepared to learn “new things” which they had never heard before. So they came to this country, and to this and other states, and they settled down here, hoping to preserve their lives and their faith and their practices through this move, as they had done in their previous moves from Switzerland to France to Poland and to Russia.
For a time they succeeded in this, settling in relatively tight-knit communities where they could keep in close touch with each other and minimize outside influences. (I remember well how important in my father’s mind–throughout his life–was the Turkey Creek line, that marked off the Schweitzer Mennonite community from those speaking Low German, clearly an “outside” and significantly “different” people.) But in a few generations these tight Swiss Mennonite communities began to break down: intermarriage with outsiders of many different sorts increased; the openness and freedom of American culture and politics presented opportunities that expanded horizons and transformed ways of living and of thinking; two world wars deeply challenged the understanding of Christian nonresistance and faith; and finally, the development of new means of transportation and especially of communication–radio, the movies, TV, and now most recently the Internet–have almost completely broken down the boundaries that our Mennonite forebears hoped to maintain between their communities and the wider world beyond them. We have become very different in a great many ways from those pioneers whom we are today celebrating. And we have little or no desire to return to the kind of life which they hoped they were preserving in their move to America. What shall we make of all this?
The first thing to be noted is that the “new thing” that God was creating with the movement of our forebears to America went far beyond anything any of them had imagined. Would they have made the move, if they had been able to foresee our beliefs and practices and lives of today? Who can say? But it seems doubtful. What is really going on in the world roundabout us humans at any one time–especially a time that seems to us to involve enormous changes–is seldom if ever rightly perceived by those of us who are immersed in these changes. Nevertheless, we must make our own decisions about what to do according to our best lights, and then move on in faith (as Abraham did), and live out our lives in the new world that we now inhabit. And that is what our foreparents did, in coming to this country.
I have suggested that the momentum of change that they set up by their move has gone far beyond anything they could have possibly imagined or wanted. And we–and our children and our children’s children–are the ones who must live out our lives now in and through these drastic changes that have so completely broken down Mennonite attempts to maintain some sort of isolation from the surrounding world. Should we accept these changes as the “new thing” that God has been creating around us and in us and for us? Or should we fight against them as fiercely as we can, as Mennonites have often done with changes in the past? I think we should and must accept them in faith and move forward. But if we do this, we need to recognize–and to rejoice in –the new consciousness and understanding, which is today being born within us, of what this implies about the meaning of being Mennonite in the world.
In the first half of the 16th Century, the Anabaptist movements spread very rapidly; but they also led to persecution and to martyrdom for many (as all of us here are well aware). The Anabaptist/Mennonites were convinced that they possessed the true understanding of Christian faith, and of the radical discipleship required to live a Christian life; and it is hardly surprising, therefore, that they were convinced that their persecutors–indeed, everyone who differed with them substantially–were simply and clearly in the wrong. As the persecutions grew, they increasingly retired as much as possible from active involvement in the wider world roundabout, seeking to live together in more or less remote communities where they felt they could best keep the true faith and lead a good Christian life. When the Swiss Mennonites who are our ancestors moved into Russia, and again when they moved from Russia to this country, they were following in this tradition of attempting to maintain their communities in relative isolation from the outside non-Mennonite world (This was also the practice of other Mennonites who came to America in earlier migrations.) The many martyr stories from the early years, of which we Mennonites have always been proud, demonstrated dramatically to our ancestors–and continue also to exemplify for us–how important it is to preserve those precious Mennonite convictions about Christian truth and about the radical discipleship required in Chrisitan living. And to live in tight-knit communities seemed the best way to do that. The Amish and the Hutterites still hold to that position, as well as they can. But in much of the American Mennonite world today it seems increasingly impossible to maintain. We can no longer wall ourselves off from the outside non-Mennonite culture. Is this to be regarded as a failure to keep the faith? or is it an opportunity to move to a new and deeper understanding of our Mennonite Christian tradition? Perhaps these developments should be regarded as a “new thing” that God is doing with us and for us today, creating in us a new–and perhaps deeper–understanding of what Christian faith must be in today’s world.
As an oft-persecuted religious minority, Mennonites have always understood very well–how could it have been otherwise?–that they lived in a world in which the vast majority disagreed with them on many things, above all disagreed about the true meaning and practice of Christian faith. One can say, then, that Mennonites have always been conscious (in their own way) of what today has come to be called religious pluralism–the fact that there are many different sorts of religion, many different kinds of religious convictions, many different understandings of right and wrong, of good and evil, many different versions of Christianity. They knew well (taught as they were by persecutions) that their views on all of these matters were those of a small minority. And, in view of their strong convictions about their own understandings of Christian faith and life, it is hardly surprising that they saw the world outside their communities–the world that persecuted them for their faith–as largely sinful and evil, to be avoided as much as possible; and when that wasn’t possible, they moved many times from country to country to avoid assimilation, as we have been noting. The distinction between the church and the outside world has been, thus, for most of our Swiss Mennonite history, sharp and clear; and there was no question that our loyalty was to be given to the church, not to anything in the outside world.
But this two-worlds doctrine (as it has often been called) has now broken down decisively for most of us, as we have just been observing–broken down in fact, at least, if not yet in much explicit Mennonite thinking and teaching. Today we find ourselves living, for the most part, in the larger world (not in the church or even a close-knit church-community), and we are all in many respects of this larger world. Moreover, we can now see, and we basically accept, that there is much to be learned from non-Mennonite practices and ways of thinking in the wider culture in which we live; and we have in fact adopted much from this wider culture into our own day-by-day living and thinking, even though we may still believe that we Mennonites also have some distinctive and important things to offer others. In short, the context in which most of us have today come to understand ourselves and our religious faith is no longer defined largely by the church/world dichotomy: we have found that we cannot but respect many of our friends and co-workers with whom we may differ on fundamental religious and/or moral questions, and we are beginning to understand that there are, in fact, many quite diverse ways of being human (and of being Christian)–not just the Mennonite way(which I myself, as a child and adolescent maturing in the years before and during World War II, felt rather deeply was the only right way to live). Today most of us, perhaps, have come to see this wider, broader understanding of human existence as a good thing, not something to be deplored., Significant diversity makes life richer and fuller, less rigidly regimented and potentially much more creative, than it would be if everyone believed and thought and acted in much the same way–which seems to have been what was desired, all too often, in the tight-knit Mennonite communities of the past. In short, the context of the lives of most of us today (and surely this will be true to an even greater extent for our children and grandchildren) is a thoroughgoing religious and cultural pluralism–a pluralism understood as something positive and good not just a negative fact of life, as in much of our Mennointe past. This is one of the most important “new things” that God has been creating in American Mennonite experience in the course of this 20th century; and we must ask ourselves how we are to move forward in faith with respect to this new creation.
The first thing to be said about this is that we must acknowledge it; the kind of life, and the religious character of life, which was possible in our older communities, is no longer an option for us. We are now living in the midst of diverse religious and non-religious groups and individuals, a world that is through and through pluralistic, religiously and culturally. And this diversity is increasingly in us, quite as much as we are in it–through TV and the internet, through our jobs and our travels, through our daily contacts with next door neighbors very different in religious faith and practice from ourselves. In important respects, I want to suggest, from the perspective of a Mennonite understanding of Christian faith–an understanding that emphasizes the centrality of loving our neighbors and even our enemies–this is actually a great gain. For our traditional attempts to insulate our communities from the outside world meant that in fact we separated ourselves as much as possible from contacts with non-Mennonites, with others different from ourselves. What kind of love, caring, and serving of the needs of those others was fostered by such practices as these? We were tryng to have nothing to do with those others, a far cry from relating to them and their needs in love. We, like the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan were seeking to “pass by” those others by getting as far to the other side of the road as we could, rather than ministering to their needs. Hardly what our Mennonite Christian ideals for human living call for. The new, much more open interaction with persons and communities of all sorts, in the world outside Mennonite circles, gives us the opportunity to practice our deepest Mennonite convictions much more effectively and realistically than the traditional attempts to live in a kind of Mennonite ghetto. And we have attempted, through such agencies as M.C.C. and Mennonite Disaster Service, to institutionalize our desire to care for others deeply in need.
But this outward movement is not easy. For, as I have been reminding us here, there is much in the world beyond our Mennonite communities that is meaningful and good, and we (and our children) may often be attracted away from our commitment to radical Christian discipleship. Certainly, we can now see, we should no longer cultivate attitudes of easy condemnation of those with whom we differ. But the more we learn to appreciate and respect the values and meanings and ways of life in terms of which other communities and individuals order themselves and their activities, the more we may be tempted to join them, to appropriate for ourselves their ways of thinking and acting. This is indeed a risk that we Mennonites–with our strong convictions that human life ought to be ordered very differently than it is in the outside world of dog-eat-dog–unavoidably take, if we would minister to those living and working in that world. We must learn to be much more tolerant than in the past, indeed more open to religious and moral perspectives and standards that differ from our own, appreciating the dignity and value and meaning that they give to those who order their lives in those terms. This is a decisive change of attitude, behavior, and belief from much previous Mennonite practice–certainly very different from that which was cultivated in me as I grew to maturity on the Bethel Campus, a community that thought of itself as one of the more enlightened Mennonite locales of that time.
To cultivate and maintain genuine appreciation for other ways of living and thinking and believing–for other religious and moral attitudes and practices, for different life-styles–does not mean, however (I want to maintain), that we must give up our own deepest Mennonite convictions about loving neighbors and enemies as we love ourselves. Indeed, such appreciation of and respect for other patterns of life is, as I have been trying to say, a prerequisite for following through on these convictions about the centrality that Christian discipleship and love must have in our lives. To learn how to maintain this delicate balance–between respect for and appreciation of others very different in religious and moral convictions and practices from ourselves, without losing our own deepest convictions and practices–is the “new thing” that God is today creating in our Mennonite consciousness and culture.
It is a “new thing” that is desperately needed in our time and our world. All of us are well aware that our world today is fiercely divided into warring factions on all sides. In this portentous moment, perhaps more than ever before, we need understandings of the human, and visions of history, that will help to move humankind world-wide toward a much more humane ordering of life, an ordering in which the integrity and significance of every tradition and every community are acknowledged, and the rights of every individual are respected. New cultural patterns of association and cooperation must be developed, new institutions must be invented, new ways of thinking that are truly open to the pluralism of human life on this planet must be created. For these sorts of things to happen a spirit of self-denial and self-giving for the well-being of the whole of humanity will be widely needed, a spirit that can subdue the instincts for self-preservation and self-defense–perhaps among the strongest that we humans possess–which so dominate our communal and ethnic, our political and, yes, our religious practices and institutions, as well as our personal lives. “…those who want to save their life,” as Jesus reminds us, “will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mk. 8:35). Just such a spirit of self-giving, love, reconciliation, the building of community, is what Mennonites have always most deeply believed was required by their faith. It is to a firm commitment to express this spirit–especially in our relations to those many others with whom we may strongly disagree and who appear to us to be threats (I am suggesting)–that our Mennonite Christian faith calls us today. We are called to be reconcilers, builders of community with others, peacemakers. Our Mennonite Christian faith can help us cultivate attitudes and practices that bear directly on humankind’s deepest need at this time, which is to find some way for us all, in our enormous human diversity, to live together peacefully and fruitfully, and in an ecologically responsible way, on planet Earth.
The God we worship is the creativity manifest throughout the universe, the creativity which has brought the whole vast network of life on planet Earth into being, the creativity that guides and heals all women and men. As Jesus put it so well: God “makes [the] sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt. 5:45). Or, as this God of creativity said through the mouth of the prophet Amos almost 1000 years before Jesus: “Are you, O people of Israel, not like the Ethiopians to me?” Just as God created Israel by bringing the Hebrews up from the land of Egypt, “Did I not [also] bring…up…the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? [Was I not creating and taking care of all these other peoples roundabout you, just as I was creating and caring for you?]” (9:7). This God of creativity, I am suggesting, is today calling us Mennonites, with our distinctive tradition, to an important mission in the world, as God called Abraham and his descendants in their time. However deep may be our own convictions about right and wrong, good and evil, our special mission in the world, we must never forget that it is this universal God–the creativity at work with and in and through all peoples everywhere, the creativity at work within non-pacifists as well as pacifists, communists as well as capitalists, atheists as well as religious believers, gay people as well as heterosexuals–that we seek to serve. And it may well be that it is in today’s highly diverse, interconnected, pluralistic, warring world that our Mennonite convictions about love and self-sacrifice, forgiveness and reconciliation, healing and community-building, have their most distinctive and most historically-important role to play. God is making us “hear new things, hidden things that [we had] not known,” as the prophet Isaiah put it. “They are created now, not long ago.” Let us, then, take up in faith this new task that we have been given, even though, like Abraham–and like our forebears coming to America 125 years ago–we really do not know where we are going.