A number of years ago, my daughter’s grade school class was given the task of preparing and presenting a short speech to the class about their personal family history. No problem. We’ve got that covered. Or, we did until a week or so before her turn when one of her classmates presented and told the group that her grandparents were Mennonites. Which meant they drove horse and buggies, wore bonnets and stuff, and had no electricity.
“She said that all Mennonites did that?”
My daughter knew better. She’d been attending Mennonite Church, Sunday School and kiddie events for years. But that other kid was just so certain. It’s hard to stand up to that. And none of us wanted to cause a schoolyard incident.
Which meant that, rather than embroil her grade 3 class in a lively dispute over the meaning and shape of Mennonite identity, my daughter presented on her father’s French Canadian heritage, and we were all grateful once again that I had broken from my ancestors’ tradition and married outside of the faith.
Mennonites: avoiding discussions about our identity since 1525
I assume the kid believed what she said. All the children interviewed a family member for this project and I have no reason to believe she had shirked this duty. It might be that the kid’s parents or grandparents knew well that there are many different kinds of Mennonites and that her family had roots to only one particular branch. They might even have known that theirs was one of the smaller branches. Maybe they had just decided to generalize to the kid because they thought a lesson in Mennodiversity was just too complicated for a simple child’s mind to fathom.
Or they might not have known.
It is a sad truth that very few of us have any sort of wide-ranging knowledge of the variations within our faith group, or even a deep knowledge of the traditions of our own micro-sect. Our collective ignorance may be the single most embarrassing part of the Mennonite identity (though there are certainly other contenders for that honour). There isn’t a one of us who hasn’t had to bluster through an answer to a neighbour’s or co-worker’s wide-eyed question about one of our faith’s sub-sects about which we honestly know almost nothing.
Ok, I exaggerate – there are a small number of Mennos among us who don’t have to bluster. Such people have postgraduate degrees in Mennonite Studies or the equivalent and have dedicated their whole working lives to avoiding such embarrassments. But that’s not most of us.
For the rest of us, most of our knowledge of what it is to be Mennonite is experiential. We simply feel like we know what it is to be Mennonite. We eat the food. We get the jokes. We might gain a vague awareness of the “other” Mennonites if we attend a Mennonite high school, make a hobby of it or are very diligent in our reading of the Mennopress. Really, as far as knowledge goes – that’s not much.
Our lack of real knowledge won’t stop us from answering when approached by a curious englander. Because our personal experiential knowledge is more knowledge than that in the heads of any of our questioners, we forget about our ignorance and bluster through with questionable answers to all the wrong questions asked by our peers and acquaintances. And we go along our way, each of us merrily perpetuating the ignorance around us inch by inch and row by row.
Admittedly, not everyone is merry about it. I am. When I start spouting ignorant myths, I know perfectly well what I’m doing and I’m enjoying myself wildly. Watch out for me. And, yes, this is all fun and games until someone loses a chance to talk about their family at Show and Tell.
I have the feeling that most of us aren’t just having the englander on. Instead, I think we mostly don’t even know what we don’t know. I’ve lost count of the number of Mennonites who said to me, shaking their heads in dismay, “if only the makers of CBC Pure had talked to some real Mennonites.” But, of course, they had talked to people who had experiential knowledge with their own corner of the Mennonite world. It just wasn’t a broad enough knowledge. Perhaps not deep enough either.
I don’t have much of a solution to our collective ignorance. Someone could make an app, maybe. Kinda like a field guide for Menno-watchers. Just yesterday, I was on a flight home from Mennotoba and saw two parties of plain-dressing Mennonites. They were clearly different sub-sects but I haven’t a clue which ones and I didn’t ask, since it was none of my business. If I’d had this Menno-app on my phone, I could have selected a headcovering and received a lesson in migration history and theology. It would have to be a bit more sophisticated to differentiate between all of us Mennonites who don’t dress plain but I’m confident there’s a clever Mennonite app developer out there who can manage.
In the meantime, here’s a cocktail.
Today’s cocktail celebrates the office of the Ältester.
Historically, in many branches of the Mennonite Church one would turn to the Ältester for clarification and guidance. I don’t know if any of the Ältester ever had the breadth of knowledge required to truly understand the subtle distinctions between all of our subsects but I do think that this was the person one was supposed to turn to for answers when faced with troubling questions.
We usually translate Ältester as either “Bishop” or “Elder” – it was typically the senior pastoral leader of a group of congregations, though I’m sure there was (and is) variation across sects about that. Most of the branches that I know about no longer have an Ältester and have moved to a somewhat flatter leadership structure and so we are forced to turn to the internet for the wisdom we would previous have received from the eldest among of us.
This cocktail is a variation of The Godfather, just to continue the confusion around that whole Mennonite Mob thing.
- 2 oz bourbon whiskey
- 1/4 oz amaretto
- several dashes of bitters
Stir together the ingredients with ice. Serve over a very large chunk of ice or several smaller ice cubes. Drink while pondering just how little you know. And while wondering whether Ältester would also make a good name for that app you’re planning to develop.