CBC’s Pure has mercifully come to an end, at least assuming that it won’t go past season 1. It arrived with a splash but seemed to dwindle after the first episode – perhaps after all the Mennonites stopped watching.
The Mennonite world responded much as expected. Opinion was divided over whether to hate the show for the cultural appropriation, for the violence, or for the potential it had to tarnish our pristine reputation. In tone, we were split between those expressing righteous anger and those with self-righteous anger. (I like to think I fit into a whole different category of those whose tone was more righteous mockery than anything else. Apart from this blog, that category seems confined to Twitter).
To be clear – this is the opinion expressed largely among people affiliated with Mennonite Church Canada, the largest group of Mennonites in Canada and one of the most “assimilated” groups. We haven’t heard from any of the Mennonite groups actually implicated in the story.
There’s a certain irony in all of us “modern” Mennonites rushing to defend the Old Order and Old Colony Mennonites from cultural appropriation. While it is true that people like me have some fragments of shared culture, it is not enough for me to pretend to be speaking from the inside.
Nevertheless, if you’re going to use the name “Mennonite,” there will be consequences.
Several of the critiques of the show have argued that it did damage to the Old Order Mennonites; fewer have discussed the damage done to the Old Colony. Michael Amo has now said that the decision to merge the Old Colony and the Old Order was an ethical one. I gather he feared his show would do damage to the Old Colony Mennonites in Canada if it was set among people meant to represent those who actually have had drug smugglers among them. Erasing them from Ontario’s landscape was somehow better. By creating a fictional Old Order/Old Colony amalgam, he sought to protect both from the slings and arrows of outraged freundschaft.
I gotta say I hate it when ethics are used as a cover for paternalism.
Not that I’m unfamiliar with the habit. There’s another irony – there are few areas in which Mennonites can claim particular expertise but paternalism may well be one of them.
Really, Michael, if you needed to apply a sheen of benevolent paternalism on your actions, you should have consulted the Mennonite Church leadership. We’re really good at that stuff.
Amo was a little vague as to the people from whom he was protecting the Old Colony. Unlike the Old Order Mennonites who attract tourism and fetishists – the Old Colony are often stigmatized as new(ish) Canadians. It is to our shame that we “modern” Mennonites have as often as not contributed to that stigma even as we post signs on our lawns welcoming the stranger as our neighbour. Understanding that stigma, perhaps Amo thought he was protecting the Old Colony from further stigma by leaving them out of Ontario.
This would be a more convincing argument had the series not persisted in portraying as good (or victimized) the people who dress as Old Order Mennonites and as evil (or willingly compromised) those who dressed as Old Colony Mennonites. This dichotomy makes it difficult to simply shrug one’s shoulders and say – as some have suggested – there’s good and bad in all communities.
In fact, no good was found in the Old Colony Mennonites portrayed here. We see a small community of ex-communicated Old Colony Mennonites in episodes 5 and 6 when Noah Funk travels to Mexico. They are a passive lot – sitting like lumps as they waited to be served communion as if Funk and Voss would have been the only ones to recognize that it was a charade. Later, in the climactic “burning at the stake” scene, Voss tries to rile them with a rabble-rousing speech. Again, they stand by passively neither rousing themselves to defend the good pastor, nor joining in like a mob with pitchforks. Perhaps they are meant to be like sheep who have gone astray, their passivity some kind of spiritual statement.
But I doubt it.
The contrast to the Ontario Old Order Mennonites is stark. While all but one of the Ontario (Old Order) Mennonites were reluctant in their involvement in the drug cartel, we witness no moral quandaries among these Stepford Mennonites of the south. Apparently lured by the promise of electric lights and fancy trucks, the Old Colony Mennonites follow Eli Voss without a thought or moment of hesitation.
According to Amo, the series poses the question “how much evil does a good man have to do to rid his community of evil?”
It was the centrality of this theme which had all the Mennonites watching the series tilting our heads like baffled puppies every time Pastor Funk made a decision. As early as the first episode, we were all of us yelling at our screens saying, “No, Noah! Why would you do that? What kind of weird Mennonite pastor are you, anyway?”
It’s not just that he became involved in the drug trade – that might be the least of it. We knew he had lost his way when he spoke like he knew God’s will on his own without any community discernment, without even talking to the Altester. And also when it occurred to him that it was ok to do evil in the service of good.
It’s not that pastors can’t do evil. It’s not that at all. It’s more that they’re more likely to persuade themselves that their acts aren’t evil. Or that whatever evil they did was out of human weakness. I’m not saying that it’s better. Just different. As different as an Old Colony is from Old Order.
Amo replied to the critique that Mennonite pastors wouldn’t act as he portrayed by saying that “once we’ve established the documentary reality of drug smuggling, a lot of things are believable.” Which is an absurd response, really. As if the very laws of the universe were open to question once Amo’s preconceptions about Mennonites were shattered by the presence of a drug runner.
Pure’s ending was fairly inevitable and followed a familiar plot line. I was so expecting redemptive violence that I have been searching for weeks for cocktail recipes on the theme. In a Winnipeg Free Press article, historian Ben Goossen drew parallels between CBC’s Pure and a popular 1935 nazi film that has, unsurprisingly, not passed the test of time. Both the film and the TV series exploit themes of redemptive violence. Both were about good (pacifist) men doing evil to rid their communities of evil. I haven’t seen the film, but apparently it followed a Mennonite community in the Ukraine turning to violence to save itself from the Bolsheviks. The German audience at the time – Mennonites included – would have seen that evil as every bit as bad as the threat posed by someone like Eli Voss.
There is no banality in the evil of Voss. We know that Eli V. is evil not only because his name is practically an anagram of it but also because of his flippant use of violence. We know that Noah F. is good not only because his name doesn’t anagram to anything nasty but also because he feels really bad about the violent acts he commits. The two adversaries come together in the final episode of the season – one the representative of a loving God and the other the disciple of a God of death and destruction. While good apparently prevails in the end, the victory is only through Funk sacrificing his own value system, the devotee of death and destruction smirking as he lay dying.
There was less redemptive violence in Pure than I expected but it was still there. Both Joey Epp and Noah Funk killed in order to “do good.” It was not easy for either of them, but this is what we have come to expect in our popular culture. The audience, and the secular authorities, forgive the men their acts of violence as necessary and justifiable but the men are also made into sacrificial heroes who cannot integrate themselves back into the community they fought to protect. It’s a familiar narrative, one we hear every time we send our young off to war and bemoan their difficulties when they come back home.
It is possible that Mennonites, and even Mennonite pastors at one time another, might fall prey to this seductive little narrative. After all, there’s good and bad in every group.
But I hope we resist.
Today’s cocktail does not so much glorify redemptive violence as stare it in its face, throw it in a coupe glass and challenge you to show it that you know it for what it is. Go ahead and ingest this but don’t ever believe it has value outside of cocktail hour.
Since Noah shot Eli with a revolver, I use the Revolver as the base for this cocktail but used Amaro instead of a coffee liqueur.
- 2 oz Bourbon
- 1/2 oz Amaro
- 3 dashes orange bitters
- orange peel to garnish
Shake the bourbon, amaro and bitters with ice in a cocktail shaker. Strain into a glass. Drink with a critical eye.