Cosmopolitan Mennonites; Cosmopolitan Homelessness

This is a lecture I was asked to give at a Mennofolk event on Jan. 28th at Sam’s Place Cafe and Bookstore in Winnipeg. The theme for the event was “A Song Away from Home,” and the evening featured several up and coming Winnipeg artists with Mennonite roots as well as this lecture. The following is a critique of an increasing cosmopolitan Mennonite existence, developing diaspora as an alternative, non-colonial, way of relating to our cosmopolitan neighbours by asking the questions: In what ways are we not at home in the world? In Winnipeg? How does our strangeness, our diasporic existence in a cosmopolitan landscape change our ethics, how we relate to others?

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV

I want to do three things in the next 15-20 minutes.  First, I want to suggest that although Mennonites have become cosmopolitan and settled in North American cities, there are several ways in which we are still strangers or foreigners in this context.  Second, I want to outline Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s work on Old Testament diaspora or exile as a source for thinking about this strangeness.  Thirdly, I will explore a relatively recent Mennonite Church Manitoba initiative as a way of incarnating the Jeremian call, a way of seeking the welfare of the city.

Cosmopolitan Mennonites; Cosmopolitan Homelessness

To begin, then, my lecture tonight is entitled “Cosmopolitan Mennonites; Cosmopolitan Homelessness.”  What I mean to call attention to in this two part title is first, the increasingly cosmopolitan existence of Mennonites in Canada– the progressive move of rural Mennonites to urban centers, especially as 2nd, 3rd, 4th generations who no longer face persecution have settled in the land.  Over the generations,Canada,Manitoba,Winnipeg, have become dwelling places for Mennonites; we consider ourselves very much at home here.  With the second part of the title I want to suggest that we also need to consider that certain kinds of settled-ness can lead to apathy on the one hand, and a desire to seize power and control on the other.  I want to suggest that although we have settled in cities, we need to think about the ways in which we are not completely at home in them; hence, the term cosmopolitan homelessness.  If this is confusing, not to worry. I will continue to work out what I mean by this throughout the lecture.

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The context for this exhortation is Jeremiah’s prophetic counsel for the people of God living in exile, as foreigners in another city.  Living in exile is perhaps an unimaginable notion for much of western Christianity, though perhaps more present in our Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage.  As Christians living in the west we tend to think ourselves quite at home in the world, relegating, as a result, the prophetic word above to its particular place in history; while acknowledging it as part of our Christian story, it is clearly irrelevant for us today.  But on what grounds, really, can we consider ourselves anything other than strangers in the world?  Our North American cities are built on land that belongs to people who lived here long before us.  We were guests, foreigners, whose domiciliary relationship with this land is a result of war, conquest, and colonization.  This names our historical strangeness.  Another way in which we are strangers in the world is theological; it has to do with the eschatological tension in which the church lives.  We believe that the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ has already inaugurated a new world order but that it has not yet fully arrived.  We live in this world in anticipation for a transformed and new creation.  In a sense, then, we are not at home in this world because things are not the way they should be, or will be.

Our ways of living at home in this world have proven destructive, violent, and at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus we profess to follow.  By making ourselves at home, by seeking to overcome our exile, our strangeness, we have habituated what one might call a colonial ethic.  We have often convinced ourselves that our welfare – our peace, freedom, and well being – is secured through domination, control, and coercion.  Where we were first guests and foreigners in a country, who used the hospitality offered to us for our own ends and own advantage, we have now become hostages to our habits of thought and life.  I say this not to elicit guilt or fear, but simply that we might recognize our complicity in the violent colonization ofNorth America, and our broken relationship with indigenous peoples.  I also want to suggest that the exilic character of the people of God, the Christian church, has important resources for thinking about ethics – how we ought to live in the world.  Attending to the Jeremian call is a way for us to move forward instead of becoming paralyzed by our complicity in injustice. 

Yoder on Diaspora

John Howard Yoder was a prominent Mennonite theologian in the 20th Century and his work continues to be influential in both the church and the academy.  I want to focus on one of his essays in particular.  It is called “See How They Go with Their Face to the Sun,” and it is found in a collection of essays entitled For the Nations: essays evangelical and public.  We are all familiar with the story of the tower built at Babel in Genesis 11.  In this essay Yoder gives an account of Babel that is significantly different from the way Protestant theology has often rendered it.  In his narration, the people of God constructed the tower of Babel as an act of independence toward their salvation, by trying to “[reach] heaven on their own.”[1]  God responds to this idolatry with the confusion of tongues.  Because the people no longer share a common language, the construction of Babel is interrupted.  The confusion of tongues corresponds interpretively to God’s later diaspora or galuth (the Hebrew word “scattering”) of Israel to exile in Babylon.  As a result, the life of the people of God in exile is understood as a great loss from their former unity.  Yoder, however, questions such a negative interpretation on “Jeremian grounds.”  The verse from Jeremiah 29:7, he argues, precludes a solely punitive interpretation of diaspora: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”[2]  It does not sound like an angry admonition.  Something else is going on.

Yoder goes on to make the case that diaspora includes a commissioning of God’s people.  When we read the Babelcommunity not as an ideal unified whole but as idolatry, we must also read the subsequent dispersion not as punishment and lamentable loss of unity, but as God’s liberation from idolatry.  The particular kind of unity that is idolatrous is “the effort of a human community to absolutize itself.”[3]  The construction of Babel marks the desire of the people of God to preserve their culture and a common discourse by establishing themselves in the world like other nations.  This is this idolatry that diaspora liberates.  Furthermore, the confusion of languages, writes Yoder, “is “confusion” only when measured against the simplicity of imperially enforced uniformity.”[4]  In other words, diversification of languages atBabel was a confusion ofIsrael’s attempt to seize its own history. (Pentecost sits in stark contrast: the act of speaking in tongues is not “confusion” in Acts because it is received as a gift, a blessing.  Diversification of languages, of discourses, is a gift of the Spirit, and an essential part of the church’s faithfulness). Babel and diaspora describe polyglot or multilingual communities as a way of living that does not rely on domination, control, and coercion for well-being.  I am not so much talking about being multilingual literally, but polyglossia as a posture of openness towards and celebration of diversity, and rich engagement with people who are very different from us.

Another lesson of diaspora consists in the notion of return.  It is often understood that exile is a great loss because things are other than they were and therefore other than they ought to be.  The message of return from exile is certainly important in the prophets, but as Yoder astutely notes, it was precisely the false prophets that preached imminent return and restoration.[5]  Instead of “return” to the land of origin becoming the goal of exile, the notion of return becomes “functional as a metaphor for God’s renewing the life of faith anywhere.”[6]  This certainly resonates deeply with the Russian Mennonite heritage.  This allows the diasporic community to practice faithfulness when they find themselves as a foreign minority living under Babylonian imperial rule.  Their faithfulness is not conditioned by one particular place, but by the texts they read together in any place; it is nomadic; a kind of cosmopolitan home-lessness, one might say.  This becomes an essential feature of the people of God as return to the land is consistently postponed.  Moreover, any notion of return as something brought about by the people of God is precluded by the Jeremian call to seek the welfare of the city.  That is, the exiled community is called “to settle in, to buy land and plant gardens and vineyards, to marry off their children and enjoy their grandchildren.”[7]  Diaspora, therefore, opens for a new way of being in the world, in which “[n]othing about the self-esteem of the bearers of this new lifestyle is dependent upon or drives toward cultural homogeneity, political control, or autarchy.”  Return and restoration is the work of the Messiah, obedience is the work of the people of God.  And the call to Jesus remains the same as the call of Jeremian Jews—the call to faithfulness.

So, what do the Jews in Babylonian exile have to do with Mennonites living inWinnipeg?  Or, why does Melanie think that it is particularly important for cosmopolitan Mennonites to consider the diasporic character of the people of God in Scripture?  I began this lecture by suggesting several reasons for why I think we need to explore our strangeness as cosmopolitan Mennonites.  This, however, is not yet sufficient.  At the same time we also need to imagine the incarnation of this impetus; what might a diasporic way of living look like?  How can we experiment with this notion of cosmopolitan homelessness?

Experiments in Cosmopolitan Homelessness: MCM Partnership Circles

The conference of Mennonite Churches in Manitobahas some initiatives that I believe are heeding the Jeremian call for diasporic living and continue to imagine and experiment with what cosmopolitan homelessness might look like.  The initiative is taking place between various Mennonite churches in southern Manitoba(Winnipegand area) and churches from northern Native communities.  Mennonites have recognized that the land on which they settled in Manitoba as immigrants during the late 1800s and well into the twentieth century, was not in fact empty—as William Hespeler, for example, had led them to believe—but was the home of indigenous peoples.  In recognition of their colonial history, though Mennonites in Manitobawere not directly involved in residential schools, Mennonites have worked to cultivate friendships with aboriginal neighbours and to stand in solidarity with them in working for justice.  The conference of churches in Mennonite Church Manitoba (MCM) have been in contact with communities in northern Manitobasince the Mennonite Pioneer Mission days in the 1940s-70s. During this time, many southern Manitobacongregations had relationships with northern communities as they sent missionaries, teachers and others to work and live and serve there. While the structure was different, the northern congregations developed some strong ties to their southern sister congregations.[8]  After the budget cuts ended the field staff placement in First Nations communities in 2003, the churches of MCM and the northern communities began a new initiative called “Partnership Circles.” Norm Voth, Director of Evangelism and Service Ministries, MCM, writes: “The circles were a way to build relationships between congregations with a couple of goals. One was to shift from First Nations congregations as mission work to seeing them as sister congregations who had needs but also resources to share. The circles were designed to share resources and develop relationships to grow in our understanding of the Gospel.” [9]

Here is where it gets personal.  In 2006 Matheson Island Chapel invited members fromSpringfieldHeightsMennoniteChurch(the congregation I grew up in and of which I am a member) to partner with them to provide a week of summer camp for the local children. MathesonIslandis a Métis fishing community of about 100 people, located near the southernshoreofLake Winnipeg.  So, one early July morning about twenty youth and young adults (including myself) piled onto an old school bus and drove up to the island.  Not knowing what kind of resources we had, how many campers would come, or what exactly we would be doing, we embarked on a new adventure knowing only that God was calling us to build new relationships in a new place. MathesonIslandhas invited us back every year since then and the summer program has developed into a wonderful and challenging week.  Returning staff are taking on new leadership roles and have had the opportunity to walk alongside campers as they grow up, while new staff are stretched and encouraged by the new experience.  The camp has become a place for building friendships across ethnic, cultural, and denominational barriers.  This happens through chapel and group singing, activities such as swimming, games, and crafts, as well as the annual Thursday community potluck. The significance of the summer camp partnership, however, is not in the programming that is provided for children; rather, it is in the friendships that form by being-with one another, by walking and working together to a different rhythm of life; the patient labour of discipleship.

I want to share with you one of the many lessons in post-colonialism that I have learned from people of theMathesonIslandcommunity over the years.  Since the beginning of the partnership,Springfield Heights has insisted that we will not come do camp with theIslanduntil an invitation is extended for the next summer. This was an honest attempt to restrain our desires for control over the partnership in the camping ministry. That is, it was an attempt to guard against our colonial tendencies. I recall a conversation I had with one of the Islanders in which I highlighted this intention as an example of post-colonialism. The Islander, understanding the intent, kindly informed me however that extending invitations annually is not actually part of their culture. Rather, once an invitation is extended, it is considered valid until they tell us they do not want us there anymore.  That was a post-colonial fail for me.  Although I felt somewhat humiliated, and deeply humbled, it also brought me joy to hear an Islander assure me that they will tell us when they do not want us there anymore. This signified that our relationship is such that the people of Matheson Island do feel empowered on their land and as a community, by no design of our own; that we are becoming friends and neighbours first, not missionaries or teachers such that “we” somehow possess knowledge/power/resources to distribute to “them.”  Of course I think it is good for Springfield Heights to think about these kinds of things and to try to be receptive in our encounters with difference rather than imposing. And this lesson was part of that conversation.  Listening to our partners and friends, hearing that what we thought was one thing is actually another, is part of our journey together as we experiment with diasporic, post-colonial, ways of being in the world.

Partnership Circles names but one way of imagining a diasporic ethic.  Our task, I believe, as cosmopolitan Mennonites, is to continuously imagine ways of living beyond the routines of our settled lives, and to experiment vigorously in seeking the welfare of the city.  To inherit the Jeremian call is to inherit a particular character, one in which our welfare is not secured by coercion, dominance, and control, but by open receptivity to others, vulnerable engagement, and patient witness to Jesus.  Wendell Berry, a writer, scholar, farmer, fromKentucky, composed a short poem entitled “The Real Work”:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

and when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

“Seek the welfare of Winnipeg, and any city in which you might find yourselves, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

[1] John H. Yoder, “See How They Go with Their Face to the Sun,” in For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 62.

[2] Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV, emphasis added.

[3] Yoder, “See How They Go,” 62.

[4] Ibid., 63.

[5] Yoder notes the false prophets: Hananiah in ch. 28; Zedekiah in 29:15, 21; Shemaiah in 29:24f., in “See How They Go,” 65n31.

[6] Ibid., 53.

[7] Ibid.

                8. Norm Voth, Director of Evangelism and Service Ministries,Mennonite ChurchManitoba, e-mail correspondence.

                9. Norm Voth, e-mail correspondence.


7 comments on “Cosmopolitan Mennonites; Cosmopolitan Homelessness

  1. Lexi says:

    It’s interesting to read your post and Gerald’s next to each other. You both seem to be reacting against different temptations that might pose themselves to us, the temptation to value and absolutize unity for its own sake on the one hand, and the temptation to value and absolutize difference on the other. What do you think of Gerald’s use of the word ‘communion’? Is there such a thing as idolatrous communion, or is communion precisely the name for non-idolatrous unity? What does diasporic communion look like?

    I am also wondering how you see this sort of diasporic theology being applicable to non-Mennonite churches in Europe, for example – particularly the church of England. Arguably, the churches are quite at home here. They are not on anyone else’s land. Certainly, they are still living in the already-but-not-yet, but does their particular relationship to the land, society, politics etc. change the shape of their diaspora? If so, what does this mean for their communion with north-american, Mennonite churches? Could Mennonite churches learn something from the Church of England for example, just as Anglicans ought to learn from Mennonites that they are not at home in the world?

    Don’t feel the need to answer everything. These are just some of the questions that your lecture raised for me.

  2. Pretty! This was an extremely wonderful article. Thank you for
    supplying this info.

  3. face toner says:

    I was suggested this website by way of my cousin. I’m now not sure whether this submit is written by him as nobody else recognize
    such specific approximately my problem. You’re incredible!

  4. I’d like to find out more? I’d want to find out some
    additional information.

  5. Nice post. I was checking constantly this blog and I
    am impressed! Very helpful information specially the last part
    🙂 I care for such info a lot. I was looking for this certain information for a very long time.
    Thank you and best of luck.

  6. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get
    four e-mails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove people from that service?

    Appreciate it!

  7. ​SEO says:

    It’s awesome to pay a visit this site and reading the views of all friends regarding this post,
    while I am also eager of getting know-how.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s