Wednesday, April 21, 2004

The Mennonites - Your Patron Saints of Mediocrity

Back in the early 90s, I was invited to sit in on a friend's class: "A History of The Anabaptists" held at the Toronto School of Theology. To my surprise, the prof descended from a line of Predigers, who also happened to hail from my small prairie town. I introduced myself. We shook hands, figured out exactly how we were related to each other, then parted as the class filed in. This was near the end of the semester, and he was wrapping up. He summarized some of the history -- as written by Mennonites, and other Anabaptists -- then paused, and after a deep sigh, said, "You get the impression these people think pretty highly of themselves, don't you?"

Yes, indeedy. In the small towns of Central Ontario there are dozens of museums devoted to the history of Mennonites, and though the script commonly proclaims the faithfulness of a loving God to these peaceful, frequently persecuted people, a visitor could be excused for thinking the subtext is, in fact, a warped-mirror reversal of that equation. In Winnipeg's East Kildonan district, there is an enormous quartz rock, left behind by the Ice Age, sitting squarely on the lawn of a Mennonite retirement home. A bronze plaque affixed to it reads, "We came. We toiled. God blessed." -- a statement that brings to mind Bart Simpson's Prayer of Thanksgiving: "We worked hard to pay for this grub, so thanks for nothing!"

The implicit is rarely made explicit by Mennonite historians within the fold. For that we rely rather bitterly on our novelists -- Rudy Wiebe, Miriam Toews*, et al. Occasionally we're blessed with the perspective of an outsider historian like James Urry, who quietly injects a note of realism in our otherwise hagiographic narratives. And, every once in a while, we get the really juicy stuff from magazines like this month's Saturday Night, whose cover story touts: "The Mennonite Mob: An unholy alliance of drug traffickers, contract killers, corrupt Mexican police ... and the brethren." (Read it here.)

The article, The Wages of Sin, is a tidy piece of investigative journalism by Andrew Mitrovica and Susan Bourette. If you hail from a small-town Mennonite community, it hardly comes as a surprise that Mexican Mennonites and their northern relatives are among the most successful drug mules and drug cartels in the hemisphere. Mitrovica and Bourette paint compelling portraits of a community becoming rapidly undone by its own pious stand-offishness, as well as a rigorously kept ignorance and arrogance that perfectly fosters the most ruthless criminal ambition. When they close with a Mennonite bishop's lament -- "All we can do is keep praying to God that he will help us and lead us" -- the reader (well, this reader) is left with a simmering stew of conflicting emotions.

Part of that response stems from my childhood experiences among South American Mennonites. In the schoolyards of our Canadian prairie town, children from these families were the subject of our worst taunts and ridicule. At the time I assumed this had to do with their hand-me-down clothes, their habitually passe coiffures, and their secondary grasp of English. Years later I learned that in fact our derision was "informed" by the opposing pieties of our elders: the South American Mennonites had left the prairies in defiance of the Canadian government's insistence on a public school curriculum, only to return with hat-in-hand after experiencing some fifty years of poverty while their compromising relatives to the north were increasingly "blessed."

Room was grudgingly made for another seat at the table, but this was not "fellowship" by any stretch of the imagination. In the 1970s, in a town of somewhat more than 5000 people, there were roughly 30 different Mennonite congregations, and they generally did their best to keep shy of each other's spitting range. The South American churches spoke and sang German, as much out of religious conviction as out of linguistic convenience. Some permitted harmony and instrumentation, others didn't. Possession of radios or televisions was a hotly debated issue. North American congregations had their own divisive issues: was baptism by annointing (pouring water) legitimate, or did you have to "submerge" to be a real Christian? "Speaking in tongues" -- of God, or of the devil? And all this was before the issue of divorce or sexual orientation stormed down the aisle.

To this day the "variety" of Mennonite congregations continues to increase in that town, due not in the least to population growth but to schism after schism rending a congregation into two or more fragments. Just as the South American kids on our playgrounds couldn't comprehend why "Paraguayan" was the Mennonite equivalent of the "N-word" (and we felt no shame using that term, either), I was at times nonplussed by the moral superiority they frequently expressed toward Ukrainian and French Catholic kids, and finally, toward me. When I matured enough to forsake my most insidious schoolyard behavior, it was my turn to be surprised: one Paraguayan friend was permitted by his parents to fraternize with me on our yard, but forbidden to enter our house. For whatever reason, they refused to allow me entrance into their house, as well.

In an environment like that, when you finally fall from God's Grace, you don't do it by half-measures. Kids raised in fearful, angry households and fearful angry churches, grow up to do terribly fearful, angry deeds. In my experience, the most consciously evil behavior occurs after a person declares, "I've had enough -- I'm through being the chump!" I doubt there's anyone from the Mennonite community who can watch Milos Forman & Peter Shaffer's Amadeus without experiencing a deep, visceral thrill at the vision of Salieri declaring, "From now on we are enemies, You and I," as he lifts the crucifix from his wall and dumps it into the fireplace.

But, as with Salieri, there's something about that level of vehement defiance that quickly turns pathetic. When Mitrovica and Bourette report of "young Mennonite thugs flaunting gold rings and designer clothes and driving expensive, brand-new trucks" while cartel leaders fund and star in their own B-grade Mexican-Mennonite gangsta movies, the images conjured are tawdry and repulsive. No doubt there already exists a plaut-dietsch variety of gangsta rap. Mediocrity piles upon mediocrity -- evil parades by in its most banal formulation.

Still, there's no good reason why these stories should ever enter our museums. By all means, please come and visit. Enjoy the pleasures of our hermetically-sealed Mennonite Lore. We only ask that when you exit, you close the door behind you, and acknowledge us as your patron saints of mediocrity.

* 05/01/04 - In the "anything-but-mediocre" category, The Globe & Mail is once again showering Toews with superlatives, this time courtesy of CBC Radio personality Bill Richardson. His rave for her latest novel, A Complicated Kindness, can be read here. Noah Richler is also impressed, here.


Trent Reimer said...

Now how about a discourse on us self-righteous Canadians?

Thursday said...

My mother is from a Mennonite family that settled around Saskatoon.

Whisky Prajer said...

We may be related, Mr. T: my mother's family hails from Dalmany.