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April 1983 · Vol. 12 No. 2 · pp. 3–6 

Rehabilitating Ethnicity

Eric Mierau

In contemporary North American society a fictitious nomenclature about ethnicity has developed around the popular term “ethnic minority.” The great “majority” of society is presumably not ethnic, so that society as a whole consists of a non-ethnic majority plus a large number of ethnic minorities including Blacks, Jews, Japanese, Italians, Cubans, French, Indians, and of course Mennonites. Somehow the English, Irish and Scottish are not viewed as either ethnics or minorities, and many German Americans have, thanks to two world wars, gone out of their way to bury their ethnicity and join the ostensible majority. At favorable moments of history certain groups have capitalized on their ethnic identity, such as the Polish today.

Anthropologists have been telling us that all human beings have an ethnic identity of some sort by virtue of a particular cultural connection. Unfortunately such a profoundly simple concept of ethnicity is not acceptable to many people who, according to the way the wind blows, wish either to assert or deny their ethnic identity. Admittedly the whole thing becomes more and more complex as Swedes marry Nigerians and so forth. Thus ethnic identities have become very blurred indeed, and not only at the edges. There are ever fewer pure-blooded specimens around, but ethnic identities have by no means been lost in some utopian melting pot. Instead, they seem to have become more pronounced and important than ever. They have acquired the all-important status of myth and fiction by which we all live. 1 The treatment of ethnic groups, especially minorities, has become a foremost political problem in our day, related to fundamental human rights issues and to violent revolutions around the world.

If ethnic particularisms are the dividing walls that separate people into opposing camps, and if the Christian church is to break down these walls of hostility (“in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek”) by modeling a reconciled international, interracial, interethnic community, then it clearly has a monumental task ahead. The successes of Christian unity achieved so far by various missionary and ecumenical means pale to insignificance beside all that remains to be done. But faith that does not {4} tackle the moving of mountains is not worthy of the name.

So what is there to rehabilitate about ethnicity? Perhaps “rehabilitate” is not the right term, and “admit” a better one. But ethnicity is a very special problem for Mennonites—a problem compounded by confusion between theological and non-theological perceptions of peoplehood. Mennonites, who began in history as part of the Anabaptist movement, were by no means identifiable as ethnic or national. That is one of those rather significant parts of our history that we, and especially our teachers and preachers, might do well to reflect upon, in view of both our fragmented self-perception and the pluralistic world in which we live. Rudy Wiebe 2 has done such reflecting rather well:

There was no genealogical or ethnic unity among the first-generation Anabaptists: they were Swiss, Friesian, German, Flemish, Austrian, and French. The label “Mennonite” was attached to those who followed the teachings of Menno Simons, not to those who were his physical descendants. Menno, unlike Israel, established no patriarchy.

Our Anabaptist forebears had to pay a heavy price for their stubborn Christian commitment. Unprotected by the favorable circumstances of the pax romana under which the ancient Christian movement flourished, the intense persecution suffered by the early Anabaptists weakened their faith and forged that ethnic Mennonite identity that continues to confuse us today. Even though we know that the original Anabaptist vision of our dear Menno had to do with a costly if extreme Christian discipleship and not with Ukrainian borscht, we continue to see ourselves as an ethnic group called Mennonite, which is something we could easily admit, and then get on with being Christ’s disciples. Unfortunately, that is not the way we do it:

The word “Mennonite” does not primarily call up, even to ourselves, a new understanding of Christian discipleship, a body of committed and practising Christians, an ethic of love in all human relations. That is the kernel of our Anabaptist spiritual heritage, but it remains obscured behind “Mennonite” names like Reimer and Yoder, behind borscht and shoofly pie . . . Blood and culture, not belief, make the Mennonite. 3

Those of us who have the “right” names, eat the “right” foods, and do the “right” things, could, on the one hand, affirm our ethnic mythology easily enough, and on the other hand, we could express our solidarity with the Anabaptist vision of costly discipleship. But even then we would be, and indeed are, left with the dilemma of living in the twentieth century in which survival of the fit has to do with transcending the narrowness of the past and adapting to the pluralistic present. Borscht may or may not survive as a Mennonite food, which it wasn’t to {5} begin with anyway. The Anabaptist vision however, must survive in continuously updated, reinterpreted, contemporary forms. But without a thorough rethinking of our relation to the contemporary world, that vision will not survive, at least not among the Mennonites:

It is time that members of Mennonite churches rejected the middle-class paradise we have been struggling for—and have largely attained. Rather, captured by the revitalizing uniqueness of the Gospel, we must leave ourselves open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Such leading will take advantage of our wealth and ease of movement. 4

Wiebe goes on to suggest some very practical ways in which Mennonites could articulate the Anabaptist vision in the world today considerably more than we have in the past.

Our strong involvement in missions itself testifies to our ethnic identity problem, in that our “foreign” efforts have been considerably more successful than our “home” efforts. 5 This significant difference in success could well be related to the fact that we see ourselves as ethnic at home but not abroad. Our missionaries, reflecting a general confusion, have as a rule not communicated to our Asian and African sisters and brothers in the church our theologically rich Anabaptist heritage. Interestingly, our relatively few, evangelistically more successful congregations at home have worked very hard at repudiating both their ethnic and their spiritual heritage. By contrast, most of our more traditional, that is ethnically homogeneous, congregations, despite claims to the contrary, have had very little successful evangelistic outreach to outsiders. Our work among Natives, Chinese, Portuguese, and Blacks certainly qualifies as foreign missions even though it has been done just across the tracks.

Our international denominational diversity is further witness to our uncertain identity, and calls for a deep spirit of repentance:

The Mennonite conferences will have to leave the history of their differences in the place where they belong: the air-conditioned deadness of historical libraries. They will have to forget their mutual witch-hunting and label-pasting, where every General Conference Mennonite is an unconverted liberal, every Mennonite Brethren a trite fundamentalist, and every Old Mennonite either a hopeless conservative or a dangerous ecu-Menno-maniac. 6

One possible reaction to Wiebe’s suggestion that the history of inter-Mennonite quarrellings be set aside for good is to agree with him and live in a historical vacuum rather than a continuous state of cold war between rival conferences. But surely a more Christian response is to work very hard at dialogue and fellowship, and to be willing to tolerate and {6} accept differences like the mode of baptism as ethnic rather than theological.

Our evident confusion of spiritual heritage with ethnicity may already have brought us to the point where we are in danger of losing both. To be a true church of Jesus Christ, our time to lose a particular ethnicity is long overdue. We should keep our borscht and German at home where it can be enjoyed with God’s blessing. But we should keep these things very scrupulously out of even our church basements if we want to be true to our Anabaptist heritage. No church that identifies itself with a particular ethnic strain is fulfilling its calling as a reconciling community of Christians.

Everyone’s ethnicity, pure or mixed, is OK, even if it is Prussian or Friesian or French Mennonite. But that ethnicity is a stumbling block in every church where it is elevated to a theology. On the other hand, very few congregations can avoid appealing to a particular ethnic sector and achieve a thorough pluralism within their ranks. The kind of ethnicity identifiable as middle class North American fundamentalism is from this viewpoint also less than satisfactory, because it falls into the same kind of trap that its proponents are trying to avoid: it simply becomes another ethnicity in theological garb. Ethnic traps will always lure the church, and they must always be guarded against.

It would be a most detrimental loss to the world of our time were we as Mennonite Christians to lose our Anabaptist roots and be set adrift in a vast sea of cultural and religious shallowness, bereft for ourselves and for others of the authentic and prophetic model of Christian faithfulness that call us to serve, to heal, and to reconcile people to God and to each other in a pluralistic, confused, broken society.


  1. For example, the arbitrary definition of race in South Africa in terms of Black, White, and Colored.
  2. Rudy Wiebe, “For the Mennonite Churches: A Last Chance” in A Voice in the Land: Essays by and about Rudy Wiebe, J.W. Keith, editor, NeWest Press: Edmonton, Alberta, 1981, p. 26.
  3. Wiebe, p. 27.
  4. Wiebe, p. 29.
  5. See the September 1982 issue of Mission Focus. Its three feature articles deal with Mennonite ethnicity and missions.
  6. Wiebe, p. 30.
Eric Mierau, a trained and field-experienced linguist, teaches in Contemporary Ministries at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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