A Table of Sharing: Mennonite Central Committee and the Expanding Networks of Mennonite Identity
ed. Alain Epp Weaver. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2011. 432 pages.
A Table of Sharing, edited by Alain Epp Weaver, is a diverse collection of essays reflecting on the history and work of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). The essays reflect a deep understanding of MCC’s work that makes critical analysis of MCC’s history possible. They are enriched by the firsthand MCC experience of many of the authors. The book comes at a particularly important time for MCC, a time of “new wine and new wineskins,” the culmination of a lengthy reflective process and reorganization.
The book begins by complexifying and diversifying the foundation narrative of MCC, a story that has traditionally focused on the work of Orie Miller. Esther Epp-Tiessen extends the narrative, for example, to include Mennonites in Canada, who were often concerned that MCC would challenge and interfere with the organizations they had worked to develop. Similarly, James Juhnke’s essay tells the story of cooperative efforts amongst Russian Mennonites in the United States, efforts which are not often included in the Orie Miller narrative.
MCC’s historic and contemporary relationship with its constituency is considered in four essays which study the diverse understandings of what MCC should be. An essay by Stanley Green and James Krabill neatly sums up this diversity in six missiological perspectives through the lens of the relationship of MCC’s mission to service and evangelism. The diversity revealed in these chapters demonstrates the ongoing challenge of MCC administrators who must balance the values of, and communicate their work to, an incredibly diverse spectrum of Anabaptists.
Two essays explore MCC’s fascinating, and occasionally troubled, relationship with issues of race and gender. Tobin Miller Shearer demonstrates that, while MCC has emphasized developing relationships with people overseas, there was considerable apprehension about relating to African Americans and Hispanics at home. For example, while MCC staff fostered connections with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the early 1960s civil rights campaigns, administrators pressured staff to not challenge white Mennonites too vocally, perhaps demonstrating an aversion within MCC to issues that seem too “political” at home.
Several essays in this collection focus primarily on MCC in the United States. Reading these articles from a Canadian perspective, I occasionally wondered how they would translate to a Canadian context. For example, Miller Shearer’s analysis of the American context is fascinating, and it would be interesting to study MCC in Canada while using that same lens by asking, for example, how MCC has related to Aboriginal people or other minorities within the Canadian context.
What does it mean to engage in international development by “caring in the name of Christ”? As the book demonstrates, MCC’s constituency often has an understanding of its role in development as diverse as its theology. Authors also seek to understand MCC’s work in an increasingly complex world of international relations and relief work. Of particular interest is the relationship of MCC, as a pacifist institution rooted in Anabaptist peace theology, to such modern concepts as the “right to protect,” which allow for military solutions to humanitarian crises. What A Table of Sharing makes clear is that despite, or perhaps because of, the shifting nature of international relations and development strategies, MCC’s relational approach remains essential for its work. These relationships have enabled staff to engage with so-called “enemies” and develop social capital, allowing MCC to care in the name of Christ.
A Table of Sharing also explores MCC’s expanding network of identity. However, one key component of this identity, the international partners and churches through and with whom much of MCC’s programming happens, is largely absent from this work. International development is discussed in numerous essays, but only from the perspective of MCC staff and MCC’s North American constituency. Some analysis of these relationships and understandings would have been a meaningful addition to this otherwise diverse collection.
Over the coming months, MCCs across North America will begin implementing the results of the New Wine/New Wineskins process. It is precisely at these times of transition that critical reflection is necessary. This is a time to understand MCC’s history, its historical relationship with a diverse constituency and with other organizations, and to explore its missiological and development purposes.
A Table of Sharing serves this purpose admirably. It provides a space for reflection, for constructive critique, and for sharing. The essays are generally engaging and illuminating, and provide the reader with a deeper understanding of a much-cherished institution.