Previous | Next

Spring 2020 · Vol. 49 No. 1 · pp. 42–51 

A Mennonite Call to Simplicity

Ken Martens Friesen

In 1998 a documentary movie came out, titled “Affluenza.” It was not a blockbuster, but it did feature a young Scott Simon from National Public Radio. Affluenza, it said, is the disease of affluence. Many people can “catch” it because they are subjected to thousands of commercials every year, have easy access to consumer credit, and sensitive to peer pressure to “keep up with the Joneses.” Affluenza convinces people that they have many unmet “needs” and that their acquired material goods, though abundant and more plentiful than at any time in human history, are just not adequate. The result of affluenza is a hollowing out rather than a filling up of unmet needs. The film argues that the disease of affluenza is afflicting virtually all people of North America and Europe and now is spreading to most developing countries around the world because of clever marketing and the influence of television (the film was made before the widespread adoption of the internet).

Rather than shunning that part of our heritage, it would be wise for us to learn from it.

Affluenza, the documentary suggested, has extremely negative effects on the individual, as well on societies and the planet. On an individual level affluenza leads to a feeling of constant dissatisfaction and need. On a societal level it leads to separation rather than unification of people, as shopping takes priority over spending time simply being together or {43} volunteering for a nonprofit. And at a global level affluenza leads to a planet that is increasingly overrun by trash, air and water pollution, and rising temperatures, as humans consume and produce far more than our planet is capable of sustaining.

Though now showing its age in identifying the “needs” of the day as a VCR and a desktop computer, the documentary is more relevant than ever. Significantly, the film also had much to say about how to resist the affluenza virus. Embedded in the film were stories of communities of people throughout North America who were combating this disease. It highlighted Christian communities, both past and present, that rejected the materialism around them and dedicated themselves to realizing a simpler, alternative way of life diametrically opposed to the false notion that having more “stuff” translates into fulfillment.

ANABAPTIST SIMPLICITY?

As I watched the film in preparation for a class on environmental ethics, I wondered why Anabaptists were not mentioned as examples of contemporary Christian groups who demonstrated a life of simplicity. After all, the historic roots of the Anabaptist faith called Mennonites to live in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, unconcerned about worldly possessions and trusting in God to clothe and feed them. The persecution of Anabaptists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often made that ethic of simplicity a requirement, as Anabaptists lived on the margins of society, worrying about their survival rather than dreaming of bigger barns. Through the next centuries most Mennonites throughout Europe and North America adhered closely to that call for a life of simplicity, shunning the worldly ways of other Christian and secular groups, which Mennonites viewed as less godly than they. True, Mennonites sometimes cast judgmental stones at other Mennonites or outsiders for being too “worldly” because they wore a shirt with buttons or a dress that was too colorful or drove a car with a chrome bumper. And numerous Mennonites in prior generations in Switzerland, Prussia, and the Ukraine became successful farmers and townspeople, and were quickly encumbered by their wealth. Yet the biblical ethic of simplicity remained central to the Anabaptist movement, even as the gradual process of assimilation into North American culture eroded the more hardline understandings of what simplicity meant.

What happened to that ethic of simplicity among Mennonites? Like most other groups in North American society, the period after World War 2 was a generally prosperous one for Mennonites. Whether growing up on a farm in rural Pennsylvania or in a California or Canadian city, Mennonites benefitted from steady economic growth during the three {44} “golden decades” from the end of World War 2 to the mid-1970s. The median family income in the United States rose from about $25,000 in 1950 to almost $40,000 in 1975. 1 Consumerism and convenience became mainstream. While Mennonites may have lagged a few years behind in adopting new modern technologies, they eventually bought the latest blender, television, and washing machine. Increasingly, they were indistinguishable from their more “worldly” Christian neighbors as the subtle desire for “more” outpaced their theology of more-with-less.

There was a significant effort in the 1960s and ’70s to reinvigorate the call to simplicity. For some Mennonites the call for Christian community combined with simplicity attracted them to places like Reba Place, the Sojourners Community, and Koinonia Farm. At the very least Mennonites were attracted to simplicity through food in Doris Janzen Longacre’s best-selling More-with-Less Cookbook, first published in 1976. Far more than a recipe book, it was filled with suggestions on consuming fewer resources, cognizant of the fact that the world’s food and other resources were being overused in the northern hemisphere. The success of the book (reportedly the best-selling work of any written by a Mennonite) led to the sequel, Living More-with-Less, which more explicitly dwelled on the topic of concrete ways of living more simply in a world filled with consumerism, enormous inequity, and great injustice.

The interest in simplicity was short-lived. Today, most Mennonites are thoroughly acculturated and feel at home in the North American consumer-driven economic system. Like the vast majority of North Americans, they shop for rather than grow their food, buy rather than make their own clothes, and throw away most of their old household appliances rather than hand them down to the next generation. If one were to drive down a typical North American street it would be a challenge to pick out homes lived in by Mennonites, unless their front yards had “You are Welcome Here” signs in English, Spanish, and Arabic. The Mennonite distinctives of peacemaking, nonviolence, community, and service still set many Anabaptists apart from the wide swath of evangelical Christianity that dominates the religious landscape of North America. Except for the more communal Mennonite groups, however, North American Anabaptist Mennonites have almost completely abandoned the historical emphasis on simplicity.

The theological roots of Anabaptist simplicity have been well documented. Menno Simons and other early Anabaptists were known for their simplicity, humility, and peace, a life born out of the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. Anabaptists enshrined the notion of simplicity in their early regulations. The Strasbourg Conference of 1568 stated that “tailors and seamstresses shall hold to the plain and simple style and shall make nothing at all for pride’s sake” and “brethren and sisters shall {45} stay by the present form of our regulation concerning apparel and make nothing for pride’s sake.” 2

NOT A SIMPLE PROBLEM

Over the centuries Anabaptists have articulated what that life looks like. In the middle of the twentieth century John Wenger, professor of theology and philosophy at Goshen College Seminary, expounded this theology in his book, Christian Simplicity of Life and Scriptural Nonconformity to the World. 3 More recently Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist reminded readers of the importance of radical economic simplicity in the early Anabaptist movement. 4 Anabaptists’ rejection of personal property was as great a threat to the state as their rejection of arms to defend national interests. Anabaptists emphasized emulating the teachings of Jesus and the radical discipleship of the early church. Jesus’s warning that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt 6:21), was taken to its logical conclusion, leading early Anabaptists to share their meager possessions with those around them. The clues given in Acts about the communal nature of the early church also led many Anabaptists to hold things in common and share with those in need.

The local, national, and global problems that “affluenza” has spawned are evident all around us, yet there seem to be few Anabaptist voices today reminding us of our historic interest in simplicity and warning us of the consequences of losing our heritage. Rather than recalling the faithfulness of past generations and the importance of remaining rooted in the faith, we have collectively shrugged our shoulders and assumed that this is one tenet that need not be followed.

This is happening at a time when our present national and global economic system has brought us significant environmental problems. Though the problems are numerous, three well represent what our lack of concern over limits has engendered: global climate change, the explosion of plastics, and the proliferation of electronic waste.

Climate Change

The problem of climate change stands as perhaps the largest challenge ever to confront the human race. The increase of average temperatures by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century will result in drastically changing patterns of food production, a rise in sea levels by one to four feet, more intense weather patterns producing more severe droughts and more powerful hurricanes, and much more. Climate change is, at its core, the result of a world driven by the unrestrained consumption of an ever-increasing number of goods without concern for what the energy released by their production and use does to the global environment. {46}

The carbon-based energy system we have grown completely dependent on has created the problem of climate change. The United States burns seven billion barrels of oil each year to power our cars and trucks; this releases over five billion metric tons of carbon-dioxide into the air. Likewise, the United States burned almost 700 million tons of coal and more than thirty trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2018, mostly to produce electricity for heat and power. Over the past century the total coal, natural gas, and oil used in America’s industrial processes have collectively produced almost one-quarter of the world’s total greenhouse gases.

China recently became the largest emitter of carbon dioxide on the planet. This is largely because it now produces most of the world’s goods and is increasingly home to newly middle-class Chinese eager for the same comforts and conveniences that people in the West have long enjoyed. Following close behind China is the world’s second most populous country, India, with its own emerging middle class with its own appetite for all manner of consumer goods.

Climate change is, in part, the offspring of our over-industrialized development paradigm and the belief that there are no limits and few downsides to an ever-expanding national and global economy. Yet what we see all around us are what economists call “negative externalities,” things that are by-products of our economic system but not factored into the actual cost of the price of goods produced and sold each year. Of the many negative externalities in our economic system, two of the largest problems are disposing of plastics and recycling electronic waste.

Plastics

Our world has been taken over by plastic, the vast majority of which cannot be recycled. Plastic, distilled from crude oil and created from one of the resulting compounds called naphtha, is ultimately a product that will be with us for thousands of years because it cannot naturally degrade. Plastic products account for almost 20 percent of all landfills and include everything from bags to diapers to shower curtains. 5 Americans purchase and throw away 50 billion single-use plastic water bottles every year and 100 billion single-use plastic bags. 6 Our lifestyle produces an average of a half-pound of plastic every day. 7 Virtually all plastic is made from crude oil and will ultimately end up in a landfill. Plastics disposed of near oceans have a chance of becoming part of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” This oceanic garbage patch is a composite of many swirling caldrons of industrialized garbage—from microplastics to large floating objects—and is twice as large as the state of Texas. 8 When fish, sea turtles, sea birds, sharks, whales, and other creatures consume microplastics, the consequences can be devasting. More than 100,000 sea turtles and birds {47} die every year as a result. 9 The toxins in plastics create serious problems at every link in the food chain and eventually harm even human beings.

While the problem of plastics is particularly acute in our oceans, our land has been impacted as well. Our industrialized agricultural system has produced more than enough food for the entire world, and we should be very thankful it does. People go hungry in the world today not because too little food is produced but because of the economics of our food distribution system and how we prefer to consume the calories we produce. Americans and increasingly the middle classes in developing countries prefer to consume calories after they have been fed to animals like cattle, hogs, or poultry. The result is an extremely inefficient food production system that contributes both to climate change and environmental degradation on an industrial scale. The concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) commonly used in North America are estimated to contribute 18 percent of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. 10 Cattle, for example, are quite inefficient at turning the feed grain or grass they eat into meat. One pound of beef requires feeding an animal about 20 pounds of grain and roughly two thousand gallons of water. 11 (Pork and chicken are not as inefficient as cattle because they are smaller animals.) Digestive inefficiencies produce significant quantities of methane in bovine intestinal systems. Since methane is a potent greenhouse gas, the beef we eat turns out to be a great deal more harmful to the environment than we might imagine. A cow will produce almost 100 pounds of methane a year, so a lot of methane is made by the world’s 1.5 billion cattle! While researchers are developing ways to reduce the methane output of beef and dairy cattle by changing their diet, the enormous scale of livestock production means that a solution capable of making a large dent in the volume of greenhouse gas emissions still eludes us.

Electronic Waste

Another often unnoticed environmental problem on a global scale is electronic waste (e-waste). The billions of electronic products sold each year around the world—the vast majority of which are bought by consumers in North America, Europe, and parts of Asia—have a very limited life cycle. Built-in obsolescence is assumed by producers and consumers, whether the product is a one-thousand-dollar computer or television or, increasingly, large durable items like washing machines and refrigerators. Obsolescence is caused by two factors: (1) rapidly evolving technology encourages the belief that a perfectly good product only a few years old is outdated and must be replaced by a new, more technologically advanced one, and (2) a small electronic flaw in an electronic component renders the machine useless. The result is a massive throwaway of goods that {48} are still perfectly useable. How big is the problem? In North America 7 million tons of e-waste were produced in 2016, which averages to roughly 35 pounds per person. That was nearly one-sixth of the world’s total of nearly 45 million tons of e-waste, a figure expected to grow to 50 million tons by 2020. 12

If e-waste were recycled some of its contents could at least be reused. But only an estimated 17 percent of e-waste in North America is recycled. More than 40 percent of e-waste from North America and Europe ends up in countries like China (until it banned e-waste imports in 2017), India, West Africa, and Southeast Asia. 13 Keyboards, motherboards, computer screens, cellphones, and hundreds of other components are shipped to these countries, supposedly to be disassembled and recycled. Yet the reality is that the operations in those countries are often toxic waste nightmares, with burning heaps of toxic chemicals spewing dangerous chemicals into the air, seeping into the soil, and draining into the local water supply. The health and safety of millions of poor people is put at risk because of our inability to properly recycle these products. This reality is a “negative externality” of any electronic product. Our economic system does not factor in this “externality,” however. The health and welfare of those sorting and burning the e-waste to extract tiny bits of copper and gold are not part of the cost factored into the price consumers pay for the product.

Climate change, overuse of plastics, and electronic waste confront us today with increasing urgency. Climate change is clearly the most serious threat, as climate scientists sound the alarm bells for an imminent global catastrophe. These three issues, of course, are not the only ones needing our attention. We could have delved into food waste, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, clothing manufacturing and waste, water scarcity and pollution, natural resource depletion, and many others.

A RENEWED ANABAPTIST ETHIC OF SIMPLICITY

The problems of consumerism and over-industrialization today are on a scale that would have been incomprehensible to Anabaptists wrestling with what simplicity meant in the sixteenth century, or even in the middle of the twentieth. They stem from a fundamental mismatch between the ecological reality of limits and an economic “frontier” mentality that ignores all limits. This mentality assumes that there are no resource limits, that growth must be never-ending, and that economics can ignore things like environmental impact because they are “external” to its narrow purview.

What would a renewed Anabaptist ethic of simplicity make of the profound environmental issues we confront today? An ethic of simplicity would strongly reject the frontier economic paradigm of unlimited {49} resources, unlimited growth, and unlimited space for waste. An Anabaptist ethic begins with the ecological reality that the created order is given to us to be cared for, and part of that caring is to accept the notion of unbreachable “fences” or limits in our world. The paradigm is rooted in the concept of shalom, wholeness, which puts greater value on a thriving created order than on a value-bankrupt economic system, and which assumes that a healthy natural environment is the starting point of an economic system rather than a mere “externality” valued only for what can be extracted from it. The story of the fall of Adam and Eve symbolizes our refusal to accept the limits God set on the human race. But before the fall, humans accepted their position in the created natural order and lived happily and responsibly in the garden that was created for their use.

What would it look like to see Mennonites live responsibly in the created order today? The notion of an “ecological footprint” gives us a good starting point. An ecological footprint is a method of determining how much of the earth’s resources we are using. Various websites and environmental groups have differing ways of calculating that footprint, but all suggest that the amount of natural resources we use in our homes, at work, in transportation, and in the goods we consume provide a measurement of how responsibly we are living as individuals, families, communities, and countries. 14 Comparing the quantity of natural resources we consume with the quantity of resources actually available can help us determine whether our consumption is sustainable over time.

Not surprisingly, all the calculators of ecological footprints of people in North America and Europe suggest that we are living far beyond our ecological means. The results are startling. Ecological Footprint Calculator (www.footprintcalculator.org), for example, suggests that if every person in the world was (1) part of a meat-eating family of four, (2) living in a freestanding 2000-square-foot house with air-conditioning, (3) getting most of their energy from nonrenewable sources, (4) generating several cubic feet of trash every week while recycling very little, (5) traveling 1000 miles every month in a car that gets 30 miles per gallon, (6) neither carpooling nor taking public transportation, and (7) flying several times a year, they would consume about four times the resources that the earth has to offer.

The Anabaptist ethic of simplicity would embrace the idea of the small footprint not just as an ecological idea but as an Anabaptist ideal. The idea behind the footprint is that we are all part of one large community in which all must take care of one another. Our collective footprint, if figuratively trampling over others, reflects on our sense of caring for others created in God’s image. An Anabaptist ethic of simplicity brings God’s love for others to the core of our concern for the world and living responsibly in it. {50}

Ironically, we have largely shunned that ethic in our rush to become “relevant” to the world around us. Much like Cain selling his birthright for a bowl of porridge we have sold an integral part of our heritage in the hope of being accepted by the surrounding culture. Rather than shunning that part of our heritage it would be wise for us to learn from it. The world is calling out for answers to its increasingly difficult environmental problems. Anabaptists have historically had answers. They are worth learning again.

NOTES

  1. “United States Median Household Income: 1950-1990,” https://web.stanford.edu/class/polisci120a/immigration/Median%20Household%20Income.pdf.
  2. Global Anabaptist Wiki, s.v. “Strasbourg Discipline (South German Anabaptist, 1568),” last modified March 24, 2016, 14:17, https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Strasbourg_Discipline_(South_German_Anabaptist,_1568).
  3. John Christian Wenger, Separated unto God: A Plea for Christian Simplicity of Life and for a Scriptural Nonconformity to the World (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1955).
  4. Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2015), chap. 8.
  5. “Plastics: Material-Specific Data,” Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling, United States Environmental Protection Agency, last updated October 30, 2019, https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data.
  6. “Fact Sheet: Single-Use Plastics,” Earth Day Network (blog), March 29, 2018, https://www.earthday.org/2018/03/29/fact-sheet-single-use-plastics/.
  7. “Impact of Plastics on Human Health and Ecosystems,” News-Medical.net, March 20, 2010, https://www.news-medical.net/news/20100320/Impact-of-plastics-on-human-health-and-ecosystems.aspx.
  8. Laurent Lebreton, et al., “Evidence That the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Rapidly Accumulating Plastic,” Scientific Reports 8, no. 1 (March 22, 2018): 1–15, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-22939-w.
  9. Gianna Andrews, “Plastics in the Ocean Affecting Human Health,” Geology and Human Health Case Studies, Teach the Earth, last modified January 13, 2020, https://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/health/case_studies/plastics.html.
  10. Francis Vergunst and Julian Savulescu, “Five Ways the Meat on Your Plate Is Killing the Planet,” The Conversation, 26 April 2017, http://theconversation.com/five-ways-the-meat-on-your-plate-is-killing-the-planet-76128.
  11. Kai Olson-Sawyer, “Meat’s Large Water Footprint: Why Raising Livestock and Poultry for Meat Is so Resource-Intensive,” Food Tank (blog), https://foodtank.com/news/2013/12/why-meat-eats-resources/; see also Vergunst and Savulescu, “Five Ways.” {51}
  12. Rick LeBlanc, “E-Waste Recycling Facts and Figures,” The Balance Small Business, last modified January 14, 2020, https://www.thebalancesmb.com/e-waste-recycling-facts-and-figures-2878189.
  13. “E-Waste Chokes Southeast Asia,” Basel Action Network, November 5, 2018, https://www.ban.org/news/2018/11/5/e-waste-chokes-southeast-asia.
  14. See, among others, Global Footprint Network, http://www.footprintcalculator.org/; Carbon Footprint, https://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx; United States EPA, https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/; and Conservation International, https://www.conservation.org/carbon-footprint-calculator#/.
Ken Martens Friesen is Associate Professor of History and International Studies at Fresno Pacific University, where his classes often intersect politics, history, economics, and the environment. Outside academic life, he dabbles in renewable energy solutions and attempts to have his house and car emit close to net zero emissions.

Previous | Next