Previous | Next

Fall 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 2 · pp. 228–230 

Book Review

Service and Ministry: A Missiological History of Mennonite Central Committee

Alain Epp Weaver. North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2020. 128 pages.

Reviewed by Royden Loewen

Alain Epp Weaver concludes this insightful missiological history of MCC with reference to a 1945 challenge for MCC to “humbly yet joyfully continue in the work” in the future. This pitch by P. C. Hiebert, an early MCC leader, also illuminates Epp Weaver’s interpretive verve in this book. Indeed, it “humbly but joyfully” critiques MCC’s 100-year history. It does this all in a space of 126 pages, a short book reproducing Epp Weaver’s 2019 Menno Simons lectures at Bethel College. Significantly, those centenary lectures do not constitute a general history of MCC at 100. In fact, there is less primary source research at the base of this book than a survey of key secondary sources and those that shed light on the missiological underpinnings of MCC. Nor does Epp Weaver take the role of an unbiased interpreter of those events. As International Program Director, the author’s analysis of MCC’s history reflects its current developmental policy and philosophy. To that end Epp Weaver also liberally positions himself and his own work with MCC within the text. As insider, Epp Weaver may have his biases, but he cannot be blamed for white-washing MCC. At the center of the book’s agenda is a critical evaluation of MCC’s missiological vision. {229}

Epp Weaver begins the book by outlining what is “Christian” about MCC. He embraces MCC’s contemporary concern with human reconciliation, arising from the challenge of 2 Corinthians 5 for those “in Christ” to engage in a “ministry of reconciliation” (2). He juxtaposes that concern to more traditional concerns in Christian development philosophy, including obedience to Christ or Christ-initiated love. In the section that follows, Epp Weaver celebrates a shifting matrix of “imagined landscapes” of service (16). He cites MCC’s success in making connections: to Indigenous peoples in the Americas, to the colonized in the Global South, to policy makers in rich capitals, to Mennonites of distinctive backgrounds, to partnerships with local churches. The result is “a rhizome-like network in which MCC keeps expanding outward. . . . from multiple nodes” (24).

The central idea of creating “intimate relationships” with local communities also structures Epp Weaver’s most explicitly historical chapter. Again, here is a certain joyous celebration of “an expansion of MCC’s understanding” of service, “build[ing] on strengths of local communities” (63). The “expansion” is one that took MCC past old missiological impulses. In the 1920s it was service to the Glaubensgenossen, the “brethren in the faith” in civil war-ravaged Soviet Union, an impulse that held sway until the post-war period. Other impulses came and went, seen in women who practiced “active Christian love” (49), in Conscientious Objectors who demonstrated “self-sacrifice” (48), and even in post-war, anti-communist volunteers seeking to “witness positively for Christ” (57). In this rendition, MCC came of age when it began focusing on reconciliation. With it came an expanded humanitarian concern, now committed to a “two-way dimension of service” (60). overcoming “self-righteousness” and newly committed to “listening,” and seeking to be a “facilitator of ideas” rather than a “generator of ideas” (99). Significantly, MCC now turned to an ecumenical spirituality of service in which connectedness to people of other faiths and cultures became a life-giving reward.

This joyful exposé of achievement, of course, has a flip side, namely, the “humble” rendition of failure. Indeed, the book is honest of the many moments MCC has engaged in “humble learning” (41). We find it in its confessional tone, acknowledging the colonialist past and MCC’s historic blindness to such power structures, both explicit and implicit. The book is “humble” in its recognition that, as its early century logo indicated, the assistance provided was often a top-down effort, driven by paternalism and pity, rather than respect and empathy. “Humble learning” (41) is evident as MCC began recognizing that in much of its early work, especially in South America in the 1940s and 50s, and later in North America, it had not fully been aware of Indigenous-settler relations that undergirded its {230} efforts. But Epp Weaver also acknowledges shortcomings that continue long after MCC’s turn to reconciliation. He describes MCC’s troubled anti-racist initiatives and its overly zealous penchant for an empathetic “standing alongside” at the expense of addressing human suffering.

Certainly when P. C. Hiebert spoke about a humble but joyful continuation for MCC on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary he did not imagine the trajectory Epp Weaver has laid out on the occasion of MCC’s 100th anniversary. Most startling for Hiebert might be the way Epp Weaver interprets 2 Corinthians. For one, this search for reconciliation often has patently non-Anabaptist roots and draws from an eclectic global discourse of development. It can be seen in Lisa Malkki’s depiction of the Finnish Red Cross’s commitment to work “out of a kind of fragility [to] . . . discover connection with others” (9). More broadly it draws from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the idea of “conscientization” and the commitment to forgo the alienating power that arises when experts “control decisions or the flow of information” (106). Indeed, the search for a “reconciliation of all in Christ” (22), within an ecumenical framework is a sharp departure from earlier commitments to simply feed the hungry “in the name of Christ.” Whether this approach succeeds in addressing the debilitating, class-based scourge of poverty that drove Freire or whether MCC would have developed into the world-wide, respected developmental agency with such a focus may be contentious. Clearly Epp Weaver would welcome this debate, joyously and humbly!

Royden Loewen
Senior Scholar
University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Previous | Next