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July 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 3 · pp. 39–42 

Book Review

Mennonite Peoplehood: A Plea for New Initiatives

Frank H. Epp. Waterloo, ON: Conrad, 1977. 120 pages.

Reviewed by Paul Toews

The occasion for this book is the contradictory presence in the 1970s of Mennonite celebrations and anniversaries, which affirm Mennonite peoplehood, and the structural/institutional problems which threaten Mennonite peoplehood.

Frank Epp’s concern for Mennonite peoplehood is well known. He has spent much of his adult life nurturing a sense of peoplehood. He is one of our premier historians. He has tried more than others to bridge the divisions in the Mennonite world. He has appreciative sympathies and understandings for the Mennonite Church (Old Mennonite), General Conference Mennonites, and Mennonite Brethren.

Mennonite Peoplehood traces the emergence of the people consciousness and its current relationship to religious structures and nationality. The past fifty years produced an explosion in Mennonite institutions. We are part of the organizational-bureaucratic revolution of the modern world. That revolution which once gave life and vitality may now signal suffocation. Epp says it well: “One senses a weariness with business as usual. The old programs are wearing thin. Some institutions, which once were highways for the church, now find themselves in deep ruts. The Mennonite structural burden is becoming almost unbearable, as complexification continues without any plans for simplification down the road. The energies of leadership are sapped by the inertia of the status quo.”

The seriousness of the issue is hard to evade. Mennonite Brethren of the United States gathered in Rosedale recently to search for new structures. Inter-Mennonite groups meet in various places to sort out the American-Canadian shape of MCC. The tenth Mennonite World Conference in Wichita in 1978 will call for realignment of the larger Mennonite world. Epp says this is the time for new initiatives in the following areas:

“1) reestablishing the theological and cultural foundations of peoplehood, and flexibility in the structures; 2) identifying and deepening the commonalities among the people in our congregations, in our denominations and in our nations, and beyond all of these; 3) rediscovering the idea of Christian unity and doing something about it; 4) dealing with national realities and national mission from the Anabaptist perspective, partly through appropriate {40} restructuring of our peoplehood; 5) revising our strategy of helping the third world and our structures to allow for true partnership; 6) extending the borders of peoplehood within and without the Mennonite family” (p. 13).

Epp focuses the need for new initiatives by addressing North America/World relationships in general and Canadian/American issues in particular. Virtually every chapter surfaces the latter tension. In both cases the need is for structural realignment. The present institutions do not reflect the multi-national Mennonite world. North Americans dominate the Mennonite world community and Americans dominate North America.

Epp reminds us that the church inevitably takes some of its cues from the surrounding culture. We are not just Christians—but certain kinds (Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, Anabaptist)—and not just Mennonites but Canadian, American, Brazilian, Indian, and many other national Mennonites. The people of God are always suspended between the need to transcend nationality and the inability of ever doing so. The church has both a transcendent and cultural referent. While our theology calls us to separation from the national culture, we are a people in the world and we have worked hard at fashioning a religious system acceptable to our various host societies.

For American Mennonites to suggest it has not happened is to err on two counts: 1) By pretending the church and we as a people are transnational we evade the national mission that is ours as a national church. By pretending not to be an American church we do not take the national agenda seriously. 2) By pretending that our religious institutions and structures are transnational we easily become cultural imperialists. We go forth in the name of Jesus only to find that foreign people see us as Americans.

It so happens that most of the institutions serving the Mennonite people of Canada and the US are south of the 49th parallel (schools, mission offices, publishing houses, conference offices). We think they are Mennonite places. The Canadians remind us that they are also American places. Our intent that they be continental rather than national does not make them so.

Epp suggests two solutions for this confusion. One is to internationalize the national (in this case American) based institutions; the second is to recognize the national as national and create truly continental and international ones. He clearly finds the latter the more attractive alternative. It is less susceptible to the national seductions. He suggests it is the Mennonite Brethren way whereas other Mennonites chose the lesser way. We Mennonite Brethren come out being the progressives. (It is an attractive explanation of 1954, but {41} probably a half-truth. At issue were also conflicting immigrant mentalities and generations).

This discussion of national Mennonites, while not the whole of Mennonite Peoplehood, is the center and is most perplexing. Epp has a truth to share, but there is a counter-truth, perhaps even three counter positions. (1) We are the people of Hillsboro and Steinbach, not of Washington and Ottawa. The national reality is part of us, but the ethnic is a larger part. The rhythms of Steinbach and Hillsboro are probably more common than different. Our historic pre-occupation with separateness from national culture need not be replaced by an analytical model which makes Mennonites pale reflections of their various national histories.

(2) Epp calls for a recognition of particularity as the ground for an authentic universality. True Mennonite internationalism will be built only when we accept the reality of Mennonite nationality. This is the application of the recently popular doctrine of pluralism to the Mennonite world. There is a renewed ethnicity and tribalism in the Western world. The social science theories that social systems move from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, from diversity to uniformity, are increasingly on the defensive. The doctrine of pluralism appeals to individuality and uniqueness. It stresses what people do not share. Both positions describe a social reality and both are part of the Epp consciousness. At stake is the way in which the two realities are related. That way changes with social location and the tides of history. American ideology has historically been uniformitarian, insisting on the appropriateness of our institutions and ways for other peoples. Nations with a growing self-consciousness usually affirm their uniqueness and the need for institutions to reflect those distinctives. Both positions in the end are nationalistic and are the distortions of particular times.

(3) There is something troublesome in the Epp theology. It is one thing to recognize the national content of the church. It is another thing to more clearly structure the church along national lines. However much that rids the church of a false religious imperialism, it also has its dangers. National churches detaching from larger ties (even when only to re-enter on the basis of parity) do have a history of being seduced by the state. Surely the American church is a primary example of that perversion. Once too much of world Christianity was English. Now too much is American. Epp is right that too much of world Mennonitism is hinged to America. But will it be any purer when hinged to any other nation-state? There is a peculiarly American problem at work but the larger problem is the nation-state.

Part of the gift Mennonites have received is a clear vision of the Church’s need to transcend nationality of any kind. We Americans {42} more than others need to exercise that gift. But our Canadian brothers and sisters also need to exercise the gift.

The caveats notwithstanding, this is an important book. Its reflections on the shape of the Mennonite world are insightful. The crisis he points to is real. The institutional and national burdens will not disappear. They will require the best of us if we are to survive as a people. Epp’s suggestions are important starting places for discussion and action. His vision is an ecumenical one. It can knit the diverse Mennonite world into an effective partnership. His hope for Mennonite peoplehood is spacious.

Paul Toews
Fresno Pacific College, Fresno, California

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