A decade ago I was startled—and then chagrined—when a well-meaning Mennonite leader from Manitoba said to me, “Thomas. That’s not a Mennonite name, is it?”
I was startled because there were lots of Thomases scattered among the Mennonite congregations where I grew up. I was chagrined—OK, offended—because our clan can trace its Mennonite roots to 1747, when Adam Thomas and his family arrived in Philadelphia and settled in southern Lancaster (Pa.) County. The name Thomas has existed longer among Mennonites on this continent than have most of the Mennonite names in Canada.
But this incident focused a nettlesome question: Are we Mennonite by birth and family name?
Similarly, researcher Conrad Kanagy set off a small controversy among our readers when, in a Feb. 6, 2007, article we published, he used the descriptor “noncradle Mennonite”—neither parent being Mennonite. This suggested, then, that a “cradle Mennonite” is someone born to at least one Mennonite parent.
Although not Kanagy’s intention, linking Mennonite identity to parentage can suggest that it is a birthright. But the problem is that someone is not Anabaptist until he or she makes a public declaration of faith and is baptized as a believer. Mennonite identity also rests on membership and active participation in a Mennonite congregation.
So what does that mean for our siblings and children who are not baptized? Are they still Mennonite? What does it say about siblings and children who are baptized but turn their backs on the church? Are they still Mennonite? Two women published their thoughts about this question in our January issue.
A young adult, writing for the inaugural New Voices column, confronted those of us from white European backgrounds. She laid down a challenge to those who rely inappropriately on a “cradle Mennonite” identity. Janet Trevino-Elizarraraz did so as she reflected on her struggles with Mennonite identity as a Mexican- American.
“How do I define myself as a Mennonite when I don’t perceive that I belong?” Janet said. “Who has the authority to extend the identity of Mennonite to ‘outsiders’? Is this a decision I get to make, or does someone give it to me once I’ve jumped through the right hoops?”
Letter-writer Joy Kauffman answered the question by reminding us of the words of Mennonite Mission Network executive director Stanley Green (Leadership, Nov. 4, 2008).
“Some claim Mennonite identity even when they are not members of a church or make a confession of following Jesus,” Green said. “This preoccupation with a cultural Mennonite identity flies in the face of our confession of faith not defined by allegiances of ethnicity or race.”
But might the Thomas family’s 263 years of Mennonite faithfulness in this country count for something? Or what about the other half of my parentage: the myriad Miller tribes—mostly Amish—in and around Kalona, Iowa?
No. They count for nothing.
Our cover story illustrates what it means to be a Mennonite. Penelope Moon joined a Mennonite congregation about three years ago. We count her as a Mennonite. Our siblings and children not baptized into and members of this fellowship are not yet members. Strong as family bonds are, it is not really possible to be “almost Mennonite.”