We came to the party late. Mennonite Church USA created a national denominational superstructure just in time for the whole idea to crumble in Protestant circles. I still remember my hopeful response as we moved 20 years ago to a future of shared Mennonite Church/General Conference Mennonite Church realities. It seemed right and good, efficient and prudent, even holy to bring these movements together across geography, immigration waves and theology. It felt like the Spirit’s work.
That MC/GC merger was hard work. We hoped the tent would be wide and broad and that we’d all find shelter in a national body, though separate from the Canadians. MC USA was the largest organized Mennonite group in the country. We sought to bring the best of both in identity and polity. We thought there’d be something inherently good in doing this thing together.
Our historic centers now seem like shells of past lives. Nothing is produced in Scottdale, Pa. Folks in Newton, Kan., lament the loss of a power center to Elkhart, Ind. We’ve built a large new green building on the campus of our shared Midwestern seminary — a last vestige of shared, binational identity — as the Canadians still have some vested interest at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. We managed for a time even to include the vast Lancaster Mennonite Conference community, though it frayed at entrance and again at exit.
But times change swiftly. The disintegrations of postmodernity that undo social cohesion are upon us. It could be that our national structures on both sides of the border will be seen as towers of Babel rather than symbols of unity and strength.
Today I empathize with those who built that ancient tower. The urge to reach toward God through human structures seems ingrained in us. We are, after all, created in the image of God who created.
The Babel story tells us that in the collapse languages were confused. I see that today with words that trigger hair-raising responses, often splitting hairs on theological and ecclesiological practices. We find that even the words we use around peace, justice, evangelism and salvation raise hackles.
The political divisions outside us have always affected U.S. Mennonites — from the Funk division in eastern Pennsylvania that suggested allegiance with the revolutionary continental forces, to the severing of Virginia from the rest of her Mennonite kinfolk during the Civil War, to responses to the draft and military service across the great wars of the 20th century. We are now caught between the poles of Democrat and Republican.
Pentecost reverses Babel’s struggle, though the Spirit’s inbreaking initially seemed more drunken confusion than divine revelation. I keep looking and waiting for it.
I keep trying to find words that speak the gospel of salvation and peace while it feels like the tower of American Mennonitism is collapsing. I feel less bound to keep the structure intact and more to figure out what to do with the pieces that remain.
God, who began this good work, is faithful to complete it. I find myself repeating these words these days. God sustains this work and carries it into fulfillment. Sometimes it’s a story of death and resurrection.
I still hear the invitation to a faith so strong that mountains move and storms calm while towers and empires around us fall once again.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.