Since the first couple of episodes of CBC’s Pure depicting Mennonites as drug runners from Mexico aired on Jan. 9, the temperature of our community’s righteous indignation has reached fever level.
The loudest voices so far are appalled at the conflation of two distinct groups (Old Colony Mennonites from Mexico and Old Order Mennonites in Ontario), poor research, a lack of accuracy, and perhaps most of all, strong objection to stereotyping us as drug-running murderers who in fact represent a tiny criminal element of an already small minority group. Make no mistake: the illegal drug trade is far from anything faithful Mennonites would enact.
There’s also some strong debate about whether our taxpayer-funded public broadcaster is deviating from its mandate, and what demoralizing factors led otherwise good folks to stoop to such deplorable measures. Others have expressed concern about increased scrutiny for church youth groups, volunteers and church workers crossing Canadian-U.S. border. But these are topics for another time.
John Longhurst, Winnipeg Free Press Faith Page columnist and blogger at On Faith Canada, asked me, “Does it matter what a TV show like this says about Mennonites? Or is there some danger here?”
My answer is “yes” and “no.” Some of us would say, “Who cares what Hollywood North says about us? Our reputation speaks for itself.” I believe the accumulated positive weight of our faith and the reputation of our churches and organizations that help locally and internationally with aid, relief, disaster assistance, poverty alleviation, feeding the hungry — and more — will in the long run overcome any negative impressions that viewing Pure may generate.
Others are angry and frustrated by the depiction and want to defend their communities or be defended by their church leaders. However, I think most viewers of Pure are sophisticated enough to recognize that, like any faith or ethnic group, there are good and bad elements in Mennonite communities.
One positive outcome for Mennonites of all flavors is that this show has the potential to make us more empathetic and sensitive to other groups subjected to stereotyping by the media and popular culture, such as First Nations or Muslim peoples.
A Mennonite friend of Asian descent recently shared a story with me. When she visits her mother-in-law in a Mennonite seniors home, residents regularly approach her and ask if she’s there to apply eye drops, or if she’s finished her shift. Other guests are not asked such presumptive questions in a city where a large number of Asian minorities are employed in the home care sector.
Clearly, we are not immune to stereotyping other groups. I hope Pure will help us reflect on what we are feeling. I hope it makes us more aware of our own assumptions of others.
A second positive outcome is that we may become more attuned to our own lapses of “purity” as a faith community. We don’t like to talk about leaders and pastors who have crossed appropriate boundaries with church members, or about our involvement in Indian Residential Schools. We don’t like to expose the skeletons in our collective closets.
But where will silence lead us?
When the Mormon church was put under the microscope with the controversial play The Book of Mormon, they responded by meeting the audience at theater entrances, explainer pamphlets in hand. They invited theater-goers to ask questions. They worked to put an alternative face on the controversy.
A third positive outcome is that we have an opportunity to share about our identity. While we may not like how our broader Mennonite community is portrayed in Pure, being in the public spotlight does give us the opportunity and perhaps a responsibility to engage our faith in unexpected ways. The intended audience of Pure likely knows very little about Mennonite faith or our various sub-groups. Annoyed, angry or defensive responses to inquirers, whether in private, in public or on social media, will not serve anyone well.
Let’s walk through the open door this presents with the honesty, integrity, sensitivity and grace of the one we claim to follow. We ache to set the record straight. Let’s do it in positive ways.
Dan Dyck is Director of Church Engagement – Communications for Mennonite Church Canada. This post first appeared at MC Canada’s website.