This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Showalter: Nondefensive ethnicity

This autumn I participated in a retreat for CMC overseers and bishops in Columbus, Ohio. Serving on a panel, I and others were asked to share our vision for CMC, a 13,000-member association of Mennonites scattered across the United States. I mentioned the importance of nondefensive ethnicity.

Richard Showalter

Afterward, an overseer who comes from a non-Mennonite background said: “I agree. It doesn’t offend me when Mennonites play the ‘Mennonite game,’ connecting the dots for relatives around the church. Some ‘cradle’ Mennonites, though, haven’t seemed to value my perspective much. They have seemed more interested in telling me their views than learning from me. I think Mennonites took a wrong turn when they began to define nonconformity as a huddled group with distinctive cultural practices rather than a global group gathered around Jesus.”

It is common for members of any ethnic, political or religious group to feel superior to those with whom they differ. It’s a universal human sin. Can we avoid this trap?

One way is to realize we are part of a global communion. Groups such as Mennonite World Conference foster this outlook. I am impressed with the eagerness of Anabaptists around the world to identify with MWC. Yet even this can translate into negative attitudes about Christians, including Anabaptists, who are not part of MWC.

Or we can jump to our common humanity. We say: “Let’s take good care of creation for the sake of the survival of all.” That’s laudable. Yet when others do not agree with our views, we become intolerant and critical.

It appears there is no escape from pride, disdain and hatred, whether on the political, ethnic or religious right, left or center. “All have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). Yet there is a way out. Jesus is the good news. God’s love breaks through beyond our cultures and transforms us.

How does non­defensive ethnicity happen? The rationale goes like this:

— God creates and puts us in families and ethnic groups (Gen. 1:26, 28; 2:24).

— As these groups multiply, diversity grows (Gen. 10:1-5; 11:6-9).

— These distinctions endure into eternity without condemnation (Rev. 7:9-10; 21:24; 22:1-2).

— Jesus leads us to a path of unconditional love, which includes those who are naturally or even sinfully different from us (Matt. 5:43-48; 22:37-40; 1 Peter 2:19-25).

— God’s goal for humanity is the creation of a new universal people (“ethnic group,” 1 Peter 2:9-10) that embraces the distinctions of ethnicities just as it includes differences of individual personalities and gifts (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-30).

Consequently, we shouldn’t deny or denigrate our cultural particularities but enjoy and celebrate them. The shame and critique with which European-background Anabaptists sometimes treat our ethnic identity mars our freedom in Christ.

There’s nothing wrong with singing “I Owe the Lord a Morning Song” instead of a contemporary worship tune. There’s nothing wrong with speaking Pennsylvania Dutch or Plautdietsch (Low German). Jesus speaks every language without accent.

We can gather unapologetically for worship, fellowship and good food in each local culture but remain centered in God’s intention for the unity of the whole creation in Christ (Col. 1:19-20).

A wholehearted embrace of both local (more ethnic) and global (more universal) groups is a step toward spiritual maturity.

Richard Showalter, of Irwin, Ohio, travels as an overseer, mentor, consultant and teacher in the U.S. and global church and is adjunct faculty at Bethany International University in Singapore.

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