Ben Goossen, a scholar examining the relationship of Mennonite identity and German nationalism, said at Mennonite World Conference, “It is important to understand that playing ‘The Mennonite Game’ [and celebrating certain ethnic ties] means having something in common with Nazi race scientists.”
Is it possible to connect with our grandfather’s cousin’s kids without becoming elitists? When does feeling good about heritage become arrogant and destructive?
Many of us have experienced both the fun of connections and the unpleasant sidelining associated with “The Mennonite Game.” As an Iowa transplant, I soon get lost somewhere between Fannie’s Corner and Simon Gingerich’s fourth cousin.
A sense of belonging is part of being human. The danger comes when belonging morphs into exclusion. “The Mennonite Game” can turn into an us-and-them exercise. We want to be part of the “in” group. We like being recognized as somebody, which can imply we are better than others.
Vying to be the best is an old story. Jesus’ disciples argue about it (Mark 9:33). Peter, James and John claim status based on their presence at the Transfiguration. Matthew, the tax collector, asserts superiority because of his connection to people in power. Simon the Zealot looks down at the others for their lack of revolutionary zeal. Judas defends pre-eminence based on control of the money bag.
Jesus’ response to “The Greatest Game” is a declaration that whoever wants to be first must be last and must become a servant to others. Jesus tells the disciples to get over their concern for status and become like a status-less child (Mark 9:35-36).
It’s easy to be “me”-centered. It’s easy to divide people into us and them. It’s easy to accept the benefits of having the right name. For some Mennonites this meant benefiting from Nazi ideals. Their Aryan blood came with advantages. Some privileges come in bloody wrappings.
Privileges handed to some Ukrainian Mennonites came at the expense of farms and homes taken from Poles or murdered Jews. In the U.S., good farmland here in Iowa came at the expense of the displaced Sauk, Mesquakie and other earlier tribes. Looking closely at our privileges can reveal who paid or is paying the cost.
It’s easy to criticize those who accepted privileges handed out by the Nazis. It’s harder to see the system we live in. Many of us live with privileges we don’t even notice. We are handed “good” names, “good” educations and “good” jobs while others are relegated to the margins.
We can’t change our family roots, but we can be aware of our privileges and what costs come wrapped with them. We live in a system designed to divide those with power from those without. But Jesus turns it upside down.
Jesus’ call for reversing status upsets the usual social rivalries. It calls for a new Mennonite game where we race to be nobodies. Where congregations go all-out to give everyone a voice regardless of his or her bloodline and social status. Where churches notice the cost of privilege and passionately speak against oppression. Where church communities begin living as if the world’s power structures are reversed.
Knowing that some Mennonites benefited from Nazi privilege opens our eyes. It enables us see how easy it is to ignore the price of privilege.
Can we make Mennonite connections without becoming exclusionary? Let’s hope we can. Let’s hope we keep learning to play a new game.
Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.
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