I would like to talk about two meetings with some obvious differences and some profound similarities.
The first is a series of meetings that took place across Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba in the early 1920s. Members of various conservative, traditional Mennonite churches were gathering to discus how to respond to recent government policies put in place to make better British subjects of its citizens. Most of these families had fled Russia in the 1870s, where similar governmental policies resulted in massive uprisings and eventually civil war. They discussed whether they should make compromises and stay or follow their conscience and leave.
The second is a meeting that happened more recently in Steinbach, Manitoba where concerned citizens met to voice their concerns over the recently tabled anti-bullying bill. They were worried that the wording of the bill would mean that people acting out their religious values would be punished.
The obvious similarities make it seem hardly worthwhile to connect the two. Besides geography, the only connection is that it was a meeting of people with religiously based conscience. One could argue that meetings of conscience and religion have been happening weekly in this area over the hundred years separating the two events.
The differences are plain, aren’t they? There are differences in the time period, in the levels of political engagement, in culture, and in the issue being discussed. So why am I connecting these dots? Because the differences are an illusion.
First, the issues. The first group were concerned that they were going to be forced to run their schools in English, rather than German. The second group was concerned that their religious schools may be forced to provide funding and staff for a student club that endorses homosexual lifestyle. These issues are different, but they are both related to education and both point directly back to the issue of religious freedom. After all, isn’t Canada founded on the value of religious freedom for all?
That brings us to our second “difference,” political engagement. The first group was not political. There were no politicians in their meetings and their members were forbidden from any kind of political involvement. The second group had three sitting MLAs (members of the legistlative assembly, regional representatives of the provincial government) and other politicians from other levels were either present or have since voiced their support. The similiarity however, is more profound. Both groups were working with the understanding that their past political activities would prevent exactly this type of problem from occurring. The first group had only come to Canada because their delegates had negotiated with the Canadian government a promise that they could run their communities, churches and schools, in whatever way they wanted. The second group has been voting in Conservative party politicians habitually since before the first group had their meetings. They do so partly because those politicians usually live out the family values their constituents uphold, but mostly because they promise to protect the special interests of that riding. So in both meetings, there is a high level of frustration that despite their political engagement, their special interests had not been protected.
The last perceived difference I want to talk about is culture. The first group gathered in Mennonite churches, defending their right to teach their schools in German, and wanting to protect their cultural communities. The second group met in a school, they met in English, and it was billed as being open to the entire non-denominational community. So ths is the greatest, non-negotiable difference, isn’t it? Much has been written lately about the inappropriateness of germanic ethnic expressions in theologically Anabaptist churches, but that presupposes that Mennonite churches are the only places you will find Mennonite cultural expressions. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that this second meeting, this multi-denominational/non-denominational gathering, was thouroughly a demonstration of Mennonite culture. The family names of the pastors and politicians were also reflected in those first meetings in the 1920s. Anabaptist theological convictions of a “pure church separate from the world” have incorporated themselves into Mennonite cultural practice. Sometimes that means we neglect the call to evangelize, sometimes that means we don’t allow ourselves to see the needs around us, sometimes, sometimes it means that we are spared of the corrupting influences of our world. If you ask people who have left Mennonte ethnic communities, many of them will tell you that this kind of insular behaviour is part of the reason that they left. Just because people leave Mennonite communities and churches, doesn’t mean that the cultural expressions will stop.
So then, if these meetings are more similar than either group would like to admit, then what is the remaining critical difference? One group stayed and remained bitter and unchained, and one group had the courage to pack up and live out their convictions in a strange and barren land.