“Why Don’t Mennonites Pay Taxes?” And Other Similar Questions…

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Growing up conservative Mennonite and going to a public school opened me up to many questions about my religion. However, while these inquiries were presented in form of a question, they often came off as statements:

“Hey, don’t Mennonites have horse and buggies, where’s yours?”

“Why don’t Mennonites pay taxes?”

Understand, this wasn’t intended as obnoxious, this was in elementary school and these classmates were genuinely curious. They were trying to take what they knew about Mennonites (or thought they knew) with what they observed in me and reconcile the two. I suppose these could be called “micro-aggressions” according to the currently popular terms, but I prefer a more gracious explanation.

Still, while I prefer to be gracious, the presumptions still annoyed me. This exposure might explain my sometimes strong visceral reaction to being pigeonholed in a debate. It might also have contributed to my desire to be a non-conformist in a culture that took pride in being non-conformed and did things a little different from other Mennonites. I’ve always wanted the right to speak for myself and for that reason have tried to give others the same respect and let them speak for themselves.

Anyhow, I’m pretty sure that any conservative Mennonite who spent time outside of their own religious cloister has experienced much of the same thing. The people asking if they are Amish, those inquiring if they ever considered the possibility there is no God, etc. And presumably, this would make us more careful not to do the same others. But that’s not always the case, as I’ve discovered…

Oh No, Not Again!!!

Since becoming Orthodox I’ve encountered the same kind of presumptions in a different form. This time, rather than public school peers, it is Mennonite family and friends. And it is not that I mind the questions either, but when someone starts with “I know a Catholic…” it reminds of those who cannot distinguish conservative Mennonites from Amish or Old Order Mennonites.

So I’ll start with that one…

“Aren’t Orthodox basically Catholics?”

Yes and no.

The word “Catholic” means universal. In the words of St Paul, there is “one body” (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 10:17, 12:20, Eph 2:16, 4:4, etc.) and that is what universal or catholic means when applied to the Church. There may be multiple denominations, differences, and divisions within the Church, but there is only one universal Christian body of believers and that is what Catholic means. So, yes, all Orthodox Christians believe in a Catholic church, in that they believe there is only one universal Christian Church—that is what Biblical tradition tells us and that is what we must believe is true.

However, no, despite some similarities, we are not *Roman* Catholic. The early church had five patriarchs, one in Jerusalem, one in Alexandria, one in Antioch, one in Constantinople and another in Rome. These were geographic centers and separate jurisdictions of the early church and all were basically in agreement. However, in a similar fashion to how Amish split from other Anabaptists, there was a “Great Schism” in 1054 between the four patriarchs of the “East” and the Roman “West” over a variety of issues—including Rome’s unilateral addition to the creed (called the “filioque“) and the elevation of Papal power.

The Roman side veered towards more authority being granted to “Peter’s seat” in Rome. The Orthodox, by contrast, put more emphasis on maintaining Church tradition both written and spoken (or Orthodoxy) and hold that Peter was the “first among equals” rather than the “Vicar of Christ” in the way that the Romans do. This is a very significant difference of perspective, yet Orthodox and Roman Catholics do recognize each other at some level despite not being in Communion together. Both the Orthodox East and Roman West are Catholic in the sense they are parts of the universal Church, but they are not the same.

“Do Orthodox worship Mary?”

One of the first things a non-Orthodox will notice when entering an Orthodox sanctuary is the many pictures. These are called “icons” (after the Greek word for “image”) and are a visual representation of various saints, scenes, etc. This is a Christian tradition back to depictions in the Catacombs, there are icons of many virtuous Biblical characters, and of those most prominently displayed are those of Jesus and Mary the mother of Jesus. There is also mention of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “with the saints” throughout the divine liturgy and special honor is given to her.

However, Mary, while venerated (or honored) as the mother of our Lord, is never worshipped by an Orthodox Christian. Worship is only for the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and all others are honored for their various roles. Mary’s role is more significant because her body was quite literally the ark of the new covenant. That is why Mary knew, early on, that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48) and why Elizabeth (who were are told was “filled with the Holy Spirit”) loudly proclaims: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” Nowhere in Scripture do we have a similar proclamation made and it is only right that the mother of Jesus is recognized by us in the same manner that she is by Elizabeth.

For Jesus to be fully man he needed a mother and his mother was Mary and that is why we celebrate her role. But that honor is not worship. In Chrismation, one has to make agree and make clear that their recognition of Mary and the saints in form of icons is “not unto idolatry” but for sake of “contemplation” and so that “we may increase in piety, and emulation of the deeds of the holy persons represented.” It is no more idolatry to venerate Mary and the saints than it is to have pictures of your grandparents on the wall or to speak of your own mother glowingly on Mother’s day or to treat your own children or spouse differently than other people. There is a vast difference between honor and worship.

“Why aren’t there Orthodox missionaries?”

This one caught me off guard. First off, every Orthodox Christian is (borrowing the words of Charles Spurgeon) “either a missionary or an imposter” and by this, I mean every member of the body of Christ is sent into the world as his representative. Sure, not every Christian is sent abroad in the manner of Hudson Taylor, but every Christian is called to be an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) and should do this wherever they are in the world. Secondly, Orthodox Christians, from St Paul onward have journeyed physically to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the world. Again, not all traveled to far away places, but every Orthodox believer is a missionary and there are no exceptions.

Some of the confusion of my Mennonite friends (who more or less proclaimed that Orthodox lack missionaries) could a product of Evangelical Protestantism and the influence this movement has had on defining their current practice. It seems many under that influence see missionary service as an activity that Christians do rather than an all-encompassing lifestyle. In other words, according to this mindset, one is only a missionary when shoving a tract in the face of an unsuspecting passerby or when they go with a group to do a project in a country that could use jobs more than donated labor. And yet, while that may be a part of what missionary work entails, this too is how we are to proclaim the good news:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:22‭-‬24 NIV)

And, as far as Orthodox being missionaries in the forms more celebrated, there are many powerful examples of wonderworkers and martyrs for the faith. Orthodox don’t just travel to tropical paradises, do fun projects, and then jet back home again (back to their privileged lifestyles) after a few days or couple years. No, the Orthodox live in some of the most hostile places for a Christian to live and many have become the truest witness of Christ—they have died as martyrs for their faith, in this century as much as any other, and not only in the history books. It was not Protestant missionaries or Evangelicals being brutalized and beheaded by ISIS.

Furthermore, having entertained (very briefly) proselytizers of a sect widely viewed as heretical (even by Protestants) and having considered the words of Jesus about missionaries that make their converts twice as damned as themselves (Matt. 23:15) or those who will cry “Lord, Lord, have we not” when standing condemned in front of Him (Matt. 7:21-23) and listing their missionary works as if that is their salvation, there is something to be said for correct teachings and practice. The Orthodox, while all over the world (including Africa, where a baptism of 556 took place), seem to be more concerned with quiet and sincere obedience than they are with loud and proud professions.

“I’ve heard Orthodox don’t believe in being ‘born again’ experience, is this true?”

Conservative Mennonites, like other Evangelicals, tend to put much stock in a “born again” salvation experience. They take a phrase out of an analogy Jesus used (while speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:1-20) to explain spiritual transformation that must take place before someone can enter the kingdom of God. He likens being born of the Spirit to the wind, it is something mysterious, and then foretells his dying on the cross by likening it to the brass serpent Moses raised in the wilderness that healed those who looked upon it. And, yes, there is an experience, at the foot of the cross, for those who look up to Jesus and cry out for God’s mercy to them as a sinner.

However, salvation is not simply saying something and having an emotional experience attached or a once and done event, there’s so much more. We are told in the letters of St. Paul to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) and then also that we are saved by grace “through faith” and as a “gift from God” (Eph. 2:1-10) rather than by our righteous works, which (with many other Biblical texts) could seem to present a contradictory view of salvation—splitting Protestants into competing camps of works versus faith, eternal security versus potentially losing our salvation, or Calvinist and Armenian. Meanwhile, Orthodox Christians avoid this debate entirely with a view of salvation that transcends easy categorization. We are saved, being saved, and will be saved so long as we continue to believe.

The Orthodox see salvation as a direction, not just a destination, as an intentional alignment with God’s perfect will and the choice we make daily in following after Jesus. In other words, salvation is less about declaring oneself to be “born again” or a singular event in time that we look back on and more about taking up our cross. Salvation is not a mere once-and-done transaction for them, it is a continuous relationship and being in Communion together with the body of Christ. So, yes, we should all be “born of the Spirit” and yet we should also be connected to the vine (John 15:1-8) or we will die as spiritual babies and never bear the fruit of salvation. Ultimately salvation is not a past event or a promised future reward, it is something we choose every day in our being faithful to God and living out the commitment to love each other.

“If we make every effort to avoid death of the body, still more should it be our endeavor to avoid death of the soul. There is no obstacle for a man who wants to be saved other than negligence and laziness of soul.”

+ St. Anthony the Great, “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life: One Hundred and Seventy Texts,” Text 45, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1)

“I know an Orthodox and…”

It is one of the most annoying statements. Annoying because it is usually followed by some sort of negative characterization which they then use their anecdote to generalize about the entire two millennia of Orthodox Christianity and a church made up of hundreds of millions of people. It is a statement many Mennonites have encountered as well, which makes it all the more annoying when the same thing in slightly different form comes from the mouth of a Mennonite. I recall a time, broke down while driving truck, when the service technician (who didn’t know I was Mennonite) went on a long rant about some Mennonites he knew and how hypocritical Mennonites are, etc. Of course, his criticisms weren’t entirely incorrect nor are many of those leveled against the Orthodox (we don’t claim to be a church of perfect people) and yet they were definitely unfair to use as a basis to judge the entire group.

This tendency to remember their worse examples and our own best is a human universal. It is something called in-group-out-group-bias which means we tend to recall good examples of our own group (minimizing our bad) and bad examples of other groups (minimizing their good) or, in a word, favoritism. But this is especially true where the perfect church myth is prevalent or there is a lack of contemplation, introspection, and ownership. The smaller a group is, the easier it is to imagine that you are not like those others—those who do not live up to your own personal standards—and forget that a judgmental, divisive and prideful spirit is as sinful as anything else. Pointing out the faults of others is never a good defense. We should recall the story Jesus told about the confident religious elitist who thought only of his own righteousness in comparison to others and the humble man who begged only for mercy in his prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

So, anyhow, maybe you know an Orthodox Christian and can only recall bad things about them. But I probably know a few more and can tell you that they are just as sincere as any conservative Mennonite or other Evangelical I’ve met. Maybe you know some Orthodox who do not live to your own religious standards or can point to a historical blemish or two from a thousand years ago? Well, I’ll raise you one pedophile ordained by a Mennonite church in the past decade (here’s a list of some other Mennonite sexual abusers, if that’s not enough) and the Münster rebellion. Every denominational group has their less than celebrated moments and members, I can assure you of that. And if a group is too small to have a history of mistakes, that is not a great strength, it is a weakness, it only means they are more vulnerable. So “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” or maybe we should just take the advice of Jesus to be humble about ourselves and understand our own continual need of God’s mercy?

The Orthodox do not run from their history by starting a new denomination (or ‘non-denominational’ group) every time there’s a failure, they have their greater and lesser examples like every other group. But one thing that can be said is that they have maintained their unity centered on Christ and keeping the traditions of the Church from the time of the Apostles to the present moment. Fr Anthony, the Antiochian priest who served during my Chrismation, can trace his ordination all the way back to Peter and the first Gentile church, the church of Antioch (Acts 11:19-30) where believers were first called Christian. There is a great wealth of history to draw from, some cautionary tales, and many who were faithful until the end. Like the church that Paul preached to, the Church today is by no means perfect and yet, as Jesus promised, the “gates of hell” have not prevailed against the Church he founded.

For all of my non-Orthodox friends, the door is open, all people are welcomed, and there are good answers to questions for those who have them. There is truly a wonderful diversity within Orthodoxy, and a beauty of traditions—traditions packed with deep meaning—that span thousands of years. This is not something that one can begin to summarize in a blog post. There are volumes written and many more yet to be written about the Church.

But the best way to start learning about Orthodoxy is first-hand—to come and see.

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In Search of Authenticity at an Amish Wedding…

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Protestantism aimed to strip away the inauthentic part of Christian tradition and, in the process, fractured the church into many competing sects all claiming to be the authentic article.

I was reminded of this while attending an Amish wedding and thinking of how quickly many outside of this peculiar tradition would dismiss Amish forms as dead religion.  The rituals of the service, all in German, while beautiful in their own rite, did not speak to me as an English speaking person.  I’m also doubtful the words did much for the many dozing throughout the three hours of singing and sermon.

Many Evangelicals, because Amish do not hand out tracts or speak of their “born again” experience and whatnot, openly question the salvation of Amish.  This includes many conservative Mennonites who (while also denouncing other Evangelicals as being too unorthodox) at least go through the motions of missions and schedule “revival meetings” every year to remind each other to be more authentic.

The Dilemma of a Doubly Non-conformed Mennonite…

Normally, in a traditional Mennonite context, non-conformity means conforming to their written (and unwritten) standards and being intentionally different from their “worldly” neighbors.  But for me non-conformity has always meant more than only doing things acceptable for a Mennonite.  For me non-conformity meant a) independence from public school peers and also b) authenticity at church.

I have spent my life as a non-conformed Mennonite.  This was a constant tension for me.  It made me uncomfortable with inauthentic conformity to Mennonite culture yet also always longing for full acceptance and wishing to be fully conformed.  I never wanted to be anything other than Mennonite and accepted there.  But it was equally important, as one seeking to be authentic as a matter of conscience, that I never do anything just to be accepted.

In practical terms this meant that I would not go to Bible school or to the mission field hoping to find a mate.  I know this is how many Mennonites do find a partner (despite their stated intentions and anti-fraternization policies) but it seemed dishonest to me.  So, as a result of this conviction to be forthright, I didn’t go and planned to go only when the reasons for going fully matched my expressed aims.  That, more than anything else, is probably what ensured my bachelor status and one of many ways my desire for authenticity cost me.

Doing anything without a full commitment, including singing hymns while down and only half-hearted, was painful for me.  I would sooner risk offense and remain silent than utter words without being completely genuine.  For me authenticity meant not going through the motions and not doing cliché things only to please culture expectations.  Unfortunately, in a culture that values conformity over authenticity, this was at odds with my hope for full acceptance.

What Does It Mean to Be Authentically Christian?

The other day I was talking to a couple curious about my religious roots.  The question came up, “Do Mennonites love Jesus?”  To that I answered “yes” but then went on to explain what differentiated Mennonites from other denominations.  Mennonites, like their Amish cousins, claim to love Jesus.  However, to be one of them you will need to prove your authenticity by keeping their traditions and following their rules.

Sadly, being authentically Mennonite does not make a person is authentically Christian.  Even assuming that Mennonite standards were absolutely correct, even if a person were able to follow those standards perfectly to the letter, and even if these forms are of temporal benefit, there is no salvation to be found in religious conformity.  We know this because Jesus said this when he encountered a man who had kept his religious tradition perfectly and was still lacking something:

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

“Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:16-21)

We read that the disciples were “greatly astonished” by what Jesus had told this man.  How could anyone be saved by this new standard that Jesus gave?  This man had followed all the rules.  He was the good Mennonite, did his missionary service, attended every service, tithed faithfully and was a reputable man, perhaps even homeschooled his children, but somehow this was not enough for Jesus.

1) Authenticity is not preserved in keeping tradition…

Tradition is intended to guard authenticity.  Many measure the authenticity of others by how they measure up against their own tradition.  Mennonites question if authenticity can be found amongst Amish singing their centuries old Ausbund hymns.  Those not Mennonite, despite admiring our devotedness to our religious practices, question if we love Jesus.

Early Anabaptists and early Christians were right to understand that authentic Christianity was about more than keeping religious traditions.  In fact, they often, to the vexation of the religious, dispensed with the established rules and defied tradition.  They are like Paul and Barnabas who were adamant in their opposition to defenders of tradition:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. (Acts 15:1,2)

Basically these Judaizers (Galatians 2:14) were trying to force non-Jewish converts to keep Jewish customs and be circumcised as a condition for acceptance.  But the apostle Paul preached against this and used language quite strong to express his contempt:

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:2-12)

Paul is saying that these traditionalists are at odds with authentic faith.  He comically calls these defenders of circumcision to go further and completely emasculate themselves.  It seems that the real problem with the Judaizers was not that they followed Jewish customs themselves, but that they tried to force to new converts to keep their traditions as if salvation depended on them and this came at the expense of authentic Christian love.

2) Authenticity is not a produced by destroying tradition…

Many in search of authenticity abandon tradition and try to rebuild from scratch.  This has been the modus operandi of many since Martin Luther hammered out his ninety-five theses in 1517 in protest of the selling of indulgences and has led to the great fracturing of the church.  Those seeking authenticity apart from established church traditions have gone in a thousand contradictory directions.

Some think authenticity comes from spontaneous and disorderly outbursts during church services, which goes against Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40:

If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.  If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.  Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.  And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop.  For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.  The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.  For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

Originality is not evidence of faith, innovation in worship is not a sign of deeper spiritual life, and being anti-formality does not make a person more authentically Christian.  And, according to Paul, “God is not a God of disorder but of peace…”

In practical terms, this means God is probably not bedazzled by our light shows and high-powered musical programs.  Conversely, nor is God likely to be impressed by our long-winded sermons, our wielding of giant leather-bound Bibles on Sunday mornings, our flowery prayers with “thees” and “thous” nor any of our other attempts to create authenticity apart from living in true faith and loving as Jesus commanded.

In a generation or two those who attempt to remedy dead orthodoxy by destroying tradition often end up in a weaker position and with a tradition more corrupt, more incomplete and more unbalanced than the one they left behind.  Their innovations evolve into forms and soon the only stability they have comes from their condemnation of everyone who doesn’t conform to their own particular denominational brand.

3) Authenticity transcends our dichotomies…

Evangelicals (especially conservative Mennonite evangelicals who fear being confused with their more non-conformed brethren) look down on Amish and question the authenticity of their faith because they don’t use evangelical terms to describe their experience.  But, in my working with Amish, I have found them to be very genuine and generous towards me.  I do not see them as much different from conservative Mennonites in their focus on outward conformity and there is nothing that makes the conventions of modern Evangelicalism more authentic than the more traditional alternatives.

You can worship in a non-denominational house church or recite liturgy in a cathedral in Rome and miss the point of Christian faith entirely in both places.  As many Mennonite ordained men lament, pleading and trying to prod through the blank stares of their congregations, “Did you think about the words you just sang?”  And thus they prove that even the best-written hymns of the past couple hundred years can be sung beautifully and yet the meaning of the words missed.  Which makes me wonder why they think their own appeals will be heard?

Whatever the case, true authenticity is not a product of the religious form one follows, it is not a matter of being more or less traditional.  I have actually found it easier to worship God in a liturgical service than I did in the less ordered and less orthodox Mennonite setting that I grew up in.  Why?  Well, because it is an authentic love of God that gives our worship life.  I’ve found it easier to lay aside all earthly cares while in a liturigical service.  For me there is greater peace in the cloud of witnesses and ancient tradition than there is in the many opinions of a men’s Sunday school class.

That said, I firmly believe there are authentic Christians in the whole swath of traditions old and new from Anglican to Zionist and everything in between.  What matters, what makes a Christian authentic, is not the costume that a person wears nor the prescribed language they use, what truly matters is whether or not we love each other as we were commanded.  All tradition, and all abandonment thereof, is only meaningless noise without love:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

From Truck Driver To Truss Designer

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Trucking paid well, but being on the road all week, like a vagabond, was not ideal—especially not for someone who wants to marry and have a family someday.

So, after seven years (going on eight) I had resolved to find another job by the end of the year.  After being off for an extended period of time to rehab a torn ACL I figured that I owed my employer one more year, but after that my plan was to find something else.

However, the whole year had almost passed and nothing opened up.  Finally, after hearing of another driving opportunity and decided that a job change would be sufficient enough, I decided to change companies for what seemed like a better gig and keep on truckin’…

Well, God must be a comedian, almost immediately after signing the papers for the new driving job the right opportunity came along.  My friend, Titus Kuhns, was vacating his position as truss designer and that presented a unique opportunity for me.

But, I had a bit of a quandary…

Was it right to quit a job I had just taken?

The first day on my new trucking job, when things weren’t quite as anticipated, was enough to convince me to make the jump right then.  I sent a text to Titus expressing my interest in the design job and stopped in for a visit at Triple D Truss later that week—I pretty much committed on the spot.

My training would start a few months later in the beginning of April.  My old boss agreed to take me back until then (no point in me learning a new trucking job when I was already an expert at hauling commodities) and so I had my encore in the old blue Pete.

First impressions…

I’ve never worked in an office before, let alone for an Amish business, and didn’t really know what to expect.

Office hours started at 6:30am and, after a thirty-eight mile commute, I was a few minutes early.  So, figuring there was safety in numbers, I waited for Titus to arrive and then followed him in.

The office has a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.  That morning (and every morning since) my coworkers in the office all greet me with a pleasant “good morning, Joel!”  That day, not really knowing the program, I mumbled my reply and followed Titus to his desk upstairs.

John, one of the co-owners, seems to set the tone for the office.  He is upbeat, energetic, generous, and most importantly (for a fledging designer) a reassuring voice.  He sort of bounces up the stairs, often has a broad smile on his face, and hardly has anything bad to say about anyone.

The other part of the partnership, Dan, is a bit more awkward on the surface, but is also every bit as friendly and understanding as John.

Next in line is ever cool and collected Nathaniel, his charisma makes him a great dispatcher and excellent salesman—he possess youthful enthusiasm that is contagious and a curiosity that will likely take him far.

And the newbie of the group (besides yours truly) is Norman, who does some of the random office tasks (with Mary and Linda who work part time) and is only sixteen.

Oh, and did mention that everyone in the office, including the bosses) is ten years younger than me?

Yup, somehow I’m the old guy now, not sure how that happened…

Anyhow, let the training begin!

Titus seemed to be playing game of Tetris, except one that involved designing an endless variety of trusses, while juggling the phone, and doing a multitude of other small tasks—like creating their office forms.  The pile of stuff was overwhelming to my novice eyes and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up.

What would happen when Titus left in a month?

I designed trusses on my first day.  The design software, I learned, is occasionally cantankerous and will crash if you do things out of sequence or in what appeared to be random intervals to a complete rookie.  But my natural aptitudes combine with a good teacher meant that I learned quickly.

The highlight that month—besides wonderful home cooked meals with Titus, his wife Daisy and adorable baby Rowan—was the week of training in Dallas Texas.  Everything was paid, I ran around in my blaze orange Dodge Challenger rental (a free upgrade) and was taught to use the 3D layout software.  I even had time to connect with an old friend, Richard Miller, and ate some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had.

Then it was back to Mill Hall.  Titus was moving to Ohio at the end of the week and would leave me as the solo truss designer.  I had many questions about how the next few weeks would transpire and didn’t entirely share the confidence of my trainer and co-workers.

Time to sink or swim…

My hope was to start Monday with a clear desk.  I was slightly terrified by the layouts leftover from Friday and were now entirely my responsibility.

It my job to ensure that the quotes arrived to the customers and truss prints made it to the shop in a timely manner.  The designers desk is at an important crossroads in the office.  If I don’t get my work done production would grind to halt.

The first couple weeks were stressful, I was swamped, and my neck was sore because I was so tense.  My brother Kyle described my job as “speaking order into chaos” and chaos seemed inevitable in the absence of my concentrated efforts.

Fortunately Titus was only a phone call away and, if things got too out of control, the metal plate vendor (whose software I was using) has designers and engineers on staff to take the overflow.  Still, it was my job to coordinate the effort and keep chaos at bay.

After a few more weeks (and some overtime hours) I was fully in control of my work environment.  It was nice to end the day with a desk clear of work.  I had encountered the full range of what would be required of me and came out with my head still above water.

With each passing week keeping up has gotten easier and easier and more recently I have another problem.

The new problem?

Not being challenged.

Lately I’ve found myself facing a clean desk and blank screen.  This partly the result of things slowing down from the spring rush, but also because I am getting better at knowing where to start and also when a truss is basically as good as it will get and, more importantly, how to avoid the time consuming pitfalls of the software.

“An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.” (Werner Heisenberg)

I might not be a truss design expert yet, but I’ve made good progress and have gained plenty of confidence in my abilities.

It is great finally getting paid to do something that I’m especially gifted to do.  I love when I’m described as “the engineer” (my work is backed up by someone certified) and especially enjoy walking through the yard seeing completed projects knowing my part in the process.  

It is even more rewarding when your trusses end up installed in your uncle’s new truck shop.

Being on top of things has afforded me the opportunity to work beside the guys on the truss shop floor, which is fun.  It is also fun being the only non-Amish employee (other than the truck drivers) and especially that I share a last name with three in the office including one of the owners.

Overall the transition from gear jamming to desk jockey has been a smooth one.

What Trump’s Popularity Says About Amish And Mennonite Priorities 

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​The whole Trump phenomenon has been amazing to see.  It has caused many lifelong and intellectually grounded Republicans to second guess their party affiliation.  It has also caused a divide in the conservative Evangelical movement.

One thing for sure, most conservative Mennonites I know (who vote quietly, if at all, and tend to be motivated by social issues like abortion and lean right) have been politically orphaned by Trump. 

Most, but not all…

Some Mennonites and Amish love the brash billionaire businessman.  They are loud and unapologetic in their support.  There is an ‘Amish PAC’ paying for billboards to urge our religious brethren to come out in favor of their man.

This post is about why some might be tempted.  It is not a political post so much as it is a diagnosis of how a man as contentious and vile as Trump could have any appeal with members of a Christian sect (Anabaptism) historically known for it’s peace position and repudiation of excess wealth.

I would chalk up Trump’s appeal with some raised in Anabaptist tradition to several things.  All of these things having to do with the way those raised in our communities are taught to think (or rather taught not to think) and what we fear.  I write this post as a warning to those with ears to hear it.

1) We like simple concrete answers.

Trump speaks in crude, unrefined and basic terms.  There is little nuance to his language and, even if he contradicts himself twice in the same day, his answers come off as assuringly absolute.

This gives some comfort to those raised in an environment where they were sheltered from the complexities of the current age.  For those of less formal education he is less threatening with his broad terms, overly simplistic narratives and unrealistic yet concrete sounding solutions.

Conservative Mennonites and Amish have an anti-intellectual bent.  Many of us (as those who value manual labor over mind work) mistrust academics and professionals.  Providing by the sweat of our brow seems more honest than the alternative.

Unfortunately this attitude can lead us to being too dismissive of intellectual pursuits.  It causes some to ignore the warnings of the better informed and makes them extra vulnerable to charlatans.  

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” (1 Corinthians 12:21-25)

We need all types to be at our full strength as a body.

2) We equate business success to moral superiority.

Trump flaunts his wealth, exaggerates his self-worth and business acumen.  On the surface this might seem antithetical to a culture that values modesty and simplicity, but in actuality it exposes something about our true priorities.

Amish and Mennonites are both frugal and industrious.  Many are small business owners; some have done quite well for themselves and are proud of their accomplishments.  They see Trump as one of them and the guy they can trust to guard their accumulated wealth.

There is this unspoken understanding (perhaps a result of some denominational cross-pollination or just human tendency) that wealth is always a blessing from God.  Those with money in the church can buy their power and influence over even ordained leaders.

Sadly this is completely out of step with what Jesus taught and the early church practiced.  It grieves me that many in our conservative Anabaptist circles seem to value profits over people and think in terms of bottom line rather than love.  

“Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.   But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” (1 Timothy 6:9-11)

Be on your guard against the allure of those promising worldly greatness and wealth.

3) We prefer authoritarian leaders.

Trump is an authoritarian.  He promises to take care of business unilaterally and without apology.  With him it is get in line or be run over and this is what many want.  They want their own ideals railroaded even at the cost of consistency or conscience.

Many conservative Mennonite and Amish churches have departed from true brotherhood and rely on the heavy handed leadership of a bishop.  Not having to decide for themselves gives some a feeling of security, a person can find their place without much effort or thought.

Thinking requires effort.  Being involved in a community that disciples requires a huge commitment and added potential for frustration.  Teaching temperance would require time we would rather spend on our own personal pursuits.  So we outsource, we turn to strict rules (and roles) are easier to enforce and look to forceful leaders to impose our values.

This, again, is something condemned by Jesus.  Our leaders are not supposed to be the tyrants of worldly example; they are supposed to be examples of self-sacrificial love and submission.  But, instead of leading in this way, many look for someone to hitch their wagons to and do their work for them.

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.” (Matthew 20:25-26a)

Be different.  Take responsibility and serve as Jesus did.

4) We fear strong and outspoken women.

Trump is many things, but his chauvinism is something that stands out.  His attacks on women who dare question him seem to be especially personal and nasty.  

This, at first glance, seems incompatible with a religious culture that avoids harsh words.  However, some conservative Anabaptist men are unaccustomed to women who stand up to them or question them directly.  It is a threat to them and they see a hero in Trump because he says what is on their mind.

Trump is a chauvinistic like them.  They don’t want a woman who questions or rivals them.  Even highly qualified conservative Mennonite women are treated with too apparent distain by some male coworkers who think all women should be at home, in the kitchen, and raising children.

But this is not reflective of the attitude of Jesus.  Men are supposed to be examples of humility, not entitled selfish brats.  A good man is able to bite his tongue, withstand criticism and treats all people with respect even when they are undeserving.

“Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.” (Luke 8:3)

Women of faith in Scripture did more than sit at home waiting on their husbands tending children.

So, where do we go from here?

Those who disagree or like Trump may have already dismissed me as one of those highfalutin liberal weenies they love to loathe.  However, I want to confession some of my own guilt for not always leading in the example of Jesus Christ.  It is too easy for me to be defensive when confronted and feel justified.

Truth be told, whether you like Trump or despise him, we all can learn to do better.  Life is sometimes complex, sometimes good people suffer while the wicked prosper, but we should avoid running from the challenge and reacting in fear rather than faith.  

Politics is about power and control, that has a strong visceral appeal, but we (as people of faith) should desire something better.  Our fulfilment should come in loving others as Jesus told us to love and our hope built on something more.

This world will pass, but true faith will endure from now into eternity.  Put your investment where it counts, invest in the love of Jesus, forgive your enemies and be good to those who persecute you.

Jesus is the answer, not some bloviating businessman making promises of temporal greatness.  Find security in God not governments and reject politics as usual.

“Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.” (2 Peter 3:17-18)

Amish Lies: I read it on the internet…, part 2

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I was not planning to do a blog about immunization and autism.  However, an article posted by a social media friend, along with comments from US Senator Rand Paul made recently, prompted my response.  The article makes two claims about Amish, immunization and autism (presented in questions) in the title; and both claims turn out to be false. 

Claim: Amish Do Not Vaccinate

It seemed plausible at first brush, especially given that this small Christian sect mandates an austere lifestyle and rejects many modern conveniences, that they would also not vaccinate.  However, I have an advantage in that I know some Amish people.  But, more significantly, I have a sister (Dr. Olivia K. Wenger, MD) who led a study on Amish and their attitudes towards vaccinations. 

The research of Dr. Wenger and her colleagues, although addressing primarily the opinions of Amish parents about vaccinations and not vaccination rates, is sufficient to disprove the idea that Amish do not vaccinate.  This is some of what they found:

“Among 359 respondents, most (68%) stated that all of their children had received at least one vaccine, and 14% of those surveyed said their children had received no vaccines.”

Amish, in fact most who responded in the study cited above, do vaccinate.  So the idea that Amish do not vaccinate is a myth and lie.  That false claim alone is enough reason to dismiss any other claim found in the article, but in case you are unconvinced, I will address the other claim in the title as well.

Claim: Amish Do Not ‘Get’ Autism

The anti-vaccination article claims there are only three known cases of autism amongst Amish people.  Again, I could’ve accepted this as valid, but mostly because there’s a strong possibility of autism being undiagnosed in this community that is as insular and closed as the Amish community.

However, this too was easily refutable despite no studies directly addressing the topic.  I found research, by Dr. D. Holmes Morton, MD and others, that triples the number of cases of Amish children with autism symptoms:

“In March 2006, Drs. Kevin
Strauss, Holmes Morton and others documented 9 autistic Amish children, which could raise the autism rate of Lancaster Amish community Olmstead supposedly investigated to almost 1/5,000 all by themselves.”

So, both claims are untrue based in readily available evidence.  Unfortunately stories like this are posted as true over and over again by those who are anti-vaccination or sympathetic.  It is soaked up as proof of a link between autism and vaccines, yet it is demonstrably false information.

If your primary cause is truth, then carefully vet your sources!

As a believer in individual freedom, religious liberty and one who is respectful of conscience, I am doubly offended by articles like this.  Quite frankly I am embarrassed to see these types of spurious claims circulated by those associated with my political leanings and religious faith.

Yes, opposition to vaccinations crosses political and religious lines, but is often a topic of conversation amongst my Libertarian and Christian peers.  That some of them regularly repeat this sort of thing as legitimate or present it without question is a source of serious frustration for me.  It does a disservice to even good questions about vaccinations.

Nothing is gained by linking falsehoods to what is true.  If anything, people who are not ignorant of science will ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and reject all that is associated with the falsehood.  In a world awash with information, why should they waste time on a source that lied to them once and/or doesn’t carefully vet their sources?

“Do not spread false reports.”  (Exodus 23:1a)

I realize not everyone is a scientific or critical thinker.  I myself struggle with the discipline required for serious research and that is part of the reason I would not make a career of it.  That said, we do need to take responsibility for the information we disseminate online and owe others our due diligence verifying claims with reliable sources before repeating it.

Sadly, anonymous articles with sensational headlines garner more attention than these unsung heroes who are actively creating solutions for sick Amish children.  There are sources far more reliable than an article that does not even include the name of the author.  Professionals like Dr. Morton and Dr. Wenger have dedicated their careers to studying Amish genetics and medical disorders. 

Footnote: I cite secondary sources for the research of Dr. Wenger and Dr Morton, but if you want to read the original studies, the links are below:

Underimmunization in Ohio’s Amish: Parental Fears Are a Greater Obstacle Than Access to Care

Recessive symptomatic focal epilepsy and mutant contactin-associated protein-like 2.

The Dilemma of a Colorful Thinker

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I write this post with trepidation. I have been accused before of being too open with my thoughts by some. But I have been told by others that I am very guarded about my personal life and have been urged to express more of that. The truth is that my sharing is often intentionally not vulnerable. Talk may be cheap, but sharing my innermost feelings always comes with an emotional price tag and the risk feels too great. I can discuss abstract ideas for hours without wearying, but when I lay my deeper feelings out it leaves me exhausted, often also feeling degraded and disappointed.

I believe all people desire affirmation or acceptance. We also want to maintain our own separate identity, to be different from others and still be accepted. I had that conflict growing up as a religious minority. I wanted to be identified with my unique heritage. However, I also wanted to be treated as a unique individual and resisted being cornered with the many stereotypes of classmates. Questions, frequently asked without ill-intent, would often be framed as statements categorizing me, “you are X therefore you do Y and Z…”

Uniquely Mennonite; also a Unique Mennonite

I was born into a Mennonite home. Mennonites are a small Christian sect, a product of the Anabaptist movement that swept through Europe in the 1500’s and are known today for their traditional way of life and non-violent stance. Mennonite is both a religious denomination in that ‘members’ conform to certain established standards and, because historically many members come from within existing Mennonite families, it can also classify as a distinct ethnic group.

Most Mennonite children attend private schools and some, more frequently over the past couple decades, are home schooled. However, my parents chose differently, my siblings and I all attended the local public school. It was a consequential decision and a source of some inner turmoil for me as well. I am a proud alumnus of Lewisburg Area High School, yet there was a time where I begged my mom to home school me and throughout my schooling I always identified more strongly with my Mennonite sub-culture.

At school I conscientiously did not join my classmates in various activities. I would stand respectfully and silent during the reciting of the pledge of allegiance. As a devout Christian, I believed my allegiance was owed to something greater than country and I felt I could not pledge to anything besides God. I was separated in other ways as well. I did not grow up with a television at home, so I was out of the loop as far as popular culture and could not identify with much of the chatter about this or that celebrity. I didn’t wear shorts in the summer. I was odd.

But, in church, I did not always identify well with my Mennonite peers either, they had their own school experience and cliques. Prayers by church leaders would give specific mention of the students and staff of the Maranatha Christian School, but would leave out those few of us who attended elsewhere and I noticed it. The neglect of mention was completely unintentional, but it did contribute to a feeling of not mattering, that feeling was a source of insecurity then and lingers in my mind today. I never felt I fit into my school or church culture.

I savored my independent mindedness. I could feel privileged over both my public school and Mennonite peers at times. I had a spot amongst the misfits in both categories too. But, my finding a place among the misfits was to still feel excluded from the mainstream of both settings and was to be a double misfit. It was exclusivity with some exclusion or at least I felt excluded. I had one foot in with mainstream American thinking, with another in a culture that celebrates a persecuted past, and with that a mixed identity all my own.

My Place Amongst the Persecuted

Mennonites have a long memory. We are dutifully reminded of acts of gruesome torture committed against our people from hundreds of years ago. There’s a book, Martyr’s Mirror, nearly as sacred as the Bible in many Mennonite (and Amish) homes, which is basically a chronicle of the violence done to Christian believers. The book includes haunting etchings of the terrifying ends of some who would not recant their faith under trial and these stories help shape Mennonite identity as a persecuted minority.

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Torture of Geleijn Cornelus, Breda, 1572

Mennonites have a mistrust of mainstream society. Part of it is in a product of a religious emphasis to intentionally maintain a ‘non-conformed’ outward appearance and lifestyle. But the other big part is a real fear that persecution is just around the corner and that we could all soon suffer the same fate as our spiritual/ethnic fathers. Mennonites (and Amish) have been so insular and so separated from mainstream society that they actually have their own unique genetic disorders. Many still maintain their own German dialect, commonly referred to as “Pennsylvania Dutch” or “PA Dutch” for short, and church outsiders are referred to as “English” by Amish people.

The irony of it all is that Mennonites are more frequently adored than they are despised. Our biggest critics tend to be those who are disgruntled ex-members or those who had a bad experience in one church and judge all Mennonites based in it. We are treated both with respect and also patronizingly at times. My sister, a medical doctor, was once asked by a non-Mennonite if she would be interested in cleaning houses or babysitting, which could be taken as an insult to a person who was qualified for much more. Many have assumed my ignorance as well and apparently because of my rural and religious upbringing.

People do judge by outward appearances. People do make prejudiced assumptions based on ethnic heritage or religious connection and I have experienced this first hand. I believe that is likely why I have instinctively classified myself with the victims of prejudice rather than with the perpetrators. My unique upbringing may have been the reason why I was fascinated with history of racism in America. I read books; some of them required reading, but many others by curiosity and choice. The titles escape me, but I remember experiencing the civil rights era from the perspective of a woman in the NAACP, then living life as a young woman in Japanese internment camps and later spending time with a fictional lawyer named Atticus Finch.

My Struggle to Find Acceptance

I also have another identity and that one created in my slow development that earned me nicknames which included “micro” in them. I was short and small for my age. I was a late-bloomer beyond even my then diminutive size. I was older in my class, a polite and respectful student, I would often find more in common with adult teachers than my age-group peers, I had keen interest in history, was knowledgeable, but was also very innocent. I had little more than platonic interest in girls until my late school years and had mostly kept a safe distance from them. I did not seem to draw a whole lot of female attention either. I was an introvert in a crowd and shy around women.

With my struggle with stature, with a lack of strong social skills, athletic abilities, or other especially developed talents (besides being a non-stop daydreamer with some artistic gifts) and having not received an abundance of popular attention, I developed a bit of an inferiority complex. It only intensified as I became interested in dating and noticed many girls were more interested in a muscular, square shouldered or smooth talking male figures and I realized that just wasn’t me. I was this sensitive bundle of analytical thoughts without an adequate ability to express them. It was also furthered by the fact that I felt I was a misfit. I was way too religious for the more secular public school girls, but I was way too nuanced and philosophical for the cut-and-dried products of my own conservative religious culture.

For whatever reason, fate or fortune, I struck out with the first Mennonite girl I asked and that experience was where my confidence really began to wane. I had a an acute awareness of nuance differences of how people treat each other and knew too well how girls treated the ‘cool’ guys compared to those less popular. I was not disliked or mistreated. But I was also not that quintessential Mennonite guy either. It seemed the average Mennonite girl wanted this simple, macho, disinterested, reserved fellow and I did not fit that conventional mold. I was complicated; I alternately talked too much while not saying enough of the ‘right’ things, was fully Mennonite in some ways and not enough in others. I also lucked out with a church full of first cousins.

I was a deep-thinker, a conscientious person, fiercely loyal, told multiple times (by marriageable women) that I would make a wonderful husband, earnestly faithful, protective and gentle. I wanted to be the hero of the woman I admired, unfortunately I always seemed to play the cards of the villain or that’s how it felt my sincere efforts were received. It is against my nature (or maybe my Mennonite training) to harbor ill-will towards anyone. But feelings of rejection (both real and perceived) are as a poison to the soul. I have had my flashes of misogyny or jealousy, with those feelings immediately followed by longer moments of self-loathing and contempt for everything I was or was not. I was a victim of bad-timing, I was disadvantaged by my genetics, I was unfairly categorized and felt it all to be an injustice.

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Drowning of Mattheus Mair, Wier, 1592

It may be irony, but it was black women who later affirmed my strengths and restored some of my confidence lost along the way. Like in the books I read, where I could identify with the female minority lead character, I felt minority women could somehow understand me and with them is where I felt most accepted. I was treated like I mattered. It did not hurt that some were educated beyond my Mennonite peers and could appreciate discussions of philosophy, psychology, sociology, identity and race.  Not wanting to produce a stereotype about Mennonites, but I would probably be more popular with my ethnic kinfolk if I would shoot more deer, get a big diesel truck, be an outstanding volleyball player and learn to love card games.

The Schizophrenic Demands of Insecure People

We live in a culture that both tells us to “be you” and yet also encourages conformity of thought or action and shames divergent thinking. We live in a society that preaches against stereotypes, that celebrates individuality and yet continually it categorizes people by race, religion or gender. I am simultaneously castigated as the perpetrator of racism and sexism, as a white male, but then instructed not to build identity around race or to make any judgments about sexuality. It is a feeling of being whipsawed, assailed for doing something that I have not done by those who are doing exactly what they say I shouldn’t do and that I didn’t do.

That is the dilemma of a colorful thinker: Do I go with those who say I should be identified with the perpetrators of historical violence? Or should I go with my instincts, my experience as a minority, and make my identity with the victims?

For me the choice is clear: I am neither victim nor villain. I have felt a victim of circumstance in the past. I have been treated unfairly, excluded unjustly, felt like a perpetual underdog. I have been condescended to and even discriminated against based in my race or religion. I have withstood bullies who picked on me because of my differences (my genetics did not lend to physical intimidation) and I have endured educated elitists who hurled insults, alleged my ignorance for challenging their perspectives and then would burned their straw-man effigies of me with an unwarranted glee. But I refuse to make my identity center on my claim to victimhood.

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Burning of Anneken Hendriks, Amsterdam, 1571

I will not be like the bitter white co-worker who blamed his lack of success in college on not having the special privilege of affirmative action and would spout one racist opinion after another. I rebuked him without hesitation. I share no identity with his racism and hatred. I will likewise not patronize, show favoritism or cater to others simply on the basis of skin color and historical injustices. We all have challenges to overcome in life and it is easy to assume that our own are bigger or more real than someone else’s. I am not going to coddle and perpetuate the insecurities of any person, white, black or otherwise. I do not believe we help people overcome by treating people as helpless and hapless victims.

In discussions over race, with constructions like ‘white privilege’ and such, I have more frequently been lumped in with the perpetrators of racism rather than treated as a unique individual. It is frustrating, because Mennonites were some of the first to protest slavery and that is the identity that is more real to me than my skin color. Amish and Mennonites were even singled out in America for their ethnicity and conscience, some locked in prison during the First World War because they refused to fight. I feel, at times, that I have more in common with a persecuted minority than with anyone else. Yet, because I am a white male, some assume I could not possibly understand them and seemingly dismiss my perceptive without ever hearing it.

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Burning of David and Levina, Ghent, 1554

I may not understand exactly what it feels like to be black in America. But I do know how it feels to be treated as inferior and less of a man on the basis of superficial things. I know too well what it is like to be categorized and stereotyped. I understand the conflict of one who loves their own heritage, has a defensive urge against those who attack their ethnic community and yet is still aware of the problems of their own people. I have a love-hate relationship with my own Mennonite religious/ethic heritage. I was taught to be afraid, not just of the police, but of mainstream society in general and some of my religious peers think they are persecuted because of perceived slights.

I have felt insulted and belittled at times. The slights were real and sometimes intentional too, but not always. I have found my reactions are a product of personal insecurities and sometimes little more than that. People all have their sources of insecurity. Conservatives fear a tyrannical government will soon take away their rights, thus fearfully stockpile guns and ammunition. Liberals think that the economic system is stacked against them and want government to impose on their neighbors allegedly as an act of justice. We can build identities around these insecurities. We may find people who share our fears and can look for evidence to ‘prove’ our own disadvantaged status or victim role. Unfortunately, while we do this, while we are demanding respect of our own person or people like us, we are also often leaving a wake of destruction behind us.

Insecure people produce more problems for themselves and others. We all know them, that super-sensitive person who is so insecure that they see an insult in even the most innocent requests or gestures. Take, for instance, a guy who told a story (apparently thinking his audience would be sympathetic) of a time he was driving down the road and a woman driving in the opposite direction scratched her nose as they passed. He knew an insult when he saw one. So he spun his vehicle around, aggressively pursued the offending party and gave a lecture on her disrespectful behavior. Of course, who knows why she touched her nose at that moment. Much more disturbing is a man who assumes an insult or injustice at every turn—and does not see his own offending belligerence.

Seeing Beyond Divisions of Black and White

I am a person with multiple identities and with none in particular. I am not alone either, I believe many Americans have many different identities and do not fit neatly into statistical categories. That said, Americans do also have bigger common identities of race or gender and these identities can sometimes be used to divide us. Our differences can be a cause for celebration, but they are also the basis of falsely dichotomous ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narratives and are used feed existing insecurities. But, treating every person like a unique person to be individually loved as a unique person, rather than in category of victim or villains, would solve a multitude of problems.

Pigeonholing, finger-pointing, scapegoating or shaming those who have offended me probably will not solve my own insecurities and I’m doubtful this type of action would ever create desirable results those whom I deem as guilty. Demonization usually only creates another class of victim. When we treat people like problems rather than people, when we throw them into categories of perpetrator on the basis of their appearance or history, then we have become contributors to the disease of prejudice rather than healers and helpers. If we want more heroic people in the world, then we must treat more people like heroes and as we wish to be treated. If we want dignity and respect for ourselves, then we need to stay committed to treating others with dignity and respect.

Healing of existing wounds will not come from two sides beating each other with superior arguments or competitive claims to offense. Tensions certainly will not be solved by making any person feel inferior or labeled as a villain. The urge to point out statistics about black men in response to those who cite statistics about police will not bring us closer to peace. The truth is if there is to be healing it will come from us learning to identify with all men, and not with only those who look like us or share our own opinions.

We need to recognize even our own intuitions, even those that are informed with history or statistical evidence, might be skewed, prejudicial and wrong. What we perceive to be true is not always whole or complete truth. We need to be more introspective, practice more constructive self-criticism, and address our own faults squarely. The assumptions we make about ourselves and about other people can hurt our chances for success. Yes, I could build a pretty solid rationalization to defend my own insecurities, but it would get me nowhere towards overcoming the obstacles to my success and, if reinforced long enough, could become a reason to not try at all.

Creating Shared Identities

It is impossible to say categorically that every white man has it better or every black woman has it worse and it is foolishness to assume it. A single black mother probably has more in common with a single white mother than she does with a black woman who is happily married. Then again, a black woman, who endures assumptions about her appearance, might actually be able to identify with a young Mennonite woman who dresses differently because of her own religious/ethnic heritage.

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Dirk Willems rescuing his pursuer, Asperen, 1569

We need to endeavor to create shared identities bigger than race or gender or religion or even economic status and rid ourselves of crippling victim identities entirely. There are more of us misfits than there are those of us defined by statistics or stereotypes. We all have unique advantages or disadvantages and also our own special challenges to face. So, rather than dwell on ourselves only, or focus solely our own specific problems, we could realize struggle in various forms is common to all people and part of our shared humanity. I have my own struggles, you have your struggles and in sharing our burdens together we become brothers and sisters in the same fight rather than rivals or enemies.

I am not saying we should lose our unique identity either. What I am saying is that categories of white and black, privileged or persecuted, hero and villain are too small. We are colored, but not in black and white or shades of gray, we are truly many shades of many colors and uniquely our own person. We have many shared identities that could bridge our gaps and create common understanding, but to find them we need not to be bound to our past or prejudices.

My advice: Build an identity with those who overcome with love and despite the odds against them. Tune out those who only feed insecurity and fear.

(Click here for more Martyr’s Mirror images)