Tag Archives: Mennonite identity

Mennonite, Feminist, & Woman

Hilary Scarsella

Guest post from…Hilary Scarsella is a recent graduate of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary who researches and writes on the intersection of violence against women and worship. She lives in Elkhart, Indiana as a part of the Prairie Wolf Collective and enjoys spending time with family.

This post is one in a series of posts by guest bloggers, each reflecting on what it means to be a Mennonite woman. You can check out earlier entries in the series here.

Being Mennonite has always been an important part of my self-identity. Though I attended church as a kid with my family every Sunday, I hardly ever spent time with other Mennonites during the week. It would have been rare for me even to spend time with other Christians. Consistently, my friends and peers seemed to be Jewish or Hindu or secular – anything but Christian and definitely not Mennonite. In fact, when the topic of conversation turned to religion I remember being grilled again and again. “If you’re Mennonite, how come you have electricity?” “How can you be Christian and believe in evolution?” “Do you think that God spoke the exact words that are printed in the Bible?” And, the question I answered most frequently, “How can you be a pacifist when there are horrible things happening in the world that need to be stopped?” I was aware of my Mennonite identity and thankful for it all the time, because I was made to account for it by my curious (and often critical) peers.

These days, the tables have turned, and it’s rare that I have an extended conversation with someone who isn’t Mennonite (save for my childhood and college friends, of course). I have just finished an MDiv from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and within a one mile radius from my home there is a Mennonite Voluntary Service unit, at least three Mennonite churches, AMBS (the seminary), Mennonite Church USA headquarters, Mennonite Mission Network offices, and more. Instead of my Mennonite identity causing me to seem suspect it’s what allows me to belong. Now, it is my identity as a feminist woman that seems to pose a potential threat to my credibility. I’m not sure if the feeling that this is a threat is one produced from within me or absorbed from my surroundings, but I feel it all the same. It is with gratitude that I can say many of the people around me are warmly supportive of feminist theology and work hard to undo oppression against women, people of color, people of the lower socio-economic class, people of lgbt orientations, and so on. Even so, I sense an odd undercurrent that is at least very different from the interreligious and secular subculture I grew up in.

The Madonna of Humility by Domenico di Bartolo

It is one that has me questioning my ambition. For example, I recently used a vocational assessment tool to help me discern next steps, and part of the feedback I received was, “Motivational levels are highest for Hilary when in the limelight where recognition is earned, deserved, or given.” From a feminist perspective, there is no shame in appreciating and striving toward recognition for a job well done. All people should be appropriately recognized for the work that they do. But, as a Mennonite, accepting this truth about myself – that I am motivated by the potential for recognition – feels a bit like failure; failure to be happy with simplicity, failure to be humble, failure to be selfless, failure to be Mennonite. Somehow, though I don’t think this was ever said to me explicitly, I’ve absorbed the idea that a “good Mennonite woman” is one who blends into the background and delights in helping others into the limelight. Thus, my Mennonite identity and my identity as a feminist woman have at times become tangled, each seeming to paralyze the other.

To untangle the knot, it’s been important for me to recognize and accept several things. As a Mennonite woman I find myself needing to work a bit harder than my secular female peers to feel justified in seeking out and accepting my own gifts, talents, and successes (however “success” is defined). I find myself needing to qualify and explain myself carefully when I self-identify as a feminist in church settings. I find myself needing to pay closer attention to my own mannerisms in order to prevent myself from defaulting to a more quiet and apologetic female role than is true to my nature.

On the other hand, as a Mennonite woman I also find myself supported and formed by an absolutely stellar community of people who help me hold faith and justice and reconciliation as values to center my life on. I appreciate that my Mennonite formation keeps me from getting caught up in the spirit of cut-throat competition that sometimes characterizes various feminist and professional circles. In Mennonite tradition and scholarship I find resources for valuing my “womanness” that have been essential elements of my personal, spiritual, and vocational development.

For me, being a Mennonite and feminist woman means feeling confused and stuck sometimes. It also means that joy and healing and faith are with me as steadfast friends for the journey.


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I’m Mennonite, Not Amish: 7 Common Questions

For those of you who are Mennonite, you have likely been asked at some point, when sharing about your faith tradition, whether or not you are Amish. And if you happen to have a sort of nebulous Swiss-German-Western-European look like myself, you probably get asked this question fairly often. I usually don’t mind when people ask me this question because: 1) My grandpa was actually Amish and left the church, so I’m not that far removed, and it gives me the chance to tell a family story ; 2) It shows me that people are interested in my faith tradition and it gives me a chance to explain a bit more about who Mennonites are and what I believe; and 3) I really like and respect the Amish.

Living in California over the last few years, I have had many opportunities to perfect my “elevator speech” about the relationship between Mennonites and Amish. So, when this question comes up in casual conversation, I usually give a short answer that goes something like this:

The Mennonites and the Amish do share a common Anabaptist lineage, but today we are actually two distinct Christian groups. The Amish still cultivate a very intentional counter-cultural lifestyle: still relying on alternative forms of transportation, very tied to rural areas and agriculture, and dressing in cape dresses and plain clothes. Mennonites do share some beliefs with the Amish: a commitment to nonviolence and a desire to live simply (although this gets expressed in very different ways), but today, Mennonite Church USA (the group that I am a part of) might have more in common with Quakers, Brethren or other historic peace churches. (For a longer description, visit Third Way Cafe).

Sometimes this is enough to assuage people’s curiosity, but there are often follow-up questions and a good discussion ensues. But over the course of the last few years, living outside Los Angeles and traveling around the United States a bit more, I have encountered some pretty hilarious questions about my religious identity as a Mennonite.

So, without further ado, here are variations on 7 common questions I’ve encountered and the responses I have often offered:

1. So you’re Mennonite and married? Does your husband have a really large beard?

Sadly, no. I think Justin would fail at being a good Amish man, because, despite many attempts, he has been unable to produce a respectable goatee, let alone a full-blown beard.

2. A question posed at a restaurant, while enjoying a glass of wine. So, you must be in the midst of those “wild years” (rumspringa)?

Nope. Unlike the Amish, Mennonites don’t really stick to any beliefs about a “free period” during adolescence when you can just “go wild” before committing to the church. So, depending on who you ask, I’ve either always been a pretty responsible Mennonite or my choice to drink wine means that I’m living in a perpetual state of heresy.

3. I love Beverly Lewis’ book, The Shunning. Has your church shunned you for dressing like that?

Nope. Mennonites don’t practice plain dress, and aren’t too prone to shunning (and actually, many Amish communities practice the “ban” very infrequently, too). Although what does the fact that you are asking this question say about your thoughts on my clothing choices?

4. So you are a grad student studying at Claremont, right? Is it hard to read process theology by lamplight?

OK friends, let’s be honest here, it’s sort of hard to read process theology by any light, but don’t worry. Mennonites are all about the electricity, although one would hope that we have developed our ecological sensibilities far enough to use it responsibly.

5. Where do you park your buggy in Los Angeles?

Alright people. There is a reason that many Amish communities are located in rural areas, and that they rent vans with drivers when they travel to urban areas. No one in their right mind would take a buggy on the I-10 freeway with all that traffic, and, as a Mennonite, my little Hyundai Elantra works just fine and is also doctrinally acceptable.

6. So you pretty much have to be born into a Mennonite group, right? Or do you allow converts?

No worries here! Everyone who wants to can be a Mennonite. Yay! In fact, although it is less common, some individuals have been able to join Amish communities, too. But like many other Christian groups, the Mennonite church welcomes new members who have found an affinity for our particular brand of Christian beliefs and who wish to follow Jesus in community with other believers, are welcome to join.

7. Do you churn your own butter and raise all of your own food?

Urg, I wish. Actually, Mennonites are historically agricultural people too (although we are becoming increasingly urban), and do have a history of simple living, eating off the land, and being locavore eaters. I did dutifully buy my own copy of the Saving the Seasons:How to Can, Freeze or Dry Almost Anything cookbook, and Justin and I have always aspired to be gardening and canning machines, who makes their own homemade pickles and jam. But alas, we have yet to find space in our small apartment for a butter church and a local cow to buy milk from, and our attempts at patio gardening have been flops (despite producing one surprisingly robust crop of basil).

So, if you are a Mennonite, what interesting questions have you been asked about your identity? And if you’re not, what questions do you have? Any question is fair game!

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