Prez Swartzendruber part Deux: or, "you Mennonites are among the few in the whole country making sense right now"

As promised, here is the second part of EMU President Loren Swartzendruber’s excellent article. And in case as you read this you’re tempted to click away because Swartzendruber’s context (Mennonites) is different than yours, I think he’s making some serious points about cultural nonconformity for the sake of Christ that can be applied to all Christian traditions. It’s not as if the “historic peace churches” are the only ones given the command to be peacemakers; or Lutherans are the only ones to emphasize justification at God’s initiative, to be seized by faith; or Methodists are the only ones who should pursue sanctification. Denominational distinctives are not meant to be exclusive, and thus Swartzendruber’s words (though spoken within a distinctive context) are deeply prophetic to all Christians. What is our witness in our different cultural realities?

And I’ll put in a pre-emptive p.s. for you here. I’m not Mennonite…I do consider myself deeply influenced by Anabaptism, but I’m not just toeing denominational lines here by quoting Loren. He’s got something to say to all of us. And so he continues;

“My observation is that many of us who grew up Mennonite have struggled to come to peace with our past experiences. We remember the days when we were, in fact, very different culturally. It was embarrassing to stand out in the crowd. It is so much easier psychologically to ‘fit in’ with the multitude. And, now, particularly in the U.S. context, we fear the possibility of being ostracized by our neighbors if we dare to challenge prevailing assumptions.

What does this have to do with EMU and Mennonite education? I’ve devoted most of my adult life to this mission for one simple reason: I believe Mennonite Anabaptists have had (and still have) a unique theological perspective- and practice- that is needed in our world. I am disappointed with the headlong rush to “be like everyone else” as though our theological forebears were badly mistaken. Frankly, I think the burden of proof is on those who have embraced the majority culture. Again, the New Testament hardly promises that the followers of Jesus will enjoy majority status.

I’ve frequently said that I am ‘proud’ to be a Mennonite, though I always add with a smile, ‘I’m proud in a humble sort of way.’ That’s not because I value being Mennonite above being a follower of Christ. I do believe, however, that it’s not possible to be a generic Christian. We are all part of theological streams with historical wellsprings, whether we are charismatic, Pentecostal, Lutheran, or Anabaptist- and whether we realize it or not.

If EMU and our sister Mennonite schools and colleges are not unique and thoroughly committed to being Anabaptists as followers of Jesus, there is little reason for them- for us at EMU- to exist. There are hundreds of good, academically strong institutions that do a great job of educating young adults.

I am astounded at the number of parents around the church who aren’t aware of this simple fact: We’re different from other colleges. Even other educational and denominational leaders recognize we represent something unique. One university president from South Dakota, himself a Baptist, told me recently, ‘You Mennonites are among the few in the whole country who are making any sense right now.’

Jennifer Jag Jivan, a member of the Church of Pakistan (a merger of four Protestant denominations) and a recent MA graduate, described the difference this way in a recent letter:

I feel richly blessed that my life crossed the Mennonites. Like all people, of course, they experience their ups and downs, church conflicts, and others, but they are a people whose commitment to walk in the love of God in humility renews one’s spirit in the goodness of humanity. My deep appreciation for all the Mennonites, whether meeting them in the cafeteria, bookstore, or classroom- their culture of helping others and meeting others where they are, and spreading this culture of love and peace- is breath-taking indeed! But what is more, this environment is so catching that it enables others to embrace this spirit and be the miracle of this love-sharing life. This is unique and very special to EMU.’

These statements are not reasons to become prideful, but they do show that others see something distinctive, a difference worth preserving. It may seem strange for a university president to say that he doesn’t really care is his institution exists in the year 2006, 20 years from now. And I don’t, not for the sake of the university itself. But, I do care, with all my heart and soul, that the church’s witness is strong in the year 2026. I’m convinced it will only be so if a substantial number of our youth receive a Mennonite education.

To those who have stuck with me to this point in my ‘sermon’ and who are surprised at my audacity and passion, I made a similar speech to the EMU Parents’ Council one morning last spring. I made it totally off the cuff, after I had forgotten I was to join them, and then I apologized for my passion. I reflected that perhaps I’m getting old, and that I no longer feel as if I have much to lose. They were slightly stunned, I think, and then said, ‘Put it in writing. You’re preaching to the choir.’

My life would be blessed if the ‘choir’ would carry the message and deliver their young adults in large numbers to EMU and all of our Mennonite schools- and most blessed when those graduates have become the faithful members and leaders of the church tomorrow.

To those from other theological traditions reading this, I am grateful for your recognition of and appreciation for EMU’s unique role in this world. I am grateful, too, for the insights you bring to us and to this role.”


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