Melvin Goering currently resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico in a solar energy-efficient home designed and built by himself and his wife, Lorene. His life and work has concerned the relationship between the study of philosophy of religion and religious language and the more 'general education' of living in worlds ranging from his business, Goering Custom Builders, to his service to Mennonite institutions. He continues to serve on the Committee for the Future of the College at Bethel College, after having served as CEO at Prairie View Inc., a behavioral and mental health system, from 1994 to 2004. Before that, he served as Administrative Vice President at Bethel from 1988-1992. He has taught philosophy at both Bluffton University and Bethel College, and studied philosophy of religion at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Harvard University after graduating from Bethel College in 1961.
A main cause of philosophical diseasea one-sided diet: one nourishes one's thinking with only
one kind of example.
Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
Wittgenstein's admonition to philosophers is equally applicable to Mennonites. The stories we use to pass our heritage from one generation to the next must be shared carefully, lest they distort, create dissonance, or bewitch our intelligence by means of language. Stories shape the psyche and mold the community. Messages intended and messages received are not always synonymous. The difference in the context of the original stories and the applicability of the messages to the contemporary world can create dysfunction instead of supportive identity and historic continuity as depicted in Stephanie Krehbiel's article.
Stephanie's insightful, existential tracing of a central Mennonite "story line" (martyrdom) is a revealing case study. The "bloody theatre" of martyr stories does not provide the images she needs at this point in her life to carry forward the Mennonite tradition as she sees it. Stephanie seeks symbols and stories that fit her understanding of the demands for action in 21st century Americanot an elevation of victims.
the first thing to look for in a cherished metaphor or archetype is utility. . . .
Is it helping me to create positive change in the world? . . .
I need stories that give me hope
In her lived experience the martyr tradition does not provide that story. It was not a useful story to tell myself. She finds more hope in the archetype of the "warrior," though she is aware of the dangers that lurk in that image as well.
Stephanie's revelatory personal story shows the deep impact that images can have on the psychological state of individuals, the agony that deeply held community archetypes can create in someone for whom they have become dysfunctional. It is this feature of her writing that first struck me. Stephanie's reported experience shows aspects of the dysfunction of the martyr stories for the 21st century, and a dissonance I suggested in an earlier article in Mennonite Life. (December 1992, p. 9ff) More and more Mennonites live in, care about, and feel called to affect the world to make it a better place. Doing so places us in a position of tension, even direct conflict with deeply held Mennonite perspectives: the need to "be not conformed to the world," to avoid entanglement in the world because such entanglement might involve compromise of principles or beliefs. Traditional Mennonite theology and cultural thought is not necessarily congruent with our daily lives. Traditional two kingdom theology and martyr stories may inspire admiration but they do not necessarily provide a vision for the life to be lived today in the midst of culture.
Kierkegaard once said of Hegel that Hegel built a philosophical castle but was forced to live in the hovel back of the castle. It was his way of saying that the lived life often gives the lie to the symbolic language and beliefs we assume guide our lives. We are not the integrated whole selves we would like to be when there is a tension between the symbol systems we use and the lives we actually live. Kierkegaard may be speaking to contemporary Mennonite life, not just Hegel's.
The martyr stories are a part of the Mennonite heritage. They cannot be excised from our history. How can they be used appropriately? They must be transmitted carefully lest they be taken as providing the exemplar for Mennonites. What are some considerations that need to be kept in mind, aside from the analysis provided in my previous article that highlights the sociological/cultural context?
Martyrdom is not an inherent good. Being killed for one's beliefs, in and of itself, is no virtue. Martyrs are sometimes to be honored and sometimes to be condemned, depending on the context and the basis for becoming a martyr. We admire deeply held convictions when they are judged to be essential and worthy. We do not admire people who become victims and choose death for convictions that we consider false or peripheral or actions we consider immoral. We do not and should not honor dogmatic ideologues. Typically Christians do not honor people who are martyred for their Islamic convictions, their Buddhist practices, or their Hindu beliefs.
The failure to admire all martyrs exposes a hidden but usually unspoken assumption in those who display Mennonite martyrs as paragons of virtue. They assume the martyrs were holding to essential, true convictions and exhibited virtuous actions. Whether that assumption is accurate may be a great subject for discussion. How are beliefs and actions to be evaluated? What criteria are appropriate? Using the stories to deal with such a question might be illuminating. What is to be admired in their beliefs and actions, presumably not just that they became victims? Which convictions or actions are worthy of unending support? How does one know when compromise or even recanting may be virtuous, when becoming a victim is not the best option? These questions may put the stories to positive contemporary use.
Contemporary Mennonites face very different questions from the Mennonite martyrs. We seldom, if ever, face decisions in which holding firmly to our convictions or actions leads to death as the only option. In contemporary America our issues tend to focus on the grey boundary lines between our religious heritage/convictions and the possible good that might come from working within social organizations and political systems that are clearly immersed in the worldbe it education, mental health, business, farming, politics, etc. For example, when I was CEO of Prairie View, we had to determine the extent to which it was appropriate for a Mennonite institution to be driven by the credentialing requirements of the Joint Commission, of the state Medicaid office, or the federal Medicare rules. Do any of these rules compromise our heritage? If so, how should we proceed? We clearly were part of a "worldly" system. Did the good we could do for people outweigh any unease we might feel about tension with the Mennonite heritage?
I drew upon key doctrines and stories of Mennonites in seeking to orient Prairie View's new employees to the religious heritage of Prairie View and to inspire employees to fulfill the service mission. The martyr stories were not among them. In fact, I cannot remember any leader in the three Mennonite church related service organizations of which I have been a part who used the martyr stores to ground the mission. Why? For the same reasons Stephanie finds the stories unhelpful. The mission of a service wing of the church is not to achieve doctrinal purity among its employees but fulfillment of a mission to help those in need of the service. Service organizations need stories that inspire activity in the world, just as Stephanie wanted such stories in her life.
The martyr stories tend to focus on a refusal to change rituals or faith statements in the face of pressure. Were Prairie View and its employees judged on this criterion it would have detracted from the mission, created endless arguments about doctrine while people suffered, limited the employee pool, etc. Persons with theological differences were bound together by a common mission: "To foster healing and growth in individuals and communities by providing behavioral and mental health services with compassion, competence and stewardship in the spirit of Christ."
Service focuses on the active mission in the world without requiring conformity to a specific set of rituals or specific doctrines that motivate the person to be a part of missionas long as the person is committed to the mission. The martyr stories focus on tenacity of commitment to specific doctrines and church practices. The latter focus can be detrimental to the commitment of the church to fulfillment of the service mission. Can you imagine how hampered Mennonite Disaster Service would become if the focus shifted to doctrinal and ritual purity as defined by some person or group rather than the commitment to restore the world after the tornado or flood?
The contemporary choices seem minor compared to the choices listed in the Martyrs Mirrorbut they are the type of choices contemporary Mennonites face. Our choices seldom are between holding to convictions that lead to death or recanting our convictions. Should I run for congress? Should I own stock in Boeing? Essentially the martyr stories seem to be irrelevant since they are set in such a different decision context, or they hold up a model that is dysfunctional, if taken as guides for 21st century behavior.
Stephanie felt the need to move outside the symbols and images of the Mennonite tradition to find an archetype she felt was hopeful and supportivethe archetype of the "warrior." That is significant. It is an indictment of the paucity of alternative, relevant stories, at least as she experienced the tradition growing up.
"Warrior" is apparently a helpful archetype for her. It is unlikely to be helpful for most Mennonites, given the historical Mennonite perspective on warriors and war. Her failure to find a hopeful image in the Mennonite heritage, however, suggests a challenge for Mennonites. Where are the images and symbols that provide positive alternatives or at least correctives to the messages projected by the martyr tradition? Where are the images that support the lived experience of many contemporary Mennonites who are immersed in the world, see it as a religious obligation to be active in the social order, and who see love requiring expression through social and political systems, not just personal interaction or rejection of social and political systems? This is a challenge for Mennonite historians and thinkers. As Stephanie notes, the martyr stories are not likely to be those stories, especially if presented as "a one sided diet."
How are Mennonites to discover and use alternative models from the tradition? Where are they to be found? I would suggest the images of "Mennonite service" offer a fruitful area for supportive images. What Stephanie seems to want are images for praxis and change in the worldimages of service to others for the common good, images of confronting evil in the world. She wants images to support contemporary Mennonite behavior and life that is active in solving issues of peace and justice in the world. Such images don't focus on the person's effort to remain morally and theologically pure (one interpretation of martyr behavior) but focus on the created order (the world), not just the church, as an appropriate area of activity whose purpose is to move the world toward Shalom.
Surely there are stories in the Mennonite tradition of leaders who made the world a better place, leaders that could be held up as models of faithful people who did not choose to die, may even have been involved in some personal self-sacrifice but altered the created orderthe world in ways that should be honored and were consistent with a tradition which claims to follow a God of love. Such stories would seem especially appropriate and necessary in a tradition where one's behavior, not one's beliefs, are the final test of one's faith and beliefs. Perhaps Mennonites need another book, not for the defenseless but for the active: The Shalom Theatre or Servant's Mirror of the Committed Christians who, baptized upon confession of faith, and who practiced discipleship by following Jesus' model of care for the poor and oppressed in the world, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 2007.
Mennonites see Jesus' life as the model for faithful behavior. He was in the world bringing healing and love to others, in places where the pure and the pious often did not go. His life shows a social activist more concerned about the poor and afflicted than for preserving his own adherence to theological doctrine. He seems to have chided those so concerned. He expressed his theology in action.
The emphasis on "community" inherent in the Mennonite tradition might offer additional stories of leaders who worked diligently for the common good, even at great personal risk. The actions may have been focused on the church community. However, the stories may have applicability (provide an archetype) to those who now see God's will to act in the broader communitythe political/social/cultural/diverse world.
Evaluation of the martyr stories in terms of their impact on those within the Mennonite tradition is important, as Stephanie has done. There is a further question to be asked. What messages do the Mennonite martyr stories convey to those outside the Mennonite fold? An accurate answer would require focus groups and dialogue with others. One can offer some suspicions, however.
No doubt the stories may evoke a certain admiration and sympathy for the courage of the Mennonites who faced death for their convictions. However, I suspect the stories reinforce some stereotypes of Mennonites I have heard from some outside the Mennonite fold. Mennonites have an self assumed moral and religious superiority that is displayed through "in-group" behavior that is not welcoming, even "puts down" those outside the fold. Our Mennonite forbears stood firm in the face of death. How did your tradition behave? We have a level of truth and conviction for which we are humbly proud. Our tenacity of belief shames your mainstream religion.
This need for alternative stories illustrates an important fact about language and about the transmission of heritage. Language is filled with images, symbols, and stories. When they are used singularly or force fed they can be destructive. Typically they place an emphasis on one dimension of life and experience and need to be balanced with images, symbols, and stories that draw our attention to other elements of reality. We know this in most of life and balance images without much forethought. For some reason in religion, politics, and marketing (to name but a few) we think it is necessary to provide a "one sided diet." It is a way of forming an identity and distinguishing one group from another. Unfortunately it tends to highlight our differences and distort the ambiguity and the fullness of life. In this case the "one sided diet" of the martyr stories without heavy focus on alternative images gives a distorted picture of virtue and of the heritageand dare one say, of the gospelin which love of God and love of neighbor are to be the hallmarks of one's convictions, not the level of tenacity of holding to theological convictions, especially a tenacity that leads to death. At least that seems to be Stephanie's story.
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