(I felt gleeful & encouraged!) MHSC: Contesting Convention

(Feature photo: Laureen Harder-Gissing, Andrew E. Dyck, Paul Doerksen, Chair Carlos Colorado; Janis Thiessen at the podium.) 

Last Saturday, we attended the final day of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada’s People of Diversity conference at the University of Winnipeg. I wrote about the first session; now here’s the second!

After we’d had our coffee and met a few people, the next session began! This one was entitled Contesting Convention — featuring, of course, papers on unconventional Mennonites. I was intrigued! I leaned in closer.

Paul Doerksen of Canadian Mennonite University spoke on Developing a “More Honest Anabaptist Political Theology”?, which… and I might be getting this wrong, as my notes (and brain) were not sufficient to keep up… but I believe this paper was interacting with and responding to A. James Reimer’s work — touching on the problematic elements of churches, the chasm between Christians in public institutional life, and their own private lives (*cough*Yoder!*cough*). WHO needs to be more honest? Is theology itself superfluous? And thus my notes came to an end… and thus, the truth is revealed: I am not a theologian. Though I do enjoy attempting to pretend to understand. Alas, now that I’m trying to blog about this, it’s ridiculously obvious that I don’t get it. Maybe someday.

I felt encouraged and inspired by Laureen Harder-Gissing, as she spoke on Canadian Mennonites at the Edges of Activism, 1970-1990s. I loved hearing about issues-oriented Mennonite groups that advocated for unpopular causes, such as a Sunday School group at Stirling Ave Church entitled “Read, Share, Act”, and a peace rally and C.O. reunion in 1982. Others encouraged living below the taxable level… the “more with less” cookbook from Harold Press (tagline: “Add justice to your shopping list.” LOVE!) The alternative toys campaign, endeavoring to establish “war-toy-free zones. We learned of Fred Snyder who bought out a store’s inventory of G.I. Joes just befor Christmas… then promptly returned them all immediately after the holiday. Churches as sites of activism, and sanctuary for refugees. Witness For Peace in 1985 committed to non-violence, and supporting the victims of war. Project Plowshares, protesting cruise missiles. An Abbotsford church put on a “Hairshow” at the same time as the Air Show. Refuse the Cruise of 1992, Sing for Peace in 1999 condemning the conflict in Kosovo. Often smaller groups were able to act in meaningful ways, where larger churches were not. Fascinating!

If I could sum up Janis Thiessen’s presentation, I’d use the word “gleeful”. She seemed gleeful, or maybe I’m just projecting, because that’s how I felt listening to her. You may remember Thiessen from the Food History Truck which made its rounds this past summer. She’s a vivid, engaging speaker whose paper was about John Braun and the Radical Mennonite Union. What a fascinating study! This was a student-led group at Simon Fraser University. The group was founded in 1968, part of the Vietnam War draft resistance movement. It began with a manifesto which John Braun later said was “the most ill-tempered thing ever written”, distributed in underground student papers, radicalizing young Mennonites. This contained a radical confession of faith, calling out the church as rigid and outdated, calling for transformation to extend beyond the walls of institutions, a social revolution. “Down with fat-cat Christianity,” “Happiness is smashing the state,” and “God is alive, magic is afoot.” Apparently he’d only made six copies of this manifesto… but it spread like wildfire (see map below):

In an age before copy machines, this manifesto had been re-typed many, MANY times. Thus, John Braun was released from membership in his church. The Radical Mennonite Union applied for a government grant, suggesting that they’d embark on a road trip in a van, stopping to “rap with people” in various Mennonite centres. The first application was denied, but he tried again, this time with letters of support from Rudy Wiebe and Frank H. Epp. John Braun’s report suggested this endeavour was all about cooperation, relaxation, and understanding. And also apparently finding out “What makes this wild ass tick?” (re: someone he interviewed/”rapped with”).  Reflecting on the road trip experience, apparently it had moved from chaos, to restructuring, to mutiny. In the end, he reflected that it had been, “An A-1 learning experience in human nature, group living… and how not to do a project of this nature.” (lol) John Braun’s willingness to be interviewed for Thiessen’s paper is fantastic, indicating that he sees value in this endeavour even still… in his time as a leader of “Radical Mennonites that would not let Mennonite churches die in peace.” Her conclusion was beautiful: even conservative groups have radicals among them! And what was once considered radical, can become mainstream.

And then, the fourth paper was read: Andrew E. Dyck spoke on MB encounters with Ignatian, Benedictine, and Taize Communities. I had no idea that MB churches incorporated these traditions — traditions that encourage listening and growing, using the imagination, appreciating quiet beauty, no emotional coercion, liturgical style, sacred readings, inner life… encouraging diverse kinds of dialogues with God, connecting to other Christian traditions. I thought that was pretty cool.

Time for a frantic lunch! Attendees and presenters alike, we scattered into the cold Winnipeg streets.

And, heads up! The afternoon sessions were Mennonite Identities and Youth and Generation. I’m excited to post about those presentations in the days to come.

Ah, it was so fun to be at this conference!