Gerhard was reluctant to talk about his past, and for the most part it was as if it never happened. That’s the way it is with Mennonites, they only remember what they want. And when the memories are too difficult, they fall back on their suffering. Many today are not aware of the past. Mennonite history has painted over the rust and rot with the white paint of martyrdom. All of their troubles are laid at someone else’s feet. The Nogai raiders attacked their settlements for no reason; Makhno, a simple bandit too lazy to create his own Golden Age; the German army tricked them into militarization in World War One and coerced them in World War Two; are they Dutch are they German? They don’t even know. They have been drinking their own bath water so long they think it’s wine.
Knowing the past is just the first step. What exactly happened in Ukraine and Poland and Germany in the 1940’s? Why were Nazi bigwigs peddling their evil in Canada, and why did Mennonites drink so deeply from that cup? Is Gerhard’s Journey the tip of the iceberg, or is it the whole iceberg? How can they go from this history and claim to be Christians, much less pacifists? The slate doesn’t wipe itself clean. Didn’t happen doesn’t cut it. Who can wipe the slate clean? This is the challenge of Gerhard’s Journey.
* * * * *
If you took all Mennonites, including the horse and buggy ones, the no-shiny-objects ones, the communal ones, the beardy ones with hats, the beardy ones without hats, the no-electricity-unless-it-is-used-to-make-money ones, and all the others and crammed them into one city, you would have a city the size of metropolitan Stockholm or Vienna. They would arrive from 87 countries, and if they brought their religion with them, you would have them worshiping in their own way in 305 denominations. It might surprise you that more of the city’s inhabitants would arrive from the continent of Africa than from North America and Europe. But they wouldn’t stick around for long. It’s not just that Mennonites have a wanderlust, it’s that they tend not to tolerate each other’s differences, so rather than working things out they move some place new, where they can make their own rules and with any luck, negotiate advantages for themselves that would not be available to their neighbours. It’s how they get ahead. They talk about peace, but they can’t even be at peace with each other. So you have 305 denominations. Presumably now 306 with the Lancaster Mennonite Conference.
Holländerei no more
At any informal gathering you’ll see Mennonites having a lot of fun with their claims of ethnicity. The Mennonite joke is that they are all related. But the real joke is ethnic Mennonites are a thing of the past.
The Dutch Gambit can no longer be played. Why? Because what it means to be Mennonite has changed. In years gone by Mennonites had certain specific beliefs about religion and shared a cultural background. Today India has nearly twice as many baptized Mennonites as Canada. There will be few Klassen’s, Friesen’s or Wiens’s among them. The Mennonite faith is surviving, and thriving, by following one of the cardinal rules of acquiring wealth – diversification.
Pieter Jansz, one of the first Mennonite missionaries, began the diversification on the Dutch colony of Java in 1851, and today Indonesia boasts nearly as many Mennonites as Canada. Mennonites have sent their sales representatives to every corner of the globe and the harvest in the mission fields has been bountiful. Some Mennonites may still separate themselves from the world to whatever degree they believe to be biblical, but the reality is Mennonites have gone global and mainstream.
Never again will anyone qualify as a Mennonite solely because of his or her surname. Few Mennonites live in closed communities, fewer still are privileged with self-government in civic affairs, gone is plautdietsch as their private language, the one million Mennonites of Asia and Africa have their own informal languages and none of them are plautdietsch. For most Mennonites vareniki is not a dish of their culture. Gone are die Stillen im Lande (the quiet people on the land), and gone is Mennonite as a separate ethnicity. Today celebrating ethnic Mennonite “culture” denigrates the majority of Mennonites who couldn’t tell a zwieback from a rollkuchen. Given the diversity of current Mennonite demographics, there is no single distinguishing feature defining a Mennonite other than his or her religious beliefs. Harvard historian and practicing Mennonite Ben Goossen politely shines a light on why the concept of an ethnic Mennonite must go:
“Mennonite ethnicity” refers primarily to white, wealthy members in Europe and the Americas who believe themselves descended from the first Anabaptists of the Reformation. Contributing to the construction of a racial hierarchy in the church, this term teaches “ethnically Mennonite” children that they are more special than their non-white coreligionists, while telegraphing to non-“ethnic Mennonites” that they are not as authentic. Along with many other agents of white supremacy, the language of “Mennonite ethnicity” is keeping Anabaptist communities both deeply segregated and deeply unequal. Most notably, it enables “ethnic Mennonites” to tell themselves that they are members of a historically persecuted minority. Despite the fact that most Mennonites from Europe and the Americas are extremely privileged by global standards, stories of “ethnic Mennonite” martyrdom have allowed many of them to emphasize victimhood while remaining silent about their own current positions of power.
 Mennonite World Conference global statistics 2015
 Shellnutt, Kate, Biggest Mennonite Conference Leaves Denomination, Christianity Today, January 2, 2018.
 Goossen, Ben, From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and Mennonite Ethnicity, The Mennonite Quarterly Review, 90 (April 2016), page 162.