Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Mennonites and Conflict: Re-Examining Mennonite History and Contemporary Life

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Mennonites and Conflict: Re-Examining Mennonite History and Contemporary Life

Article excerpt

Abstract: Although Mennonite scholarship has tended to downplay the role of conflict in Mennonite life or treat it as an aberration to be explained, this paper suggests that conflict is a constant and central fact of Mennonite history, the rule rather than the exception. We discuss how and why conflict has been a problematic theme of Mennonite scholarship. Based on several sociological and historiographic treatments of religious and cultural conflict, we propose a model for understanding intra-Mennonite conflict and its relation to broader cultural and political dynamics. Specifically, Mennonites experience ongoing tensions between their central ideological paradigms of "traditionalism" and "communalism"-paradigms which pull them both rightward and leftward in the North American political culture.


The subject of conflict has received relatively little attention from students of Mennonite life. (1) Why this reticence to discuss conflict? Have Mennonites somehow been exempted from the harsh realities of conflictual relations with which the rest of the world has had to reckon? Or has Mennonite scholarship simply downplayed the conflictual aspects of Mennonite life, opting instead to focus on instances of agreement? Or do background theological or theoretical assumptions obscure conflict for the observer? These are among the questions addressed in this volume, which we hope will prompt us to think more carefully about a topic that has been difficult for Mennonites to deal with candidly and openly.


Scholars of Anabaptist/Mennonite groups have frequently portrayed these communities as possessing a unified set of beliefs and normative standards. Sociologists studying Amish, Hutterite and Mennonite groups have often described them as having clearly defined and consensually accepted social norms. Within this rubric, departures from these norms are often treated as "deviance"--as individual in nature and exceptions to the rule.

There are many examples of this approach in sociological literature. Consider, for example, the work of John Hostetler and Gertrude Huntington on Hutterite society. In describing what they call the "genius" of Hutterite society, Hostetler and Huntington clearly assume a "consensual" (or what the sociologist Raft Dahrendorf has described as a "utopian" (2)) model of Hutterite society, wherein socialization has done its work and a communal consensus has been attained. "Each individual," they note:

   knows what is expected of him; he wants to follow these
   expectations and, in most instances, is able to do so. He
   identifies ideologically and emotionally with the colony system.
   There is a strong aversion to the ways of the Draussiger, the
   outsider, who is a child of the world. The Hutterite looks at
   himself as belonging, not to a world created by Newton, Beethoven,
   Sartre, or Einstein, but to the model described in the Bible. The
   colony is for him, as for certain other ascetic Christian groups, a
   paradise surrounded by vast numbers of unconverted human beings
   whose destiny is determined by God and whom he will not judge. (3)

Calvin Redekop, in his study of Old Colony Mennonites, offers a similar description:

   There is an amazing degree of conformity to the Old Colony goal
   system. The deviant is the exception rather than the rule. When
   there is a transgression from accepted Old Colony norms, the
   informal discussions in which the members vent their disapproval of
   the transgressor and his act are numerous and intense. Accordingly,
   deviants are usually brought into line again because the "costs"
   involved in continued deviance are too great. Social control
   resides, in other words, in the bosom of each Colonist. (4)

Increasing diversity (ethnic, historical, class, etc.) across the Mennonite landscape has made it more difficult to portray communities in such terms. …

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