Reflections

Reflections on the Charlotte Flyer

by Bruce Leichty

The exact text of the flyer distributed at Charlotte 2005 can be viewed here.  I looked at it again after the conference to see what about it could have possibly been so offensive to persons without a predetermined agenda so as to provoke complaints about it and, ultimately, an attempt to foil or forbid its distribution inside the convention center.  The answer is:  nothing.

Anyone with any questions at all could have quickly determined that the forum was not part of the official program of Mennonite Church USA.  Not only does the flyer refer prominently to the event as an “Un-Convention,” it also describes an event that lasts an entire day.  A few minutes with the conference program for Thursday, July 7 would have quickly revealed that none of the Un-Convention events were described in the conference program.

There are only two references in the flyer that I thought could have stood out as remarkable in any way at all.  One is a reference to “historical revisionism” in the biographical notes on Ingrid Rimland Zundel.  Perhaps a person completely unschooled in this term might have been unnerved at the prospect of a challenge to orthodox history generally, or WWII history in particular (although WWII was nowhere mentioned in the flyer).  Could Mennonites, a people who themselves rewrote and reinterpreted the history of the church in the 16th century, now be so closed off to a dissenting view on history that the mere prospect would be considered offensive?

Anabaptists themselves are the beneficiaries of a species of historical revisionism, since they were almost uniformly pilloried and condemned in early “official” accounts.  One early English language defender of the Anabaptists, Joseph Stennett, wrote in 1705:

It ought to be consider’d, that it is no easy matter to come at the certain Knowledge of many things that were transacted, specially in that Time of War and popular Tumults, which, if known, might elucidate the History of the Anabaptists beyond the Sea.  The Slaughter and Extirpation of so many of them, the great prejudice against them in the Minds of both Papists and Lutherans, from whom the Historians of that time of either Communion had their accounts, might occasion no small exaggeration in their relation of that Sedition….[T]o obtain certain Knowledge of a matter of Fact, sometimes requires more Labour, than many Authors are willing to take for their own information or that of the Publick. An Answer to David Ruffen’s “Fundamentals Without a Foundation, or a True Picture of the Anabaptists” (Reflections on Mr. Ruffen’s Tenth Chapter), p. 239, by Joseph Stennett, found in Answers to the Christian Minister’s Reasons for Baptizing Infants, by Samuel Stennet, D.D. (1704) (original work located in John Hay Library of Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island).  

Accordingly, historical revisionism, taken in the abstract, should be neither offensive or threatening to Mennonites; to the contrary, Mennonites are uniquely situated to appreciate the import of such labor.

The only other reference I could see in the flyer to words that Mennonites might have found unusual was the title of one of Michael Hoffman’s books, Judaism’s Strange Gods.

Again, I had to ask myself the question, is it possible that North American Mennonites have been so conditioned by their culture that they are offended by the mere suggestion that there could be “strangeness” or deviance in a religion not their own?  Would they not think, as I thought when I first saw the title of this book, that perhaps an author was raising his voice in the best tradition of Elijah against latter day Israelitish straying after gods other than the one true God?

After all, it was acceptable for Bible professor Michele Hostetler of Hesston (KS) College to say during her message from the convention platform that the Mennonite Church USA was “the beggar” in the story found in Acts 3, not Peter or John; if the implication of institutional straying or waywardness or neediness could be made there, why could it not be made elsewhere?

Or had Mennonites placidly accepted that such prophetic speech, like miracles and dreams and angelic visitation, had ceased after the first century, or after the language of technology overwhelmed the lingua franca?  This would not be consistent with a people who have not hesitated to identify false gods of militarism and materialism in North American culture.

Surely my people did not believe that the historical critical method of scholarship–which is nothing more than a commitment to careful sifting of evidence and truth-telling, even if unpopular–or that Bible-based critiques of false religion, were ipso facto offensive.

So then I thought, maybe some were offended by the fact that some group other than a group supporting gays and lesbians had dared hold a conventicle outside the parameters of official Charlotte 2005, or that we were being allowed to distribute literature where “BMC” (Brethren and Mennonites Council for Lesbian/Gay Concerns) was not.  I had to remind convention planners that there was an important distinction:  Good Information Advocates was not advocating, as has BMC, a position or action contrary to a resolution adopted by Mennonite Church USA or its predecessors.  Perhaps this subtlety escaped some complainers.

I can only hope that the complainers were not motivated by a conviction that no voices should be heard at the conference other than officially approved voices.  Delegate sessions have already taken on the tone of tight control over speech and heavy-handedness in dealing with even the mildest suggestion of dissent.  I am thinking, for example, of the motion that was made at Charlotte to suspend a rule requiring amendments to go first to committee.   Moderator Duane Oswald said there would be no discussion allowed on the motion, but then proceeded to himself tell delegates why the motion should be defeated.

I think I can safely assume that most Mennonites would not react as one Convention-goer did when he saw that speaker Michael Hoffman hailed from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  He immediately opined that anyone coming from this hotbed of white supremacism (his description) must himself be a white supremacist.  I told him, as I would tell everyone, that a person should not be judged by his place of residence.  (Can anything good come out of Nazareth?)

If we accept the premises about reasonable Mennonite responses noted above, that leaves only one possibility:  the people that complained about the flyer had a predetermined agenda.  They believed they knew something about Michael Hoffman, or Ingrid or Ernst Zundel, or Bruce Leichty, that effectively disqualified those individuals from any opportunity to state their opinions or tell their stories.

In the case of Canadian Mennonites present at Charlotte–the majority of whom were reached with flyers–it seems likely that they have been totally brainwashed by accounts in their mainstream media that have vilified and demonized Ernst Zundel ever since he began challenging standard historical orthodoxy. Their embarrassed acquiescence to this slanted coverage has in essence made it possible for the government of Canada to get away with yet bigger and bolder outrages such as the secret proceeding that resulted in Zundel being found a national security threat to Canada and consigned to a prison cell in Germany in February 2005.

The presence of such agendas extraneous to the text of the flyer, of course, are small consolation, since those attitudes are so un-Mennonite and so unreasonable in the extreme, that they crumple under their own absence of dignity.

Some credit must be given to MCUSA Executive Board for resisting the totalitarian impulses of the complainers in that the Executive Board refrained from taking any formal action to bar the distribution of the flyers, and ultimately declined to outright forbid flyer distribution inside the convention center.  The informal action that the Executive Board did take (see separate story) was taken without benefit of any input from Good Information Advocates, which I believe could have gone a long way to offset the complaints of those who were offended, and those that they turned to for aid and comfort.

Bruce Leichty may be contacted at bruce@goodinformation.org.