Peace, Pietism, and Personal Branding
Part of this week was spent at a gathering of Alberta Mennonite pastors just north of Calgary. The drive alone would have made the trip worth it. I had forgotten how spectacularly colourful autumn in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains can be! More importantly, though, it was a good opportunity to connect with new colleagues, as well as to get a sense of some of the strengths, challenges and theological perspectives of a conference that is still fairly new to me.
One of the things I found very interesting over the course of our three days together was the consistent refrain that while our congregations’ commitment to the ethic of peace and justice that Mennonites are known for is good and worthy of affirmation, we must also communicate the importance of a personal and vibrant relationship with Jesus. Again and again, some variation of “the life of faith is not just an ethic or a way of life but a relationship” was heard.
Having spent the overwhelming majority of my life in Mennonite Brethren circles, I found this comment ironic indeed (for those unfamiliar with how and why the Mennonite world has managed to divide itself, the Mennonite Brethren group was a pietistic renewal movement from within the broader Mennonite Church which formally separated in 1860). In the MB world, the comments at denominational gatherings were often the exact opposite of the ones I heard this week. In that context, the challenge was often to help people realize that the life of faith was about more than a personal relationship with Jesus—that following Jesus was a way of life, not just an inner experience.
I suppose the obvious, if uninteresting, comment to make upon observing this irony would be that both conferences could use a more balanced approach. Mennonites ought to become more pious; MB’s ought to become more committed to peace and justice. If we could just meet in the middle we would have a wonderfully holistic package. Or something like that.
But I am less interested in advocating some kind of Mennonite “golden mean” than I am in the matter of theological/denominational “branding” that goes on in postmodern Western culture. The early Anabaptists’ theological identity was forged in a context where choice was largely absent—where one’s religious identity was largely determined by accidents of birth and geography. The early Anabaptists were committed to the life of discipleship as a personal choice, to peace and justice as freely embraced responses in a time and place where personal identity was mostly non-negotiable and unalterable. In that context, these were radical commitments indeed.
Obviously, twenty-first century North America is very different from sixteenth-century Europe. Today, choice is ubiquitous, and our personal identities are virtually endlessly malleable. We carefully shape and sculpt the version of ourselves we want to present to the world, whether through the products we choose to consume, the causes we wish to align ourselves with, the people we associate with, the things we “like” on Facebook, etc. Far from being radical countercultural commitments, personal choice and the right to self-definition are cherished cultural assumptions.
This mentality extends to the church as well. In a cultural context where choice is everything, our choice of church can easily become an extension of our ongoing efforts in personal branding. If we are “peace” people, we choose an Anabaptist church, if we are “liturgical,” we head towards the high churches, if we are passionate about evangelism, we choose an “evangelical” church, if we are committed to social justice, we choose a church with more activistic leanings. We could add more to what would be a very long list.
And churches, I think, can play the same game. We know that we are just one of a number of dishes at the religious smorgasbord, and so we play to our strengths. We look for things to set us apart and appeal to potential consumers. For Mennonites, this often seems to entail an emphasis upon our identity as a “peace church.” The cover of the most recent issue of the Canadian Mennonite, for example, loudly urges Mennonites to “say no” to the NHL Winnipeg Jets‘ new logo because of its close resemblance to the Canadian Air Force symbol. We’re Mennonites, after all, and Mennonites are against war; therefore we shouldn’t affirm militaristic symbols. The logic is quite straightforward, if a bit narrow and simplistic (does the New Testament vision of peace = anti-war? Why focus on the Jets logo and not that, say, that of the Chicago Blackhawks or the New Jersey Devils, or the Columbus Blue Jackets, each of which could probably be cast in ethically problematic terms)? But even if such headlines avoid the complexity of issues around peace and consumerism and entertainment culture, they mark out our territory on the religious spectrum. They reinforce our brand.
It can be extremely difficult not to view religious identity as a function of (and, often, subservient to) personal identity in a culture where individual choice/self-determination is one of our few unquestioned values. Perhaps one of the first steps in countering this trend, as is so often the case, is basic awareness of the issue. Just this week I found myself voting on a Facebook page evaluating the new Jets logo and its militaristic associations. After voting, I found myself wondering: What on earth does clicking “correctly” on an online survey about this relatively trivial matter accomplish? Does protesting against an NHL hockey logo make me a more peaceful person? Does it do anything to help those suffering from all kinds of violence close to home or around the world? Does it lead to any fruitful conversation about the biblical vision of peace in the context of relationship with God and others?
No, no, and no, alas. What it does, along with the myriad other things we support and identify with and “like,” and “occupy,” is fortify my personal brand in a cultural climate where, increasingly, little else matters.