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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.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jayson Giesbrecht #

    Hey Ryan,
    I find your observations very interesting and meaningful, especially the themes and contrast you noticed between the MB and Mennonite circles. Now when it comes to the whole logo thing, I just need to point out that there is clearly a superior choice. In a culture where the forceful and fear-striking sports names prevail, there are still some options that one can, with a clear conscience, cheer for. Penguins. How can you really argue with that. There’s nothing about a penguin that really grinds against my morals, faith, or anything for that matter. At the worst, considering an animal that comes from such a frigid climate may send a little shiver down your spine. But most likely that shiver comes from the almost unimaginable talent represented and the on-ice product that wears that logo. It’s hard to say.
    Jayson

    October 23, 2011
    • Ha!! Thanks for the reminder, Jayson. Nothing too offensive about a penguin is there :)? You are a diehard…

      Incidentally, I played hockey tonight against a team that just happened to have a lot of players of aboriginal descent. Any guesses what jerseys they were wearing? Yup. Chicago Blackhawks. Perhaps at times we are too anxious to be offended on behalf of others… :).

      October 24, 2011
  2. jschmidty #

    “Perhaps at times we are too anxious to be offended on behalf of others” Nice quote. A good reminder to always consult those your proposing to represent.

    October 24, 2011
  3. Paul Johnston #

    It seems that an unfortunate dichotomy has emerged over the last 40-50 years. Praxis seems to have evolved as something distinct from and seperate to prayer. It seems in many Christian circles there are those who do and those who pray. How very different from the Jesus example. In Christ, prayer and praxis are interdependant. No action can be considered “of the Father”, without prayer. Similarly no prayer seems conclusive solely within the dialogue but rather extends outward, into some form of action or response.

    I like this quote from Matthew Kelly in “Rediscovering Catholicism”…

    “Osmosis is the scientific theory that states, what is more dense will filter through to what is less dense. If we are going to be true to our values and live Christ centered lives, we need to build up a certain density within us. This inner strength, or densitiy, will allow us to resist the pressure to abandon our values…

    When we have this density within us, we will have a Christian effect on our environment. When we don’t have this density, our environment will effect us. The most powerful way to build up this density, this inner strength, is prayer.”

    As for “branding”…don’t get me started! 🙂 The very notion of Christianity as a brand makes me want to go to the Temple and start flipping tables!

    Clearly an approach to faith that imbues cultural perogatives before Spirit led ones. Somewhat related, I like this quote from Mother Theresa, ” When once a chairman of a multinational company came to see me, to offer me a property in Bombay, he first asked: ‘Mother, how do you manage your budget?” I asked him who had sent him here. He replied: ‘I felt an urge inside me.’ I said: other people like you come to see me and say the same. It was clear God sent you, Mr. A, as He sends Mr. X, Mrs. Y, Miss Z, and they provide the material means we need for our work. The grace of God is what moved you. You are my budget.”

    October 24, 2011
    • I like Kelly’s image of building up “density.” How very true… So often we split apart prayer and praxis to the detriment of both.

      October 24, 2011
  4. jschmidty #

    Ryan, your words strike a cord with me. I was almost shocked to see the cover of the recent Canadian Mennonite. For my wife it reinforced the distance between the topics of the Canadian Mennonite and her personal faith. For me, I simply wondered why bother? With all the issues in the world, why choose this one? For a struggling city that finally has something to cheer about and is exerting overall positive energy, why be the negative voice? Surely there are many contradictions in our lives, but to choose a logo in a sport that already has open associations with the military seems like shooting a lame duck. Alas it is perhaps about personal branding more than about real change. Maybe the Canadian Mennonite should discuss how we wrestle with the contractions in our lives, rather than attacking a somewhat petty target.

    October 24, 2011
    • Well said! Far easier (and more provocative) to shoot a lame duck that just happens to be associated with a wildly popular phenomenon, than to pursue deeper issues. Why not look at the culture of violence hockey promotes and legitimates, for example? Or why not probe issues around how and why we (as Mennonites, Christians, human beings) are prepared to spend vast sums of money to be entertained by overpaid athletes? I’m sure there are more issues that would have been far more profitably pursued…

      To be fair, CM did include a subsequent article in this issue where David Driedger offered a different (and more thoughtful, in my opinion) view. But the title on the cover sure does speak loudly.

      October 24, 2011
  5. Larry S #

    Ryan, interesting observations about what you see/hear in your migration between the Mennonite/MB worlds.

    As to the ‘military’ hockey logo issue. When I was growing up in my MB world watching hockey was eschewed due to it’s violence and fighting.

    So I’m surprised that peaceful Mennonites actually watch and cheer such a violent game regardless of the team’s logo. 🙂

    October 31, 2011
    • Ah, well, I’ve been part of the hockey world since I was six years old—violence and all! And now, I’m traipsing all over southern AB to watch my son play. One of life’s many contradictions and compromises, I suppose :).

      I continue to think that focusing on how/if we, as Mennonites, participate in a sport that can, but need not, be unnecessarily aggressive is an enormous exercise in missing the point of Jesus’ teaching on peace. There are many, many areas of our lives as individuals and communities where meaningful peace is absent or only partially realized—we would do far better to focus on these than on hockey logos, in my view.

      October 31, 2011

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