An Aggressive Mennonite

I am an aggressive man. And I am a Mennonite.

Live with it.

A bizarre way to begin an essay on Mennonite identity, I agree. Please feel free to substitute a cognate of your choosing should the word aggressive be too, well, aggressive for your taste. “Assertive” has always been au courant in empathic circles. “Zealous” might work for the ethically minded. Admittedly I have always had a soft spot for “brassy.” Yet pardon me if I stick with my original. After all, it seems counterproductive to check self-determination against the sensitivities of others.

But, then, maybe that’s the Mennonite way?

As I said, I am an aggressive man.

I am the only member of my writing group who did not spend her/his youth steeped in Mennonite culture. Rather than a “cradle” Mennonite, I prefer to consider myself a “contract” Mennonite, as if the Confession of Faith had been handed to me at my confirmation to be signed in triplicate. I entered the Mennonite life quite willingly, unremarkably actually, after reading a theologian, a non-Mennonite one, Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas, an ethicist currently at Duke (who some might say is himself an aggressive man), had once worked with John Howard Yoder at Notre Dame. Based on his interactions with Yoder, Hauerwas wrote that if he were ever to leave Methodism, he would become a Mennonite. I was intrigued.

Then after moving back to Indianapolis from Boston in the early 1990's, I met a social work colleague–a bona fide “cradle”–who introduced me to the Mennonite congregation in town. I then did the de rigeur readings: Politics of Jesus, Upside Down Kingdom, The Anabaptist Vision, a few jaunts through the Mennonite Quarterly Review at the local seminary, the drill. The emphasis on community and service appealed to me. The peace position made sense to me. I signed.

So why, I have been asking myself as I have been contemplating this essay, does the idea of my “Mennonite Identity” lead me to become so irritable? I am quite pleased with my congregation, after all, its commitment to service both within the community and without, its offering of religious guidance to my children. I like the people with whom I worship: some are pains, yes, but then so am I often. I simply ignore Conference and MC USA shenanigans, no big deal. True, after almost twenty years here in Indy I still find people who say, “You mean, you’ve been here that long?”–a question, of course, that never seems to get asked of “cradles” and Goshen grads, no matter how long they have been darkening the door. But honestly: I am quite glad not to be able to play the Mennonite Game. I do not have to deal with the baggage that comes along with the ticket allowing one to play.

But perhaps therein lies the answer.

Simply because my family heritage is not Mennonite does not at all mean that my family heritage played no role in my becoming Mennonite. Quite the contrary. My story does not begin in Franconia or even Kalona. It begins in another part of Iowa, several hours away by buggy (or black bumper, white bumper, whatever): Runnells, a small rural community just outside Des Moines. Baggage, you see, does not always have to come engraved in Deitsch.

My maternal grandmother was born just before World War I, the second daughter of her parents, a surly bricklayer and a very anxious farm girl. Because of complex family politics, however, Grandma was raised by her maternal grandparents, a longsuffering saint of a man and a very godly, very worshipful shrew. Oh, yes, and with her uncle, a mere few years older than she–that “old drunk” as she would lovingly call him. From her grandfather my grandmother learned a love of men who could become “bigger-than-life” in her mind. From her uncle she learned a contempt for all men who did not meet that bigger-than-life litmus test. And from her grandmother? She learned a scriptural tongue that could slice the soul out of any parishioner who dared disagree with her. (Only by speaking the truth that sometimes hurts, mind you, only the truth.)

In the thirties my grandmother led my grandfather and toddler mother to a fundamentalist church in Des Moines that had just been established by a former circuit preacher in the area. She heard his family singing on the radio–and she knew that “Brother B” was to be the end-all of all sermonizers. There my toddler mother met my toddler father, and in the midst of the Holiness movement they grew up to become my parents. As happens with all idyllic tales, however, Brother B eventually had to hightail it out of the congregation for, let’s say, financial reasons, and my parents escaped to a Swedish Covenant church on the other side of town. Still, I saw my maternal grandmother every day of my early life, and it is from her that I learned the fine art of, shall we say, “human observation.”

You see, Brother B may have incensed more than a few congregants at the time of his departure, but he forever remained the religious figure in my grandmother’s life. (Once a saintly father-figure, always a saintly father-figure, I guess, foibles or no. Let’s just say that consistency was not necessarily Grandma’s strong suit.) All other male leaders, though? Beware. Her uncle, for example, who converted to the church before World War II and then never drank a drop? Mr. Blowhard Religious, that’s what he was. Don’t even ask about other elders in the church. Preachers would come and go, and she would tolerate the nice ones, excoriate the pompous ones, all the while cataloguing in detail how various words did not fit with various actions.

It was from my grandmother that I learned a lesson that forms a core part of my religious heritage, even to this moment: people frequently–frequently–use religious language to prop up their own personal needs and prejudices. The only person Grandma never seemed to be able to apply that principle toward was, of course, herself. (Oh, yes, and Brother B, lest we forget.) Otherwise the great controversies of the Church, whether local or corporate, were for her nothing more than family squabbles writ large. You might call it theology but, hey, it’s really only a cover for your complaints about your mama.

Unbeknownst to her, Grandma was the one who introduced me to family systems theory, to the idea that our controversies and commitments are merely the vehicles through which we express our emotional lives. This is so embedded in my consciousness, I simply cannot think otherwise. I never, never read about a strong position taken by someone, religious or not, leftist or rightist, trivial or profound, without thinking to myself, “Boy, I wonder what his problem is?” That, my friends, is an aggressive position.

As I have grown older, I of course have learned that, not only do people indeed feel strongly about their convictions, but they also actually believe that it is the convictions that led them to feel strongly. Yet I have to confess that, even in my fifties, I find myself wondering when we will all stop this cognitive, content-oriented silliness and get on with our lives. Yes, I realize that I am the odd man out.Iam the one who is embodying my grandmother into the twenty-first century. In the end, I may have to face that your theology is not merely the outcome of my theory. Time will tell.

It is this heritage, though, that led me to sit back quietly during the fundamentalism of my youth, smile, play the piano and sing pretty–and question every word out of the preacher’s mouth, wondering how they squared with the man whom I came to know as the father of some of my better friends. It is this heritage that led me to sit back quietly during the evangelicalism of my young adulthood, play the piano and sing pretty–and question every word out of the preacher’s mouth, wondering why he gets into such a hip-hop about the scriptural basis for “right to life” and yet not the scriptural basis for “right to peace.” It is this heritage that drove me to the Mennonite Church, where I sing pretty but a cappella, and where I am odd man out in my family that still prides itself in “God Bless America” and am welcomed into a community that has been odd man out since the first pages of Martyrs Mirror.

And it is this heritage that causes me to roll my eyes when I read of the necessity of Jim Brenneman’s defense of the “Star Spangled Banner” at the next baseball game, addressed to the thousands of alumni, donors and The Mennonite “Letters to the Editor” authors who are riding their moral high horses around campus as if Goshen were the western branch of the Belmont. Good Lord, what that man has had to go through, all in the name of peace!

But this is different, of course. This is Goshen. This is Anabaptism. This is “speaking truth to power.”

Have you ever noticed how some Mennonites just seem to groove–and I mean groove –on speaking truth to power? Nothing to do with how their Daddy ran the church of their youth, though. Thank goodness we at least know that.


Yet life is more complex than my heritage or my irritability, isn’t it. Real people died on the plains of twentieth-century Ukraine for peace. Real Hutterite boys died in Fort Leavenworth for peace. Real young Yoder and Stolzfus men mopped up floors in mental hospitals, not for Vietnam, but for peace. SST kids go to Nicaragua for peace, to Egypt for peace. MVS kids actually live in the bowels of New York City for peace. People stand arm-in-arm at the border of Gaza for peace.

So today, what is my “Mennonite Identity” in light of all that?

I work at the Veterans Administration Hospital for peace. I support the Constitution for peace. I listen to boys who have killed for peace.

That’s right: in their minds killed for peace.

And that’s right: in my mind, listened for peace.

Yes, I know: some of my brothers and sisters, Mennonites, stand in the burned-out remnants of an Iraqi building and listen quietly, intently to the mother who grieves for her daughter who was run over by an American vehicle; for her brother who was shot by an American sniper–“He wasn’t a terrorist, for God’s sake, he was a barber!”; for her husband who one day walked downstairs and never came back, never.

And they cry, “Peace? What peace? Where is God?”

I, in contrast, a Mennonite, sit in a small, yet comfortable office and listen quietly, intently to a kid, once barely out of high school, after years of fighting an alcoholic father and avoiding a mother who had always thought him “no damn good”; a kid who wanted to believe something more about himself, who actually believed that his country should not be held hostage to terrorists, who came to love the men of his platoon as more than brothers, who arrived on an Iraqi runway realizing that, no, he really hadn’t signed up for this, had he; a kid who–“Please believe me, please: that girl was just there, really! You can’t just stop one of those things!”; a kid who later that week, in a night so full of fire it turned the sky red, saw the eighteen-year-old from New Jersey lose his head–right over there, dear God, his head; a kid who barely a month later held in his arms his best friend from T-ball days, signed up together, they did, to get away from one hell, believing, oh, so believing, yet only to find themselves in a worse hell, together one last time, one whispering to the other as his life blood flowed onto the ground, “Tell my wife to marry again, please. Please.”

And I cry, “Peace? What peace? Where is God?”

My Mennonite brothers and sisters bring me an Iraqi mother and scream, “This is war!” I bring them a Hoosier kid and scream, “This is war!”

In an Iraqi building, with a sobbing woman, they are Mennonites.

In an American hospital, with a sobbing man, I am a Mennonite.

I am an aggressive man. I am a Mennonite. I signed up for this. I’m going nowhere else. My children know no other way of life. I sit with killers who sob, who risk their lives in far-off places, who hear the “Star Spangled Banner” and pray, “Please God, please: let it mean something, for the kid from New Jersey, for my pal, his wife, me.” I worship with believers who sob, who risk their lives in far-off places, who hear the “Star Spangled Banner” and pray, “Please God, please: not here, let us stand for something our mothers and fathers died for, not here.”

Live with it, Rod. Live with it.

All the while a song plays in my head. Drum sag’ ich noch einmal, Gott ist die Liebe. Gott ist die Liebe. Er . . .liebt . . .auch . . .mich.

About the Author

Rodney Deaton

Rodney Deaton works as a psychiatrist in Indianapolis, splitting his time between his private psychotherapy practice and his practice at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center. He did his psychiatric training at Duke University and his child psychiatric training at Harvard Medical School/The Children’s Hospital of Boston. He is also a graduate of the Harvard Law School. Last year he completed The Latin Tutor, a yet unpublished novel about a young man from a privileged world who discovers that his biological father is Amish. He and his wife have three children. A brief profile of him appears athttp://www.indiana.edu/~crimjust/non_tenure.php?nav=people