Heritage can be a Good Word

Ervin Stutzman is executive director for Mennonite Church USA
Ervin Stutzman is executive director for Mennonite Church USA

By Ervin Stutzman

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9

From conversations I’ve had with a variety of people, I sometimes get the impression that “heritage” is a bad word. Especially for my friends who long to be on the leading edge for positive change in the world, “heritage” implies a backward gaze to an irretrievable past, likely through cheap rose-colored glasses. But for others, especially my Native American friends, “heritage” is a deeply-valued concept. Their biennial gatherings feature joyful celebrations of the culture and customs of their forebears from long ago.

Yet at its best, the celebration of heritage is a reminder of our most cherished values, the bedrock on which we have built our culture and household of faith. It is an expression of gratitude for the faithful men and women who courageously paved the way for us.

In regard to my own Anabaptist heritage, I try to stand where I can see the landscape both behind and in front of me. In several of my most recent books I take a look at the past, with a view to gleaning what is useful for the future. Delving into the history of my extended family and church community has given me a deeper appreciation for my faith heritage. I understand more fully now the challenges my ancestors faced in their generation and I have gained a greater determination to face the challenges in mine.  As I have come to recognize their deep longing to do what was right, I have become a more empathetic person.

As a scholar and a minister, I’ve pondered the many changes that have taken place among Mennonites over the last century. I’ve reflected on the ways that Christian faith, beliefs, values, and practices are passed from one generation to another, particularly in the Anabaptist tradition, which has treasured its spiritual legacy but shunned written creeds.

And frankly, I’ve been dismayed at the rapidity with which many in the Mennonite tradition are abandoned their Anabaptist heritage—not just the word “Anabaptist” but some of the most cherished beliefs and values for which it stands. In his book, Leaving Anabaptism, Cal Redekop expressed deep lament for the Mennonite denomination of his childhood, which have abandoned the name “Mennonite” and moved away from their Anabaptist heritage of peace and nonresistance.

At the same time, I’m heartened to see a new generation of seekers knocking at our door, having caught a glimpse of God chosen future through Anabaptist lens. Take for example the vision of J.R. Rozko of Missio Alliance. Although he did not grow up in an Anabaptist tradition, and has no organic connections to a Mennonite church, he is organizing a conference called “Church beyond Christendom,” to bring together Anabaptist admirers from a variety of traditions.

These people aren’t clamoring to join the Mennonite Church, but they want to glean the best from our faith heritage in order to follow Jesus more faithfully. The meeting organizers have invited historic Anabaptist groups to help sponsor the conference, and Mennonite Church USA is planning to do so. Why shouldn’t our faith heritage bless people from many other traditions as well?

Ecclesiastes 1:9 reminds me that history often moves in a cycle of sorts; in each generation the descendants of the characters who played large roles on the stage of the past must learn their own stage parts, and make many of the same acting mistakes. When we empathically study the lives of our spiritual forebears, we can learn from their accomplishments as well as their mistakes.

So this is a call to give careful thought to the heritage that you have received. Gaze at it closely, if you will, and celebrate the good you find there.

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One thought on “Heritage can be a Good Word

  1. Wish my father had lived to see this one ~ M. Morrow-Farrell, Philadelphia, PA.

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