Patterns of this World: Institutions and Bureaucracy among the Mennonites

February 28th, 2011 – by Tim Nafziger

“In the world, but not of it.” It is a concept long embraced by Mennonites in style of dress and rejection of other “worldy” trappings. But in the last 50 years, the stance of mainstream Mennonites has changed  dramatically. Embracing radio, television and lipstick, we’ve come to see our Christian distinctiveness through our dissenting view on war, our commitment to simple living and our Christian service. Unfortunately, in our rush to engage the world on these issues, we have uncritically embraced a piece of this  aion (Gk., spirit of this world) far more dangerous then lipstick and ties. That is: institutional structures and  bureaucracy.

Tim, you might say, aren’t you being a bit over-dramatic? Can institutional structures really hurt anyone? Aren’t they just neutral tools that can be used for good or ill?

In this first part of my series on bureaucracy and  institutionalism, I’ll draw on three writers to make my case. The first is Kathy Ferguson in her book, The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy. In this quote she clearly names the way institutions co-opt our attempts to form an alternative polis grounded in community:

The [bureaucratic] structures that isolate us undermine politics itself in that they undermine our sociality; they harm our capacity to take the perspective of others unto ourselves and our situation, to imagine alternatives that come from shared experience, to project different futures and redefine past experiences on the basis of other possibilities for individual and collective life. There is a “Catch 22” involved in in this dependency/isolation dialectic: to act socially one must share a common world with others and contribute to the field of meaning that constitutes the world. Any originality of thought or action requires that we be rooted in shared existence; but the more firmly rooted one is in bureaucracy, the less likely one is to think differently, to act differently, or in any way to make a new beginning (14).

In other words, bureaucracy draws us in with its promises of community and shared action, but ultimately co-opts this impulse to the overall goal of keeping the institutional machinery running (9).


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MC USA: The Immigrant Church

February 1st, 2011 – by Alicia Horst

What if we saw all of the church as an immigrant church?

In September of 2009 I began working with NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center.  NewBridges was started and is partially funded by the Harrisonburg District of Virginia Mennonite Conference and some of its churches.  As an agency of the church, it seeks “to address the spiritual, social and economic needs of immigrants in the Shenandoah Valley, and to connect people and congregations in building a resilient community that values our diverse cultural groups.”

I have learned a lot about Mennonite identity by moving between the nonprofit context and the church context. Specifically I’ve learned some of the ways the church sees and describes itself. We often shift our language when speaking of immigration issues. We use “us” and “them,” sometimes regardless of our cultural or ethnic heritage. Empathy and compassion are not always the first responses for those of us who haven’t had to immigrate because of crisis.

I spent my childhood in Italy, and as a result, I enjoy multicultural contexts. I feel wholeness and a sense of peace when I am surrounded by many languages and people groups. I celebrate that I have been able to find meaningful work. But as I do that, I am becoming very aware of my background of privilege.  I don’t really know what it means to have to move through several countries out of desperation for financial, physical or religious security.  I haven’t experienced that level of vulnerability.  I have never relied on a guide to take me through a desert or been packed in a shipping container and become an indentured servant for the fee of my passage.  I do not understand what it means to be separated indefinitely from family.

Most persons born in the U.S. have no idea what it is like to work with the U.S. immigration system. Our current system is based on a patchwork of legislation from different phases of our country’s development and is often irrelevant to the current needs of our society.  Because of the current political rhetoric, the possibility of creating a logical immigration process sometimes seems like an impossible dream.

Here is an example: I met with a man from Sierra Leone who married a U.S. citizen.  By all rights, he can become a U.S. citizen too.  However, his process with immigration has been stalled for years and no amount of trying to communicate with the “powers that be” has helped.  He is simply told that his file is in order but for no articulated reason he must wait for the next step in the process.  If he were wealthy, he could hire a lawyer who may be able to help advocate on his behalf.  As it is, he must continue to wait indefinitely.

Sometimes I wonder if projects abroad are easier to support because “we” are helping “them” and not having to deal with who “us” is.  If we saw all of the church as an immigrant church then perhaps our sense of calling or urgency would shift.  We are not all recent immigrants, but our identity is to be empathetically connected to the entire body of Christ, so sometimes we might need to imagine that someone else’s experience is our own. Otherwise, we tend toward selfishness, ignorance, or avoiding discomfort.

As the church, in the midst of complex systems and allegiances, how we engage in hospitality and listen to stories deeply matters.  The church is rooted in an identity that transcends nationality.  The realm of God beckons our ultimate allegiance.

Alicia Horst is a 2006 graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary. She spent the first 13 years of her life in Italy as the child of missionary parents. She identifies herself as an Italian-American and a “third-culture kid,” among other things.

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