Sometimes I wonder if Menno Simons would approve of how we’re using his name. If one pauses to look around one can find a plethora of institutions, products and websites that have added the prefix “Menno” to their name.
Some have ties to official church institutions or ministries in one way or another. MennoMediacomes to mind, along with church camps MennoHaven and Mennoscah. Then there are various groups of MennoSingers, MennoHouse, MennoHof, at least three different MennoTravel services and a host of Menno hospitals, clinics and retirement communities.
With almost every kind of institution or product under the sun bearing the name of Menno Simons, it seems as though it’s worth pausing to examine why we’re invoking his name and whether or not we may be using it in vain.
As best I can tell, the addition of the name Menno to an institution or product serves a couple of key functions. First is that it identifies a product with an already existing culture, set of assumptions and worldview. It is an attempt to communicate something about the character of the business or product and the people who make it. Some, like MennoTea, are explicit about this, saying, “We’re brewing a culture.” That being said, there does not seem to be one particularly unified worldview among the various organizations; each draws on a part of the Mennonite worldview to which they are attracted.
The other reason the prefix Menno is used is to draw in a very specific demographic. To the people who are steeped in Mennonite culture, hearing the prefix Menno is almost like a Labrador hearing a dog whistle. While Menno does communicate a potential set of values, more fundamentally it sends the initial message “they’re one of us.”
Using Menno for these purposes is not inherently reprehensible; however it should raise some questions for us. Namely, does using Menno this way stay true to what Menno Simons actually believed? Someone once pointed out the irony to me that Che Guevara’s image has become an iconic, trendy engine of American capitalism, which is the exact opposite of everything for which he stood. Has Menno fallen into the same trap?
It’s worth noting that the primary list of reasons to use the name Menno as a prefix does not include communicating our faith. One can make the argument that our worldview and even our sense of community flow out of our faith, which Menno would conceivably approve of. However, if we’re honest, that’s not the primary reason for using it. If our faith really is the primary thing that some groups do want to communicate, using Menno only communicates a very specific version of faith.
To be clear, I raise this question as someone who most certainly has blood on my hands. I helped to start the website MennoShirts.com, where we sold a bunch of clever shirts (or so we thought), most of which were based on Anabaptist-specific theology or culture.
What’s more, I have been a vocal opponent of the trend to remove the name Mennonite from churches and church-related institutions. My resistance to these changes being that it sends the message that the name Mennonite is more of a liability than an asset.
Menno Simons had a clear and consistent message that the core of all faith was Jesus, not himself. Would Menno approve of how we’re using his name? Would he approve that we’re even using it at all?
Cross posted from Mennonite World Review