Quiet Environmentalism

I grew up with a lot of environmentalism that was so quiet you wouldn’t notice it was there.  While my parents would loudly announce their distaste for “bleeding heart liberals” and “furry legged hippie women” they actually acted in a lot of ways that were environmentally friendly.  The conservative Mennonite tradition, while not openly decrying the need for living green, does teach that you should live in a conscientious way that leaves as small of an impact on the world around you as possible.  It’s part of the being “in” the world but not being “of” it.  The world is consumerist and greedy.  The Mennonite makes do with what he or she has.

There are many habits I picked up through my family and neighborhood that I’ve kept going, and it amuses me when I see them shouted out in the media as a “new” way of being environmentally conscious, when to me it’s just the “old” way of making do.

  1. Never toss anything that is usable in any way.  This applies to everything from plastic ice cream pails to clothing.  Ice cream pails make great storage containers, old shirts make washable rags, t-shirts are sewn into cloth diapers and bath towels are cut down and reused as hand towels.  Even the zip-lock bags and plastic ties are reused until they are falling apart.  A second-hand benefit to this thriftiness is that while a Mennonite may appear to be acting poor, they usually have money to spare.
  2. Use washable napkins and place settings.  Also- set out real place settings, not paper.  My family had “carry in” trays that we’d take to pot-luck dinners, no one used paper.
  3. Keep a compost heap.  Old macaroni isn’t tossed- in a couple of years it will make great topsoil!  There are a lot of vibrant gardens that owe their beauty to crushed eggshells and burnt chicken skin.
  4. Don’t toss old furniture- refinish it.  It’s amazing what a coat of paint may do for those wicker chairs or new fabric will do for that ratty couch, and that table you donated to goodwill?  It’s got a new coat of varnish and it looks fabulous.
  5. Don’t be so consumed with fashion.  While a few nice outfits make you feel fabulous, when you’re running around with the kids or kicking back at home, a cheap pair of jeans and a hand-me-down t-shirt will do just fine.  Imagine all the money you’ll save and the headaches you’ll spare if you learn to clothe yourself in the “beauty that eyes don’t always see.”
  6. Don’t buy your kids toys.  Teach them to make things with their hands, and use their imaginations.  This one speaks for itself.  Your kids will learned to not be distracted with possessions, and keeping them busy with handcrafts may just keep them out of trouble.
  7. Turn off the TV and talk to each other.  It may not seem “green”- but an afternoon on the porch with lemonade and homemade cookies while the lights are off and there’s no background noise- it’s green, and it’s lovely, and it’ll do away with a world of stress.

“Green” living doesn’t have to be hard.  It can be as easy as rinsing out the sour cream container, fingerpainting it, and using it to hand out Easter treats.  It’s what Grandma would do!

My Anabaptist Heritage

My grandparents on one side were Amish up until they were in their mid thirties, my grandparents on the other side were Mennonite. My mother owns family histories detailing the stories of my heritage. My ancestors were among the first people to settle Pennsylvania and Illinois.

The interesting thing to me is how they ended up there. The Anabaptist movement was radical, and the early Anabaptists were persecuted far worse than any other protestant movement. Their beliefs, while possibly seeming slightly secular now, were absolutely groundbreaking at the time. Belief that you should tithe only from your income, not your net worth. Belief that in order for the Church to be holy it must have no involvement in the state. Belief that professed faith is not as important as “living” faith seen through acts of charity and simple living… These beliefs threatened not only the superiority of Catholic dogma but the status of the Catholic church… it took away Catholicism’s place of power as well as it’s ability to absolve sin through professions of faith.

No wonder the Catholic church lobbied for (and eventually won) the right to kill Anabaptists without trial. The Anabaptists were burnt at the stake if they refused to denounce their faith but beheaded if they did, because it was simply too risky to leave them breathing. So my ancestors made their way to Pennsylvania and Illinois, because in the states there was Freedom of Religion and they could be free from persecution. Near my old home town in Ohio there is a Mennonite and Amish Heritage center called Behalt. In it there is a cyclorama depicting the Anabaptist history, from the 1500’s to the 1800’s. It starts out with Menno Simon’s revelations of faith and goes through brutal murders. It shows one Anabaptist man who stopped to save the man that was sent to murder him when that man started to drown. Amazing stories of faith in the midst of the worst kind of persecution- persecution by men who are your brother in faith.

Because of this history- the history of both the tradition I was raised in and my own blood lines- I find it offensive when people claim that Christians aren’t “as bad” as people of other faiths. Certainly in the 1900’s Christianity wasn’t cruelly subjugating women or putting their own people to death, but have we forgotten the Victorian era? When women died in childbirth by the droves because they were forced to labor on their backs, and then could not be buried in church graveyards because they were “unclean” for having died “in sin”? That is only one of many sins against women by the church. Let’s not forget the cruel persecution of the forefathers of ALL protestant faiths. Let’s not forget that the church has been spread at the point of a sword and by the barrel of a gun many, many times. This bloody history follows us even into America, even into what I consider to be recent history, because our great country hasn’t been around all that long.

For Christians who would condemn other faiths for the actions of a minority- lets remember what the majority of our forefathers were like. All faith is hard won in tears, sweat and blood- Christianity no less than the others. When researching this post to be sure I didn’t misspeak, I saw this line:

The early Anabaptists faced persecution far worse than the early church found at the hands of Rome.

My blood runs cold.

There is a book that every good Mennonite school looks through in their history class. It is a book of Illuminations called the Martyrs’ Mirror or the Bloody Theater. It follows the martyrdom of the Church starting in Jerusalem and going until about 1680 AD, when it was published. I can remember looking at the illustrations in horror, hardly believing that this was done by the Catholic church. It’s no wonder that so many Mennonites carry a deep-seated resentment towards Catholicism. (For those who are curious, the illuminations can be seen here)

My point with this post is twofold. The first is to share with you my heritage. For those who feel I’ve been unfair to the Mennonite and Amish traditions- understand that I am not speaking of something that is unknown to me. I grew up inside the borders of an Amish settlement. I see Amish people at my family reunions. My grandmother has Amish brothers and sisters. My mother speaks Pennsylvania dutch. The church I currently attend is affiliated with the Mennonite Central Committee. These people are not strangers to me.

My second goal is to remind us that we must be careful with our own hearts and with our own churches. A faith is only as good as the people in it. Like a car with a leaky hose- the hose is not equal to the entirety of the car, but the car is only as dependable as it’s hoses. Extremism, fanatacism and cruelty are not outside our reach. We must keep our faith in check, we must temper it with love.

The Subjugation of Women in Religion

Several years ago a church my family is affiliated with started supporting women in Afghanistan and Iraq. They made cookbooks and sold them as well as having bake sales and other fundraisers, all of the money going to a fund to support women’s rights in Muslim countries. The celebration of a “beyond the veil” day in which stories of Afghani women who were able to remove their veils were read sparked an interesting discussion.


Because that particular church sat a little to the west of the heart of the largest Amish settlement in the world. Every day, parishioners would drive by farms where women wore black bonnets and knee length black aprons to weed their gardens in 90 degree heat. Every day, they walked by women with ten children in tow because birth control is banned by their faith. Every day, they saw sixteen year old girls who feel pressured to marry and start families. Every day, they drove by the buggies, buggies that get in a large amount of accidents because the stricter sects of Amish belief will not allow battery powered lamps or reflective strips. A strong argument can be made for the follies of the Amish faith- there is a high rate of depression, of birth defects, even fatalities when women are told their bodies won’t bear another pregnancy and they refuse hysterectomies. There is one story that stands out in my mind, one where a doctor pulled aside an Amish man and said, “another delivery will kill your wife,” and the man replied, “then I will remarry.”

The argument that Islam is alone in it’s strong belief that women are to be modest, to be wed and submissive, is foolish. Christianity has it’s fair share of extremism where that is concerned. There are churches that pray to Christ where the men and women don’t sit together, where the women have scarves on their heads and ankle length skirts. These churches also could not easily be written off as extreme fundamentalists or crazies. Take the Mennonite faith, for example- they hold to a lot of old tradition, including a notable lack of instruments during worship. They praise God with their voices, they work hard with their hands, in the more traditional churches the women wear head coverings and the men and women sit on opposite sides of the aisle. There are still girls who are raised to not seek out careers, instead to marry and move out and start families of their own. Women rarely go out alone- they marry young and travel in packs until the children come.

In fact, there are a great number of parallels between conservative Christianity and Islam. Trace them back historically and they come from the same roots- Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There are some women who will point out the fact that Christianity traditionally didn’t allow for divorce, even when women were being beaten. In fact, some orders of Christianity encouraged spousal abuse to teach women submission. Islam, on the other hand, teaches that men are to honor their women and treat them well.

I realize that there are failings. There are still honor killings, there are cultures in which Islam is used as a justification for the horrific subjugation of women. But I believe that the cultural differences cannot be blamed on belief any more than Christianity being blamed for the KKK- religion, when abused, loses the touch of faith. It’s not the faith that is to blame, but the abuser. Historically certain parts of the world have always subjugated women, and when religion came along it was twisted for the use of the culture instead of redeeming it. The failure is the culture, not the faith.

I simply find it interesting when I see churches cheering on young Afghani women to remove their veils, while outside in the streets Amish women slave under their bonnets, hands raw from wringing out clothing and hanging it to dry, arms tanned from hours of tilling by hand. The point is that some believe that honor can be found in holy living, and holy living can be found in being bound by the dictates of a restrictive faith. It is a choice that is made, a choice that should be honored. Where culture falls short, by all means call for change.

Just don’t ignore what’s going on in your own back yard.