Photo courtesy ThinkStock
Being a Mennonite on the Fourth of July is a bit like watching a concert from the simulcast room. You’re aware of what’s going on, but you’re not fully engaged in it; there’s a separation.
For me, growing up in this pacifist Christian denomination, that separation extended to patriotic traditions such as saying the Pledge of Allegiance at school or singing the national anthem at a baseball game — my family and I would stand quietly and respectfully rather than join in.
To get some perspective on this, and to enlist help articulating the reasons for it, I turned to Grant Rissler, a Richmonder who, like me, grew up Mennonite. Rissler is a doctoral candidate in public policy and administration at Virginia Commonwealth University, assistant director for programs at the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute and he’s a board member for the Richmond Peace Education Center and the fair-trade shop Ten Thousand Villages.
Richmonder Grant Rissler grew up in the Mennonite tradition. (Photo by Tina Eshleman)
Both of our parents served in Mennonite mission programs in Africa. I spent some of my early early years in Malawi, where my dad taught secondary school during the late 1960s, as a form of alternative service during the Vietnam War; Rissler was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1976 after his parents and other Westerners were expelled from Somalia, where his father was teaching school. His family moved back to the United States (to the Shenandoah Valley) when he was 2, but returned to Somalia when he was 8. From 1985 to 1987, he attended the American School of Mogadishu with students from 16 nationalities.
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When he was 8, Rissler moved with his parents to Somalia. Here, he plays softball in Somalia with friends. (Photo courtesy Grant Rissler)
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Rissler with his host family in the Dominican Republic. (Photo courtesy Grant Rissler)
As a history major at Goshen College, a Mennonite institution in Indiana, Rissler completed a study/service term in the Dominican Republic in the spring of 1997, and in 1998, he spent a month in Colombia learning about a peace process initiated by Mennonites there. “It was set up to allow North Americans an opportunity to have their awareness raised about the conflict’s roots and how the United States and Canada impacted the conflict,” he says. The hope was that participants would return home and share their experience with churches and universities, and advocate for less military intervention and more social and economic aid. Rissler has also worked with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) — a relief, service, community development and peace agency.
In October 2010, Rissler helped lead a Work and Learn team with the MCC organization, which helped with cleanup and rebuilding efforts after the devastating earthquake in Haiti. (Photo courtesy Grant Rissler)
All of this is to say that he is well-versed in the ways of Mennonites and has had ample opportunity to see things from the point of view of those outside the United States. This has, naturally, influenced the direction of his life and work.
Getting back to the question of Mennonite attitudes toward patriotism, Rissler says, “A lot of the complexity flows from a two-kingdom theological perspective. Christians are called to be in the world, but not of it. Christians are called to follow the wisdom of God and Jesus’ teaching more than the teaching of a nation.”
When the United States is in conflict with another nation, it can create tension for someone who holds those beliefs. “Many Mennonites would see serving in the military or using violence as contrary to Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek,” Rissler says.
He felt some of that tension when a U.S.-led coalition went to war with Iraq in 1991, and he was the only one in his eighth-grade class to say, “I’m not sure this is the right thing.” And when he was working with Mennonite Central Committee, the organization received vitriolic responses to its participation in a dialogue with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York City in 2007. Some callers were angry that MCC would engage with someone from the “axis of evil,” as then-U.S. President George W. Bush put it. But, says Rissler, “If we are called to love our enemy, refusing to talk to them is a strange way of living that out.”
Historically, Mennonites in the United States — including those in my family as well as Rissler’s — have sought to avoid military service by becoming conscientious objectors and working in alternative service programs. Some of my ancestors came to the United States from Switzerland to escape religious persecution linked to their pacifist beliefs. Mennonites also emigrated from Northern Germany to Russia, where they were invited to farm the land and promised that they wouldn’t have to take up arms. Many later fled to Canada, Mexico and Paraguay for the same reasons.
Even here, it wasn’t always a safe haven. During World War I, there were reports of Mennonites being jailed for refusing military service or being assaulted by mobs. Many were immigrants who still spoke German. “Once the enemy was Germany, that made them suspect,” Rissler says. “When a nation is at war, there’s an impulse to paint the enemy with a broad brush.”
All you have to do is listen to some of the current political rhetoric to see that broad brush being applied to American Muslims. Through the Richmond Peace Education Center and Richmond Mennonite Fellowship, Rissler supports the annual RVA Peace Festival (planned for Sept. 10 this year), an interfaith effort begun in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. “It’s an event here that says we’re going to, as people of faith, stand with Muslims who are part of our community and [that] broad stereotyping of groups is not part of the values we want to celebrate, including freedom of religion and equal rights for all nationalities and creeds.”
When thinking about national holidays, Rissler says, “I always try to preserve a little bit of what would be an outsider’s perspective, as well as wanting to reflect on the positive things that fall under the national celebration.” On Independence Day, that includes “the grand experiment of democracy and the gradual expansion of freedom. Recognizing the horridness of slavery, the expansion of rights for women — those are worth [commemorating].”
But at the same time, he’s mindful of the effects of the United States’ actions and how those are seen outside our borders. “Being an American in the Dominican Republic or Haiti, Cuba or Puerto Rico is to learn to live with the fact that your country has invaded and taken away sovereignty.”
So what is Independence Day like for him? “It’s not a perfect metaphor, but sometimes it feels like being part of a family you married into.” You belong, but you’ll never completely fit in.
A hello from Tina: Though I'm sad to see my colleague Tina Griego leave us, I'm looking forward to continuing the tradition of telling Richmond's stories in this column. As an editor at Richmond magazine since 2009, I've overseen our dining, health and arts sections, and, now, news.
Before that, I was an editor on the state/metro desk at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, including a stint as religion editor. I plan to look for stories related to RVA's faith community and social justice, and I also hope to explore some of the region's unseen universes. If you have an idea, please contact me at: email@example.com.