A balancing act

Dr. James Jakob Fehr talks about the Mennonite movement's struggle to distinguish community from th

The question is not unlike Zeno’s paradox. How does one form a peace community that engages the world and yet embodies a social alternative? Connecting with the world means conversing with the world. But as soon as you start to talk like everyone else, you think and behave like everyone else. You lose your critical distance. You get tempted to use your influence, to apply pressure, to exercise power. The peace witness is elusive. It is a tight-rope act.

This has been the experience of the Mennonite denominations in their attempts to follow the advice of St. Paul to be in the world, but not of it. The community of Jesus should stand over against the world as a prophetic witness of how life can be. And yet it is not its own raison d’etre. It exists to serve that world. Now if involvement with secular instances is necessary in order to call them to act justly, that implies the community will also be influenced by that “other”. The result: In any given community of faith there are those who think that some among their number make too many compromises and these others think their non-compromising brothers and sisters are dragging their heels. The Anglican fellowship is currently experiencing this push-me, pull-you on various issues, most notably with regard to homosexuality. (Conversely, it is not without significance that on a matter that is also dear to the hearts of Mennonites, namely poverty and social injustice in undeveloped countries, the Anglican bishops are undivided in their advocacy for revised political priorities.)

Depending on whether you see the glass half-empty or half-full, you can call this situation a chronic problem or the challenge of faith. It is a reflection of that most fundamental and yet difficult of theological concepts, God’s incarnation in Christ. Divine acts in human form? Is that not the ultimate balancing act?

From its very beginnings the Mennonite movement struggled with the question of how to distinguish community from world. All agree that doctrine cannot be the shibboleth of faith, because we are called to be doers of the word and not hearers only. That is, not what we affirm, but how we live must be the mark of Christ in our communities. Therefore, instead of confessions of faith, exclusion from community was used to exercise power over others. The breakaway community of the Amish began when the Mennonite leader Jakob Ammann decreed that any member of the congregation who told a falsehood should be excommunicated and shunned. If Ammann had convinced the majority of Mennonites of the correctness of his views, who knows? Perhaps all Mennonites today would be wearing long beards or kerchiefs.

Through several centuries shunning became the main tool of the hardliners for maintaining the purity of the faith. As a psychological control mechanism it worked. But leaders fearful of change often erred on the side of zealousness. For a community that holds high the banner of peace and reconciliation, it is humbling and disappointing to see how our history is repeatedly marred by conflicts that led to schism. In the last few decades Mennonites have gone another way, reaching out to others with new-found self-confidence. An example of this is the fruitful dialogue with the Roman Catholic church, which has led us to embrace each other in our differences. Two centuries ago, driven off by their persecutors, Mennonites ensconced themselves in isolated corners of the world. Now we speak boldly to government agencies and work for change, trusting that prophetic witness is the best means for keeping our faith communities alive.

James (Jakob) Fehr is the newly appointed Director of the German Mennonite Peace Centre. He has served as an academic researcher and a Pastor in the Mennonite Church in Germany (AMG)
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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.