Chosen Nation: A Conversation with Benjamin W. Goossen

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Benjamin W. Goossen is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in A Global Era (Princeton, 2017). He is also the co-founder, along with Devin Manzullo-Thomas, of the Anabaptist Historians blog. In a recent email exchange, I asked Goossen a few questions about his excellent book.

What is the argument of Chosen Nation?

My book is an exploration of the relationship between Mennonites and German nationalism over the past two centuries. When members of the general public think about Mennonites, they probably think of two things right away: 1) Mennonites are German, and 2) Mennonites are pacifists. Chosen Nation describes how, in fact, neither of these assumptions is necessarily true. Prior to about 1850, few to no Mennonites worldwide thought of themselves as German (that’s a self-identity that came later), while since about 1990, most Mennonites worldwide are people of color. Perhaps even more surprising, by the end of the First World War, most Mennonites in Europe had given up pacifism, and during World War II, thousands fought for the Nazis.

I use these stories in Chosen Nation to make a larger point about the relationship between religion and nationalism. As a case study, Mennonite history demonstrates that religious and national identities are not necessarily distinct. Rather, they are often quite fluid and can even be swapped in and out with each other.

Why is it important for American Mennonites to read this book? 

Chosen Nation tells a story of Mennonites’ involvement with Nazism and the Holocaust that, until now, has not been widely known. At the height of the Second World War, about a fourth of the denomination lived in Hitler’s Third Reich, and Mennonites in Europe disproportionately benefited from racism and genocide. After the war, church organizations on both sides of the Atlantic helped to cover up that story, arguing that those Mennonites involved had been peaceful anti-fascists who suffered like Jews. It’s important that Mennonites talk about this history and think critically about how we as a peace church can and should respond.

More generally, I hope that Chosen Nation can help many people – Mennonites, but also others – recognize that many of the identities we inhabit have unexpected histories, and that often, the beliefs we hold are not as clear-cut as we might think. What does it mean to be an American or a Christian or a Mennonite or a pacifist? These are some of the questions that I hope readers will come away thinking about for themselves.

One of the really striking things about your book is the way you describe historical narratives (or myths) being constructed and contested in efforts to define who Mennonites were and where they belonged. It seems to me that in the act of describing and analyzing this, you are becoming a participant in it. Did you consciously set out to give Mennonites new usable pasts? Or is the sustenance religious communities want from historical memory hopelessly separated from what academic historians are prepared to provide?

Historians have for decades been uncovering how the stories that groups tell themselves about their pasts are frequently “invented traditions.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that such stories are fabrications (although some are), but more often that the way they’re told reveals a carefully curated process of selection, and that such tales are intended to advance certain political or ideological objectives. A classic example would be the mythology that we in the US have built up around the American Revolution and our “founding fathers.” Early colonists had many things on their minds – such as military expansion and slavery – but a lot of that gets lost in, say, stories about chopping down cherry trees, sewing the star-spangled banner, or sharing the first Thanksgiving.

My point is that the stories we as communities tell about the past – whether as Americans, Mennonites, or anyone else – are at once deeply political and also vitally important. Chosen Nation offers an account of Anabaptist history that is factually grounded in extensive archival research and through dialogue with previous historical scholarship. But to the extent that all historians must make choices about which stories they tell and what elements of those stories to emphasize, I have very intentionally tried to construct a history that pushes Mennonites to be the best church that we can be. We should be honest about the dark parts of our past, and we should constantly strive to recognize and alleviate injustice in the world around us. That’s a project shared by a great number of other historians of Christianity, including my wonderful fellow contributors at Anabaptist Historians.

Writing academically about a religious community to which you have a personal connection can be complicated, to say the least. How have you navigated that tension?

Being Mennonite is actually what got me interested in history. Many historians learn about their subjects through the research process, so in some ways I did it the other way around. Chosen Nation began as a way for me to learn about and think through some of the incongruities I felt between my religious tradition and my theological faith. For example: why did I grow up thinking about myself as a member of a persecuted minority when I am in fact a white Christian male – someone with about as much privilege as it is possible to get? Why did I grow up in an ethnically exclusionary community proud of being “German” when in church every Sunday I heard preaching about the value of humility and the universality of God’s love?

As a historian working within the broader social sciences, I’m lucky to be part of an academic tradition that has considered extensively how scholars can and should interact with the communities that they study. There are many schools of thought here, but I’d like to highlight a distinction made by Kim TallBear, a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. Rather than “giving back” to the indigenous communities she writes about, TallBear prefers to think about her scholarship and advocacy as “standing with” those people. For me, similarly, the Mennonite church is not a separate entity, but a community with which I am entangled; our futures develop together.

How does your book help scholars of other religious and national communities to think more carefully about the intersection/fluidity of religious and national identities?

My hope is that other scholars who read Chosen Nation and who read it in light of their own research projects will come away with a desire to think about religion and nationalism together. Instead of separating them into distinct categories, it’s important to acknowledge that religious and national factors, strategies, and ways of being often influence each other. Too many scholars, not to mention members of the general public, still think about religious and national history as being separate from each other – but I don’t think it’s possible to tell the full story of, say, American Christianity without thinking long and hard about how that first part – “American” – is modifying “Christianity,” and vice versa.

The second idea is that the fundamental practices and beliefs espoused by religious and national communities can and frequently do change dramatically over time. I don’t think it makes sense to talk about “Mennonites” or “Germans” (or any other group, such as, say, “Buddhists” or “Brazilians”) as having stable, eternal essences or identities. It’s worth differentiating exactly what these labels mean to individual practitioners as well as how they develop in particular moments and spaces. At the same time, it’s important not to get lost in debates about tiny differences between branches of otherwise similar groups. We should keep in mind larger pictures of how group narratives and myths cohere. As often as not, disunity and discontinuity are in fact critical to how collective identities are both formed and articulated.

Thanks Dr. Goossen!

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