Interview: understanding Swiss Mennonites

Madeleine Bähler expresses her views while Daniel Geiser (l) and Paul Gerber (middle) listen

The Swiss Mennonite Conference represents 14 congregations spread across northwestern Switzerland - in Bern, the rural Emmental and Jura regions, and Basel.

This content was published on June 28, 2007 minutes

The members of the executive council were at pains to underscore the autonomy of each congregation when it comes to theological issues.

Taking part in the interview were council members Paul Gerber (president), Erwin Röthlisberger (vice-president), Daniel Geiser (treasurer) and Madeleine Bähler (associate member).

swissinfo: What sets the Mennonite church apart from other free churches in Switzerland?

Paul Gerber: We are a very diverse community which speaks many languages, and every community is independent yet associated through their representation in the conference.

swissinfo: Pacifism is a key Mennonite pillar. But how do male members reconcile their faith with Switzerland's mandatory military service?

P.G.: That was a hotly debated topic in the 1970s. Today, we have the option of doing civil protection work which the conference supports. But there are still differences of opinion – there are those who do military service and others who refuse.

Erwin Röthlisberger: The men in my family found another way out. The last three generations chose to serve in the medical corps. That was an unwritten law.

Daniel Geiser: I was a driver during my time in the army. We can also show our faith while doing military service. But I would never have agreed to serve in times of conflict.

Madeleine Bähler: People outside our church realise we have something valuable to pass on. Not necessarily when it comes to refusing to do military service but in conflict resolution. A lot of interest has been shown in non-violent conflict resolution because people realise Mennonites have a long tradition of [non-violence].

swissinfo: Anabaptist history is in the spotlight this year thanks to the commemorative events. How important is the movement's past for you?

E.R.: I was raised [in the oldest community] in the Emmental and no one ever spoke about it.

P.G.: Unfortunately, the entire history was suppressed. As German speakers, we are a minority in the [predominantly French-speaking Jura] and I suffered because of that. Generations previous to mine wanted to fit in so they didn't want to talk about the past, but I found it helpful to know as a child why we were the way we were and not like the Catholics.

D.G.: The events this year focusing on our history are a first.

M.B.: That isn't to say our community's traditions are not influential and omnipresent.

swissinfo: Many free churches are seen as arch-conservative when it comes to contemporary issues such as the right to abortion and same-sex partnerships. Where does your church stand?

E.R: There is a strong debate about authentic ethical values and faith, and abortion is no longer an issue. That's the same as it is in Swiss society today. It's not up to our community to pass judgement but it's the decision of the people directly affected. Elders do not have the answers based on the past but must take account of the current global situation. On the issue of homosexuality – the answer was clear 50 years ago, but it isn't today.

P.G.: I must emphasis that views differ from community to community. And we are in danger of having very different opinions on [controversial subjects] and our challenge is to realise those differences but still be able to talk to one another. That's the way we can show faith.

M.B.: No one possesses the truth. The bible was laid out to one and all by the Holy Ghost and therefore we have to live with the fact that there are many interpretations. We don't expect that there is someone above us [in the church] who has the last word. It may be difficult for other churches or associations with a much clearer hierarchy to understand.

swissinfo: For centuries, Anabaptists were often expelled or responded to state persecution by going into exile. What would have to happen today for Mennonites to take such drastic action?

D.G.: We're the descendants of those who didn't have the courage to emigrate (laughter from other council members). Those who stayed were able to find an acceptable compromise.

E.R.: First, we would act politically by opposing what we disagree with, as we Mennonites are already doing, before going into exile.

P.G.: There are people today who are experiencing the same fate as our ancestors, but for economic reasons. But they are also God's creations. Switzerland has one of the most restrictive asylum policies in Europe, so to hold Christian beliefs means always being diametrically opposed to government policy – wherever in the world.

M.B.: Our biggest challenge is to support Mennonite churches in developing countries like Ethiopia where membership is growing strongly – or in the Philippines. These are places where people suffer from persecution [because of their faith] therefore they have a real interest in understanding what it means to follow Christ.

swissinfo-interview: Dale Bechtel

Key facts

As part of Anabaptist Year, events are being held throughout canton Bern and other parts of northwestern Switzerland to remember the persecution of members of the movement.
Important sights in the Jura region include the "Anabaptist Bridge" located in the hills above the village of Corgémont, and the archives kept in the Jeangui Chapel belonging to the Sonnenberg congregation.
Visitors from abroad are being encouraged to attend an international gathering in the Emmental from July 26-29.

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In brief

In 1525, former associates of Ulrich Zwingli began to baptise adults, and these "Swiss brethren" as they became known rejected the new reformed church and founded congregations independent of the state.

Similar movements soon developed across western Europe. Followers, who would be called Mennonites after Menno Simmons, an Anabaptist leader from the Netherlands, were persecuted for refusing to participate in the state-run church.

Internal divisions led a radical faction, the Amish, to split in 1693. Members took their name from Anabaptist leader Jakob Ammann, who came from canton Bern's Simmental valley.

There are believed to be around 600,000 descendants of Swiss Anabaptists living in North America.

The Mennonite community in Switzerland today has 2,500 members belonging to 14 congregations.

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