So, what’s the difference between a Mennonite and a Quaker? This sounds like a set up for a (probably not very funny) joke, but it’s a real question that more than a few people have had; truth be told, it’s a question I’ve had myself. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know a whole lot about Quakers. I am a Mennonite church member, the son of a Mennonite pastor, and live in an area of Manitoba, Canada, that was settled by large numbers of conservative Mennonites in the 1870s. Although I’m aware of a small Quaker meeting in the nearby city of Winnipeg, Friends do not have a significant presence in this area of the world and are a bit of a mystery to me. Still, over the last few years, I have discovered a few similarities between Quakers and Mennonites, most importantly that both groups emphasize nonviolence and are considered among the three historic peace churches. Additionally, I’ve learned that both groups have a reputation for not really having much of a sense of humor. The thought has crossed my mind that these two aspects—nonviolence and humorlessness—may actually be related in some way.
While I can’t speak with experience or expertise on the Quaker tradition and its connection to humor, I hope that readers will be able to draw some parallels from my exploration of Mennonite humor. There are reasons, both historic and religious, as to why Mennonites have earned a reputation as an overly serious and humorless group. I’m not going to examine this history in detail, nor will I confirm this perception as accurate, other than to say that centuries of persecution and piety have definitely played a role in shaping the characteristics of our church. As recently as 1989, feminist Mennonite writer Katie Funk Wiebe painted a pretty bleak picture in her entry on “Humor” for the Mennonite Encyclopedia:
Unseemly light-hearted behavior was often summed up in the word “levity.” In addition, the Mennonites were concerned that houses of prayer and worship not be turned into houses of entertainment and mirth through humorous allusions and stories_._
Wiebe goes on to say that Mennonites often prefer true stories to fiction and discourage the use of hyperbole or satire, in particular:
Satire as a comment on the human condition has not been used successfully in Mennonite periodicals, even if clearly labeled satire, indicating that the point of view expressed is likely to be the opposite of what is expressed.
The thought has crossed my mind that these two aspects—nonviolence and humorlessness—may actually be related in some way.
Thirty years have passed since Wiebe’s pessimistic description of Mennonite humor, however, and Mennonite comedy, even satire, now seems to be accepted in many of our communities. I have witnessed this shift firsthand. One evening in the spring of 2016, after a long walk around town with my wife, I came home full of ideas and typed out a sarcastic little story about Mennonites. It was one of those comedic news articles with outrageous headlines like those found on The Onion or the Babylon Bee. On a whim, I posted it on my personal blog as an experiment. It was just a one-off joke about the residents of my Mennonite town of Steinbach packing up en masse and relocating a few miles down the road to the local open-air museum. I suppose the story was intended to poke fun at our penchant for frugality and nineteenth-century living. To my surprise, however, I didn’t get any angry emails—not one. People, mostly Mennonite themselves, responded very positively, in fact, and as a result, a few weeks later I established an entire website dedicated to Mennonite humor called The Daily Bonnet, which since then has become quite popular in Mennonite circles. The site pokes fun at Mennonite religious and cultural quirks: our aversion to alcohol, dancing, and modern transportation; our funny ways of dressing; our infighting and schisms—that sort of thing. Sometimes the articles are just goofy, while other times there’s a message behind the humor. While not everyone appreciates the website or gets the jokes, I think it’s safe to say that things have changed since nineteenth-century Mennonite leader John Holdeman condemned “joking and jesting” as sinful “works of the flesh.”
Of course, there are many reasons why Katie Funk Wiebe’s description of Mennonites no longer applies or, at least, no longer applies so widely. For one thing, the past few decades have seen a rise of boundary-pushing Mennonite writers such as Miriam Toews, Armin Wiebe, and others. They have paved the way for Mennonites to look critically at ourselves, often through the use of humor, which has always been a great tool to make that critical lens more palatable.
Another change is the fact that many Mennonite communities, such as the one I live in, have largely assimilated into the general population. People may still consider themselves Mennonite and may be active members of Mennonite churches while having abandoned some of the restrictive aspects of our faith that prohibited things like “levity” and “jesting.” Like Quakers, Mennonites are very diverse. The image that people have in their heads—or the image that no doubt will appear if you do a Google search—of agrarian horse-and-buggy Mennonites in dresses, bonnets, and speaking in funny accents, certainly still exists, but today many Mennonites are indistinguishable in attire from the general population and come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds.
Good comedy… forces us to look at things from a different perspective, even a perspective that makes us uncomfortable.
Still, much of the humor on The Daily Bonnet comes from poking at some of the more stereotypical traditions and distinctives, and one might assume that writing sarcastically on these matters would cause me to become bitter or disdainful toward our religious traditions. In fact, however, it’s been the opposite. Prior to taking on this writing project, my attitude toward Mennonite traditions was probably best described as indifferent. I didn’t have any animosity toward the church, largely because I didn’t pay much attention to its distinctives at all. I was absorbed in my own little world, or in the culture of the general society and in the mainstream religious practices of North America. So, poking fun at Mennonite traditions and religious quirks has forced me to pay attention in ways I never did before and has actually given me increased respect and appreciation for our more conservative brethren.
Outsiders often dismiss the distinctive attire, for example, of Old Order Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites, as indications of conservatism, backwardness, or oppression. There is also a sense, I have learned, that the distinct dress can actually be seen as an act of non-conformity. These are people who took the commandment not to “conform to the patterns of the world” literally. For many Mennonites, distinctive clothing is a matter of obedience to God, but at the same time, it is a means of distinguishing oneself from the rest of society and can be viewed as a dramatic act of defiance to the consumer culture in which we live. When billions say “dress this way” or “buy this product” or when some mock them and want to take their pictures because they’re just so silly-looking, these people have said a polite but firm, “No, thank you.” I mean, many assimilated Mennonites like myself cannot even stand to be six months out of fashion, let alone a century or two. In a very literal way, we—not them—are the conformists; we—not them—are the conservatives, and they—not us—are the rebels. We conform to a consumer society that demands we dress a certain way, live a certain way, and think a certain way. Too often we do, without question, what we are told. We are the ones, perhaps, who should be the subject of jesting and levity. Certainly, there are other ways to look at these matters, but I think that’s what comedy does, or what good comedy does: it forces us to look at things from a different perspective, even a perspective that makes us uncomfortable. It has certainly done that for me.
Comedy can be a form of violence, and we frequently see this in our popular culture today. Is this part of the reason why both Mennonites and Quakers have frowned upon it?
But what about the weaponization of humor? While much of the humor on The Daily Bonnet is lighthearted in nature, it’s possible that the prohibition against levity and jesting in the peace churches had something to do with an understanding, perhaps unconscious, that comedy can be used as a weapon. Like all forms of speech, comedy can be a form of violence, and we frequently see this in our popular culture today. Is this part of the reason why both Mennonites and Quakers have frowned upon it? After all, it is the conservative Mennonites, the same ones who forbade levity (at least in the church service), who are also most committed, it appears to me, to the doctrine of nonviolence. Many modern assimilated Mennonites are not interested in nonviolence at all, and some churches have abandoned Anabaptism and its commitment to peace altogether. These same contemporary Mennonite churches would be more than welcoming of a “mirthful” and entertaining Sunday morning worship service. I wonder if there is a connection here, and then I wonder about a solution to this apparent conflict.
Our churches should be creators of peace, and our humor, if it has any value, can be a tool in this direction by uniting us as communities.
One possible solution would be to simply confine the definition of “violence” to physical violence, thus not pertaining to humor or other forms of speech. That seems to me, however, to be a very narrow definition of violence, one which has created problems, not offered solutions. Mennonites, for example, have sometimes refused military service while ignoring issues of patriarchal oppression within their own communities, since the latter was not seen to fit this very limited understanding of violence. So, I don’t think that narrowing the definition offers us much of a solution.
Another option would be for our communities to permit comedy and humor as an acceptable weapon. Maybe comedy would be the one exception to the rule and could be viewed as a tolerable violent outlet. I would be concerned, however, that this perspective might promote harsh personal attacks, disguised as humor. I’m not sure we want to go in this direction.
Maybe the answer is found in a more nuanced view of humor than these two options present. Humor need not be banned, as it was by some of my Mennonite ancestors, nor need it be weaponized. When Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift used satire to ruthlessly critique the excesses of the rich upper class of eighteenth-century Ireland, he was coming to the defense—and effectively so—of the poor and unprivileged members of his society. Just as peacemaking is more than a refusal to participate in violence, so too can we reframe comedy in such a way that it is not passive but active. Our churches should be creators of peace, and our humor, if it has any value, can be a tool in this direction by uniting us as communities, by reminding us of our priorities, by critiquing our errors, and by offering a voice and lens to critique and understand the world around us. This is a use of humor that I believe all the peace churches can and should accept. If Mennonites can learn to laugh, so too can Quakers, and in this way, comedy can be seen not as an obstacle but an enhancement of the peace we all seek.