new Mennonite Life logo    September 2000     vol. 55 no. 3     Back to Table of Contents

The Spirit and Barbed Wire

Vernon K. Rempel

Audio version of the manifesto (mp3, 10.2mb)

Prairie religion

William Least Heat-Moon in his book PrairyErth (p. 586) tells about a talk he had with Jesse, the grandson of a Kansa Indian chief. They were talking and through the open door Heat-Moon hears a peculiar wavering sound. He asks what sort of bird that is. Jesse says, "Isn't a bird--it's wind hung up in the fence wire."

Great plains-style religion is that contentious but also pragmatic religious sensibility that came with the settlers when European cultures moved west. It is a Mennonite sensibility, and my own history.

The Kansa Indian Jesse's phrase was "Wind hung up in a fence wire". It's a good name for prairie religion. Peter Steinharts writes that "The Jews, Arabs, Romans, Greeks, and Aztecs all took their word for spirit from the word for wind." (Quoted in PrairyErth, p. 25) Religion often tries to capture that Spirit--runs fence wire to hang up the wind.

Much prairie religion was about being right, and having others be wrong. In between was a fence, and the Spirit wind got hung up on it. This fierce settler religion divided and divided. Among Baptists there were these congregations: Hard Shell, Free Will, Particular, Seceder, Seventh-day, Six-Principle and Two-Seeds-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian. (Mennonites need to learn to be more creative with church-names when we split up.)

Child evangelism

I have sometimes thought, about this argumentative Bible-belt religiosity, that we should sing: "Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping through the brains." Brainless contentiousness. However, I have an affinity for prairie religion. It's my Mennonite heritage.

I grew up suffused with the smell and taste of it in my Mennonite Brethren childhood. Prairie religion is the dry trace of wind-blown dust on a wooden pew. It is the smell of sweet grass in a sun-baked graveyard at morning. Prairie religion is the taste of baked bean casseroles and apple pie eaten after church underneath the shaking leaves of a cottonwood, while sitting on your napkin to keep it from blowing away. Church on the prairies smelled and tasted like that.

When I was a child, I lived some years out on the eastern prairies of Colorado. The sky was enormous; the grass endless. My child-soul adopted that simple western-settler truth that such sky and such grass meant divine possibility. There was room for anything. The tent of the Spirit of God was infinite and blue, and wild things grazed, ran, and slithered on the floor of it. The buffalo roamed. The deer and the antelope played.

Under this sky, I went to child evangelism meetings. These meetings were like extra Sunday School classes in the middle of the week. They were held in a school room instead of a church room. It was ecumenical: Mennonite Brethren, Baptist, and Four Square Gospel. And it was basic prairie religion.

We sang the songs that helped us remember the books of the Bible. We memorized verses. We talked about lying and "cussing," and what Jesus' preferences were on these subjects. We made little books of colored construction paper that told the story of salvation. These were the particulars of the God of the grass and sky. We learned how to appropriate God's greatness in our families and in our personal lives. There was all this gorgeous, powerful, spiritual stuff.

But there was fence wire strung out. Prairie religion meant prairie Protestantism. We never talked about inclusion or the wideness of God's tent, even under that great blue sky under which roamed the buffalo. Catholicism and Judaism, for example, were not merely different; it was a sin liable to hell to believe as they believed.

Three wires

John 3:8 says "The Spirit blows where it will." But the Spirit gets hung up on fence wire. Among Mennonites there's at least a three wire fence.


First, the Spirit gets hung up on the barbed wire of exclusion. The initial impulse of early Anabaptists was to reform the mass so that it would be a Lord's Supper of people gathered around a table. The Roman church protected the purity of the bread and wine at the expense of the participation of ordinary people. But already at Schleitheim, two years later, the Lord's Supper article in the Schleitheim Confession seems more concerned about purity again, this time regarding who is worthy to join the meal. Since then, this concern has gone into excess with bans, examinations, and lists: grandma shunned to the card table; Germantown regretfully removed from membership.

We have constantly fought tiresome and sapping battles over who's in and who's out. Has this made us a more vital, more faithful church? We act like we own the gospel goods store and some people will spoil it if they come shopping. Or we act like we're hosting a gospel meal and the smell of some folks just won't do at the table. But the fact is that it is God's meal, God's goods store. If the church is the table of God and not our own, who may sit at it?


A second barbed wire which hangs up the Spirit is the will to convert others. Whether at Catholic sword point or with Mennonite kind words the church has always had the answer. The answer is Jesus, in my heart and in our church.

A recent report from the Mennonite Board of Missions quoted Philippians 2:3: "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves." This is a better posture. We stand in awe before a Spirit whose name we do not fully know and whose movements are beyond our imagination. I do not mean an arbitrary Spirit. I believe that this Spirit is always and everywhere the Spirit of life and love grounded in the specific story of Jesus. But we are not Jesus' gate-keepers, no matter how many keys to the Kingdom we think we've been given. We are witnesses from one standpoint to a divine wonder of many colors and grace notes as that divine Spirit moves in all the earth, world without end, amen. This is Paul's humility.

This does not mean that all narratives are equal and that God is, as Garrison Keillor puts it "the smile on a child's face and the mist rising off the field." But do we need to imagine or declare that we know better than other denominations or faiths or even secularities? It's just special pleading. Let us love God and move in the world. That is enough.

The "golden age"

A third barbed wire that hangs up the wind of the Spirit is the notion of a golden age. Ancient Asians and Greeks imagined a golden age now lost. Recently this notion has appeared within New Age type spirituality, the idea that there was a wholesome age among ancient westerners - the Anasazi Indians. And Mennonites want to recover early Anabaptism. And all reformers wanted to recover the early church.

But there was no golden age. Not for the Greeks or Asians. No archeology finds it. And the Anasazi turned out to have faults, including cannibalism. (Douglas Preston "Cannibals of the canyon" New Yorker 11/30/98, pp. 76ff) Recent Anabaptist historiography has found great diversity among our forebears, not one grand story of peace and adult baptism. And finally, a respectful and careful reading of the New Testament shows an early church in a pitched struggle for identity, excoriating their Jewish neighbors, making compromises between Jew and Greek. It was a great time of change; but not a golden time to be recovered like a nugget buried beneath historical strata.

Paul Toews writes about declensive versus ironic Mennonite historiography. (Mennonite Quarterly Review July 1999 "The American Mennonite search for a useable past: from the declensive to the ironic interpretation") A declensive look at Mennonite origins argues that Anabaptism was the full-bloom, no half-measures Reformation (p. 473), going where no group had dared to go. Since then things have gone downhill, especially in America.

An ironic look notes paradoxes. Mennonite schools built as a shield to American values often mediated American values. The separatist fundamentalist movement accelerated acculturation by raising awareness of wider culture. Toews writes that an ironic historiography "frees us from the fallacy that we can recapitulate some 'normative' moment or movement" (p. 483). And we are freed to take responsibility for our own historical moment and to live in it.

These three: the impulses to exclude, convert, or recap a golden age are effectually attempts to capture the Spirit in fence wire. We're better off without them.


When president Kennedy went to Berlin, he said "Ich bin ein Berliner", which literally meant "I am a jelly donut." But the people understood his meaning of solidarity. Of prairie religion I want to say, since I was born a Russian Mennonite in Kansas "Ich bin ein Kansan" which literally translated must mean something like "I am varenikje with sauce." But it is a statement of solidarity.

Prairie religion was contentious, but also pragmatic. I like that. Robert Kaplan notes that "being on the frontier required doing rather than imagining: clearing land, building shelter, obtaining food...;" an applied wisdom of common sense and self-evidence. ("What makes history" Atlantic Monthly March 2000, p. 18) This practical approach does not get caught up in grand ideologies of change, reform, and salvation.

American religion, including Mennonites, is perennially caught in an ideological frenzy. We encamp around the fires of our grand concepts. And so we make ourselves crazy and injure others.

Mennonites, however, have a deep practical streak. When my great-great-grandparents came from the steppes of Russia to the plains frontier, they brought with them things that worked, a pragmatism of prairie life honed for a hundred years on the steppes of southern Russia: the hard red drought-resistant wheat, knowledge of sod construction, the method of driving grasshoppers into the grasses on the edge of fields and then burning the grass. (Ian Frazier. Great plains, pp. 192, 193)

Mennonites have moved into a new frontier in the last generation. As Leo Driedger writes in Mennonites in the global village, we have moved from sacred villages of separated life to the integrated experience of the global village. We need pragmatism for this frontier as well.

Plains pragmatism raised food from dry ground. What is our pragmatism on the frontier of the global village? I'm thinking of practical basics in our Mennonite faith. The wisdom of the deep Anabaptist critique of violence, for example, wisdom that has flowered in our day into conflict mediation, restorative justice, and an alternative stance in the midst of an urbanized Americanism deeply entranced by what Walter Wink calls the "myth of redemptive violence. (The powers that be, pp. 42ff)

And the wisdom of the Anabaptist concept of the Lord's supper as a meal of people gathered around a table. This becomes a ritual core and faith experience for the shaping of community. In the global village, people need human-face community. The nurture of places of meeting, of front porches, coffee houses, taverns, and residential streets where people meet and practice flesh-among-flesh communion is the stuff of the basic Anabaptist genius.

All of this is better done without barbed-wire. Barbed wire holds tightly to one's cattle or to one's sense of truth. When you are practical, you don't get overly wedded to your truth. Rather, you keep seeking what works out there, you test and observe and learn what grows food on the prairie, or what makes for peace and holiness and justice in the global village. There is commitment, but there is fluidity in it.

Perhaps it is like moving onto land, and not putting up fences. Like the settlers, plains Indians were deeply practical. They knew how to find food in a dry land, but had no fences. What would have happened if practical European settlers had not cruelly obliterated but rather collaborated with practical plains Indians? Both had deeply functional wisdom about the land. Could both cultures have been transformed into something that involved fewer arrows and less barbed wire?

I loved the practical basics of the child evangelism of my childhood, learning the colors of salvation, the songs about love, memorizing wise words from the Bible, sitting in the presence of adults who cared for me and had a vision for the good life in the Spirit of Christ. It was the passing on of the simplest of blessings, the awareness that as Hopkins puts it "the world is charged with the grandeur of God." It is like the practical simplicity of the Sabbath table: "Around the table there are candles for each of the children and a blessing is spoken to them: 'May Adonai bless you and keep you; may the light of God's countenance shine upon you; may Adonai show you favor and grant you peace.'" (Essential Judaism, p. 51)