Low German Mennonites Go Global

Already from what little I’ve learned about Low German Mennonites (LGM) in Bolivia, they serve as a fascinating case study in many ways. They are an example in general of the convergence of theology and agriculture, but in particular they’re an interesting example of the globalization of agriculture and the influence of agribusiness. A great book to give you a framework for understanding Old Order Mennonites in general is The Amish Way. It’s based on studying the Amish, but many of the doctrines and practices apply across the board to Colony Mennonites in Canada, Mexico, Belize, Paraguay, Bolivia and elsewhere.

One of the elements of many colonies is that they value an agrarian lifestyle above all else. For the colony Mennonites in Bolivia the highest calling is to work the land. In the past they tended to have very large families which meant there was an ever increasing need for more land to live out these ideals. This has changed recently with family sizes shrinking somewhat. Historically (post-colonial anyway) Mennonites in Paraguay and Bolivia have been some of the most productive farmers. In Paraguay Mennonites continue to produce a huge percentage of the country’s beef.

The Amish and other Old Order Mennonites are known for their shunning of modern technologies. This is a deep theological conviction. It is based in their understanding of the church as a community. For example, the rationale for not using cars had to do with the way that it fragmented communities by making it possible to live greater distances apart from each other. Imagine how much smaller your circle of friends and family would be without a car.

The enforcement of these rules, or Ordnung, is not just arbitrary either. You are chastised or possibly shunned for breaking the Ordnung, not because you broke an arbitrary rule, but because by not following what the community has decided over decades and centuries, you are exalting yourself above the community and being prideful which is the worst possible offense in these communities. I offer this, not as a justification for their practices, but a proper understanding in context of their beliefs and how they affect their lives.

Big Ag in Little Bolivia

The influence of industrial agriculture reaches deep into the far corners of the globe, including the colonies of Low German Mennonites in Bolivia. There over 60 colonies and over 50,000 LGM people in Bolivia. They are primarily agriculturally based communities. I can’t say for sure, but my guess is that they have not always grown commodity crops. In the past, perhaps in other places, they probably had more diversified farms that provided for their families and were able to sell the surplus. Over time, because of the same factors that shaped modern North American agriculture, these farmers were forced to move toward growing commodity crops. Now, the primary crops grown by LGM colonies in Bolivia are soybeans and wheat which are sold to agribusiness companies like ADM and Cargill.

The shift to growing commodity crops has changed their methods as well. They may shun tractors and other modern agricultural technology, but they will contract out the machinery to clear-cut huge swaths of land to expand their agriculture. Influenced by the agribusiness companies they also use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers on their crops. Because their primary value is continuing their agrarian lifestyle they have accommodated their practices in order to continue living on the land. So, their value of closeness to and making a living from the land has been distorted by globalized industrial agriculture.

In many colonies, the women might grow a small kitchen garden with vegetables and herbs. This is considered appropriate for the women. The men who practice agriculture, on the other hand, see anything involving manual labor as women’s work that is beneath them. Why would they work with their hands when they can use machines to do the work? Yet another paradox of these colonies. They shun certain technologies while whole heartedly embracing others. Sometimes the criteria is clear and has a very sound reasoning behind it, such as the shunning of cars. Other times the decision seems arbitrary or based on specious reasons. One example, I was told about was the readouts used on certain tanks. Digital readouts are not allowed because when they start up they go from 0 to 1,000 therefore passing through the number 666. So, analog readouts are used to circumvent this superstition.

It’s also very important to recognize that these practices and their enforcement are different in every one of the 60+ colonies in Bolivia, not to mention the colonies in Mexico, Belize, Canada, United States, Paraguay and elsewhere.

God and the Chicago Board of Trade

LGM communities who shun rubber tires have up-to-date information from the Chicago Board of Trade at their fingertips, because their lives literally depend on the ups and downs of commodity traders in another hemisphere. So, communities that have often split over whether or not to use technologies, and who have attempted to maintain the traditions of their ancestors amidst the increasing pressures of modern civilization, are intimately connected to the very thing that makes modern civilization and globalization possible, global industrial agriculture.

These communities are almost necessarily filled with paradoxes as they try to maintain another way of life in the midst of a rapidly changing world. The colonies in Bolivia are among the most conservative of these colonies as this has been the last stop as colonies divided over different issues. Yet even as they have tried to find space to maintain their way of life with as little influence from the modern world as possible, their communities are bundles of contradiction. They highly value an agrarian lifestyle and making a living from the land, yet their agricultural practices can be very destructive to the environment. They shun certain technologies in order to maintain community life, yet continually find exceptions and loopholes (not owning cars, but using taxis and buses to travel) in order to continue their existence.

For me, the lesson here is that, as Niebuhr said (not my fave theologian by any stretch, but truth is truth), even our best intentions are always shadowed by sin and compromise. The idea that it’s possible to create communities isolated from the world that maintain some ideal of the past or even the future is not reality. Some colonies, notably the Amish, have actually done a better job of realizing this reality and finding ways to preserve traditions while facing up to the realities of the world around them. The question as always is where we decide to draw the lines, and what kind of life is left after we connect the dots.

On Sunday we leave for our colony stay here in Bolivia. I’m looking forward to learning Plautdietsch and getting to know the LGM family and colony where we’ll be staying for three weeks. Many of my ideas and expectations have been overturned and turned inside out. I continue to expect the God of surprises to surprise me.

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4 thoughts on “Low German Mennonites Go Global

  1. Maria Kirby

    In the midwest the Amish have started branching out into other income producing venues. Besides furniture, they’ve also done cabinetry, and I’m sure other things as well. I’ve considered the problem they have of trying to create an alternative Christian society within a secular/heathen society. The only I could visualize it working is if they created their own micro economy where they bought only from each other unless the goods or services could not be provided by their community. And only when the needs of their community were filled for the particular goods or services rendered would they be allowed to sell/serve the outside community. Doing so would create a more socialistic economic model for the community than they are used to, but given their strong sense of cultural and community identity, I believe it would be possible.

    Reply
  2. JTapp

    We have a lot of Mennonite and Amish communities here in Southern MO and I’m always fascinated by their varied lifestyle choices. The Old Order or Amish still use the buggies and such, they are plentiful, but the other orders seem to embrace some of the old ways while using much of the enw.
    For example, it’s not unusual to see a group of families in their overalls, long skirts, bonnets, etc. who have just returned from selling produce at a local market eating happily at a local McDonalds– Big Macs and Cokes and all– which I find highly ironic. I’ve also seen them piling into Escalades and speaking German on their iPhones. Paradoxical indeed!

    My understanding is that it’s different for each local community, they each abide by different sets of rules. I often wonder if some of the local communities get along with one another.

    Reply
    1. lucas Post author

      I think the real trick is to use the extreme examples of Old Order Mennonites to see our own paradoxes. Where have we accomodated or compromised our own beliefs. Just like these communities, I think the problem is often that our own accomodations go unexamined and we don’t reflect on how to decide where to compromise and where to draw lines.

      Reply
  3. Lynden Neudorf

    Hmmm, einsemaul raed ek Plautdietsch op mien cellphone ook, I’m not sure if that’s ironic or paradoxical?
    I’m interested in reading your observations and interpretations of what you see in the colonies Lucas, and I wish you all the best in connecting with the people there 🙂
    Lynden

    Reply

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