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Introducing Daniel Liechty

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to contribute of The Progressive Christian website. I will do my best to uphold the standards already set by other columnists before me, whom I follow regularly. For this first contribution, I want to introduce myself and give you, the readers, a sense of where I am coming from.

In terms of religious background, I was raised in a small town Mennonite community in eastern Indiana. As in many such Mennonite communities, you could pick out two people at random in the town and find at least one common relative within a couple generations at most. Many Americans have never heard of ‘double cousins’ (being cousins on both sides of the family) but among Mennonites it is not all that rare!

I received a strongly Mennonite education. Church regularly three times a week (Sunday morning and evening, and Wednesday night prayer meeting); six weeks of summer Bible school through 6th grade; graduated from a Mennonite boarding high school; graduated from a Mennonite college; graduated from a Mennonite theological seminary. Although at the time I would have wanted to present myself as worldly wise (how ridiculous that seems these 40 years later!) I was all of 24 years old before I ever experienced life in which most of the people with whom I rubbed shoulders each day were not other Mennonites. Although I have not been a member of a Mennonite congregation for decades now, clearly I am formed at a very deep level by Mennonite spirituality and habits of thought. Probably the most easily identified tenants of Mennonite spirituality that have remained with me are a strong sense of the importance of mutual aid, a desire for close community and a commitment to a lifestyle broadly characterized by peace and nonviolence as an expression of our proper place in this world.

After seminary, following the example of my professors, I went to Europe for doctoral studies. I spent three years in Budapest, Hungary, back in the days when Hungary was a Warsaw Pact nation with a Communist government. The historical study I started there became then my dissertation with the Protestant faculty at the University of Vienna, Austria. I won’t say that I did not experience culture shock during those years; certainly there were many hours of deep loneliness and simple desire to talk with someone, anyone, in my own language! However, the real culture shock hit me when I came back to America. When I left, Jimmy Carter was still a very popular President, and I did not return until the end of the Reagan administration.

It is hard for me to even express how much the ethos and general attitude of American people had shifted during those years. Looking back, I maintained that vague assumption many educated Americans had that we were moving more or less inevitably toward some kind of social democracy characterized by liberal values and progressive social improvement. The two biggest changes that struck me most upon my return were one, the high regard for all things military (had people forgotten Vietnam?!) And two, an extolling of greed and all but religious reverence for extremely wealthy people who flaunted their wealth (of course there had been wealthy people before, but we certainly would not have held them up as role models for our children, or if we did, it was exactly because they did not make a display their wealth.)

In short, I spent many years feeling myself to be a “stranger in a strange land,” and in some ways I still do. Maybe that is also a residue of my Mennonite upbringing as well?
So much for this first installment. I will try to post a new installment semi-monthly. I will pick up this story again in the next installment, and then also lay out as well where I plan to take us in this column for the coming year. I hope you will join me on the journey!

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