We wrote earlier about Edward Stoesz’s book, Like a Mustard Seed, describing the unlikely story of the Mennonites in the Gran Chaco of Paraguay. Stoesz describes nine principles that guided these immigrants in transforming a wasteland to a garden.
The second of Stoesz’ principles applied by the Mennonites was Community. It was the Mennonite cooperatives that provided the economic engines for transforming a desolate countryside into a prosperous and flourishing land.
Too often, the modern church has been influenced by a catastrophic combination of materialism and misguided spirituality often called the prosperity theology. Essentially, this doctrine teaches that Christians who have enough faith will become materially wealthy. Another way to understand this teaching is as a combination of the mysticism of animistic religions (such as African Traditional Religions and shamanism) on the one hand and Western materialism on the other.
The Judeo-Christian worldview argues that God has ordered the universe to function a certain way. When people discover God’s laws and principles and steadfastly apply them, they experience positive consequences. When people deny the existence of such an ordered universe, or rebel against the order, negative consequences result.
The Pentateuch tells the history of God transforming a slave nation into a free nation, an impoverished people into a flourishing people. God says that the secret to human flourishing is to live within the framework of his creation order. We see this in Deuteronomy 4:5-6:
See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”
What transformed an impoverished nation into a great nation? Observing the ordinances of God and living under them. Similarly, we read in Deuteronomy 30:11-20,
Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The correlation between behavior and consequences is not mysterious. No, these are God’s ordinances, and they are right in front of our eyes. There is a clear “if … then,” consequential relationship.
- You love the Lord your God
- walk in obedience to him, and
- keep his commands, decrees and laws;
- You will live and
- [You will] increase, and
- the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
The Mennonite Colonies that settled in the Chaco of Paraguay had a godly vision of what this barren land could become and understood that if they loved God and were obedient to his order, the land would prosper. There is no mystery here. There is trust, obedience, and hard work.
As mentioned above, one of the nine principles the Mennonites applied was community. This is a biblical concept born out of the reality that God is Trinity. Before the creation of the world, God existed as Trinity – the One and Many God. Within this three-in-one nature God communed, lived in community, and communicated. When the Trinity created human beings, he created us in his image to reflect community, communion, and communication. This is the theological foundation for the Mennonite value of community in the Gran Chaco.
The Mennonites adopted a position that avoided two unacceptable extremes. On the one hand, they eschewed the modern Western concept of the autonomous individual (individualism). On the other hand, neither did they give credence to the elimination of the individual for the sake of the many (communalism). Rather, they understood the importance of individuals and individual families banding together in communities, creating cooperatives that helped to fuel the economic development of their societies.
Werner Franz, the director of the Mennonite seminary in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion, spoke of the Mennonites’ theological foundation for the formation of cooperatives: “For many, the cooperative became the institution that serves to give practical expression to the words of Jesus, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord your God … and your neighbor as yourself.’ Or in Paul’s words to the Galatians, ‘Bear ye one another’s burden.’”
Both the Reformers in Europe and the Puritans in the United States understood that one of the biblical principles of economics was a moral responsibility to the larger community. Hard work and savings, two other biblical economic principles, generate wealth. That wealth is not simply for personal consumption. There is a cultural principle of generosity that stands in stark contrast to the secular/materialistic culture of greed. The Mennonites understood the concept of generosity. This was reflected in a common saying that captured their understanding of community: “Gemeinnutz vor Eignnutz (the common good ahead of personal gain).”
Stoesz identifies four functions of these cooperatives as they related to the Mennonite colonies:
- Quantity Purchasing: While the colonies were self-sufficient, producing most of what families needed, there were certain staples that were not produced in the colonies. The cooperatives allowed the colonies to purchase these staples in large quantities in the Paraguanian capital and ship them to the colonies for local sale.
- Marketing: This was the reverse of the purchasing system. Individual farmers produced perishable goods which they could not get to a market in a cost effective and timely manner given the distances involved. The cooperatives allowed the colonies to share the transportation costs to solve this problem.
- Banking: Early on the colonies had a barter economy; there was little cash and no banks. The cooperatives functioned as a banking system to manage money flow and create lending services.
- Financing Social Services: A small fee was charged by the cooperatives for the purchasing and marketing of products. These fees were pooled to support the colonies’ social services such as schools and health care.
Families came together in churches for spiritual and social reasons, and banded together in cooperatives for economic reasons. These cooperatives allowed for the economic growth and the flourishing of the whole community.
In our next post we will look at the importance of roads to create an infrastructure to allow for the growth of commerce between the colonies and the outside world.
– Darrow Miller
 Stoesz pg. 136.
 Ibid. 136
 Ibid 134-135
This post is third in a series on the transformation of the Gran Chaco in Paraguay.
Part 1 – A Wasteland Transformed to a Garden
Part 2 – The Church and Development in Paraguay’s “Green Hell”
Your Community is a Reflection of God
Social Justice, Community and Culture: A Final Reflection