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Global capitalism bends religion

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IN this academically published social history, University of Winnipeg historian Janis Thiessen takes an impressive swing at prickly questions about religion in the workplace and, as any good scholar might, replaces them with pricklier ones.

Manufacturing Mennonites examines how Mennonite industrial employers and workers in postwar Manitoba hammered their cultural inheritance into something friendly to the demands of global capitalism. In doing so, they reshaped their own ethno-religious identity, making it more reflective of the inequalities of the marketplace.

Yes, for most of us, this is not going to find its way into our beach bag.

It is an academic work that, while well written, calls for attentive reading.

And, like many histories that elect to narrowly focus on the formation and reformation of a specific group's identity, the project suffers from an insular quality, particularly when one considers the fluidity and protean nature of modern identities.

It's also worth pointing out that this study, which is part of a series of works on Canadian social history by University of Toronto Press, pays little attention to the lure of belonging to a national community.

Manufacturing Mennonites focuses on three big companies: Altona-based Friesen Printers, Loewen Windows from Steinbach, and Palliser Furniture, which took root in the Winnipeg suburb of North Kildonan.

Each corporation was founded, owned, and mostly staffed by Mennonites in largely Mennonite communities, but each of these communities had different traditions. Thiessen uses these differences in combination with remarkable access to these private enterprises' records and employees to reveal the rich diversity of a group often considered monolithic.

By treating religion as something serious in the lives of her subjects, Thiessen is able to persuasively convey how it grinds, resists, bends, warps and mutates under the immense weight and penetrative power of global capitalism.

This perspective allows for a more authentic expression of the sometimes painful and contradictory tensions at play. She references a 1998 speech by Art DeFehr, then president and majority shareholder of Palliser Furniture, delivered to fellow Mennonite businesspeople and professionals.

He bemoaned the moral perils of operating in a global business environment that so separates the decision makers from those affected by their decisions. DeFehr asked, "What does it mean to be a Christian in a context where basic economic, political and financial structures are amoral because of this disconnect?"

His answer: Christian businesspeople are sadly condemned to make morally questionable decisions if they want to survive in a global market.

It's this feeling of resignation, one that Thiessen suggests is peculiar to this ethno-religious identity, that she traces.

So, in the end, Mennonite religious traditions and beliefs are refashioned in postwar Manitoba to serve a global economy. But, Thiessen insists, those traditions manage to retain other possibilities and are not necessarily chained to Mammon.

Greg Di Cresce is a Winnipeg journalist.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2013 G8

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