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Spring 1988 · Vol. 17 No. 1 · pp. 3–16 

Ethnicity and the Mennonite Brethren: Issues and Responses

John H. Redekop

This essay is a sequel to A People Apart (Redekop, 1987). It will not repeat the detailed arguments and research findings presented in that volume. Rather, it aims to clarify the fundamental assumptions and the key arguments. I will also set forth some personal reflections arising from the book’s reception and respond to some of the questions raised by readers and reviewers.

We may already have waited too long. . .

Several preliminary comments seem warranted. First, the general nature of the research was set by the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Board of Spiritual and Social Concerns, since renamed the Board of Faith and Life (BFL). That genesis explains why the investigation did not address the problems associated with the term “brethren.”

Second, a review of the literature suggests that Mennonite scholars have given scant attention to the complex issues involved in the relationship of faith to ethnicity. Though some Mennonite sociologists, historians, and theologians have acknowledged that there is a logical and theological problem and have offered some insights, there has been no {4} substantial, let alone rigorous, analysis. Whether Mennonite academics were so much a part of the faith-culture fusion that we failed to see the trends, or we saw them but did not notice the theological and ecclesiological quandary which is entailed, we have generally not given a struggling Mennonite constituency the factual information, the conceptual clarification, the ethical reminders, or the reforming leadership to which it was entitled. A path-breaking ethno-social analysis can be found in the notable and very recent dissertation by Miriam Warner (1985).

Finally, my gradual, still deepening, understanding of what biblical Anabaptism really means has revolutionized my thinking about Mennonites in general, and Mennonite Brethren (MB) in particular, and has profoundly rearranged my priorities. The need to recapture and clarify Anabaptism for a people who have partially lost their theological way and the recognition that time for action is rapidly running out have become life-shaping realizations for me.

REVIEW OF THE PRESUPPOSITIONS AND ARGUMENTS OF A PEOPLE APART

The main thesis of A People Apart is that ethnic Mennonites now face a problem and it is not what a new name should be. The main challenge is the need to return to biblical Anabaptist theology. Several distinct, though related, aspects of this problem will be addressed in turn. (1) Mennonite Brethren are an ethno-religious group. In recent years this fusion has become theologically problematic. (2) Mennonite Brethren should be religious first and then multi-ethnic. Conference hesitancy in providing guidance on how our major and minor ethnicities should relate to each other creates confusion and perhaps tragic marginalization of ethnic groups other than the one by which the conference names itself. (3) Mennonite Brethren need to re-establish doctrinal unity. Increasing numbers of members and even some pastors appear not to accept Anabaptist theology. By fusing our Confession of Faith with a particular ethnicity, we make it easy for those who tilt in that direction to keep moving that way. (4) Using the name “Mennonite” is a problem but only a secondary problem.

1. Mennonite Brethren Are an Ethno-religious Group. Mennonites in North America and in several other regions are {5} essentially a historical, ethno-religious people. The material set forth in chapters 3 and 4 of A People Apart does not try to prove that Dutch-German-Russo and Swiss-German Mennonites, with all the variations, are an ethno-religious group but to illustrate it and to present evidence. Most critics of the book readily concede the point. Some even belittle the book for documenting something so obvious. However, at other points some of these same critics speak as if that fact has not been established. When the logical and practical implications of official Mennonite ethnic dominance in the faith community is shown to be problematic, some critics who agree that there is a Mennonite ethnicity seek cover by implying or expressly stating that “Mennonite” really means “religious.”

The evidence that MBs are generally a part of this ethnic or ethno-religious group appears mainly in Chapter 5. Although a handful of conference committee members, perhaps 5 percent of the senior pastors, and about 15 percent to 20 percent of the church membership (excluding Quebec and North Carolina) are not ethnic Mennonites, the dominance and pervasiveness of Mennonite ethnicity in the MB congregations in North America remain firmly entrenched. (See Appendix for a telling example from Paraguay.)

After generations of a particular form of faith-ethnicity fusion, it becomes very difficult for a religious organization, especially a conservative one, to subordinate its customs to its faith in order to grow theologically and ethically. Intellectually we all know that Unity in Christ comes in the midst of diversity and complementarity. We know that, as in the entire account in the Acts of the Apostles, a covenant community does not require a uni-ethnic underpinning. But many Mennonites have become comfortable with conventional practices and would rather live with the myth that our ethno-religiosity is not a problem than face the need to make some adjustments. Resistance to change and an undue insistence on tranquility implicitly condemns the 1860 MB renewal, which was divisive just as certainly as it was regenerative.

Those who make the case for official church-ethnic fusion should carefully consider James Coggins’ prescient observation: “In attempting to separate from the world, they compromised with worldly ethnic Mennonites” (31). Even if we were not the generation forced to come to grips with the ethnic question, we ought to reassess some aspects of certain {6} expressions of contemporary Mennonitism, especially a de-emphasis of the atonement and an over-emphasis, at times, of a politicized peace position. Like the Jews of old, we also have added the precepts of men to the Scriptures, or, in this case, to the biblical precepts emphasized by Menno.

This ethnic problem will probably not be solved simply with the passage of time because, fortunately, Mennonite ethnicity remains vigorous and resilient in many regions. We should not wish it to be otherwise. Let us nurture our ethnicity. But the evidence is already sadly impressive that a “Mennonite at all cost” mindset which officially fuses faith with one ethnicity will be a “lose-lose” option.

2. Mennonite Brethren Should Be Religious First and Then Multi-ethnic. The Church must be seen primarily as a voluntary covenant community, not mainly as an ethnic community. It has not been commissioned to be the Lord’s official bearer of ethnic values. The wine of the Gospel was specifically poured into ethnic wineskins. Those who make the case for alloyed faith must provide a biblical justification or reconsider their views. The onus is on them, not on those of us who take Romans 1:14; 1 Corinthians 9:19-23; and Philippians 3:4-11 as normative.

Ethnic homogeneity is not a requirement for an effective, dynamic, and covenant community-building church. Many ethnic ratios and arrangements are possible and commendable. The minority or majority status of a particular ethnic group in a church or conference does not in itself constitute a problem unless that status is used for manipulative or self-serving purposes. This means that from a biblical perspective, we should reconsider which ethnic emphases are appropriate. In doing so we need to acknowledge ethnicity as a God-given gift and stress that ethnicity and faith should not be fully separated in the church or elsewhere. As written in the book:

Let me state emphatically that I have no desire to separate ethnicity fully from faith in any operational sense. They will, and should, remain linked, but not in a way which explicitly or implicitly causes people of other cultures to feel like second-class participants. (186)

Although the book expresses this perspective several times, some reviewers seem to have missed it. Surely it should be possible to acknowledge the difference between making {7} the ethnic emphasis secondary and eliminating it from the church entirely. To attempt total separation would be unwise, irresponsible, and impossible.

To be sure, all churches serve as bearers of culture, but a multi-ethnic conference should not be saddled with the task of officially championing a particular ethnicity and culture, especially not when it has adopted the larger society’s language and when it takes the Great Commission seriously. Given certain kinds of social and historical developments, some congregations, especially in immigrant communities, may well function as ethnic units for a generation or two. For linguistically segregated minorities, such social segregation may last longer; but it should not remain normative. A dilemma may also arise in those regions which do not have other agencies to nurture and perpetuate Mennonite, or some other, culture. However, such a situation would not justify redefining the church’s mandate away from its primary purposes to a partially self-serving, secondary (and even partially secular) pursuit. Just as Christians have no right to use the church to pursue economic ends, so also we have no right to use the church to pursue ethnic goals.

Ethnocentrism, of whatever sort, excludes outsiders. Even if a group does not believe that its culture is superior to all others, it may make itself the center of its activities and treat all others as peripheral to its own concerns. Either kind of ethnocentrism is unacceptable in a church or in a conference. John E. Toews and Hugo Zorilla stated the issue clearly:

Ethnocentrism of all forms and varieties is sin. The new Mennonite reality calls for a Mennonite identity that is. . .genuinely universal. . .Clarity about identity is prior to any task in the kingdom. . .Our text (1 Peter 2:4-10) calls us to a Jesus-centeredness and to an ethnoreligious inclusiveness. . .Our mission means the rejection of all ethnocentrism (Redekop, 4-5).

Some Mennonite leaders claim that ethnic origin makes no difference in a Mennonite church or conference. What is at issue, however, and not at all subtly, is that other ethnic groups end up being called by our ethnic name. This is ethnocentric and contradicts Paul’s emphasis that in Christ’s church “there is neither Greek nor Jew.” It will not do, at this point, to backtrack and insist that “Mennonite” is a religious term. It is {8} to prevent such definitional flip-flopping that A People Apart goes to great lengths to document the fact that “Mennonite” means ethnic as well as religious. Nor does it help to point to the few people who by great effort manage to jump all the hurdles and eventually merge into the Mennonite ethnic family. That process normally requires a generation or two.

Such difficult, and perhaps soul-destroying, shifts must be avoided. Serious identity problems are always created when a social heritage is depreciated. What is called for is a proper humility, not an improper shame, and appreciation for others, not self-deprecation. To share ourselves and our pasts with each other in the church requires the mutual respect which is the basis of love. Respect and love extend to others but also include oneself. We dare not deny who other people are any more than we should deny who we are. Other peoples also have “Old Testaments” with strong ethnic roots. Other peoples’ stories also have validity. Therefore, when two or more ethnic groups meet in a congregation or a denomination on the level ground at Calvary, no group seeks to dominate, for informed saints realize that marginalization is a spiritual issue. Anabaptists, even more than some others, are motivated by their traditional theological beliefs to be sociologically inclusive in God’s family.

Pastor Paul Wartman, a “non-ethnic Mennonite” MB leader, focuses the theological issue in a penetrating review of Martha Denlinger Stahl’s book, By Birth or by Choice: Who Can Become a Mennonite?

Her solution is to call the church to greater effort at incorporating the “new-comers” into the life and culture of the “Mennonite way”. . .Unfortunately (she) does not deal with the critical issues. . .Based on our understanding of God’s word we train missionaries to adapt to the culture of the people to whom they are sent with the gospel of Jesus Christ (some call it cross-cultural communication). On North American soil we defend the opposite theology of missions. . .This book encourages ethnic Mennonites to feel comfortable about calling others to come join us. . .(32)

A People Apart challenges Mennonites to give up much less than Paul required of himself according to Philippians 3. All that is asked is a reduction in the preeminence of some secular values and some human advantages in the church. The {9} issue is both timely and important. If we do not acknowledge the existence of a multi-ethnic, though still predominantly Mennonite, Anabaptist conference which includes a variety of non-Mennonite local congregations sometimes utilizing their own diverse languages, then within less that a generation we may become a non-Anabaptist, loosely-bound association of churches theologically indistinguishable from North American evangelicalism.

3. Mennonite Brethren Need to Re-establish Doctrinal Unity. Basically A People Apart constitutes a call for theological regeneration involving a renewed commitment to biblically-rooted Anabaptism. By this I mean a view of the congregation as a faithful believers church and biblicism as Anabaptists traditionally understood it. Part of our problem as MBs is that we have retained the proper language about the believers church and even some of its forms but have lost some if its essence. Unless elected or other leaders boldly challenge theological and practical drift, a gradual slippage away from Anabaptism will continue. Those leaders and followers who seriously question Anabaptist theology will not easily be coaxed back to the official conference stance if what they hear is a call to a “double-meaning” Mennonitism. In any case, our ethnic peoplehood has ceased to be coterminous with our branch of the Anabaptist church.

The numerous critics who both support the Anabaptist cause and yet disagree with the analysis and general recommendations of A People Apart should consider whether their criticism is misplaced. They would do better to suggest improvements and refinements in the analysis. Their defense of the present official fusion may well prove disappointing. If we accept present trends, we will gradually lose the theology. We are already losing the name, as can be seen, for example, in any issue of the Christian Leader. The issue of October 13, 1987, mentions twelve churches by name on pages 18, 19, and 20: three “Neighborhood,” three “MB,” two “Community,” two “Bible,” one “Christian Fellowship,” and one having only a geographic designation. On page 23 a new church is mentioned which calls itself a “Bible” church. Only three of these thirteen supposedly “MB” churches still carry that name. It was research into this local name problem which revealed it to be one aspect of the larger ethnic and theological problem.

Let us be clear concerning the mandate. God is not {10} interested in primarily transforming other people into Mennonites but into Christians who may be or may become Mennonite. Our mandate is to Christianize, not to “Mennonitize.” If it is necessary to debate this Scriptural mandate, then our problem is deeper than heretofore assumed. This biblical imperative and motivation must override all other considerations. With Paul we must affirm that we will do anything short of sinning in order to win men and women to Christ and to build Christ’s church. Some critics, instead of being willing to become all things to all people, seem to be unwilling to give up anything that weakens ethnic preeminence. For them maintenance seems to take precedence over mission. Yet, “the church will either evangelize within this culture or be swallowed up by it. The assignment from God (is) to work within this cultural context. . .” (Schmidt, 3).

Though we cannot all become Mennonites, it is entirely possible for both Mennonites and non-Mennonites to become Anabaptists together. For that is a religious question. And with mutual respect both Mennonite and other ethnicities can unite in acceptance of Anabaptist theology without violating anyone’s identity or heritage.

4. Our Name Is a Secondary, but Significant, Problem. There may be good reasons for retaining the name “Mennonite Brethren,” but none of them appear to be Bible-based. They all turn out, it seems, to be sentimental, or historical, or sociological. Those are important reasons but not ultimately important. As has been shown, in North America and in several additional countries the term has a double meaning, one ethnic and the other religious. That the ethnic meaning includes a religious component for most people does not negate the fact that one meaning is ethnic. Therefore the use of it to designate our church is theologically problematic.

By itself, a name change would not make very much difference. A name change without changes in action and attitude would be no solution. By the same token, changes in attitude and actions not accompanied by a name change lack credibility, because the use of an ethnic designation in a conference name reflects a basic ethnocentrism. A name change, though probably useful, is not sufficient.

It has been argued that a name change would create major problems among MB churches overseas. That needs to be investigated. Situations vary. As documented in {11} A People Apart, many Mennonites overseas are themselves grappling with problems associated with the name, and some have already dropped it. For example, in the German Federal Republic twenty-one essentially MB Umsiedler congregations have formed a conference which they call the Evangelical Baptist Brethren Church.

Two major groups oppose the suggested name change. One of these strongly endorses traditional church-reinforced Mennonitism. To them I say that “clothes do not make the man,” even collectively. Members of the second group dislike the theological connotations which “Anabaptist” or “Anabaptist/Mennonite” bear. These people seem to have well understood the theological intention behind this proposed name change. For them I underscore the MB collective commitment to biblical Anabaptism, though I stress that I am not wedded to any one name.

Both “Mennonite” and “Anabaptist” emerged as sixteenth century nicknames with pejorative connotations. The former has evolved into an ethnic name, the latter has not. “Anabaptist. . .has become the positive identifier of an honoured tradition” (Klaassen, 7). It is a widely used and respected theological label among religious Mennonites and in society generally.

“Anabaptist” need not, however, be part of the new name. But a commitment to have the name signal a particular theological orientation means that the name should probably include “Anabaptist” or “peace” or “discipleship” or a variation of one of these three. “Anabaptist” should probably rank first because of its uniqueness, its historical value, its theological connotation, and its widespread role in providing theological and social cohesion for religious Mennonites globally as well as locally. Among the names that might be considered, I suggest the following.

The Evangelical Anabaptist Church

The Evangelical Anabaptist Church (Mennonite Brethren)

The Evangelical Peace Church

The Discipleship Church

The Christian Peace Church

The Covenant Peace Church

“Mennonite Brethren,” in brackets, could be put after any of these names. {12}

REFLECTIONS ON THE RESPONSES OF READERS AND CRITICS

Of the several hundred responses which have come to me, the great majority affirm the three central proposals of the book: that we develop more wholesome attitudes toward nonethnic Mennonites, that we take concrete steps to ensure that none are slighted by personal or official actions, and that we give serious consideration to changing our name. As one put it, “We need to place ourselves in the non-believer’s position and realize what it means to have no heritage and no place in history except through Jesus our King” (Shea, 11).

Some critics seem to be more in love with Mennonitism than with Christianity. That is a strong statement, but it describes an honest impression. Some seem to think that their defense of established, fused Mennonitism in itself constitutes a defense of the faith. A few have become so emotionally aroused by the discussion of Mennonitism that they can hardly think rationally about the subject. We all do well to remind ourselves to take thought before we take sides. Some critics have misread what has been written. And a few seem to think that if some errors have been detected or if the need for improvement of the very limited and impressionistic survey can be demonstrated—which is not hard to do—then the central thesis has been invalidated. Many critics and other respondents have suggested excellent improvements and have identified shortcomings. If there will be a second edition of the book, it will be much improved because of them.

Very few of the negative responses have contained alternate proposals. Most have simply argued for ethnicity. A few have made a case for the well-being of the church. But is our gaze fixed on God or on God’s people? As Paul Hiebert has said, “The ultimate task of the church. . .is not to build itself, but to glorify God and to build His kingdom on earth” (13). Significantly, to date not a single critic, as far as I know, has attempted a critique based on biblical teachings.

Despite what several reviewers wrote, the book does not assume nor present a theory of Mennonite exceptionality. We are not unique in facing a faith-ethnicity problem, although few denominations still retain an ethnic name. One reviewer, who has repeatedly acknowledged that North American Mennonites are an ethnic people, defended the retention of “Mennonite” as a conference designation by reverting to using the name as analogous to “Catholic,” a specifically religious label: {13} “Everyone knows that there are substantial differences between Irish Catholics, Italian Catholics and Mexican Catholics” (Toews, 146). The same point was made by several who read the manuscript, and I responded thus:

In one sense (the argument) is right but in another sense not. I suggest that the major point which this book has documented is that in North America, and in some other regions, the term Mennonite is also, if not primarily, analogous to Irish, Italian, and Mexican. Accordingly, if we want to retain both usages of the word Mennonite, and if we also want to be consistent, then we should speak not only of Japanese Mennonite Brethren, Chinese Mennonite Brethren, French-Canadian Mennonite Brethren, and East Indian Mennonite Brethren, but also of Mennonite Mennonite Brethren (186).

The most perplexing response to A People Apart, for me, was contained in a lengthy unpublished essay by Elmer Thiessen, a professor of philosophy at Medicine Hat College in Alberta. Because it is significant in its own right and incorporates views expressed less eloquently by others, I shall present part of his critique. I trust I have understood him correctly.

Having acknowledged that “there are various ethnic groups” and that “Mennonite ethnicity is alive and well,” Thiessen argues that “Christianity can and must also be viewed as a form of ethnicity.” He adds, “There need be nothing confusing about using the word ‘Mennonite’ in two different senses.” Many words, he says, have two meanings. It is true that one may call both a government official and a measuring stick a “ruler.” The meanings are unrelated and create no problem. But there is a partial overlap between a Mennonite cultural ethnos and a multi-ethnic believers church, and to call both forms of ethnos “Mennonite” is confusing. Apparently we are to call both unchurched non-believing ethnics and believing non-ethnic adherents “Mennonites” and then to be content with the explanation that “there is nothing inherently contradictory” in this.

Some critics have made much of articles by Martin E. Marty and Timothy Smith (1972, 1978). Both of these speak favorably of the sense of peoplehood which is present in ethnic groups and both show how religion functions to serve {14} ethnic purposes. Marty specifically deals with racial (minority group) forms of ethnicism and describes how religion has played a role in the self-discovery of Blacks, Hispanics, and Quebecois. If our main concern is the well-being of the Mennonite ethnic group, then he has some important insights for us; but his insights have very little to do with the mission of the church and very much to do with secular reflections on societal trends.

Smith shows how ethnic groups have “mobilized religious sentiments to serve ethnic purposes.” He explains how “religious awakening helped define both the boundaries and the moral ideals of ethnic groups. . .” In fact, boundary maintenance appears to be one of his key concerns. He thus helps us to contrast two distinctly different views of the church. One view sees the church as a major entity working within ethnic groups. The other, not spelled out in his article, posits the church as the larger framework within which ethnic groups can function as major but not over-riding entities. The MB conference is now in the process of deciding which model it will accept as normative.

CONCLUSION

The status quo and its ethnic/faith fusion will not continue. It is not aberration that six of the seven congregations which joined the Canadian MB conference on July 5, 1987, did not call themselves “Mennonite.” The seventh was a Chinese mission church which apparently had little choice in the matter. Whether by decision or by default, our identity will be redefined. We will change. Yet church renewal, as in 1525 and 1860, can increase biblical and historical rootedness. Exhortations toward such a renewal should not be brushed aside, nor rejected outright, nor trivialized. Nor should they be equated with disruption. They should be carefully considered. Some suggestions may be useful. There will be disagreements concerning both the goal and the method of working toward Anabaptist renewal. As we discuss the issues we should remind ourselves that creative tension is a sign of health. As we dialogue, let us put forth an honest effort to hear each other and to understand what is being said.

A People Apart, while largely a personal statement, has tried to combine opinion and analysis with biblical concerns. {15} The findings, and the three-part proposal, challenge the constituency with a tall order. But some tentativeness remains. I am more sure of my analysis than of my proposal, especially of its practicality. I am hopeful but not totally convinced that the situation can be corrected. We may already have waited too long, especially in the United States. The situation is serious. Both theological diversity and the erosion of identity are far advanced. I am, however, fully convinced that addressing all three components of the proposal is the best way to try to achieve that correction. The Conference, in prayerful consultation, must search for the best solutions. Given the magnitude of the issues, the search is worth pursuing. Whatever the odds, we cannot ignore this agenda, for we are talking about issues that refuse to go away.

APPENDIX

Gerhard Ratzlaff, editor of the MB conference organ in Paraguay, sent an important report to the Mennonitische Rundschau (August 5, 1987, p. 10), titled “Who Is a Mennonite?” In it he gives the answers of his class in Mennonite history to that question. (My translation)

A Spanish-speaking Paraguayan “Mennonite” in the third year of Bible School said, “Mennonites are blond people with blue eyes. They live mostly in the Chaco”. . .Upon being reminded that, in fact, he was a member of a congregation which officially called itself Mennonite, he answered confidently, “We Paraguayans are not Mennonites.” All the other students, including those with blue eyes, concurred with this explanation. This class also included a student from the Chulupie and one from the Lengua churches in the Chaco. Both were asked if they were Mennonites or could become Mennonites. The question was answered with a shaking of the head and laughter: “Nunca”—never.

Ratzlaff reports that when asked by fellow countrymen about their church membership, Paraguayan “Mennonites” usually answer “Evangelicos” instead of “Mennonite” because,

in many instances the Paraguayan public would not believe them and they could not explain to them what a {16} Mennonite is. It is too complicated! From time to time one actually hears the recommendation from Spanish-speaking students that the name Mennonite should be limited to German-speaking Mennonites. . .The Paraguayan people consider as Mennonite all of the people who live in the colonies, including those who are not converted and do not belong to any church. . .(they) have a ‘Privilege’ which applies only to them and which excuses from military service even the youths who are unbelievers. . .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Coggins, James. “Reviews: From Sect to Denomination. . .” Mennonite Brethren Herald 26 (May 15, 1987): 31.
  • “God’s Assignment: A Vision Statement for U.S. Mennonite Brethren.” Christian Leader 47 (June 26, 1984): 2-5. A report of Board of Church Ministries.
  • Hiebert, Paul. Cited in “Remarrying Missions and Services.” Christian Leader 39 (April 13, 1976): 10-13.
  • Klaassen, Walter. “Between World and Faith: Menno Simons.” Mennonite Reporter 17 (March 16, 1987): 7.
  • Marty, Martin E. “Ethnicity: The Skeleton of Religion in America.” Church History 41 (March, 1972): 6-21.
  • Redekop, John H. A People Apart: Ethnicity and the Mennonite Brethren. Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 1987.
  • Shea, Phil. “The Name Change Issue.” Mennonite Brethren Herald 20 (June 12, 1987): 11.
  • Smith, Timothy. “Religion and Ethnicity in America.” American Historical Review 83 (December, 1978): 1155-1185.
  • Toews, Paul. “A People Apart or Pulling Apart a People.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 5 (1987): 144-148.
  • Warner, Miriam. Mennonite Brethren: The Maintenance of Continuity in a Religious Ethnic Group (Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley), 1985.
  • Wartman, Paul. “Choosing to Be Mennonite.” Mennonite Brethren Herald 26 (August 7, 1987): 32.
John Redekop is a churchman, writer, and professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario.

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