Judy Zimmerman Herr

Mennonite Traditions of Peacemaking

July 12, 2002

I’ve been asked to talk about Mennonite traditions of peacemaking, but I have to begin by mentioning one of our non-peacemaking traditions.  That is a tendency to split or for division.  Mennonites are a very small group, but very diverse, and not all Mennonites would recognize themselves in what I have to say.  But what I’ll try to do here is lay out something of the terrain, and ask my brothers and sisters to make it a more complete picture.

I’d like to begin by sharing with you a baptismal vow from 1743, found in the current Mennonite ministers’ manual.  This is part of one suggested series of questions for the baptismal candidate, which begins by asking about the person’s repentance of their sins and their belief in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  But those questions are then followed by this third question:

Do you promise, by God’s grace, to follow Jesus the Lamb all the days of your life, ready to love your enemies and suffer wrong nonresistantly?”

This is the action, the response, that grows from repentance and allegiance to God: to follow Jesus, to love enemies, to suffer without resisting.  This is the identity the candidate is being baptized into.  This is something of what Jeff Gros pointed to this morning when he talked about peace as a confessional stance.

This question to a new church member illustrates a central way in which beliefs about peace have been expressed in the Mennonite tradition.  Arnold Snyder will tell you that the Anabaptist movement in its beginnings was not necessarily pacifist as we now think of that term.  But what has been crucial and central for this tradition is the notion of following Jesus.  And following Jesus includes loving enemies and responding to them in the way Jesus taught and modeled – turning the other cheek, being nonresistant.  The Mennonite tradition of peacemaking goes back to Jesus, and relies on his teachings as shaping the way Christians should live.

Historically this response has meant that there are things we don’t do.  It has led to a refusal to take up arms, a refusal to fight or to serve in the army, and for some in our tradition a refusal also to work as police or with the civil authorities, because they may be required to use violence.  (It has also meant refusing to swear oaths, including loyalty oaths… and for my father it meant not serving jury duty, because that was taking part in a coercive structure.  For some it continues to mean not voting in national elections).  It has meant thinking of one’s self as a citizen of God’s Kingdom, and holding loyalty to earthly “kingdoms” at arm’s length.  At times it has meant being imprisoned for refusing those things, or needing to move to a new land to avoid them.

But it has also led to continual reflection on what it means to love enemies and to turn the other cheek. Those of us who grew up in Mennonite homes will remember children’s story books about people who were kind to those who were persecuting or stealing from or threatening or in other ways harming them, even though the result was their own suffering or death.  Those were the heroes we were taught to emulate.

You’ll note that the question for much of our history has been “how do I/we love enemies and live at peace?” – in contrast to questions like “how do we make peace?” (or in our more contemporary terminology, “transform conflict?”) or “how do we help bring about justice?”  It’s not a world-shaping kind of question.  It betrays a certain assumption about the place of the church in society.  It has been the question of groups who were marginalized and withdrawn, or to put that in a positive way, who saw the church as living separately in order to embody an alternative to the systems of the world.  We have seen the Christian’s role as refraining from using violence or killing, and as willingness to suffer, but the responsibility questions have been for the most part foreign questions.  For much of our history, the preoccupation has been how we live as faithful Christians, but that was very far from asking about the role of the church in helping to shape a just society.

So this is one pole if you will of the spectrum or continuum of Mennonite traditions of peacemaking – the church as strangers and pilgrims, the called-out community living as defenseless witnesses within an alien world. This tradition has sustained a minority witness that has served to remind the larger church that Jesus called his followers to love enemies, and has upheld this costly witness.  It’s a history I cherish dearly …

But reflection on this “sectarian” experience, and on the question of how we follow Jesus, has also led to what we might call the other pole of Mennonite traditions of peacemaking.  Most of this has been in our more recent history, though there are certainly voices and examples from the early days of the Aanbaptist movement as well.  It tends to fit under the theme of “seeking the peace of the city,” echoing Jeremiah’s word to the exiles in Babylon.

This understanding would continue to hold up as central the question about following Jesus, but would also recognize that we are involved in our wider societies, as Jesus was in his.  It would see the church as engaged continuously in a series of negotiations – asking how, where and with what values we participate in society?  It would see the calling to love enemies and to be peacemakers as a calling to be active and creative, to find ways to call society to new patterns and alternative viewpoints, to pose new possibilities.  One recent example might be the work of restorative justice – which began within Mennonite circles and has now become a broader movement in the criminal justice field, creating alternative ways to work at dealing with offenders and victims of crime.  Another is the burgeoning field of conciliation, or conflict transformation, that develops skills to work with conflict in new ways.

This more engaged end of the Mennonite peace tradition has tended to focus on practical skills and actions, but it’s accompanied by a growing stream of theological reflection that asks how we can be both engaged and also faithful to the call to be peacemakers.  Much of this has been expressed under the rubric of the Lordship of Christ over the whole world.  An on-going topic for reflection is how and when we can call society and government to certain actions, without assuming that society or government operates from a Christian framework.  In other words, how can we affirm that our orientation to the world is shaped and undergirded by our faith, and at the same time offer our viewpoints and actions to those who are not so shaped and undergirded?   The “sectarian” pole of Mennonite tradition would caution against crossing this divide – and in my office we get those cautions from some in our churches, who think, for example, that it’s not our role as the church to be speaking to government or telling it how to act.  The “engaged” pole would say that as Christians who love neighbors and enemies, we must do exactly that.  So this is an on-going conversation, and questions like security and terrorism provide occasions for new rounds of this conversation within the Mennonite peace traditions.

In thinking about our conversation here these days, I would suggest that the Mennonite peace traditions, across the spectrum I have begun to describe, bring some strengths to the wider church:

  • understanding peace as central to the Christian message: this is not one among ethical options, but is central to our understanding of the reconciliation God offered to us through Christ, and calls us to live out in the world
  • always raising the hard question about enemy-love, and being willing to suffer as expression of that love, rather than to kill
  • viewing the church as an alternative, a sign of the reign of God, offering the world new possibilities
  • raising questions about nationalism and the Christian’s identity and loyalty

At the same time, I would suggest that the Mennonite peace traditions, because of our particular history, lack some things, for which we need to learn from others in the wider church:

  • we tend to lack a strong theological expression of God’s sovereignty over the whole created order, and God’s care for the ordering of life outside the bounds of the church
  • we need help in thinking about the church’s transformative role for justice within society, and about how we struggle with the hard questions about responsibility
  • we need more careful reflection on the role of the Christian as a citizen
  • we need to learn from the long tradition of careful thought on how we might use power or social coercion appropriately (in contrast to our traditions’ tendency to either deny that we have power or to deny that using it has much to do with our beliefs about peace)

We need help in reflecting on these issues from other traditions who have a longer history of doing so.  We need to struggle with them in order to make our theology and our language congruent with our actual lives in the world we live in.  But our struggle is how we might think about responsibility and shaping a just society without losing some of the emphases which have sustained our traditions of peace across our history.

Judy Zimmerman Herr
Co-Director, MCC Peace Office
July, 2002