When Being a Member of an Historic Peace Church is Not Enough

When Being a Member of an Historic Peace Church is Not Enough by Steve Clemens. [Every Church A Peace Church Presentation – Jan 10, 2011]

At the age of 14, I was baptized into the Mennonite Church of my parents in SE Pennsylvania. I have come to treasure that Mennonite background although I also look at it critically. The Mennonites were part of a broader movement called Anabaptists – the generic name given to “re-baptizers” – including the Mennonites, Czech Brethern, Hutterites, and the Amish.

This movement split with Protestant reformers and the Roman Catholics in the early 1500s over the issue of baptism and membership in a “State Church” – saying that one must choose the faith as an adult and then be baptized – and being a “citizen” within the local form of government had nothing to do with one’s religious beliefs – although one’s religion had a lot to say about what one might do as a “citizen”. The nickname, Anabaptist, was a slur meaning “rebaptizers” – which was a capital offense because it was not only theological heresy but also political treason since one’s baptism as an infant was also one’s political identity – to reject it was tantamount to political betrayal.

The Anabaptists insisted that the Protestant Reformation movement should more closely to resemble that of the early church after Jesus. Some practiced a community of goods. Virtually all embraced an ethic of nonviolence – citing Jesus’ injunction to love one’s enemies and a rejection of the strategy of domination. It is sometimes called the Radical Reformation. They saw themselves as taking the concept of discipleship seriously. Nachfolge, the word in German which most of them spoke, meant “following after” – for them, discipleship meant following Jesus. Faithfulness to the way of Jesus is given priority over effectiveness.

Many of the early Anabaptists were martyred for their faith by both Protestant and Catholic leaders – depending where – in whose jurisdiction - they were caught. Many were drowned – a fitting punishment for those who sought “another baptism”. The expectation of persecution because of their faith and their refusal to take up arms in defense of the state led the Anabaptists to embrace their minority status. “Straight is the gate and narrow the way” was preached rather than the “broad path that leads to destruction”. Because of this mindset, whenever Mennonites were forced out or immigrated to another area or country, the first book, after the Bible, which was printed for Mennonite families was a thick tome titled The Martyr’s Mirror –replete with the many illustrations of Christian martyrs from the story in the book of Acts of the first deacon, Stephen, who was stoned to death as Saul looked on, to the stories of numerous Anabaptists drowned, burned at the stake, beheaded, or otherwise gruesomely killed during the 1500s and 1600s. Even though my ancestors came to Pennsylvania at the behest of Quaker founder William Penn, Martyr’s Mirror was the book published and distributed amongst them after the Bible shortly after my ancestors arrived from Holland in 1705. It was a book I frequently looked at as an adolescent and in my teenage years.

It is important to note that not all Anabaptists were nonviolent –Thomas Munster and the Munsterites –were caught up in apocalyptic visions and he and his followers insisted their role was to “Bring in the Kingdom now!” In doing so, they took up the sword – and were roundly denounced by fellow Anabaptists and were arrested or slaughtered by the Lutheran Princes. Today, many of the “Mennonite Brethren” living in the Fresno area of California are more staunchly anti-communist than pacifist; their migration out of Russia occurred after the Bolshevik Revolution and they had lost their valuable farmland after the socialist state came to power. (They no more reflect traditional “Mennonite” values than did President Nixon’s reflecting his “Quaker” roots.)

The Sunday School movement heavily influenced some Mennonites as well as the cultural debate raised by the Scopes/Monkey Trial. Mennonites in the US had become suspect during World War I since many continued to speak (and especially sing) in their tradition of “low German”. Because they wouldn’t fight in the Army and most refused to buy War Bonds, they were especially ostracized. Because most Mennonites were not “evangelical” – in the sense of “sharing their faith” and proselytizing, those influenced by the fundamentalist tide ended up marginalizing the distinctive witness of the minority faith (peace witness, distinctive dress, downplaying jewelry and musical instruments, …). They exchanged this for what I’d call the “mess of pottage” of embracing capitalism, American exceptionalism, and rigid fundamentalism stressing verbal infallibility of the Bible and “born again” verbiage. Some were seduced by “the American Dream”; having tired of being considered part of a minority movement, some longed to be considered relevant and powerful.

The traditional Mennonite position was one of “nonresistance”. This was often expressed in a lifestyle of withdrawal from the world – a privatizing of the ethic of refusal to “return evil for evil.” War, Peace and Nonresistance a book by Guy Hershberger was the popular text for Mennonites long before the publishing of The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder in 1972. Hershberger used the text of Jesus statement in the Sermon on the Mount to “resist not evil.” Some texts say, “resist not the evil one.” Taking this statement literally, Mennonites often refused to intervene in matters of conflict – leaving space for “divine intervention” if God so chose to act. Many Mennonites did not vote in elections nor would run for public office that was viewed as part of the “realm of the sword”. Academic scholarship and new forms of Biblical criticism and interpretation were not a high priority for many Mennonites until at least the 1950s since most remained on their farms and often their preachers were selected by lot, with little academic training.

In contrast, John Howard Yoder was the best-known Mennonite intellectual during the last half of the 20th Century and taught at both the Mennonite Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana as well as at the University of Notre Dame. A student of Karl Barth, fluent in at least 4-6 languages, Yoder set out to reevaluate the traditional Mennonite view of the relationship of the Christian to “the State”. An ethicist, Yoder maintained that “nonretaliation” would be a better translation of Jesus’ ethic rather than “nonresistance” since there is no imperative of passivity or pointless suffering in the text. Responding in kind is what Jesus rejects – don’t respond to evil with evil rather than “nonresistance”.

John Howard Yoder died suddenly in 1997 – but not before publishing numerous books and articles on Christian nonviolence and ethics. He was often scorned by critics who claimed that his ethic of “faithfulness” to Jesus call to nonviolence was outdated and “ineffectual”. This criticism was one of the main strong disagreements Yoder had with Reinhold Niebuhr who jettisoned his pacifism to embrace the “necessity” of World War II. In a nutshell, Niebuhr argued that Jesus’ ethic of turning the other cheek was just an “interim ethic” until the establishment of the Kingdom of God that Jesus mistakenly believed was imminent. Since Jesus and Paul were “wrong” about the timing of the Kingdom, Christians had to take on a position of “responsibility” and “effectiveness” which included wielding the “sword” according to Niebuhr. (Interestingly enough, Niebuhr is the theologian quoted by President Obama when he attempted to justify his Nobel Peace Prize in his speech in Oslo two years ago.)

Yoder claimed that although the Kingdom of God was not fully realized yet, it is the responsibility of the believers to live with those values now, as a sign of that ultimate reality. The follower of Jesus was called to be faithful to that ethic described in the Sermon on the Mount without an inordinate emphasis on determining what strategy was most “effective”. We are not responsible for making history turn out right, Yoder would claim – that is God’s responsibility. Our job was to be faithful.

Yoder’s position, clarified in his last book, edited and published posthumously by theologian friends from his manuscripts in 2009 under the title of The War of the Lamb points out: if God is sovereign, then what is faithful is ultimately more likely to be effective. Quoting Martin Luther King, “the arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice,” Yoder, echoing that sentiment writes, “Suffering love is not right because it “works” in any calculable short-run way (although it often does). It is right because it goes with the grain of the universe, and that is why in the long run nothing else will work.” [Yoder, The War of the Lamb. Pg. 8]. Yoder took seriously the early church confession that “Jesus is Lord” and argued that the church was called to follow the way Jesus lived and taught. There are Christians today who claim to “follow Jesus” but the Jesus they proclaim as part of their “prosperity Gospel” or as a projection of power bears little resemblance to the Jesus of Nazareth recorded in the Gospels. Following Jesus has to correspond to the Jesus of history, not just some fanciful projection of a triumphalist Lord that so categorizes the widely popular “Left Behind” book series.

While the notion of “historic peace churches” is a common phrase in some circles, it is important to note that it wasn’t until the 1930s and the rising threat of national mobilization for war that the Quakers (or Society of Friends), the Church of the Brethren, and the Mennonites, ever got together to discuss mutual concerns. This followed a tough period during World War I when 3 Hutterites were killed in prison for refusing to fight in the military. Other Mennonites and Quakers were threatened when they refused to buy war bonds. The Peace Churches met together to urge national recognition of the position of conscientious objection to war in relation to a military draft and also in support of their overseas service activities.

Even though all three denominations agree on conscientious refusal to fight in war, they often have little other in common with each other. Many Quakers feel more at home with non-church peace people than with Mennonites or Brethren who use language and styles of religious services which often leave Quakers uncomfortable. Some Brethren feel more at home with other Protestant mainstream congregations while other Brethren and many Mennonites identify more closely with evangelicals.

Mennonites, [Church of the] Brethren, and Quakers at least raised the default option of Conscientious objection and provided a structure for alternative service instead of military service (I-W work and MVS - Mennonite Voluntary Service). Even without an active draft since the military first went to a lottery system in 1970 and then moved to the voluntary “mercenary” military we have today, Mennonite young people were encouraged to spend a year or two in “VS”, voluntary service, before going to college –or after college – before taking on a job. Service to others continues to be a strong value embraced by Anabaptists today.

A significant number of young evangelicals in the late 1960s and 70s identified with the Anabaptist movement and its theology after reading Yoder’s classic The Politics of Jesus which reaffirmed their opposition to the Vietnam War. Jim Wallis and what became the Sojourners movement, The Other Side Magazine, and other young people labeled as “new left” or “Christian radicals” were often linked to the broader Anabaptist movement. In fact, they appeared to be more excited about the need for a church’s “peace witness” than many of those growing up in Mennonite circles who took it for granted.

The question for me was how to move from “nonresistance” to nonviolent resistance. Many of the Mennonites I knew while growing up were not actively engaged in social change and political activism – even when their nation was at war! Many Mennonites were known as “the quiet in the land” and were content to remain quiet if they could farm and worship freely and be exempt from military service. When one’s “personal stance” of conscientious objection doesn’t engage the larger issue of the politics and policies which lead to war, you are not a peacemaker but a passive-ist. To be a pacifist, one must address the causes of the conflict or problem. A baby is given a “pacifier” for only a temporary stop-gap. What is ultimately is needed is sleep, food, a clean diaper. The “pacifier” only buys a little time before one needs to address the underlying cause. A true pacifist must address the causes of war, not just refuse to fight – it requires action, not being “passive”.

On a more personal note, I was asked to share about the role that my religious faith plays in my activism so I’d like to turn to that.

My Dad rebelled against his Mennonite upbringing and went along with the Draft for WWII and joined the US Army. He never talked to my brothers or me about what he did in the war – he’d say, “it was nothing to be proud of.” He did things “before I became a Christian” – and told the Lord he would go to church and become a better Christian if he made it home alive. I knew he had seen some action because he had two German Mauser rifles and a sidearm- all with the Nazi swastika on them that he had brought back from the battlefield. I used one of the rifles to go deer hunting when I was 14 and distinctly remember his instructions: “Never ever point your gun at another person. Never ever point a gun at something you don’t want to kill. And eat what you kill.”

Having gone off to a college prep school for high school, I was enmeshed in academics and sports, totally oblivious to the dramatic escalation of the US War in Indochina. Since all my graduation class of 1968 was going to college, the war and the draft were not issues on our all-boys campus. This was clearly a reflection of the “privilege” I took for granted as an educated, well-to-do, white male.

When I first registered as a Conscientious Objector as a freshman in college that fall, it was, for me merely a private, personal stance. It had no bearing on how I voted and my opinion about the Vietnam War – except that I could not fight in it due to my personal convictions. Even though Wheaton College had compulsory ROTC, with many male students of the school becoming Second Lieutenants in the US Army upon graduation, I saw no immediate need to “force my views on others”.

It took a summer working with African-American street gang kids before I started to realize that my politics had to be congruent with my faith; if I was morally opposed to war, I had to also address the political ramifications – not just hide behind my personal exemption. It led me to my first demonstration at the Wheaton Draft Board – led by a Maryknoll Catholic priest. Often my protest life at Wheaton College was a lonely, individual affair – only a small group of students embraced Christian nonviolence. Especially after I graduated in 1971, I personally knew very few others in my home area of Southeastern Pennsylvania who shared my faith-based opposition to the war. So when I burned my draft card after one of President Nixon’s speeches, I sent the ashes to my Draft Board without my return address. Only in the months to follow did I have the courage to return their letters asking for up-to-date addresses with the note: “Return to Sender. Refused – Obscene materials”.

While doing my voluntary service, first in the rural Delta area of Mississippi and then in Washington, DC, I learned the importance of being part of a community of resistance and part of a counter-cultural group. I joined a Bible/book Study group led by Phil Berrigan and his partner Liz Macalister. It was Liz who mentored me and gave me the personal challenge to take the next step – that of risking arrest as part of a nonviolent act of resistance.

It has been 35 years since that first arrest at the White House in the spring of 1975, less than a month before the Saigon government fell to the North Vietnamese army. Some times I am fined; other times have meant jail or prison – sometimes for a week, once for 3 months, once for 6 months. I have found it more important to take risks for peace –whether one is arrested or not – rather than notching my belt for each arrest on my résumé.

Even after deciding you are willing to risk arrest and jail, the issue of risking jail time when my kids were young and in school had to be factored into the equation. Being married, living in an intentional community means that others need to be consulted in one’s decisions that would obviously effect others you have made commitments to. When you are in jail, you are not available for the many community duties that are now shared by others left behind.

The “bottom line” for me has become a verse found in Galatians 2:20. I had memorized it in Sunday School: “I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Dan Berrigan explains in his book, They Call Us Dead Men that the Christian symbol of baptism reflects that “dying to self”. If we are “crucified with Jesus”, then we no longer need to fear death. Our lives have been given back to us by God as GRACE. The life we now have, as believers, is a gift and can leave us unafraid of what the state authorities can threaten us with. They can threaten you with jail – but you have already voluntarily “died” in following Jesus. State power no longer has credible threats to level at those who have chosen to follow the crucified Lord.

I remember how important that concept has been for me, especially in 1981 when I scaled the 12’ high fence guarding the nuclear weapons assembly plant in Amarillo, TX and again, four years later when I sat on the train tracks in Montezuma, GA attempting to stop the “White Train” loaded with over 200 nuclear warheads headed for the submarine base on the Atlantic coast. Yes, I did write letters to friends and family in the event I was killed while witnessing for peace, but I can honestly say I was not fearful those days. When I traveled to Iraq in December 2002 as part of the Iraq Peace Team, the intent was to be there in solidarity with Iraqi civilians when our bombs were dropped there. We didn’t know when the war would start but we went with the intent to be present with the people. Others might view this as either heroic or naïve or stupid. I saw it as a way to be a disciple, to follow the Jesus, the Prince of Peace, I claim as the one who most clearly reveals to me the nature of God, our true creator and parent.

Once one has experienced a different reality, it is hard to “unlearn” it. You can live in denial but you won’t have a sense of inner peace unless you can act on your knowledge in light of your conscience. Looking back on the past 40+ years of peace activism, virtually all the mentors for me in this journey have been people motivated primarily by their deep, personal faith. For me, it is virtually impossible to separate out my faith from my “politics”, my theology from my “protesting”. Nonviolence, for me, is an essential element of Jesus’ life and teaching so that it is a nonnegotiable aspect of my Christian faith. But it is also my understanding that it is not exclusively “Christian”. Jesus reveals to us that this is the nature of God so other religious faith expressions are not a threat but rather enable a broader perspective for all of us.

It is not enough to adopt a “purist” position – I belong to a historic Peace Church; I won’t fight in your wars. If people are being killed in war, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to the victims who is doing the killing on behalf of your own nation. Just because we have a mercenary army today in the absence of a military draft does not excuse us from responsibility for what is done “in our name”. Being a peacemaker is about more than just what one won’t do; there must be a positive edge, a saying “Yes” as well as “No”.

Mennonites and Quakers have enjoyed an enviable reputation in Foreign Service circles because they have often refused to take sides in political conflicts when both sides are using violence to advance their cause. We have to model a “third way”, a way that doesn’t increase the spiral of violence. Many Mennonites have been referred to historically as “the quiet in the land” primarily because they’ve often kept to themselves and were hard workers, productive farmers. Until the mid-20th century, many Mennonites chose to not exercise the right to vote in either local or national elections, often seeing the partisan political sphere as contaminated by the system of domination and “lording it over others”. Especially when it came to Presidential elections, some Mennonites asked the question why they, as pacifists, should vote for a person who, after elected, would serve as “Commander-in-Chief”.

The clear advantage of being from one of the Historic Peace Churches is that one shares with others a clear understanding of the nonviolence of Jesus and the value of a God of peace. It is then up to all of us to put our beliefs into practice – active peacemaking – rather than a passive resignation waiting for a future reality. It is a reality we are called to begin to live into now, trusting in the grace of God, believing that the cosmos, God’s creation, the “arc of the universe” is long –“but it bends or unfolds for justice”.