On this 21st anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the worship committee suggested that it might be a good time to look at the Mennonite or Anabaptist “peace position.” What do we mean when we say Anabaptists are a historic peace church, that we are committed to peacemaking? What has that looked like in history and what might it look like now? Just a small topic for the requested (or mandated) 12 minute sermon.
Anabaptists have, from the beginning in 1525, committed themselves to peace. Jesus said turn the other cheek, so reading literally, they did not fight back. Also reading literally, these wavering Catholics believed that only adults should be baptized, wasn’t Jesus an adult when he was baptized? Being baptized as an adult, after already being baptized as a baby, was illegal as well as a slap in the face to the church – which was already struggling with the renegade followers of Luther. Now here there was another group of former Catholics that was reading the newly available printed bibles and finding new, problematic, understandings.
Nonresistance, as turning the other cheek and loving enemies came to be called, became a way of life. To stay safe from the authorities, Anabaptists worshiped behind locked doors, even in caves outside the towns. Their commitments to peace were so strong that they did not resist when they were caught. Instead they wrote hymns from prison and we still tell the stories of their faithfulness in the face of torture and death. Anabaptists don’t have saints, but the martyrs, as featured in The Martyrs Mirror, are right up there.
But that was nearly 500 years ago. What does it mean to be a peacemaker in more modern times? In this country, it has primarily meant not participating in the military. During World War I, the pacifist Anabaptists were tarred, feathered, painted yellow and dragged through town. Some were put in jail and a few died in military prison. (Jake Short can tell you more of those stories which he has helped document.)
Anabaptists have generally tried to stay out of politics, perhaps a vestige of running from the government in the early years. But after two World Wars, I guess we decided that there had to be a way to stay out of the military and hold onto the faith. So some of the Peace Church leaders came to DC and testified before congress about the need for the option of “alternative service” and conscientious objector status. And they got that in 1948; it is variously called CPS (Civilian Public Service,) 1-W ( the military classification,) PAX, Alternative Service and other shorthand terms.
Over time, many Anabaptists of European descent in this country became acculturated and wealthy, and then the military draft went away. What is the “peace position” when there is no war, no draft? Is nonresistance enough? What does turning the other cheek really mean? The time came to challenge the simplistic, or at least narrow, understanding of nonresistance.
We might remember what theologian Walter Wink said about “turning the other cheek.” It does not mean that you stand idly and allow yourself to be beaten up. In Jesus’ time, it meant that you made those who hit you, take you seriously and see your humanity. To turn the other cheek meant that the person who hits cannot just symbolically give a back handed slap but they have to look you in the eye, see your humanity and decide if they really want to punch you. Turning the other check then is not nonresistance, it is a way to resist – non-violently. It is a way to reclaim dignity in the face of violence.
Vincent Harding, an African American pastor and theologian, challenged the traditional Mennonite understandings of nonresistance. Harding hung out with Mennonites for a while in the 1940s and 50s. In fact, he was Associate Pastor with Delton Franz at Woodlawn church in Chicago. (Delton was a member here and died in 2006.)
Tobin Miller Sheerer, writes that Vincent Harding was someone who was “immersed in Mennonite history and culture but also grounded in the black freedom struggle.” Harding let the church know that it had been “silent and motionless” in the face of ‘the sins of segregation and racial discrimination.’ He said the “the church had played politics during debates over the 1948 Selective Service Act to ensure that the legislation included an exemption for conscientious objectors; yet in 1958, that same church said they did not deal with politicians when civil rights issues came to the fore.”
Harding saw that Mennonites in the US, had gotten comfortable. They hung onto the belief that peace was about the military and nothing else. But Harding’s commitment to the Prince of Peace was much more complicated than that. In 1967, though he had mostly left the Mennonite church behind, Harding was convinced to give a sermon at Mennonite World Conference in Amsterdam. He continued to call Mennonites to account. He said,
“What is our peace witness when we live as citizens of the nations that make peaceful revolution impossible? We cannot escape such questions by saying that we do not believe in violence when we participate in the ‘violence of the status quo.’ Nor can we affirm law and order when they maintain a situation in which men rob another people cruelly, legally and systematically and share some of the profits with us.”
And he was not finished. He went on to critique the way Mennonites use power.
“Sometimes though, we clearly control the power, subtle power, like the power of Mennonite prestige, the power of middle-class respectability, the power of whiteness. Can we recommend the way of powerlessness while we dwell comfortably among the powerful?”
We may look back on this hard-hitting honesty with admiration and even appreciation but it was not received that way. Harding continued to distance himself from Mennonites for several decades after this: his prophetic truth could not be heard and accepted, so he found other places to work and serve. In his last years, some young Mennonite peacemakers rediscovered him and made some peace with him.
It was at another world conference, 1984 in Strasbourg France, where a white man spoke powerful words about peace. And surprise, his words were more welcomed and accepted. In fact, Brethren in Christ professor Ron Sider’s “call to active peacemaking sparked study groups all over North America” and two years later Christian Peacemaker Teams, CPT, was started. (The organization recently changed their name so that now the C stands for Community; there are plenty of people involved with CPT who are not Christian.) Sider inspired people this way:
Too often we fall into an isolationist pacifism which silently ignores or perhaps profits from injustice and war – as long as our boys don’t have to fight. (Provided) conscientious objector status protects our purity and safety, our neighbors need not fear that we will raise troubling questions about the injustice their armies reinforce or the civilians they maim and kill. The most famous advocate of our time, Mahatma Gandhi, once said that if the only two choices are to kill or to stand quietly by doing nothing while the weak are oppressed and killed, then, of course, we must kill. I agree.
But there is always a third option. We can always prayerfully and nonviolently place ourselves between the weak and the oppressor. Do we have the courage to move from the back lines of isolationist pacifism to the front lines of nonviolent peacemaking?
Sider went on to describe an alternative to the military:
What would happen if we in the Christian church developed a new nonviolent peacekeeping force of 100,000 persons ready to move into violent conflicts and stand peacefully between warring parties in Central America, Northern Ireland, Poland, Southern Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan? Frequently we would get killed by the thousands. But everyone assumes that for the sake of peace it is moral and just for soldiers to get killed by the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Do we not have as much courage and faith as soldiers?
He goes on to say that:
There would be prayer chains in all our congregations as a few thousand of our best youth walked into the face of death, inviting all parties to end the violence and work together for justice.
It’s interesting that Sider assumed, like the military, that it must be thousands of youth that are on the front lines. In reality, as Community Peacemaker Teams has developed, there are (maybe) hundreds, of dedicated volunteers, many who are middle-aged or older. My friend, retired pastor Weldon Nisly who is in his 70s, is completing 6 years with the CPT team in Iraqi Kurdistan. He travels there for 12 weeks, twice a year (except during covid times.) Amy Yoder McGlaughlin, pastor at Fraser Mennonite in PA, goes to Israel /Palestine each year for 4 weeks with CPT. Frontline peacemaking is not just for the young.
Vincent Harding and Ron Sider are not the only ones to call Anabaptists to deeper understandings of what it means to be peacemakers. For many years women have spoken out about violence in Anabaptist homes. How can we say we are people of peace when our children are abused, when spouses are harmed? This is not martyrdom, this is violence to be resisted. And of course we must acknowledge that there is sometimes abuse in churches. Organizations have sprung up in the Anabaptist world to call into account clergy and church employees and other Anabaptists that perpetrate violence and sexualized violence.
These are just some of the ways that making peace has become a whole lot more complicated than simply avoiding military service. Peacemaking and conflict transformation is now a thing to study in college – and not only at Anabaptist schools. It is a real field of study with research showing that diplomacy and working at conflict non-violently is actually more effective than war for long lasting peace.
One last thought: My youngest is taking a conflict transformation class at Goshen College this semester. Periodically he sends me a nugget from what he is learning. One of these was this – if we want to be peacemakers, “blessed are they,” we have to practice, we have to learn peacemaking skills. As Anabaptists we don’t fight and we don’t take people to court, so we imagine that our last option is flight, running away from the conflict. But that doesn’t make peace, it just avoids conflict. Anabaptists have been especially good at this, fleeing conflict in the church and outside the church.
Perhaps this is why some Allegheny Conference folks were so confused when this congregation stayed instead of fleeing. “We have disagreed, we told you that you are wrong. The correct response is to flee.” But instead we stayed. Were we resisting non-violently? Was this accidental peacemaking, the result of stubborn solidarity?
As Anabaptists, we have been proud of our martyrs and proud of the difference we have made in alternative service, done in the name of peace, in the name of the Prince of Peace. And we need to understand in deeper ways what it means to be peacemakers. I hope we can keep practicing. I hope we will listen and learn from those who have experienced violence – making peace not just with people but with creatures and the earth itself.
Violence and Peace are not only systemic; they are personal – and intimate. The Psalmist longs for the day when justice and peace kiss.
Let us breathe deep, inhaling hope and holding the Psalmist’s vision in our hearts and minds:
one day we will live in the land “where kindness and truth meet, where justice and peace kiss.”