Wednesday, May 20, 2009
When is a Peace Church No Longer a Peace Church?
The gospel of peace integrally belongs to the good news about Jesus Christ---Marlin E. Miller
For a long time now I have been asking this question within myself. Now’s the time for me to make the question public. When is a peace church no longer a peace church? Or one might ask, when has a “historic peace church” lost its peace witness? This question has haunted me ever since I became an Anabaptist-Mennonite (emphasis on Anabaptist) over 20 years ago. The question haunts me not only because of my passion for peace and justice, but that we, Mennonites, as a people have been given a gift from God in being corporately and historically shaped by Christ’s way of peace. To diminish, lose, or abandon this part of our identity would, in my view, be to lose our sense of who we are and our giftedness before God and within the world.
I was first attracted to the Anabaptist movement in 1986, through the influence of the late baptist theologian James William McClendon Jr., who was a member of the congregation where I was pastor in the San Francisco bay area. At the time he was teaching a course on Anabaptist history at the Episcopal Divinity School of Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He encouraged me to study the Anabaptist movement as the historical foundation for my baptist faith. Having been involved in peace and social issues, grounded firmly in the biblical testimony and Christ’s teachings, I was particularly drawn to the peace witness of the Anabaptist tradition.
When I took my first pastorate in a Mennonite congregation I was eager to get involved in issues of peace and justice full force within a tradition that I believed would fully support my beliefs and actions. I helped form a peace and justice committee and we set out to do a public peace action before Christmas against war toys. After the action was announced at a Sunday service I was approached afterwards by a church member who told me that a number of young families would leave the church if we proceeded with this public peace action. This was something I would have expected from my former fundamentalist tradition, but not from a “historic peace church”!
I was quite taken aback by what seemed to me to be a rather odd response from young church members who were raised as Mennonites. This was a rather ironic situation for me. The first conflict I had in my newly found “peace church” was over peace! Well, not just over peace, but over how we understood and practiced peace. For many of the young, evangelically-oriented Mennonites in my congregation peace was an optional part of the gospel or was a private belief that had more to do with avoiding military service than any active, public, or more holistic understanding of peace. An active, public engagement in peace was not something with which these particular members wanted their church to be identified. This was the first step in a long journey of waking up from my naïve views about my new Mennonite affiliation and the role that peace played within its faith and practice “on the ground.”
I began to wonder. Are traditional Mennonites embracing what I had just left behind? My imagination began to extrapolate from this church experience. Could we still be a peace church if most Mennonites believed that peace is not central to Christ’s gospel or that is primarily about personal nonviolence and avoidance of military service. I believed in personal nonviolence as a 19 year old conscientious objector during the Vietnam War without any peace theology, although I couldn’t avoid military service. Is avoiding military service and a belief in personal nonviolence what it means to be a “peace church”? For many within the “historic peace church” that is what the “peace position” means.
Over the years as a Mennonite pastor interacting with congregations and conferences I began to notice how many leaders and congregations within my new “historic peace church” had very little interest or involvement with peace, let alone justice. In some Mennonite settings I almost felt like I was back in my fundamentalist church. What I perceived was happening was that more and more Mennonite pastors and congregations were becoming like Jacob, selling out their birthright (the richness of the Anabaptist tradition) for a bowl of beans (a generic form of evangelicalism). It disturbed me, and still does, that many leaders, and even more so, congregations among U.S. Mennonites viewed peace as a peripheral issue to Christian faith and practice or as a non-issue altogether.
As I took the position as Minister of Peace and Justice with Mennonite Mission Network and began traveling across the U.S. I not only encountered energetic peacemakers and vibrant peace churches, but observed many leaders and congregations that had little interest or involvement in peace and justice. On a number of occasions I found Mennonite pastors inviting me, and others on our Peace and Justice Support Network Leadership Team, to preach at their congregations because it was a fearful and threatening thing for them to approach the subject in their own congregations! I have also found numerous Mennonites, who are personally engaged in peace and justice but feel isolated because they are the only ones in their congregations concerned about these so- called “issues.” Many of these congregations have opted for a more traditional, nationalistic, evangelical, and at times fundamentalist theology, like the kind I had left behind.
I began making estimations of what percentage of Mennonites not only did not affirm an Anabaptist peace witness, but did not practice it as essential to the gospel, their communal life, or public witness. My conservative estimates were that at least 50% of the denomination would probably not affirm that peace and nonviolence are essential to the gospel. My imagined estimate would not factor out those who believed in personal nonviolence and avoidance of military service but were not actively engaged in some form of communal formation or public engagement related to God’s justice, Christ’s peace, and the Spirit’s reconciliation.
I was interested to see that my intuitions might have been confirmed by the 2006 study of Mennonite Church USA. This study revealed that 50% of those surveyed listed peace and nonviolence as important (essential?) to their faith commitment, which also means that 50% did not believe that they were important (Social justice was important to only 29%). For me, this coincided with other parts of the survey which revealed that: 1) 48% held to a Constantinian or Christendom belief that America is a Christian nation; 2) 42% believe the “war on terror” is a religious battle; 3) 67% would pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag (with only ”one nation under God”?) A number of questions in the survey seemed to confirm my intuitions.
Then, I began to consider that a good percentage among that 50% probably held to a type of personal, passive-nonresistant belief, which called for little in the way of communal spiritual formation or public engagement. Again, my intuition is that on the ground, in our conferences and congregations, there are many who may hold to tradition Mennonite beliefs about peace on a personal level, but are part of congregations that would probably not be consistently engaged in shaping their communal life by those beliefs or actively participating in some form of public peace witness. In my mind the percentage of those within my “historic peace church” who believed that peace was essential to the gospel and were engaged in some form of communal spiritual formation or public witness related to peace and justice shrank to an imagined 10-20% of the constituency.
These imagined percentages were based upon my intuitions, anecdotal evidence, experiences across the denomination, and indicators within the 2006 survey. My hope is that my perceptions, intuitions, personal experiences, and my reading of the survey are all out of whack and that our peace witness is far more essential, vital, and active among Mennonite Church USA congregations. Nevertheless, these imaginings reflect my personal perception that there is a continuing erosion of the belief and practice of Christ’s way of peace within Mennonite Church USA. Whether or not all of these perceptions would be affirmed by others or confirmed by logical statistics, I own them as my personal perceptions, intuitions, and experience along my journey with Mennonites that have given rise to my question, “When is a peace church no longer a peace church?”
This is not to say I have not experienced a vibrant, communal, and active peace witness among Mennonite individuals and congregations. When I think of the church tradition I came from and look at other Christian denominations, I am still thrilled when I visit congregations and meet people who live and practice Christ’s way of peace. I am elated when I go to denominational meetings and find peace and justice as a critical part of the thought, theological discussion, and agenda. And I am “proud” (Can Mennonites be proud?) of the work of Mennonite Central Committee, where my wife worked in peace and justice for 12 years. At the same time I must confess that “on the ground” I perceive a more diverse reality.
There were other related questions that I have pondered along my journey within a “historic peace church.” Is a church a peace church based upon sheer numbers? There are denominations, such as Roman Catholics, outside the historic peace tradition who would have far more members who are pacifists actively engaged in some form of peace witness than Mennonites. Is a church a peace church when it declares its intention to live as a communal body according to Christ’s teachings on peace, such as the United Church of Christ? Is a church a peace church because it has a historic peace tradition? Pentecostals and Seventh-Day Adventists have historic pacifist roots. Does that make them peace churches? Some among these groups are looking to us to provide a strong peace witness to the wider church. Some church streams flowing out of (and away from?) the Anabaptist tradition have in essence drifted away from Christ’s way of peace. Are they still to be considered “peace churches”?
My questions have relevance for the future identity and witness of Mennonite Church USA in a context in which many congregations are being shaped by faith and practices other than the Anabaptist tradition that downplay, negate, or marginalize Christ’s way of peace. Peace and justice have a significant role to play in mission, evangelism, urban ministry, among Racial/Ethnic communities, and in interchurch and interfaith relations. They are also important, not peripheral “issues,” in context of these other contextual realities in the U.S.: 1) many within the current younger, postmodern generation and those within Emergent and radical discipleship communities are drawn to issues of peace and justice; 2) other denominations continue to look to Mennonites to provide a strong witness for peace and justice; 3) peace and justice are a key factors drawing in new people into the Mennonite Church; and 4) in different, but significant ways, peace and justice are important to a great many urban congregations and Racial/Ethnic communities, which are the growing edge of the church. I not only believe that peace and justice are essential to the gospel, but that many people are drawn to a strong peace witness.
If there is a slow erosion of the Anabaptist peace witness among Mennonites, and I hope my perceptions are way off, then we are not only abandoning a historic belief and practice central to our corporate identity and public witness, but an essential part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When is a peace church no longer a peace church? I don’t have a clear answer to my own question. But, it is an important question to ponder and for dialogue in questioning whether or not our peace witness is becoming more “historic” than a present, active, vibrant witness for Christ and the gospel within the world.
Leo Hartshorn, Minister of Peace and Justice, Mennonite Mission Network
*Originally published in Mennonite Weekly Review, July 21, 2008 issue
*In May, 2009 the Associated Church Press awarded a second place Award of Merit in editorial writing to Mennonite Weekly Review for this article.