The Naked Anabaptist 7: People of Peace
Well, what I originally intended to be a relatively brief blog series has turned out to be a three-month odyssey of procrastination, but we have finally arrived at the seventh and final of Stuart Murray’s seven core convictions of Anabaptists (from The Naked Anabaptist):
Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society, and between nations.
Murray’s seventh and final core conviction is, perhaps, the one that Anabaptists are best known for. Anabaptists are known as those who comprise the historic “peace churches.” It is also, however, the conviction that has been most plagued by controversy, inconsistency, incoherence, and outright confusion. Anabaptists have always emphasized peace, in some form or another. But when it comes to how their convictions about the centrality of peace to the gospel are actually lived out, well then the picure gets a bit fuzzier.
Do the teachings of Christ contained in the Gospels oblige us to be pacifists? Were Jesus’ words on not resisting an evildoer and turning the other cheek meant to be applied in the realm of the political machinations of modern nation states or where they intended to be applied only in the interpersonal level? Is it coherent to maintain that followers of Jesus are not permitted to take up arms but at the same time to live under the security and protection of those who are prepared to use violence as a means toward the end of peace? And what counts as “violence,” anyway? Is there room in our categories for relational, spiritual, emotional, and verbal violence as well? Anabaptists have not always agreed upon just how far the imperative to be peacemakers stretches or how it is to be implemented.
I got a firsthand look at this a few weeks ago, when I attended a training session put on by our national MB Conference. In one of the lectures, our instructor introduced us to the MB peace position and walked us through how it had evolved over time. It was a fascinating window into how we have struggled with peace! Here’s just a few markers on our denominational journey:
- A 1902 statement bluntly declares that MB’s “do not feel justified to carry the sword.”
- A 1919 resolution states that “on the matter of war we believe and confess, that the way it is waged by western powers, it is manifestly contrary to the principle of the kingdom of Christ, and therefore our members are forbidden to participate in it.” (One wonders what is meant to be conveyed by the “the way it is waged by western powers” part of the statement.)
- A 1936 resolution is unambiguous: “As a Mennonite Brethren Church we declare our opposition to war in any form and our determination to practice peace and love.”
- In 1954, a resolution proclaims that “war is evil, brutal and inhuman” and that “the nature of war remains incompatible with the new nature of a regenerated Christian.” The resolution goes on to state that every phase of the Christian’s life—not just their position on war—is to be governed and dictated by the “supreme law of love.”
- A 1968 resolution draws a distinction between “philosophical and political pacifists” and the pacifism produced by experiencing “a work of regeneration in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”
- The 1975 statement in the MB Confession of Faith says simply that “it is not God’s will that Christians take up arms in military service but that, where possible, they perform alternate service to reduce strife, alleviate suffering, and bear witness to the love of Christ.”
- And, finally, our most recent MB Confession of Faith covers a lot of familiar ground: “We view violence in its many different forms as contradictory to the new nature of the Christian. We believe that the evil and inhumane nature of violence is contrary to the gospel of love and peace. In times of national conscription or war, we believe we are called to give alternative service where possible.”
And this is just from one little stream of the Anabaptist movement—from the denomination that I happen to be a part of! It is fairly obvious, on even a cursory read of these few quotes, that wrestling with what it means to be people of peace has been going on for quite some time, and that it is a discussion where there has been and continues to be vigorous debate and disagreement.
So, getting back to The Naked Anabaptist, is there anything that can be said about a singular “Anabaptist peace position?” As in other parts of the book, Stuart Murray is both descriptive and prescriptive in his assessment of what it means for Anabaptists to be people of peace:
The Anabaptist commitment to nonviolence, then, is not founded on naive expectations that people can be persuaded to be nice to each other. We realize that we are followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, and we are utterly realistic about the evil that lurks in the hearts of our fellow human beings—and in our own hearts—and spills out in acts of terrible violence. But we are followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and we choose to believe that his way of nonviolent love is ultimately more realistic than embracing violence. Whether or not nonviolent alternatives are effective in the short, or even the medium term, peace churches are signs of the coming kingdom of God. We choose to align ourselves with the future to which God is leading history.
I couldn’t agree more! Does this statement describe the views of every Anabaptist? Of course not. Does it even describe the behaviour of those who would endorse such a statement? Again, obviously not. A “position” on peace is relatively easy to articulate, after all; it’s not quite as easy to put it into practice! But it is a target to aim for. For the Christian, our true north is the future of peace that we believe God is leading history toward, and our mandate is to continue to do our best to live according to what we believe will one day be a permanent reality.
This is exactly what the first Anabaptists did. The theology of the first Anabaptists was forged in the context of horrific suffering. They knew very well that they followed Jesus in a “divided and violent world” because very often they were on the wrong end of violence and division! They knew very well that nonviolence wasn’t a very popular or pragmatic approach to take. But they believed that the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus, and that would find its completion in him, was a kingdom of peace. They knew that adhering to this conviction was ultimately the most “realistic” thing they could do, whatever the temporal consequences.
I recently read a quote attributed to Krishnamurti in a comment on an article in The Walrus: “It is no measure of good health to be well adjusted in a profoundly sick society.” In some ways, this could be seen as a very Anabaptist statement—one that Stuart Murray would enthusiastically endorse. However incoherently, however inconsistently, however ineffectively, however confusedly, and in whatever realms of life we as Anabaptists have tried to implement the gospel of peace, we have at the very least historically agreed that reconciling ourselves to a “realistic” world where violence is necessary is not an option for a follower of Jesus. Our world is sick with hatred and violence, and we are not called to become “adjusted” to this.
Perhaps, at the end of the day, the historical Anabaptist legacy and our ongoing contribution to the broader Christian family is simply to be a people who are committed to wrestling seriously with the question of how best to align ourselves, as children of peace, with “the future to which God is leading history.”
A good post and a good explanation of the pacifist position. Very idealistic. For what it’s worth, I’ll say where pacifism breaks down for me — it has to do with loving my neighbor. For myself, I can make a decision to suffer violence peacefully rather than defend myself with violence; but I cannot make that decision on behalf of a neighbor who may need my assistance to protect them from evil persons. Defending my neighbor’s life may require me to use violent means to protect them from harm, rather than say to them, “I’m going to allow you to suffer violence because you know it’s really better in the long run for us all… it’s the future God intends for us.”
If you’ve never watched the TV show Flashpoint, I recommend it highly. It’s about an elite police squad called in for highly dangerous situations. The leader, a character named Greg Parker, will use every peaceful means possible to resolve the situation. He talks, reasons, empathizes and understands; and he will only order his people to fire if there is absolutely no other way to protect the innocent from harm. I think Greg Parker is a profoundly Christian character.
Peace to you.
Yup, that’s where pacifism breaks down for me as well, Chris. The early Anabaptists probably wouldn’t have conceived of the decisions that faced them as you or I portray them here (“I’m going to allow you to suffer violence because you know it’s really better in the long run for us all… it’s the future God intends for us”), but their willingness to allow the innocent to suffer is difficult to comprehend, much less imagine emulating. I remember hearing stories as a kid about my own ancestors and their commitment to nonresistance that I just found unfathomable (then and now).
I think many of the early Anabaptists had a radically dualistic and often apocalyptic view of the world that I do not share (of course the historical context in which Anabaptism arose had a lot to do with their theology, as is the case for all of us). “The world” was often conceived as an unmitigated evil to be suffered through in the present and, ultimately escaped. I think the early Anabaptists view and experience of the world had a lot to do with their willingness to suffer themselves and to allow others to suffer. Whatever I may think of their views intellectually, I find it incredibly difficult to critique their behaviour. There is something about a view that is forged and practiced in suffering that I feel unworthy of criticizing.
But while I am highly sympathetic to the pacifist position, I would not call myself a pacifist. Like you, I think we have obligations to protect the weak and defenseless and this will sometimes require violence. Having said that, I think that we Christians far too frequently acquiesce to the the “necessity” of violence in our conflicted world. I think there are innumerable circumstances, whether on a personal or a corporate level, where we do not give a peace the chance to transform our relationships and our world that we could or should, as followers of Jesus. I think that far too often throughout history Christians have been known not as peacemakers who must sometimes use force but as war-mongers who pay lip-service to peace.
I’ve never seen Flashpoint, but you’ve certainly piqued my curiosity.
Excellent post, Ryan. Murray seems to capture the eschatological dimension of Christian pacifism very well. I’m curious, though – have you read Yoder’s What Would You Do? He might help nuance your – dare I say it – ‘Stackhousian’ concerns about pacifism.
Thanks Michael. I have not read Yoder’s book, although I am certainly intrigued. It’s not available on any of the corporate conglomerates I usually use for my book-buying :), so I will have to keep my eyes open for other opportunities to get a hold of it.
I suppose my concerns about pacifism are influenced to a certain extent by Stackhouse, although I remember thinking about many of them even as a boy. I don’t agree with all of Stackhouse’s critiques of Anabaptists. I think that “following Christ in the real world” (to borrow the subtitle of his most recent book) will quite likely look fundamentally unrealistic to the watching world, but that is the example that Christ gave us and that is his summons to those who would follow him.
Indeed, and I had my tongue firmly planted in cheek there. There is a sense, though, in which ‘Christian Realism’ is a sort of default position today, even for those who haven’t read Stackhouse’s book (or Niebuhr.) Why that is is an interesting question to me.
It is an interesting question for me too, Michael. The “default Christian realism” you refer to certainly seems prominent in most Christian circles I am involved in (perhaps, even, in a few where it ought not belong :)).
Ryan, you might be interested in “Beyond Suspicion: Post-Christendom Protestant Political Theology in John Howard Yoder and Oliver O’Donovan” by Paul G. Doerkson. Both of these theologians speak well into our post-Christendom era (without seeking to return to it in some form), but are somewhat in (healthy) tension with each other. A great book (so far).
Ken, you might find in interesting as well.
Thanks for the recommendation, Jamie. Yoder and O’Donovan in conversation certainly sounds intriguing and I will certainly keep my eyes open for that one.
This is a very helpful post, Ryan. The concise recap of our denominational journey was excellent and highlights the ambiguity, weaknesses, and strengths of our wrestling.
Chris, your point is well taken- “For myself, I can make a decision to suffer violence peacefully rather than defend myself with violence; but I cannot make that decision on behalf of a neighbor who may need my assistance to protect them from evil persons.”
A deep consciousness of this tension is a big part of our theology. Abandoning this tension to one side or another is the biggest theological danger on this issue, that we face, IMO.
Re: the last paragraph in your posting.
The Christians who mobilized the Toronto protests are also trying to “align” themselves with “the future to which God is leading history.” They are working for peace, in their estimation.
This idea, aligning oneself with the future to which God is leading history, is what Lilla called messianic and millennial. It is the way of being Christian that many have resisted in modernity. It is the reason that people like Hobbes, and Lilla and Rorty favor political philosophy over political theology.
This idea that motivates so many Christians is frightening to others, Christian or not.
I remain highly skeptical that there is anything uniquely “Christian” about the Toronto protests. There may be some groups aligning themselves with some conception of Christian political theology, but leaving aside the question of just how “Christian” their views are, it is fairly obvious that there are a whole host of ideological motivations at work in the G20 protests. You don’t have to be a proponent of liberation theology to be anti-capitalism, anti-G20 or whatever. There are plenty of fairly committed secularists who show up at these sorts of things as well.
In addition, I don’t see how it is uniquely Christian to align one’s behaviour with one’s conception of the future, whether one believes the future is divinely appointed or not. Mark Lilla has some conception of the future that guides his thinking and behaviour. All political philosophers have a view of history and where it is going/should go (some of which many find frightening as well). Everyone’s behaviour is at least to some extent influenced by their implicit or explicit conception of the future, whether they are Christian, atheist, Muslim, Hindu, or anything else.
I think you are right that millennial and messianic politics are not necessarily Christian. Marxism is a prime example.
I don’t think political philosophy always involves a view of where history is going, nor does all Christian theology. Marxism is an example that does. The approach of Richard Rorty does not. Much of Christianity, especially where it is oriented towards politics of the left or right, does involve such a vision. But not all of Christianity does.
So, millennial, messianic Christians are not the only frightening people out there.
Increasingly I see an alternative vision finding expression – in nature writing. It is one based on emergence (not Mclaren’s, but Darwin’s) rather than on redemption or a vision of the future. I think it is more compatible with democracy and freedom and equality. I think it is less violent. Ultimately, I don’t know whether it can exist in Christianity or not – the emphasis on redemption has been so formative of Christianity. I have known Christians who try to make emergence fit. I think it has been hard for them to let go of redemption. I think they try to find redemption in emergence.
I think Rorty has a vision of the future as well, and his philosophy is guided by it. Pragmatism doesn’t emerge out of a vacuum. His philosophy is a response to something, and an attempt to preclude certain options. His vision of the future may not have the specificity of other views, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have one.
Re: the alternative vision of emergence, I suspect that even in these views there are parameters within which the future is conceived. The question of what, exactly, will “emerge” is not wide open, after all. If it was, who’s to say it wouldn’t be violent? Who’s to say it would have anything to do with, much less be compatible with democracy, freedom, and equality? To say that emergence is compatible with these things (or to hope that it will be) is already to have a vision of the future that is orienting one’s thinking and behaving, in my view.
If all political thought is reducible to a vision of the future and history, then your conclusions follow. I suggest, however, that by not reducing them, by taking them as different, is more illuminating. But I have no wish to argue this point.
Ultimately, I think the point on which we disagree is whether or not millennial and messianic religion promotes war or peace. I think it promotes war.
I think that the Great Separation of which Lilla wrote is more likely to produce peace. Whether it can survive is unknown.
I don’t think I’m “reducing” anything, I’m simply pointing out that all thinking and acting in the world is guided by some vision of the future, whether this is explicitly articulated or not. Your initial claim was that the problem with folks like those protesting in Toronto was that they were aligning themselves with a specific vision of the future. I don’t see how it’s possible to do otherwise. I am not advocating “millennial or messianic” religion, but in my opinion the question isn’t whether or not to align our behaviour with our vision of the future; the question is which vision of the future ought we to act according to.
Perhaps Mark Lilla’s vision of the future is more likely to produce peace. My personal view is that the Great Separation doesn’t offer enough, existentially, to sustain people’s hope. Telling everyone to just bracket the questions that matter most to them, or banishing them to the realm of private piety for the sake of political peace seems unlikely to capture people’s hearts and minds or to motivate their behaviour. In addition, it’s not clear to me that we are ever capable of wholly divorcing ourselves from the “millenial and messianic” visions that have guided and sustained us as a culture for so long. As you say, it is hard—very hard— for us to let go of redemption.
I understand that you do not believe it is possible to see things any way other than “all thinking and acting in the world is guided by some vision of the future.” Somehow I am able to see it another way and am not alone in that ability. Or, as I would put it, some of us are able to see the future, the present, and the past in way that is not expressed by the words, “the future to which God is leading history.”
Re your last paragraph in the preceding comment: I agree, generally, with your assessment, but I hope the Great Separation, as Lilla calls it, (the separation of religion and politics) survives. Some of us are able to make the separation. It is those who cannot that frighten me. And in the end if the West cannot sustain the separation I think it is a pity.
I think the urge to “align ourselves, as children of peace, with the future to which God is leading history” is deadly. I think this urge leads to war, not to hope.
I’m certainly open to being proved wrong. How is your thinking and acting not guided by a vision of the future?
(I’ve never denied that many people are able to see the future in a way that is not expressed by the words, “the future to which God is leading history.” That seems fairly obvious to me. My contention from the beginning has simply been that everyone’s belief and behaviour is shaped by some vision of the future.)
I don’t think we should seek proof or truth. It is elusive. You have made your point quite clear. I understand it. I find it frightening, especially in that you appear to concur with Murray and advocate, in his words, that we “choose to align ourselves with the future to which God is leading history.” My reasons for this fear are those explained by Lilla and are associated with the liberal tradition that he and others trace in some respects to Hobbes.
If what you say is true—that you really do find my specific views on this matter “frightening”— then I fear that I have not made my point clear after all.
Perhaps not. We both tried. Discussion is like that sometimes.
Ken, if Christians have any kind of eschatological hope for the future, does that make them necessarily “millennial, messianic” as you describe it? While I see the dangers of what you are pointing out (and agree to much of it), I don’t think that any such future expectation can immediately be equated with what you fear.
At the time I wrote the comment that included those terms I had been thinking about Lilla’s use of them in connection with political theology rather than their use in a broader eschatological context. I think that eschatological hope does not exclusively involve millennial or messianic hopes. So, I agree with you and don’t think all kinds of eschatological hope represent something fearful.
I would like to add a few thoughts beyond your question.
I think what emerged in modernity was a resistance to political theology (especially millennial, messianic theology,) which Lilla calls the Great Separation.
At the Presbyterian seminary I attended the preferred theologies were all liberation theologies, all political (millennial and messianic) theologies. The resistance to political theology was considered an abandonment of the gospel. The seminary was full of anxiety and hate, not hope. They imagined a millennium. Their mission was to bring about the kingdom of God, to vanquish the evil they believe controls the modern world, not to make peace. Their Jesus carried a sword.
I do believe that the gospel that Jesus preached and for which he was crucified was political. The kingdom of God that he said was at hand was not merely spiritual. It represented sedition. The kingdom of God whose coming he proclaimed did not involve the same politics represented by liberation theologies, but it was political in a way that rightly frightened Rome. Jesus was and is the messiah in Christian theology.
This is one of the tensions I think we face in modernity – how to be Christian, to believe the gospel and the hope it carries, and at the same time, to be a peaceful member of a secular political society.
As for me, I think it best to maintain the Great Separation, even at the price of millennial hope. But then, my faith is in tatters.
And, as for me, I am increasingly finding hope, an ironic eschatological hope, perhaps, in nature, in emergence, in the amazing work of what Darwin called “chance and necessity,” which is not really so unlike the work of a God that saves by grace. Maybe it is not hope, but rather joy, not eschatological but emergent, even in the face of the inevitable suffering and death that comes with life. I don’t know.
Modernity has been more than the Great Separation, the fear of millennial religion, and the emphasis on nature that holds my curiosity is another big part of modernity with which Christians must grapple. Emergence, which is the way we understand what is happening in nature, is not really an eschatological idea, whether or not it is hopeful.
Back in the 70’s I was driving John Howard Yoder from Fresno to my Sunday School class at First Mennonite Church in Reedley. We had been studying The Politics of Jesus and his coming to Fresno was a great opportunity. He asked what sort of puzzlements the class had with his book. I responded that the practicalities of trying to live out the Sermon on the Mount were the main area of discussion. He looked puzzled, and responded “But they’re just simple rules for daily living.”
Love it! Simple isn’t always easy.
Great story! Two things struck me as very cool:
a) Yoder’s response—I can just imagine his perplexity at the confusion over this obvious truth!
b) That your Sunday School class was studying The Politics of Jesus! That seems barely conceivable to some of us who dwell in the lands of purpose driven lives and mass-produced, not-always-very-good DVD curriculum.
I’m not sure which is more remarkable.