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.”