Pacifism and its influence on the Mennonite church
In conservative Mennonite circles, one sometimes grapples with this question: Why should nonresistant people be interested in the teaching of war and related issues, especially in the classroom? Several reasons could be given; one in particular, though, stands out, and that is because wars have a profound influence on society. Wars change the status quo, and that seems to be just as relevant in general society as it is in the Mennonite church.
A war influences our people because it forces us to confront the issue. It is usually not very hard to practice nonresistance in a period of national peace. But as emotions rise in the general public when an enemy is threatening, it forces a nation to fight to preserve itself. This is when the effect of our stand against the Christian’s participation in war becomes obvious and needs to be sharply defined. To what extent can nonresistant people participate in the war atmosphere of a country? What is our attitude toward war, and what will be the end result of the decision we are making?
During the Civil War and both World Wars, thousands of Mennonite young men were called to serve their country, and because of their nonresistant stance they were classified as conscientious objectors. However, the Mennonite church was poorly equipped to respond to the outbreak of World War I. There was a dearth of teaching and conviction in general in the Mennonite Church at this time, and of course the scriptural teaching on nonresistance was also suffering.
There also was no negotiation with the government relating to the draft question and possible alternate forms of service acceptable to the Mennonite conscience. In trying to cope with the pressure from the Selective Service (the government agency responsible for the draft), the Mennonite church reached out to other nonresistant church organizations to appeal in a unified way for recognition and tolerance.
The church groups that banded together included the Brethren in Christ, Mennonite General Conference, Lancaster Conference, and the Quakers. This mixture represented here proved to be detrimental in watering down the traditional Biblical nonresistance position. The Quakers for example, in spite of having the common ground of being opposed to war, were not on the same page as the Mennonite Church. These and other more mainline Protestant groups tended to view war as immoral and evil—a direct result of the influence of pacifistic pressure from civic groups mentioned previously. They also tended to be weak on the principle of separation of church and state, or maybe what is more properly called the two-kingdom concept. They placed a strong emphasis on pressuring the government to become more Christ-like.
During the period between the World Wars, there was a consolidation of these groups under what became known as the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee). An unordained man by the name of Orie O. Miller was very influential in this organization for many of its formative years. The MCC under Orie O. Miller was very influential in introducing pacifism into the Mennonite Church. From this point on we see a shift in the thinking away from nonresistance toward pacifism.
This shift becomes evident as one studies documents written by those who faced circumstances that called for clear direction relating to the doctrine of nonresistance.
In the Dordtrecht Confession of Faith (1632), article XIV is very clear in its statement on revenge. There is no ambivalence in its teaching, for example, about the role of the state versus the role of the believer within that state. “From this we understand that therefore, and according to His [Jesus’] example, we must not inflict pain, harm, or sorrow upon any one, but seek the highest welfare and salvation of all men, and even, if necessity require it, flee for the Lord’s sake from one city or country into another, and suffer the spoiling of our goods; that we must not harm any one, and, when we are smitten, rather turn the other cheek also, than take revenge or retaliate.”
An example from Mennonite history that illustrates the proper role of the church in addressing the government during a time of war is a petition to President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 during the Civil War. It is an excellent example of the respect and general tone toward a nation’s government that deserves mention. The two-kingdom concept is portrayed clearly because Bishop John M. Brenneman did not use the occasion of his letter to tell the US government how to fight the Civil War or why it should not be fighting at all, but to simply and humbly “…inform the president that there is a people, scattered and living mostly in the northern parts of the united States—Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana—and some few in Illinois and Iowa—called Mennonites, who are greatly distressed at the present time on account of the war, as it is against their Confession of Faith and also against their conscience to take up arms therewith to destroy human life, the President must not mistake us to be secessionists or rebels against the government, as we are entirely free from that guilt.” He begins his letter in this lofty way: “We, the undersigned, heartily wish unto our most noble President grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father, and of our Lord Jesus Christ. May the good Lord abundantly bless the President with wisdom and knowledge from on high and enable him to rule this our great nation with prudence. We would humbly pray the President not to consider us too burdensome by presenting to him this, our weak and humble petition, thereby humbly praying and beseeching him to take into consideration our sore distress.”
By 1950 a shift was under way in the Mennonite church. a pamphlet entitled A Declaration of Christian Faith and Commitment with Respect to Peace, War, and Nonresistance, 1951, was considered to be “the Position of the Mennonite Church as adopted by the Mennonite General Conference at Goshen, Indiana.”
To quote from the book Weathering the Storm (about this Declaration), “While in the past Mennonites had kept their views on war and peace for themselves, the statement speaks of love and peace as the heritage of all people, a way ‘to which all…are called.’ This means that the church must witness ‘of the righteousness which God requires of all men, even in government.’ Clearly, Mennonites have moved from an attitude of nonresistant self-preservation to a stance of creative involvement in peacemaking.” In other words, nonresistance now is transformed into a tool to prod societies into peace (pacifism). The declaration also testifies that “warfare is sin.” The line between personal responsibility in nonresistance and societies’ responsibilities becomes blurred with statements like “war is sin.” If what is meant is that war is wrong for the believer, this is correct, but a blanket statement that war is sin conveys the attitude that war is wrong for the state as well, which is not within the purview of the church to decide.
In 1967 J.C. Wenger wrote a paper that was read at the Peace Witness Seminar at Eastern Mennonite University entitled Pacifism and Biblical Nonresistance. It was later published as a booklet. He did a very good job at defining nonresistance and showing the weakness of pacifism, but was weak on the application of nonresistance, especially in relating to government in a free society. He said the dilemma is in a democracy that professes Christianity. I quote, “Surely it is in order for nonresistant Christians to call to the attention of the leaders of the state (1) the tragedy of terminating the life of a criminal—thereby cutting off his opportunity to repent—and (2) the futility of thinking that capital punishment is a strong deterrent to the horrible crimes committed by the emotionally ill. It is surely legitimate for Christians to plead and to urge that evil men who oppress the racial and the poor minorities are violating both the holy law of God and the rights guaranteed to all citizens in the legal framework in which the state operates.”
Later in the address J.C. Wenger goes on to question why Christians should pay “taxes specifically labeled as war taxes, or even the payment of that portion of their federal income tax which is allocated for the support of war.” This type of thinking, which contradicts Jesus’ teaching in Luke
20:25, became very prevalent during this era of time (Vietnam War) and later. It is a form of political protest that also is inconsistent with the twokingdom principle.
In a response to events on 9-11, C. Norman Kraus, of Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, condemned the media for assuming that pacifism cannot solve the crisis of international terrorism, but military action will.
Delegates to the General Conference Mennonite Church Special Session in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on July 8, 1997, adopted a document entitled And No One Shall Make Them Afraid with the subheading “A Mennonite Statement and Study on Violence.” This document contains the following statements:
“In response to violence in public life, we call the church at all levels to:
• “Work and pray in ways that confront the powers that promote institutional violence, racism, sexism, prejudice, and poverty.
• “Work to abolish capital punishment, wherever it has become law.
• “Advocate laws for greater restriction of the manufacture and possession of guns whose primary purpose is to kill or threaten human beings.
“In response to global violence, we call the church to:
• “Restrain our own material desires and ambitions, and promote a fairer distribution of the world’s resources, in order to reduce inequity, hunger, and hurt, which feed violence.
• “Finance and pray for the work of our church agencies in promoting international justice, economic and personal well-being, respect for human rights, and participation in decision making.
• “Call on legislators to reduce military spending and arms sales, and to promote global justice.”
It should be clear to all that the mainline Mennonite churches have moved from the Biblical doctrine of nonresistance to an aggressive form of pacifism. No longer is the Mennonite church content to live out nonviolence in our personal lives; it now sees itself with a mandate to pressure worldly societies and governments to do the same, which is destructive to the two kingdom concept of nonresistance.
What can we learn from all this?
1. Understanding the two-kingdom concept is foundational to a consistent application of the doctrine of nonresistance. To teach nonresistance without understanding this concept would be like trying to teach nonconformity without the practice of distinctive or separated dress.
2. What determines whether someone is a pacifist or a nonresistant person is their view of God; when their view of God changes, it also changes their view of the world. The world is no longer something to be separated from. In the case of nonresistance, the change goes one of two ways. One way is toward pacifism, the other a complete abandonment of all nonresistance, especially toward the military and nationalism. A relaxing of the standards in the church or in the home is the first step toward a journey toward the world and away from God. When one gets close to the world, the world’s problems become his own.
3. Is Christ the Lord of the church only, or is He also the Lord of the state? “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Someday it will be—Revelation 11:15, “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ.” But as is the case now, the kingdoms of the world are not under the lordship of Jesus Christ. If they were, I suppose we should be helping God along by getting involved and coercing the state to abide by new Testament principles such as living in peace with our fellow men! How can a pacifist obey the command in Matthew 5:39, “Resist not evil”?
When Jesus came the first time, the angels said, “Peace on earth”— that was a peace given to those who accepted Him then and to those who accept Him into their hearts today. It is a peace that can only transform society through the new Birth experience. When Jesus comes the second time, it will be a peace that will also change society and government. Only when the Prince of Peace sits on David’s throne in Jerusalem will we finally have social justice, and all inequalities will be vanished forever.
~ Peach Bottom, PA