Layton Friesen: It’s Hard to be Good When Everyone Else is Doing It

And now the moment we have all been waiting for, when Layton comes out on stage and tells you the theme of his doctoral dissertation. The flesh is weak and one can only take the suspense so long, so I will bend to the crowds and say a few words.

I am trying to answer the question: how can the Church be gospel pacifists, people who refuse violence in the name of Christ, in a world seething with nonviolence? We live in an incredibly nonviolent world.

Our children learn anti-bullying strategies. They protest racism, sexism, homophobia. Many pass on the filet mignon because eating animals is violent. They attend We Day—arenas filled with thousands of children listening to teenaged Kielburgers who change the world in the name of peace.

War and violence are declining around the world. Figuring deaths per capita, the twentieth century was the most nonviolent century in human history. In the 1950s, there were almost 250 deaths caused by war per million people. Now, there are less than 10. With the end of the Colombian war, for the first time in human history the western hemisphere is free of war. Anti-war protests are common, anything but counter-cultural.

These are glory days for Mennonite pacifists. But two major problems arise for those who desire not only to be nonviolent, but to follow Jesus in peace. As the world rejects violence, some Christians conclude that nonviolence need not concern us. Nonviolence, they think, must be for secular, humanist, or liberal people. This is the mistake of many Evangelical Mennonites. But if society adopts some of his message, does that make Jesus wrong?

Nonresistance is still at the core of his life, his prayer, and his atonement. Rejecting nonviolence just because the world has caught on is like rejecting nursing as Christian service just because some nurses are Hindu and polio is defeated.

The second mistake is to decide that we don’t need Jesus in order to be good people. Secular methods work better. The Church is today blamed for violence. Many leave, thinking they can achieve nonviolence better outside the Church. When nonviolence becomes the civil religion, the idol of the day, people reject the Church as they reject Jesus, who in the end, seems too barbaric for our civilized standards. This is the mistake of more liberal Mennonites.

So how can we be gospel pacifists in world full of nonviolence?

I gambled my fortune and five years of work on the answer to this question being Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988). As a Roman Catholic pastor he struggled with a Church that he felt had lost the unity of spirituality, theology, and ethics. He also criticized Catholic liberation theologians who had reduced the gospel to a political agenda.

Balthasar envisioned believers steeped in the Church, formed by baptism and the Lord’s Supper, to surrender into the mission of Jesus. Christ became nonresistant to an evil, yet beautiful world out of surrender to his Father. The Spirit now takes Christ’s submission to the Father and brings the Church to live inside this obedience. Living inside Christ’s beautiful, costly surrender, we love and forgive our enemies because that is what Christ is doing.

Layton Friesen
Layton Friesen

In Christ the Church becomes fruitful out in the world, even spawning offshoots within the world that look remarkably Christ-like even in their wild state. But whether the world catches on or not, we surrender into the nonresistance of Christ to the Father and to the world. This is where gospel pacifism is nourished.

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