In this most famous passage of Ecclesiastes, Solomon (or was it The Byrds?) tells us “there is a time for everything.” There is a time, he says, to weep, to search, to scatter stones, to dance even (although not in our churches, apparently), and even a time to laugh.
I still remember today what recess felt like when I was in the third grade. That year the game was kickball.
More pointedly, I remember the awesome red ball we used. It was the kind of ball which was somewhat solid, yet spongy enough that when it hit that sweet spot on your foot, it seemed to soar in the air for a mile. I also vividly remember the classmate who never thought he was out. (You probably remember this guy too. Every class had one.) Continue reading Kickball and Peacemaking→
When we think of pacifism, it is unlikely that we apply it to our workplace. Most of us don’t engage in fisticuffs with our boss.
However, in broad terms if we participate in malicious gossip, tear down the character of our boss, verbally abuse a colleague, or answer criticism harshly, we are engaging in violence—verbal violence. A recent experience caused me to rethink what violence meant, and how a philosophy of pacifism could be applied in the workplace.
A Target of Verbal Violence
I found myself the target of a new supervisor. She had done my job before and objected to how I did it. I’d been considered good at my job, but suddenly I was (allegedly) inefficient, unfocused, and unable to make good decisions. I would try to reason with her and defend myself, but that would just prolong the lecture. The stress of constant scrutiny brought on anxiety and depression. I was angry and bitter.
One evening I received a particularly harsh and perplexing reprimand. I argued back to no avail. I continued my task, seething. As I calmed down over a couple of hours, I thought about what I’d said to the supervisor. Had I offended her? Should I apologize despite, in my opinion, being the one who was wronged?
I fought the thought, but I couldn’t shake it. Illogical as it seemed, I knew apologizing was the right thing to do. I went to her office and said I was sorry. As I walked back to my workstation, a weight lifted off my shoulders.
I realized that I did not have to defend myself. She could not force me to react in anger. She couldn’t make me argue with her. God knew that wasn’t working anyway.
This began an experiment of sorts. I tried to always answer her with humility whenever she spoke harshly. It didn’t matter if I was wrong or right. If I was right, I could still apologize for disappointing her. If something went awry and I had no good explanation, I could say “I have no excuses.” This didn’t prevent her words from hurting me—by no means! Still, more often than not it swiftly brought an end to her wrath. Sometimes her attitude would change completely, and she would become understanding.
These acts of humility also allowed me to lay aside my bitterness and see her for the human being that she was. I began to discern patterns in her behaviour. I realized that she likely felt insecure in her position, which fueled her need for control. This didn’t make her actions right, but it did make them understandable. Peace came to our relationship.
Anabaptists and Nonviolence
I was raised in the Anabaptist tradition and since childhood knew that Anabaptists-Mennonites are pacifists. I never identified strongly with this belief. I knew I didn’t want to join the military. I knew nonviolence was my preference.
I just didn’t think pacifism was realistic. As I came through the above experience and reflected on it, I realized I had come full circle, back to the Anabaptist tradition of nonviolence. It was simply a non-physical application.
The Dutch Mennonites wrote in the Dordrecht Confession of 1632:
We believe and confess that the Lord Christ has forbidden and set aside to His disciples and followers all revenge and retaliation, and commanded them to render to no one evil for evil, or cursing for cursing, but to put the sword into the sheath….
From this we understand that therefore, and according to His 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 anyone, and, when we are smitten, rather turn the other cheek also, than take revenge or retaliate. Matthew 5:39.
And, moreover, that we must pray for our enemies, feed and refresh them whenever they are hungry or thirsty, and thus convince them by well-doing, and overcome all ignorance. Romans 12:19, 20.
It bears noting that the Dordrecht confession covers not only physical violence, but “harm” in general and the infliction of sorrow. This historical confession is still radical in its declaration of renouncing revenge and retaliation, even to the point of suffering pain and loss rather than inflicting harm.
While this belief has not been universally applied by all Anabaptists through history, there are many examples of nonviolence in action. For instance, more than five thousand Canadian Mennonite men refused to serve in the military during World War 2 and, instead, were conscripted into camps, agriculture, or industry, as the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online says. Some of these men were my own relatives.
Up front, refusing to engage in violence may appear to be “rolling over” for a bully. We as a society are very concerned about our rights and defending our rights. In fact, defending ourselves is our right. Nonviolence, however, requires us to lay aside many rights. Nonviolence is not weakness if it is a deliberate act of the will.
I do not suggest that nonresistance is the answer in the workplace. There are many ways to mount a resistance without resorting to violence—verbal or physical. I also do not believe in total pacifism as public policy. However, I would suggest that if we wish for peace, be it in our homes, our workplaces, or communities, we can’t expect to get it for free. We may have to bite our tongue, absorb verbal jabs without jabbing back, and apologize even when we’re the one who is hurt. We may have to give the feelings of our coworker, boss, or spouse precedence over our own. It depends on what we want. Both peace and full maintenance of our personal rights may not be possible.
For Mennonites, the cause of peace and nonviolence often meant “fleeing for the Lord’s sake from one city or country into another,” as they said in their Dordrecht confession of faith. There were Mennonites throughout the years that deemed it best to join their countrymen in fighting. However, peace and nonviolence remains an important value of Anabaptists-Mennonites around the world.
Though I have departed somewhat from my Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage, it makes me proud to return to their values by a modern, practical application of nonviolence. I submit this case for consideration to those who wish for peace.
Geralyn Wichers is a communications student at Red River College, a novelist, and a graduate of Steinbach Bible College (2012). She was raised in the EMC tradition (Anola Fellowship Chapel) and now attends Southland Church in Steinbach.
Editor’s Note: This article has been re-uploaded due to technical difficulties with the first published version.
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.
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.
“If someone broke into your house, wouldn’t you call the police?” This question is often used as a handy trump card to dispense with pacifism, but it actually presents little problem to Mennonite pacifism.
Our broad Anabaptist tradition—with the notable exception of Balthasar Hubmaier—has had the moxie to claim that while the good of society may sometimes need the use of force, and while we may even depend on military or police defense for our own well-being as pacifists, we ourselves will not swing the sword. Others will.
The Anabaptist pacifist tradition, until recently, has not been absolutely anti-war or anti-police. Read the Schleitheim Confession of 1527. It says the sword is “ordained of God” and “punishes and puts to death the wicked, and guards and protects the good.” So far, that’s basic just war thinking.
We cannot appeal to the tradition here to denounce every military or police action. Mennonites have generally assumed that a certain amount of killing is necessary to keep evildoers from ruining the world.
An Elite Special-Task Force
But while Mennonites have not called for the abolishing of armies, they have also seen that you cannot announce God’s good news while killing people. Mennonites have thus seen the Church as an elite, heroic, special task-force unit within God’s wider providence sent on a limited mission. We do not claim to be the totality of everything God is doing in the world, and we do not claim to know exactly how God is using our special mission within his Kingdom, but Christ has told us to exempt ourselves from killing in order to evangelize the world.
Our pacifism does not claim to be the solution to all the world’s immediate problems. It is a gesture towards the Kingdom of God that is in lock step with Jesus now redeeming the world—that’s all. In order to carry out this special task within the larger providential care of God for the world, we give up the right to kill people even for reasons of social order.
Try this analogy. Many countries recognize that doctors, politicians, clergy or others need to be exempt from combat in order to maintain the long-term viability of society. If all doctors are sent to combat, the nation will be crippled by disease; thus they can be exempt from fighting. A similar claim is made by Mennonites. God has a destiny of reconciliation in store for the world that someone needs to proclaim and live towards. Those on this mission have no weapons but love and forgiveness. It does not even occur to us that you could do what Christ leads us to do by killing people.
Short- And Long-Term Solutions for Evil
God has both short-term and long-term solutions for evil. War is apparently a necessary short-term solution to keep a lid on chaos. To simply abolish killing is naïve, for now. But killing will never redeem the world—it’s a bloody mess that only breeds more hatred. It’s only a stop-gap measure given by God to create a measure of time and space for the Church to proclaim the Gospel.
But the Church has a specific vocation within God’s long-term plan of ridding the world of evil for good. In order to be faithful to this long-term project, we have to free ourselves from some parts of the short-term plan. By preaching the gospel, by creating church communities of vulnerability and forgiveness, by working to restore justice in a zillion ways, and by refusing to kill, we put on a drama, quite the theatre, of the Kingdom of God, overcoming the world and its war—eventually.
We are the shape, the figure of Christ in the world, Gethsemane-bent in suffering love. That is our elite mission, our heroic task in the providence of God: watching, waiting, worshipping, praying, loving, evangelizing and suffering in union with the Saviour.
Our Mission is Not God’s Sum Total
And our mission is not the sum total of what God is doing in the world. God’s hands move within the world in hidden, dark places, outside the Church. In his mysterious wisdom states, kings, and armies end up doing God’s will. Their own hell-bent idolatry and savagery and God’s calm use of them seem to coexist in God’s providence. Wars can be a servant of God’s will, though again, it is foolish to draw too clear a line from the war to the will of God.
The NT Basis for Missional Pacifism
The New Testament basis for this missional pacifism is simple. First, the sum total of our existence as humans is now to preach the Kingdom of God (Matt. 6:31-33). Second, Christ bids us to follow him in the total abandonment of killing even for the benefit of society—that’s what the Kingdom looks like right now in its hidden fruitfulness within the world (Luke 6:27-31; John 16:20-22). Third, the New Testament never condemns the state’s use of the sword. In fact, the sword in the hands of the state is praised and appealed to by Christians themselves as an instrument of God to bring justice to the world (Acts 23:16-24; Rom. 13:1-4).
This does not mean that Christians cannot be involved in government, though some Mennonites have drawn this conclusion. The New Testament forbids Christians to kill; it does not forbid them to take leadership in their communities where this can serve the Church’s mission. Our modern welfare state provides many good ways to serve the world without being directly involved in killing.
This does not mean we cannot actively oppose unjust wars, military actions, or police brutality. God has not given governments a blank cheque to kill whomever they will. It may be that as the human community develops better methods of justice and conflict resolution, war will become like slavery, useless and stupid.
We should use whatever wits we have to find more peaceful, humane and effective ways of resolving conflict. For example, “restorative justice” is in many cases a vastly better form of justice than brute punishment. Capital punishment is an antiquated, ineffective, brutal way of solving crime. Romans 13 does not require us to keep it on the books. There’s no reason we can’t point that out in public.
When we do oppose a military action though, we should not simply say, “Christians do not kill; therefore neither should the military.” We should know the situation in, say, Syria, and point out exactly how a military action there will be useless or unjust. We have to provide factual knowledge of a specific action, not just general condemnations about armies and swords.
There will always be grey areas, murky places where discernment is hard and we are not sure how the Church’s vocation and the world’s sword relate. That in itself is not a weakness—any true Kingdom ethic will sync with society in fits and starts. I would rather be inconsistent than wrong.
This pacifism makes no sense if the Church is not proclaiming Christ to the world. It is not merely an “ethic” or a “moral,” though it is that. Pacifism is one of the necessary conditions of the Church carrying out the Great Commission.
There are other pacifisms, but this older Anabaptist version seems to me to deal with both the place of the sword in the state and the rejection of killing that Christ bids his followers to do. I invite all to join me in discerning this vocation of the Church. Can this be sharpened, pointed and fueled more fruitfully?
Layton Friesen, ThD (candidate), is an EMC minister who has served as co-pastor of Crestview Fellowship and as senior pastor at Fort Garry EMC. He is a columnist within this magazine and is our conference’s representative to the Mennonite World Conference. He lives in Winnipeg.
A publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference