One of the reasons I decided to join the Mennonite Church was its emphasis on peaceableness. More than the Evangelical Friends Church which I grew up in who focus on traditional evangelism which relies more on apologetics than action, the Mennonites have created many programs, books, curriculum, and everyday opportunities for its members to actively engage in peaceable and nonviolent activity. Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Conciliation Services, International Conciliation Services, and Christian Peacemaker Teams, to name the major arms of Mennonite peacemaking, can be found all over the world working to disseminate violence, oppression, and injustice in a variety of ways. I thank G-d for this, and in no way do I want this to end. Nevertheless, I am dissatisfied with it, and here is why.
When I first learned about the early Anabaptists, they mystified me. At the time, and still currently, I believed strongly that Christians need external identifying markers which display whose kingdom they belong to. Logically, these markers would be simple dress, plain living, loving attitude toward all people, operational practices of forgiveness, and dissension toward the state. The Anabaptists fit this mold perfectly, and the Mennonites are the direct descendants of the Anabaptists. Naturally, for reasons that just the above, I joined them. I partook in their practice of adult baptism. In two days I leave to work with Christian Peacemaker Teams, and I have applied to work as a pastor in the Mennonite Church. I have become a decent Mennonite in my own estimation, yet the baggage that comes with committing oneself to the Church (and it is the reason why I believe people need to be in Church) is the onus of responsibility for those within the Church. Thus, for example, whether we like it or not, the Catholic priest scandal effects us, and we are responsible for them. I am responsible for the Mennonite Church. This is the problem I see.
The early Anabaptists were killed in droves. Their martyrdom resulted from the incendiary practices I mentioned above. They lived in the middle of Christendom where “everyone” was a Christian, yet they claimed with reckless abandon that Christian faith could not be so oppressive, violent, and extravagant. Following G-d meant forgiveness, peace, and simplicity. Moreover, it meant G-d and G-d alone is the ruler of the world. Therefore, in there system of princes, barons, and Holy Roman Emperors, only G-d’s rule mattered. Essentially, Anabaptists declared the state illegitimate, and since the state does not bear the sword for nothing, they were massacred. Since they believed G-d ruled the whole world, G-d loved even those who put the Anabaptists to death. Their commitment to nonviolence spawned from their belief in G-d’s overarching sovereignty and love. This came along with simple living, distinctive dress, and many other practices which now seem all but forgotten by all descendants of the Anabaptists except the Amish. In short, the Mennonite practice of peaceableness was salvaged from Anabaptism and elevated into our consciousness as the distinctive Mennonite and Christian practice.
Why has pacifism become the defining belief of Mennonites? Why is our insistence on believer’s baptism, simple living, radical dissension toward the state, and forgiveness no longer causing the waves they once did? These are the questions of a somewhat dissatisfied Mennonite who joined the Mennonite Church expecting one thing and finding another. I am going to attempt to answer the first as a way toward the other.
When the Anabaptists suffered massive amounts of persecution under the hand of German princes and other feudal lords, they became more and more sectarian as they became persecuted out of society. They kept to themselves and lived in simple ways upon the land. They earned the nickname “The Quiet in the Land”. They worshiped and lived without much interaction or association with the outside world they found to be sinful and corrupt. In the early 20th century, with the advent of World War I leading World War II, the question of patriotism and commitment to a government deeply entrenched in conflict was at the tip of everyone’s tongue. Mennonites, who dared not pledge their allegiance to a flag or recite the national anthem, became a scourge in the eyes of the war-driven nation. The draft ripped “The Quiet in the Land” from their homes and coerced them into serving in various capacities. Suddenly, the Mennonites were no longer able to keep quiet and to themselves. Engagement with the violent infant empire became necessary.
Many men returned from their conscripted service changed. They brought back a new perspective, and the Mennonite emphasis on peaceableness no longer remained under the shackles of inaction. Pacifism grew into nonviolent direct action against those who oppress others with the sword. Requisite in this new perspective was a greater interaction with those outside Mennonite circles. Consequently, Mennonites compromised their own distinctive practices in order to become peacemakers. The Vietnam War only exacerbated the issue. As young men faced a draft once more, they came into a head-on collision the possibility of being forced to fight and kill other people in the name of a country attempting to usurp the throne of G-d. The Mennonite’s refusal to do this centralized pacifism as Mennonite distinctiveness. To be Mennonite meant pacifism.
The reason Mennonite equaled Christian pacifist did not derive from a holistic Church experience. It derived from men’s fear of being drafted. In a way, men have been the sole producers of Mennonite belief. Peacemaking and pacifism came into the forefront from male experience. Peacemaking is not bad, but we have thus far let it override our original ideals. I believe if we look closely, it might even infringe on what women would like to see in the Church. Certainly, many Mennonite women I know affirm peacemaking, but could they in fact have their own experiences to contribute to the discussion that would help us be G-d’s people in the world beyond simply peaceable activity? Perhaps, with a reduced patriarchy we could recuperate some of our original distinctiveness, or perhaps, we could claim new practices rooted out of the controversial belief that G-d is sovereign and loving. I do not want the end of peacemaking, but I do want the input of female voices. Up until now, male voices have drowned out all others with a cry for peace. The cost has been a loss of identity and a confusion as to who peace is made for. I believe it is possible for us to become the Mennonites, not of old, but of new without forsaking our roots. Have we forsaken them? Maybe not yet, but soon, they will be all but forgotten. I pray we can once again be the persecuted faithful trying to spread G-d’s love in the world. Peace!