Have Mennonites Moved Past Peace Theology? A Response to From Suffering to Solidarity

Ted Grimsrud—January 11, 2016

A new book collects 17 essays that purport to analyze the “historical seeds of Mennonite interreligious, interethnic, and international peacebuilding” (the subtitle to Andrew P. Klager, ed., From Suffering to Solidarity [Pickwick Publications, 2015]). It’s a collection of interesting and well-crafted essays that covers a wide range of topics that do fit under the general rubric of Mennonite peace work. Definitions are a bit of an issue in thinking about this book, as I will discuss below. However, just taken at face value, the peace-focused writings make an excellent contribution.

Many insightful pieces

The book is organized with three sections: historical background, analyses of “Mennonite peacebuilding approaches,” and discussions of how these approaches have been applied “in conflict settings.” The emphasis is on the practical and specific, and many inspiring stories are told. I’ll highlight just a few of the wide selection of informative chapters.

John Derksen, who teaches conflict resolution studies at Menno Simons College in Winnipeg, gives a nice overview of the early 16th century Anabaptists, claiming “much of Mennonite nonviolent advocacy and peacebuilding today finds its roots in 16th-century Anabaptism” (page 13). This descriptive survey accounts for the sources of the Anabaptist peace emphasis, though it doesn’t make overt connections between these 16th-century “roots” and present-day peacebuilding. This lack would not be a problem in this book if later writers had picked up on Derkson’s narrative. However, there is little mention of Anabaptists in what follows. As it is, we get a good sense of the 16th century movement but not much of a sense for how it directly has influenced our current practices.

John Roth’s essay, “Historical Conditions of Mennonite Peacebuilding Approaches: Global Anabaptism and Neo-Anabaptism,” while a bit cheer-leady in tone, describes a dizzying and inspiring array of Mennonite peace activities around the world in recent decades. He can’t go into much detail, of course, but having his account of one effort after another (and knowing he has to leave many out to keep the essay to a manageable length) impresses the reader with just how seriously Mennonites have been taking their vocation to be peacemakers. 

In the second section, Janna Hunter-Bowman’s examination of the legacy of pioneering Mennonite peacebuilder John Paul Lederach, while a bit more academic in tone than other essays in the book, makes an important contribution in fleshing out in this one example the thinking, challenges, and accomplishments of the contemporary turn toward active peacebuilding. Lederach’s story, among other things, shows how much adaptation was required once the efforts began to apply peace convictions to the nitty-gritty work of conflict resolution. Lederach, and others, have had to learn through their ground-breaking experiences since they had few models to imitate. Lederach’s career is a testimony to his success in establishing this new path.

Ron Kraybill’s somewhat autobiographical reflections drawn from his own pioneering work are insightful concerning the internal work necessary for peacebuilding work. His concluding thought points to an issue I wish the book had addressed further: “The stable, principled formation that I received in my family and Mennonite community gave me the inner foundations required to walk lightly in the midst of trampling herds. But the simple, structured Mennonite communities many of us grew up in are mostly gone…. We won’t be going back to the farms. If we are to continue to form and sustain people adequate to the peacebuilding challenges of our times, we must also now update our practices and disciplines of personal formation” (page 203).

This loss of the nurturance of the traditional Mennonite communities means that the fertile ground out of which the creative expansion of peace work that the years since World War II have seen among North American Mennonites is being lost. I’ll reflect more below on why I think what is needed is more than simply updating “practices and disciplines of personal formation”—important though that aspect might be.

The third section of the book provides six specific case-studies of peacebuilding work around the world: Egypt, Colombia, Indonesia, Palestine-Israel, Congo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. These are helpful for fleshing out the actual work of peacebuilding today—Bonnie Klassen’s essay on Colombia and Alain Epp Weavers piece on Israel-Palestine were especially perceptive, it seemed to me.

A helpful book, however…

I’ve only touched on a few of the essays. Much more could be said about the insights offered in those—and each of the others. I recommend this book. The writing throughout is clear. The book gives a wide-ranging sense of the present application of Mennonite peace convictions and how this emerging field of peacebuilding has evoked many creative and life-enhancing responses by Mennonites and those influenced by them in ministering to a violent and often quite broken world.

However. I will confess to some disappointment. One of the issues is terminology. With “peacebuilding” in the subtitle and in wide use in most (not all!) of the essays, I would have liked some discussion about that term in relation to more traditional terminology such “defenselessness” and “nonresistance” and the more recent terms “pacifism” and “nonviolence.” It is clear from the book, though seldom brought to the surface for overt reflection, that something new is going on with Mennonites with this turn toward peacebuilding. But how that new dimension relates to earlier peace emphases, which I had hoped to have discussed in this book, remains mysterious.

 One reason this terminology issue matters follows from Ron Kraybill’s comment cited above about the loss of the context for the “stable, principled formation” that Kraybill (and the other pioneering Mennonite peacebuilders of his generation) received. Without a more clear sense of what peacebuilding is in relation to “nonresistance” and “pacifism,” it’s hard to get a sense of how the formation Kraybill received might be replaced in our new day.

As I mentioned above, I think this is about more than the “personal formation” Kraybill refers to. I think it has a lot to do with the content of the faith convictions that characterized those traditional communities. It seems clear that Mennonites have never excelled at articulating that content—generally a practice-oriented people, Mennonites to a large extent practiced an “embedded theology” of implicit faith convictions. That inarticulateness was not especially problematic so long as the communities remained vital and formative. With the deterioration of those communities, though, it is harder to see how the implicit faith convictions so vital in forming peace-focused people will be sustained.

On this point, From Suffering to Solidarity offers little assistance. It is quite a practice-oriented book. The practices are inspiring and creative, and obviously in the present they remain vital. Is it necessary, though, for the future, to find ways to more directly articulate the faith convictions that undergird the practices?

By-passing theology?

As I look at the Mennonite tradition in the United States (and, to some degree in Canada as well), I see a dynamic that characterized many Mennonites of living as “quiet in the land” in mostly separated communities until well into the 20th century. In these communities, the practice of defenselessness and the embedded theology of imitating Jesus remained strong. One of the great contributions of this dynamic was how Mennonites by their stubborn refusal to accept American warism shaped the practice of conscientious objection—in a way that provided a powerful service for all COs.

The profound experience of embodying their peace convictions during World War II in the face of almost unanimous American embrace of extreme warfare also brought with it an impetus greatly to expand the reach of their peace convictions. The expansion of Mennonite Central Committee was the greatest expression of this dynamic, though the emergence of Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite Economic Development Associates, and Mennonite mental health work are other important examples. The emergence of the peacebuilding work has been the natural extension of that impetus.

In the first generation after World War II, the expansion in practical peace work was joined by a parallel expansion in the articulation of the faith convictions that drove the practices. Harold Bender’s famous “Anabaptist vision” speech and essay was an important early influence. A generation of Mennonite scholars undertook 16th century Anabaptist studies that they then applied to contemporary peace theology (the most obvious example of this would be John Howard Yoder, of course, but we also might note some of Yoder’s students such as Ray Gingerich and J. Denny Weaver—all three earned their Ph.D.s in Anabaptist studies before going on to focus on peace theology in their teaching careers).

However, the interest in peace theology seems to have waned in recent years (see my reflections on this, “Mennonite Systematic Theology: An Opportunity Whose Time Has Passed?”). From Suffering to Solidarity is markedly silent about the convictional underpinings for peacebuilding. Part of the issue here is whether there is a need for an integration between the faith convictions that (though usually unarticulated) have been foundational for the Mennonite peace tradition and the present-day discipline of peacebuilding that seems mainly to be practical, secular, and linked much more closely with sociology and similar disciplines than with theology. [Some helpful reflections on this distinction may be found in Alain Epp Weaver, “Peace theology and peacebuilding,” Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology 14.2 (Fall 2013), 54-62; see also, Mark Thiessen Nation, “Toward a Theology for Conflict Resolution: Learning from John Howard Yoder,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 80.1 (January 2006).]

One way to ask an underlying question is to wonder if a book like this collection will be possible another generation from now. From Suffering to Solidarity could be seen, maybe most alarmingly, as a kind of last gasp of the embedded peace theology of the North American Mennonite tradition, where the link between peace work and peaceable faith convictions may still be taken for granted and left unarticulated. In the future, without the link being articulated, it may cease to exist.

15 thoughts on “Have Mennonites Moved Past Peace Theology? A Response to From Suffering to Solidarity

  1. I believe you reflect some of my problems with what passes for Mennonite/Anabaptist writings and thought these days. The “theology” part of that seems to be devoid of the “theo” and is a lot of “logy”. I would probably classify such writings as peace philosophy or peace philology rather than peace theology.

    It is rather grieving, really, to see such an incredible witness to the transforming power of the Spirit and of a relationship grounded and centered in Jesus to see it talked about like just any good philosophy worth examining… and I think it is for that reason that it is so easily dismissed anymore both in secular thought as well as among other Christians. If the only thing we can talk about concerning peace and peacemaking is how “nice” it is without including the mind-blowing power that God gives us to even DO that stuff, then why bother?

    Thanks, Tim.. as always, good stuff.

    1. I agree, Robert. Though I suspect were we to talk in depth about the “theo” part we might find ourselves with some big differences in how we view God (the “we” here is in reference to Mennonites/Anabaptists in general, not necessarily you and me). But I think that is precisely one of the conversations that is so important.

      1. Agreed. I think the conversation, while it may expose some big differences, if we all agree on the peace position, we can at least come to some common ground about God from which we can build peacebuilding/peacemaking partnerships. But we need to have that God conversation because, to answer the question you asked someone else, I’m not entirely convinced that our peacemaking work is going to be sustainable. Without a theological grounding in the source of peace and the Prince of peace, any secular efforts run the risk of the relativism that usually ends up infiltrating such efforts. Peace is good… so long as innocents aren’t at risk. Peace is good… as long as oppressors are being properly resisted. You start losing that theological grounding, you start letting peace get compromised for expediency and relativized ethics and morality.

  2. Thanks for these thoughtful and perceptive observations, Ted. If I may, I suspect that part of the problem is that we have such widely divergent beliefs within the Mennonite church (understood broadly) today that we are finding it increasingly difficult to be in unity with each other on the basis of faith. We are moving from an implicit, unarticulated faith to an increasingly incoherent faith. Given that trend, we rely more on practice than theology, and on practices that can be articulated within secular, rather than theological, frames of reference.

    1. What you say makes a lot of sense, “kidney” (smile). I like the “moving from an implicit, unarticulated faith to an increasingly incoherent faith.” That seems exactly right, with the consequences you suggest. That’s not all bad—witness the great work the peacebuilders are doing. But is it sustainable?

  3. Ted, could it be that the post-WW2 energy around “peace theology” was necessary to legitimize “peace work” in that other kingdom–the worldly one? With that transition now well behind us, maybe we should expect less energy around peace theology. And that shouldn’t cause a decline in peace work, at least not if other practices continue to nourish the commitment.

    Interesting that all of the case studies in the book are from locations outside of North America. Obviously, we have many opportunities for peace work in the US and Canada. What is the “peace theology” that will unleash more energy here at home?

    1. Good point about the possibility of why there might be “less energy around peace theology,” Berry. I hadn’t thought of the dynamic in that way. It certainly seems like a good idea not to get too negative about how things are evolving. The big task, as I see you trying to do, is encourage all the peace work we can.

  4. Or it could also be that the Anabaptist-Mennonite prayer that “every church might be a peace church” is being answered in ways beyond the churchly control of North American Mennonite theo-logy. Let’s admit that much 20th century anabaptist nonresistance and pacifism was at least as much about establishing borders and boundaries around a disciplined church and her disciples as it was about truly working for a prophetic, poetic, and pragmatic peace of the city.

    1. Ted Grimsrud as usual you have written a very insightful essay review, especially your concluding paragraphs. However, as one who lives within the context of Mennonite nonresistance, I might welcome academics ending the link between Mennonite pacifism and the contemporary practice of peacebuilding. What if we would treat the practice and profession of peacebuilding as it has emerged in the last few decades in a similar way we treat any number of professions and vocations Mennonites are engaged in whether medicine, tourism, law, agriculture, manufacturing or construction? In all of these practices, Mennonites participate using the norms of the profession and ethical standards except where there would be an issue of using lethal force or explicit conflict with church norms. In this context, we give our primary attention to maintaining the integrity of our church communities and secondary attention to developing certain political attitudes which characterize the peacebuilding project. Such an approach has helped the Amish and conservative Mennonites, for example, move from an agricultural vocational base to the many other vocations while maintaining and even growing strong churches, still committed to nonresistance or pacifism and international Christian service and outreach. Even within the Mennonite Church USA congregations with which I worship, I find a quite similar similar attitude and community. This is not to disparage the strong peacebuilding educational programs (Eastern Mennonite University) and the many projects which have come out of these efforts. Only I would not make such a profession any more directly connected to Mennonite Christianity or the divine than I would the practice of farming, medicine, law or business. This somewhat looser theological tie with peacebuilding also gives more latitude for rank and file Mennonites to disagree with the political judgments of the peacebuilding guild, judgments which I often consider as reducing freedom, peace, opportunity and justice. Again, thanks for the good discussion.

      1. Thanks for your comment, Levi.

        I actually really like your comparison here, of “peacebuilding” with “medicine, tourism, law, agriculture, manufacturing, or construction.” I also have thought of social work as an especially close parallel. This makes a lot of sense to me—and might be something many of those engaged in peacebuilding (in the technical sense of a specific discipline or “field”) may tend to agree with.

        My concern—as reflected in the book—is that “peacebuilding” is often conflated with “Mennonite pacifism” to the detriment of the latter. What I have seen at EMU is that “peacebuilding” has increasingly been seen as the definitive expression of the Mennonite peace tradition. And I think that sense is reinforced by many of the essays in the book I reviewed—partly by “peacebuilders” who seem to assume this and partly by the writers who do not identify their subject matter as “peacebuilding” but don’t make a distinction between peacebuilding and “Mennonite pacifism.”

        I think you and I may disagree in our vision for the relationship between Mennonite pacifism and our engagement with the wider world. However, I agree with most of what you say about “peacebuilding” here. And, like you, I have a positive attitude about peacebuilding properly understood. The danger is that this “secular” discipline might make “Mennonite pacifism” (with its theological grounding) increasingly marginalized in our churches.

  5. Ted and Levi,

    As you know I enjoy the many language games of theology and ecclesiology thus I find Levi’s comments interesting and worthy of reflection and response. However, I think this is really an old man’s conversation reflecting a rather passing sectarian cultural-linguistic anabaptist demographic.

    Many younger Mennonites and their evolving spiritualities and theologies would not draw such sharp distinctions between Christ and culture, Kingdom and cosmos, Christology and anthropology or nature and grace. Peacebuilding, farming, medicine, writing, art, social work and politics can and do all participate in spiritual or divine presence as much as preaching, church administrating and theologizing can and do embody traces of the divine. God is no longer imprisoned in the iron cage of conventional or traditional church-talk. The God beyond ecclesiology and theology was never so bound by correct vocabularies.

    Gordon Kaufman reminded us that no sign, symbol, signifier or vocabulary fell out of the sky like a stone from heaven into the preacher’s pulpit or onto the theologian’s desk. These theological vocabularies are contextual, contingent and composed and thus move with the Divine in and through and with and by contemporary expressions of peacebuilding in the world — and in and through and with and by traditional pacifism or nonresistance in the church.

    Old pacifists need an explicit God. Younger peacebuilders understand that God can be implicit. Happily for both, God no longer dwells exclusively in church houses or theologies made with human hands. We must therefore do theology in face of Mystery and all its metaphors.

  6. The most promising connexion between peace theology and “sociological” “peace building” might be psychology.
    The “transformation by the spirit” can be described in psychological terms and can be seen as one of the predonditions for a peaceful living. At last Mennonite peace building will work only as far as the Mennonites are a role model for others of what they have relived and practice themselves. Most other recipies for peace building will prove as vain.

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