“Peace Theology” and “Peacebuilding”: How Strong is the Connection?

Ted Grimsrud—September 26, 2016

Back last January, I wrote a post on this blog called “Have Mennonites Moved Past Peace Theology? A Response to From Suffering to Solidarity. I reflected on a recently published, well-executed collection of essays on Mennonite peacebuilding edited by Andrew Klager, From Suffering to Solidarity: The Historical Seeds of Mennonite Interreligious, Interethnic, and International Peacebuilding. This book purports to take a historical approach to Mennonite peace work. My comments were quite laudatory of the book itself, with a few questions, but then I used the book as a jumping off point for reflecting on the relationship (or lack thereof) between Mennonite theological convictions and the current discipline called “peacebuilding.”

The post triggered some useful conversation in the comments section for a few days, which for my blog is a sign of success. I had occasion to reread the post just lately because I learned of a response to my reflections written some seven months ago by the editor of the book, Andrew Klager. The post, “Ted Grimsrud’s Response to ‘From Suffering to Solidarity’: Continuing the Conversation—By Andrew Klager,” raises some interesting points that I think might be worth further reflection.

Some disappointments

I am disappointed that I only now learned of Andrew’s post, and that my learning of it was totally by accident, the result of activating Google alerts on my name. Though Andrew, as the title of his post indicates and as is reflected in the post itself, wrote his piece in service of “continuing the conversation,” he didn’t let me know that he had written it, and so I didn’t have a chance to converse with his thoughts until now.

However, because I remain quite interested in the issues these posts address, I want to think a bit more about them here (and I’ll send Andrew a Facebook message so he knows I have written this!). As I reread my original piece, I find myself pretty happy with what I wrote. I think I clearly raised some important concerns about how the lack of attention to the faith-based convictions that underlie Mennonite peace practices threatens to cut off those practices from their cultural and theological roots—with possible problematic consequences down the line.

So, I am also disappointed that Andrew’s response to my reflections was mainly defensive and, actually, in the end actually seems to confirm some of my concerns. In a nutshell, he reiterates the assumption I find all too common among many the peacebuilding advocates that I know and know of, namely, that the presence of fruitful present-day peace work among Mennonites is strong evidence in itself that of course this work is grounded in Mennonite theology—without responding to my main point that by not self-consciously expressing their convictions, Mennonite peacebuilders may be in danger of  separating the practices from the convictions in ways that will eventually lead to a withering of the practices.

Klager’s “Questions and Concerns”

Andrew organizes his responses in a numbered series, so I will in turn respond according to his list.

(1) Andrew points out that since he himself is not a Mennonite, it is a bit unfair for me to criticize the book he edited as indicating that Mennonites have moved past peace theology. He acknowledges that most of the essays in the book are written by Mennonites, but that he, the editor, “came up with the whole idea behind the book, recruited the contributors, set the parameters within which contributors could write their chapters, and guided the authors to write on their particular topics and themes.”

I think he mistakes my observation of dynamics among Mennonites that the book illustrates as a criticism of the book itself, or perhaps even as a criticism of Andrew himself. Now, I do have some criticisms of how he apparently framed the issues he wanted his authors to address (more on that below), but I actually think it is indicative of the success of the book in addressing the current context of “peacebuilding” that my question about moving past peace theology arose.

As a person whose own relationship with the Mennonite world is tenuous, given my status as a “walk-on Mennonite” and as one who has been under fire many times over the past 30 years by many elements in the Mennonite churches, I certainly don’t begrudge the efforts of a sympathetic non-Mennonite such as Andrew to pull together a collection such as this. He has my strong gratitude for this project and the other elements of his work.

The dangers of faith/practice dualism

(2) Andrew then asserts, “my book was never meant to be on peace theology. From Suffering to Solidarity is interested mostly in Anabaptist-Mennonite history and the peacebuilding initiatives and their application that derive from and are inspired, influenced, and shaped by this history. If anything, it’s a peace history book.” This comment touches on one central element of my concern about the book itself, a concern that touches on my deeper concern about the dynamics of Mennonite peacebuilding.

It seems like a profound misreading of the Mennonite peace tradition to imagine that you could have a discussion of Mennonite peace history without having a discussion of Mennonite peace theology. One does not have to be a theologian to recognize that Mennonite peace history is in fact a history of embodied theology. The history and the theology cannot be separated. That is why the book, insofar as it does not spend much time talking about the theological convictions that motivate the practices, reflects a kind of dualism in relation to faith and practice. I fear this kind of dualism may characterize many current Mennonite peacebuilding practices insofar as peacebuilders bracket out of self-conscious consideration the convictions that underlie them.

That is, a history of Mennonite peace work should not simply be an account of particular actions, it should also be a history of the convictions that undergird those actions. These are two parts of one whole. And those convictions have changed over the years as the focus of the peace work has changed. And to talk about “the historic seeds of … Mennonite peacebuilding” (from the subtitle of Andrew’s book) should include talk about these changes, it seems to me. This is precisely what is largely missing from the book.

Peacebuilding and peace theology

(3) Andrew then suggests that I “underestimate the reality that some Mennonites—rather than ‘moving past’ peace theology—have already built upon their peace theology by allowing this theology to inspire and shape the nonviolent responses to violent conflict in the form of peacebuilding and conflict transformation decades ago long before my book was published.”

Well, this gets to the point. I am, of course, aware of that Mennonites involved in peacebuilding work “built upon” their inherited peace theology “decades” ago. The issue I try to raise is that this inheritance must be continually kept alive. This happens by on-going cultivation of self-conscious awareness and appropriation of the convictions that decades ago pushed Mennonites into the exciting work that their greatly expanded engagement with their wider world opened them up to.

The concern I try to express is not about the peacebuilding practices themselves (which I generally strongly affirm), but my sense that the peacebuilding work has actually become ever more autonomous in relation to the past foundational theological convictions. Andrew notes that I taught (until my very recent retirement) at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), the same institution where Mennonite peacebuilding pioneers such as John Paul Lederach and Ron Kraybill helped establish what is now called the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP). What he seems not to realize is that my concerns arise precisely from my close awareness of the work of CJP.

I have tremendous respect for CJP and I have personal affection for my friends who have and continue to work there (including John Paul and Ron). But what I have sensed for many years now is that peacebuilding has replaced peace theology at the core of the Mennonite self-awareness about their peace witness (at least the Mennonites around here and many [if not most] of the Mennonites in our Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada denominations). For a bit more than a generation after the transformative time following World War II when, first, efforts such as Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, and Mennonite Economic Development Associates, emerged and then, later, efforts that now go under the rubric of “peacebuilding” emerged (such as conflict resolution work and restorative justice), there was simultaneously a flourishing of Mennonite peace theology (see my account in my 1/6/14 blog post, “‘Mennonite Systematic Theology’: An Opportunity Whose Time Has Passed”) .

Now, though, it seems that the peace theology “flourishing” era is long over. For example, towards the end of the period of “flourishing,” Mennonite Central Committee hosted regular “Peace Theology Colloquia” that were held at cites across North America. The final one was held in 1994. At the Mennonite Church/General Conference Mennonite Church convention at Normal, Illinois, in 1989, close to 1,000 Mennonites spent an entire day participating in a lively and in-depth mini-conference on christology from a peace church perspective. Since then, these kinds of events have been rare.

I don’t hold peacebuilding responsible for the diminishment of interest in peace theology. It would be an important discussion to have to analyze why this diminishment happened. But what has happened with peacebuilding, it seems to me, is that its emergence has coincided with the marginalizing of peace theology (I assume without knowing more that these developments were totally coincidental). And as a result, peacebuilding has filled the vacuum on an ideological or philosophical level. Rather than have a set of extraordinarily powerful practices understood in relation to the deep-seated theological convictions that created the environment for those practices to emerge, we have instead had this emergence happen in a more autonomous sense where the convictions are often at most in the background and remain unstated and even unreflected on.

Another factor, it seems possible, is that many Mennonite leaders of the peacebuilding movement have been people trained in the social sciences. That “secular” training encourages practitioners to avoid talking about religious faith and, maybe, even other types of underlying convictions. This would not have been a problem if the discussion of peace theology was happening at the same time. However, with absence of peace theology, peacebuilding becomes more “secular” itself. [For my attempt to begin a discussion about peace theology and peacebuilding might be integrated see my essay, “Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism.”]

So, indeed, the emergence of peacebuilding in the way I am characterizing is “something new” (meaning since the 1970s). Andrew does not think it is “something new” so he questions the validity of my concern in my initial blog post that there is a need to reflect on this alleged newness. He asserts “that Mennonites have been engaged in practical peacebuilding and conflict transformation for so long and are so well known and well respected for this work around the world despite their disproportionately small numbers that they warrant an outsider’s more objective investigation into this pioneering and impressive work.”

I would just refer Andrew (and the interested reader of this essay) to books such as Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill, Mennonites Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Herald Press, 1994), and Ervin Stutzman, From Nonresistance to Justice: The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric, 1908–2008 (Herald Press, 2011), for evidence that we do have something new with peacebuilding (another book that traces the recent emergence of peacebuilding practices among Mennonites is, John Paul Lederach and Cynthia Sampson, eds., From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to International Pecebuilding [Oxford University Press, 2000]). The Mennonite engagement with “practical peacebuilding and conflict transformation” may not have as long a pedigree as Andrew assumes. [I don’t mean to imply that any of these books analyze these issues in the same way I do, but they do provide ample evidence that the emergence of “peacebuilding” is something new.]

Should we be more positive?

(4/5) Andrew concludes his series of points with two brief comments that essentially come down to a suggestion that contrary to my analysis, “Mennonite peace theology is robust and active … today” (emphasis added). He concludes: “To ‘move past’ peace theology would be to abandon it, which—as members of a historic peace church—Mennonites who work for peace in practical ways are not doing; they’re undergoing the painful and challenging—often gut-wrenching—process of determining how their theologically-informed peace convictions must impact their litany of rapid-fire decisions on how they act within the minutiae of everyday circumstances in the midst of the chaos and intractability of violent conflicts around the world today.”

As I read this comment and reflect on it, I feel a bit torn. On the one hand, maybe Andrew is correct and he, as a more objective but highly informed “outsider” sees something much more positive than I can given my own embeddedness in the Mennonite world and my own personal stake in this discussion. Maybe it actually is true that Mennonite peacebuilders do operate out of “theologically-informed peace convictions.” I profoundly hope that is true. I would be very happy to be wrong in my analysis and to have my concerns be misguided.

Or, on the other hand, it may be that Andrew simply can’t (for whatever reason) see the problem that is indeed there. Maybe what motivates Mennonite peacebuilders are more only the memory of earlier generations’ “theologically-informed peace convictions.” Maybe in the present tense the “peace convictions” are no longer “theologically informed” in a way that that theological grounding can any more be identified. Maybe, indeed, Mennonite peacebuilders are “moving past” peace theology in ways that (inadvertently, perhaps) have the effect of “abandoning” it. To be clear, I am not concerned about people repeating old theological slogans or dogmas. What I am concerned about is more simply the ability to understand and articulate one’s grounding convictions at all, and as Mennonites to identify the grounding convictions that do emerge out of our faith tradition.

[I realize just as I finish this post that I may be trying to articulate a Mennonite version of the problems that Aladair MacIntyre articulates about modern moral convictions in general in his classic book from thirty years ago, After Virtue: A Study in Moral TheoryBefore I write more about these issues I will go back to look at MacIntyre again.]

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6 thoughts on ““Peace Theology” and “Peacebuilding”: How Strong is the Connection?

  1. From my limited understanding of this topic, I believe that you are quite right, Ted. I think that it, peacebuilding, is similar to other Anabaptist traits rooted in who Jesus is and how his message informs and directs us. These might include: simple living ideals, commitment to community life, caring for the poor and working for justice. I think it relates to ways Mennonites have sometimes classified themselves as being MCC types or not. In my relatively extensive experience of Mennonites and Brethren, tradition, communal connection and doing the right thing don’t necessarily require faith or theology. Many of the people most interested in peace and justice making that I have known, in both Anabaptist and other denominations, share a liberal secular perspective. I have only known one graduate of the EMU center, but that person wouldn’t identify as Christian, although they still are Mennonite.

    1. Thanks, Gary. If we can ever make it back out to Oregon, I’d love have a conversation about this stuff. Your and my journeys overlap some and we probably have some of the same kinds of impressions from our several decades among the children of Menno.

  2. Thanks so much for this informative article, Ted! I want to follow up on it and your related posts and writing asap… currently am on vacation and won’t have much opportunity for that for about 2 weeks, or right now even for as detailed a comment as I’d like to leave.

    As you know, I have some Mennonite background in my family though I was never Mennonite myself. But both from that and from other overlaps of thinking and priority, I have a growing interest to follow and perhaps contribute to what Mennonites are thinking and doing in this arena.

    I agree that we should be seeking to understand the theological connections, the educational processes growing out of that, etc., as they relate to peacebuilding. Pursuing your musings about that I think can be time well spent, if it is purposely connected to strategy for moving forward.

    One thought before I must go: As a member of a “mainline” denomination and church (United Church of Christ) and more broadly interested in Process and progressive theology, I also think that the connection back to Jesus and to NT theology and Christian origins is crucial. I do think one can make “secular” arguments of some power re. peacebuilding, but that does not suffice for many Christians, and perhaps not even for some “spiritual but not religious” folks who also find Jesus-following, at various levels, to be inspiring and guiding. My sense is that progressive churches in general have an inadequate understanding of the ways the NT lit and NT era created and represent a foundation for peace that is profound. We all tend to still be too vague or confused about the “historical Jesus” and the “theological Christ”.

    1. I appreciate the comment, Howard. Your final paragraph really interests me. One could propose that one of the dynamics among Mennonites of the type I’m around is a movement toward “progressive Christianity,” which is a positive thing in many ways (in my opinion), but has also has increasingly led for many “an inadequate understanding of the ways the NT … represent[s] a foundation for peace that is profound.” Along with this is an even more inadequate understanding of how the Old Testament also may provide a peaceable foundation.

  3. Imho the Anabaptist faith leads first to personal peacekeeping. Peacebuilding or peacemaking is only an afterthought.
    How does peacebuilding relate to peacekeeping? Is peacebuildng = inciting others to mutual peacekeeping? But then, if Anabaptists were incited to peacekeeping by their own faith, can they incite others by something different from their own faith?
    I’m not much impressed by the results of peacebuilding (but then I have no friends at EMU to lose)..

  4. My experience in a Mennonite church as a heritage Mennonite, once attended EMC(U), is that the connection between what God is doing in history (theology) and peace making has too often been unclear. I think that peacemaking is important, and and important part of following Jesus. But it seems to me that it needs to be related to an understranding of why Jesus choose to obey the Father and take the path of sacrifice in response to the evil in the world. Again and again in the gospels John the Baptist, and Jesus talk about repentence for sin, forgiveness and the Kingdom of God as being near. Peacemaking, seeking Justice, helping the poor are all important parts of following Jesus, but if not integrated into God’s overall purpose, loose there part in the body of Christ following Jesus.

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