Ted Grimsrud—August 25, 2021
I first learned about Mennonites in the late 1970s, right after I finished college. I was part of a small, independent evangelical Christian church and became interested in theology, first, and then pacifism. I found the peace position I was introduced to by the first Mennonites I met to be enormously attractive. The desire to be part of a peace church tradition led my wife Kathleen and me first to attend a Mennonite seminary and then join a Mennonite congregation. Both of us ended up becoming Mennonite pastors and then teaching at a Mennonite college. Peace theology was always a central part of our engagement.
After all these years, I am sensing that what seemed to be a vital community of activists and academics and ministers seeking, often together, to develop and put into practice Jesus-centered pacifist convictions has become much less vital. At least that is a hypothesis I want to test in this blog post. First, I want to describe what I mean by “peace theology” and then I will suggest a number of factors that may be contributing to the loss of vitality.
The emergence of Mennonite peace theology
I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the experience of US conscientious objectors during World War II. As one of my central learnings, I analyzed how Mennonites managed to find in those challenging years resources that actually generated creativity and the expansion of their peace witness in the years following the War. A crucial dynamic was the investment Mennonite churches were willing to make to support their young men seeking conscientious objector status and performing alternative service in the Civilian Public Service program. Mennonite leaders joined with Quakers and Brethren to help shape the legislation that established the option for alternative service for young men who were conscientiously disposed not to join the military.
A key victory for the peace church lobbyists in relation to what had happened during World War I came when the CPS program was established as an entity separate from the military. This meant that prospective conscientious objectors would not have their quest for CO status subject to military oversight (a part of the World War I system that led to extreme difficulties for many pacifists). On the other hand, a key defeat came when the legislation required that funding for CPS come from non-governmental sources. That meant that the COs themselves would have to provide funding for their living expenses. For Mennonites, this meant that a great deal of fundraising among the churches would be necessary. As it turned out, people in the churches were extraordinarily generous, especially given that Mennonites tended to be people of modest means.
So, the Mennonite experience of CPS took place in an environment where churches rallied in support for their drafted young men (and for their families). The churches strongly encouraged the young men to say no to the draft. The theological training for young people growing up in Mennonite congregations tended to be pretty rudimentary, but a clear message of a simple kind of Jesus-centered pacifism was widely shared. As it turned out, various social pressures including the popularity of the war had a major impact and only about one-half of the Mennonites who were drafted chose the CO path—but this was a much higher percentage of COs than emerged from Quaker and Brethren communities.
With the support of their families and home communities, most Mennonites who served in CPS had quite a positive experience. Not only were they able to act in accord with their convictions concerning war, they also spent time in workcamps that for many were an immersive educational experience and friendship fostering time. A significant element of camp life were classes on many faith-related themes. As the war went on, CPSers also had the chance to work in various contexts such as mental health hospitals and other public health units.
The World War II experience served as the crucible for the emergence of Mennonite peace theology in the US and Canada. By “peace theology” I mean the self-conscious development of theological analysis (generally biblically centered and explicitly pacifist [that is, committed to an affirmation of the call to love all human beings and in principle being opposed to war and other violence]) that was applied to issues of war and peace, service work, and social transformation. For hundreds of years, Mennonites in North America kept alive their beliefs in the practice of “non-resistance”—which mainly meant non-participation in war and other forms of violence. They self-consciously based this practice on their theological convictions, even if those convictions remained largely undeveloped and even unspoken.
Living in a nation fully engaged in the largest war in human history shook up the generations of relative comfort and security that constituted the environment for Mennonite pacifism. The strong support for the CO option required an investment in practical assistance (especially financial, but also emotional) for the young men affected. It also required more self-conscious work at developing the convictions that would enable drafted young men to succeed in their CO applications. As it turned out, the churches also needed to invest in the on-going education for their COs in CPS camps. By the end of the war, strong interests had emerged that Mennonites needed in turn to invest in aid for war victims and development work—and, to work on a more intellectual level to help people of faith find ways to prevent further wars (that is, develop a more rigorous peace theology).
A major figure in the emergence of peace theology was Goshen College history professor, Guy Hershberger, who published the widely used textbook, War, Peace, and Nonresistance, in the midst of the war. Of the men who served in CPS, pioneers in the academic field of peace studies such as Robert Kreider and Bill Keeney became professors at Mennonite colleges and denominational leaders. Numerous other CPSers also earned advanced degrees in a variety of fields and worked in higher education, carrying to that work an abiding interest in applying their pacifist convictions to their academic work.
Another former CPSer, Gordon Kaufman, had his vocational path changed from mathematics to theology. Kaufman ended up teaching at Harvard and became an influential theologian far beyond Mennonite circles, always shaped by his formative years as a CO. Another widely influential Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, was too young to be drafted during the war, but shortly thereafter spent a number of years doing service work in postwar France and due to the impact of that experience focused his career on peace theology reflection. While Yoder was in Europe, he collaborated with several other young, budding academics to form what was called the Concern movement after the influential Concern booklets they published throughout the 1950s largely devoted to peace theology, broadly defined. Norman Kraus, a contemporary of Kaufman and Yoder, also published widely on theological themes with a strong interest in applied pacifism.
A generation of Mennonite college professors came of age during the Vietnam War years. Most were students of Yoder’s at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries. Theologians such as Duane Friesen, Jim Reimer, Ray Gingerich, J.R. Burkholder, Marion Bontrager, Harry Huebner, Tom Finger, and Denny Weaver wrote prolifically, often directly addressing peace-related themes and regularly gathered at conferences at their various schools for conversation. A paradigmatic example of the peace theology conferences was the series that Mennonite Central Committee organized that began in 1976 with a discussion of Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and met roughly every three years, ending with a 1994 conference. These meetings actually were called MCC Peace Theology Colloquia.
That final conference may stand as a marker for the changing fortunes of the work of Mennonite peace theology. After 1994, for another ten years or so, Mennonite academic conferences on themes related to peace theology met in regular succession (examples would be a conference at Bethel College in 1996 on the theology of Gordon Kaufman, one at Goshen College in 1999 on Mennonites and the family, one at Bluffton University on “Anabaptists and Postmodernity” in 1998, a conference organized by Goshen College and AMBS held at Notre Dame in 2002 on John Howard Yoder, and a couple conferences held at Eastern Mennonite University—on Walter Wink in 2001 and on Believers Churches and Politics in 2004). Conferences have continued to be held since then, but less often and not as likely to be focused on peace theology. Certainly, the discontinuing of the MCC colloquia resulted in less emphasis in bringing Mennonites together to discuss peace theology.
What has led to the eclipse?
So, what has been diminished? I suggest that we have had steadily fewer conversations about applying explicitly pacifist convictions wherein biblical and theological resources are overtly linked with concrete issues. We have less clarity about what pacifism means and why it matters. We have had fewer high level academic conversations of a type that have a trickle-down impact on church publications, Sunday School classes, sermons, college classes, etc.
What follows is a list of factors that I think could have played a role in this eclipse. I offer them tentatively—and invite responses.
(1) Evangelical theology. With their emphasis on the Bible, Mennonites in North America have always tended to be conservative theologically. However, they also generally tended to read the Bible in ways that placed Jesus’s teaching at the center—and understood Jesus to teach “nonresistance.” As Denny Weaver showed in his book Keeping Salvation Ethical, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries US Mennonite theologians wrote about salvation in ways that closely tracked with emerging evangelical theology, but always with the clear (and distinctive) emphasis on discipleship and pacifism as essential parts of their salvation theology. However, as the fundamentalist movement grew more adversarial (seen, for example in highly publicized conflicts among Presbyterians and in the Scopes trial), some elements in the Mennonite world also grew more adversarial (see the account in Theron Schlabach’s Gospel vs. Gospel).
Throughout the 20th century and down to the present, theological debates among Mennonites have often echoed debates in the wider Christian world that among other issues have involved disagreements about the importance of pacifism. While many Mennonites who have affirmed evangelical theology have also continued to affirm pacifism (most notably see the work of Ron Sider), it has been the case that quite a few Mennonites who have tended toward evangelicalism have turned away from pacifism. Some of these have distanced themselves from Mennonite denominations and institutions, but others have stayed and offered a counterweight to the pacifists.
Evangelical theology (meaning especially an emphasis on the authority and even inerrancy of the Bible, a focus on personal conversion as central to faith, conservative beliefs regarding hell and Satan, and an affirmation of the penal substitution view of the atonement) has never been inherently anti-pacifist. However, those doctrinal emphases have generally been linked with strong support for the wars of the US, and more recently with the generally quite militaristic Republican Party. And these emphases have been more prominent among Mennonites who marginalize pacifism than Mennonites who see pacifism as central.
(2) Reduced emphasis on 16th century Anabaptism. The term “Anabaptist” has remained popular among many Mennonites and even seems to be increasingly affirmed by many pacifistically inclined non-Mennonites. However, at the same time, attention to the actual history and thought of the original Anabaptists seems to have diminished. One place where this might be seen is in the reduction of classes on the Anabaptists available at Mennonite colleges and seminaries.
When I first became a part of the Mennonite conversations about peace theology in the 1970s, a significant percentage of the theologians who participated had received their doctorates in some field related to Anabaptist studies. Books on the Anabaptists were common and new volumes were being regularly produced, often aimed at a broad readership. More recently, though, very few Mennonite theologians have been experts on the 16th century movement, and the field of Anabaptist studies has become increasingly populated by specialists with minimal interest in theology. Near the end of my teaching career, a colleague who was teaching in this area noted that she was having a difficult time finding a textbook as almost all of the earlier volumes aimed at college and seminary students had gone out of print.
(3) Peacebuilding. One of the main factors that contributed to the emergence of Mennonite peace theology was the desire among many who saw the devastation of World War II to make a practical difference in a warring world. This desire led to a major expansion in the work of Mennonite Central Committee from its original focus on organizing North American Mennonite’s aid to the Mennonites suffering in Europe following World War I to efforts to provide assistance to as many people in need around the world as possible. The practical emphasis profoundly shaped the theological reflection during the 1950s and 1960s as the work of peace theology emerged and evolved.
During the Vietnam War years, such a desire for the practical application of peace theology only intensified, partly due to the experiences of many COs of those years who performed alternative service of various types rather than accept being drafted into the military. As a consequence, more and more Mennonite pacifists sought for ways to create alternatives to the violent dynamics in the wider society. This desire for peace work to make a difference likely led also to a growing impatience with many of the theological debates that seemed to some to be a distraction from transformative engagement.
So, when the efforts to expand the peacemaking efforts led to the emergence of various strategies such as conflict resolution and restorative justice, practitioners tended to look to the social sciences for guidance more than theological disciplines. A new academic arena opened up, eventually labeled “peacebuilding.” To a certain degree, “peacebuilding” sought to distance itself from traditional Mennonite theological emphases. Early in my teaching career, I observed as a kind of outsider rather strong tensions between two of our school’s graduate programs—one in church ministries and the other in peacebuilding. Rather than collaborating, these two programs tended to be at odds. As a consequence, peace theology seemed in general to be of little interest to the peacebuilders (as the peacebuilding disciplines were to some degree of little interest to the church ministry people).
Hence, the peacebuilding discipline evolved as an essentially “secular” field even among Mennonites. Interestingly, though, the language of peacebuilding came to be commonly used in the Mennonite world in general (and certainly at my university) as a replacement for the older language of “peacemaking” and “biblical pacifism.” In practice, such an evolution has seemingly contributed to less interest in the arena of peace theology as a means to remain anchored in the biblical and theological tradition of Mennonites.
(4) Progressive politics. At its best, peace theology provided a big-picture grounding for peacemaking work. It articulated the core convictions that would guide the activism, a vision for the affirmation of the preciousness of all life. Ideally, peace theology would complement activism and service work that seek in direct ways to challenge injustice and cultivate healing. For various reasons, this ideal has always been difficult to implement (such as the tendency of the theologians to be too abstract or preoccupied with intellectual debates on the one hand and, on the other, the tendency of practitioners to be impatient with the theological process).
This latter tendency has perhaps intensified in recent decades as the influence of the congregations and church-related schools has diminished. It does seem that perhaps it was the impact of the 9/11 events along with greater awareness of the problems (even among Mennonites) created and exacerbated by white supremacy, patriarchy, sexual violence, and heterosexism that have signaled greater involvement in what we could call “progressive politics” among Mennonites. One result has seemed to be a lack of attention to peace theology among those engaged in such social change work. Back in the early years of peace theology’s emergence (the 1950s and 1960s), it seems that there was a closer connection between the work of the theologians and the efforts of the social change advocates.
A example of these dynamics may be seen in the reluctance of many among antiracist and prison abolition activists (including at least some Mennonites) to draw heavily on the pacifism of King and Gandhi in their discernment of strategies for engagement. Those involved with some of the other causes also seem ambivalent or even hostile toward pacifist traditions. Such questioning could have a creative effect were it to foster conversations and debate about the relevance of peace theology. As a rule, though, it may be that the main dynamic in this regard is simply to deny the relevance of pacifist traditions or even to see them as a problem to overcome.
(5) Reduced denominational interest. My perceptions on this point are admittedly very subjective and arise in my own current state of uninvolvement in Mennonite Church USA activities. I think, though, of two incidents separated by over twenty years that I did participate in that may be indicative of a change in the denomination’s interest in peace theology.
The first Mennonite Church general assembly I attended was in Normal, Illinois, in 1989. It was a joint meeting of the two different denominations that a few years later merged to form MC USA—the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church. It was a large conference (in those days, the Canadians were still part of both denominations). For an entire day during the conference, attendees were given the choice between two activities—a day-long conference on christology and a day-long seminar with Richard Rohr, the Roman Catholic priest, spiritual teacher, and peace advocate. I chose the christology conference and led a workshop that met twice that day.
This conference was a remarkable affair—about 1,000 Mennonite laypeople listened to presentations and took part in workshops that engaged in relatively complicated and sophisticated topics. A key catalyst for the conference was an academic book by Goshen College professor Norman Kraus, Jesus Christ, Our Lord, that had gained quite a bit of attention and triggered some significant controversy. Kraus was one of main figures in the peace theology community. The several theologians who presented during the conference were also self-conscious peace theology practitioners. The conference was for educational purposes only; no statements or policies emerged. But it was indicative of the high level of theologizing among Mennonite academics (with a clear commitment to writing for people in the churches), the high level of commitment on the part of denominational leaders to be attentive to theological issues, and the high level of interest among church members in peace theology.
A bit more than twenty years later, the college where I taught had for several years been the scene of debates and controversies concerning the inclusion of LGBTQ students and staff members. Finally, the administration agreed to engage in a “listening process” to involve the campus community in discussion specifically focused on hiring policies for faculty and staff. This process was long and difficult and concluded with an official policy of non-discrimination. What was notable to me was the explicit and publicly stated intent in the process to avoid theological discussions. Admittedly, such an approach recognized the seemingly interminable and polarizing nature of most debates on such topics and sought to avoid them for the sake of efficiency in hopes of making decisions within a reasonable timeframe. On the other hand, I perceived in this approach an admission that theological reflection was no longer being seen to be as important as Mennonites used to think it was.
I believe these two stories signal an evolution among Mennonites that reflect both a choice to move away from peace theology and a recognition of peace theology’s loss of influence. While the contexts for the respective events were quite different (a denominational convention with no decision-making intentions vis-à-vis a specific institution’s effort to make a specific decision), it still seems notable that peace theology had moved to the margins in the latter instance. I should also note that during the first two decades of the 21st century, the denomination has also been involved in a great deal of discernment and decision-making processes related to sexuality issues and in doing so has seemed to avoid overt theological work.
(6) Changes in church-related colleges. When I started my teaching career, almost two-thirds of the students at my school were identified as Mennonites. Twenty years later, when I retired, the percentage of students identified as Mennonites was less than one-third of the total (the overall enrollment was about the same). Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of majors in the Bible and Religion Department went from 40 or so in the early 2000s to fewer than 10 in 2016. A close friend who teaches at a sister Mennonite college has reported almost identical dynamics there. I suspect the dynamics are similar at the other US Mennonite colleges.
I don’t know that there is a direct connection between the eclipse of Mennonite peace theology and these trends in Mennonite colleges. However, it does seem likely that the trends do reflect a loss of interest among young people in studying peace theology—and a reduction of opportunities to do so. The dynamics are probably mutually reinforcing in the sense that the lessening of interest and the reduction of course offerings, faculty research, and conferences and other opportunities for extended conversations makes a renewal of work in peace theology less likely. In general, Mennonite colleges have had to recruit students from outside the Mennonite world to sustain their enrollment—and, as a rule, such students likely tend to be less interested in peace theology. In my teaching experience, I encountered exceptions to this generalization: other-than-Mennonite students who were interested in peace theology—and numerous Mennonite students who were not. I suspect, though, that the generalization is mostly accurate.
(7) Other factors. I am sure we could identify numerous other possible factors that have contributed to the eclipse of Mennonite peace theology. Since I am not aware of other efforts to analyze this phenomenon, I acknowledge the limits of my list of factors here. One friend suggested another factor that might be significant—the increased emphasis in some Mennonite communities on sacramental and liturgical practices (we could also add an increased emphasis on spiritual disciples). As with the increased impact of evangelical theology mentioned above, there is no de-emphasis on peace theology that is necessary in such approaches to faith. However, traditionally, sacramental traditions have not tended to be pacifist.
A second factor my friend mentioned is a sense that Mennonites have been less engaged in service work in recent years (this is not a dynamic I have knowledge of). I definitely see a strong connection between the emphasis on service that was part of the World War II generation (the expansion of MCC, the creation of Mennonite Disaster Service, and the embrace of alternative service for COs as prime examples) and the emergence and evolution of peace theology. When the US government ended conscription, one important driving factor for young Mennonites to do service work ended. However, for years Mennonites have continued to value such work. It would be interesting to analyze the possible connections in this area.
(8) The legacy of John Howard Yoder. This final factor seems to me to be very important but also very difficult to evaluate. Yoder in many ways defined Mennonite peace theology with his writing, involvement in the Christian world beyond Mennonite circles, and his work as an educator. A number of his students (e.g., Duane Friesen, Denny Weaver, Ray Gingerich, and Harry Huebner) expanded the impact of Yoder’s theological project with their own numerous influential writings and teaching careers.
In the early 1980s, Yoder was removed from the faculty at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries due to his serial sexual predations, though the reason for dismissal was kept secret for many years. It was only about a decade later that it became public why Yoder left AMBS. That revelation caused a bit of a stir, but in the years prior to his death in 1997, Yoder actually was welcomed back to teach (one class, as a last-minute fill-in) at AMBS. Over the next number of years, Yoder’s reputation only grew as many of his unpublished writings on peace theology found their way into print, numerous dissertations and other scholarly books and essays were written on his thought, and conferences were held to discuss Yoder’s work. Then, suddenly, in the summer of 2013, Yoder’s transgressions received renewed attention and his status as a theological icon crashed to the ground.
I believe that the eclipse of Mennonite peace theology was well underway before Yoder’s fall from grace—as noted in my list of factors above. But the scandal has complicated things greatly. Yoder’s own writings have been rendered in effect unavailable. If Mennonite peace theology were to return to from its eclipse, it would mostly have to happen without reference to Yoder’s work.
A path toward recovery?
As someone who entered the Mennonite world mainly due to my attraction to the peace theology I encountered early in my pacifist days, I find writing these reflections on its eclipse dispiriting. Was it inevitable that the intellectual creativity that the events of the mid-20th century stimulated among Mennonites would dwindle? Or maybe Mennonite peace theology wasn’t actually the positive movement I think it was, and the evolution of thought and practice among Mennonites in the past thirty years or so has moved in the right direction.
I’ll admit that the thoughts I have presented here emerge from my own set of biases. For that reason, I have tried to be mostly descriptive and not polemical in tone. As I think about now, I feel the need to conclude with a positive summary of what I believe are valuable insights I have gained from my engagement with Mennonite peace theology over what has been nearly a half century. For what it is worth….
- The Jesus of the New Testament is the center for peace theology. Jesus was indeed “political”—and political in a specific way. If we think of “politics” as referring to how people operate socially, Jesus’s politics are about how people relate to each other—with its main emphasis on compassion and caring. Jesus does establish a “kingdom” and he is a “king”—but in ways that overturn the ways of power politics. Language that was used of the emperor (“savior,” “lord,” “king”) is appropriately used of Jesus and signals our confession of his close identity with God—and that Jesus shows us better than anything else what God is like.
- Seeing Jesus as central, peace theology affirms the importance of his call to love our neighbors, to love even our enemies. This leads us to be pacifists. We view everything through the lenses of our pacifist commitment—a “pacifist way of knowing.” This pacifism is an orientation toward the world wherein we see that nothing takes precedence over the call to love the neighbor. This should affect everything—including how we read the Bible and construct our theology, not to mention, of course, every aspect of our social lives.
- Peace theology affirms that the Old Testament is a peace book. The Old Testament presents an alternative sense of political power to the ways of the nations and puts God and Torah at the center instead of king and state. The OT should be approached as a positive asset for peace theology, not a problem to overcome.
- The words of Jeremiah during Israel’s time of exile: “Seek the pace of the city where you find yourselves” offered a programmatic call for God’s people to give up channeling the Promise through a traditional kind of territorial kingdom. Instead, they are to embrace the calling to be prophetic minorities in various settings that they do not try to rule.
- The “Powers” motif helps peace theology understand the institutional and cultural dimensions of life, especially the dynamics where the “fallenness” of the Powers shapes us in profound ways (for example, the dynamics of racism, militarism, sexism, et al, that in a genuine sense transcend individual choice and action). The Powers push us toward idolatry, and their influence may be countered by trust in Jesus and his way. He lived life free from idolatry and due to his resistance to the Powers he was executed by the political and religious elites. God’s vindication of Jesus through resurrection both reveals the idolatry of the Powers for what it is (they are not God’s servants as they claim) and the truthfulness of Jesus’s model of life.
- Peace theology affirms that the vision for salvation in the writings of Paul stands in harmony with Jesus’s vision and with the Old Testament vision. Paul’s sense of “justification” was not strictly about an individual getting right with God, but as with the rest of the Bible, Paul believed that salvation is a social event. For Paul, the key effect of Jesus’s ministry was to empower enemies to be reconciled, Jew and Greek to become part of one community, even ultimately blessing all the families of the earth.
- Peace theology seeks to cultivate a sense of trust that creation’s direction runs toward wholeness in the hands of a healing God. Such trust helps guard against the constant tendency to take things into our own hands, a tendency that often leads to violence and ultimately self-defeating compromise and exaggerated senses of self-importance. Peace theology rejects an absolute dichotomy between faithfulness and effectiveness, recognizing that in the long run faithfulness is our most effective approach.
- For peace theology, the biblical themes of eschatology and apocalyptic have to do with how to understand God’s work in the present and not only in the future. These themes in the Bible, especially in the teaching of Jesus, are not focused on the idea that history is ending but rather they are emphasizing why history continues—that people of faith might embody biblical shalom in history.