A Shout-Out to My Mennonite Pacifists Out There…


Being in Pennsylvania, I meet lots of people that either consider themselves Mennonite, or at least were raised that way. One of the most well-known aspects of Mennonite belief is their unwavering commitment to pacifism (or, as a commenter corrected me below, the Mennonite “doctrine of nonresistance”). Hanging out with one of my new raised-Mennonite friends the other evening, she showed me (with pride) the above picture that has hung in one of their family’s houses for a long time. It struck me as beautiful as well, especially the second quote. Here it is, nicely typed out for optimal readability and convenience:

“It is our fixed principle rather than take up Arms to defend our King, our Country, or our Selves, to suffer all that is dear to be rent from us, even Life itself, and this we think not out of Contempt to Authority, but that herein we act agreeable to what we think is the Mind and Will of our Lord Jesus.”

–Thirteen Mennonite Ministers of Pennsylvania, May 15, 1755

The specifics of “the doctrine of nonresistance” are still murky to me as it pertains to the power of the State vs. the power of the individual, and what are the limits of the State’s “power of the sword” (and whether Paul writes that as merely descriptive of how State’s function in the world or if he is laying out a theological prescription of their God-given duties, rights, and responsibilities). (I’ve written before about that Scripture and it’s implications for governmental power [PART1] [PART 2])

But even though these specifics remain unclear to me, the sentiment in this picture resonates with me deeply and strikes me as far more “Christian” than the modern three-way marriage of Church, State, and Military and the seeming fetishness with which so many evangelicals worship our military (and politics in general).

The fact that more churches set aside special time and entire services to “bow the knee” on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, and not do the same on Martin Luther King Day (for example), is both very sad and very telling of where the modern evangelical church’s priorities and allegiances lie.

I’ll be honest with you: except for understanding “blessed are the peacemakers” to mean something very different than what was probably in the mind of Jesus when he said that, and maintaining a particular interpretation (that is one among several valid interpretations) of Romans 13, I can really see no New Testament case for Christian’s blind support of military use or engagement in armed conflicts (or admittedly, self-defense).

Yes, there are practical, pragmatic, and philosophical justifications for governmental/personal force that are very rational, make a lot of sense, and have been the only system we’ve known since the dawn of human conflict. But as soon as I think of these things, I’m reminded that this is why Paul says that the Gospel is the “foolishness of God”.

If the implications of your idea of the Gospel don’t (at least) at times seem imprudent, unwise, unreasonable, illogical, and impossible to imagine living out or following through on, then I fear that your idea of the Gospel is not the Bible’s idea of the Gospel.

I remember as a freshman in college sitting at Red Robin (a burger chain in the South) with some old friends of mine from high school that had gone off to Liberty University. They were preparing to move to a super-poor neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina to live communally and make (amazing) music and serve the poor and hurting around them there. I remember one of them coming to me and telling me,

“Hey Paul, let me ask you something. Say you have a wife and kids someday, and all of them are Christians. One night, a murderer breaks into your house. He is standing over your wife and kids ready to kill them. Remember: they are Christians; they will go to Heaven. This man is not a Christian. You have a gun.

Do you kill him? What does it mean to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ there? What do you think Jesus would do if he had the gun? What did he do when faced with the violence and injustice in the world? How did he conquer it?”

I’ve never forgotten him saying this, nor the intensity with which he said it. It’s sort of haunted me ever since. This sort of talk was new to my Southern Baptist ears and sounded like heresy (the hushed tones in which he said it didn’t help, either. After all, he was the son of the Executive Pastor of our church).

For just a moment, forget what “freedom” or “right” you may think you have in that situation (God-given or otherwise). Is the call of the Christian first and foremost to “exercise their rights and freedoms” or is it to love?

What is most loving in that situation?

I’m still trying to figure it all out.

As time has gone on, I’ve seen this conversation seep more and more into my thinking, first as I thought about Torture (and what Catholics said about it) and, more recently, the Death Penalty (another follow-up post here).

Like I said, I have no idea what this looks like at the State level or what this would mean for my voting or the responsibilities of a Christian in office in light of this (although I’ve tried to think through some of it before). All I know is that something seems incredibly wrong with the way things are now and incredibly true about that quote above.

And so, at least where I’m at right now, I’ll throw my chips in with the Mennonites.

What do you think? How would you answer my friend’s hypothetical? What/Who has been most influential in getting your thinking to where it is today?

 

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12 thoughts on “A Shout-Out to My Mennonite Pacifists Out There…

  1. I really enjoyed this post (and several of the posts recently). Awhile back I reread the case studies at the end of Richard Hays’ Moral Vision of the New Testament and he comes out very strongly on the side of absolute pacifism. He was very convincing. He didn’t, however, write too much about what happens in a situation like your friend presented, and your friend’s question was the one I was left thinking about after I read the chapter.

    All that to say, I’m not sure. I agree with opposing militarized violence. But there’s still a part of me that thinks, “Would God really want me to sit back and let something awful happen to my wife and kids while I could do something about it?” That of course begs the question, “Would God really want me to sit back while something awful happens to anyone’s wife and kids?” So I can see someone using a justification of the personal responsibility to use violence to stop injustice as an argument for the state use of the same. So again, I don’t know.

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  2. Lore- thank you. I hope you saw i comented on your post.

    Chris- i see what you’re saying, except the thought i had when reading your comments was wondering if Peter had thought “would God, really want me to sit back and let something awful happen to Jesus when i could do something about it?”. peter’s answer to that was, apparently, no, and Jesus rebukes him for it.

    it seems Jesus’ response to personal evil was to take the full effects and pain of it on himself rather than inflicting it on others, and in so doing actually conquering it-all in the interest of ushering in a Kingdom based on the upside-down logic of the Gospel.

    But, at the end of the day, it’s sort of easy for me to say this when i don’t have a wife, kids, or much of anything to lose should that hypothetical take place. It’s still purely academic for me, which sucks and totally removes a lot of the credibility i may have in this, and therefore the depth of investment i may have in the answer. I’m still in a very “safe” place. At least you have a wife that makes this more real for you.

    What say ye?

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  3. Great observation, thanks Paul…
    I listen to a lot of popular, reformed speakers via podcast, etc… I know some speak of Jesus teaching calling it nonretiliation. As a very ‘plain/non-conformed in lifestyle’ Mennonite we steer clear of the Pacifism terminolgy. We take Christ’s teaching (sermon on the mount) literal, terming it–the doctrine of nonresistance. Interestingly, we teach a non-conformed lifestyle is closely entwined with this doctrine. Here is a friend/relative of our family speaking at a conference a few years back. ://www.sermonindex.net/modules/mydownloads/visit.php?lid=17545

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  4. I follow the word “mennonite” on twitter so saw your post. I grew up in Chester County, PA. My parents were Mennonite rebels and moved there “all the way” from Lancaster, PA. (It is one county to the East of Lancaster). I grew up going to Frazer Mennonite Church (in towards Philadelphia actually). I went to Goshen College in Indiana. Now I live in Reading, PA with my wife and 3 kids.

    So I grew up Mennonite, but I am reading a book now that is absolutely fabulous. It is called “The Naked Anabaptist” and is written by a non Mennonite in England who describes our Anabaptist history in ways I don’t remember connecting to before. I think you may enjoy the book after reading this post and the comments.

    He describes how when Constantine the Roman Emperor became Christian, he took this religion from the fringes that was better suited for the powerless and amended it to suit rulers. During this mass growth of Christianity, (Christendom) the teachings of Jesus became watered down to suit those in power. Like in war, apparently they would have solders walk in a lake before battle and drop under water leaving only their hand and sword above water. Thus, their soul could be saved, but the “sword” was somehow exempt from the teachings of Jesus. The book is speaking of how today, this God / Country / Power thing is being looked scrutinized and many are looking at this way of the Anabaptists (that never went along with the Christendom movement in the first place) as being fresh and relevant.

    Anyway, I am not finished with the book myself, and probably gave a woefully inadequate description, but find it very interesting. I am @leamansterms on twitter and I have a bunch of Menno friends that live in West Philly. Some go to Germantown Mennonite Church.

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  5. Oh… and now I see your last name is Burkhart? That is a totally Mennonite last name. Check your roots, you may have Anabaptist heritage. The name sure sounds Mennonite to me.

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