Anabaptist World invited me to reflect on this interesting, but rather daunting question: “How do Mennonites think about peace?” This is daunting because who am I – a white, cis-gendered, North American male – to respond to such a question? Clearly, I cannot offer an overarching, uniform definition or assumption that encompasses all Mennonites and their perspectives. What I offer, therefore, is simply one perspective of a much larger, necessary, and ongoing discussion among our global family of faith.
Contemporary Mennonite Reality
There are over 2 million Anabaptist Christians around the world. Each has a different experience, a different context, and a different theological understanding that informs their perspective.
What’s more, these Mennonite understandings and perceptions are not static. They change and shift with time. Mennonites in North America, for example, have gone through some significant shifts in how we perceive or understand peace: from wanting to be “the quiet in the land,” to explaining our peace position as “non-resistance,” to “non-violent resistance,” to peacekeeping, to peacemaking, to peacebuilding. These shifts moved along the spectrum of passivity to activity in our understanding of faithfully being a peace-people.
The complexity of embodying peace has become painfully evident. Peace has been a defining trait of the Mennonite faith. Together with the Church of the Brethren and the Quakers, we are, after all, referred to as the “Historic Peace Churches.” Our witness to peace has not, however, been consistent. Peace may have been a prescriptive trait of our faith, but it has not always been descriptive of our tradition.
We have come to realize how difficult peace is. We have come to realize that violence is deeper and more encompassing than simply overt expressions, such as war. Women, BIPOC siblings in North America, as well as siblings around the world have – thankfully! – highlighted and made us more aware that, even if we oppose war, there are ways in which we participate and even perpetuate violent relationships, embody supremacist logic, and participate in unjust and oppressive economic practices.
Subjective and Objective Violence
Slavoj Žižek, in his book Violence, is helpful. Žižek notes the difference between what he describes as “subjective violence” and “objective violence.” “Subjective violence,” he argues, is that form of violence that is visible and apparent; violence that occurs between subjects. It’s subjective in that it affects people as subjects, or persons. It’s personal. This form of violence is more obvious, such as hitting, shooting, or war. What Žižek depicts as “objective violence,” on the other hand, is that which helps to create the backdrop of society; it provides or creates the perception as to what is “normal” (i.e., the status quo).
For example, the legal system of racial segregation in South Africa – apartheid – was depicted as “the way things were,” the “order” and structure of South African society. The apartheid government created this system and went to extreme financial, ideological, and human expense to demonstrate it as the norm, the status quo. Any challenge to the system of apartheid was, therefore labelled as “violent.” Thus, a young boy throwing rocks toward police in a South African racially segregated township, such as the black township of Soweto, was depicted as “violent.” However, the police that maintained apartheid’s rule with an iron fist and enforced the socially engineered racially segregated townships was simply understood as maintaining “order” (i.e., the status quo). Desmond Tutu – a Nobel Peace Prize recipient for his tireless work that challenged apartheid – was, for example, depicted by the apartheid government as public enemy #1.
Seven Observations about Peace
Recognizing the complexity of violence, and therefore how complex it is to be a people of peace, has led, I think, to more careful and nuanced ways of reading the biblical story. The biblical story has consistently provided the cornerstone in exploring, understanding, and feeding a Mennonite perspective of peace. As such, and through my experience and connections with Mennonites and people who find Anabaptism interesting all over the world, several key elements continue to emerge as essential regarding our Mennonite/Anabaptist understanding of peace.
1. Peace is about being in right relationship with oneself, others, creation, and God. When relationships are broken in one (or more!) of these ways, we do not experience shalom, or the wholeness and well-being God desires and intends. Broken relationships can take different forms, from interpersonal conflicts to systemic mechanisms that do not foster – or, to put it more actively, breaks or prevents – relationships that recognize the humanity, dignity, and value of the other. Violence, oppression, poverty, and domineering forms of power become visible (violent) manifestations when relationships are not as they should be. Shalom cannot exist where injustice thrives. Such realities deny the possibility for wholeness and justice, or right living, that does not allow for righteousness (or justice) and peace to kiss (Psalm 85:10).
2. If peace inherently seeks and maintains right relationships, peace therefore must be contextual. Peace does not exist as an abstract principle. Put differently, different realities and complexities affects our relationships with oneself, others, creation, and God. Thus, the pursuit of peace, and what peace ultimately may look like, will look different depending on these contexts. For some, pursuing peace will mean trying to stop or prevent abuse, war, and/or other forms of trauma; for others it will mean confronting systemic mechanisms (such as colonialism, poverty, racism, patriarchy, or all of the above!) that make right relationships challenging if not impossible.
3. Given the relational character upon which peace is built, seeking peace is active, not a passive. This highlights the main difference between the more active biblical (Hebrew) notion of shalom as opposed to the Latin pax (e.g., Pax Romana of the Roman Empire). Peace cannot be enforced, such as in establishing or maintaining “the peace,” or even prescribed for others. Rather, peace is pursued and built, piece by piece (or peace by peace!). It’s an activity – a verb – not a place.
It takes a lot of time, energy, grit (Osheta Moore talks about the need for grit and grace), and persistence to pursue peace despite many challenging obstacles. Pursuing peace means actively trying to participate in and embody the life-giving ways of being in the world – and for the world – that God desires. The pursuit to embody peace requires daily activity that actively confronts, what Walter Wink describes as, the domination order.
4. Robert McAfee Brown once said:
“If someone is hurting, our first task is not to dissect the cry of pain in order to discredit it, but to take the cry seriously in order to respond to it. And if the cry not only goes, ‘We are hurting,’ but continues, ‘…and you, our brothers and sisters, are part of the reason we are hurting,’ then we have an obligation to respond in such a way that the pain can be healed.”
The biblical story suggests that the weak, the vulnerable, the “least of these,” the marginalized are the ones who provide a more accurate barometer as to whether right relationships exist, lest we fall into the trap that Jeremiah 6:14 warns about, saying “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Perry Yoder, in his book Shalom: the Bible’s word for Salvation, Justice, and Peace, notes how the concept of “peace” can, and unfortunately has often been, the rhetoric used – or rather misused – by those who have to establish a particular social order that maintains the status quo in which they (i.e., those who have) continue to benefit. “Peace,” in other words, becomes a concept wielded that many experience as violent!
We learn whether relationships are broken – i.e., when people experience violence and/or injustice – through those most affected when things are not as they should be. The laments that we find in the Psalms are wonderful examples of the cries of those who were not experiencing the recognition of their humanity or dignity or the life-giving presence of God in their lives. It behooves us to pay attention to those cries – then and now – to better understand why peace may be absent and what we may need to do to change what needs to be changed so that peace and justice may come to be. Justice, in other words, becomes the true measuring stick for whether or not there is shalom (Perry Yoder, 18). James Cone reminds us that, “To understand the biblical view of reconciliation, we must see it in relation to the struggle of freedom in an oppressed society” (God of the Oppressed, 207). “There can be no reconciliation with God unless the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and justice is given to the poor. The justified person is at once the sanctified person, one who knows that his or her freedom is inseparable from the liberation of the weak and the helpless” (God of the Oppressed, 214).
5. Peace is central to the gospel – the good news – of Jesus Christ. Peace is a foundational cornerstone centered on the life, teachings, and witness of Jesus the Christ (recognizing here the full political connotations of the term “Christ”). It is not, in other words, simply an “add on” to faith and/or salvation. And we learn whether it is good news from those who most need it (see point #4 above). Thus, peace is intimately connected to liberation as an expression of faith – an expression of the good news Jesus invites us to seek, participate in, and embody. Perry Yoder perhaps put it most succinctly by stating that God’s salvation is liberation. Salvation/liberation are channels for shalom justice because they transform the situation of oppression to one of freedom and liberation for the oppressed (Perry Yoder, 45).
6. To work for Christ’s peace is to march to the beat of a different drum. It embraces and gives witness to a different logic and imagination than the violent imagination of the domination order (as Walter Wink puts it) or empire. It means embracing and participating in a different understanding of power that ultimately is of God.
Embracing and being led by this alternative understanding of power, one that is not based on control, unfortunately may mean that our seeking peace may put us in harm’s way and may not be “successful” or have as great an affect that we may want. Indeed, there might be times when this pursuit towards shalom leads to the cross, whichever form that may take in our day. We seek peace hoping that it might be made visible. But we continue to be dedicated to that vision of shalom even when it’s not. We are dedicated to this vision because we follow Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, believing that our work and witness is not in vain as it offers another imaginative seed that we hope may take root so that God’s kin(g)dom may become manifest on earth as it is in heaven. This vision of peace, and its pursuit, has a longer gaze into the future than the immediate struggles we face even though we actively seek to demonstrate and embody that vision here and now.
7. We need others to sustain our journey in embodying Jesus’ way of peace. We need fellow sojourners and companions on this journey. Indeed, we cannot understand peace in isolation but in community. Our hope, even though we know how often we fail, is to participate in and offer an example as to what it means to belong to Jesus’ beloved community that we call “the church.” We call this journey of companionship solidarity, and we hope it will be a defining characteristic of this beloved community and a shining example to a watching world.
MWC’s Shared Convictions
The above are a few observations that I have gleaned in my involvement in and connections with our global family of faith. And Mennonite World Conference (MWC) has boiled these down to some helpful shared convictions that emerged through much dialogue within our global communion:
Shared Conviction #5: The Spirit of Jesus empowers us to trust God in all areas of life so we become peacemakers who renounce violence, love our enemies, seek justice, and share our possessions with those in need.
Shared Conviction #7: As a world-wide community of faith and life we transcend boundaries of nationality, race, class, gender and language. We seek to live in the world without conforming to the powers of evil, witnessing to God’s grace by serving others, caring for creation, and inviting all people to know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
May God continue to animate our pursuit of and witness to peace in our world.