Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Ethical discernment in full-color

October 1st, 2010 No comments

A recent posting at Sojourner’s about an email exchange between Jim Brenneman and Shane Claiborne got me thinking again about Goshen College’s decision regarding the playing of the national anthem. I’ve been following the Goshen College national anthem decision and the surrounding debate (also here)for a while with a moderate level of interest, especially since Goshen is one of the colleges affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Yet I’ve only been on Goshen’s campus a couple of times, so I lack both the emotional commitment to the institution and the nuanced wisdom and insight of the Goshen community.

Some Mennonite colleges play the anthem; some don’t, though I think it’s a fair statement that the peace witness of all the colleges has a rich tradition that continues to express itself in beautiful ways. Because I seek to worship God alone, I always felt a little awkward when my own alma mater, Bethel College, played the anthem at sporting events (though having it accompanied by a prayer for peace made it more comfortable – Goshen will be doing the this, I understand).

As a pastor, it continues to be a struggle for me when I go to community sporting events as an obvious representative of my congregation and faith tradition. Is it idolatrous to stand and remove my hat for the anthem when I don’t necessarily do so for prayer? Is it a participation in the religion of nationalism? Is it worshiping the idol of the nation or the flag? Is it unfaithful to my calling as a witness to the Gospel of the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ to stand for the triumphalism of the Lord Caesar (cf. Rev. 13)? The Bible is, after all, unmistakable on the point: for followers of Christ, any action that worships (bows down to/pledges allegiance to/puts faith in) anything or anyone other than the one God is blasphemous and idolatrous (to state it strongly!).

Or, on the other hand, would sitting for the anthem unintentionally communicate the unjustified, uninformed, and sinfully arrogant message, “I think you’re just plain wrong, your actions are sinful, America is bad, and I don’t want a relationship with you”? Is standing for the anthem a faithful act of hospitality as a witness to the Gospel? Is it even an act of peacemaking that says, “I don’t agree with you, but I will honor and respect your convictions”? The Bible is, after all, unmistakable on the point: as followers of Christ, we are ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation; anything less is blasphemous to the cross (to state it strongly!).

But I don’t think we’re caught between two perhaps-over-stated blasphemies (that of worshiping the Beast vs. that of proclaiming the cross apart from the reconciliation it has effected). Nor is it a question of choosing between two modes of faithfulness (worship vs. reconciliation). The real question is: is either action (standing or not standing) really a witness to the Gospel if it goes unexplained? Perhaps I should wear a T-Shirt with Mt. 5:39, Acts 10:36, Rom. 12:20, 1 Cor. 1:25, Eph. 2:14-17, Eph. 6:15, Phil. 3:20, Col. 1:20, Heb. 7:2, James 3:18, 1 Peter 3:8-16, Rev. 13:9-10, or some other such verse on it, so people could ask me about it. Then maybe it would be a witness.

This is part of the difficulty of doing ethical discernment. What is black and white on the basic convictions or principles level (God is love, Jesus made peace in the cross, we are to entice others into God’s kingdom, Jesus taught and embodied peace and reconciliation, our citizenship is in heaven, only God is worthy of our worship, Jesus is Lord – not Caesar, etc., etc.), becomes brilliantly colorful on the immediate judgment or rules level (anthem or no anthem, stand or don’t stand). Unlike the black-and-white discernment at the foundational levels, reasoning on the particular/contextual level becomes more nuanced, and we may become tempted to forsake certain basic convictions for others.

A similar example: right now, our national assembly (Mennonite Church USA) is deciding whether or not to host a convention in Phoenix, given the recent passing of SB 1070. Many members of our churches are immigrants, and many are “undocumented.” All of us espouse the same basic convictions and principles of extending hospitality, seeking racial justice and healing, affirming the church’s prophetic voice, etc., but there is significant disagreement when it comes to the particular implementation of those convictions and principles when making this particular decision. Do we go and witness? Do we go out of solidarity? Do we go elsewhere in witness and solidarity? The basic convictions are clean-cut and clear; the particularities are more nuanced.

When we make the anthem issue or the convention issue to be black-and-white, we may indeed have given much thought to basic convictions and principles, but we have not paused to enjoy the beautiful colors of the nuance of the particular, immediate context. When we do engage these particularities, and Jim and Shane have modeled, that is where true witness happens. Basic convictions and principles are vitally important, but if we never account for the intersection of those convictions with particular contexts, we are left as mere self-righteous protesters. However, when that intersection does happen, we become, as Shane Claiborne puts it, “protestifiers” to the Gospel.

Christians – liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between and beyond – tend to be people who look at our basic convictions and say “no” a lot. We’re known all too well for what we’re against. We Mennonites in the U.S. have been pretty good with our self-righteous “no’s” – no to war, no to the death penalty, no to flags, no to anthems, no to alcohol and tobacco, no to infant baptism, no to. . . [fill in the blank here]. The inherent self-righteousness isn’t enticing. In my own community, we Mennonites are often looked down upon as disrespectful of the nation or military, or self-righteous, or just clueless.

While the “no” – the mere declaration that an alternative reality is both desirable and justified – is good news to some extent, its message is lost to vagary and cynicism without a clear “yes” to go along with it. Certainly in some cases “yes” requires an accompanying “no,” but “no” alone is hardly good news. But there’s lots of good news in saying “yes” to God’s kingdom, “yes” to the hope for peace that we have in Jesus Christ, “yes” to pledging our allegiance (worship) to our Creator! When our basic convictions start intersecting with our contexts, we become witnesses to the Gospel. Our struggles with the national anthem or the flag or the pledge of allegiance or the military-industrial complex don’t become confined to exclusivist self-righteous pietistic expression, but rather flourish as proclamations of the enticing Good News, the alternative reign of God.

After all, it’s good news that Jesus has broken down the dividing walls between us and has made peace possible, and has even revealed the way – what tremendous hope! It’s exciting that we have a standing invitation to God’s kingdom – good news, considering the brokenness of earthly empires and their emperors! It’s good news that we’re citizens of heaven, a union spanning the borders of culture, geography, politics, and even time! It’s good news that we worship God alone, that our worship liberates us from the chains of oppression, hatred, Sin, violence, and death, and that God draws us into the divine mission and purposes for setting the world to rights! This is a much different witness than the protest of “no.” I wonder how my community would respond – they’d probably still think us a little clueless (1 Cor. 1:18ff), but it doesn’t carry the baggage of self-righteousness or disrespect; to the contrary, it leaves room for affirmation of nation and respect and honor of the conviction and courage of those with whom we may disagree.

Jim and Shane published their email conversation as a witness to the ways the Spirit empowers us to agree and disagree in love. I’ll leave you with some excerpts from Jim and Shane’s conversation.

. . . People have grown so tired of militarism, and are sensing the myopia of nationalism, and are questioning the patterns of the American dream (at least according to Wall Street). The Anabaptist witness and tradition is uniquely poised to bear witness in powerful and relevant way, and has a credibility that many of us evangelical types long for. . .

Perhaps there is a way to be creative in all of this, to make sure folks see a unique witness — of creating a new song or pledge that says, “We love the people of the U.S.A., but our love does not stop at any border… our Bible does not say God so loves America, but God so loves the world.” Even having flags from Iraq or Afghanistan next to the U.S. flag raises these healthy tensions. I love your desire to move beyond “no” — the time for yes is indeed here, a time of moving beyond protest to protestifying… committing not to tear down without building up something better. For too long, we Christians have been known more by what we are against than by what we are for. I want you to know I am continuing to pray for you. . .

Greetings in Christ. As I have engaged with persons about our recent decision regarding the national anthem, I have been thinking a lot about your words and carrying them with me. . .

I couldn’t agree with you more that the moment is ripe — perhaps, especially so among young Evangelicals — to hear a strong Christian (Mennonite) voice calling into question unbridled militarism, materialism, and nationalism. My hope is to continue to keep Goshen College in the center of that conversation, alongside you and many others. There is much work to do in that arena — with this country involved in two wars and the national debate continually more uncivil — and we can’t do it alone.

I am also committed as president of Goshen College to an honest evaluation of who our neighbors are, which I believe is also an outgrowth of our Christ-centered core values of compassionate peacemaking, global citizenship, servant leadership, and passionate learning. . . In an odd way, Goshen College has been quite receptive to “Samaritans” far away, while tending to remain more distant to those right next door and down the street whose religious and political perspectives significantly differ from those more readily found here on campus. I believe Jesus invites us to live in the particularity of our “neighborhoods” — as you in The Simple Way community have done so admirably in a different way — even to the point of accommodation to some degree if it opens doors to common ground and true community, rather than closes them prematurely.

The playing of the anthem is a gesture of welcome to our immediate neighbors. . . many of whom are new immigrants who see the anthem as affirming of their hard won citizenship or other long-time citizens of our community who have no difficulty sequencing their loyalty to God over their loyalty to the nation. We make this gesture — incomplete and insufficient on its own — as a largely (Mennonite) Christian community that is saturated. . . with explicit core values and years of ardent peacemaking commitments. . . such that any student who comes to this college will have no difficulty understanding our greater allegiances and divinely peculiar practices as Anabaptist/Mennonite followers of Jesus.

I suppose the question that is always before us — whether we are a Mennonite campus wanting to be seekers sensitive to U.S. patriots or a mega-church wanting to be seekers sensitive to un-churched non-believers — in this: How do we remain unapologetically uncompromising in our convictions, while allowing others who may not share those convictions to feel included and welcome. . .

This is a timely conversation. The Mennonite witness of simplicity and non-violence is increasingly relevant and fascinating to our world that has felt the emptiness of materialism, come to question the unsustainable patterns of “progress”, and has grown tired of militarism and war. What strikes me is that this intrigue is coming at the very time when many traditional Anabaptists are questioning their “relevancy” and their cultural engagement. . . [beginning] to make steps to rethink or even compromise some of their rigorous convictions at the very moment when folks are beginning to listen and to pay attention to those convictions.

We must ask, could this national anthem riddled not be an obstacle to Christ rather than an invitation towards Christ? The god of the national anthem may be the god that we called upon when we took this land from natives and developed it with kidnapped Africans, but it is not the God I know or that I see in Jesus.

It strikes me as such a contrast to the beautiful words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount commending us to love our enemies, the beatitudes blessing the peacemakers and the meek and the merciful, the prayer of our Lord teaching us to forgive as we want to be forgiven, and the fruits of the Spirit that include things like gentleness, kindness, and goodness.

I would dare say that we even struggle with some forms of arrested development because of this [legacy of separation of church and state], having never developed an Anabaptist articulation of positive civic engagement. For some Mennonites, the practice of playing the anthem even in this narrowly proscribed way, has offered a liberation of sorts. For still other Mennonite believers, playing the anthem has never been an issue. So there you have it: peace-loving Mennonites are not completely united on this practice either.

I’m sometimes baffled, but increasingly gratified, by how inclusive God’s embrace of others can be who disagree with what I believe to be Christ’s take on peace. For a pacifist like me, the account of Cornelius and Peter in Acts 10 is amazing. The author Luke could easily have let slide the fact that Cornelius was a Centurion in the Imperial Roman empire. . . He didn’t. Ironically, we have used this story as an interpretative lens for almost every other effort to expand the Christian church to include other groups or people shut out. And yet, we seem to overlook the fact that the central character in the story being filled by God’s Spirit was a Roman military person in one of the most oppressive occupying forces in Judea’s history. Unbelievable! And yet that’s what happened. So, I’m simply inviting us, perhaps, especially Mennonites, to come to terms with this text in welcoming others, trusting our core values to help transform them and us by studying, learning, and being together.

I can say with confidence that there is no way an attendee at one of our games could confuse the way we have implemented this practice with the way the national anthem is played in some other settings. In contrast to fighter jets flying over and military bands playing, we first share words about the college’s core values and commitments to diversity and hospitality, a beautiful instrumental version of the song is then played. . . and then the powerful Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi is read. I believe this provides just the kind of neighborly witness GC can give without compromising our deepest values of being compassionate peacemakers. . .

I share your desire for the church to be socially and politically engaged, not simply withdraw into our own little world. . . I also know that the real question we have to ask is not “are we political” but “how are we political”… and Christians at their best have always been peculiar in how we engage the world, nations, politics, and powers of the empires around us. We don’t settle for political camps, but transcend them as Christ did. . .

I think the terrible shortcoming of patriotism is that we begin to think that our nation’s people or our family’s lives are more valuable than the lives of folks somewhere else. . . We protect our family or our nation with an idolatrous fervor (I once heard someone say an idol is something you would kill for and sacrifice your children for… which I would say is precisely the language of nationalism and the nature of flags). I would also suggest this is exactly what Jesus is hinting at when he tells the disciples they must forsake (even hate) their own family in order to be his disciple. We must have a love that is far bigger than the myopic love of biology, tribe, ethnicity, or nation. Moreover, when we mesh God and country we face the grave danger of taking Gods name in vain as we print it on money. . . and what becomes at stake is not just the reputation of America, but the reputation of Jesus and the gospel. . .

Who woulda thunk of an instrumental version of the national anthem followed up by the prayer of St. Francis!!! Hahahaha. It does seem to have a certain “peculiar” charm about it. It is a peculiar way of doing a sports event. It has the dazzle of the “third way” of Jesus that carves out a new path amid poles. The national anthem seems like a funny opening band but I think it may work, brother. . .

It also seems clear that the primary work of Goshen (and of all Christians) is to woo people to God and God’s kingdom. That does not happen through force, but through fascination. It happens as we get outside of ourselves, stop preaching to the choir… and allow the distinctiveness and peculiarity of the Christian logic and witness to interact with the world around us. I pray that your decision(s) there at Goshen do just that… invite new people into a relationship with God and God’s Kingdom. . .

Not only is it an important conversation, but I feel like what has been just as important as what we have talked about is HOW we have talked about it. Our ability to have civil discourse, even amid disagreeing, is a healthy witness to folks who may listen in at some point. . . It seems that healthy dialogues like this one are in danger of extinction.

I’m writing to you on the eve of 9/11. . . What a tragedy. Can Christ really break down the walls that led to such evil? Can Christ break down walls that separate a Muslim from a Christian? One Christian particularity from another? A Democrat from a Republican? Can Christ break down the walls that separate us by racial, ethnic and cultural prejudices? Can Christ break down walls of separation between people from different social classes and philosophical persuasions as well? Can Christ break down walls that divide an anthem-singing citizen from a citizen who does not? If we cannot learn to agree and disagree in love, especially on what seems to be lesser matters of distinction, then what hope is there for true reconciliation to happen, ever? That’s why I find this exchange so heartening because it is a sign, a foretaste, that the answer to all the looming questions above is a resounding, “Yes! And Amen!”

Shane, I have truly appreciated this opportunity to dialog with you these past months by letter. I look forward to those opportunities we will again have to sit across the table face to face, breaking bread, drinking the fruit of the vine, sometimes agreeing and other times disagreeing, but always doing so under the Lordship and loveship of Christ.

Categories: Essays, Theology Tags: , ,

Nonresistance? Nonviolence? Pacifism? Another Look at Matthew 5:39

July 7th, 2010 No comments

This post is part of the “Gospel of Peace” series. The series grows out of conversations and concerns of congregation and community members. It is not a comprehensive statement on peace, but rather and occasional engagement with peace in light of Jesus Christ. The series is outlined below. Feel free to suggest additional topics. I suspect that each installment will evolve as the project rolls along, so readers may want to check back for updates to each essay. Thank you for your interest, and may the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ abound in your life and witness!


  1. Peace Conversations
  2. Vocabulary: Nonresistance? Nonviolence? Pacifism? Another Look at Matthew 5:39
  3. Peace and Eschatology

  4. Peace and the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ
  5. Peace and the Coming Fullness of God’s Reign.
  6. What about. . .

  7. The Old Testament: A journey of Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics)
  8. The New Testament: The Lordship of Christ in conversation with “difficult” NT texts
  9. If someone threatened your family: The “what would you do?” question
  10. Hitler: The problem of structural/institutional evil
  11. Living the Call

  12. Just Peace Initiatives
  13. Peace and Witness/Evangelism
  14. Peace and the Redeemed Community: A Theology of the Church through a Peace Lens

Nonresistance? Nonviolence? Pacifism? Another Look at Matthew 5:39

The vocabulary we use to talk about peace is important and often leads to confusion. When speaking of a “Peace Church,” the very use of the qualifier “peace” at least implies some sort of deviation from the norm of “church” – that peace is a distinctive of a certain tradition but not necessarily intrinsic to “church.” Similarly, to speak of a “nonresistant Christian” at least implies that being nonresistant is a particular minority flavor of being Christian – that nonresistance is an optional add-on to the core of Christian faith. Indeed, previous confessional language speaking of “Anabaptist distinctives” has perpetuated these notions of optionality over centrality (a distinctive is something optional). Future essays will address such issues. For now, I’d like to focus specifically on more particular peace vocabulary: nonresistance, pacifism, and nonviolence, and certain liabilities inherent to each.

I recently had a conversation with someone who had attended two Mennonite colleges. One he characterized as advocating nonresistance (which he could tolerate); the other pacifism (which embodied everything wrong with the college in question). To him, nonresistance indicated a biblical opposition to war, while pacifism meant a humanistic opposition to war. While I believe the distinction between the two colleges on the matter is doubtful, the distinction of vocabulary follows traditional Mennonite thought of the past several decades.


In the pre-English days, Anabaptists would often speak of Gewaltlosigkeit, meaning abstaining from violence or force. In Anabaptist usage, it came to indicate a refusal of violence and rejection of military service.1 Vocabulary of nonresistance was used in the early 1800s by some abolitionists. Apparently, the contradiction in terms was not an issue,2 or resistance was clearly understood to mean violent resistance. Mennonites in the U.S. began using the term at least as early as the Civil War. In Mennonite writing and theology, the term indicated a refusal of military service, violence, or force to further personal or social ends.

Nonresistance comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. . .” (Matthew 5:39). Did Jesus mean we are to be completely passive, not resisting evil? Are Christians supposed to be doormats to the evil charging through our world? Judging by his numerous confrontations with the devil, demons, corrupt authorities, and the evil of the human heart, Jesus must have had something else in mind. Jesus himself frequently resisted both evil and evildoers. Mennonite have long recognized this, speaking of how we can resist (nonresistantly!) – by loving the enemy, etc. (Mt. 5:44; Romans 12:14-21), as opposed to carnal warfare or similar means. The term nonresistance thus either communicates, at least implicitly, an acquiescence to evil, or a severe contradiction in terms (resisting nonresistantly). Neither is desirable!

Objection can also come from the appropriateness of the translation of Matthew 5:39. The phrase in question is antistēnai tō ponērō, literally “to resist the evil (one).” First, antistēnai, alternately translated “retaliate,” is generally used as a military term.3 Meaning literally “stand against,” in common usage it comes to mean “to draw up battle ranks against the enemy.”4 Furthermore, tō ponērō in Greek grammar, can be translated as a dative instrumental: “by evil means.”5 Hence, “Do not resist by evil means” is a perfectly legitimate literal translation. Considering the semantic field of antistēnai, we are left with “Do not retaliate or resist violently, by evil means,” together with connotations of rebellion and insurrection (two historical realities of Jesus’ time).

And what might those retaliative, violent evil means be? Perhaps we need look no further than the immediate context of the lex talionis: repaying “eye for eye and tooth for tooth.”6 The examples that follow (the cheek, the cloak, the second mile, giving) describe situations where retaliation would be a common response. If a bully hits you, you hit him back, after all. If you don’t, you’ll come across weak, and he’ll think he can get a way with it – and more.

Often this is how “turning the other cheek” is viewed: let the bully (personal or social) pummel you until he tires of it (nonresistance in the full sense of the word). However, there are ways of reading the text wherein the action functions redemptively, rather than acquiescently. Walter Wink’s historical reading has gained significant support and has broken into the popular setting. According to Wink, a backhand slap to the right cheek was a sign of domination. To turn the left cheek was to say, “If you are going to strike me, strike me as an equal.”7 Similarly, one could offer a garment as collateral against a loan.8 People were often forced into these loans by unjust economic conditions. To give up both coat and cloak was to become completely naked, which in Jewish piety brought shame not on the naked person but on all who looked on him. Finally, Roman soldiers were permitted to force locals to carry their packs for one mile; no more. To go the second mile was to make the Roman soldier liable for breaking the law.9 The idea, of course, isn’t that these are supposed to be timeless rules, but rather creative examples of peaceful resistance. As we will see in a later article, such creative response invites the transformation of the Spirit and can even lead to reconciliation. Of course, it is not guaranteed to “work” every time (neither is a violent response).

For some, Wink’s interpretation comes too close to violating the principle of enemy-love. They prefer to read Matthew 5:38-42 more along the lines of Romans 12:17-21:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is right in the sight of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. By doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

These actions become acts of prophetic judgment, exhortation, or proclamation of God’s sovereignty through enemy-love, “heaping coals of fire on their heads.” The function, however, remains similar to Wink’s interpretation: opening the door to transformation and reconciliation. Even in this interpretation it is still resistance: overcoming evil with good.

Is the use of non-lethal force ever an appropriate expression of enemy-love? Most agree that the use of force is acceptable in some situations (to protect our enemies from their own violence, necessary restraint, etc.). The question is where the line is drawn. We need vocabulary that allows us to ask this important question. Nonresistance limits the discussion significantly.

Finally, using the term nonresistance defines discipleship in terms of what we do not do. Peace in biblical terms is much broader than something we do not do. For all of these reasons, I find nonresistance to be an insufficient term for the Christian call to peacemaking and enemy-love.


The term pacifism comes from the Latin for peacemaking and is derived from Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers. . .” As such, its meaning in the Christian context is close to nonresistance. This is generally a good term for describing the Christian life of peacemaking, with noteworthy liabilities: First, pacifism is often confused with passivism – that is, doing nothing about evil in the world. As discussed above, this misses the point of Christian peacemaking and resistance to evil (Mt. 5:9, 39).

Second, Christian pacifism often becomes conflated with secular forms of pacifism. Secular forms of pacifism tend to see peace as an end in itself, fail to take seriously the reality of the power of Sin, are anthropocentric/humanistic, and tend to rely too heavily on the state to create and enforce peace.10 My conversation partner mentioned at the beginning of this essay was really not objecting to Christian pacifism, as much as its conflation with secular pacifism.


Nonviolence is a similar term to nonresistance, though it captures some of the essence of Matthew 5:39 in a more satisfactory way (see above). The main problem with this term is that, like nonresistance, it describes what one does not do.11 Stanley Hauerwas’s observation here is salient:

. . . pacifists cannot let their understanding of Christian nonviolence be determined by what we are against. . . The very phrase “Christian nonviolence” cannot help but suggest that peace is “not violence.” Yet a peace that is no more than “not violence” surely cannot be the peace that is ours in Christ.12

Additionally, nonviolence or derivative forms like nonviolent resistance describe reactive action, rather than the gospel call to proactive peacemaking. Nonviolence also carries some of the secular association common to pacifism.


When I hear the terms nonresistance, pacifism, or nonviolence used, I generally assume they mean mostly the same thing. Though I’m not terribly fond of any of the terms, I usually favor pacifism, then nonviolence, and then nonresistance. I generally prefer to speak of the “peace position,” or even better, of peace, peacemaking, or peace witness. These terms help to move away from rigid doctrinalism and into the the lived experience of faith and calling to discipleship. It is one thing to be intellectually opposed to war (which doesn’t necessarily require any action); it is quite another to be an active witness to peace with one’s life, making peace at home, at church, at work, at school, and with enemies across the seas. May the dawn from on high break upon us to guide our feet into the ways of peace.


1 Guy F. Hershberger, Ernst Crous and John R. Burkholder, “Nonresistance,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, The following also comes from GAMEO.
2 Abolitionism is necessarily a resistance to something; hence the contradiction with nonresistance.
3 E.g. Ephesians 6:13, also major military use in Josephesus and Philo.
4 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, 185.
5 Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 138.
6 It is interesting that Jesus truncated the “life for life” clause. Of course, he also leaves off other things like hands and feet. See Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-21, Deuteronomy 19:21. My guess is that Jesus was quoting a common shorthand summary of the lex talionis.
7 Turning the left cheek requires a forehand offense used between equals. The left hand was considered unclean and would not have been used (Wink, 176).
8 See, for example, Exodus 22:25-27; Deuteronomy 24:10-13; Ezekiel 18:5-9; Amos 2:7-8.
9 Wink, 176-182.
10 Though he did not distinguish between Christian pacifism and secular pacifism, these objections come from Guy F. Hershberger, “Pacifism,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, His objections come from a conflation of the two. Hershberger held a very nonpolitical portrait of Jesus – a perspective which has since faded.
11 Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace, 6.
12 Quoted in Swartley, 6.

Peace Conversations: Some Random Ramblings (Part 2)

June 8th, 2010 No comments

In Part 1 of this post, I shared a bit about engaging the world, while not conforming to the world. It’s a tough question.

And there’s another tough question: How does the church, called to proclaim the gospel of peace, relate to its members who are veterans, veterans’ families, or subscribe to one just war theology or another? I’m all for standing up for what Jesus says; the question is how do we do it redemptively and in community? Perhaps it begins with confession. I said the following in last year’s peace Sunday Sermon:

We as a historic peace church ought to confess the ways in which we have at times seen the gospel of peace not as Good News, but as judgment on those who are different from us. We have failed to honor the valor and courage and conviction of our sisters and brothers who serve in the armed services, when we as a people have for three centuries run from the sword. Instead, we have chosen to cut off conversation. It is an issue that many of us hold dear, even non-negotiable, but that doesn’t mean the conversation is over; rather, if there’s one thing we want to talk about, it’s what’s closest to our hearts. The conversation needs to go on, no fear when the Spirit is present.

We ought also confess that we have often failed in our evangelistic responsibility to share the good news, the gospel — the gospel of peace that the world so desperately needs to receive. Instead, we have again chosen to cut off the conversation; we have not passed on the gospel to our children; we have seen the gospel as a liability to its own advancement; we have feared the clash of culture that it creates. Let’s be passionate about what we believe, and Let’s also teach our children and all who have joined us this day what it means to be the church, to love one another as Christ loved us, to be the community united under Christ.

Let this day, this International Peace Sunday, be different. Let it be a time when we re-open the discussion, not as adversaries, but as seekers of truth, as seekers of God’s guidance. May we see those with whom we disagree as fellow travelers on the journey of following Christ, as people who take faith and Scripture, and life as seriously as we do. May we be one in Christ, just as Christ is one with the Father. Let’s want to journey with people who care enough to disagree with us. May we seek not vindication of our own agenda and opinion, but understanding and God among us and in each other.

And then after a sermon on the power of peace, I concluded:

Indeed, the extent to which we believe Jesus’ teaching to be unattainable ideals is the extent to which we do not believe that Christ really is Lord of all of life, that we trust the sword before the cross, that we kneel before Caesar’s false idols rather than coming face to face with our creator God, that we fear death and do not trust in God’s salvation.

But we will not fear death and ridicule, for we are blessed children of God. Our faith will not be shaken by the false gods of security and wealth. Our knees will bend for one master. And we will rise and march not for rockets’ glare, nor bombs in the air, but for for the way of the cross, and the one who knew greatest loss. We will pledge the allegiance of our hearts to one God, for there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all.  We will love our enemies near and far, and we will value those who disagree with us. We will not rattle sabers wrought in steel, but we will proclaim the good news of the gospel of Christ crucified. Popular opinion will not silence the gospel truth of peace. Mercy will not stop with us. Grace will not be held back from our hands. Peace will not be stopped by the limits of our imagination. Fear will not silence our action and witness.

Not in this world that God created good. Not when Christ is our Lord. Not when we wield the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. Not when we walk in the power of the Spirit. For we will follow our Lord wherever he may lead us. Salvation will come to this people, to this world, because the prince of peace, the lamb of God who was slain has entered into the kingdom of his righteousness and has raised the justness of his cause, and we are his people. The Prince of Peace has ascended his throne; he is at work in the world. We cannot but follow in his Way, trusting in its ultimate victory over violence, evil, and hatred.

This was part of my attempt to recognize, respect, and honor the diversity in the pews, while at the same time articulating what I humbly see as the gospel vision for peace. The fact that veterans and just war advocates are a part of a Mennonite congregation says something about their character that we need to honor. People who put their lives on the line for a cause they believe in deserve our respect; they deserve to be our heroes, whether they serve in the military, law enforcement, Mennonite Central Committee, or Christian Peacemaker Teams. We need to recognize that all of us are committed to the Lordship of Christ, and that we all take the Bible seriously and authoritatively.

A true relationship is one in which acceptance does not require agreement on every point, but rather, it even values diversity as something that makes us stronger. When I meet with new people in the congregation, I explain to them about our peace position — that this is who we are, what we believe, and how we try to live. I also say that because it’s something we care about, we want the conversation to be open, that we don’t claim to have all the answers, that we value other opinions, experiences, or whatever you may bring as a welcome part of the conversation, and that we want to be held accountable for who we say we are. I don’t think this weakens our peace witness, but rather opens a discussion and invites a relationship, trusting the Prince of Peace to be present.

Well, thanks for sticking around this far! This is all a round-about and rambling way of introduction for an upcoming blog series on peace. I’ve had numerous conversations recently with congregation and community members about peace, and thought it would be fun to do a blog series on some of the issues that have come up. Here’s what we’re planning so far:

1. Vocabulary: Pacifism? Non-resistance? Non-violence? Another look at Matthew 5:39
2. Peace and Eschatology I: Peace is grounded in the climactic story of our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
3. Peace and Eschatology II: Peace is grounded in our future hope of the coming fullness of God’s reign.
4. What about. . . the Old Testament: A journey of Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics)
5. What about. . . the New Testament: The Lordship of Christ in conversation with “difficult” NT texts
6. What about. . . if someone threatened your family: The “what would you do?” question
7. What about. . . Hitler: The problem of structural/institutional evil
8. Living the call: Just peace initiatives
9: Living the call: Peace and witness/evangelism
10: Living the call: Peace and the redeemed community: A theology of the church through a peace lens

I might also include a “Peace and Archeology” essay on the peace foundation of the biblical creation stories. If you have additional questions you think should be addressed, let me know!

Postings will probably be mostly in essay form — that is, thesis and defense of the thesis. This is an academic form that can sometimes come across as abrasive or exclusive if not read as part of a larger conversation. In the articles in this series, I will defend my theses as strongly as I can (or have time to!), but it does not mean I claim to have all the answers, and it certainly does not mean that I do not welcome and respect diverging views. I will argue that peace is at the heart of the gospel and our faith, but this should by no means (as Paul would say) be construed that I think you’re not a Christian if you disagree with me. Thanks for your understanding!

Grace and peace,

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Memorial Day in the Friedhof: Some Random Ramblings (Part 1)

June 8th, 2010 No comments

Grace Hill Mennonite Church has a beautiful cemetery just outside the church building.The cemetery is diligently cared for by a family in the congregation, and I watched as more and more flowers appeared during the days leading up to this past Memorial Day (May 31st). The way most of the headstones face, it’s as though the cemetery looks over the church building, making the “cloud of witnesses” a sort of monumental reality. (Actually, the cemetery is just outside my office window, so I like to think the saints “have my back!”). It’s an ever-present reminder that who we are today, what we do, and the faith we hold dear is a part of a long and rich trajectory of embodied faith in Christ.

I remember when I was little, I would go around with my mother and grandmother to put flowers on relatives’ graves in preparation for Memorial Day. Although I was often more interested in trying to climb the larger monuments, I recall sensing the reverence involved. This was a good time for us to remember those who have gone before, and, in my case, to learn to know those who died long before I was born. The only person I actually knew was my grandfather on my mother’s side. He died when I was six, and the annual trek to the cemetery was a good way to keep such young memories alive. Grandpa Klassen is buried in the Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church cemetery. Entering the cemetery from the west, one passes under the old German sign “Alexanderwohl Friedhof.” The etymology of Friedhof, the German word for cemetery, is roughly “Fried(e) (peace)” + “Hof (yard).” A more dynamic translation might be “peaceful field” or “field of peace.” I think Friedhof captures my Memorial Day memories well — the cemetery is a place of peace. The beauty of the cemetery at Grace Hill does likewise.

I always thought it was curious that there were lots of U.S. flags in the Friedhoefe we would visit, but never made much of it. Because of my experience with Memorial Day, I assumed it was a general holiday for remembering loved ones, which some people had militarized at some point or another. It actually wasn’t until I was in high school or college that I learned that the opposite is true!

There’s an irony of bearing that history to the Friedhof. I’ve found it to be interesting that many U.S. churches hold a Memorial Day service. Of course, the church has a long history of appropriating festivals as its own. Even our highest festivals, Easter and Pentecost, find part of their origin and significance in the Jewish festivals of Passover and Weeks, respectively1 The festival of Christmas, along with several Christmas traditions, have significant ties to pagan religious practice. Little surprise, then, that the church has appropriated a holiday from the rites of the pagan religion of Nationalism.2 But what is even more surprising is that the church actually has a memorial holiday, called All Saints Day, dating back to the fourth century. In Western Christianity, the day falls on November 1; in Eastern Christianity, it is one week after Pentecost (which is actually around the time of Memorial Day).

What’s a church in the U.S. to do? I think this calls into question two important faces of the church’s calling:

1) To be engaged in the world (2 Cor. 5:20: “So we are ambassadors for Christ. . .”) and
2) To be non-conformed to the world (Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed. . .”).

“In the world, but not of the world,” we sometimes say (John 17:11, 16). The tendency is to view these two as polar opposites, and we need to find a balance — as if being more “in the world” makes you less “not of the world.” But I’m not so sure it works that way. What if, rather than polarities, it’s two different axes alltogether. That is, let’s say “engaged in the world” is the X-axis, and “non-conformed” is the Y-axis. Is it possible that what we really need is more of both (Could we say the same about outreach and internal life? Grace and works?)?  Thanks to Lois Barrett for ideas for the following diagram:

What does this say about the church and Memorial Day? How can we engage Memorial Day, but be non-conformed? Do we make little mention about Memorial Day, but advertise and celebrate All Saints Day instead? Do we hold a Peace Picnic on Memorial Day? Do we acknowledge Memorial Day, but with very intentional liturgy? I think all of the above (and many more options!) have good potential, depending on the context. From my own experience growing up, the latter was the practice. Our liturgy was one of honoring the faithful dead (regardless of military service). I learned that it is not so much sacrifice on the battlefield that confirms the honor of our memory, but more so the living sacrifice of faith (Romans 12:1; Hebrews 13:15). The liturgy of Memorial Day was a time to recall the lives of loved ones lost, and inevitably, of their witness for peace that lives on in us. So successful was the liturgy that I didn’t realize this was a military holiday, but would it have been better to make our non-conformity clearer?

At Grace Hill, we’ve had discussion as to what our engagement/non-conformity with Memorial Day should be. We continue to discuss some of the above options and considerations. For this year, we continued a long tradition of a Memorial Day service in the cemetery after worship, with intentional liturgy. Our service began, “We have gathered here in this peaceful field. . .” It ended, “We go now from this peaceful field, sent into the world as ambassadors to Christ’s reconciliation, strengthened and encouraged by the witness and faith of our loved ones. . .” Was that the best for our context? How could we be more counter-cultural? Tough questions that all come together while recognizing Memorial Day in the Friedhof. To be continued. . .


1 The Easter story takes place at Passover. That freedom comes to those who put their faith in the blood of the lamb is common to both easter and Passover. Weeks celebrates the giving of the Torah; similarly Pentecost celebrates the giving of the Spirit.

2 For additional critiques of the syncretism of Nationalism and Christianity, see some of Greg Boyd’s work here, here, and here. Also, see his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation.