From 2015 to 2018 I preached a series of messages on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. This messaged was preached in 2018. Article 22: Peace, Justice and Nonresistance.
In 1660 a book was written, called Martyrs Mirror. This is a picture from that book. It is a collection of stories of Christians who were put to death because of their faith. An important characteristic of the stories is how the Christians died: they did not resist their enemies and their crimes were crimes of faith. They remained true to their convictions about peace. There are hundreds of stories. The Martyrs Mirror, for hundreds of years, has been considered 2nd to the Bible as a book that a good Mennonite family would have in their homes, that is, until our current generations.
The Martyrs Mirror defined generations of Mennonites. The story of Dirk Willems who, while fleeing his enemy could have left him to die in the freezing waters, decides to turn back and save him knowing that it will cost him his life, is among the stories. These stories no longer define our faith like in the past.
There is a reason why peace and nonresistance play such an important part in Mennonite theology. In 1525, when the Anabaptist movement began, it was mostly about changing from infant baptism to believer’s baptism. Some early Anabaptist leaders led armed revolts to push their views onto local government and a lot of people died. Certain leaders did not like the armed revolt and they began to promote an uncompromising approach to Jesus’ teachings on peace and nonresistance. The sermon on the mount became central. I’ll read some selections from Matthew 5.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God… But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also… But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.Matthew 5:9, 39, 44-45 NIV
Most denominations do not practice the sermon on the mount literally, but in the early 1500’s the Mennonites and other Anabaptist churches started to. There are 100s of stories in the Martyrs Mirror of people being killed and persecuted for following Jesus’ teachings too closely. And this is why article 22 plays such a central role in our faith. From the first paragraph from our confession:
We believe that peace is the will of God. God created the world in peace, and God’s peace is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, who is our peace and the peace of the whole world. Led by the Holy Spirit, we follow Christ in the way of peace, doing justice, bringing reconciliation, and practicing nonresistance even in the face of violence and warfare.
There are 100s of years that now separate us from our ancestors in the faith. Since then, we have developed the theme of Peace and Nonresistance to include Justice and reconciliation.
Redefining good and evil
The Bible Project has an excellent video, which was played last week for Sunday School, about the topic of Justice. Near the beginning, the video describes the original problem: Humans have taken God’s authority for defining good and evil into our own hands. First and foremost, taking God’s authority is an act of rebellion against God, but it’s secondary consequence is that we will always be against other people who do not acknowledge our definition of good and evil which often leads to violence. Our confession describes the problem this way:
Although God created a peaceable world, humanity chose the way of unrighteousness and violence. The spirit of revenge increased, and violence multiplied, yet the original vision of peace and justice did not die. Prophets and other messengers of God continued to point the people of Israel toward trust in God rather than in weapons and military force.
The first half of Genesis gives a grim picture of humanity to the point where God regretted making the world and humans because people were getting increasingly bad. The story of Lamech is typical of the steady increase of evil:
Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.”Genesis 4:23-24 NIV
Cain was the first person to kill someone. God punished Cain by driving Cain far from himself, but Cain was afraid that someone would kill him. So God put a mark on Cain that anyone who killed Cain would suffer vengeance 7 times more. It’s implied that God would be responsible for the vengeance. Lamech is redefining good and evil to whole new levels of wrong and it is Lamech himself who is carrying out the punishment. What is fascinating about this scripture in Genesis 4 is that it has a mirrored opposite in Matthew 18.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”Mathew 18:21-22 NIV
Jesus is here to reverse the pattern of violence and revenge.
The way of the cross
From our confession: The peace God intends for humanity and creation was revealed most fully in Jesus Christ. A joyous song of peace announced Jesus’ birth. Jesus taught love of enemies, forgave wrongdoers, and called for right relationships. When threatened, he chose not to resist, but gave his life freely. By his death and resurrection, he has removed the dominion of death and given us peace with God. Thus he has reconciled us to God and has entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation.
The Garden of Eden had 2 trees in the middle, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which represented God’s authority to define good and evil and the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life was open to Adam and Eve. When humanity rebelled against God’s authority, we lost access to the Tree of Life. Death is a reality we all want to avoid but we will all eventually face it. Death has also become humanity’s ultimate weapon against each other. You can see this in how world leaders relate to each other. When problems escalate, we always bring out the military to defend our peace by threatening our enemies with death. Jesus had a choice too: to die or to defend himself.
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”Matthew 26:52-54 NIV
When Jesus chose the way of the cross, to die instead of fight for his own life, he proved how much God loved us all, we who were his enemies. In the end, only God’s love is a more powerful weapon than the sword and death. When Jesus died, he opened the way to life again and on the 3rd day Jesus rose from the dead to prove it. In doing this, Jesus received all authority in Heaven and Earth. When we acknowledge Jesus as Lord, we end our rebellion with God and find peace.
Our Anabaptist ancestors were confronted with the truth of the way of the cross as they challenged the Catholic church over the practice of infant baptism. Some leaders led armed revolts, believing that violence and killing was the only way to make things right. In the end, our ancestors chose the way of the cross instead of the sword.
In times when the US went to war, Mennonites did one of three things: They moved to another country, like Canada, they applied for conscientious objector status, or they left the church and joined the military. Post cards, like this one, were made around world war 1 to ridicule conscientious objectors. Most conscientious objectors needed to perform alternative service. In some places, Mennonites were put into prison. In other cases, their alternative service was made intentionally difficult.
When it comes to war, the Bible gives two accounts that seem to be very different: The Old Testament with it’s wars and commands to completely destroy people and nations and then the New Testament with it’s message of peace and reconciliation. How can the two be apart of the same message? Is war good or bad? Can war be justified? The answer is both easy and complicated. Let’s begin with what God says to Noah after the flood because God gives humanity a new rule:
And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”Genesis 9:5-6 NIV
Most people say this scripture refers to murder, or unjustified killing. Yet Jesus applied a similar rule to Peter when Peter pulled out a sword to defend Jesus from the soldiers who came to arrest him. The hard part is in understanding if war is the same as justified killing or if all the killing in a just war is justifiable. How does a soldier know that their enemy who they are trying to kill, who is made in the image of God, is deserving of death? And if all soldiers are deserving of death, then if you become a soldier are you then deserving of death too?
King David led Israel in many wars. Near the end of his life, he spent a lot of time and money on preparing for building a Temple for God. The book of the prophet Samuel tells us that David was prohibited from building the Temple by God, but it isn’t clear why. The book of Chronicles (1st Chronicles 22) is clear why David was prohibited. It was because he had “shed much blood and fought many wars”. This implies that there is always an accounting for killing people, whether by accident, in war or murder. For David, it prevented him from building the Temple.
Mennonites in the US have up until very recently been almost unanimously against war. In the last couple of decades, Mennonites in the US have been split on the topic of war where around ½ see war as justifiable or at least the lesser of two evils. I am not entirely sure why the opinion has changed so much recently, but it is contrary to our confession:
As followers of Jesus, we participate in his ministry of peace and justice. He has called us to find our blessing in making peace and seeking justice. We do so in a spirit of gentleness, willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. As disciples of Christ, we do not prepare for war, or participate in war or military service. The same Spirit that empowered Jesus also empowers us to love enemies, to forgive rather than to seek revenge, to practice right relationships, to rely on the community of faith to settle disputes, and to resist evil without violence.
Can a war be justified? Yes, war can be justified, but when we partake in war we abandon the way of the cross and take the way of the sword. Peter, who wanted to use the sword to defend Jesus, says the following in a letter to the church:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”1st Peter 2:21-24 NIV
Peter himself would walk in Jesus’ steps too and he was eventually executed by Rome on a cross. It is the same path that many of our ancestors walked.
In the mid 1890’s a change started happening among Mennonites in the US, they started to think about the wider world around them. Mennonites started doing missions work. In 1920, Mennonite Central Committee was organized to help fellow Mennonites in Russia receive help. Since then, through missions and international relief, Mennonites have been increasingly active around the world in work that promotes peace. As we became more active around the world, Justice became a more important theme in our theology.
For example, Mennonite Central Committee has often worked to empower women in countries where women have little rights to give them some economic justice. This has helped many young women leave lives of prostitution and have good jobs to support themselves and their children.
One of the hopes that I have is that as we do missions and relief work, we reduce the chance of war ever so slightly. Perhaps our work has prevented a war or delayed it or lessened it’s size? It’s impossible to know or measure, but one thing we can measure is what we spend on war versus what we spend on peace: The US spends $610 Billion for military which is 12 times what it spends on helping other countries ($50.1 Billion for foreign aid). Most of us pay taxes, so we all participate in paying for war. (I think my annual portion is around $1,200). How much do we spend on promoting peace?
Making peace is a big job and our confession outlines specific areas where we work to end violence.
Confession: Led by the Spirit, and beginning in the church, we witness to all people that violence is not the will of God. We witness against all forms of violence, including war among nations, hostility among races and classes, abuse of children and women, violence between men and women, abortion, and capital punishment.
Our confession was written in 1995 and since then most of these areas of violence have become major issues in the news. In Pennsylvania in 2011, the Sandusky scandal brought the issue of child abuse to new levels of awareness. Abortion is on ongoing political issue. In recent years the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and “Me Too” movement have called attention to racial violence and violence against women by men in positions of power.
The challenge for the church is knowing how best to respond. Jesus’ primary calling for the church is to be peacemakers, reconciling people first and foremost to God. There are 2 questions that can guide our actions when it comes to places of violence: (1) Are we called to bring peace here? (2) If yes, then how do we bring peace?
The last paragraph from article 22: We give our ultimate loyalty to the God of grace and peace, who guides the church daily in overcoming evil with good, who empowers us to do justice, and who sustains us in the glorious hope of the peaceable reign of God.