Clarifying Convictions – Can One Be Mennonite and Not a Pacifist? (Mennonerds In Deep Discussion)

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SEX!!!  Now that I have adequately gotten your attention, I feel it is important for us to step back and truly ask ourselves: how do we have discussions about things that are difficult to talk about?  Things which exist in our churches but that we pretend do not truly exist?  I’m thinking of starting a series on some of these topics – the taboo issues our churches (not just Mennonite, but in general) face.  Some of which are: LGBTQ issues and the constant debate that is taking over the arena on whether to become welcoming and inclusive, the death penalty and abortion, as well as what is truly “acceptable” behaviour to engage in before the wedding night.  These are all things that young adults wish were discussed in church, and yet, most churches dare not discuss for fear that perhaps they will be seen as being too “liberal” or not taking their faith “seriously enough.”  More on this in a later post.

In the meantime, I wish to discuss another very important and serious topic which the Mennonerds and I discussed yesterday over a Google+ hangout.  The topic was: how do we maintain our peace stance as Anabaptists while also being welcoming to veterans and those who currently serve in the military?  How do we react to those who wish to be part of our community but who may not be at the place yet where they can truly agree with all of our finer points of theology?  We also discussed a bit about this theological conundrum in light of the Memorial Day celebrations that have recently occurred in the U.S., and the increasing militarization that both the U.S. and Canada are facing.

In our two hour long discussion, over 10 Anabaptists from both the U.S. and Canada with many diverse backgrounds (some grew up Mennonite, others joined the faith as adults, some have attended seminary and studied peace, others have a layperson’s knowledge acquired from years of reading John Howard Yoder and Nelson Mandela) came together to talk about what it means to be an Anabaptist and what it means to be a pacifist.

It was decided fairly early on that we need to distinguish between being a Christian and being a pacifist.  While ideally we Anabaptists, hope that all Christians will be pacifists, we know that for many it is a process.  One of our fellow Mennonerds raised the argument that one could ask: “Can you serve God as a firefighter?” – the answer is absolutely, “Can you serve God as a police officer” – now this might be considered a bit iffy for some, but the majority of us would say yes.  “Can you serve God as a prostitute” – now we are getting onto more rocky territory, the majority of us would say no.  Can someone serve God in the military – now this is a difficult question.  People who serve in the military truly believe that it is their duty towards their country; they are protecting others and defending our freedom.  Some may believe that they are truly called to be in the military.  Yet, for Anabaptists, many of us feel that this contradicts Christ’s call for peace and non-violence.   I raised the point that John Howard Yoder suggested that Mennonites should serve in the military because they need a pacifistic voice from within (I do not personally agree with this mindset, but am simply stating it as something I learned during my short time in seminary).

One member shared about a person he knows who carries a gun for his job, protecting women who are a risk of abuse and evils which are in play around the world because of gender inequality and dis-equilibrium.  All of us agreed that this man is doing very important work and many would say he should be applauded – yet, does this go against our belief in not carrying a weapon?  Is this simply an issue of one person using a violent means to stop violence so that other violence does not occur?  And if so, is this not the same as what soldiers are attempting to do in war?

We talked about the need for occasionally not being afraid to offend people.  It seems like so many churches are afraid of what others think – couching their language in very politically correct ways, being offended when someone doesn’t work their sentence “just so”, and not engaging with certain topics for fear that they “will not be liked”.  Frankly, we need to get over ourselves – our own desire to be liked.  The Gospel is offensive at times.  Jesus, Himself, was offensive at times.  Jesus didn’t pussy-foot around anything. He didn’t spend hours constructing politically correct language, so why should the 21st century be all hung up on this?

There is definitely a tension between including and excluding someone.  Many Mennonites try their hardest not to exclude anyone, though there may be different beliefs and opinions on this.  I have seen a few churches which have taken the peace stance so literally that they have excommunicated members who have joined the military, only accepting them back when a formal apology was made in front of the church.   I have also heard of Mennonite churches which have baptized members who are serving in the military and do not have any intention of leaving their profession.  I shared with the Mennonerds the struggle I see myself in as someone who hopes to pastor a flock one day.  As someone who grew up in a rural Canadian Mennonite church, pacifism was so ingrained in us.  To be Mennonite, meant to be a pacifist.  After Salvation, pacifism was the second most important thing.  We took literally the saying that “if someone takes up the sword even in the name of self-defense s/he is no longer a Mennonite.”  We believed that to use violence was perhaps the gravest sin one could ever commit.

Yet, I began to attend a seminary in the U.S. and was deeply surprised that a few American Mennonites do not consider themselves absolute pacifists.  In John Howard Yoder’s book “Nevertheless” he describes over 17 variations of pacifism and in my short stints at a Brethren in Christ Church (during my college years) and at the Mennonite Brethren Church (my first introduction to pacifism) I have noticed that these two church groups interpret things slightly differently than our general conference does.  We did talk a bit more about this very issue in our hangout.  So is it possible for someone to not be a pacifist and to be a Mennonite?  I suppose in a way, it is.

Many Mennonerds shared very important stories that evening about people they have welcomed into their churches and because of the loving and supportive community have gradually begun to re-evaluate pacifism and some of them have claimed it for themselves.  In this way, many of us agree that belonging is more important than theologically agreeing with the community.  I shared my own faith journey with them.  When I was 12 years old, I began attending a Mennonite church.  While I loved the deep seated commitment to social justice, I never fully understood pacifism.  At age 15, I made the bold declaration that I would never become a Mennonite because not only did I find pacifism unbiblical, but I also found it impractical and a hopelessly naïve mindset.  Nevertheless, I started attending discipleship class at age 16 and really delving into the Scriptures.  I became a Mennonite (technically) at 16, but did not claim pacifism as a way of life until 18.  Currently, I am a hippie and I am a student of peace at the seminary level.  Sometimes I feel guilty that I became a Mennonite at 16 when I didn’t entirely “buy into” their theology.  Occasionally I think that I was truly a Mennonite at 18, not 16.  Yet, in a way, I know that a large part of the reason why I was able to become a pacifist was exactly because of the loving community I was a part of.  The community was so patient in showing me the Scriptures and helping me to interpret them, that after a few years, it became natural to me and just made complete sense.  Had I not been a member 2 years prior, I doubt that I would be a pacifist today.  I definitely would not have a blog called “Zwiebach and Peace.”

Yet, this tension increases when we think about membership issues.  On the one hand, it is fine to include all people into church life, but those who are taking the step of baptism and/or membership perhaps should truly believe the set of doctrine laid out before them.  In one way, it might not make sense to allow “just anyone” to be able to be in a position to instruct and lead others.  We talked about the need to look after our “flock”.  When someone comes in and starts teaching theology contrary to what the pastors and elders believe it can really upset and damage the church.  Perhaps there should be some type of “fencing” that we put into practice.  One nerd mentioned that he has seen the damage this has done to other Christian denominations.  He mentioned that he knows of a church which will invite everyone in regardless of their viewpoints – they don’t need to believe in heaven, hell, or even God, but they can still take part.  He raised the question, “Is this truly the type of church we want to become?”  Another nerd remarked that there is indeed some danger in becoming a “Mennonite-universalist” church, although there is at least one church that has adopted this type of attitude.  The other side of this is that because there are thousands of denominations, people have a chance to “choose” the one that is right for them.  Many denominations do not require members to be pacifists, so why would someone who is not a pacifist intentionally choose a church which is against war?  Yet, there might be something to be said about mutuality in a church family – that we choose the community, but the community also chooses us.  One thing is sure – those who are baptized are held to a “higher standard”.  More is expected of them in terms of their theological leanings than if they simply grew up in that church or were exploring the possibility of joining that body.  Running the potential risk that the person in question might never come to the place where they will embrace pacifism, the question remains: how open minded do we want to be?

At the same time, we also realize that baptism is a process.  Thinking of one of my favourite theological writers, Maurice Martin, faith is a journey and baptism is only one road marker on that journey.  I’m sure that many of us who grew up in the church could relate.  We think differently now about God and the church than we did at age 4, 14, and 24.  We might even think significantly differently years after our baptism.  I know, that in my case, several years after my baptism there are so many things that I think and relate to in ways I never would have imagined as a 16 year old.

If baptism is a process, then hypothetically someone who is baptized now might not be a pacifist at this moment, but may wish to begin the progression of discovering where on the spectrum they land.  Baptism might be an important part of this journey – a way of publicly declaring that they are ready to learn from the congregation and to grow as a part of them.  So, in this way, perhaps we should not turn down someone’s request because to do so might be to harm them in more ways than if we baptized them and allowed them entrance into our community.

Many in our Mennonerds family believe that one way of going about this is to create a system of “two-tiered membership”.  Membership – where one is expected to fully agree and commit to a certain theology or Confession of Faith, and then associate membership – where one is able to walk and journey alongside others in discerning whether this is the place for them.   Yet, this could also raise some important questions: such as a fear that those who are associate members are “less Christian” or “less Mennonite” than the rest of us, thus creating the “holier than thou” type of attitude that we are trying to steer away from.  So then in that way, it might become one of those “all or nothing” types of deals.

We had a very fruitful discussion together.   We talked about how some “sins” are seen as worse than others (for example, going to war might be seen as significantly worse than having beer in your cellar – a discussion that some of us continued with coming from Germanic traditions we don’t think it’s quite the same).  We also talked about the need to continue to dialogue as a community and to seek input rather than simply “imposing” personal beliefs and opinions on others.  I don’t know if we really came to any answers or any really practical solutions for how exactly we were planning to engage with veterans and with the military.  I’m sure that all of us came at this discussion with the realization that it is a topic that takes careful thought over a substantial period of time, not one which can simply be decided upon flippantly.  I feel that it is important for follow up to take place not just within the Mennonerd community, but with the community of Mennonites and Anabaptists at large.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue.  Please post in the comment section or send me a private email at: deborahruthferber@gmail.com if you wish to discuss further.  May the peace of God which guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus be upon you.

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5 thoughts on “Clarifying Convictions – Can One Be Mennonite and Not a Pacifist? (Mennonerds In Deep Discussion)

  1. Pingback: Is the War Over? 061313 | Mennonite Preacher

  2. Pingback: Setting Church Boundaries

  3. I was told by a woman raised Mennonite that they, unlike the Amish, did condone the use of weapons in self defense. Is that untrue? I’ve felt drawn to the Mennonites on all other things except this. How is Jesus’ admonition to sell our cloaks and buy a sword when we see approaching evil days? Are they not upon us now?

    • This is a very intriguing question. I believe it would largely depend on what type of Anabaptist you are speaking to. Most Mennonites are absolute pacifists meaning we do not engage with weapons even in the name of self-defence. But there are other Anabaptist groups such as the Brethren in Christ who would condone war if government sanctioned.

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