Reclaiming Peace: A Biblical Model of Pacifism from the Mennonite Perspective

Here’s a Copy of the talk I gave to the Catholic Workers in Glasgow tonight. 

Good evening and happy early Christmas.  Thank you for allowing me the wonderful privilege of sharing with you tonight about a topic so near to my heart.  Before I begin, I just quickly want to say, I hope you can all understand my accent.  I have been living in Scotland now for nearly 4 months, and I still occasionally have a difficult time understanding yours.

As you may have read in the short blurb Ross sent out about tonight’s presentation, my name is Deborah Ferber and I am an absolute pacifist from Canada.  An absolute pacifist is someone is who does not believe in war or violence in any form including when the government has sanctioned war against various countries or in the name of self-defence.  It is important here to note that if attacked, restraint may be an acceptable means of preventing harm to ourselves, but we never do it with the intention of hurting any other living being.  This view of absolute pacifism is held by the majority of people who are part of the Mennonite faith, which is the church I am affiliated with and which I will be sharing more about with you as the evening progresses.  While it is impossible to share all the intricacies of the Mennonite faith and practice with you during our short time together, I will do my best to explain a bit about who we are and why we believe as we do.  I welcome any further questions or comments after the talk and if I don’t know the answer, I will gladly either make up an answer that makes me sound intelligent or else direct you to a source that actually will answer those questions.

Since moving to Scotland in August, I have discovered that many people over here do not know who the Mennonites are and I may be safe to say that there is limited or no Mennonite presence.  Some of you may be familiar with our first cousins, the Amish who often live on communal farms with no electricity.  The Amish are technically considered part of the Mennonite family, or more widely known as the Anabaptist Christians, but they also are quite different than the majority of Mennonites today.

As you can see, I do not wear a head covering and I am not wearing a dress, but trousers.  I attended university and received a master’s degree in theology, and I also drive a car back home.  The reason for this is because the Mennonite faith is actually quite diverse.  Although there are still  many Mennonites who cling to our historical roots of simplicity and agriculture, we also have Mennonites like myself who are seen to be more modern and go on to work at normal jobs and lead lives that reflect those of the rest of society.  Yet regardless of what type of Mennonite you encounter, we all share the same common core values.  These values include: believing that adults should make their own decisions related to their faith.  This means that we do not baptize infants, but that we allow someone who is in their late teenage years to make a conscious decision whether they want to join the Mennonite church or not.  We also are forbidden from swearing oaths in a court of law, we believe that church and state should be completely separate and that there is no place for Christianity in politics, and lastly we believe in pacifism and social justice.  Although you may not agree with all or any of these Mennonite distinctions, we do not practice this things because we think that other churches are wrong if they want to follow different theological leanings, but rather because this is what distinguishes our church from any others.  Out of these main differences, the conviction we are most widely known for is pacifism and in fact, many Mennonites would argue that this is the most important conviction.  Someone can still be part of the Mennonite church even if they were baptised as an infant and we would likely not demand that they be baptised again nor would we shame a family that wishes to christen their child.  But, one cannot be Mennonite without being a pacifist.

Since our earliest beginnings back in 1525, the Mennonite church has had a long history of being peaceful even in the midst of wars, divisions, and persecution.  Our earliest confession of faith written in 1527 by Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler known as the Schleitheim Confession states that the sword (a generic term used to mean violence and war) is outside of the realm of Christian perfection.  This includes using violence against evil and in order to bring about the good, using violence against our enemies who are not Christian, and even becoming someone who must use violence as part of their job for example a police officer or soldier.

At first this may sound incredibly naïve, and even today many people regard the Anabaptist and Mennonite Christians as such.  In fact, it is truly a miracle that I am standing here before you today because I almost didn’t become a Mennonite because of the clause on pacifism.  When I was 16 I attended my church’s discipleship class which you may be familiar with as “catechism.”  16-18 is the average age for many young adults to formally decide if they want to become Mennonites or else leave the church of their parents and grandparents.  Not one year prior I boldly made the assertion that I could not become a Mennonite because I did not believe in pacifism.  God surely has a sense of humour because not only have I now been a Mennonite for nearly 10 years, but I even went on to study Peace Studies at a Mennonite seminary.  I have written various articles on pacifism and I have become a huge peace activist in many areas.  Yet, this truly has nothing to do with me.  It has everything to do with the fact that my pastors were patient with me and showed me through our Confessions of Faith and the Holy Bible the truth about peace and pacifism.  As I read the Bible more and more for myself I soon discovered that there is no place for war or violence within the Christian faith.  Christians are called to emulate the example of our master and role model, Jesus Christ, who said such profound words as “those who live by the sword, die by the sword.”  Jesus also never retaliated or used physical force in a way that harmed another human being.  Even when He was being beaten before His crucifixion, He remained silent and obediently underwent torture.  Jesus promises a new heaven and a new earth where all will be made right – completely peaceful and without the use of the violence and manipulation we see is so prevalent in our world and our media today.

Yet not everyone understands the importance of pacifism.  More times than I can relate, I have been asked questions such as “what do we do with the violence in the Old Testament?  Is war ever acceptable?  What about Hittler?”

I have discovered that while there may occasionally be times when these questions are valid, the majority of the time they are simply asked from a place of not wanting to be challenged.  Many times people truly do not want to know the answer to these questions, but simply refuse to join in a peaceful revolution because they are too preoccupied with seeing us as naïve.

The truth of the matter is that pacifism does leave some questions unanswered.  But I hope that I can clear up some misconceptions.  First, I want you to know that pacifism is not the same as being passive.  Being a pacifist does not mean that we foolishly sit quietly while people around us are being violated and manipulated.  It does not mean that if my children are being attacked I should helplessly do nothing.  If anything, pacifism takes more work than violence because it demands creativity.  I would like to very briefly share two stories with you, both are taken from Mennonite history.

In the first instance back in 1685, one of our leaders, Dirk Willems, was being pursued by a magistrate who was against the Anabaptist faith.  Dirk ran across a pond in order to escape this man, but unfortunately the ice was not thick enough and so his pursuer fell into the icy waters.  Instead of continuing to run, Dirk thrust his hand down and pulled his captor out.  What enabled Dirk to do something like this when common sense would have told him just to run?  It was the love of Christ and a belief that we should never allow any human being to suffer or die when it could have easily have been prevented.

The second story takes place during the Turkish revolution when a group of Turks planned to kill the Anabaptists.  During one scene, one Anabaptist stood in front of another brother who was about to be shot, spread his arms out in front of him, and uttered the words “brother, let me die for you!”  The Turks had never seen such a display of self-sacrificial love.  They were so shocked that no one was killed that day.

You likely will never find yourself facing these types of experiences, but we can all work on peace building every day.  The Mennonites spend a lot of time role playing, and our reason for that is good.  It’s because although we cannot know exactly how we would respond in the face of adversity and violence, by conditioning our minds to think creatively and to believe in alternatives, if the situation ever does arise we will be more prepared.  We will not act out of impulse and do something we will regret, rather we will remind our calling to be peaceful and to follow the example of Jesus.

Secondly, I want to share that I realize that being a pacifist is hard work.  It’s not easy, and it’s not for wimps.  Mennonites have an uncanny sense of humour and we like to make t-shirts with stereotypical Mennonite sayings.  One of the most common ones is a t-shirt featuring many different non-violent leaders from Jesus all the way to Ghandi.  The inscription reads “peace takes guts.”

Mennonite history is not perfect and even though we have always been peaceful people, there have been numerous examples in our history where fringe Mennonites have broken this important value.  There have sadly been uprisings and even deaths because of certain people who have since left the church.  One of the most devastating periods in our history took place during the first world war known as the Selbstschutz.  During this period, the peaceful Mennonites were attacked by many soldiers and many of the girls were raped and houses were ransacked. Some Mennonite fathers and brothers became righteously angry and wanted to avenge their wives and daughters.  Yet, sadly they wanted to do this at the price of peace.  They wanted to do it at the price of war and murder.  It was at this time that a well known Mennonite leader spoke these words that still have a huge impact on almost every Mennonite today, “anyone who takes up the sword even in the name of self-defence is henceforth no longer a Mennonite.”  These words may sound harsh given the circumstances and you may or may not agree with the sentiment, but they show us how seriously the Mennonites take our commitment and calling to peace.

Lastly, Mennonites today still find it important to live into our calling of peace.  Peace is not an abstract concept or solely an academic discipline.  It is true that the majority of Mennonites you meet have probably read hundreds and thousands of books on the topic, but it is far more important to actually live into the truth of what they are saying.  Our world is in a chaotic mess.  We read about ISIS, the attacks on Paris, and unrest in Africa and the Middle East on a daily basis.  It is hard to know how to react when these situations strike our world.  Some of us may also have experienced violence done to us a more personal level and perhaps manipulation and coercion has hit the people we love and care about the most.  There is no easy answer for this and I am not going to stand up here giving you a list of all the things you should do and all the things you should avoid.  Instead, let me say this: Jesus calls all of us to a position of peace and non-resistance.  He doesn’t promise that the way will be easy, but He does promise that He will help us when difficulties arise.  I hope and pray that this will be your experience as we all do what we can to help bring about a peaceful world in our own small corners and lives.

Thank you for having me and God bless.



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