A Pacifist Reading of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective [A paper proposal]

[Ted Grimsrud]

 [Back in June 2006, the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary hosted a conference reflecting on the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (a few papers from the conference that were published in Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2007, may be read here). I prepared a proposal for a paper that was accepted by the conference. However, after writing the proposal I learned that the conference would conflict with the birth of our first grandchild so I had to withdraw from the conference. Unfortunately, I never wrote the paper, either. I just recently rediscovered the proposal and found that I still like it and still hope to write such a paper. I post it here hoping to stimulate a bit of discussion and also in order to link with posts I have put up at my ThinkingPacifism.net blog on “How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources.”]

The Mennonite Church USA identifies itself as a peace church.  In many circles, were people to be asked what is most distinctive about Mennonites, the large majority would mention pacifism as one of MC USA’s most characteristic distinctives.  This paper will test this perception with a close reading of the first eight articles of the Confession from a “radical pacifist” perspective.  These first eight of the 24 total articles are clearly marked off as the core, overtly theological content of the Confession.

The paper will examine several other fairly recent Protestant Confessions for comparison’s sake.  None of these other Confessions are from traditions that understand themselves to be pacifist.

In what ways is the core theological content of these other confessions similar to and different from the Mennonite Confession?  Do we see evidence that the pacifist commitment of the Mennonite tradition leads to different articulations of this core content?  We will be testing the assumption that the difference between pacifist and non-pacifist theologies should be expected to lead to noticeably different articulations of theological basics.

Pacifism will be defined as valuing love of neighbor as our most fundamental ethical commitment, stemming from our understanding of God and our commitment to following Jesus Christ.  When love is so valued, no other ethical commitment can override the responsibilities of love.  That is, for one thing, a commitment to love as our most fundamental ethical commitment never allows for the possibility of using lethal violence against another human being.

Because human ethical values typically forbid unjustified killing, the use of violence generally requires some kind of rationale.  For Christians, this rationale in some sense must follow from a belief that God approves of the exception to the forbidding of killing.  For pacifists, there are no possible ethical values that can rate higher than love; hence, violence is never justifiable.  This conviction carries with it the implication that God never approves rationales for “legitimate” violence.  So, pacifist theology carries with it implications about God that are different from non-pacifist theology.

Calling the stance we will be exploring “radical pacifism” (that is, seeing Christian faith as in its very deepest roots pacifist), the paper will argue that all theological convictions should look at least somewhat different from a pacifist perspective.  This is to say that a Confession of Faith from a pacifist tradition should reflect this pacifist commitment on all levels; it should expect to be at least somewhat distinctive in relation to non-pacifist traditions with regard to each doctrine.

After testing the Mennonite Confession in relation to other Confessions, and drawing conclusions about how pacifist the Mennonite confession actually is in its core theological content, the paper will conclude with reflections on the articulation of core theological content from a radical pacifist perspective.

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