(5) Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy

Ted Grimsrud

[Published in Mennonite Quarterly Review 78.3 (July 2004), 341-62.]

Heirs of the Radical Reformation continue to face basic questions about citizenship.  What does it mean to be “in the world and not of it” (John 17:14-17)?  What in our lives should we give to Caesar and what should we give to God (Matthew 22:15-22)?

Anabaptists living in the United States are challenged by these questions in complex ways.  We find ourselves, on the one hand, in the land of freedom.  The first Anabaptist generations in the 16th century, facing severe persecutions, sought desperately for safety; many groups migrated widely in this quest.  Beginning in the late 17th century, many established communities in the United States.  Despite periodic flaring of wartime persecutions, we may now look back with gratitude for our forebears’ opportunity to find a safe home in America.[1]

We have a great deal to be grateful for in terms of religious toleration.  We also, not coincidentally, have opportunities totally unimaginable for the 16th century Anabaptists to participate in political life in one of the world’s pioneering democracies.  That is, not only are Mennonites tolerated, we may vote, run for office, speak out, serve on school boards, be fully participating members in American democratic processes.

On the other hand, American Mennonites are also tax-paying citizens in one of the world’s greatest-ever empires, if we define “empire” in terms of a country’s exercise of domination over many other parts of the world.  Perhaps the US does not overtly possess foreign colonies in the manner of old empires such as Great Britain.  However, in terms of the actual expression of power over others, the US surely greatly surpasses even the largest reach of the British Empire.  America is now the world’s one great superpower, spending more on our military than just about all the rest of the world’s countries combined.

The Anabaptist tradition early on expressed a strong suspicion of empires, power politics, and trust in the sword.  Present-day Mennonites surely are being faithful to that tradition when we refuse to participate in, or even support, the wars of America.

However, what about the “good America,” the America of religious freedom and participatory democracy?  Is the traditional Mennonite “two-kingdom” stance adequate for determining our understanding of citizenship today?  In our time, people throughout the world plead for participants in American civil society to seek to influence American foreign policy to be more peaceable.  Do American Anabaptist Christians have responsibility aggressively to seek to take their pacifist convictions into the public square in a way that might influence our government?

I want to suggest we have three distinct stories to take into account in reflecting on these questions.  The first story I will call the story of Anabaptist faith.  The second story, the story of the “good America,” talks of the America that welcomed migrating Mennonites and that has served as a beacon of hope for self-determination and freedom for people around the world.  We may call this the “Democracy Story.”  And the third, the story of the “other America,” is a story of conquest, domination, and widespread violence, the “Empire Story.”

As pacifist followers of Jesus, those adhering to the Anabaptist Story surely do appropriately seek to distance themselves from the Empire Story.  Does such distancing also require of present-day Anabaptists a deep suspicion of the Democracy Story?

Anabaptist faith

A great deal of recent writing on 16th-century Anabaptism highlights the extreme diversity of the first fifty years of the Anabaptist movement – without making clear why this movement is worthy of such attention.

Such writing helpfully corrects simplistic generalizations about Anabaptist uniformity.  However, unfortunately, it provides little clarity for those who would find it useful to draw upon the radicality of that movement for help in negotiating our current citizenship challenges.

If we want to go beyond the portrayals that focus on Anabaptist diversity, how might we draw upon the Anabaptist legacy as we seek to discern how to respond to the citizenship issues I am raising in this essay?  As a way of approaching this question, I suggest a parallel.  Scholars of the “historical Jesus” point out that one incontrovertible “fact” about Jesus that is not dependent upon the biases of reports from his followers is that Jesus was executed by the Roman state as a political criminal.[2]  They argue that whatever else we might want to ascertain about Jesus’ life and teaching, it needs to be understood in light of that one fact.  So, they assert, we must ask what in Jesus’ life and teaching led to his execution?

Perhaps we may want to follow a similar path in seeking to understand the Anabaptists – as a means of better appropriating their legacy today.  Amidst their diversity – the differences we see among the Swiss and the South Germans, the Hutterites in Moravia, the Dutch and North Germans, and the various other communities – they all have one undeniable commonality.  Each movement, each leader, was looked upon with suspicion, usually hostility, by the state governments and state churches of Western Europe.  Just about all the Anabaptists were at times hunted; many were imprisoned and even killed.

The diversities among the Anabaptists pale when compared to this profound common ground.  “Anabaptist faith” does have some coherence, contrary to the implications of recent foci on diversity.  What is it about these diverse movements and personalities that led to just about all of them being enemies of the state?  The answer to this question may provide us with a core of convictions to be carried on and applied to various times and places.

This is what I identify as making up this core, recognizing that not every point applies equally to each Anabaptist group or leader.  However, they apply widely enough to be seen as characteristic of the movement as a whole.  The Anabaptists understood themselves as committed, above all else, to following Jesus’ way in all areas of life.  As they confessed him as Lord, they sought to follow him.  As a consequence of that central commitment, they found themselves in conflict with the states and state churches of Western Europe.

(1) By establishing themselves as a free church the Anabaptists asserted an unprecedented (and unacceptable) level of independence from the state and challenged the top-down social uniformity political and religious leaders understood to be foundational for social order.  They refused to accept the Prince as ultimate authority; that is, they gave God’s call for how to live their ultimate loyalty, not the government’s.

(2) By asserting that it is never God’s will for Christians to fight (and likely, as a rule implying that it is never God’s will for anyone to fight), the Anabaptists challenged governmental appeals to God as the basis for war.  Such governmental appeals in the 16th century – and down to the present – have played a crucial role in Western nations in garnering citizens’ support for warfare.

(3) By rejecting the domination of political and religious hierarchies, the Anabaptists pointed toward an upside-down notion of social power.  In their view, the gathered community of believers provided the best context for hearing Jesus.  So, genuine power does not flow from the top of the social pyramid down, nor through the use of the sword.  Discernment of God’s will for human beings is not filtered through establishment mediators such as a prince or bishop.  It comes directly to the community that then determines its own approach to faithfulness.

(4) By insisting on an alternative approach to economics, separating themselves from worldly materialism by advocating simplicity, economic sharing, mutual aid, and, in a few famous cases, common ownership of all property, the Anabaptists challenged the emerging economic basis for the Empire Story. Probably the central driving point behind the nascent Spanish conquest in the Americas, which began at the same time as the Reformation, launching the great European empires, was the quest for gold and other sources of material wealth.

These core Anabaptist convictions – the church as free from state control, the refusal to fight in wars, the affirmation of upside-down social power, and the commitment to an alternative economics provide a basis for pitting Anabaptist faith as contrary to the core convictions of the Empire Story.  The opposition to warfare and exploitative economics clearly apply to our present context.  So, too, do the value of upside-down social power and the commitment to forming a counter-culture that would remain clear about and committed to the convictions Anabaptists saw as central to their identity as followers of Jesus – even should such commitment be costly.

What, though, about Anabaptist convictions in relationship to the Democracy Story?  Do we gain direction from these core convictions that would also support deep suspicion toward active participation in political life?  Are the Anabaptist Story and the Democracy Story by necessity two totally separate, even incompatible, stories?

The first Anabaptist generations, while certainly suspicious of the powers that be and willing to separate themselves from activities, such as bearing the sword, that they saw directly contradicting the way of Jesus, seem nonetheless to have operated with assumptions that they could directly speak to prince, bishop, and all others in their society.  They understood that they spoke a common language with others; hence, they could proclaim their convictions and the religious basis for those convictions without apology – and they expected their interlocutors to be able to understand their proclamation just fine.

A question we cannot answer is how the Anabaptists would have responded to living in the type of democratic society Americans line in today.  Possibly, they would have shrunk back from active involvement, believing that their commitment to the peaceable way of Jesus precluded taking leadership roles in a society invariably resting on the power of the sword.

Just as plausible, though, would be to imagine at least some Anabaptists grasping the opportunity to proclaim their core convictions as widely as possible and to seek to implement their vision for a society following Jesus’ will as far as they would be allowed to – the limits to their proclamation, thus, not coming due to Anabaptists’ self-imposed restrictions but due to the society at some point stopping them.

John Howard Yoder hinted at this latter possibility when he wrote that the main difference between the more widely active Quakers and the more withdrawn Anabaptists lay not so much in different core convictions as in different sets of opportunities.  Quakers had more freedom to express and implement their convictions in their social context than Anabaptists did.[3]

In North America, Mennonites found a great place for toleration after several generations of severe persecution in Western Europe.  They became a part of the multi-faceted religious mosaic of the United States and Canada. From its beginning, the U.S. had no established state church and made allowance of some sort for conscientious objection during times of war.

Mennonites have experienced (and helped foster[4]) the America standing for tolerance, freedom of religion, economic opportunity, protection of rights, free speech – the stuff of the Democracy Story.  And for this we must be grateful.  Do we Mennonites, in turn, have the responsibility to speak out openly and assertively in contributing to democracy by playing a role in the public conversation by which our society arrives at governmental policies?

The two Americas: The Democracy Story and the Empire Story

In reflecting on our responsibilities to participate in public policy conversations, the distinction suggested above between the Democracy Story and the Empire Story might help.  While greatly over-simplified, this distinction helps us think about participating in democracy that is a separate issue that being complicit in militaristic state violence.

The Democracy Story/Empire Story distinction reflects the thought of many observers of American society.  As well, this distinction fits with a common refrain spoken to Americans traveling abroad from citizens from other countries around the world: “We love the American people and the ideals you stand for, but we do not like what your government does with much of its foreign policy.”

The late essayist and historian Walter Karp, in his essay “The Two Americas,”[5] drew the distinction between “the American republic” (that has sought to embody the ideals expressed, for example, in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights) and “the American nation” (that has sought dominance, wealth, and power throughout the world).  Karp believed that these two are “deadly rivals for the love and loyalty of the American people.”[6]  He characterized the “nation” as a “poor dim thing, assembled as a corporate entity, sustained by an artificial patriotism, and given the semblance of meaning only when puffed up with the parade music of a foreign war.”[7]

Noam Chomsky, perhaps the foremost critic of the Empire Story writing in the United States today, while condemning the Empire Story with extraordinary analytical prowess, also affirms that the United States is the freest society in the world.[8]  The main hope Chomsky offers his readers, in face of the extremely destructive power of the Empire Story, lays in the expansion of the Democracy Story.  He cites solidarity movements in mainstream America that developed in the mid-1980s in response to U.S. wars on Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, international solidarity organizations, the unprecedented worldwide demonstrations opposing the U.S. war on Iraq, and global justice movements that gather annually at the World Social Forum as elements of this needed expansion.  Chomsky asserts, “the planet’s ‘second superpower,’ which could no longer be ignored in early 2003, has deep roots in these developments, and considerable promise.”[9]

Journalist Jonathan Schell, whose classic book The Fate of the Earth, inspired the Nuclear Freeze Movement in the early 1980s, also draws the contrast between the Empire Story and the Democracy Story.  “For Americans, the choice is at once between two Americas,” an “imperial America” and a “republican America.”[10]

Schell shares Chomsky’s use of the image of the world’s “second superpower.”  Schell links these two “superpowers” with two kinds of power, drawing on Gandhi’s distinction.  “‘One is obtained by the fear of punishment,’ [Gandhi] said, ‘and the other by acts of love.’”  Schell calls these “cooperative power” and “coercive power.”[11]  His book demonstrates the viability of this second kind of power, and it presents the case for harnessing cooperative power for the sake of overcoming the destructiveness of coercive power.

Environmental writer Richard Nelson recounts his own recent evolution toward thinking of himself as a patriot in a way that highlights our distinction between the Democracy Story and the Empire Story.  During the 1960s, he joined movements opposing the Vietnam War, the denial of civil rights, and the power of corporations.  He found himself quite uncomfortable with the idea of patriotism.[12]

More recently, though, Nelson has come to understand that the conservation work in the United States that he is involved with requires engagement with and affirmation of the process of democracy.  As he sees positive results from citizen engagement in democratic movements to protect the environment, he has grown in his gratitude for the U.S. political system.  That is, he has felt “a growing sense of patriotism.”[13]  He explains:

By this I do not mean zealous loyalty toward a flag, veneration for a governmental system, or blind faith in “my country right or wrong.”  I am simply acknowledging the blessed good fortune to live in a democracy, a place where citizens can substantively influence decisions about society and land.  And I am expressing my growing sense of allegiance to this living nation.[14]

Writers loyal to the Democracy Story insist on making the distinction between their loyalty to America as a democracy and to America as an empire.  The first loyalty provides the basis for denying the second loyalty.

Given the extent the current American empire impacts the entire world, the “death struggle” between our Empire Story and our Democracy Story has tremendous significance far beyond our country’s borders.

Novelist and social critic Arundati Roy, from India, speaks for many around the world who seek to resist the destructive impact of US imperialism.  She argues that the people with the most potential effectively to challenge this imperialism are the citizens of the Empire itself.

The only institution more powerful than the US government is American civil society.  The rest of us are subjects of slave nations.  We are by no means powerless, but you [Americans] have the power of proximity.  You have access to the Imperial Palace and the emperor’s chambers.  Empire’s conquests are being carried out in your name, and you have the right to refuse.  You could refuse to fight.  Refuse to move those missiles from the warehouse to the dock.  Refuse to wave that flag.  Refuse the victory parade.[15]

To the extent that Roy’s perceptions are accurate, Anabaptist Americans are faced with a direct challenge.  As members of our “powerful” civil society and as pacifists with theological convictions and a long history that point toward a rejection of the Empire Story, do we have a special responsibility to become active politically as an expression of our Anabaptist faith?

Faith and citizenship in a democracy

Let us grant Roy’s assumption that American people have an indispensable role to play in fostering world peace through the mechanisms of our democratic system.  How does this call toward active participation in public affairs fit (or not fit) with our Anabaptist convictions that we must not compromise in our commitment to follow the way of Jesus?  May we do both, participate in American public affairs and remain consistent in our adherence to Jesus’ way?

A current discussion among two prominent religious ethicists helps illumine our present context for reflecting on these questions.  Jeffrey Stout, in his recent book, Democracy and Tradition, offers a challenge to Anabaptist Christians to seek to find a way to participate in American democracy even while maintaining our abhorrence of war and Empire.  He does this by overtly engaging, in depth, the thought of social ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, the well-known Duke University theologian.  Hauerwas explicitly affirms Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder as having a profound influence on his social ethics and has famously categorized himself as a “high church Mennonite.”[16]  So, to some extent, at least, Stout’s challenge to Hauerwas is a challenge to American Anabaptists.

Stout also makes a clear distinction between the two Americas:

We tend to confuse the civic nation – the people – with the nation-state.  In this book, I have been encouraging identification with the civic nation, with the community of reason-givers constituted by the democratic practice of holding one another responsible.  This implies no affection for the massive institutional configuration of the nation-state, of which we should always remain suspicious.  The American nation-state has proven itself especially worthy of suspicion in recent decades.[17]

Stout uses the term “democracy” for the “civic nation” of the United States that he is passionately seeking to help thrive.  Central to this democracy for Stout lies the practice of public conversation, wherein citizens take an active role in reasoning together to shape their society.[18]  “Citizens” are characterized as those who accept some measure of responsibility for the condition of society[19] – and in a genuine democracy, this possibility is available to all, regardless of wealth, ethnicity, gender, and class.

Stout seeks to make the case that the authentic democratic conversation welcomes all conversing citizens openly to express whatever premises ground their claims.[20]  That is, for example, Christians should not bracket their faith-based convictions insofar as these convictions lead to certain social perspectives.

The goal of democracy is to bring as many groups as possible into the conversation, to encourage each group to be honest and straightforward in making their case for their particular perspective, to make sure to allow voice to each perspective, and then to seek to arrive at the best possible public policies.[21]

This conversation is difficult, even under the best of circumstances, because the participants do not share a common agreement on how the most important values should be ranked.[22]  However, Stout believes in practice that this has never been an insurmountable problem in the United States.  Analogously to how informal groups of athletes play sandlot baseball or street soccer without umpires or referees, our democratic society without a monolithic authority recognized by all, still makes sense of commitment, and adjudicates right and wrong.[23]

Stout’s passion for defending democracy stems in large part from his sense that U.S. democratic practices are presently at risk.  The impact of the growth of the power of corporations and the national security state has directly challenged the sustainability of hard-earned democratic traditions in the U.S.  Stout believes that all people of good will must join together in efforts to protect and reinvigorate these democratic traditions.

Hence, what he perceives to be an antipathy toward the practices of democracy on the part of influential thinkers such as Stanley Hauerwas greatly troubles him.

Stout believes that Hauerwas’s stated antipathy toward “liberalism” often translates into implicit hostility toward the civic nation and, hence, toward conversational or reasoning democratic practices.[24]  This antipathy, then, pushes Christians who identify most centrally with their faith community away from engagement with participatory democracy in the broader society – at precisely the moment when such engagement has become particularly important, in our age of anti-democratic responses to “terrorism” and corporate domination of civic life.

As read by Stout, Hauerwas, in his focus on a Christian ethics that emphasizes the difference between Christians and non-Christians, tends to foster suspicion toward those outside of the church.[25]  In seeing his particular religious tradition as seeking to be a community of virtue over against the sinfulness of the surrounding world, Hauerwas undercuts Christian identification with the Democracy Story.[26]

Hauerwas’s approach, as interpreted by Stout, leads to a lessening of concern about justice issues in the broader culture.  Stout recognizes that Hauerwas tends toward provocative rhetoric that does not always reflect the nuances of his actual arguments.  While the sub-title of Hauerwas’s book After Christendom? asserts that justice may be a “bad idea,” in the book itself Hauerwas’s argument more subtly focuses its critique on a certain, narrow, Enlightenment-shaped notion of justice abstracted from faith convictions.[27]  However, in Stout’s view, the rhetoric itself is significant, and it has the effect of providing comfort to those in the churches who are relieved to hear a message that they are to be concerned with the church’s internal life and not with the risky task of seeking justice in the wider world.[28]

Hauerwas wasted no time writing an extensive response to Stout’s critique.[29]  He actually affirms much of Stout’s argument.  Most of the areas where he debates Stout’s critique are not really central to our concerns here, such as Hauerwas taking issue with Stout’s account of the chronology of the influence of moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre on Hauerwas’s critique of liberal democracy.

Hauerwas does affirm the value of Christians being involved in what Stout calls the “civic nation.”  “I see nothing that prohibits Christians from using anything they find helpful – such as the kind of democratic conversation Stout desires – to engage in the work of living in a more peaceable and just society.”[30]  He agrees with Stout’s distinction between what Stout calls the “civic nation” and the nation-state “that we both believe is anything but ‘democratic’.”[31]  Hauerwas cites his own involvement in the public debate prior to the 2003 U.S. war on Iraq as evidence that his approach is certainly not “withdrawal” from the democratic conversation.[32]

Hauerwas does disagree with Stout’s assertion that by focusing on the internal life of the church, he refuses to care adequately for the wider world.  He learned from John Howard Yoder that the church may make a genuine contribution to American political life by being “itself.”  Two key ways the church does this are by making sure to hear the voice of the “weakest member” and by engaging in “democratic conversation” due to its commitment to nonviolence.[33]

Hauerwas rejects a view of the church that would imply that its concern with its internal life is an end in itself.  “The call for the church to be the church is meant as a reminder that the church is in the world to serve the world.”  He denies believing that “the boundary between the church and world is impermeable.”[34]

So, Hauerwas seems to be more or less agreeing with Stout’s call for Christians to take their convictions into the public square – as Christians.  Both reject the idea articulated by liberal theorists such as John Rawls that Christians and other religious people should leave their faith convictions behind when they join the democratic conversation.

Hauerwas, however, seems clearly to remain more fearful than Stout about the capabilities of Christians to join this conversation wholeheartedly and still remain truly Christian in their ways of thinking.  He appears to imply that, at some point, in the public conversation, Christians are likely to reach the end of their ability to remain intelligible about their convictions to those who do not share their bases for those convictions.  At that point, Christians are tempted to leave out those bases – and then lose the distinctive content of their convictions.

Hauerwas quotes one of his earlier writings to make this point:

Big words like “peace” and “justice,” slogans the church adopts under the presumption that even if people do not know what “Jesus Christ is Lord” means, they will know what peace and justice mean, are words awaiting content.  The church really does not know what these words mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.  It is Jesus’ story that gives content to our faith, and teaches us to be suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself intelligible.[35]

In this essay, I do not have the space to delve further into Hauerwas’s thought.  My main point here is to point to Stout’s critique of Hauerwas’s reluctance to affirm Christian participation in the public discussion with the enthusiastic commitment to the Democracy Story that Stout would wish for.

Hauerwas acknowledges disagreement with Stout about the appropriate level of commitment to the Democracy Story even while agreeing with much of Stout’s concern for the need to work for peace and justice in the world.  Hauerwas seems to see more tension than Stout between working for peace via enhancing faithfulness within the church on the one hand, and via intentional overt participation in public affairs on the other hand.  Stout asserts that Christians may do the latter without seriously compromising the former; Hauerwas is not so sure.

Two distinct languages?

Since my concern in this paper is most of all with Mennonite understandings of citizenship, I want to turn to a Mennonite writer who has recently addressed the issues I am discussing.  While not directly mentioning Hauerwas, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary peace studies professor Ted Koontz, in his essay, “Thinking Theologically About War Against Iraq,”[36] echoes Hauerwas’s concern with Christians proceeding too far into public policy discussions.  Koontz expresses these concerns in a characteristically Mennonite framework.

While expressing support for Mennonites who publicly opposed the U.S war on Iraq “largely in terms of pragmatic or secular considerations” (such as just war reasoning, national self-interest, and general humanitarian concerns),[37] Koontz argues for the importance of Christian pacifists thinking and speaking in explicitly Christian terms.

Koontz makes a distinction between what he calls pacifist Christians’ “first language” (the language of faith, most centrally based on our fundamental convictions about God and Jesus Christ) and our “second language” (the language of pragmatic or secular considerations).

He gives four reasons why using the “first language” is so important. First, because “Christians should always reject all wars” even when there are not strong “second language” reasons for doing so, we may at times have to rely on our “first language” reasons as the only reasons for remaining committed to pacifism.  Second, if we spend too much time speaking and thinking in our “second language,” we may actually lose our “first language.”  Third, we do best to speak from our strength – few Christian pacifists are experts in the “second language.”  “We likely will make more of an impact speaking our first language than speaking ‘their’ language with a foreign accent.”  Fourth, we likely have allies who speak what is our “second language” as their “first language” and thus have much more expertise than we do to speak against war on pragmatic grounds.[38]

Koontz has obviously done a great deal of serious and perceptive thinking stemming from his own impressively wide-ranging set of experiences.  His distinction between “first” and “second” languages helps us with our need to be clear about our convictions and articulate in communicating them.

However, as presented in his essay, Koontz’s “first language/second language” distinction is not very coherent.  On the one hand, he states that the “first language” includes “all those who name themselves Christian.”[39]  But, then, when he helpfully tries to flesh out core Christian doctrinal convictions, he sounds specifically Anabaptist.  To give just one example, under “salvation” he writes that “our calling is to offer this message of salvation to all, particularly those who resist or reject that offer.  This winsome offer is incompatible with killing them.”[40]  Clearly, the vast majority of Christians have not understood their soteriology to forbid their use of deadly force.  This “first language” Koontz articulates seems to be only the “first language” of pacifist Christians.

On the one hand, Koontz claims all Christians speak the same “first language” because they all share a common confession concerning Jesus Christ.  Yet, when he articulates his christology, it is strongly pacifist in a way that most Christians would not agree with.

From another angle, Koontz’s implication that public policy actors are not Christians (since they cannot understand our “first language”) ignores the fact that the vast majority of U.S Presidents and legislators have been and continue to be professing Christians.  And at least two of the main advocates for the Empire Story, presidents Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush have been especially explicit in professing overtly Christian commitments.

If we were to use the “two language” motif, might it not be more helpful to distinguish between those who speak the language of Empire and those who speak the language of Democracy?  Or, those who speak the language of Pacifism and those who speak the language of Justifiable War?  If we did so, though, we will have Christians on both sides of the distinction – and Koontz’s use of his distinction will lose much of its relevance.

A second question arises from Koontz’s assertion that “often our ‘first language’ of Christian theology will be unintelligible or unacceptable to our neighbors and our policymakers.”[41]  Besides my above point that this kind of comment seems to assume that U.S. policymakers are not Christians, we also need to reflect on why (if Koontz is indeed correct) our language of Christian theology would be “unintelligible.”

Koontz seems to be implying that there is something about Christian theology that simply cannot be understood by people who are not Christians.  It is possible to catch a whiff of Gnosticism, here, wherein only those with special epistemological gifts are capable of making sense of the rationale for “insider” convictions.

Perhaps, instead, if Christians do indeed have a problem with their convictions being intelligible, it is due to this so-called “first language” of Christian faith being for many Christians wrapped in jargon.  The jargon creates an artificial divide not related to the intelligibility of our convictions so much as our own inability to speak clearly and concretely about them.  As Gabriel Josipovici argues about the Bible in general,[42] and as is especially clear with Jesus, the core writings of Christian faith do not share this jargon-created “unintelligibility.”

The model of Jesus, who presented his core theology in concrete, accessible language, provides us with a different kind of challenge.   Christian pacifists need not construct a “first language”/“second language” distinction that may have the effect of inhibiting our engagement in the much-needed conversation in our broader culture concerning issues of war and peace.  Rather, we should learn better how to speak of our faith convictions in the same kind of concrete, accessible way that Jesus did – to anyone who will listen in any context where we can.

Koontz worries that if we do not make a careful distinction between our “first language” and our “second language,” and focus our energies on the former, that we run the risk of losing our “first language.”  Again, granting his premise, in this case that Christian pacifists do commonly lose their “first language” (and, he appears to be implying, their pacifism with it), we still must wonder about the reasons for this loss.

Perhaps there are other reasons for the loss of pacifist convictions in relation to broader identification with public policy makers.  One of these reasons may actually be that what Koontz calls our “second language,” the language of public policy, is corrupted by many people in power.  Through the use of propaganda (such as the current talk about establishing a “democracy” in Iraq when obviously the major actors in the Bush Administration despise genuine democracy, as seen in their extreme hostility to the leaders of potential U.S. allies such as Germany and Turkey who listened responsively to their citizens who strongly opposed the U.S. war on Iraq), public policy actors often act in ways that actually contradict the stated values of the “second language” world itself.

That is, were public policy actors seriously to seek to act according to values such as democracy, humanitarianism, genuine national and global self-interest for the majority of the people, and human rights, they would not lead the U.S. into the kinds of hegemonic violence that has characterized our foreign policy since World War II.

The stated values of the U.S. public policy world are not inherently antithetical to Christian pacifism. The value system of U.S. public policy could easily support the thorough rejection of warfare.[43]  However, the likelihood of that happening is lessened by the kind of self-imposed inhibitions Koontz seems to be calling for, as they limit the involvement of voices that could support such a rejection.

If we do not have a clear sense for how our theologically-based convictions link with pragmatically- and humanistically-grounded convictions we will be more likely to toss them aside when they are challenged.  We all know stories of people who “lose their faith” when they encounter a wider world that their narrow “first language” has not prepared them to deal with.

Koontz argues that one of the reasons for cultivating the “first language” is so we will still have grounds to oppose war even when we do not have strong “second language” bases for doing so, citing World War II as a case where surely “pragmatic and humanitarian considerations did not line up clearly in opposition to war.”[44]

However, we must ask how viable a Christian pacifism ultimately can be when it grants that there are not strong real-world reasons for opposing war.  Such an admission may lead to a kind of fidiestic pacifism where our rejection of war becomes merely a “leap of faith.”

In fact, many people did oppose World War II on pragmatic and humanitarian grounds – to them it was clear even if they did not have Jesus’ commands to fall back on.[45]  It would seem that simply the fact that the War left fifty million people dead would be pretty strong humanitarian grounds for opposing it.

To grant Koontz’s point that for some wars we do not have strong “second language” reasons for opposing may well lead to Christian pacifism becoming primarily a “vocational” matter for people who agree that their core convictions are not normative for the wider world.  That is not a position that will be very attractive either for those who do feel a strong sense of responsibility for being a positive influence in that wider world nor for those who seek a sense of integration between their Christian convictions and their beliefs about social life.

Fortunately, many outside of Koontz’s “first language” circle have been doing excellent work over the past century in articulating and putting into practice pacifist or near-pacifist convictions that have great relevance to the wider world we live in.  We may, most obviously, cite Mohandas Gandhi and those influenced by his work.  However many others also have been working at understanding the world in ways that are fully compatible with Christian pacifism providing evidence that all wars are illegitimate on pragmatic and humanitarian grounds.[46]

Perhaps this is not Koontz’s intent, but his argument does seem to imply a less than full engagement for Christian pacifists with the call (and opportunity) that we have to have an impact on public policy as citizens of the United States.  In his focus on the integrity of our “first” language he seems to be echoing Hauerwas’s focus on the “church being the church” as our main social responsibility.

Both Koontz and Hauerwas argue that we should hope to have an impact in our larger society on issues of war and peace – both would abhor the classic “two kingdom” notion that the wars of the world are of no concern for followers of Jesus.  Nonetheless, they seem quite ambivalent about taking up Jeffrey Stout’s implied challenge to seek actively to enter the public square as Christian pacifists and challenge American foreign policy head on – with the language of citizenship and democracy.

However, if we take seriously the distinction I have been discussing above between the Empire Story and Democracy Story, and accept Stout’s claim that the American democratic conversation does allow for us to remain fully committed to our faith convictions and for us to express those convictions openly and without watering them down, then we may affirm full and active participation in public debate as Anabaptist Christians.

“Seek the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7)

If we were to seek to combine a strong and overt commitment to our core Anabaptist convictions with a boldness in participating fully in the democratic conversation of the American civic nation, with a special concern for resisting the supremacy of the Empire Story in our culture, what might we say and do?

Let us return to the four core 16th-century Anabaptist convictions that I spoke to above: the church as free from state control, the refusal to fight in wars, the affirmation of upside-down social power, and the commitment to an alternative economics.

Self-consciousness as a community of faith free from state control in the 16th century did not simply lead to institutional independence, where the church could name its own leaders, but signified the affirmation of a different worldview, centered on a different set of values.  The way of Jesus took precedence over the way of Caesar.

The Mennonite tradition has tended, though, to draw some distorted applications from the free church principle. Abraham’s calling in the ancient Near East centered on the faith community being a light to the nations (Genesis 12:3).[47]  However, his faith descendants have tended to see their election as the called people of God as being about their own security and existence as an end in itself rather than as being about their calling to be a light to the nations (Genesis 12:3).  In parallel fashion, the embrace of a free church approach is best understood as being a means for people of faith having a more creative and profound impact on their wider world (“the nations”), not as a warrant for withdrawal and separation.

We could say, in our present context, then, that as a free church we should be in a strong position to perceive the difference between the Empire Story and the Democracy Story.  We should be in a position to discern how the best of the Democracy Story draws on the best of the biblical tradition and deserves our strong support.  Likewise, we should also be in a position to offer penetrating critiques of the Empire Story and its concomitant commitment to the myth of redemptive violence.

In relation to the rejection of participation in warfare, the same challenge offered above concerning the meaning of election applies.  Certainly, as Koontz powerfully argues, we need to devote great energy and creativity to sustaining our Anabaptist peace position.  However, our “treasure” may turn to dust if we are not testing it, strengthening it, and applying it in the world around us.  Our pacifism is not given to us merely so that our own children may remain safely behind when the servants of Mars send their children off to spend their lives in war.

From the perspective of this essay, part of what our pacifism should be helping us to do is joining the public discussion and helping our non-pacifist neighbors better to see how the Empire Story so powerful in contemporary America subverts the Democracy Story we all profess to affirm.  I fear that Koontz’s concern about keeping the “first and second languages” distinct and Hauerwas’s concern about “the church being the church” may be selling the potential power of our pacifist witness way too short.[48]

The Anabaptists’ convictions about upside-down social power challenge to top-down political and ecclesial domination that has characterized the modern era.  As articulated by Jonathan Schell, perhaps the major global political dynamic in our post-colonial time is that people in countries throughout the world desire to be free from the domination of outside powers.[49]  Anabaptists should support such movements with Schell, perceiving them as a sign of great hope that the Empire Story may be resisted.

However, we are challenged to enter the discussion by asserting that these drives for self-determination dare not become merely new versions of the Empire Story.  We certainly must draw upon our Anabaptist tradition in offering a theological critique of violence and domination in all of its forms.  However, we also should consider offering this critique in conjunction with affirmations of the Democracy Story in providing a vision for self-determination that is humane and life-enhancing,[50]

Finally, I would like to broaden the point about fostering an alternative economics a bit, maybe simply by using the term “economics” in the sense of “household” or “community.”  Our “alternative economics” may be seen as constructing an alternative community.  We are called to live as a people of faith shaped by God’s mercy whose common life embodies that mercy.  This calling likely will lead people of faith to live differently from their wider culture.

My argument in this essay is meant to reinforce our Anabaptist sense of the importance of foster our faith communities existing as contrast societies pointing to a new way of life.  The Anabaptist commitment to share life together in practical ways as a means of sustaining their witness to the way of Jesus remains central to the possibilities of genuinely living faithfully.

Present-day Anabaptists must not simply allow ourselves to acculturate and be absorbed in the broader American culture.  However, I am trying to suggest that our task of fostering a sense of separation from the “world” (i.e., “domination system”) is for the sake of constructive engagement with the “world” (as the object of God’s love – John 3:16).

Hauerwas and Koontz surely capture an essential Anabaptist insight when they challenge the church to devote energy to being clear about its distinctive beliefs, and to insist that those beliefs must always govern Christian social involvement.  However, I do not find them clear enough in articulating how this work of developing clear theologically-based social ethics serves Christians’ calling to be fruitful instruments of God’s in helping to heal the nations and transform even “the kings of the earth” (Revelation 21-22).

Jeffrey Stout has given Anabaptists a good challenge.  We may see continuity between the core convictions of the Anabaptists and our potential today in the United States to make a creative contribution to making the world a more peaceable, humane place.  We must take seriously the potential we have through our nation’s democratic processes to resist Empire as a way of life.

Stout gives us hope that it is indeed possible (and necessary for our sake as Anabaptist Christians and for our sake as a citizens of the oh-so-powerful country) for us boldly to enter America’s public conversation as citizens and as Anabaptist Christians – recognizing that we would not be faithful to either calling were we to separate them.


[1] I use “America” (reluctantly) in this essay to refer to the United States of America.  I like the neologism “USAmerica,” coined, so far as I know, by Mary Louise Fringle in her essay, “We’re Number What? Winning as a Cultural Icon” Word & World 23.3 (Summer 2003), 285.  However, “USAmerica” seems a bit too new to communicate effectively.  I recognize that the USA is not the only country in “America.”  Perhaps the ambivalence we may feel about using “America” as a synonym with the USA is appropriate for an essay that attempts to address the ambivalence Anabaptist citizens of the USA currently feel about that citizenship.

[2] See, e.g., N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 106-09.

[3] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace, and Revolution: A Companion to Bainton (Elkhart, IN: Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, 1983), 232-33.

[4] I would like to suggest, for example, that in their steadfast quest for legal recognition for their conscientious objection to the wars of America, Mennonites have made a very significant contribution to the practice of democracy in the United States.  Conscientious objection has not been so much a gift from a respectful government as a demand stemming from implacable convictions that meant that Mennonite pacifists would suffer a great deal rather than take up arms.  Mennonites’ perseverance in their peace convictions, even at the cost of great hardship (including, in a few cases, death), in time played a major role in widening the compass of legal recognition for conscientious objectors.

This widening in turn, during the Vietnam War era, led to an extraordinarily large number of claims for CO status (reportedly over 50% of draftees by 1973).  It would not seem to be a stretch to argue that the popularity of the conscientious objector option played a major role in the decision by the US government to end the draft and ultimately withdraw from Vietnam.  And, perhaps, we could also say that this “threat” of widespread claims for conscientious objector status has played in a large role in preventing the reinstatement of the draft and, in turn, has had a restraining impact on US military activities.

[5] In Walter Karp, Buried Alive: Essays on Our Endangered Republic (New York: Franklin Square Press, 1992): 13-26.

[6] Karp, Buried, 14.

[7] Walter Karp, The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic, 1890-1920 (New York: Franklin Square Books, 2003 [original edition, 1979]), ix.

[8] Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (New York: The Free Press, 2002), 268-269.

[9] Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003), 235-236.

[10] Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003), 346-347.

[11] Schell, Unconquerable, 226.

[12] Richard Nelson, “Patriots for the American Land,” in Richard Nelson, Barry Lopez, and Terry Tempest Williams, Patriotism and the American Land (Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society, 2002), 10.

[13] Nelson, “Patriots,” 10-11.

[14] Nelson, “Patriots,” 11.

[15] Arundati Roy, “Seize the Time,” In These Times 27.16 (July 7, 2003), 17.

[16] See Hauerwas’s contribution to a symposium where thirteen non-Mennonite theologians were asked to reflect on their perspective on the Mennonite tradition, “Confessions of a Mennonite Camp Follower” in John D. Roth, ed., Engaging Anabaptism: Conversations with a Radical Tradition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001).  This was a reprint of the October 2000 issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review.

[17] Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 297.  Unfortunately, this clear statement of such a crucial distinction comes near the end of Stout’s book.  If he had placed it earlier, his argument would have been made even more clear.

[18] Stout, Democracy, 6.

[19] Stout, Democracy, 5.

[20] Stout, Democracy, 10.

[21] Stout, Democracy, 226.

[22] Stout, Democracy, 201.

[23] Stout, Democracy, 271-272.

[24] Stout, Democracy, 118.

[25] Stout, Democracy, 146.

[26] Stout, Democracy, 84.

[27] Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom? How the Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), 58.

[28] Stout, Democracy, 158.

[29] Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004), 215-242.

[30] Hauerwas, Performing, 237.

[31] Hauerwas, Performing, 238.

[32] Hauerwas, Performing, 239.

[33] Hauerwas, Performing, 227, 229.

[34] Hauerwas, Performing, 231.

[35] Hauerwas, Performing, 229, quoting Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 38.

[36] Ted Koontz, “Thinking Theologically About War Against Iraq,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 77.1 (January 2003), 93-108.

[37] Koontz, “Thinking,” 93.

[38] Koontz, “Thinking,” 95-96.

[39] Koontz, “Thinking,” 96.

[40] Koontz, “Thinking,” 99.

[41] Koontz, “Thinking,” 94.

[42] Gabriel Josipovi, The Book of God: A Response to the Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988).

[43] See Schell, Unconquerable, for evidence supporting this assertion.

[44] Koontz, “Thinking,” 94-95.

[45] See, for example, Theodore Grimsrud, “Saying No to the ‘Good War’: An Ethical Analysis of Conscientious Objection to World War II,” (Ph.D. dissertation, Graduate Theological Union, 1988).  Chapters four and five (pages 80-162) consider two significant groups of COs who mostly grounded their opposition to the War in “second language” considerations, “resisters” who had the stereotypical unyielding conscience that forbade using violence and “transformers” who sought to effect social change toward a warless world.  Such pacifists tended to be articulate and hence have left an extensive literature accounting for their convictions.  A couple of representative books include James Peck, We Would Not Kill (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1958) and Franklin Zahn, Deserter From Violence: Experiments with Gandhi’s Truth (New York: Philosophical Library, 1984).

[46] A few years ago, I developed a class on violence and human nature, in part stimulated by Walter Wink’s short discussion of human nature in Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).  I was not able to find much material from a Christian pacifist perspective.  However, I did find several quite insightful “secular” texts that make the case Christian pacifists should also be working on that human beings are not inherently violent.  These include James Gilligan, Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes (New York: Putnam, 1996); Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1984); Ashley Montagu, The Nature of Human Aggression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), and Andrew Bard Schmookler, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984).  At least in terms of understandings of human nature, these four books are much closer to the “first language” of Christian pacifism insofar as that pacifism reflects biblical anthroplogy than probably most of Christian theology since Augustine.

[47] See Ted Grimsrud, God’s Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Main Themes of the Bible (Telford, PA: Pandora Press US, 2000) for a popular-level presentation of an argument that this calling of Abraham serves as the best overall rubric for understanding the Bible as a whole.

[48] I appreciate Koontz’s story at the end his essay about his own witness to his Christian pacifism in his lecture to a conference of public policy thinkers (“Thinking,” 104-108).  It strikes me, though, that his story illustrates why we are better off not to think of our “first language” as being “unintelligible or unacceptable to our neighbors and our policymakers” (94).  Rather, it seems more to me to illustrate that all humans speak the same basic language (which is why Jesus’ style of teaching is so effective) and that the best thing we can do is articulate our pacifist convictions and their policy ramifications to any and all who will listen (as Stout would have us do).

[49] Schell, The Unconquerable World.

[50] On this point, engagement with liberation theology might be fruitful.  For an earlier, and quite interesting, beginning conversation see Daniel Schipani, ed., Freedom and Discipleship: Liberation Theology in an Anabaptist Perspective (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989).

2 thoughts on “(5) Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy

  1. Pingback: Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy « Peace Theology

  2. Pingback: Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger? | Thinking Pacifism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s