News report on Gerald Mast lecture

Evangelical theology challenges, renews Mennonite pacifism: Mast

BLUFFTON, Ohio-Evangelical theology poses “a profound challenge” to Anabaptist peace convictions, says Dr. Gerald Mast. But accepting that challenge “is essential to renew biblical peace conviction in both the Mennonite church and the Christian church as a whole,” argues the Bluffton University professor and church scholar.

“When rightly understood,” he adds, evangelical theology “offers a way for peace to be practiced, not just as an art of the possible but also as an expression of the impossible.”

Mast made his case March 15, 2011, in “True Evangelical Faith and the Gospel of Peace,” his C. Henry Smith Peace Lecture at Bluffton. The lecture series honors the late professor and Mennonite historian who taught at Bluffton for 35 years, from 1913-48, after spending 10 years at Goshen College.

In his address, Mast maintained that historical and sociological data “largely support the view that most popular forms of evangelicalism tend to undermine traditional Mennonite pacifism.” He pointed out that the Mennonite denominations most visibly identified with American evangelicalism are also those with the fewest members supporting the peace position. In addition, he
said, current evangelical Christians are among the believers most closely, identified with the American military establishment, voicing the strongest support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and often embracing “an aggressive and God-identified nationalism.”

At the same time, though, evangelical and Anabaptist arguments “can be received as mutually challenging and supportive rhetorics of Christian assembly by which the gospel of peace might be renewed for the 21st century,” the communication professor noted.

“Evangelical Christianity highlights the unmerited grace that God offers human beings in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” said Mast, emphasizing that “God accomplishes salvation for human beings without human effort.”

He quoted Karl Barth, the 20th-century evangelical Protestant theologian, who believed that the love and grace of God, as manifested in Jesus, “calls into question all of our human efforts to define goodness and right action apart from the Word and will of God,” Mast said.

When humans consider themselves capable of addressing the world’s wrongs with their own strength, skill and wisdom, “we presume, like Adam and Eve, to make decisions about good and evil that are rightly taken by God, and we act in disobedience,” he asserted. “The brokenness of the world is directly related to this human tendency to assert moral competence over that which it is not the human place to assert.”

Barth believed that God not only accepts humans in Jesus but also commands them to accept their neighbor, said Mast, a Bluffton faculty member since 1996. “The grace of God toward us also defines our relationship to the neighbor,” he continued, explaining that grace toward the neighbor can’t be produced by “our own ethical effort” but is the grace we have already received from God in Jesus.

“From this evangelical perspective,” he said, “both the traditional Mennonite temptation to defend pacifism as a nonconformist privilege, as well as the modern activist temptation to promote nonviolence as a pragmatic policy, run the risk of becoming exhibitions of self-righteousness rather than displays of God’s grace.” The same thing is true of every human effort “to do the right thing and be a good person,” he acknowledged, adding that God’s command “is not to be good, but rather to receive the goodness of Jesus Christ as our own goodness, given but not imposed.”

From the same evangelical point of view, “Mennonites and other peace churches are not morally superior because of their peace teachings or avoidance of military service,” Mast said, citing in particular the peace position that makes avoidance of military service “a test of authentic discipleship.”

“It may be the faithful response to the command of God found among peace church people and others, but it does not improve the moral status of its adherents before God. Jesus Christ has already done that for us, whether we accept the peace position or not.”

He also called Mennonite efforts to “defend” peace “failures of sorts,” including excommunication of military members. However, “at the same time, contained in these failures are expressions of obedience to the command of God that God is able to redeem,” he noted. “Even when we are unable to resist using our human power to secure what only God can give, God still blesses and corrects our sinful and flawed responses” to his command.

The “gospel question,” Mast said, “is not one of human success, but rather whether the Word of God has been proclaimed and heard, in word or deed.” So, whenever people speak or act in accordance with God’s love, the good news is proclaimed, God’s command is followed, his righteousness is expressed “and what was previously impossible now becomes possible” by his mercy and grace, he argued.

“And people show up to protest the death penalty, work to live in peace with our ravaged planet and attend to the needs of strangers, even when it seems futile to do so.”

Attachment of true evangelical faith to the gospel of peace makes possible three “unlikely and profoundly transformative theological
realities”–accomplished reconciliation, universal election and peaceful assembly, Mast said. And he went on to briefly profile three people–Lynn Liechty, Sam Park and Sister Helen Prejean-“whose lives are a witness to this dawning, God-graced reality of a reconciled, elected and assembled new humanity, sustained amidst opposition and seeming futility.”

Liechty, a Mennonite whose granddaughter, Blake Zickafoose, is a current Bluffton student, accepted an Army assignment as a noncombatant during World War II, refusing to carry a gun during basic training and subjecting himself to ridicule as a result.

Park, a 2001 Bluffton alumnus, joined the Army after graduation in part as a way to pay off his college loans. The events of 9/11 strengthened the appeal of the military as a way to serve others, but he realized both that he didn’t want to kill anyone and, soon after, that he was opposed to the war he was helping fight in Iraq. After he was discharged, Park returned to his native West Liberty, Ohio, and to Oak Grove Mennonite Church, where he works with the youth group as a sponsor and a volunteer for mission trips, fundraisers and work projects.

Prejean, who spoke at Bluffton earlier this month, is the prominent death-penalty opponent whose book “Dead Man Walking” inspired the 1995 film of the same name.

“These three witnesses to the gospel of peace do not fit the conventional pattern of peace church conscientious objection and pacifism,” said Mast. “But they each responded to the command of God” as expressed in Christ, and “each displayed dependence on the righteousness of God, and not on their own good works,” he said.

“How can we sustain commitment to causes of peace and justice that seem unlikely to succeed by this world’s standards?” he asked. “By rooting our activism and involvement in the same dependence on God’s grace and righteousness that Lynn Liechty, Sam Park and Sister Helen manifested in their lives.”

When we display social activism and civic engagement as obedience to the grace received from God, “the object of our activism has already been accomplished in Jesus Christ,” he maintained. “That is the good news whose proclamation can sustain a life of gracious activism in a blinded and still disobedient world.”

Mast, who received his Ph.D. in communication from the University of Pittsburgh in 1995, has written and edited six books, including the forthcoming “The Calling of Christ: Being the Church in Life and Vocation.” He is currently editing the academic book series, Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History, and serving on the board of The Mennonite magazine.

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