Theron Schlabach. War, Peace and Social Conscience

Theron F. Schlabach. War, Peace, and Social Conscience: Guy F. Hershberger and Mennonite Ethics (Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History). Herald Press, 2009. 723pp.

This book makes an important case: Guy F. Hershberger (1896-1989) stands as a huge figure in the evolution of the Mennonite tradition in modern America, one who in careful and understated ways exerted creative leadership in helping Mennonites apply their deep-seated peace convictions to our complicated contemporary world.

I warmly welcome Schlabach’s monumental effort to burnish Hershberger’s reputation. Guy Hershberger was an important person for me. When I first made contacts with Mennonites and began attending a Mennonite congregation in Eugene, Oregon, I was introduced to Hershberger’s thought through a study group that was reading the festschrift written for Hershberger, Kingdom, Cross, and Community. Shortly after that, I read Hershberger’s powerful book, The Way of the Cross in Human Relations.

I found both books quite helpful and they played important roles in my decision to join the Mennonite Church. Several years later, I was privileged to serve Hershberger’s congregation as an interim pastor for eight months. I found Guy and his wife Clara (both in their late 80s) to be warm, enjoyable people. Guy offered me strong words of support in my beginning ministry—and I experienced him as a deeply committed peace person fully engaged with the modern world (Guy took me with him once to a meeting of the local Nuclear Freeze committee; he was revered in that context for his decades of peace work).

So, I find myself in full sympathy with Schlabach’s argument that Hershberger, when understood in his own context, should be understood not as a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist or as a two-kingdom separatist mostly concerned with the church’s ethical purity (nor, for that matter, as a compromised liberal moving the Mennonites away from their biblically-centered heritage). These are all views of Hershberger expressed in recent years. But the Hershberger of Schlabach’s meticulously researched study (and of my personal experience) was unalterably committed to the Jesus of the gospels, to the health of the Mennonite Church he deeply loved, and to the call God’s people have to witness to the ways of peace to the ends of the earth.

Schlabach’s book pretty much simply works through Hershberger’s long life, beginning with his youth in Iowa and his gradual movement toward academia, and then tracing his decades of work at Goshen College and in the broader Mennonite Church. One remarkable element of Hershberger’s career, impossible to imagine being replicated today, is how wide-ranging his church involvement was in combination with his production of two thick, epoch-shaping scholarly books (the above-mentioned Way of the Cross and the even more epochal War, Peace, and Nonresistance).

The writing here is reasonably straightforward and clear. We have numerous anecdotes and personal touches to keep our interest piqued. Schlabach clearly holds Hershberger in high regard, but he does not neglect questions and even a few indications of a possible shadow side in Hershberger’s work (Schlabach’s term is “tenacity to a fault”).

Part of Schlabach’s intent, reflected in the book’s subtitle, “Guy F. Hershberger and Mennonite Ethics,” is to provide a window into the broader Mennonite movement as it faced the challenges of the 20th century (not only war and peace, but also labor relations and racial integration receive close attention).  That is, the branch of the Mennonite movement known during Hershberger’s life as the (Old) Mennonite Church. This window is fascinating and helpful. Hershberger faced challenges from the fundamentalist right throughout his career, and his success in negotiating those challenges provides one of Schlabach’s main story lines.

As happy as I am with this book and with Schlabach’s monumental effort to provide us with a record of an important part of the story of North American Mennonitism and its peace witness, I still have some disappointments.  This is a good and important book; I just wish it had been even better.

Maybe my main criticism actually follows from the importance of Schlabach’s scholarship. The book is too long and is hard to read. It often feels like elements of the account here would be of interest only to people who were there themselves or are related to those who were there. I am not convinced of the inherent interest of the detailed attention Schlabach pays to Hershberger’s work in the Mennonite community movement or in the efforts to deal with labor issues and the church.  It’s not that these parts of the story aren’t important. However, both are definitely stories from the past. Schlabach does not help us understand the present-day significance of these two efforts. And, surely, these parts of the story could have been greatly condensed.

In general, War, Peace, and Social Conscience has the feel of simply one story following another, all more or less being told in the same tone of voice with the writer’s assumption that they interest will be self-evident. We could have used more analysis. I would have liked more reflection, for example, on Hershberger’s relationship with John Howard Yoder and the role Hershberger played in Yoder’s formation and then, in turn, the role Yoder played in stimulating the evolution of Hershberger’s thought.

I also have some concern with Schlabach’s lack of care in some of the language he uses. I found his numerous cryptic and snide comments about the bugaboo of “individualism” to be distracting and not particularly illuminating. His use of the term “churchman,” repeatedly throughout the book, seems a bit anachronistic and even sexist.

The use of “Conscience” in the title seems somewhat misleading. I think “Witness” would have been much more appropriate. Especially given Schlabach’s antipathy toward “individualism,” the lifting up of “Conscience” seems to give the wrong impression. If the reader pays attention, one can get a sense that “conscience” was an important term for Hershberger and had a different connotation than the personal, interior implication the term usually has. But it would have helped if Schlabach would have more directly spoken to this concern, spelling out for us what Hershberger meant by conscience and how this should be differentiated from more common uses of the term (that is, the difference between “social conscience” and “personal conscience”).

Similarly problematic is Schlabach’s unreflective use of the term “pacifism” throughout the book to describe Hershberger’s core conviction. Even when Schlabach discusses Hershberger’s main book and how (in 1944) Hershberger differentiates “nonresistance” (good) from “pacifism” (bad), he doesn’t take the opportunity to clarify his use of this term. Personally, I strongly affirm the term “pacifism” as the best single term for Jesus-centered peace convictions and practices. And I think that by the end of his life, Hershberger clearly did too. But this has always been a contested term. And the issues in the terminology discussion are not “merely semantic.”

Early in Hershberger’s career, “pacifism” signified humanistic liberals who did not place Jesus as central—in contrast to authentic biblically-based “nonresistance.” Then, as Mennonites became more engaged in wider social concerns, “pacifism” became the term of choice. More recently, “pacifism” has been seen as too “passive,” and “nonviolence” and “peacebuilding” have become for many Mennonites preferred terms (see an account of some of this movement in Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism). This shifting terminology reflects shifting understandings of peace and society among Mennonites—and Hershberger may be the most single important Mennonite thinker who has influenced these dynamics.  So it’s too bad Schlabach didn’t help illuminate this history with some reflections on the way the language has evolved.

However, without a doubt, we should be grateful to Theron Schlabach for this capstone to his long and fruitful career. He has helped insure that a new generation will know of Guy Hershberger’s life and work. This matters not simply as a tribute to a faithful servant of the gospel, but more so because Hershberger’s witness remains important as Mennonites and other Christians in the 21st century seek to find ways to be peacemakers in what remains a warring world.

2 thoughts on “Theron Schlabach. War, Peace and Social Conscience

  1. Ted Grimsrud

    Hi Dale. I liked Perry’s book a lot when I read it right after it came out, but I don’t remember too many details. I actually plan to reread it sometime over the next few months and hopefully will post a review.

    What do you think of it?


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