Anabaptist faith and American democracy

[Originally published in The Mennonite, October 5, 2004]

Many of us have heard a comment like this: Aren’t you Mennonites being parasites on society?  You say you won’t fight, but you’re happy to have non-pacifists fight for you.  You won’t be in the police force but you’ll quickly call a cop to protect your property.  What right do you have to criticize those who take up arms?

One response is to say that we Mennonites happily pay our taxes, so we’re not really parasites.  We do appreciate the work police do and the sacrifices soldiers make to keep the United States free, but we simply understand our special vocation to be that pacifism (implying that we have nothing to say about the choices those who don’t have that vocation might make).

This sort of reasoning has come to be called “two-kingdom” theology, the idea that there is one type of ethics for those within Christ’s kingdom and a second kind of ethics for the “world.”

A recent version of the two-kingdom position has talked in terms of a “first language” and “second language” for pacifist Christians.  The “first language” is our Jesus-centered, pacifist language; the “second language” is the language of public policy, of the “real world” outside the church.  Part of the value of focusing on our “first language” is that it enables us to retain our pacifism even in the face of wars that are justifiable.

That is, if there are wars that cannot be rejected on pragmatic, humanitarian grounds, we would likely have to support them if we were relying on second-language reasons for our pacifism.  But if we are clear on our first language (that is, the Jesus calls upon those of us who have decided to follow him to love our enemies no matter what), then we will still have a basis for being pacifists.

This approach raises questions for me.  I want to mention four, then reflect a bit more on each.

First, does this two-kingdom understanding not represent too narrow a view a view of God and of the relevance of Jesus’ way that is, indeed, meant for the entire world?

Second, were not the original Anabaptists of the 16th century, our spiritual forebears, operating according to different assumptions, that got them into trouble with the governments of their day?

Third, does not the word from Jeremiah 29:7 to seek the welfare of the city where we find ourselves point to something more than the self-imposed withdrawal implied in two-kingdom theology?

And finally, today more than ever people from around the world are calling upon Americans who believe in peace and genuine democracy for help.  They ask us to use the opportunities we have to challenge our government’s policy of empire and world domination.  Does two-kingdom theology allow us to do this?

The God of the whole world

The first question is most basic.  The Bible portrays God as the God of the whole world, assuming that the core teachings God directs toward God’s people do apply to the entire world.

We see one expression of this in the confession that begins several New Testament books: Jesus was with God in the making of the world.  John says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1,3; see also Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1).

These statements tell us that Jesus cares about the whole world and does not break things up into two kingdoms.  As well, the world is created such that Jesus’ way works for everyone.  The Jesus who participates in the creation of “all things” does not support the idea that certain values only work for Christians.

Jesus’ way is the beginning of all things (John 1), and Jesus’ way is the completion of all things (Revelation 21–22).  For this time in between, those who trust in God are meant to be agents in witnessing to that completion.  The healing of the nations and the healing of kings of the earth promised in Revelation at least in part happens due to the challenge they receive from followers of the Lamb to follow his way.

The witness in Revelation reflects a commitment from Lamb-followers to take his message of peace into the entire world.

Great hostility

This is precisely what the Anabaptists in the 16th century sought to do.  Just about all Anabaptists were treated with great hostility by the states and state churches wherever they were.  Why were thousands put to death and many more imprisoned or driven into exile?

The Anabaptists sought to be part of churches that were free from state control.  Most of the Anabaptists refused to take part in the state’s wars.  The Anabaptists sought self-determination, to decide within their own communities how best to live faithfully.  And they tried to embody an alternative kind of economics, based on sharing and living with simplicity.

They did not do these things in the privacy of their enclaves.  They did them publicly, seeking an impact on their entire culture.  Like the followers of the Lamb in Revelation, the Anabaptists understood they were not protecting their own spot in the world but seeking to help heal the nations, to help transform the fate of the kings of the earth.

To put it in Jeremiah’s terms, they were seeking to serve the welfare of the city where they found themselves.  However, they understood this welfare not in the terms of how the powers-that-be in their culture defined it but how Jesus defined it.

A major transition

Jeremiah’s prophecies signal a major transition in ancient Israel.  The key event in the time of Jeremiah was the destruction of the ancient Israelite nation-state.  The experiment of linking the faith community with the state ended in failure.  Israel’s kings went the way of the nations, as Samuel had warned, seeking wealth and power over faithfulness to God’s law.

Jeremiah proclaims, Yes we have lost our king and we have lost our temple, but this does not mean God’s work in the world is ended.  God has not been destroyed with the king and temple; God continues to live and seek the world’s healing.  From now on God will work through a community free from state control and that crosses the boundary lines of nation states.  Seek the welfare of each society, wherever you find yourselves.

Jeremiah’s word makes two points that must be held together: First, we are to seek the well-being of the whole society of what we are part.  We should not focus only on our community in relation to the wider society.  Second, the welfare we seek is not to be determined by the rulers but by what we know to be God’s will for peace and justice for all peoples.  This is not a call for blind patriotism but for discerning participation.

Two Americas

Finally, as Americans we have a responsibility toward the rest of the world that two-kingdom theology minimizes.  We have to do with two Americas.  One is the America of participatory democracy, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.  This America has provided a safe home for descendants of Anabaptists after generations of persecution in Europe.  This America allows us to speak out, vote, and do public service.

However, we must not minimize the second America of conquest, of being the world’s only superpower.  This American engaged in 159 “interventionist acts” in which military force was used or threatened between 1787 and 1941, plus several declared wars–and who knows how many interventionist acts since 1941.

Because of the first America we have the opportunity to resist the second America.  Because of the first America we may seek the welfare of this society by challenging the practices of the second America–and hope for at least partial success.

As a pacifist I believe all Americans should be pacifists, that none of us needs a military and that policing is possible without violence.  That not everyone agrees with me does not make me a parasite for seeking to make the case for my convictions, and neither do my efforts to live consistently with my convictions.

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