Originally published: Gospel Herald (February 1, 1994)
Not too long after I began pastoring in Eugene, Ore., in 1987, I had lunch with a Lutheran pastor in town. Near the end of our conversation, I told him I was a “convinced” Mennonite–that I had not grown up as one. His eyes lit up. “Oh, so you’re a committed pacifist and all,eh?” he said.
I was struck with how he immediately made the connection between my being a Mennonite, especially a convinced Mennonite, and my being a pacifist. I have had similar experiences before, which makes me realize how closely, in the popular mind, Mennonites are associated with pacifism. Something like Pentecostals and tongues. Or Catholics and no birth control.
I have always accepted this associated, even been proud of it. For it was the beliefs in peace and pacifism which first attracted me to the Mennonite Church.
By now I know that not all Mennonites are pacifists. And those Mennonites who are pacifists attach many, many different meanings to the idea. These include the nonviolent political activism of such groups as the Christian Peacemaker Teams. On the other side is the total cultural withdrawal of the Amish.
Yet another meaning of pacifism for some is “vocational nonresistance.” People with this view might actually support American foreign policy even when it is violent. However, they still believe that Mennonite Christians should not take up arms because of their “vocation” as Christians.
Though I believe pacifism is central to Mennonitism, I am also developing more of a critical perspective towrd our tradition. I am coming to see Mennonite pacifism as both a helpful, significant, positive element of who we are–and also a belief with its not-so-good side.
I think of the dangers of our various strivings to find activities which make us feel good about ourselves–including “good works,” activism, service. All these good deeds might be fine in themselves. However, they become more negative when we use them to buttress self-righteousness and a sense that we are better than other people. Our pacifism in particular lends itself to this.
Most of the time we Mennonites are not real proud about our pacifism. Still, I have at times felt within myself, observed at times around me, and encountered in my reading a fairly subtle sense that, yes, our strict adherence to the way of Jesus makes us pretty good. Maybe we are at least a little better than most other people.
Another subtle downside to our pacifism is a tendency toward passive-aggressive behavior. We have an ideal of being peaceable, with everyone getting along. So we may avoid conflict. We may then actually find devious ways to express our resistance to someone else. We might repress the internal hostility and anger which we feel. We then lose the ability to be honest with ourselves and with others. When we pass on these kinds of attitudes, this kind of repression, this kind of avoidance over generations, problems result.
Perhaps our biggest strength as a tradition is offering the world generation after generation of commitment to peace and rejection of violence. Quite possibly, though, this also is one of our biggest weaknesses. That is, our pacifism may heighten our difficulty in processing conflict and anger and in being genuinely free and honest.
Certainly we find here, at the heart of Mennonitism, a major tension. We realizelk that this ideal of pacifism, which has been lived so deeply for so long, perhaps also facilitates major problems. For me, realizing that this tension exists and then seeking to face it presents an invigorating, exciting, and positive challenge.
More than ever, I believe in the ideal of pacifism. I believe the Mennonite tradition is a gift to me personally and to the world. There is great power in the basic conviction that war and killing are simply wrong. This is a kind of conviction which is often ingrained in Mennonites’ hearts before they even know what war is.
However, we have more thinking, reflecting, and living to do as we work at understanding all that pacifism actually means to us–and how peace as a way of life might work.
In considering this challenge, I remember an old roommate of mine with whom I reconnected after many years of having lost contact. He and I shared an apartment during my senior year in college. We were part of the same church. We talked and argued about life’s big issues. One of these was the military draft.
The Vietnam War was starting to wind down, and it looked like we might escape Uncle Sam’s call–which we did. However, we were not sure yet. During this time, I became a pacifist.
My roommate strongly disagreed with me. Even several years later, I heard from someone else how disdainful he still was about pacifism. By that time, I had gone to seminary and was back in Eugene, Oregon, working full-time as a peace activist. He never said anything to me directly, but I heard he thought I was pretty ridiculous doing what I was doing.
A few years later my friend experienced severe trauma when his marriage fell apart. He was extremely angry. He felt ripped off. The entire situation was simply eating him up.
Somehow, though, he began to pull out of it. He experienced major healing through psychiatric treatment. He began a new relationship, much more positive from the start than his previous one. And his thinking changed significantly.
When we reconnected after many years, my former roommate now believed that, to thrive as human beings no matter what happens to us, somehow we have to find a way to love. We have to find a way to embrace love, not anger and bitterness. The only healing response to being ripped off, to violence, is somehow to love.
He was not naive about forgiveness. He recognized that it is a long, gradual process–and only partially a choice. Forgiveness is also something that comes–if it comes–as a gift, over the long haul, only as we find healing for our hurt.
But the key, my friend said, is that we can only find healing as we let go of the anger and focus on love as the rule of our life. He had seen bitterness destroying his life. It took a conscious turning away to change that.
In our conversation about this process he was going through, he chuckled a little self-consciously. And he told me he had come to consider himself a pacifist–personally and politically. This turn toward love applies to everything, he said.
My own rationale for being a pacifist has evolved somewhat since 1976 when my friend and I were roommates. My primary reason for being a pacifist is not because Jesus orders me to. I do not see pacifism as a new Torah, a new rule or law which I must obey. Nor am I a pacifist because this is the most effective political tool for bringing about justice in the world. Nor am I a pacifist because this is a requirement to be a Mennonite.
Certainly, I do think Jesus calls upon his followers to be pacifists. I do think political pacifism is effective and worth using. I do think I would have no business being a Mennonite pastor were I not a pacifist.
But most important, I believe, like my old roommate, that life itself is founded on love. I believe that the Creator God is love. To be in harmony with life, to be in harmony with God, love must decisively shape our lives. I now define pacifism simply as living by all-encompassing love. When we are loving, we cannot be violent.
In my experience, pacifism came as a gift, almost unsought. I envy lifelong Mennonites who have pacifism in their bones. That is also a gift. Mennonites did not create pacifism–nor do we have the burden of somehow keeping it alive through our efforts. It is a gift God gives us, a gift of connecting with life itself.
However, when we grow up with pacifism as part of our lives, we may too easily take it for granted. We have certain instincts, a certain way of envisioning the world in nonviolent ways. A person such as myself who has had to learn consciously some of these ways envies those who know them naturally. Perhaps, though, because of my self-consciousness, I am less prone to take a peace orientation for granted. It is newer for me. It is something I have to think about consciously.
Still, for all of us, pacifism is a gift. Maybe it is a gift directly passed down by our parents. Maybe it is a gift received at the end of a hard time struggling with anger and bitterness. Maybe it is a gift which comes to us through a mystical experience.
However we receive it, God calls us to accept this gift with joy.