#MLK50

It was 50 years ago today that the “shot rang out in the Memphis sky,” and Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I learned about MLK, of course, but growing up in Canada I didn’t learn a lot. And coming of age in the early ’90s as a white Evangelical, what I did learn was that Martin Luther King was one of those “iffy” Christians, one of those “social justice” Christians who didn’t preach the true gospel and whose salvation status was uncertain.

My perspective has changed a great deal in the last 25 years, of course, and over the last 10 years I have deliberately engaged MLK’s writing and preaching, learning from his life and legacy. He was a flawed man, no question, but he was just as certainly one of the great lights of the twentieth century, even of all human history.

Martin Luther King, Jr., has appeared in my preaching several times over the past few years. Here are the times he also made it into my blogging. Rest in peace, MLK, until the coming of our Lord and the renewal of all things, and the dream is fully realized.

Does Jesus’ “Temple Tantrum” Negate Pacifism and Nonviolence?

It’s probably the story most people turn to when they want to throw a wrench in the gears of pacifism. “Jesus advocated nonviolence, you say? Well, what about when he flipped over tables and drove the moneychangers from the temple? Sounds pretty violent to me!”

Indeed it does. And, to be sure, this story, found in all four canonical Gospels, does provide a caution to pacifists against prohibiting all physical violence, much like the Matthean Jesus’ tirade against the scribes and Pharisees provides a caution against prohibiting all verbal violence.

But this caution comes with some rather large caveats.

First, the point of both this instance of physical violence by Jesus and his uses of verbal violence recorded in the Gospels is the same, and it is crucial to grasp: in each case Jesus is sending a clear warning to the powers that be who are abusing their power over others. They focus on purity over compassion, on strict adherence to the Law over mercy toward the needy, on maintaining their power and privilege over pursuing justice for the vulnerable and marginalized—and this really ticks Jesus off. You won’t find a single instance in the Gospels of Jesus verbally haranguing the poor or flipping the table of a widow—or a little child, or repentant sinner, or seeking Gentile, or any of those considered last, least, or lost in the eyes of the world.

Gospels scholars are pretty much united in recognizing that this incident in the temple was a kind of “enacted parable,” or maybe better, a kind of “prophetic symbol.” Jesus overturns tables and drives out animals in the temple courts not because that single action is actually going to halt temple commerce. Undoubtedly everyone picked up their tables, gathered their animals, and carried on with their business. But with this action Jesus served notice to the powers that be—the temple authorities, the watching Roman rulers—that their poor-oppressing and other-excluding ways were under God’s judgment.

This wasn’t a “temple tantrum” at all, but rather a deliberate, symbolic act of religious, political, and social activism.

Second, this incident does not sanction all uses of any kind of violence even for good ends. The fact remains that this is the one and only remembered incident in Jesus’ entire life and career where he used physical violence. The whole thrust of his teaching and life is against the use of violence and in favour of nonviolent resistance to powers gone bad. So, although this incident allows the possibility of Jesus-followers to use physical violence to send a message to the abusive powers that be, this is not the norm and must be done carefully, thoughtfully, and probably only as a last resort (as it apparently was for Jesus, John’s order of events notwithstanding).

Furthermore, the Gospel accounts of the incident do not give warrant for physical violence against human persons, let alone lethal violence of any kind. The only clearly described physical violence is against property: Jesus “overturned” the tables and chairs of the sellers and moneychangers, and “poured out” their coins. Yes, Jesus “drove out” the moneychangers and “would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple,” but the Gospels don’t say how exactly Jesus accomplished this. Was it his table flipping that drove them out? His verbal tirade? Maybe his “wild-eyed prophet” look, borrowed from his Baptist cousin? We don’t know. In John’s version, yes, Jesus makes a whip, but the whip is not used against people—the text specifically says it was used to drive out the “sheep and the cattle” (pantas exebalen ek tou hierou ta te probata kai tous boas).

So yes, by all means, let’s take Jesus’ tirade in the temple into account when we’re considering a Christian pacifism or Christian nonviolence. Let’s allow it to provide a necessary caution against a kind of “pure nonviolence” that can turn into passive acceptance of evil or self-righteous denunciation of all forms of violence.

But let’s also read the Gospel accounts of this story carefully, and let’s set this single remembered incident of Jesus’ use of physical violence—nonlethal, against property not persons—in the context of a whole life and teaching that is consistent in emphasizing justice through nonviolence, peace through selfless love.

MLK and “The Things that Make for Peace”

On December 20, 2015, I preached a sermon at Morden Mennonite Church on “The Things that Make for Peace.” I’ve excerpted some of that sermon already in a previous post, but in honour of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the U.S. I’m posting another excerpt, my conclusion to that sermon.

Many of you will know that a month ago I went to a theological conference down in Atlanta. While I was there I went to Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church Martin Luther King grew up in, the church he served as pastor for part of his career.

MLK Light LoveAs I’ve been reflecting on these “things that make for peace” this week, I’ve been reminded of Martin Luther King and his struggle for racial justice in the U.S. during the 1950s and 60s. King developed several principles of nonviolent resistance—principles of peacemaking, in other words—that sound a whole lot like what I’ve just described from Luke’s Gospel. This is no coincidence, as King based these principles in large part on the life and teachings of Jesus.

First, Martin Luther King emphasized that peacemaking is not passive, and it’s not for cowards. To use King’s words, peacemaking “is not passive nonresistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.” This takes tremendous moral courage, because it means standing against evil on one side while facing ridicule on the other. This takes tremendous inner strength, because it means resisting violence and injustice without resorting to violence or injustice oneself.

Another of King’s principles of peacemaking: in his words, it is “directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.” The goal is to defeat injustice, not unjust persons. The goal is to defeat fear and ignorance and hatred, not fearful or ignorant or hateful persons. The goal is to bring peace, what King called the “beloved community.”

Here’s the next of MLK’s principles: we must be willing to accept suffering without retaliation. How can we do this? King says “the answer is found in the realization that unearned suffering is redemptive.” The goal is to reduce or even eliminate unearned suffering for everyone; but sometimes, this requires that some people—or even just one person—needs to suffer unjustly before the eyes of the world in order to bring about that redemptive transformation.

Underlying these principles of peacemaking are two further principles, spiritual principles. In King’s words, this brand of nonviolent peacemaking “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit.” There’s an important correlation between inner peace and outward peace: peace among us requires peace within us.

We need to know forgiveness ourselves in order to forgive others. We need to have empathy awoken within ourselves if we want to have compassion for others. We need to rid our hearts of hatred if we want to see the world rid of violence. We need peace in our own souls if we hope to have lasting peace in society.

And underlying all this is one final principle: the principle of faith. This peacemaking, King says, is “based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.” In our active struggle for peace, a struggle that may require our own suffering, we must believe that “there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.”

You see, Martin Luther King realized something that many of us miss: God has already revealed his peace in Jesus. God has shown us “the things that make for peace.” God has laid out for all to see God’s “way of peace,” peace within us, peace among us.

The question is, will we walk in it? Will we “recognize the things that make for peace”? Will we follow Jesus in “the way of peace”? Or does Jesus weep over us as he wept over Jerusalem?

May God give us eyes to see the path of peace laid out for us in Jesus. And may God give us the faith, the hope, the love—the moral courage and selfless compassion—to trust in God’s way of peace and walk in Jesus’ way of love.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

Jesus Was a Peacenik After All

This past weekend I hosted my seminar on Jesus in history called, “Was Jesus Married? …and other awkward questions.” (The answer to that one, by the way, was, “Almost certainly not—though it is not historically impossible, and shouldn’t be theologically problematic.” Can you say, “can of worms”?)

But one of those other “awkward questions” was this one: “Was Jesus actually a violent revolutionary (and not a peacenik)?” As I conceded in the seminar, a good prima facie case can be made for Jesus’ revolutionary tendencies.

Those tendencies were undeniably “in the air” in Jesus’ day. There was a proud history of zeal for Torah among Jews of Jesus’ day, including for some a willingness to do violence against foreigners and even fellow Jews in order to uphold “righteousness” according to the Law of Moses. There was also a “zealot” movement that developed against Rome that had roots going back to Galilee in the early first century A.D., right where and when Jesus grew up.

And then there’s what Jesus himself said and did. Jesus proclaimed the imminent kingdom of God, a reality commonly understood as a political kingdom that could well require military effort to bring about. Jesus said things one could interpret as promoting violence, things about bringing and buying swords. Jesus entered Jerusalem in messianic procession and caused a disturbance in the Temple. And to top it all off, Jesus was crucified by Rome, probably for treason.

So, at first blush, the idea of Jesus as a wannabe revolutionary can seem pretty compelling. However, it collapses under the cumulative weight of a host of sayings and deeds of Jesus.

Jesus’ ethical teachings, such as in Matthew 5-7, and his mission teachings, like those in Matthew 10, are among the best attested teachings of Jesus we have. We find many of them in both Matthew and Luke in slightly different versions, we see them reflected in Paul’s writings before the Gospels were even written (e.g. Romans 12-13; 1 Corinthians 9), and we hear them in other early Christian writings of the first century (e.g. James 5, Didache 1).

Tissot - Lord's PrayerIt’s in these teachings that we find Jesus’ strongest words of peace and non-violence. “Love your neighbour,” “love your enemies,” “do not hate your brother,” “turn the other cheek,” “bless those who persecute you,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” and more are found in his ethical teachings, all connected to the “kingdom of God” which we are to pray for and to seek first. Among his mission teachings are calls for Jesus’ followers to proclaim God’s kingdom and heal the sick, giving freely and living simply. If they are rejected they are not to retaliate but simply to “shake the dust off their feet” and move on, leaving the rejecters to God’s judgment.

Other teachings of Jesus may be less widely attested in earliest Christianity, but fit snugly within these basic contours. Jesus’ kingdom parables, for example, repeatedly emphasize the idea that God’s kingdom does not come about suddenly—by force, you might say—but is planted in the world and grows quietly and slowly until its fruition. Or, for instance, Jesus’ controversies with religious leaders include the famous “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s”—a recognition of human authorities in this age, yet a declaration that God holds our ultimate and total allegiance. And running through the Synoptic Gospels is a recurring focus on the “least,” the “last,” and the “lost” as who God’s kingdom is for, as those who inhabit God’s kingdom—not the powerful or mighty but the meek and the humble, not the violent and coercive but the gentle and those who serve.

All told, the whole thrust of Jesus’ teaching is that God’s kingdom—God’s universal reign of justice and peace—is being established on earth, brought about through his, and his followers’, self-giving, suffering love for the other. This involves both love for God and for other people, including love for those marginalized among us and for those deemed to be hostile to us.

Jesus’ actions were fully in line with these teachings. One of the regular activities of Jesus widely acknowledged among historians is his practice of “communal meals.” These he viewed as symbolic of God’s kingdom, and the guest lists included repentant sinners, the socially marginalized, and other outsiders—the “least,” the “last,” and the “lost” who inherit God’s kingdom. Likewise, Jesus’ healings—he was certainly acknowledged as a healer, even if his opponents questioned the source and legitimacy of his healings—were also seen as signs of God’s kingdom, and focused on things like mercy over strict Sabbath observance, compassion over ritual purity, and inclusion of the marginalized in God’s kingdom.

Then there’s Jesus’ suffering and death. At least some early Christians viewed Jesus’ death as the crucial event for establishing God’s kingdom on earth (e.g. Mark). Certainly the manner of Jesus’ suffering and death reflected the teachings he had given—he walked the talk. He “turned the other cheek,” standing up to the powers that be and refusing to retaliate, thus exposing their violence and injustice for the evil that it was. He gave himself for the good of others, even through extreme suffering. He modeled the love he commanded.

The overwhelming portrayal of Jesus in our earliest and most extensive sources is that of one who proclaimed and lived out a counter-cultural kingdom of God—one not characterized by violence, but by non-violence, even active peacemaking.

What do we do, then, with the few anomalies, those sayings and actions of Jesus that don’t seem to fit the mould? Well, let’s take a closer look.

The “I have not come to bring peace but a sword” saying (Matt 10:34-36) is part of Jesus’ mission teaching, instructions for his disciples as they preach the gospel and heal the sick. “Sword” here is used figuratively to describe the turmoil that will result from Jesus’ kingdom message and way of life. His point—evident from the surrounding context of this statement—is simply that his kingdom message and actions will provoke resistance from the world, so his followers should be prepared for this and persevere through it.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossWhat about “Those who do not have a sword should sell their cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:35-38)? Jesus has just alluded to his previous mission teaching, but now intensifies it: this is, once again, a warning about coming resistance to Jesus’ kingdom way. That Luke understands the particular statement as figurative is evident from the way the narrative continues. First, Jesus responds to the disciples that two swords is “enough”—rather ludicrous if Jesus was speaking literally about arming themselves either for rebellion or for defense. And second, when the disciples ask about literally using the sword to fight the mob and one of them cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus responds with “No more of this!,” heals the man’s ear, and says, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a lēstēs (brigand, revolutionary)?” (In other words, “I’m not a lēstēs, people.”) Matthew’s account gets at the gist of Jesus’ real feelings about this, stripped of all irony: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (26:52).

Then there’s the “temple cleansing,” as it is often called. Yes, Jesus does exhibit violence here, something that should caution us against an unrealistic ideal of non-violence. But it’s important to temper that concession with a few other thoughts.

First, none of the Gospels indicate that Jesus committed physical violence against human persons—only John describes the “whip,” and he states this was used to “drive out” the animals. Second, scholarly consensus is that Jesus’ temple action was symbolic and prophetic, like the symbolic-prophetic actions of Ezekiel, for example. Jesus was not realistically going to stop the temple sales of animals with a one-man temple tantrum, but he could symbolically highlight the problems he saw and prophetically pronounce God’s judgment. And third, this action was motivated by a desire for justice and inclusion in the face of injustice and exclusion. Poor Jews, especially non-Judeans who had traveled from around the Empire, relied upon the animals sold in the temple courts for their sacrifices. The temple merchants, it seems, were taking advantage of their situation, keeping the temple from being a “house of prayer for all nations.”

In sum, then, Jesus’ kingdom teaching was overwhelmingly non-violent and constructive in orientation, Jesus’ kingdom actions were overwhelmingly non-violent and restorative in nature, and these realities need to govern how seemingly contradictory realities are understood.

It’s important to note that none of this makes Jesus into a modern pacifist. You don’t hear any prohibition of military service from Jesus even when interacting with Roman soldiers—in this he followed the example of John the Baptist (we Mennonites need to pause and reflect on this more). He doesn’t organize his followers toward collective acts of protest or resistance against the powers that be or their acts of violence. He doesn’t develop a program of restorative justice in contrast to the retributive models of justice around him. He doesn’t establish hospitals or schools in war torn areas in order to build a peaceful society.

Nevertheless, Jesus was a thoroughgoing peacenik—and his teachings and example provide the building blocks for a robust, active Christian pacifism that includes all these things, and more.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

“Turn the Other Cheek” ≠ “Be a Doormat”

This past Sunday I taught our adult Sunday Study class. As always, it turned into a wide-ranging discussion only remotely connected to the topic, in which we noted and immediately solved all the world’s problems. (Just kidding, of course. It took us at least 45 minutes to solve them all.)

Turn Other CheekOne of the things that came up along the way was Jesus’ famous “turn the other cheek” command. It was suggested that maybe this and other commands like it are for an ideal, future “kingdom of God” and aren’t expected to work in the real world right now. Or, maybe these sorts of commands are simply for our individual relationships and not for our wider social relationships.

“Turn the other cheek.” Yep, it’s a hard one. It seems utterly unrealistic, unworkable in the real world of playground bullies or abusive spouses or oppressive regimes or violent extremists.

Here’s the text from Matthew’s Gospel:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matt 5:38-41)

This is immediately followed by another seemingly impossible command:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:43-48)

What do we do with these commands? Is it true that they’re just for our individual relationships, or maybe that they’re simply for some time down the road, when God’s eternal kingdom comes to fruition?

To the idea that these commands are not intended for the real world right now, we have to say an unequivocal “No.” At least, that’s not the way Matthew sees them. The Sermon on the Mount concludes with Jesus’ emphatic declaration that he expects his followers to “hear these words of mine and act on them” (Matt 7:24-29), and the Gospel as a whole concludes with Jesus’ call for his followers to make disciples who will “obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:18-20). Everything. Even the hard bits.

But there’s something else from these teachings themselves that suggests these are not simply for some ideal “heavenly kingdom”: in that ideal kingdom there would be no need for these commands, because no one would strike you on the cheek to begin with. In fact, these commands of Jesus only make sense at the place where the kingdom of God collides with the kingdoms of this world. These commands only make sense in a world where there are oppressive enemies and violent retribution—clashing with a new world in which there are no enemies and there is no vengeance.

How would Jesus’ first disciples have heard these words? Who were their “enemies” who struck their cheeks or made them give up their cloaks or forced them to walk a mile? Probably, as time passed, there were several “enemies” who could be named. But for those first Jesus-followers the “enemies” that would have immediately come to mind were the Romans.

The Romans. Seen by many (by no means all) first-century Jews as godless oppressors, Gentile dogs trampling on God’s holy people all over God’s holy turf. And the immediate, flesh-and-blood symbol of this imperial oppression? The Roman soldier, with the power to knock heads and commandeer cloaks and force burden-bearing marches.

Suddenly Jesus’ commands here take on new meaning. “Turn the other cheek”? “Love your enemies”? This isn’t for some idealized future, nor is it just for our everyday relationships. This is about a clash of empires, a collision of kingdoms, two worlds coming head-to-head—and affecting all our real-world right-now relationships, from individuals to families to communities to societies to nation-states.

Think about this: if someone in a position of power over you “strikes you on the right cheek,” what are your options?

One option is to fight back, to strike them on the cheek, to go all “eye for eye” on them—but they have all that raw power behind them, and this is only going to get ugly fast. Violence, even “justified violence,” always, inevitably, begets violence—on you, on them, on innocent others.

A second option is to back away in abject submission, to be a “doormat.” This is what people typically think Jesus means here—just take your licks and accept your lot in life. But just as Jesus does not say, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, strike them back,” so also Jesus does not say, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, bow down to them in subjection.”

No, Jesus commands a third way, a way that is neither the “return evil with evil” way nor the “passively submit to evil” way. Jesus commands his followers to stand up with dignity, look the oppressor in the eye, and challenge them to expose their injustice and inhumanity by inflicting another gratuitous blow.

In other words, Jesus advocates what Walter Wink calls “defiant vulnerability,” or what Tom Yoder Neufeld perhaps better calls “creative non-violent resistance”: “creative” because giving the extra garment or walking the extra mile are outside the normal rules of enemy engagement (Killing Enmity, 25). Glen Stassen and David Gushee go even further, saying Jesus’ commands here are “transforming initiatives”: they “take a nonviolent initiative that confronts injustice and initiates the possibility of reconciliation” (Kingdom Ethics, 139).

Creative, transforming, non-violent resistance. Just like all those in recent history who, inspired to various degrees by Jesus’ life and teachings, initiated some of the most momentous changes ever seen toward more just societies: Mahatma Gandhi in British colonial India; Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Jim Crow-era southern United States; Lech Wałęsa and Karol Józef Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II) in Soviet Communist Poland; post-imprisonment Nelson Mandela under South Africa’s Apartheid.

It’s counter-intuitive, for sure. But contrary to popular opinion, “redemptive violence” is a myth while “turn the other cheek”—rightly understood—actually works.

It’s important to get this right. This is not a command to an abused wife that she should just stay with her husband and submissively accept the blows, whether physical or otherwise. This is not a command to terrorized Iraqi Christians that they should just accept what’s happening to them as God’s will. This is not a command to the boy being bullied after school that he should just take the black eye and slink away in fear. These kinds of things are most emphatically not what Jesus is saying here.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossIt’s helpful to look to Jesus’ own example. It is clear in Matthew’s Gospel that the many things Jesus commands his followers to do in the Sermon on the Mount, he demonstrates for them as he goes to the cross. Turn the other cheek? Check. Love your enemies? Check. Pray for your persecutors? Check.

But here’s the thing: Jesus does not do these things for himself, but for others. For all the “poor in spirit” who are in “mourning,” for the “meek” who “hunger and thirst for justice” (Matt 5:3-6), Jesus steps into their place as “merciful peacemaker,” “persecuted for justice’s sake” (Matt 5:7-11).

Jesus becomes the champion of the oppressed, taking the blow aimed at them, standing up for them with dignity, looking the oppressor in the eye and exposing their injustice and inhumanity with every gratuitous blow—and this becomes the spark for true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life.

This is what the bullied child, the abused spouse, the oppressed people, need. They need a champion. And not a champion who will strike back blow for blow, and just make the problem worse. They need a champion who will stand up to their oppressor on their behalf, who will expose the oppressor’s injustice and inhumanity and initiate the process toward justice and peace and new life, whatever the cost.

So how do we “turn the other cheek”? Not by being a “doormat,” passively submitting to violence or oppression or abuse over and over again, spiraling downward until all involved are de-humanized and eventually destroyed.

We “turn the other cheek” with creative, transforming, non-violent resistance in the footsteps of Jesus—which means imagining and enacting ways to expose evil and injustice which maintain our dignity, which do not demonize our “enemies” but instead show compassion toward them, and which open the door to possibilities of reconciliation and a better future.

We “turn the other cheek” with creative, transforming, non-violent resistance in the footsteps of Jesus—on our own behalf if there is no one else to take up our cause, and certainly on behalf of others who are beaten down and need a champion.

None of this makes Jesus’ commands to “Turn the other cheek” and “Love your enemies” any easier. If anything it makes them harder—because it commits us to not just speak of justice, not just pray for justice, but to actually step out and work for justice.

Maybe I should go back to solving the world’s problems with my Sunday school class. This “walking in the way of Jesus” thing is way too convicting, way too challenging, way too hard. Kind of like walking on a really narrow way

A special note for abused spouses and children… Please hear this clearly: You are under no obligation to remain with your abusive partner or parent. “Turn the other cheek” does not mean that, neither does “Wives, submit to your husbands” or “Children, respect your parents,” and if someone tells you otherwise they are wrong. Contact an organization like Genesis House that can provide advice and shelter for you and initiate the process of healing for you and any others involved. I know this is easy to say and hard to do, and if you are unable to take this step then I pray you will know God’s sufficient grace through your suffering and God’s power through your weakness—and that you will again consider taking this step if the abuse continues.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

On Being “Mennonite”

Okay, so being “Mennonite” is not as straightforward as it might seem.

For some, the word “Mennonite” brings to mind plain dress and beards, head coverings and communal living. For others, it means having a “Mennonite” name like Friesen or Wiebe or Dyck. For some it involves speaking low German and eating Borscht with Zwieback as you play the “Mennonite game” of finding all the relatives you have in common.

But Menno Simons himself, the very “Menno” in “Mennonite,” didn’t fit most of these cultural descriptions of “Mennonite.” And neither do most of the Mennonites in the world today, as the video above nicely demonstrates.

So what does it mean to be “Mennonite”?

Like all questions of identity, it’s a complicated one, and different people will answer differently. I am a Mennonite by choice, not by birth, and I’ve reflected on this quite a bit for myself in coming to that decision. If I had to boil “being Mennonite” down to three things, here’s what they would be.

First and foremost, being Mennonite means being committed to Jesus. I know, I know: all Christians are committed to Jesus in some sense, either as God worthy of worship, or as Saviour bringing deliverance from sin, or as Healer of our infirmities and diseases, or otherwise. Mennonites agree with these understandings of Jesus. But Mennonites are distinguished by their commitment to Jesus in a particular sense: we strive to take seriously Jesus as Lord, especially in following Jesus’ teachings and way of life as presented in the Gospels.

This particular commitment to Jesus has several implications. One is that we try to read Scripture with Jesus at the centre. Jesus provides the clearest window on God and God’s will, so we read Scripture to know and follow Jesus, which in turn (we hope) makes us better readers of Scripture. Another is that we refuse to give ultimate allegiance to anything or anyone else, whether nations or political systems or economic structures. We are not anarchists, and we do seek to live within the laws of whatever land we find ourselves in, but Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, not any of these “powers of this age.”

A second commitment flows out of this ultimate commitment to Jesus: being Mennonite means being committed to community. Jesus gathered disciples around himself to be with him and learn from him and follow him, so we as disciples of Jesus continue to gather around him for these same reasons. We see the church as God’s family, as brothers and sisters in Christ, caring for each other. We see the church as Christ’s body, united in our diversity to serve each other and continue Jesus’ kingdom work in the world.

Again, I hear you: all Christians are committed to community in some sense. But Mennonites have taken this commitment as seriously as any other Christian tradition and more seriously than most. Sometimes this serious commitment to community has not been healthy, as some Mennonites have insulated and isolated their communities from the world to such an extent they have been unable to obey Jesus’ call to be salt and light in the world. But some of the most caring, most challenging, most encouraging, most welcoming, and most egalitarian communities I have been involved in or have seen have been Mennonite.

A third commitment stands out for Mennonites, again flowing out of our ultimate commitment to Jesus: being Mennonite means being committed to peace. The Mennonite churches are among the historic “peace churches,” those Christian traditions that have particularly emphasized nonviolence and peacemaking.

This means taking Jesus’ teaching seriously, that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, that we are not to resist evil with evil, but with acts of mercy. This means following in Jesus’ path of love and nonviolence: overcoming evil in the world not by violence or aggression, but with self-giving, even suffering, love. This means dedicating ourselves to Jesus’ kingdom vision, seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s justice, yearning and praying and so striving for this kingdom to come on earth: a vision of swords turned into plows, of justice and mercy met together; a vision of good news for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed; a vision of the least being feasted, the last being first, and the lost being found.

Someone might well think what I’ve described is more generally what it means to be “Anabaptist,” not particularly “Mennonite.” Undoubtedly that’s true: these are really Anabaptist commitments. And I’ve known Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, United Church and other folk who hold these commitments in much the same way I do.

To this I would say, “Praise God!”—though in four-part harmony, slowly, a cappella. (Yes, another Mennonite stereotype, which, like Borscht and Zwieback, I happen to like. So sue me—I’ll give you my cloak.)

But I would also say that, while one can be Anabaptist and Anglican, or a kind of Anabaptist-Catholic, or otherwise bring Anabaptist commitments into conversation with other Christian traditions, it is in being Mennonite that I am most comfortable, and most challenged, in my commitment to peace, my commitment to community, and ultimately my commitment to Jesus.

We Mennonites don’t do this perfectly by any means. Sometimes we mess it up badly. But mostly we do it pretty well.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Passive Pacifists?

There are about a zillion misconceptions out there about Mennonites. These include a whole cluster of wrong—or at least very thin—ideas about pacifism. Some of these thin ideas about pacifism even come from Mennonites themselves.

“I’m no pacifist,” I hear people say, with great fervour. “I tell you, if someone was coming after one of my kids with a knife, I wouldn’t be turning the other cheek!”

It’s probably the most visceral objection to pacifism, and it’s certainly a question pacifists need to wrestle with. How would we respond to violent aggression against someone we love?

I’ll get back to the question, but here’s the thing: when we make this our objection to pacifism, it demonstrates we’re thinking about pacifism entirely in the wrong way.

What do I mean by this?

First, the best of Christian pacifism is not just about individuals and each person’s response to violence, but also—in a way, even more—about groups and communities and societies and nations, and our collective attitudes toward violence and use of violence. Yes, collectively we are made up of individuals, and the values we cultivate as individuals will influence or even become the values we insist on as groups. But when we make pacifism into merely a private matter—my own individual response in the face of personal violence against me or mine—we miss the broad scope of the peace God desires for the world.

Turn Other CheekIn fact, Christian pacifists don’t agree on what one should do in our extreme hypothetical scenario above. In saying “Turn the other cheek,” was Jesus speaking only about violence against ourselves? Or would Jesus allow us—or even expect us—to intervene when violence is being committed against someone else? Or, pushing further, in saying “Turn the other cheek,” was Jesus even calling for a passive acceptance of violence against us? Or was this perhaps an illustration of creative resistance—non-violent, yes, but resistance nonetheless—against violent oppressors, taking the sting out of their oppression by maintaining one’s composure, one’s dignity, one’s principled stand, even directly in the face of their attempt at subjugation?

And this leads to a second feature of the best of Christian pacifism: it’s not passive at all, but active. Pacifism is not passive-ism. It is intentionally, creatively, radically active. And it’s not primarily negative—against war, against violence—but positive—it is for peace, it is for justice. The best of Christian pacifism works to create the conditions in which peace and justice can flourish, and it works to resolve conflict and address injustice when peace and justice are floundering. But it does so in the way of Jesus, refusing to play the same game as the oppressors, where coercion and deception and violence are the game’s unwritten rules.

This is no thin view of pacifism. It looks beyond my world to the world around me, encompassing my family, my community, my society, the global village, the entire cosmos. It demands more of me than just a non-response in an extreme situation that, thankfully, few of us in North America will ever have to face. And it reflects much more than just a few red letters of Jesus’ teaching in our Bible—it reflects the larger purposes of God throughout the Scriptures, God’s greater gospel, God’s wider kingdom.

So what would I do if someone was coming after one of my kids with a knife? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can know until they’re faced with this. And none of us can stand in judgment on those who have faced such a situation and acted in a way different than our ideals. But I pray that if possible I would be able to resolve things with no harm done to my child, the aggressor, or myself; and if that is not possible, that I would die protecting my child—one whose angel stands in the presence of God—from harm (Matt 18:1-10).

This response, though, while shaped by my pacifist ideals, is not the sum total of my pacifism. In a way it hardly scratches the surface of my pacifism; in a sense it’s not even the best reflection of it.

It’s only the thin edge of a much larger, much wider, much more comprehensive striving for a greater peace throughout God’s Christ-loved, Spirit-haunted world.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.