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Old Confession Offers Word for Today

GOSHEN, Ind. – With war brewing in Iraq, the stakes for those espousing a vigorous peace witness have been raised another notch, tossing a fresh challenge in the laps of peacemaking Christians.

Goshen College history professor John D. Roth, at a gathering Sept. 13-14 at the college, said a certain tension exists between being persuasive about the peace witness and remaining humble.

Roth spoke at a colloquium where the nature and expression of the peace witness were discussed in the context of the 1527 Schleitheim Confession, the earliest Anabaptist statement of faith.

“How do you engage the world with passion and conviction without becoming a warrior?” Roth said. “How do you engage the world’s brokenness without becoming another clanging gong?”

About 70 people attended the colloquium, “From Schleitheim to NYC: Anabaptist-Mennonite Reflections on 9/11 a Year Later,” which also used the Sept. 11 attacks as a lens for examining the church’s broader expression of nonviolence.

Roth challenged the traditional view, which some say Schleitheim embodied, of remaining not only separate but remote from the public arena.

“Can we be truly nonconformed to the world without being irrelevant to the world?” said Roth, author of the recently published Choosing Against War: A Christian View (Good Books). “The challenge for Christians is how to embrace an identity that is not inherently coercive . . . [and] without reducing God to another tribal deity we call upon for our own selfish purposes.

“An absolute requirement to embrace ‘the other’ is required. The only way out of the spiral of violence is forgiveness. The very act of forgiveness affirms justice.

“Humility suggests that Christians will be both bold and hesitant in their witness. . . . [But] we can speak the truth because our God is not a coercive God.”

With articles ranging from baptism and church discipline to separation from the world and refusal to take up the sword, the Schleitheim is still viewed as a seminal document in Anabaptist history. Nonetheless, its 16th-century emphasis on staying removed from the political arena is seen by some as outdated. Other speakers at the conference saw other dilemmas presented by Schleitheim, and by 9/11.

“Being a pacifist between wars is like being a vegetarian between meals,” said Jim Amstutz. “We don’t go looking for trouble with the view of becoming a martyr.”

Amstutz, pastor of Akron (Pa.) Mennonite Church, is the author of Threatened with Resurrection: Self-Preservation and Christ’s Way of Peace (Herald Press, 2002). “Try as we might, we are never a full expression of the kingdom of God,” he said.

Like most of the 10 speakers, Amstutz saw the 9/11 attacks as a deep and refining test of the Anabaptist commitment to nonviolence and refusal to make war.

Sept. 11 “gave Mennonites another chance to reclaim their convictions about nonviolence and nonresistance,” Amstutz said, noting that a Catholic friend told him, “This is what Jesus said, so deal with it.”

Gerald Biesecker-Mast, associate professor of communication at Bluffton (Ohio) College, said even though a strict interpretation of Schleitheim could create a milieu of “bitter sectarians” who seek to remove themselves from engaging the greater society, other elements of the confession extol Christian values that are deeply needed today.

“We are in a position where the Schleitheim call has never been more relevant than now,” he said.

Kate Simcox, a student at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University, said the view of the Schleitheim taken today is a natural outgrowth of changing times and changing Christians.

“Old actions change meanings” as centuries pass, Simcox said. “Is the sword always on the side of darkness?”

While much of the colloquium centered on an academic or theological summary of the Schleitheim’s continuing influence, other presentations focused on ways that congregations and the Mennonite denomination as a whole can express nonviolence, especially in the shadow and confusion of 9/11.

Richard Kauffman, associate editor of The Christian Century and former pastor of Toledo (Ohio) Mennonite Church, said: “We need to think about how it is that God deals with violence, by dealing with it with love.”

Kauffman said nonviolence “is not an idea we’re trying to win people over to, but a way of life . . . another possibility besides violence.” Kauffman also emphasized the importance of choosing not to live in fear when faced with events like those of 9/11.

“At the same time I think we have to be empathetic to people who do feel anxiety and fear,” Kauffman said. “We need both prayer and community to sustain this vision of peace. . . . Prayer, I think, is being connected to the source of peace,” a connection made visible through the church’s corporate body.

Kauffman also noted the recurrence of warmaking in U.S. history, and the importance it has gained in perceptions of the nation’s survival and role in the world.

“It’s a habit and a mythology that will not die easily,” he said. John Dey, pastor of Grace Mennonite Church in Pandora, Ohio, described how even before 9/11 and the rush of patriotism that followed, his church was trying to resolve an inner division on nonviolence.

By reaching out to members who favored military action, especially veterans in the church, Dey said he tried to build new and meaningful relationships that ultimately helped the congregation weather the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Though church members who favor nonresistance sometimes felt marginalized by their neighbors, Dey said the experience of addressing these issues had drawn the church together.

“From Schleitheim to NYC” was hosted by Goshen College and sponsored by the Mennonite Historical Society.

This column was reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.