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2007-11-06 issue:

Redeeming the power, redeeming ourselves

Peace building experiments at West Point and the grocery store

by Lisa Schirch

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It’s a long way from my grocery store to West Point Military Academy. But I’ve come to see my time at both stops as experiments in peacebuilding, as places where I attempt to follow the way of Jesus.

When I taught a course on peacebuilding at West Point Military Academy in 2005, I found their cadets are a lot like my undergraduate students at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. They are hardworking, responsible, smart, optimistic, interested in foreign travel, motivated to serve others and ready to make sacrifices. And when I stood at the airport in long wet goodbyes with my family as I departed to travel to Iraq to work with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in 2005, I imagined many military personnel similarly embracing their families as they departed for Iraq that hot August day. I’ve learned that entering into conversations and relationships with military personnel isn’t
the same as being co-opted or agreeing with them.

State Department staff George Kennan once noted that the United States is 6 percent of the world’s population and owns half the world’s wealth. He claimed that maintaining this disparity of consumption—this “American way of life”—required U.S. military power and presence around the world. U.S. Mennonites live in a country that depends on military power to protect our freedom to consume a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources.

Many of us pray and sing songs on Sunday about peace and ending the war in Iraq. Yet many of us seem to have all but abandoned the historic commitment to simple living and have instead embraced mainstream consumerism. Our consumer-based lifestyle is supported by a variety of public policies governing trade relations with other countries supplying cheap goods and military policies defending U.S. economic interests and cheap oil abroad. What we buy at the grocery store has an impact on our global neighbors and, in turn, U.S. security.

How can we better redeem the powers of state and military and redeem ourselves from our own consumer-based lifestyles?

The quiet in the land: regaining our voice
Mennonite aversion to talking with government personnel may have more to do with our history than our theological convictions. Early Mennonites were fiery preachers openly defying the powers. They were activists, publicly opposing the government’s control over religious matters and proclaiming a new vision for the Christian faith and church-state relations. They were anything but quiet and passive. Within a few decades, persecution and repression wrought so many traumas on early Mennonites that they retreated from open relationships with the state. They became the “quiet in the land,” and most remain so to this day.

Trauma expert Carolyn Yoder writes that the collective historic trauma experienced by Mennonites is reflected in our retreat from state and public life, a focus on an inner life, individual salvation and community harmony. For much of our first century in North America, we set ourselves apart from the wastefulness of secular society with a commitment to “simple living.”

Today, many Mennonites exhibit a profound skepticism that transformation of the U.S. government is possible. They worry that building relationships with people in state institutions is more likely to lead to co-optation or undercut Mennonite pacifist consistency than it is to lead to the transformation of these systems. Some Mennonites in the southern hemisphere claim this “theology of despair” is a luxury in a world where impoverished people find ways of hoping and working for social and political change.

Yet this reluctance to engage the state seems in contradiction to the Mennonite theological emphasis on reconciling with enemies and Mennonite peacebuilding experiences in the practice of building relationships across the lines of conflict. Jesus teaches us: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Can we slither like snakes amid U.S. policymakers while we strive to live more innocently, with greater respect for our global neighbors and God’s creation?

To slither and fly: experiments in redemption
How should Mennonites respond to the urgent calls from government and military actors for alternatives to the devastation in Iraq as policymakers lose their faith in firepower as a solution to terrorism?

A growing percentage of my time is spent talking with military personnel and policymakers, offering them real examples of grass-roots efforts at preventing violence and building peace and security. Mennonites have an opportunity to interact with the U.S. government, not just in ethical opposition to its policies but in providing new security models. Mennonite peacebuilding efforts in community development, reconciliation, dialogue and victim-offender mediation began as theological experiments in putting faith into practice. Mennonites have a lot to say about effective security strategies, given MCC’s work around the world. These programs prevent violence and build security from the ground up.

I wake up at 4 a.m. once a week to drive out of the tranquil Shenandoah Valley and into Washington to visit members of Congress, the National Defense University or work with foreign policy advocacy groups. My drives begin with NPR stories recounting the day’s body count in Iraq, the devastation wrought by climate change’s droughts and floods, and stories of crime and corruption. Then I turn off the radio, watch the sun rise over the Blue Ridge Mountains, ask God for guidance in the meetings ahead and listen for direction. God’s strategy for security requires us to invest in sustainable development and robust diplomacy to address the root causes of today’s problems.

At a meeting of the Department of Defense, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, I was introduced as an expert on conflict analysis from Eastern Mennonite University (EMU). Noticing I was the only unclassified person in the room, someone chided aloud: “What! Are the Mennonites the only ones talking to us now?” I’m there as a pragmatic pacifist; I give voice to effective nonviolent solutions rather than just critiquing the powers for their reliance on violence.

I watch attentively as they argue with each other about Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia. The powers are not monolithic. Half the crowd earnestly speaks the language of human rights, democracy, economic development. The other half clings to their faith in firepower. I’m optimistic; prophetic voices from within the military are calling for a shift in the way the United States engages the world—toward greater diplomatic engagement and sustainable development assistance. We can be secure, or we can continue the consumptive American way of life. We can’t have both in a world of haves and have-nots when U.S. companies have sold guns and bombs to the have-nots for decades.

I pray to slither and fly in these Washington meetings. At best, I hope I’m helping policymakers understand the complex dynamics of violence and the impossible fantasy of quick victory with firepower. At the very least, I hope I’m able to inch U.S. policies and the behavior of U.S. troops toward engaging in less lethal and more respectful ways with people in other countries. At worst, I’m just making the possibility of another Iraq easier. A community of theologians and colleagues at EMU counsel and hold me accountable as I assess the impact of my work.

These are some of my experiments in redeeming the powers. Redeeming myself, an addicted consumer to a North American lifestyle supported by these powers, requires some peacebuilding experiments that take place closer to home.

Simple living: a personal foreign policy

Militarism and consumption are related addictions. While Mennonites articulate a belief in pacifism that rejects violence, we have a more difficult time discussing the contradictions of how we benefit from cheap oil and other foreign resources yet reject the wars that, at least in part, help defend the access to and freedom to engage in a consumer-based lifestyle. Perhaps Mennonites are more like ostriches with heads in the sand—or chickens in a well-guarded cage—than peace-loving doves.

I’d like to see Mennonite churches place more emphasis on simple living as a vital element of global security. We need community programs to help us live more simply and in greater harmony with the rest of the world. Personal decisions we make at grocery and clothing stores impact others and the environment. Fostering greater awareness of how our consumption patterns impact others can bring us into redemptive relationships with God, the Earth and our global neighbors. We can experiment in building peace and increasing security by buying fair-trade products, those made closer to home or renewing a passion for living more with less. Choosing what we eat and wear are foreign policy decisions.

In promoting Mennonite simple living and peacebuilding practices as tools for global security, perhaps we’ll find the redemption possible in reconciled relationships with the state. And maybe we can redefine what it means to be the quiet in the land, for peacebuilding is almost always best done in quiet ways, gently building relationships and letting others take the credit.

Lisa Schirch is a professor of peacebuilding and program director of the 3D Security Initiative ( at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. She is a member of Shalom Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va.

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