True evangelical faith and the gospel of peace
Mennonite evangelicals and Mennonite peace activists must rely on the work of God's grace in Jesus Christ.by Gerald J. Mast
When U.S. Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden this past spring, Christian pacifists were reminded that the majority of their neighbors, both Christian and otherwise, do not share their basic assumption that the love of Jesus Christ extends to our enemies. As Americans celebrated the avenging of the Sept. 11 attacks, some Christian ministers bragged that bin Laden was in hell.
Like other pacifist Christians, Mennonites have always struggled during outbreaks of nationalism and militarism to relate their faith understandings to those of fellow Christians who do not share their peace convictions. Should we agree with our neighbors that bin Laden’s death was a vindication of the sword of justice that God places in the hands of earthly rulers? Should we invoke the Sermon on the Mount and remind our Christian brothers and sisters that Jesus calls us to love our enemies rather than celebrate their demise? Should we just be quiet and hope people stop talking about the death of Osama bin Laden?
Perhaps the time has come for Mennonites to be evangelical about our pacifist convictions. What we believe about God’s love for the whole creation—including even our enemies—is good news to be proclaimed in word and deed rather than a basis for quietly judging our neighbors. Though earthly powers continue to use violence to organize and secure human well-being, God’s saving work accomplished by Jesus Christ frees us from the cycles of violence and retribution by which our surrounding world lives. Through the work of Jesus Christ, and through no merit or work of our own, we have been reconciled not only to God but also to our enemies.
Active Mennonite pacifism: For much of Mennonite history, the main way Mennonites expressed their peace convictions was to withdraw into rule-governed separate communities where the way of peace was identified with the mission of the church, not with the policies of state or national government. In the past few decades, some Mennonites have sought to explain and follow pacifist convictions in more pragmatic terms, borrowed from social-movement leaders such as Gandhi and King, and thus to change government policies through peace and social justice activism.
Others are pushing the church to claim or reclaim an evangelical identity that roots peaceful witness in the grace of Jesus Christ. For example, Stephen Dintaman argues that the Mennonite emphasis on the Anabaptist vision has devolved into a behavior-centered focus on social justice activism at the expense of Christ-centered and spiritually empowered faith. In a recent book, Mennonite Church USA executive director Ervin Stutzman traces the shift from withdrawal to activism in Mennonite peace rhetoric and calls for the reattachment of peace to grace.
Such proposals to root Anabaptist pacifism in evangelical theology can appear naïve when it is apparent that most popular forms of American evangelicalism tend to undermine Mennonite peace convictions. Survey data tells us that the Mennonite denominations most visibly identified with American evangelicalism are also those with the lowest number of members supporting the peace position. Moreover, American evangelical Christians are among those believers most visibly identified with the American military establishment, who have voiced the strongest support for American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and who often embrace an aggressive and God-identified nationalism.
Still, as Mennonite Church USA embraces a vision of offering God’s love to the world around us rather than withdrawing, the deep evangelical roots of Mennonite peace witness provide a powerful resource for action and persuasion. Rather than accept popular American evangelicalism’s neglect of the weaponless peace of Jesus Christ, we can proclaim that the graceful love God offers to his enemies is the same love that flows through us to the world when we have fully received God’s grace. Early Anabaptist writers show us how to do this, as do the 20th-century writings of the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth and his Mennonite student John Howard Yoder.
Active evangelical faith: True evangelical faith, Menno Simons teaches, “cannot lie dormant.” Such faith “manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love.” Menno’s litany of the works of love is familiar to Mennonites today: True evangelical faith clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, comforts the sorrowful, heals the sick and returns good for evil.
Ted Lewis reminded us a few years ago in the pages of this magazine that Menno’s original paragraph on “true evangelical faith” incorporates actions of righteousness and holiness alongside works of love: True evangelical faith destroys forbidden desires; admonishes with the Word of the Lord, seeks that which is lost and saves that which is sound. Lewis noted that Menno framed his paragraph on true evangelical faith with the call to obedience: all those with this kind of faith walk in the commandments of God, commandments that involve both actions of holiness and actions of service.
Menno’s integration of holiness and service joins many other Anabaptist voices from the 16th century that call for a whole gospel witness. Among the earliest was Felix Mantz, executed in Switzerland by drowning in 1527. In his letter from prison, Mantz rejoiced that Christ had been sent both as our Savior and as our “example and light.”
This statement of thanksgiving acknowledges both Christ who saves us from sin and Christ who shows the way to live. Later in the letter, Mantz claims that “whenever a person brings forth fruits of repentance,” they obtain the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Christ accomplishes this saving work both by “showing us his love” and through the “power of his Spirit.” The same love that Jesus Christ shows us is the love that we are called to extend to others: “Only love to God through Christ shall stand and prevail, not boasting, denouncing, or threatening.”
Felix Mantz and Menno Simons make it clear that the faith of Jesus Christ is an active faith visible in the lives of spirit-filled believers. This faith originates from God, not from us, but when we receive it our lives become obedient and fruitful. Moreover, the defining feature of this true faith is the unending love of God that is manifested in our actions, that flows through us to the world.
Karl Barth highlighted the relationship between the love of God and the command of God that we humans are called to follow. For Barth, the love and grace of God, as manifested in Jesus Christ and revealed in the Scriptures, calls into question all our human efforts to define goodness and right action apart from the Word and will of God.
The command of God has come to us in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and “we must seek it only in what happened in Bethlehem, at Capernaum and Tiberius, in Gethsemane and on Golgotha and in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea” (Church Dogmatics II.2, s37). Put simply, God both accepts us in Christ Jesus and commands us to accept our neighbor in the same way that God has accepted us.
From this perspective, both the traditional Mennonite temptation to defend pacifism as a nonconformist privilege as well as the modern activist temptation to promote nonviolence as a pragmatic policy run the risk of becoming exhibitions of self-righteousness rather than displays of God’s grace. Of course, this is true of every human effort to do the right thing and be a good person. Yet the command of God is not to be good but to receive and offer the goodness of Jesus Christ in our lives.
In 1973, Barth’s Mennonite student John Howard Yoder published The Politics of Jesus, a book that argues Jesus was a political as well as a spiritual leader and that in his life, teachings, death and resurrection we find a social practice of both nonviolent confrontation and loving service to others that challenges the politics of empire and privilege.
In chapter 11, entitled “Justification by Grace through Faith,” Yoder makes an evangelical argument that connects the politics of Jesus with the commanding grace of God. He writes, “It is the Good News that my enemy and I are united, through no merit or work of our own, in a new humanity that forbids henceforth my ever taking his life in my hands.” Here Yoder is connecting peace among human beings to peace with God through the doctrine of justification. Just as we are made right with God by the work of Jesus Christ accomplished by God, so are we reconciled with our enemies, apart from our own effort, by the power of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Graceful peace churches: Such an expression of righteousness that embraces even the enemy and that is rooted in the free grace of God is the ground for a new political community—the church—in which former enemies are reconciled, and the new humanity, with a new and holy point of view, is assumed. Assembled by God’s grace, the church proclaims in its life and worship the graceful and peaceful command of God for the world. I suggest three features of a graceful peace church witness proclaimed as good news in the 21st century.
First, the church and its members proclaim that through Jesus Christ God has reconciled us, both to God and to our enemies. Therefore, it is not our job to achieve reconciliation with either God or our enemies. This reconciliation has already been achieved by the loving and graceful righteousness of Jesus Christ.
What we do, as members of Jesus Christ, is to gratefully make this already accomplished though not fully realized reconciliation visible in lives of service and holiness. There is no need to defend ourselves from our enemies either by weapons or by withdrawal because the God of Jesus Christ already defends and reconciles us.
Second, this accomplished reconciliation is part of God’s larger plan by which all humanity has been created and chosen by God to participate in the work of God’s salvation. To use language from Karl Barth, this is the universally offered though not yet universally received election of all human beings. God so loved the world that he gave Jesus Christ, not to condemn but to save the world (John 3:16-17).
In evangelical pastor Rob Bell’s recent, controversial book, Love Wins (see review on page 59), he makes the case that what God wants—the salvation of the whole world—is what we should expect God to get. God does not impose salvation on human beings against our will; hence, the willful sin of human beings continues to lead to the suffering and agony of hell. Nevertheless, in the reconciling work of Jesus Christ, even hell has been conquered and its inhabitants set free—by the way of the cross.
Therefore, when we recycle and reduce our energy usage, protest war and capital punishment, build housing for the poor, visit the imprisoned, plant new churches and help people overcome destructive addictions, we are proclaiming this good news that God’s salvation is for the whole world and that the gates of hell will not, in the final instance, prevail. Our words and deeds will not save the world, and we do not impose them on the world against its will. But deeds such as these are our expression of the hope of eternal and universal salvation that we have in Jesus Christ, who is indeed the only hope of this world.
Finally, in the peaceful assembly of the church, and in its scattering, this accomplished reconciliation and universal election can actually be tasted and seen. As reconciled and chosen by God, previously alienated human beings are assembled together in the body of Christ, where the grace and peace of God through Jesus Christ is proclaimed and offered for the world.
In the letters of the Apostle Paul, which describe this assembly, we find images of the church as a unity that holds together contrasting and conflicting views. There are many gifts but the same Spirit, many works but the same God. Such peaceful unity amid a controversial diversity is a sign of the body’s reliance on the work of Jesus Christ rather than our own efforts to keep the bonds of peace and purity.
In conclusion, we will not convince our neighbors to forgive Osama bin Laden or to recycle their plastic or to respect their own bodies by our quiet disapproval of their actions. Indeed, we ourselves will fail to live up to the peace we seek to make, unless we receive and offer the peace of Jesus Christ as a gift of the church by which God is saving the whole world from sin and death.
Gerald J. Mast is professor of communication at Bluffton (Ohio) University and vice chair of The Mennonite, Inc., board. This article is drawn from the 2011 C. Henry Smith Peace Lecture, delivered each spring at Bluffton University and Goshen (Ind.) College.
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