NEWS ANALYSIS: Peacebuilding in a divided pacifist church
One family’s story reflects the stories of many Mennonite families.by Verne Schirch and Lisa Schrich
Is Mennonite Church USA headed for a split? And if it is, is this a tragedy or an opportunity? Will it bring harm or growth?
While Anabaptists have a long history of pacifism directed toward state violence, we have had a more difficult time applying Jesus’ teachings of loving our enemies or of those we disagree with in our communal life. The pacifist church suffers from harsh internal conflict.
A short history of religious splitting
People of faith have a long tradition of splitting over theological ideas. Abraham’s descendants broke into three separate religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).
Liberal and conservative members of each of these three religions now spend a majority of their time disagreeing and even fighting among themselves.
Anabaptists are no different. Anabaptists split off from both Catholics and Protestants because they wanted to follow the teachings of Jesus more closely. And Anabaptists continued to split over their interpretation of Scripture. Like other persecuted sects, Anabaptists became uniquely intolerant of minor differences among themselves. Adopting the same punitive approach as the oppressive state and church, Anabaptists practiced severe social practices such as shunning and made repeated decisions to break away from or push out those with whom they disagreed.
While early Anabaptists professed pacifism and love of enemies, the Anabaptist story is full of harsh splits over every disagreement imaginable. Anabaptists split over how severely to punish sinners through shunning. They argued whether it was okay to use buttons, first developed for the military, instead of hook and eye fasteners. In the last century, Mennonites who thought Sunday school was sinful parted ways with those supporting church education. Mennonites argued over clothing and hairstyles, whether to allow African Americans to attend Mennonite institutions, and whether to allow divorced people and women in ministry. Understanding our church history of conflict—as well as peacemaking—is important in the midst of current Mennonite deliberations.
One family's story of Anabaptist splits
Like most Anabaptist families, our family has been impacted by Anabaptist conflicts. Our ancestor Jacob Guth, a leader of Anabaptists in France and Germany, believed the practice of shunning should only apply to taking Communion. Guth disagreed with Jacob Amman (whose followers became Amish), who believed that shunning required breaking all social relations with those who sin and who supported the position of Han Reist (whose followers became Mennonites). Many letters between the followers of Reist and Amman showed harsh language. They ultimately excommunicated each other.
In 1711, the Dutch Mennonite churches sent four boats to Berne, Switzerland, to aid in the evacuation of persecuted Anabaptists. The feeling of bitterness between the Reist and Amman followers was so intense that they refused to share the same boat to escape persecution. Another ancestor, Ulrich Schürch, and his family were on the boat of Reist followers, while our ancestor Samuel Raber was on another ship of Amman supporters.
The Anabaptist history of splitting continued after immigrating to the United States. In 1847, our ancestor Henry B. Shelly helped organize a meeting with John Oberholzer over issues of disagreement with other congregations in the Franconia Conference.
Conservative Mennonites criticized Oberholzer for not wearing the proper coat, writing a constitution and his educational programs for youth. They argued these were not biblical. The 1847 meeting of Shelly and Oberholzer was a precursor to an 1860 meeting in Iowa that led to the formation of the General Conference Mennonite Church, which did allow Sunday school educational programs.
In 1864, ancestor Helena Stahly joined the home congregation of Amish bishop Joseph Stucky in central Illinois. Stucky was excommunicated from another Amish congregation in 1872 because of disagreements over dress, hairstyles and the refusal to excommunicate an elderly member of his church over a poem that suggested that hell did not exist.
Our family history is not unique. Many Mennonite and Amish families could recite a similar historical connection to the many Anabaptist conflicts and divisions.
What can we learn from Anabaptist history?
What can we learn from the legacy of generations of Anabaptist splitting that is relevant to Mennonites’ struggle to deal with conflict today? Arguments over selective biblical passages seem to result in church splits. Issues that seemed critical to church unity at the time do not appear divisive after several generations. Church historians should analyze church splits in the past and what we can learn from them.
We might start with the “Letters of the Amish Division." Perhaps these harsh exchanges between followers of Hans Reist and Jacob Amman should be required reading for all Mennonite congregations considering a church split today to temper our modern tongues, which can be equally unkind. Bishop Joseph Stucky asked his fellow bishops in 1869 to read these letters so that they would not make the same mistakes.
There have been some peacemakers among us attempting to mediate Anabaptist conflicts.
Our Guth ancestors attempted to mediate between leaders of the two groups of Anabaptists. But Jacob Amman said that if even one hair on his head was for reconciliation with Reist and his followers, Amman would “pluck it out.”
Later, Jacob Amman’s younger brother Ulrich Amman wrote a letter denouncing the harsh language each side used. He suggested that the two groups recognize each other’s position and agree to allow each group to practice their own interpretation of shunning. He proposed that the two groups remain as one body, a position earlier advocated by our ancestor Jacob Guth. However, Guth apparently was still bitter from the harsh exchanges in the earlier split and told his congregations to just “let it go.” Anabaptists have missed many chances for reconciliation and changing the course of history.
What would have been different if Anabaptists had practiced a pragmatic pacifism with each other in the past by being more respectful of each other in the midst of their differences? What if Anabaptists had put more emphasis on grace, mercy, compassion, love and unity in Christ than in practicing judgment, striving for theological purity and harshly punishing those perceived to be sinners?
What more could Anabaptists accomplish if we focus on our common ground rather than our differences?
Peacebuilding in a divided, pacifist church
The chasm between Anabaptist pacifist theology and social skills in handling conflict continues to haunt Mennonite institutions. Many Mennonites seem to believe that if we disagree we will have to part ways. So Mennonites rely on conflict avoidance and passive-aggressive ways of interacting. U.S. Mennonites also live in an uncivil political atmosphere that teaches us not to trust or even listen to those with whom we disagree.
Today, Anabaptists are again contemplating a split over scriptural interpretations of sexuality and issues related to how we structure our church decision-making. On the one hand, a split would affirm a historic Anabaptist pattern of failing to find a way through disagreement. It would signify that we are stuck in the illusory thinking that if we can purge the church of those we disagree with, then we can all get back to the business of following Jesus.
On the other hand, a church that is made up of biblical fundamentalists and biblical modernists (which is one way of describing Mennonite Church USA) may well be destined for endless strife. Respectfully parting ways rather than enduring continuous strife could be healthier for everyone. The Bible gives several examples of people who reconcile with each other only to then part ways more gently. The story of Jacob and Esau ends with the brothers walking in different directions.
It is important that we practice our pacifism in the midst of church conflicts. Mennonite commitments to pragmatic peacemaking led to Mennonite Church USA’s publication of biblical guidelines for “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love.” These are the same principles that now inform Mennonite peacebuilding initiatives in Afghanistan, Syria, Colombia and elsewhere. These principles include the following:
• Accept conflict as normal.
• Go directly to those you disagree with and, in the spirit of humility, listen to other points of view.
• Be slow to judge.
• Be willing to find common ground and brainstorm potential options for maintaining relationships.
• Be respectful and loving.
Mennonites from different conferences should continue to find ways to cooperate and share institutions where we have common interests—such as Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Economic Development Associates and Mennonite Disaster Service—where we work compassionately together to serve those in need. Mennonite World Conference and shared publications allow different denominations to meet together, listen to and learn from each other.
Continued Anabaptist efforts to create a “pure church” that includes only those with exactly the same theological and scriptural position is unlikely to result in a church that resembles the life of Jesus. Interacting respectfully, listening and learning from those with different scriptural interpretations and theologies offers us an opportunity to model to the world what Jesus taught us about loving enemies. It is time for practicing pacifism within the church, not just out in the world.
Verne Schirch is a retired professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. With his wife, Carol Shelly, they are writing their family history. His daughter Lisa Schirch is research professor at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in Harrisonburg, Va.
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