This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

1935, 1945 and today

We’re thinking a lot about history as the Sept. 1 merger of MWR and The Men­nonite into Anabaptist World approach­es.

We’re remembering the inclusive vision of Henry P. Krehbiel, who founded MWR in 1923 to unify Mennonite groups who generally kept to themselves.

Reflecting on MWR’s beginning got us thinking not only about Krehbiel the editor but Kreh­biel the peace activist.

And we noticed the coincidence of two anniversaries — one widely observed, the other little known.

The famous anniversary is of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago this month.

The other, later this year, is of a national conference of historic peace churches that Kreh­biel took the lead in organizing. At this meeting 85 years ago in Newton, Kan., Mennonites and other Christian pacifists resolved to work together in a common witness for nonviolence if their country went to war.

Today, as Mennonites take action for peace by joining the movement against systemic racism and by seeking to revive their witness for nonviolence under Mennonite Church USA’s “Bring the Peace” theme, remembering these anniversaries can inform our thinking and inspire our action.

The Newton Auditorium, site of the 1935 conference of historic peace churches. — Harvey County Historical Society
The Newton Auditorium, site of the 1935 conference of historic peace churches. — Harvey County Historical Society

Across from the MWR office on West Sixth Street in Newton is a parking lot where the Newton Auditorium once stood. Here, on Oct. 31-Nov. 2, 1935, Krehbiel chaired a meeting of peace-church representatives — Mennonites, Friends and Brethren. His leadership role had emerged from positive reactions to a speech he gave on “What Is a Pacifist?” at a similar meeting in 1931 in Illinois.

“Peace churches should seek to realize peace by winning the souls of men for Christ,” he said, “not simply by opposing war.”

Four years later, with fascism on the rise in Europe and war brewing in East Asia, Christian pacifists knew they needed to prepare for their convictions to be tested — and, they hoped, to be recognized by law.

Krehbiel opened the meeting by declaring a pacifist revival was at hand. “Great numbers of Christians that heretofore were military-minded [are] now repentant of that disloyalty to Christ . . . and now give heed to the admonition to love and not to hate,” he said. He challenged the delegates with a question: Did not God preserve the “friends of peace through ages of tribulation for just such a time as this?”

A conference committee that included Orie Miller, executive secretary of Mennonite Central Committee, wrote a statement on Christian patriotism that declared “war is sin.” According to John A. Sharp in his biography of Miller, My Calling to Fulfill (Herald Press, 2015), the statement disavowed any conflict between pacifism and patriotism. “We love our country,” the committee wrote, but “true love . . . does not mean hatred of others.”

Delegates resolved that in any future war the peace churches would accept only “alternative service of nonmilitary nature and not under military control.” A committee was appointed to petition the government — and was successful. When a military draft began in 1940, the Civilian Public Service program was organized for conscientious objectors.

Ten years after the Newton meeting, the war that the peace-church leaders had prepared for finally came to an end. But not before the apocalyptic dawn of the nuclear age. On Aug. 6, 1945, a fission bomb with a yield of 12 and a half kilotons — small by today’s standards — detonated about 1,900 feet above ­Hiro­shima, Japan. In an instant, a city of 340,000 people was incinerated. Tens of thousands died that day; tens of thousands more suffered horrible injuries or soon succumbed to radiation sickness. Within three months the death toll climbed to an estimated 130,000.

In Unforgettable Fire, survivors remembered hearing the voices of parents, children and neighbors crying out from a dark world of death. Kikuno Segawa wrote: “A woman who looked like an expectant mother was dead. At her side, a girl of about 3 years of age brought some water in an empty can she had found. She was trying to let her mother drink from it.”

The pacifist Christians who in 1935 condemned war as sin could not have imagined human suffering on a scale that surpassed even the horrors of the Great War that had ended only 17 years prior. But they knew they must refuse par­ticipation in state-organized killing because, as one of their committees wrote, our “highest loyalty must be to Christ and his teaching.”

We look back on these anniversaries for inspiration and warning. Warning about war’s consequences, because nuclear weap­ons remain poised to launch. And inspiration for action as peacemakers, because today’s world needs faithful action for nonviolent change as much as the world of 1935 and 1945 needed a witness against war.

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