I’m glad to see that the church in the global south is growing,” a person commented at a talk I gave on Mennonite World Conference. “But what do we know about what they actually believe? Are they pacifists? Are they COs?”
There were many things about the question that I wanted to reframe.
After all, the 103 groups that comprise Mennonite World Conference (MWC) cannot be addressed as “they”—our brothers and sisters around the world are as diverse as the Mennonite groups in North America. Moreover, the shorthand terms we often use to describe our convictions regarding the gospel of peace—words like “pacifism” and “conscientious objectors”—may not make much sense to Christians living in different political contexts and cultures.
And the question seemed to establish Mennonite Church USA as the gold standard for evaluating the theological qualifications of the other 102 member churches, precisely at a moment when some of those groups are raising doubts about our own theological orthodoxy.
But despite all these reservations, I understand the concern behind the question.
The North American Mennonite mission movement in the first half of the 20th century tended to present the gospel in fairly standard Protestant terms. In the cross-cultural and ecumenical setting of the mission field, a focus on “nonresistance” or “love of enemy” seemed to needlessly complicate the straightforward message of Christ’s saving work on the cross.
Thus, the churches that emerged from those mission efforts might have inherited the name Mennonite, but how does their understanding of faith and practice today connect with the distinctive theological emphases of the larger Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, particularly regarding peace?
The answer is actually positive. In 2012, the MWC Peace Commission conducted a “peace audit” of its member churches. Virtually all the respondents expressed a clear desire to identify themselves as a “peace church,” and many listed significant ways they were working to strengthen that identity. Respondents also expressed concerns, frequently noting, for example, that a gap existed between the official statements of their church and the everyday practice of congregations and individuals. And they all recognized the need for more resources and training in their commitment to being a peace church.
Yet the overall legacy of Mennonite missions—seen in the larger context of the work of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and MWC—has been overwhelmingly positive. During the second half of the 20th century, a new model of missions emerged within the Mennonite Board of Missions of the (Old) Mennonite Church that focused less on proselytizing and more on “accompaniment” and “mutuality.” That approach began with a high regard for indigenous culture and was attentive to physical and social as well as spiritual needs. It tended to define the gospel in the language of reconciliation—with God, others and Creation—and it cultivated a posture of humility and respect.
For nearly a century, MCC has also promoted a holistic vision of peacemaking: extending material aid to people in need, regardless of their political, ethnic or religious affiliation, providing financial support to dozens of local peace-minded organizations. And peace theology has been at the heart of MWC’s identity from its beginnings in 1925.
Today, the Anabaptist-Mennonite peace witness is finding a voice throughout our global fellowship in many settings and expressions. Much more could be said, for example, regarding the educational programs focused on reconciliation and trauma healing in India, Paraguay and Guatemala; or the creative initiatives in Ethiopia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Nigeria to promote peace in contexts of inter-religious conflict; or the efforts in Colombia to nurture peaceful forms of resistance to militarization and violence; or the emergence of alternative service programs in the face of military conscription in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Nicaragua and Uruguay; or the peaceful witness of a well-ordered life in community offered by many colony Mennonites in Mexico, Belize, Paraguay and Bolivia.
The conclusion of the MWC Peace Commission audit summarizes well the current reality of the global Anabaptist-Mennonite peace witness—and the challenge for North American Mennonites as well. “The good news is that a consciousness of being a Peace Church is embedded in the identity of MWC-member churches that responded.”
The ongoing challenge, the report continued, “is the pervasive complexity in moving from what is desired and written on paper, to becoming a bedrock part of the Christian life and community.”
In what ways is your church bearing witness to the gospel of peace?
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.
This ran in the December issue of The Mennonite.