I used to think Mennonites and a few other Western historic peace churches such as Brethren and Friends had a corner on peace. Other Christians just didn’t get it. This was our distinctive, just as speaking in tongues belonged to the Pentecostals.
In this scenario, the Lord would someday, probably in heaven, reveal how our differences complement each other. Until then, though we might witness to one another, we shouldn’t count on making much headway. As one Mennonite leader put it in the 1970s, nonresistance was something you needed to drink in with your mother’s milk.
I was wrong, and deep down I knew it. The whole Bible is for the whole church just as surely as the whole gospel is for the whole world. One of my uncles, a leader in the Atlantic Coast Conference, put it bluntly when he said, “All Christians are pacifists, but some don’t know it yet.” I began to get his point. He might also have said, “All Christians are Pentecostals, but not all know it yet.”
I know, sociologically and historically, that this ignores the obvious. There are significant differences between Christian communions, just as between individual believers. I know there can be good reasons to focus on “distinctives.” We need one another’s testimony.
Yet there is a deeper call and a more abiding reality. If we forget that the whole Bible belongs to the whole church, we lose the vision of Jesus and the reality that all who are his are our brothers and sisters. We begin to think we “possess” what actually belongs to the whole body. And then we begin to lose that very possession.
I recently visited the church in Sudan. Not the church of South Sudan, which has rightly claimed the global church’s attention, but that of the north. It’s one of the last places on earth I expected to find a “peace church” in the traditional, Western sense.
Yet I was delighted to discover an extensive network of brothers and sisters who believe, teach and practice the radical teachings of Jesus about love of enemies as surely and explicitly as any Anabaptist communion I have ever known.
Had they heard of Mennonites? No. Had Mennonites heard of them? Scarcely.
When they discovered a single Sudanese believer with international connections who knew and shared the Anabaptist testimony, they lit up. “That’s exactly what we believe!” they said. “Let’s walk together. We didn’t know there were others.”
And when I also walked for a short time among them, never had I felt the New Testament message of forgiving, suffering love more eagerly and fully affirmed than among those brothers and sisters. Misunderstood and rejected by all the power structures around them, they nevertheless consistently refused to take sides or to bow to the temptation to take up arms in self-defense.
They suffer outrages against human dignity quite beyond my experience as a North American Christian. In the face of it all, they persistently gather around Jesus, testifying to his grace to live out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. I marveled at both the indignity and the testimony of God’s grace.
If we, as historic peace churches of the West, are worthy to bear that name, we can do no better than to humbly acknowledge that our testimony merely flickers alongside that of many others who bear the name of Christ in places of suffering we have not yet known.
Richard Showalter, currently in Nairobi, Kenya, is chair of Mennonite World Conference’s Mission Commission.