This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Witnessing for peace within an empire

Opinion: Perspectives from readers

A few recognized it long ago, soon after our government killed 140,000 residents of Hiroshima on an August morning in 1945 and then repeated the atrocity a few days later in Nagasaki. For most of us, it has taken longer to sink in. The United States of America aims to rule the world; we’re an empire now.

Today, our nation has nearly 800 permanent military bases in over 100 countries of the world. Its troops have invaded and occupied a large swath of south central Asia. It spends as much annually on armaments as the rest of the world combined and has begun to fill outer space with military weapons. It bullies weaker nations with threats of war, lawless mercenaries and secret agents.

Since 9/11, this agenda has been supported by both major political parties, by the mainstream media and by many coworkers and neighbors. It has become the new status quo. However much we abhor war and desire peace, the worldview of empire is difficult to resist. What is our alternative? How will it keep us safe?

Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense, had a penchant for telling the truth about empire. “We have two choices,” he said. “Either we change the way we live, or we change the way they live. We choose the latter.” Asked about the many casualties of this approach, Rumsfeld replied: “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. … Stuff happens.”

Indeed. Over 1 million Iraqis have been killed since the empire invaded that country. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, it has become commonplace for innocent civilians to be gunned down by the empire’s forces. In Iran, terrorists funded with our tax dollars bomb and maim.

This is what empires do. They seize control of resources, and as they do so they kill lots of innocent people and impoverish many more.

How can we prepare ourselves to articulate Jesus’ way of peace as the alternative that will save the world?

1. Reclaim the biblical view of empire. Empires are never benign. They always are captivated by their own rhetoric, convinced of their own entitlement, addicted to their ability to inflict overwhelming violence.

John Stoner, a Mennonite who has been a pastor, teacher and lifelong peace activist, says this: “In the Bible’s story, empires constitute the primary organized manifestation of that from which humanity must be saved.”

2. Break the empire’s spell. When we can no longer conceive of an alternative to the empire’s way of managing the world, we become weak, and the empire’s triumph is complete.

The first step in breaking the spell is to repent of our dependence on mainstream media for information about the world. For more liberal Menno­nites, this repentance will bring a new skepticism of National Public Radio. For more conservative Mennonites, it will bring a new skepticism of Christian radio’s news and commentary.

The second step is to acquaint ourselves with and begin talking about the bloody details of empire: its deception, greed and atrocities. Our inclination and training as Mennonites is to speak of peace in lofty religious and almost philosophic terms. But Jesus’ message of peace loses its power when we separate it from the ugly realities from which we are being saved.

3. Embrace a theology of the public square. Two-kingdom theology has served us well by supporting an identity distinct from the one the empire offers. But it fails us when it leaves us in the privacy of our homes and congregations, grieving the violence of empire yet resigned to its sway.

Being “people of Christ’s peace” is not a possession; it is a calling that sends us into the public square with the expectation that God’s saving work awaits us there.

Empires do not end well; history tells us that. Living as we do as citizens in and beneficiaries of the current iteration, it is far from clear how God will save us. But it will entail public witness to the way of Jesus, of that we can be sure. We can join that witness confident it will not be in vain.

Berry Friesen is a member of East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church, Lancaster, Pa.

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