The General Council Peace Commission of Mennonite World Conference (MWC) requested a response from Mennonite Church Canada to the question, “How is your church doing in its desire to be a Peace Church?” The two key phrases of this request to our church is, “desire to be” and “Peace Church.” “Desire to be” strongly suggests a process, a pursuit and a passion. “Peace Church” can be understood in my different ways. For clarification, MWC made reference to the 7 Shared Convictions (Adopted by MWC, 15.3.2006), highlighting number 5 and 7:
5. The Spirit of Jesus empowers us to trust God in all areas of life so we become peacemakers who renounce violence, love our enemies, seek justice, and share our possessions with those in need.
7. As a world-wide community of faith and life we transcend boundaries of nationality, race, class, gender and language. We seek to live in the world without conforming to the powers of evil, witnessing to God´s grace by serving others, caring for creation, and inviting all people to know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
Our stated theology embraces shalom—wholeness. We affirm that doing peace includes all aspects of life and God’s creation, and that peace is being in a right relationship with God. Yet, in practice and devotion, we manifest a wide variety of perspectives on what peace and doing peace means. Some accept the role of the military in the process. Others deem peace to be more personal and spiritual in nature. A respectable segment of our church advocates transforming culture initiatives as part of peacemaking. And, nearly all of us embrace the Mennonite tradition of nurturing community and doing benevolence and restoration as essential for demonstrating peace values. Therefore, the connection to the peace church identity depends greatly on the expression and the context. A short-term service experience to assist or rescue those in need rarely demands an explanation, nor does a community that is the “quiet in the land.”
On the other hand, those that confront our culture’s dominant ideology, can be misunderstood without the banner and defence of being a peace church. Clearly, we are at different places on the journey. And, a value of placement should never be assigned, because in doing so we would remove two key pillars of our Anabaptist theology—journey and grace. We journey together, and each congregation and individual contributes to the process when we are in progression.
Our Mennonite/Anabaptist tradition realizes that salvation is a process to wholeness with God, and to this journey we are invited, nurtured and sustained by the grace of God. We are reminded that we cannot earn our salvation by our actions. Moreover, God has graciously given us a model and inspiration for how to do the salvation journey—Christ. Many of us accept that our journey is not only personal, but collective. Thus, we believe that we are part of the redemption of all of God’s creation.
However, there is a segment of our church that has been influenced by revivalistic evangelism which perceives salvation as a purchased destination, and not as a process, and this contrast has been divisive. In order to “desire to be,” we must accept movement and change. If our focus is to truly be followers of Christ, which includes the call to love our enemies and not engage in violence, then we will appreciate “pressing on” and “reaching for the goal,” as Paul puts it in Philippians, and therefore we’ll be on a journey of salvation.
Our Mennonite perspective discerns pacifism and participating in God’s gracious justice as part of the goal in being faithful followers. This vision is the “desire to be a Peace Church.” The pursuit is a constant choice, and not a station of rest or ownership. We try to practice what we preach, but the message and vision is ahead of us and greater than us, and therefore the gospel message is a call to reach beyond ourselves to Christ. We need to be reminded that we are in a long progression and that we dare not manufacture a theological resting place. Salvation—being a peace church is neither owned by us, nor is it a stagnant destination. The influence of non-Anabaptist theology is and has been a challenge to our unity and desire to be a peace church, as has the influences from popular culture.
Our hero narrative includes martyrs who stood firm in their beliefs, and even though we celebrate our Mennonite heritage, we Mennonites in North America have been acculturated. We have not only learned English, but we have absorbed many of the values and practices of popular culture. Elevating the culture of being ethnic Mennonite (the hymns, traditions and bloodlines, etc.) can be a distraction to facing the reality of our compromises. Mennonite culture adds richness and historical depth to our fellowship; however, it can also invite complacency if we merely rehearse old patterns and fail to keep our steps fresh in the shadow of Christ. In addition, we Canadian Mennonites are mostly self-sufficient, affluent and comfortable while living in a poor and painful world, and reconciling that contrast has proven to be a challenge. We are tempted to diminish our focus of reaching for the ideal presented by Christ, and we are tempted to separate ourselves from that ideal, too. Thus, in the diluting process we are losing our passion to Christ, and our affluent independence has reduced our need and motivation to nurture community.
Without a Christ-centred theology, our desire to be a peace church can fade into re-enactments of outdated traditions, or it can take on innuendoes of humanistic rationalizations for peacemaking. At times, our presentation for peace to the mass culture is merely a petition to reason and common sense, leaving out the hope and wonder of God’s involvement. Also, the absence of a strong, interdependent community leaves us feeling less safe, secure and confident in standing firm for justice and peace. Our infusion into popular culture tends to make us sceptical and diffident, because we are lacking strong faith community support and/or we fear economic repercussions if we go against popular culture. What is missing from no longer living in a closed community (an intimate, trusting, interdependent fellowship) needs to be replaced, and that is another challenge we face. We are now blended in our culture, and we need to re-invest in building bonds to each other, locally and nationally, as faithful followers of Christ. Nevertheless and in spite of our challenges, we awkwardly stumble forward in our pursuit of doing peace because we are blessed with leaders who are competent, devoted and passionate about peace and justice.
The staff of MC Canada and those who are most active in forming policies and agendas are dedicated in their desire to be a peace church. Countless leaders have reminded us of our calling and clarified the journey for us, such as Robert J. Suderman, former general secretary, who often wonderfully articulated what it means to be a peace church. To all of them we are indebted.
Our leaders consistently encourage and plan proactive methods for living peace, including the 2008 and 2009 resolutions to present, in words, the peace message to the public, known as Peace in the Public Square. With our programs and publications, we have the tools and the framework for doing peace, and our leadership prompts all of us to engage in the movement of doing peace. Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Mennonite Publishing Network, and provincial churches, also, all provide opportunities and avenues for doing peace—being a peace church.
All these channels are dependent mostly on voluntary and individual involvement, and for the most part, those investments have been in the relatively safe, familiar ministries of benevolence, relief and social services. To be sure, those ministries contribute to peace, yet they are usually done without the clarity of proclamation, and their impact is localized. In our very fast-paced, hyper information culture, we need to participate in the public conversation, and not simply rely on the effective, yet slow, one-to-one venue.
Our leadership has faithfully blazed a trail for us; however, adequate funding is a significant challenge faced, as is a general reluctance in the majority of members to boldly move forward and risk the consequences of contradicting the public narrative. Perhaps, both challenges (lack of personal and financial investment) are symptomatic of a church that lacks clarity and confidence. We are not passionate enough about completely and boldly following Christ, and that affects our desire to be a peace church. Our procession is a long and varied line that includes foot draggers and brave leaders, yet the desire is present and the movement is forward.
Jesus demonstrated God’s love and compassion by reaching out to those in need and defending the weak; however, Jesus also did proclamation and confronted injustices. Therefore, in order to be complete followers of Christ, we must not only let our actions speak for themselves, but we must also present the gospel message of peace in words. Proclamation grants clarity to the audience, and selecting words helps improve clarity for the deliverer, too. We cannot be a tacit peace church; it is impossible. The Good News is not good or news if it is a secret.
Therefore, we need to claim and declare the label “Peace Church” for all to see, and as Jesus did, we should present the message in an inviting and redeeming manner. Too often, we have only presented a negative message of opposition to dominant culture without the confident and saving aspect realized through God’s love and spirit. Being a peace church is presenting and living hope and salvation for all, and words are required in that process in order to bring clarity and invitation. Moreover, our nation has shifted to more openly embracing and promoting militarism, and this destructive and unjust movement must be confronted. As Jesus did, we must reveal the false assumptions and present God’s way of grace and love. And, that message needs to be proclaimed in words and actions.
A wonderful paradigm is how Jesus, with words and body actions, quickly defended the woman about to be stoned to death. Moreover, a vibrant peace church must be relevant and current, yet we must not be tempted to be event or issue driven. Our personal agendas or biases must not determine our direction, because if we fail to follow God's will, then we are removing church from the label of peace church, and peace becomes merely humanistic social intervention. Our desire to be a peace church needs to be clearly stated, and our passion to model Christ should be emphasized and confidently presented.
We are a peace church, and we desire to improve our journey of and to peace. Yet, we are widely strewn along the path that God is forging for us in the name of Christ. We are of many opinions and perspectives. Our progression is long, as is our journey. Even so, we are striving to walk Christ’s path of peace, albeit, at times, gingerly and cautiously. We face numerous challenges, yet none are insurmountable. We have hope, and that is a key ingredient to peace. In order to confront the dominant culture and to boldly proclaim peace with words, we need to better understand that salvation, as presented by Jesus, is the process of peace—being one with God and God’s creation. When we realize the full scope of God’s redemptive love and grace that beckons a spirit of surrender and not of control, we will be free to passionately share the Good News that God’s way is the way of peace. Moreover, we need not placate dissenters because we fear becoming less if they choose to separate. Instead, with a focus on following Christ, we must graciously nurture and affirm our fellowship, trusting that the pull and guidance of God’s Spirit leads us to wholeness. May we lift up as we are being lifted up. Mennonite Church Canada hopes and prays to become the peace church the world needs us to be and what God wants us to be. We do not compare ourselves to any other faith journey or organization; our model and inspiration is only Christ as we respond to God’s redemptive love. We are a peace church, and our desire for wholeness is strong, yet we know we are not there yet.
See also “Rethinking peace.”