Engaging the State: Towards Political Peace Witness

Elisabeth Toews Harder

Selections from “Engaging the State: Towards Political Peace Witness”
Elisabeth Toews Harder, in Anabaptist Visions for the New Millennium: A Search for Identity, ed. Dale Schrag and James Juhnke

“Be careful,” my father warned only half-jokingly in weekly phone conversations over the course of last semester, the time during which I was writing my senior seminar on Mennonites and political involvement. “Don’t push too strongly in your conclusions that Christians should immerse themselves in government. It ‘s not possible for pacifists to participate in an institution ultimately grounded in military force without compromising their pacifism.”

These gentle cautions are characteristic of my upbringing; through these I have always sensed a strong resistance of being “of the world,” that Mennonites are a community that functions best separate from the functions of the world—the state being a prime example. Four years of stimulating college courses and an internship at MCC’s Washington Office, however, have pleasantly challenged this view, forcing me to consider the relevance of Mennonites beyond our own communities. I have read the words woven into our Anabaptist heritage by not only Michael Sattler and the Schleitheim Confession, but also by Pilgrim Marpeck, Menno Simons, and even Balthasar Hubmaier. But perhaps the single most impacting argument against remaining neutral observers of, or merely reluctant participants in greater society was made again and again by Professor Duane Friesen referring to the counsel given by the prophet Jeremiah: “Seek the shalom of the city where I have carried you into exile” (29:7).

The tension between my upbringing and my more recent ideas and experiences is, I contend, also very much present in the larger North American Mennonite church. On the one hand is our historic doctrine of a people living under the reign of Christ, and therefore hesitant participants in the reign of human authorities outside the church, while on the other hand is the ever-evolving notion that the church is to be socially relevant and responsible. And perhaps nowhere is this tension more critical than for our ethic of peace in all life. Is this an ethic only for the redeemed community of disciples striving to follow the way of Jesus Christ? Or is the whole of society under the same mandate, from which it follows that one task of the church is help sociopolitical institutions, such as government, operate as such, to push them to a higher morality?…..

As a critical component of our journey into the 21st century, I propose that we cultivate a style of political peace witness according to the vision that both the church and the state are subject to the “Lordship of Christ,” that the state was created by God to work relative good in the world, and that Christians may at most points participate actively in established political processes and structures to promote nonviolence.

First, then, let us affirm that the biblical vision of shalom is for all the world, that God’s love and involvement is in all of creation. While nonviolence theoretically finds its most complete expression in the church which has voluntarily committed itself to this ultimate and current norm, it is also the ultimate, if not the current norm for the state. Thus the church may not neglect social critique to promote movement towards nonviolence by those outside the church, but to translate this message may need to appeal to “middle axioms”—principles such as liberty, democracy, and human rights.

A second variable in this style of political peace witness is how we interpret the function and the nature of the state. Here I turn to Walter Wink for perspective on the institutions of the state. “These Powers”, he wrote, “are necessary social structures of human life, and it is not a matter of indifference to God that they exist. God made them”. But at one and the same time, God upholds a given political system since some such system is necessary to preserve social order, and God also “condemns that system insofar as it is destructive of full human actualization; and presses for its transformation into a more human order.”…

Why should we Mennonites take it upon ourselves to be at least partly responsible for the “justness” of the state? First of all, if we truly believe that god’s love is in all of creation, then nothing—no institution and no person—is beyond the church’s concern. Based on our reflection on Scripture, our faith tradition, and our experience being the church, we offer a unique and integral perspective for shaping and analyzing policies to benefit the poor and marginalized, for speaking to power on behalf of those whose voices are not heard, and for pushing the limits of status-quo assumptions and practices. For example, we have challenged practices of retributive justice int eh court system with alternative principles that incorporate with justice the restoration of relationships between victims and offenders.

And insofar as we believe that God’s will for the world is peace, it is imperative that the church proclaims this message to the military function of the state as well. But because the presence of brutal, violent conflict in the world is very real and because nations continue to cry out for intervention, it is not enough to merely reject state-sanctioned military force as we may have done in the past. Rather, Mennonites must as well draw upon our vast resources to critically examine both what is going on in the world and the states almost unquestioning reliance on the military to resolve conflicts….

A third variable of note in political peace witness is how we may appropriately carry out this witness to government—this political agenda, so to speak. I suggest we do so only with great deliberation, after careful discernment in community, and with a profound sense of humility that we are acting out of discipleship. Only several forms will be mentioned here.

At the most fundamental level, our political peace witness takes the form of modeling the kind of society and ethical standards that we wish to realize in the “secular” world. As John Howard Yoder asserted in The Christian Witness to the State (1964), the church’s

“very existence, the fraternal relations of her members, their ways of dealing with their differences and their needs are, or rather should be, a demonstration of what love means in social relations…by analogy certain aspects may be instructive as stimuli to the conscience of society.”

The church community is also that arena in which we prepare ourselves for participation in established political processes and structures. Only in the final manifestation does this form of political behavior consist of individual acts. Leland Harder has argued convincingly that in making knowledgeable and faithful political decision, we are dependent on each other int eh church, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide us at all levels of critical analysis….

A final component critical to Mennonite political peace witness into the 21st century is organized advocacy—or lobbying, if you will—by the corporate Mennonite church. MCC’s Washington Office, which according to its mission statement is “a Mennonite and Brethren in Christ presence on Capitol Hill which gives and encourages prophetic witness to the way of Christ on matters of U.S. public policy” is one such instrument by which the U.S. Mennonite church advocates particular positions to government. Continually facing the Washington is the challenge of negotiating a delicate medium in a sort of response spectrum. On one hand is the importance of moving cautiously on any given issue to ensure that there exists a wide base of congregational support for the direction of proposed advocacy. Of perhaps greater concern here is maintaining sensitivity to the diversity in peace theologies among MCC’s constituency, namely variances in those three components discussed in this paper. But on the other hand, the combination of maintaining close links with MCC personnel all over the world and critical monitoring of U.S. policy-making lends a “prophetic edge” to the Washington Office’s perspective—a perspective and resulting advocacy that, for many U.S. Mennonites, may at times seem to radical…

And finally, as individuals outside the beltway, let us answer the continual calls from the Washington Office to actively take part in advocating for policies that do not commit violence against women, children, the poor, minorities, the environment, or any other members of God’s creation, but rather seek the shalom thereof.