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Tools for our time: congregations in a country at war
A clear witness for Christ in a time of war, I believe, is the rudder for witnessing for peace. This is important to our own integrity as Mennonite Church USA. But other Christians are depending upon our denomination to offer leadership, particularly in a time of war. Our peace witness has been deepened as a result of our merger from two former church bodies, three years ago.
With this added strength, the situation has also become more complex. Terrorism has visited where we live. We cannot dichotomize our peace witness as easily as in the past. As our president told us soon after 9/11, he, and many others, now expects that "every citizen is a soldier." No longer can a simple "we don't wear the uniform" suffice as an adequate witness for peace.
Cast this new reality against a deep ambivalence Mennonites carry about how and when to speak to government. We have put that discussion on our delegate agenda this summer in Charlotte, North Carolina. Also, many Mennonites carry a two-kingdom understanding of scripture that some use to affirm the sword of government and still claim to be peacemakers in a personalized kingdom of God in which they say we live. If others think that Mennonites have all the answers worked out here, they are mistaken.
We need the reminder more than ever, that Christ, who is the prince of peace, is the one who defines our witness on peace. Peace, without Christ in it, is simply another good idea, or, to many, a hopeless ideal. So to speak of peace, we must always speak of it in the context of the rule of God. Then we must find ways in which our own behaviors reflect the rule of God.
This phone call as an effort from church wide leadership to stand with pastors and congregations who are not just dealing with the reality of this particular war in Iraq, but who are dealing with the forces in ourselves and our American culture, that are often expressed in relational ways, and as matters of conscience or conviction, that make wars like the one in Iraq possible. The place of church wide leadership is larger than simply addressing a particular war in a particular time. We support and teach a permanent understanding of the Christian's vocation to peacemaking.
Recently I was a guest preacher in a Mennonite Church USA congregation. The pastor asked for prayer requests, as he always does, in the worship service. Among several requests for restored health from sickness, upcoming surgeries, and the like, came one request for prayer for a young man who was being sent to Baghdad. I could not tell if the young man was a relative, a friend, or a neighbor.
The pastor included this request in equal proportions to mentioning all the other requests in his prayer. Without connotation of approval or disapproval, he asked God to calm the fears of the young man's family. Did the pastor pray in such a way as Christ might have received this request for support, born of concern and anxiety?
We Mennonites have the aim to reach out to our neighbors in missional ways, inviting them into our congregations. If God grants us success in that effort, surely the war in Iraq, or any other war to come, will come closer to us through personal relationships. And even if those who join with us accept our understanding of Christ's peace, they will still want to know if we support and care for their loved ones and friends who say they serve peace too, by their own conscience, or in a way the nation has defined.
There were simpler times of the past, when Mennonites separated from society, partly to avoid such dilemmas. That time is gone.
I close with a comment from a young person in our church who suggests prophetically that opposition to war is not enough, but real alternatives are found only when we adopt different priorities ourselves. He speaks from the concern of the enticements of military recruiters to persons who are economically disadvantaged.
After attending a recent Anabaptist consultation last month, on the possible resumption of conscription, this Mennonite youth minister from Texas wrote to the congregations in his conference and said this: "I don't see the colleges of the various [Anabaptist] denominations recruiting poor students like the Marines recruit. I don't see our seminaries and congregations recruiting our young people to the ministry like the Army recruits. We talk of resisting violence and war, but I say that poverty and despair are violence and war. My prayer is that we can all show the world that we are Christians with values and convictions."
This young leader reminds us that being a peacemaker causes change to happen in us first enabling us to witness to others about changes in their lives.