new Mennonite Life logo    June 2005     vol. 60 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

Response to John Roth's "Called to One Peace"

by Marion Deckert

Marion Deckert is professor emeritus of philosophy at Bethel College. For fourteen years he served as academic dean.

I have only a minor quarrel with John's call for a five-year sabbatical from party politics. In general, I view any reduction or elimination of the church's involvement in party politics to be a good thing. Five years is better then nothing. What I do not see is how a sabbatical would solve the root problem. A sabbatical is aimed to provide new energy for what is agreed to be a vital and important work. I doubt that is the intent here. But without some proposal on how to speak to the real problem, I do not see that a sabbatical could accomplish much more than a temporary cooling off. To be fair to John, I should add that there could be some salutary side effects to his call for the church to concentrate on "local initiatives." More of this later.

I suspect that John's paper has attracted attention largely because of its call for a five-year moratorium on party politics. To my mind, the more provocative and interesting part of the paper is the first part in which he speculates on the reasons for the increased political heat in the Mennonite community.

John begins by pointing out that our historical approach to the church and politics is characterized by two kingdom theology. We have wanted to think that the state is, on the one hand, necessary and sanctioned by God but, on the other hand, is fallen and outside of the kingdom. As the Schleitheim Confession puts it, the state is "ordained of God, but outside the perfection of Christ." This two kingdom thinking leads to the idea that the Christian must respect, and where possible, obey the state but that it is not the Christian's business to run the state or try to get it into the kingdom. As John points out, this leaves the Christian with a great deal of tension since one's life is inevitably life in and with the state. This tension results in a political stance which John calls "nonresistant separatist."

It is a familiar fact that in the last half of the twentieth century the church leaders and intellectuals were unwilling to live with this tension. The current generation has been largely successful in officially moving the church to a quite different position, a position which understands the church as having a mission to move the state ever closer to the kingdom; a position that advocates and adopts more and more direct means of influencing the state in directions that are assumed to be more "Christian." John calls this new position "pacifist activist."

Given this understanding of where we are in our understanding of church and state, John suggests several causes of the increasing political heat in the Mennonite community. One factor, in his view, is that there is a growing disconnect between the more conservative people in the pews and a church leadership that has almost uniformly espoused the pacifist activist position. I think this is a largely accurate assessment. If it is accurate, it suggests that there may be two quite different views in the community on a range of issues and that this divergence is not readily visible because the leadership and the institutions are almost unanimous in taking one side.

John's seminal insight is that the nonresistant separatist position has ceased to be supported in any substantial way. The church has officially abandoned it. This leaves the more conservative members without the old theological understanding of their relation to the state. In its place they see a quite different teaching. By the words and example of the leadership, they understand that they need to work to make the state conform to their theological understandings. This leads to a situation in the church where we have the pacifist activists and the "conservative activists" both plunging into the political battles, but often on quite different sides. Now the church becomes the locus of intense political struggle.

This political struggle should have been entirely predictable given a liberal-conservative divide in the membership and given the--usually unspoken--understanding that a faithful Christian must work politically to bring the state closer to the kingdom. Moreover, once this struggle becomes an open sore in the church it must raise some serious questions about the very idea of a Christian political obligation. One might even say that there seems to be a hidden contradiction that underlies this political fight among our members.

If we look on the theological level, we will find that there has been a great deal of effort to assure our people that diversity and tolerance are primary Christian virtues. We have worked hard at broadening the skirts of the Mennonite tent. Far be it from us to fight over theological principles. After all, this would begin to look like a new fundamentalism. There is surely room in the kingdom for a variety of interpretations and a variety of view. However, when we look on the political side this tolerance of diversity seems to quickly disappear.

But can we have it both ways? If we assume that theological diversity is allowed--even desirable--and if we assume that one should express one's theology in political action, then we must assume that the political sides chosen will reflect this diversity. How then can we struggle to change our fellow member's political position? In so far as political action is based on theological understandings, and in so far as theological diversity is valued, and in so far as it is expected that theological principles shall end in political action, just so far we seem to be in some kind of contradiction when we fight politically.

It seems that the church has determined not to fight over various interpretations of scripture and various views on what is of priority. Nevertheless when these diverging views appear in the political arena then the truce is quickly abandoned. It is as though we do not think that theology is really important but we do think that politics is fundamental--as though we do not believe that the church has any real answers to human problems, while the real solutions can only come from correct politics. Or to put it another way, the political struggle in our membership appears to be a proxy for the theological work we refuse to do at home. If we are unwilling to accept the results of different Christian understandings in public life then perhaps we ought to begin to examine why we think we ought to accept them in the church.

One consequence of the old nonresistant separatist view was the creation of a broad range of counter-cultural actions and institutions designed to deal with social and cultural problems in a non-political way. It is not hard to list a dozen projects in areas like mutual aid, insurance, relief, health, prisons, insurance, development, education etc. which our people have invested themselves in over the last century. All of these efforts were counter-cultural in the sense that they did not depend primarily upon state or public support. The old nonresistant separatist view was not equivalent to doing nothing. It was a view that thought the church did have relevance and power independent of the state and independent of whatever politics was in vogue. Perhaps if we would spend five years paying close attention to "local initiatives" as John suggests, we would end in finding that the kingdom does not depend upon who is in Washington.