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

Response to John D. Roth

by Lin Garber

Lin Garber graduated from Goshen College in 1957. He pursued a singing career in New York City and moved to Boston in 1991.

John Roth presented a formidable challenge to himself in tackling these issues; something that becomes evident when one attempts to formulate a concise response. I found my head often nodding in agreement as I read his remarks, and just as often it suddenly changed direction to protest, "but wait a minute here...."

Roth evokes the Schleitheim paradox, which avers that "the sword" is ordained by God but is outside the perfection of Christ -- which can only culminate in an unacceptable proposition that God is outside the perfection of Christ! He grapples gamely with the history of how accommodation to that paradox has played out among the descendants of the Swiss Brethren, especially in the last half century when such formulaic mantras began actually to be read and interpreted, as opposed to being uncritically parroted.

He is far better equipped than I to report on the current state of that accommodation, immersed as he is in the Midwest heartland of mainstream Mennonitism, because my own contact with the process has been discontinuous. I was in Goshen in the 1950s, precisely when "the venerable Mennonite peace theologian and ethicist" J. R. Burkholder, then a youth scarcely less callow than myself, claims (as quoted by Roth) that "we addressed all these questions!" Apparently the questions were addressed without my help, because when I re-engaged with the Mennonite community some years later I was startled to learn that absolute nonresistance was now being moderated to make room for occasional consideration of coercion when injustice needed to be corrected. I must confess that I have never quite become reconciled to that shift.

For that reason, much of Roth's discomfort with what he perceives as a partisan-driven polarization within the U.S. Mennonite churches in 2004 resonates with me, but his proposed five-year sabbatical strikes a very dissonant chord, for several reasons. One is the suggestion that "conference leaders and ministers" should initiate the program; another is the prescribed time limit. On the other hand, "sustained church-wide conversation" is such a good idea that it should be going on now and always, not reserved for a dedicated time period.

As to a "cooling off" period, I consider it delusional to imagine that a volcano can be prevented from erupting by putting a lid on it. That's a mistake that is being made again and again by various officials and functionaries of our increasingly centralized denomination, most persistently in regard to same-sex affectionally oriented people. "Let's not talk about it for five years" will only delay any solution -- and will allow wounds already inflicted to fester untreated.

I also take issue with Roth's reduction of the problem to one of rhetoric. A "shared language for political witness" sounds like something intended to comfort the speakers as much as to convey truth that must be applied to often widely varying situations. He laments that the polarized rhetoric of the 2004 campaign was imitated by -- produced? -- a corresponding division among Mennonites. I would suggest that any polarization was already in place long before this last election cycle, and I don't think he would disagree. I also suggest that the causes advocated by at least one side of the divide were generated out of sincere discernment of God's will for shalom (and I grant that both sides would lay claim to such sincerity).

Four interesting cases are provided as background for Roth's position. The account of the airplane encounters has a serious weakness, however, when one tries to apply it to the problem of polarized positions within the church. The progressive, secular-pacifist German couple who became uncomfortable with faith talk are hardly representative of those Mennonites who "voted blue" in 2004, and therefore do not make a valid counter, for purposes of the present argument, to the militaristic, nationalistic fundamentalist Christian who fled from Roth's potential peace witness in horror.

The parking lot of an American Mennonite "heartland" congregation offers a more apt illustration of the problem, as shown by competing bumper stickers and verbal argument pitting anti-war sentiment against anti-abortion sentiment, even if one must question the accuracy of a perception that the last campaign season was the nastiest one ever, at least "in modern memory.".

Third, from his extensive travels over the year, Roth draws what I (and many other "progressive" observers) have come to see as a spuriously "fair-and-balanced" look at "liberal left" vs. "conservative right," lamenting the "fundamentalism" displayed by both sides. That phrase is the advertising slogan of the Fox network, and it has become a term of derision for what many people experience as anything but what it claims to be. But again, I have no standing to dispute Roth's account of what he heard on his travels. He is almost certainly right to deplore the degree to which all sides of these debates have come to rely on mass-media sources to articulate, and perhaps even form, their positions; that is a question that could occupy a whole issue of Mennonite Life on line.

The fourth example is a catalogue of selected "red" positions vis-a-vis certain "blue" positions, and I read it as couched in the language of "red" partisans. In other words, the issues Roth chooses to highlight here are the ones chosen by the dominant faction of the Republican right. He omits the issues of social and economic justice that hold most meaning for Mennonite adherents of the "left" -- which, as it happens, had the most attention given to them by elements of the Democratic party (even if, in the opinion of many, the Democratic "standard bearer" himself was a less than ideal proponent of those issues).

As I see it, then, what Roth has done so far is to reinforce the very polarity he decries by limiting his discourse to the concerns of one side, using the language of that side to frame it.

Roth describes a historical trajectory that began with the Schleitheim expression of the tension between the church and the state. Beginning with the proposition that God meant for the church to refrain from all violence, from any use of the sword, but allowing that someone or something must maintain order, the Anabaptists eventually settled on the model of separatist nonresistance, or nonresistant separatism.

At this stage something happened that Roth fails to take into account: the fledgling democracy of the Swiss Confederation, the venue that hosted the Schleitheim gathering, had spread to become the dominant system in most of the countries in which the descendants of the Anabaptists found themselves.

It had not been difficult to establish a boundary between an independent body of believers voluntarily unencumbered by magisterial responsibilities, as over against a church that accepted, even demanded, a role in the order- and morals-enforcing structure of the state, even if that state were only a tiny canton in the mountains. But when, thanks in good part to the descendants of the Anabaptists themselves, the concept of a state guided by an established church (which then became a tool of the powerful) gave way to that of a state in which fundamental authority was given to the people as a whole, with explicit rejection of any state-enforced privilege bestowed upon any one religion, separatist nonresistance began to feel less tenable.

Roth is correct to point out that the formulation "the state is ordained by God, but outside the perfection of Christ is… inherently unstable," but he overlooks the exacerbation of that instability when "the state" is composed of "the people" themselves -- including, willy-nilly, even those citizens who renounce the privilege (or duty? as some would have it) of raising their voices in the conduct of that state's responsibilities.

As a result, it is not surprising that some Mennonites felt vulnerable to charges that they were unpatriotic if they refused to go to war and that what Roth terms "pacifist activists" began to emerge as one response. And now, finally, Roth lists the "justice" issues that tend to engage the energies of the left (using scare quotes in a way that seems intended to diminish their legitimacy): the civil rights movement, opposition to the Vietnam war, advocacy for the poor, anti-nuclear activism. He reduces the support of such issues to certain kinds of actions, such as protests, rallies, prayer vigils, and "active campaigning for certain politicians, virtually all of whom happened to be Democrats" -- as if such witness was motivated solely by partisan impulses rather than by deep-seated spiritual conviction that these causes were in accord with the Gospel.

It is also not surprising, if regrettable, that another response to the stressful tension with "patriotic" neighbors emerged in the form of heeding the blandishments of those who would, it is ever more apparent, restore a world in which a narrowly defined church will use the instruments of coercion wielded by the state to establish itself in power. That church will, in turn, inevitably become a tool of the power-hungry, if it is not checked.

The Paraguayan situation Roth draws our attention to is indeed worthy of study. I also submit that the growing collection of Canadian MPs who are Mennonite-affiliated, mostly Mennonite Brethren, offers a more immediate case to be studied. It is perhaps instructive that most of them are affiliated with the Conservative party, and that even the few Liberals are advocating the "conservative" position on the current hot-button Canadian issue of same-sex marriage. I am tempted to say: if that's the best Mennonites can do in parliament, maybe they should go back to being die Stillen im Lande.

For myself, something in me longs to see a return, by both sides of the polarity John Roth diagnoses, to nonresistant separatism, although with attention given to the kind of study and spiritual discipline that he advocates should occupy a five-year "sabbatical." I just don't think a broken world has five years to wait for Mennonites to get their act together. Can we resolve to love one another, to study hard, and to trust in God to guide us when need presents itself?