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

John D. Roth Responds

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen College, director of the Mennonite Historical Library, and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.

I am deeply grateful to Jim Juhnke for his initiative in posting the text of my C. Henry Smith lecture in this edition of Mennonite Life and for inviting such an interesting group of people to respond in print. Over the course of the past three months I have had dozens, probably hundreds, of conversations with a diverse group of people about the ideas presented in the lecture. I think that the substance of nearly all of the affirmations and concerns raised in those conversations are replicated in some way in the responses offered here. So this forum is a good distillation of the key issues in the discussion thus far.

I will try to keep my comments relatively brief, highlighting one central theme and then responding to only a few specific points.

Clearly, my proposal that the Mennonite church take a 5-year sabbatical from partisan political activity is the part of the speech that has triggered the strongest reaction (striking either a chord or a raw nerve depending on the perspective). At some level, this is understandable since it is perhaps the most novel aspect of the speech—who, after all, would want to take issue with my other encouragements to more prayer, deeper reflection, and Christian civility?! Yet the very energy behind the response to the sabbatical idea is somewhat symptomatic of the issue that I am trying to name: that is, do we have a framework for understanding our public witness to the world in a way that regards the church—rather than the state—as the primary arena of God's active presence in history?

Which is to say that the idea of a 5-year sabbatical is almost beside the point. My bigger concern is for the unity of the church—a church that cares deeply about preaching the gospel of peace to a violent world. In my speech, I named several realities that many of us sense but would prefer to ignore: (1) that the Mennonite church is deeply divided: (2) that one important expression of this division is evident in our differences about politics; and (3) that the language and frame of reference for our political engagement is increasingly being co-opted by the partisan rhetoric of the broader culture.

Now if you believe—as some seem to suggest—that what we need is "more [not less] partisan politics" then this concern for ecclesiological unity is clearly a minor issue in light of the larger, more important, battles that need to be waged. Throw your energies into "MoveOn" or "Focus on the Family" and allow the church to either become one more battleground within the broader culture war or simply irrelevant to our primary commitments that are focused elsewhere.

If, on the other hand, you believe that the integrity of a "peace church" witness to world might be jeopardized by the deepening antagonisms among Christian brothers and sisters closest to us, then the current division in our church should be of paramount concern. If we want our language of reconciliation to have any credibility in Washington, DC, Colombia, or the Middle East, then we should be asking tough questions about things in our own house that are not in order. I have called the current divisions among Mennonites an "embarrassment" to our public witness, an embarrassment that is not going to be resolved by more finger-wagging and blaming directed to the other side. My proposal for a "five year sabbatical on partisan politics" was simply an attempt to challenge us to take these realities more seriously. If there are better ways of working toward reconciliation within the Mennonite Church, I would be the very first to affirm them—I'm not stuck on the idea of a sabbatical!

Linda Gehman Peachy would seem to echo this concern when she notes that ways in which the church has failed to recognize its own tendencies toward "violence and oppression." I agree. My concern is not to maintain some ancient illusion of a pure or pristine church, but to encourage us to work more deliberately at seeing the connection between our congregational practices and our public witness. To do so is not, as Linda seems to suggest, "opting out of the system." Rather, it is to show a watching world that we can indeed live in the world in a way that confounds the logic and assumptions of the dominant culture (most of them having to do with power, coercion, and violence). I strongly affirm her specific suggestions.

In a similar way, I don't wish to imply—as Ray Kauffman and many other respondents have suggested—that taking a sabbatical from partisan politics is a call to "remain silent" in the face of injustice. My point is not to defend a return to being "the silent in the land." Rather, I would like our public witness—in our communities, to our politicians, and to our brothers and sisters around the world—to be framed more clearly within the context of our allegiance to Christ and to the church… and to a logic of social/political/economic transformation that is rooted unabashedly in the cross and resurrection. As Elisabeth Harder reminds us from her experience in the Ukraine, this doesn't let the church "off the hook." But it might mean, as she suggests, that we take more time and energy "for real discussions, helping each other unpack empty lines we've heard elsewhere, and sharing truthfully from our experiences." This is hard, hard work—as anyone who has followed the recent effort to develop a church-wide statement on health care ethics will readily attest. It is always easier to seek out like-minded advocates on any given issue and to be confirmed in our current understandings of the world. But it's rather presumptuous to claim that we have answers to the world's conflicts if we aren't more serious about addressing our own conflicts closest at hand.

Lin Garber offers a lively critique of a range of topics, and then concludes by suggesting that if Mennonites in politics don't happen to line up with his perspectives (the specific example is Canadian parliamentarians who oppose same-sex marriage), then we would be better off returning to being die Stille im Lande. The problem, of course, is that these politicians undoubtedly frame their position in exactly the same language Lin used earlier regarding "justice issues": namely, a "deep-seated conviction that these causes were in accord with the Gospel." This is not to suggest that every claim made in the name of the Gospel is, in fact, Christian truth. But if brothers and sisters in the church are going to frame their political involvements in explicitly religious language, then we need to either make our peace with a broader theological [and political?] diversity in the church (as Marion Deckert suggests), or be prepared to engage the hard work of theological discernment and reconciliation.

Karl Shelly's response triggers the most questions for me, partly because of his tendency toward caricature ("[Roth] would have us leave the political arena, shaking the dust off our shoes, devote ourselves to prayer and Christian charity…"), but mostly because his arguments—especially in the first half of his response—conform so closely to my diagnosis of the problem. Here Karl suggests that I have over-dramatized the nature of the current division in the church; he hints that the main problem resides with the "powerful" and "wealthy" in the church who are driven by "nationalism" and "religious fundamentalism"; he finds my perception of a gap between church leadership and heartland congregations "overstated" and my analysis of the church's statement on abortion to be superficial. Apparently, things are going just fine! Let me raise two specific questions here, trusting that Karl and I will have an opportunity to pursue the conversation in greater detail in person.

1. On abortion: "… had Roth's analysis scratched a bit deeper," claims Karl, "he would have noted the distinction between calling on government to refrain from military intervention… versus calling on government to criminalize particular behavior; i.e., abortion procedures. These are not equivalent appeals to government and the latter, as far as I'm aware, is unprecedented in the Mennonite Church." I find this argument bewildering. Does Karl really want to suggest that he would have advocated silence in the face of slavery (where issues over public/private understandings of "property" were no less emotionally charged… and where the debate had to do precisely with whether or not certain practices should be "criminalized")? What was the civil rights movement about, if not an appeal to the government to "criminalize" racist behavior? Anti-smoking laws, highway speed limits, consumer protection laws, environmental regulations (the list could go on!) are all, at some level, efforts to seek the common good by "criminalizing particular behavior." If this is the best argument for the church to refrain from speaking to government on the question of abortion—while speaking out on many other justice issues related to war and poverty—then the confusion in the church about the apparent double-standard is well-placed indeed.

2. Karl calls for more, not less, "partisan politics." But then he redefines "partisan" to simply mean "taking sides"—specifically, taking sides with the poor and disenfranchised. The rhetorical shift here, however, is disingenuous, even nasty, because it implies that anyone who raises questions about the dangers of "partisanship" in politics—in the conventional meaning of fundamentalist extremism—doesn't really care about the poor and disenfranchised. Behind this is the suggestion that an endorsement of certain specific legislative or political decisions becomes the litmus test of one's Christian commitment to the poor. But then, to his credit, Karl himself shifts the definition of "partisanship" once more by acknowledging that "the evidence of Christians engaging in partisan politics badly is widespread." And he concludes by offering a list of 4 guidelines—which I heartily support!—that sharply qualify how Christians should be engaged in "partisan politics."

Despite these differences, I am grateful to Karl and all of the respondents for raising these questions in such a provocative and constructive way. In the believers' church tradition, each generation of Christians is called to re-engage the central themes of our faith and witness. I am heartened by the vigor with which that is happening in the larger Mennonite church. May the Holy Spirit be present as we seek greater unity with our brothers and sisters closest to us, and as we bear corporate witness to the power of Christ's reconciliation and love to the watching world around us.