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2015, vol. 69

The Nevertheless of Love

by Walter Sawatsky

Walter Sawatsky is professor emeritus of Church History & Mission at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and a longtime East/West scholar and consultant with Mennonite Central Committee. He has attended all Mennonite World Conference Assemblies since 1990 and attended the International-Prague Consultations of 1986-2003.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.1 —Sermon Text: Math. 22: 37—40.

What does it look like in 2014, to love your neighbor? Having heard the sermon text, part of today’s lectionary reading that includes the decalogue as given in Leviticus 19, how do we apply the words of Moses and Jesus to now? The commentator in Christian Century recalled the many times in her life that she had been surprised by the grace of this greatest-commandments gospel. If in our confusing time, where many yearn for clarity, especially to think and do the right thing, these words offer a simple clarity on what really matters, and, it claims to come, not merely from Moses, the mouthpiece, but as so repeatedly stated in Leviticus, from I am the Lord your God. If there is a further perspective both ancient and contemporary, is it not the line in Leviticus 19:34 to love the alien as yourself? Loving God, loving neighbor, and loving the alien (the foreigner, the immigrant, or simply the other) go together. According to Jesus, on the law of love hang all the law and the prophets.

In the Matthew 22 passage preceding this part, Jesus was getting upset with the way Sadducees and Pharisees were putting Him to the test. So when they asked whether one should pay taxes to the emperor, they showed him a coin with Caesar’s image on it. Jesus then answered, give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. So simple, and so subtle? It was subtle in a way - Jesus taught by asking questions to make the listener think, to ponder options, to notice details that mattered, to imagine consequences. In this case, coins with the emperor’s image on it had to do with the empire, its things, its ordered ways, its economy, its capacity for military power. Over the 2000 years since then our questions have circled more around what is it, that belongs to God. Clearly that matters more, no small thing when you consider that what matters to government can easily frighten us.

In our passage the clue to what belongs to God is obvious, from Jesus’ question, whose image is on the coin? It is about the image. The ancient creation story already claimed that God made us humans in God’s image. When you are a person made in the image of God, or the Latin term imago Dei, then the point of our text is clear, simple, and rather deep. Those commands from God, followed by I am the Lord your God make clear that God loves us, so we who are created in God’s image would love God, with heart, mind and soul. It’s reciprocal. So also that second commandment, to love the neighbor as your self, that is, also a reciprocal component. You recognize in the neighbor the imago Dei.

Do we need to be reminded who is our neighbor? Jesus, you know, got that question too - so who is my neighbor?, and the obvious answer was the one, namely the Good Samaritan, who did not walk by the injured person on the other side, but stopped to help. And did we already forget that other line in Leviticus, to love the alien as your self, that as yourself phrase sets the parameters.

I have titled the sermon this morning the nevertheless of love, which is really about a theology of nevertheless. First therefore, I should probably ask the question: Are there any theologians present? So are you just looking at the theology profs because of my question? Should you not be looking in the mirror? If you are indeed formed in the image of God, you too need to see yourself as theologian. How often do you think of yourself as doing theology, thinking theology, living theology? Theology is about God talk, it is about more than our own relationship to God, it is about our corporate response to God who reached out to us. So doing theology, thinking theology, and living theology matters for how truly we worship.

This may be more simple than you had anticipated, so let me remind you that in our modern world of professional specialization, theologians are thought to have theologies, ethicists seek out principles, political scientists project votes or structural models, sociologists count heads, and historians like me are not to meddle in other fields, just give us the history. But it is not possible to just give the history, the details, the facts, or even the causes - because no one can be definitive. As you well know, the historian’s background, gender, race, and experience shape how the history gets gathered and told. When I started out as historian, the Mennonite world was just beginning to recognize systematic theologians - to systematize was not the Mennonite way, what they were looking for was what we do, and not merely what we should do.

A lived theology essentially requires historical frames, ways of showing change and development. In my teaching years at AMBS I often started a course by reminding students that Christianity is a historical religion - it claims that an omnipotent God chose to participate in the actual history of created humanity. Further, God chose to reveal Godself to us humans - quite a challenge given our finite capacity to understand. The primary revelation came when God took on flesh in Jesus Christ two millennia ago. This sent one, whether called Messiah or Christ, had been expected in some fashion - there had been much prophetic lead up. There is by now also a 2000 year postscript, where the third person in the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, has been guiding God’s people into all truth. That guiding, and the many moments of stubborn human refusal to be guided, make for a fascinating story.

In the lectures I am to present at Bethel College, I have taken seriously the Christian conviction growing over many millennia that the God we worship is a missionary God. Think of the Biblical lines - for God so loved the world that he gave God’s son ... so that the world might be saved; it is the will of God that all should come to a knowledge of the truth, or think of that phrase scattered throughout Scripture: for all the nations. At a world conference on mission in Willingden Germany back in 1951 this consciousness of a missionary God became known as Missio Dei. Since all of you know that the Latin for God is Dei, you know that Missio Dei means the mission of God. That is, whenever we talk too much about our mission, and I don’t mean the military who are excessive about it, whenever we speak only about our mission and forget that it only has worth if it is God’s mission, then our mission needs critique.

When you think Missio Dei before speaking of our group’s role in that mission, then there is a way of seeing, a way of thinking, that stretches you. As recently as the series of World Congresses on Mission held during 2010 in Edinburgh, Capetown and Tokyo, all said Missio Dei is primary. Yet when you listened carefully, you sensed they did not mean the same thing. Were they expanding on each other, or were they contradicting and rejecting each other? That is where our thinking together, our theologizing together gets tricky.

Having returned from Europe in August 1985, I spoke at a Mennonite Historical Society evening at Goshen College about the changes in Eastern Europe, where I had already argued that the indicators of a paradigm change in the offing were widespread, including that a post-cold war era could be glimpsed over the horizon, that era likely reached by way of nonviolent means. It was the disbelief I encountered among my hearers that had set me thinking. Claiming to profess a profound commitment to the way of nonviolence, to pacifism as they liked to formulate it then, I realized they held that as a Mennonite ethic, for their world, but in global terms, nuclear formulas had set reality parameters that they could not think past. Jonathan Schell introduced to readers in 1986 the writings of Adam Michnik,2 and other dissenting thinkers in Poland and Czechoslovakia, as a new politics of decency. During that wonderful year of transformation of Eastern Europe in 1989, British journalist Timothy Garton Ash spoke of the ideas behind the transformations, as the Doctrine of As If, quoting further from Michnik and company. So I began using a politics of decency, and doctrine of as if in my writing, noticing its manifesation in many places. Finally I came to the realization around the year 2000, that the theology I was being formed into, was a theology of nevertheless.

I had come to a recognition of the profound shortcomings of a theology of beginnings, so widely held, and even today driving the Neo-Anabaptist theological movement. As historian it was impossible for me to take seriously the idea of some pristine beginning of Christianity, or of Anabaptism, when they had seen more clearly, and that our task was to restore the essence of Anabaptism and of Christianity. Dynamic Christianity was always on the move, was constantly engaged in the changes of time and place. There were primary and secondary threads of continuity in the Christian story, primarily in terms of a relationship to Jesus Christ, whom we have confessed to be very human and very divine, and through whom we know ourselves as in the imago Dei (in the image of God). There were major changes along the way, grand paradigm shifts or sea changes to complicate our easy access to New Testament Christianity. The recovery of a vision or of a restorationist perspective too often has required of us profound blindness to the realities of historical development, even to construct a history of Christianity along the lines of a remnant theory, where we skip from Jesus and the apostles, to Waldensians, to Anabaptists, to Mennonites today, those preferring to be known as Anabaptists, because the real Mennonite story is too shameful.

So the theology of nevertheless I have come to affirm, is to seek to absorb the whole story, warts and all, as my Christian story, my Mennonite story. It therefore requires energy to abandon the hubris of claiming a third way, of being part of a church without spot or wrinkle. Too much of the church without spot or wrinkle has been a plague on Christian unity, because it has placed purity of life and doctrine, above the charity of agape. Too little love of neighbor as oneself, not enough love of the other, the alien who is different. So my presentations to you at Bethel will seek to reflect the necessary humility of being part of a Russian Mennonite story, where lots of them betrayed the faith in times of severe testing, of acknowledging that my people were among the executioners of the Holocaust on Jews and other minorities, not only in Zaporozh’e in 1942, but at many other moments of spiritual betrayal. I am also part of a Roman Catholic tradition that broke fellowship with a then still much larger Orthodox missionary church of the east, whose Greek and Aramaic languages were closer to Christ than was Latin. Plus I am part of the church that found itself in the strictures and structures of Christendom, whether you think of that as the western feudal Christendom of 1300-1600, or of Constantinian Christendom everywhere, as seems to be the implication in trendy Christendom bashing today. I cannot step outside of history and start over, even if there are others who think you can and must. The Lutherans long ago gave us a helpful caution - simul justis et pecator (simultaneously justified but still a sinner), and the Reformed tradition (to which Mennonites have usually been more closely aligned as split off branch), keeps reminding itself and the rest of us of the necessity of semper reformanda (always reforming). Chris Ferguson, the new general secretary of the World Council of Reformed Churches remarked recently, about this Reformed legacy, We must constantly reform ourselves. Unless the church is reinvigorated in its mission and understanding it will fail to be a force of transformation for the world.3 That is how one gets to a theology of nevertheless.

What helped me and many others, was the witness of a risk taking true Marxist named Ernst Bloch. As German theologian Jurgen Moltmann recalled his own breakthrough, after the facts of the Holocaust became common knowledge, and the complicity of Christianity over the ages in its antisemitic origins, we as post-Holocaust Christians had been struck dumb, he said. What was there to say, that was credible? Ernst Bloch published a 3-volume book in 1964, simply titled Das Prinzip Hoffnung, having already, as revisionist German Marxist revisited Thomas Muentzer and the Anabaptists to seek a socialism and communism with a human face. Having read it, Moltmann dared to write his own helpful book on a Theology of Hope. That is what gets me to a theology of nevertheless.

Going Global With God as Mennonites in the 21st Century is my central theme these days. It sounds grand, and arrogant. Am I imagining telling you the story of the Mennonites as that story, that we finally did it? Currently our denomination, now called Mennonite Church USA, seems more preoccupied with how we will weather our differences over holding true to our founding documents. Those documents refer to several statements, prepared and eventually approved during the final process of uniting two separate denominations of Mennonites in 2001. But we know that if we count all the Mennonites in USA, whatever labels their congregations go by, this MC USA denomination represents less than a majority. Nor can it claim to speak for all the rest theologically and missionally, and certainly not on the basis of those founding documents. For many decades both those previous denominations, MC and GC Mennonites, claiming to be general conferences, included Canadian and American churches, indeed the GC side also included church conferences in Brazil and Paraguay. Recently, at least, in an effort at producing a polity manual for both Canadian and American Mennonite churches, the revised edition contained phrases that allowed for the diversity between Canadian and American Mennonites. Yet when that manual spoke of local churches, it meant its local congregations, when it spoke of conferences it had only its member conferences in view, and when it used the code phrase the wider church or the global church it did not mean more than the churches who were members of MWC. Going Global With God will not work, if we claim we are the global church. So how am I getting to a theology of nevertheless? How might we as Mennonites go global with God?

We too can claim to be part of the Missio Dei, because God invites us to. But it requires us to notice who else is part of God’s mission, in spite of how strange what they are doing seems. This is more than learning to sing African songs, more than clapping and dancing in Hispanic style, or even to appreciate the musical progressions in Korean singing. It requires us to make room for those God has room for - the neighbors and the aliens. And that is a challenge. It requires those of us who are convinced that women as well as men are gifted and called into ministry including ordination, which not even our current confession of faith makes explicit, nevertheless need to embrace those who find that unbiblical, and keep talking to each other. It requires those of us in that MC USA denomination who insisted on a membership guidelines statement which introduced more group conformity rules, rather than the commitment to trust God for the way together when we voted to unite in 1995, a guidelines statement that does not permit credentialed clergy to perform a Christian wedding ceremony for same-sex couples, to nevertheless embrace those who think that the Missio Dei covers such persons too.

If that is unsettling for our small body of Mennonites, how much more should we be unsettled by what else our hearts need to be stretched to embrace. Most here can remember that the largest confessional body in the world today, the Roman Catholic Church apologized to us in 2003 for oppressing us 500 years ago, and now offer a common commitment to be peacemakers. We liked that, yet I am still missing our side of what we have not yet apologized for. Our Reformation texts are full of anti-Catholic language. When I check the monthly prayer letters that offer systematic suggestions for praying for mission, or even for the life of the church, I seldom learn anything about God’s mission as done by Catholics, or even by Baptists, or even by Brethren or even by Mennonite Brethren. How long will that go on, while we remain convinced God hears our prayers?

Three years ago, representatives from the Mennonites from nearly all continents, were able to gather in Elkhart for what we called a Mirror on the Globalization of Mennonite Witness. Its purpose was to foster what looking in the mirror generally does, to set us thinking on what needs work. There were indeed many interpretative statements, some prophetic calls to do more, to embrace more widely. Monday night I anticipate highlighting some of them, still others may come to you as you read through the five volumes on the Global Mennonite History project.4

Earlier I observed that my stories of people across the USSR and Eastern Europe discovering a policy of decency, of making straight the path toward what became the non-violent revolutions of 1989, was not credible to my listeners in Goshen in 1986. We did know then that although north American Mennonites were a peaceable people, rather consistently throughout the Cold War years the majority of our people voted for candidates arguing for a position of strength, such as for Ronald Reagan, who used religious language to condemn Russia as evil empire. Having lived in USA since 1990, I keep hearing that America won the Cold War and now must be the policeman of the world, so that free enterprise and liberty will triumph everywhere, and that evil empire will remain crushed. So I come here, deeply troubled by the fact that we live in very different worlds of interpretation. Not only do the peoples across eastern Europe believe that we found the way to end the evils of the communist regimes that were harming the public, they celebrated it as a spiritual awakening as they began to reconcile with enemies. There has been very little vengeance against oppressors in that east European world. Most of the peoples of western Europe, including the NATO countries that were supposed to be in coalition with USA, also understood the end of the Cold War as a turning, a recovery of a morality for being a good citizen, a moral revolution as I put it. What became problematic was the realization that they, those nameless others who were the cause of things going wrong, now had become us. We were now the democrats responsible for our shared future.

In recent months we have been hovering on the abyss of a nuclear exchange, the cold warriors pushing for resort to the most excessive violence to resolve differences, by annihilating the other. The Christian University in Donetsk where I have often taught courses over the past 20 years, became the barracks of the Pro-Russian forces in June - will that school ever recover? What has happened to its teachers and students? Former students who became teachers included a family in Luhansk, forced to abandon their school and seek shelter in Kyiv. Bill Yoder, known to some here, has been reporting on church life in Russia and Ukraine, agonizing over the divisions within church unions and between leaders, some starting to be partisan Russian or Ukrainian, and believing the propaganda of their own side only. When we commit to thinking and going global with God’s mission, what specifically are we to do? What specifically should be a way of thinking that makes for God’s shalom?

If according to Jesus, it all hangs on the love commandment, on the nevertheless of divine grace for us and for the other, the neighbor, then Russians and Ukrainians killing each other, then shooting off nuclear weapons by America and Russia, which will annihilate us all, cannot be the solution. Nor can bombing ISIS into oblivion solve the issue of the future for Muslim and Christians in this crowded world. Nor can some resolution based on differences over how local congregations welcome the stranger, welcome the minority persons all around us, unless we risk that difficult nevertheless of love.


  1. Related lectionary texts are Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18, [& 34 love the alien as yourself; Math 22: 34—46; 1 Thess. 2: 1—8 — bear witness to your faith everywhere, in spite of open opposition.
  2. Adam Michnik, Letters from Prison and Other Essays. Introduction by Jonathon Schell Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.
  3. An Interview with Chris Ferguson, Reformed Communiqué, September 2014, 8—9.
  4. For the papers and discussion of that conference, see Mission Focus: Annual Review, Volume 19, 2011, available on the AMBS website.