You’d think that that is what we are, according to some people, even us pacifist Mennonites, because we believe in God. In the words of a rising chorus of writers, bloggers and even a few preachers, belief in God is either a necessary prerequisite for violence, or constitutes a kind of violence itself. A November issue of The Economist suggests this with a cover picture of God handing down a grenade from a dark cloud, in a caricature of the Sistine Chapel painting by Michaelangelo. I understand that much of this is in reaction to militant Islam and the terrorist attacks of September 11, which were labeled by some wags as “the supreme faith-based initiative.” It doesn’t help that some of the Christian language supporting America’s War on Terror mirrors the Islamist language of the terrorists.
The charge, outlined by “evangelical” atheists such as Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith), is that if anyone would believe in the outrageous tenets of any religion, then they would be capable of believing and doing anything, no matter how outrageous. And when the stakes are so high (eternity) and so absolute (God, right and wrong, heaven or hell), then the true believer can allegedly only prove his or her faith worthy of God’s approval by the ultimate act, the willingness to kill infidels, and even to die in the act of killing. The claim is also made that there is nothing inherent within any religion, especially not among the Abrahamic ones, that would moderate or restrain any murderous impulse. Quite the opposite, some say. Even before the events of September 11, 2001, I was repeatedly told by some who had lived through the Second World War that to claim belief in anything or anyone implies an unavoidable next step: that I must kill anyone who believes differently. So they strongly believe that you should never believe anything strongly. Granted: that is indeed how they experienced belief in pre-war Europe, of either the religious, fascist or Marxist sort. This may explain, in part, the great degree of secularism in post-war Europe. Karen Armstrong effectively declared, in her book Holy War, that warfare and violence are inherent and inevitable aspects of monotheism. I look in vain for any mention of Christian pacifists and of Christian pacifism among these assertions about religiously-inspired violence.
But they do exist.
So, if violence and monotheism are inherent and necessary to each other, how does anyone explain the Amish? Or the Mennonites? Or Quakers, Hutterites, the early Franciscans and other Christian pacifists, as were most of the first Christians of the first three centuries before Constantine? They are and have long been staunchly pacifist, yet not because their faith was weak, relativistic, universalistic and tolerant of all things. Many of them would qualify as fundamentalists, evangelicals and true believers of a type that would have Dawkins or Armstrong scanning them nervously for weapons or suicide bomber belts. In vain, of course.
Its not that we necessarily believe any less strongly than would a suicide bomber or an armed Christian crusader. Its that our belief system insists that the ultimate proof of our faith is not in the depth of our hatred for anyone, nor in our willingness to kill, but in the depth and extent of our love for friend and foe alike, to the point that we would rather die for our enemy than kill him or her. The world saw evidence of this stance in the response of the Amish community to the killer of the schoolgirls at Nickel Mines, PA., and to his family.
For the Christian pacifist, the proof of our faith is not in the urgency wth which we seize the levers of history with weapons of terror and acts of violence, but in the love and patience with which we work for the eternal and the temporal welfare of all, indiscriminate of whether they agree with us or like us or even wish to kill us. Because this is what we see in the nature of God, “who makes his sun to shine and his rain to fall upon the just and the unjust,” and “whose kindness is meant to move us to repentance.” And we know this because of Jesus, who demonstrated such love to the end, and who calls for the same from his followers. He is the definitive self-expression of God, and the key by which we read and interpret the Bible.
Nor is it that our willingness to coexist and even to serve and love people who disagree with us is based on any warm and fluffy universalism or moral relativism. Peace of the sort I’ve just described requires a cold, realistic eye to the nature of human stubbornness and sinfulness, beginning with our own, so that we know ourselves to be in need of at least as much forgiveness as any foe or persecutor. Peace of this sort requires a moral absolutism even stronger than that of the suicide bomber or the Christian crusader, because it applies to the means as well as to the ends. We’d rather fail by virtuous means than succeed by evil ones, because we trust God to vindicate his means by the end he brings to history. Its not that we lack absolutes; its that peaceful, positive, merciful coexistence with even our enemies and detractors is as much a moral absolute to us as is any other value in the realm of sex, wealth or truth-telling. But our job is to apply these absolutes to ourselves. That is all for which God will hold us accountable.
I hope that reassures any reader that they would be safe to visit Emmanuel Mennonite Church, no matter what they believed, or not. But then, some people in history have feared us precisely because we wouldn’t kill people. That’s one reason why the pacifist Anabaptists were so fiercely persecuted in 16th Century Europe, in part, because they wouldn’t join the Wars of Religion. This was Eduard Gibbons’ accusation against the early church in his 18th Century classic, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: that the Roman Empire was overrun by the barbarians because there were so many Christians who wouldn’t fight them. If I could choose, I would prefer this older criticism over the more contemporary one; its fairer, and its just galling to be constantly accused of something you stand so strongly against.
Let’s see: Gibbons slammed Christianity because of its pacifism, while others slam Christianity because of its allegedly inherent violence. Which is it? I guess it only proves that moral discernment around matters of war and peace shouldn’t be based on public opinion polls or approval ratings.