I'm writing today from a rather historic event. The US Conference of the Mennonite Brethren is hosting a study conference on the theme of "Kingdom Citizens in a World of Conflict." It's been a busy three days wrestling with two articles from the USMB Confession of Faith:
Article 12. Society and State
We believe that God instituted the state to promote justice and to maintain law and order. Christians’ primary allegiance is to Christ’s kingdom. Believers are called to witness against injustice, exercise social responsibility, and obey all laws that do not conflict with the Word of God.
Article 13. Love and Nonresistance
We believe that God in Christ reconciles people to Himself and to one another, making peace through the cross. We seek to be agents of reconciliation, to practice love of enemies, and to express Christ’s love by alleviating suffering, reducing strife, and promoting justice. Because violence and warfare are contrary to the gospel of Christ, we believe that we are called to give alternative service in times of war.
These two articles represent Mennonite Brethren (MB) distinctives that not many other denominations share. The purpose of the study conference is to review and assess the importance and relevance of the these articles for the 21st century. Below is a quick summary of the papers presented.
(For the full text of the major presentations, go to the USMB website)
JANUARY 24, THURSDAY PM
Leith Anderson, "New Testament and Early Christian Considerations"
Leith made the case for a changing Christian culture throughout history. People often say they want to be a New Testament church, but there really isn't such a thing: there were many NT churches and they all had different strengths and problems amidst unique and specific contexts. He specifically pointed out that the early Christians were poor, weak and powerless, a minority people suffering persecution. Our context is very different today as we are in the "majority." Anderson states that Christians were originally pacifists, not because of any theological conviction about violence, but because they could not declare Caesar as lord. Some conclusions: there is no ideal government or theocracy; our emphasis should be on peace and justice, not on the government's facilitation of peace and justice; change in society comes from holy living, not from government.
Dina Gonzales-Pina, response
We are citizens first of heaven, the Sermon on the Mount is our creed. Every earthly system of government is broken and imperfect, so we work with government but do not attach ourselves to government. The marginalized are more likely to recognize the brokenness of government systems before those who are in power and have control (even when there are Christian people in government).
Terry Brensinger, "Contemporary Applications of Article 12"
Terry raised the issue of how different groups/institutions/communities can have conflicting expectations, by reflecting on My Name is Asher Lev. He asked, "What do you do when expectations of your communities conflict?" Usually the group or person in charge, the one with authority, sets the expectations or has "the say." But, God is the one who has the say over every conceivable authority. When expectations don't coincide, God has the say. Brensinger went on to reflect on three areas: citizenship, devotion and obedience.
Citizenship. We belong to a counter cultural community that is radically different than any other. We must invest our citizenship in the church above everything else. People long for citizenship in a place where they can be free, whole, accepted. The call to follow Jesus is the call to switch citizenship. We needn't shy away from the seriousness and the high level of commitment required for citizenship; we cannot present Jesus in overly friendly terms. More and more churched people respond, first, as American citizens and, second, as a Christian.
Devotion. God is not overly excited about sharing his devotion with anyone.
Obedience. We are called to submit to state, but not necessarily obey. When we do defy the state, we don't do it out of malice, but out of a sense of witness to our world.
Laura Schmidt Roberts, response
God's kingdom community is different than any other. It requires the ongoing work of unlearning, learning and relearning. We are all members of multiple communities, but our allegiance must be singular, there is no other. Our singular allegiance determines our identity. We have one center, one allegiance. We are the church in the world and the world vies for our allegiance. As the church in the world, we live as citizens of the kingdom.
JANUARY 25, FRIDAY AM
Lynn Jost, devotional
Psalm 29 is originally based on a tribute to Baal, one of the oldest Psalms in the OT. It is a response to Baal, and, as such, a response to all powers. "Give honor to the LORD!"
Roger Poppen, "A Case for Protective Violence"
Poppen asked, "Is there ever a time for protective violence?" He believes there is. Poppen defined violence as "Forceful, physical action toward others to accomplish a purpose." The problematic portion of Article 13 is the following sentence: "We view violence in its many different forms as contradictory to the new nature of the Christian" (from expanded version). This implies that "all" violence is wrong.
On the contrary, violence can be used for good in some cases, argues Poppen. The second greatest command, "Love your neighbor as yourself," implies that we should take whatever means necessary to love, protect and care for the welfare of those around us. And just as God's use of violence does not negate his love for others (in fact, his use of violence reveals his love for his people), so our use of violence might be necessary to show our love for another. "There is a place in the heart of a loving God for using violence to protect other people." Poppen clarified that using violence to be vindictive or to retaliate is wrong. "Settling-the-score responses should be replaced with grace-filled responses." He further clarified, "Love of enemy must not trump the use of force to protect a loved one." In this light, the loving protection of others using force is not "evil or inhumane" (Article 13).
Elmer Martens, response
Martens first asked if all areas of life are simply black and white, or are there grey areas? "The line between protective and vindictive violence is very thin." Many situations that could turn violent might be avoided if approached correctly. It is impossible to foresee whether many situations will actually become violent or need a violent response. These are grey areas.
Martens asked other questions: Should the principles that applied to a theocracy in the OT be applied to the community of Jesus? Could Article 13 be better stated? Jesus refused the option of protective violence, shouldn't we? The OT is a story not to us but for us, meant to point to the overarching nature of the God of those many stories. Martens concluded by admonishing that rather than focus our attention on what type of violence is acceptable and what is not, it would be better to engage in discussions about peacemaking and carry this witness to the world.
JANUARY 25, FRIDAY PM
Del Gray, "A Case for Non-Violence"
Gray made the case for a radically different kingdom set apart and counter to the world. "Violence is inextricably linked to our culture, starting with our own country's birth." Violence is a part of everyday life, so much so that we have trouble even recognizing it. However, "the kingdom of God is the center of Jesus' teaching." "In this kingdom, Jesus is the interpretive grid through which we read the rest of the Bible." Gray went on to say, "Jesus rejects the use of violence but he also rejects doing nothing." In other words, pacifism is not passive-ism; pacifism does not have to accept the idea that we do nothing. Ultimately, this is a vision of the kingdom as it is meant to be and as it will be one day: Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Paul Robbie, response
Robbie was quick to say that the MBs need a "two-tiered" confession of faith with a primary set of non-negotiable articles and a secondary set of less important ones. His predicament as a pastor is that he has people who want to join membership and lead in his church, but they can't "sign off on our confession of faith" (Robbie's church ministers to a significant Mormon population in Salt Lake City). He continued saying, "We should not make it more difficult to come to Christ. We need to eliminate all the tough stuff." Robbie argued that non-churched people need a minimal understanding of core essential elements of the faith. He likened the nonessential elements of the confession to the penchant of the Pharisee for adding to the Law and the Prophets, for which Jesus excoriated them. He also referenced God's use of Israel as an instrument of judgement against the Canaanite nations. "Killing is being done to accomplish good purposes."
Tim Geddert, "Radical Peace-Making: Living with our Diversity"
Geddert issued the challenge: We have a call to be peace-makers even while we debate or disagree on the implications of the position. Moving on to the heart of his presentation, he began to discuss the identity of the Christian. "If our identity is America first and being a Christian second, we have denied Jesus." Our identity must be found in Jesus. Geddert than proposed two fundamental ideas:
1) "Jesus must remain Lord over all competing authorities and priorities ... ALWAYS." The lordship of Jesus must be the lens through which we see everything. If we are going to use force, violence or war, then we have to be absolutely sure that the lordship of Jesus moves us to this place. The question should never be "where do we draw the line?" but "what does the lordship of Jesus move me to do?"
2) "The distance that separates 'the two sides' is far smaller than the massive distance between the difference within each side." In other words, we are closer to those we disagree with inside the Christian faith than those within the pacifist movement are or those within the use-of-violence movement are. Each movement has extremists, the kind of which are not found in our own denomination.
In a final word of caution, Geddert admonished, "The most non-Christian goal that Christians promote is the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness." If we disagree on whether violence can be used in the service of God, we certainly can agree that we must be peace-makers in our cities, workplaces and neighborhoods.
Brent Warkentin, response
Warkentin discussed four levels of importance regarding Christian beliefs and dogma. He described them as those beliefs that are 1) very important and clearly taught in scripture, 2) very important and not clearly taught, 3) less important and clearly taught, 4) less important and not clearly taught. While not directly discussing which categories the positions of state allegiance and non-violence belong to, he strongly cautioned that we never mix these up. We should never respond to something that is less important and not clearly taught as if it were very important and clearly taught. We need to be sure, said Warkentin, that we are using appropriate categories with appropriate responses when discussing the articles under consideration.
JANUARY 26, SATURDAY AM
We had many brief presentations on Saturday morning, all representing various agencies that are associated with the MBs and are in some way promoting the witness of peace. All were quite good, but I'd like to report on one specifically. David Wiebe, director of the International Community of Mennonite Brethren, had been in conversation with global churches about the current study conference and asked these churches if they would like to respond or say anything to the USMBs. Their responses were helpful and should not be underestimated. They are as follows.
Article 12, the state and allegiance
Response #1: It seems like the US church is quite content to submit to the state, but only when its own political party is in power.
#2: As the church grows in size and wealth, it often becomes seduce by consumerism and materialism.
#3: Government sometimes listens to the evangelical church, but it also knows how to use it for its own utilitarian purposes.
#4: The church weakens its witness when it compromises with the government.
Article 13, peace and non-violence
Response #1: The USMB witness of peace is desperately needed in violent countries where war rages and despotic governments oppress people.
#2: The are many countries of peace, devoid of war, that could pray for and help the US learn peace.
#3: The church cannot witness to Muslims without a valid message of peace.
#4: Remember, those who turn the other cheek set the agenda and have the power.
#5: Much of the global church fragments and fights over issues of control and power, needing the conflict management and training of the US.
It was a remarkable conference. What's needed next? I believe we need many more months, if not years, of conversation in multiple contexts and formats. The work ahead will be hard. There are many good people with a host of opinions and theologies at play. This will be the hard work of being a denomination that is both Evangelical and Anabaptist. Paul's admonition to many of the first-century churches was for Jews and Gentiles to get along, learn how to live together under the lordship of Christ, and to break down the dividing wall as they became one new humanity. May we hope and pray for the same as a denomination.