Mennonites and Capitalism During the Cold War


Issue 2020, vol. 74

The Cold War exerted a profound influence on American religion throughout the latter half of the 20th century. American Christians overwhelmingly opposed communism because of its atheistic nature and human rights abuses, and many of them supported the United States and its capitalistic system in the struggle between the two. The American Mennonite church, however, found itself in a complicated position. Mennonites were uniquely shaped by two-kingdom theology, internal communal structures and a commitment to nonresistance, which discouraged both social critique and loyalty to a state or economic system. However, as the church became increasingly integrated with the rest of the world, Mennonites were forced to respond to the economic and social realities of the Cold War. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, this led American Mennonites to develop a unique critique of capitalism that was limited by its focus on separation, micro-level responses and nonresistance.

At this moment in history, Mennonites existed alongside a variety of reactions to capitalism. Most American churches and Christians supported the United States’ cause in the Cold War and believed in the superiority of the economic system of capitalism. Whereas in the 1930s, the general Christian consensus had been that economic morality was measured by its impact on the common good, by the late 1950s, separation from communism became the paramount consideration. Christians advocated “biblically based capitalism” and judged the morality of the economy based on the freeness of the market.[1] Secular leaders used religious rhetoric in opposition to Soviet communism, portraying the United States’ fight against it as a crusade against evil and seeking religious leaders as allies.[2]

Not everyone in the United States supported American capitalism, however. It is true that domestic Marxism was a diminished force, and even non-Marxist critiques of capitalism, which manifested as calls for expansion of public services among other things, faced severe backlash due to the Second Red Scare.[3] However, efforts to continue welfare expansion and undercut some of the most substantial inequalities of capitalism continued throughout this period.[4]

Christian critiques of capitalism were also significant. Often, these came in the form of demands for social change, and many Christian critics, especially pacifists, were interested in the use of nonviolent resistance to transform society and ameliorate injustices in the capitalist system.[5] They prescribed societal-level systemic change, and while many remained nonviolent, they were not opposed to the use of coercive intellectual and cultural force. This differed completely from the Mennonite understanding, which focused inward instead of on the external social order and precluded the use of any force, whether physically violent or not. Mennonites’ unique responses to capitalism during this period were a result of distinctive theological emphases which separated them from other groups.

Mennonites have always been uniquely positioned in terms of their relationship to society and the state. Their origins in the Anabaptist movement of the Radical Reformation and subsequent persecution shaped a distinctive theological and sociological context that continued informing the positions of American Mennonites throughout their history, including their responses to the political and economic situations of the 1950s and 1960s.

One major Anabaptist characteristic, present from its very beginnings in the 16th century, was the concept of two-kingdom theology. In an Anabaptist framework, the world and the Kingdom of God were two separate ideas. The Kingdom of God formed the basis of all Anabaptist understanding, meaning all material realities, including economic ones, were ultimately spiritual realities.[6] The material world, governed by the state, occupied a space utterly opposed to the will of God. Rather than try to reform the world and create the utopian Kingdom of God through society or the state, Anabaptists believed that because the world was ultimately inferior and evil, they were instead called to cultivate the Kingdom of God in the alternative community of the church.[7] Mennonites attempted to manifest the social ethics of the New Testament, but they did so within the church, in order to provide an alternative witness to the inexorable evils of the world. These attitudes allowed Mennonites to turn inward and detach from questions of external social order for much of their history.

The second defining Mennonite characteristic was an insular communal structure. The persecution of 16th-century Anabaptists only added to the inward focus set forth by two-kingdom theology, and it caused Mennonites to form increasingly isolated and independent communities defined by religious commitments.[8] The fact that these communities were predominantly rural and agrarian in nature only added to Mennonite social uniformity and isolation.[9] Historically, American Mennonites were no exception to this trend, and they were able to withdraw themselves almost entirely from external culture in order to focus solely on issues that manifested themselves within the church. Because the church community was conceived as a localized rather than universal entity, politics – already viewed as suspect – were able to be completely cut out of communal life.[10] Mennonites created strong sociological structures that allowed them to bypass the workings of the state when it went against the beliefs of the church.[11]

However, in the 1950s and 1960s, Mennonites began to be confronted with realities like industrialization, in part because the church and its members no longer existed only inside isolated communities where they could remain untouched by the external.[12] Economic issues such as the moral implications of joining labor unions or owning factories began to personally impact American Mennonites in a way they had not experienced before, and as questions about maintaining Mennonite ethics in the economic realities of Cold War capitalism arose, their historic separation from society and its issues had a significant impact on their responses.

The final characteristic which uniquely shaped the Mennonite context was nonresistance. This was an essential attribute of the Christian lifestyle for most Mennonites in the United States, and indeed, the single political issue in which they were willing to involve themselves.[13] Mennonites’ historic lack of involvement in justice struggles came down to nonresistance. It was due not to opposition, or even indifference, toward those struggles. Rather, Mennonites opposed the use of active conflict to achieve justice. Taking any action that might overpower another’s will violated nonresistance.[14] Societal externalities and the state were bound to do wrong sometimes, because they did not seek to follow Jesus, but engaging in any form of coercion to correct those realities was inexcusable.[15] This attitude was a foundational piece of Mennonite thought and identity as the United States moved into the period of the Cold War.

Thus, Mennonites found themselves in a unique context from which to confront the economic realities of Cold War America. Two-kingdom theology, communal focus and nonresistance created a tradition and thought process that discouraged loyalty to any particular economic system. Because they did not have the strong and deep-rooted loyalties to American capitalism that many Christian denominations possessed, Mennonites did not become partisans in the Cold War or wholesale supporters of capitalism like many other churches did, and they in fact critiqued it. However, those same principles which made them critical of capitalism also highly discouraged social involvement and made them less willing to prescribe action for the world outside of the Mennonite community, separating them from other critiques of capitalism, both secular and Christian.

The Mennonite critique of capitalism evolved from earlier Mennonite critiques of Soviet communism, and those early critiques are essential to understanding the attitudes of the 1950s and 1960s. Like many American Christians, Mennonites were frightened by the idea of Marxism. Soviet communism led to human rights abuses and was explicitly anti-religious. Moreover, a group of Mennonites living in Soviet territory had experienced Stalinist brutality firsthand, and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) was formed in order to provide assistance to Mennonites suffering from famine in Soviet-controlled Ukraine.[16] Soviet communism was not a far-away, faceless threat; Mennonites knew specific and personal stories of persecution and atrocities that made it a real and immediate evil.

Into this context, the first official Mennonite reactions to communism were drafted. A 1937 statement from the General Conference Mennonite Church called Soviet communism “heartless, brutally selfish despotism [with] no vestige of love, pity or sympathy” and lamented its persecution of Christians. “There is no peace, happiness or contentment left to the exploited, oppressed and enslaved millions of Russian hapless people,” it reads.[17] This statement presented communism as anathema to Christianity and diametrically opposed to the way of life Mennonites espoused. The same resolution noted that while some Mennonites may be attracted to “so-called Christian socialism,” it had no place in the church.[18] Marxism, as an anti-religious and materialist philosophy, was not compatible with faithful living, even without authoritarian abuses.

This strong anti-communist stance was unsurprising, but as Mennonites moved into the 1950s, it was complicated by new experiences with the economic realities of a capitalist society. Mennonites were becoming wealthier and less rural, which drew them away from traditional communal goals and toward the goals of mainstream American capitalism, including self-improvement and increasing material wealth.[19] Both theologians and those who were entrepreneurs themselves lamented this shift and what they saw as Mennonites prioritizing their material well-being over Jesus and discipleship.[20]

As Mennonites moved into the urban workforce, they were confronted with class injustice and the question of labor unions in a newly personal and immediate way. Throughout the 1950s, Mennonites proceeded cautiously in order to preserve concepts like nonresistance, remaining wary of unions, and counseling church members to act in Christian love as both employers and employees.[21] Some theologians argued that Mennonites could maintain Christian ethics within a business environment, but they believed this required conscious effort on all sides in order to override the inequality and coercion implicit in the system.[22] Thus, even as Mennonites retained suspicion regarding leftist economic institutions like unions, these circumstances also shed greater light on the problems of capitalism. In any event, a wholehearted embrace of capitalism was not part of faithful living.

In 1961, the Mennonite Church released a statement, echoed by the General Conference the following year, that revealed a more nuanced attitude toward economic questions. This statement was unequivocally anti-communist, but it could not be construed as even a tacit endorsement of capitalism. In fact, it explicitly opposed the conflation of economic and religious systems with these words: “We cannot equate Christianity with any particular economic or political system, or with Americanism.”[23]

By the early 1960s, Mennonites retained their critique of Soviet communism, but they also found that in order to preserve the tenets of two-kingdom theology, communal emphasis and nonresistance, they must also critique the American capitalism of which they were increasingly becoming a part. The critique they developed, characterized by separation, micro-level responses, and nonresistance, was shaped by those historic tenets, which, while they made it necessary, also limited its scope.

Separation was one of the most significant elements of the Mennonite response to capitalism. In a 1962 article in The Mennonite, ten Mennonites – ministers and laypeople from all over North America – gave their perspectives on communism. All but one mentioned anti-Christian elements as part of both the capitalist West and the communist East. They emphasized the need to center Christ in the lives of individuals and the church rather than participating in the Cold War. As one of these columnists put it, “The Christian is not called upon to defend Democracy or Communism. He is called to preach, pray and persevere.”[24] Mennonites were not to choose one side or the other in the Cold War, because both sides belonged to the world, not to God.

Because Mennonites could not simply see communism as a monolithic evil opposed to Christianity, many saw it as a judgment on the Christianity’s failures in the secular West. As one Mennonite minister wrote, “I cannot see Communism as other than judgment on Christendom. As an attempt to establish a classless society it is a judgment on class differences; as a collective system it is judgment on the evils of private enterprise; as an atheist ideology it is judgment on the failure of interpreting God.”[25] Communism was evil and wrong, but it existed because of capitalism’s failures and the ineffectiveness of the church’s alternative witness in response.

Two-kingdom theology stressed that all earthly systems opposed the systems of God. This meant Mennonites could not equate an earthly economic system with God’s Kingdom, forcing them to critique capitalism, but also preventing them from putting their energy into changing that earthly system. Two-kingdom theology meant that external social involvement, responsibility, and critique must be subordinate to discipleship and faithfulness.[26] This produced a community of American Mennonites predisposed to critically examining the dominant culture around them, including capitalism, but it also limited the extent to which they were willing to translate that critique into a call for societal change, unlike other groups who critiqued the system. Because the world was in utter rebellion against God, Mennonites were to remain separate from it, and any social critique was channeled into the church community instead.

Second, Mennonites’ emphasis on individual responses rather than broad societal change was another important component of their response to capitalism. Because Mennonites believed they were called to make the church into the Kingdom of God internally rather than transform society, their critique of capitalism became rooted in individual, micro-level responses to economic realities rather than advocacy for broad political or cultural change in the external dominant culture of the United States. Mennonites were to behave with Christian love in their economic interactions despite mainstream trends of capitalist self-interest, and this view stressed individual, small-scale action rather than systemic reform as the solution to problems of economic injustice.[27] In the Mennonite view, the secular system could never be a replacement for God’s will, so the way to create the Kingdom of God was for individuals to behave according to their Christian ethics in all spheres of life, allowing God’s purposes to be realized and grow outward through the church and its members.[28]

In the period following World War II, Mennonites became increasingly focused on providing a material Christian witness and presence in the world, but rather than social reform, they turned to organizations like MCC, viewing Christian service as a primary conduit for God’s action in the world.[29] Mennonites were wary of movements like the Social Gospel, which called for Christians to engage large-scale societal reform, because they uplifted human effort rather than emphasizing God’s working in history.[30] In the Mennonite view, the role of the Christian was to act with the ethics of the New Testament on an individual level and trust that God would improve society on a broad scale. As one Mennonite minister wrote, “it behooves us to spend more time and energy pleasing Him and leaving such big things as the cold war for Him to work out.”[31]

However, this was not an escapist approach which simply gave up on the world and looked toward heaven rather than face present problems. Mennonite salvation had a major social dimension in the present life, but that social dimension was focused on the alternative community of the church rather than the world beyond. Mennonites did not believe that the work of the church was to change the world, but they did not accept the dominant world order either. They worked against the self-interested and consumerist approaches of capitalism, but that work occurred on an individual level.

Finally, the foundational Mennonite theological concept of nonresistance was a major part of the American Mennonite response to capitalism. Nonresistance prohibited coercion of any kind, because the Christian’s ultimate duty in the world was to exemplify Jesus’ self-sacrificial love for all. This meant Mennonites could not identify themselves with capitalism and its self-interested emphasis or with oppositional forces, like the labor movement, which used coercive methods to exert power over capital. In 1954, the Mennonite Church issued a report stating, “The Christian may cooperate with the union (as he does with the state) in so far as doing so does not conflict with his Christian testimony. Since they are power organizations, however, placing the demand for justice above the way of love, most unions reserve the right to use methods out of harmony with the Christian testimony, the strike, which violates the principle of nonresistance, being an obvious example.”[32] Both capitalist and anti-capitalist activity required coercion and force of some kind, and Mennonites could not engage in either one. Nonresistance necessitated that Mennonites oppose essential elements of capitalism, but it also prohibited the acquisition and leveraging of power in order to correct those elements.

Throughout this period, Mennonites planted themselves in a middle ground, refusing to either accept the system of capitalism or to directly challenge its existence. The values of two-kingdom theology, communal focus, and nonresistance fostered this critique and its limitations, and they remained significant components of Mennonite identity throughout this period. However, as Mennonites moved into the late 1960s and further, the challenges that had already risen against this separationist stance increased in prominence, and it became more difficult for Mennonites to retreat from questions of social responsibility and justice. Mennonite integration into society continued, weakening the pull of the insular community. Increased participation in society and exposure to its problems engendered more uncertainty regarding Christian responsibility to improve the dominant social order. The role of power and the prominence of nonviolent resistance provoked growing questions about the relationship of peace to justice and the ethics of power. Mennonites had truly arrived in American society, and they could no longer retreat to enclaves of safety when the questions became difficult.

The journey of prominent Mennonite theologian J. Lawrence Burkholder illustrates this shift remarkably well. Raised with a traditional Mennonite theological framework, he felt a keen tension between Mennonite thought and social action, and through a service experience in China, he came to believe that social action must become part of Mennonite considerations. The reality of Christian ethics was not a choice between a set of discrete alternatives, but rather an ambiguous space where Christians must work to balance peace with justice, and self-sacrifice with power.

Burkholder’s doctoral dissertation attempted to parse the unique problems Mennonites faced in regard to social responsibility and provide a means for the American Mennonite church to begin discussing the possibility of public social action as a facet of Christian ethics. The work was completed in 1958, but it faced disapproval and rejection from the church.[33] By the time it was finally published in 1989, however, these ideas were far less controversial. Mennonites now lived in a world that required them to confront these realities, and social action was becoming part of the structure they used to engage that world.

The Mennonite attitude toward capitalism in the late 1950s and early 1960s is one example of many social attitudes underpinned by two-kingdom theology, communal emphasis and nonresistance during this period. While it eventually gave way to an ethical paradigm that faced questions of social responsibility head-on, these characteristics did not disappear. Mennonites still retain traces of them and the kind of ethics they produce.

While they participate more freely in society, Mennonites remain skeptical of worldly systems and question their engagement with them. The self-sacrificial love behind the concept of nonresistance remains a significant Mennonite emphasis. Although the method of separation, micro-level responses and nonresistance has shifted toward cultural integration, systemic reform and a willingness to use power, the experience with capitalism in the late 1950s and early 1960s was an important part of that journey. It caused Mennonites to question the ethics of their economic system and seek alternatives. This response and later reactions to it undeniably impacted the way Mennonites faced and integrated increasingly prominent questions of justice and involvement in the world, both economically and otherwise, into their theology and ethics as they moved forward.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

General Conference Mennonite Church. Anti-Communism. Newton, Kan.: General Conference Mennonite Church, 1962.

Mennonite Church. Communism and Anti-Communism. Johnstown, Pa.: Mennonite General Conference, 1961.

“Must the Church Choose Sides in the Cold War?” The Mennonite, 5 June 1962.

Secondary Sources

Berkowitz, Edward, and Kim McQuaid. “Welfare Reform in the 1950s.” Social Service Review 54, No. 1 (1980): 45-58. Accessed 10 April 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/30015800.

Burkholder, J. Lawrence. The Problem of Social Responsibility from the Perspective of the Mennonite Church. Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1989.

Danielson, Leilah. “‘It Is a Day of Judgment’: The Peacemakers, Religion, and Radicalism in Cold War America.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 18, No. 2 (Summer 2008): 215-248. Accessed 5 April 2020.

Foster, Stuart J. “Chapter II: The Power and Ubiquity of the Red Scare in American Post-War Culture.” Counterpoints 87 (2000): 11-24. Accessed 10 April 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/42976160.

Gunn, T. Jeremy. Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2008. Accessed 10 April 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Hershberger, Guy F. and John H. Redekop. “Labor Unions.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990.

Kirby, Dianne, ed. Religion and the Cold War. Houndmills, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Redekop, Calvin, and John Richard Burkholder, eds. Kingdom, Cross, and Community: Essays on Mennonite Themes in Honor of Guy F. Hershberger. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1976.

Redekop, Calvin, Victor A. Krahn, and Samuel J. Steiner, eds. Anabaptist/Mennonite Faith and Economics. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994.

Thiessen, Janis. “Communism and Labor Unions: The Changing Perspectives of Mennonites in Canada and the United States.” Direction: A Mennonite Brethren Forum 38, No. 1 (Spring 2009): 17-28.

 

NOTES

[1] T. Jeremy Gunn, Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2008), 128.

[2] Dianne Kirby, ed., Religion and the Cold War (Houndmills, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 78.

[3] Stuart J. Foster, “Chapter II: The Power and Ubiquity of the Red Scare in American Post-War Culture,” Counterpoints 87 (2000): 21.

[4] Edward Berkowitz and Kim McQuaid, “Welfare Reform in the 1950s,” Social Service Review 54, No. 1 (1980): 56.

[5] Leilah Danielson, “‘It Is a Day of Judgment’: The Peacemakers, Religion, and Radicalism in Cold War America,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 18, No. 2 (Summer 2008): 216.

[6] Calvin Redekop, Victor A. Krahn and Samuel J. Steiner, eds, Anabaptist/Mennonite Faith and Economics (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994), 4.

[7] Lawrence J. Burkholder, The Problem of Social Responsibility from the Perspective of the Mennonite Church (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1989), 115.

[8] Ibid., 131.

[9] Ibid., 135.

[10] Burkholder, Social Responsibility, 131.

[11] Calvin Redekop and John Richard Burkholder, eds., Kingdom, Cross, and Community: Essays on Mennonite Themes in Honor of Guy F. Hershberger (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1976), 34.

[12] Redekop and Burkholder, Kingdom, Cross, Community, 38.

[13] Burkholder, Social Responsibility, 60, 169.

[14] Ibid., 173-4.

[15] Redekop and Burkholder, Kingdom, Cross, Community, 44.

[16] Janis Thiessen, “Communism and Labor Unions: The Changing Perspectives of Mennonites in Canada and the United States,” Direction: A Mennonite Brethren Forum 38, No. 1 (Spring 2009): 18.

[17] Janis Thiessen, “Unions,” 18.

[18] Ibid., 18.

[19] Redekop and Krahn, Faith and Economics, 295-96.

[20] Ibid., 299

[21] Guy F. Hershberger and John H. Redekop, “Labor Unions,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1990.

[22] Redekop and Burkholder, Kingdom, Cross, Community, 47-49.

[23] Mennonite Church, Communism and Anti-Communism (Johnstown, Pa.: Mennonite General Conference, 1961).

[24] “Must the Church Choose Sides in the Cold War?” The Mennonite, 5 June 1962, 375.

[25] Ibid., 372.

[26] Redekop and Burkholder, Kingdom, Cross, Community, 46.

[27] Redekop and Burkholder, Kingdom, Cross, Community, 47-49.

[28] Ibid., 113

[29] “Must the Church Choose Sides?,” 375.

[30] Redekop and Burkholder, Kingdom, Cross, Community, 114.

[31] “Must the Church Choose Sides?,” 375.

[32] Hershberger and Redekop, “Labor Unions.”

[33] Burkholder, Social Responsibility, iv.

Authors