In 1991, in the immediate wake of the Persian Gulf War, Faith and Life Press rushed to press a book of seventeen Mennonite essays titled Weathering the Storm: Christian Pacifist Responses to War. The title implied a domestic storm, matching the "Desert Storm" military action in Iraq, that put pacifists on the defensive. How could pacifists explain themselves and survive in a war-making nation that gave almost ninety percent approval to President George Bush?
Just over a decade later, Herald Press has accelerated the publication of a book with responses to the "9-11" terrorist crisis and to America's war in Afghanistan. Again the pacifists have been marginalized. Another president Bush in the White House was catapulted into popularity by aggressive military action. Both Weathering the Storm and Where was God? represent cries of anguish and dismay, written in times of crisis. Both affirm strongly that there is a better way.
A comparison of the two books reveals the revolutionary impact of electronic communication. In 1991 the World Wide Web, MennoLink, and sophisticated search engines were not generally available. The essayists for Weathering the Storm were selected, commissioned, and put on short deadline. The editors of Where was God? used a very different method. They were able to scour the Internet (along with print sources) for pacifist responses to the terrorist crisis, and to make selections from a vast outpouring of written material. They chose sixty-nine separate pieces, many of them excerpts and revisions of writings that originally appeared in cyberspace.
As a collection of fragments, many of them produced in haste, the new book shares the character of electronic communication. And it prompts the question of how the experience of war has been changed for that portion of the pacifist community who write for, and lurk at, electronic discussion groups. It appears that the amount of writing and reading about the crisis events has substantially increased. Even so, most Mennonites are more oriented to print and to television than to email discussions. For them, the book Where was God? can serve as a kind of bridge.
These books of 1991 and 2002 both offer concluding sections of questions for discussion and reflection, suggesting they are intended for sharing in Sunday School classes or small groups. The longer essays in Weathering the Storm allowed the authors to develop a thesis and were more conducive to group discussion. The Where was God excerpts read something like a scrapbook--provocative and often intriguing, but not well developed. They are, say the editors, "entries in a journal of faith." Included are sermon excerpts that leave the reader wondering how the excerpt fit into the crafted design of the whole sermon.
The question of theodicy posed in the title of Where was God? is addressed in the first of seven sections of the book, "Faith Amid the Terror?" The section has brief reflections by writers of different denominational affiliation: Mennonite, Baptist, Church of the Brethren, and Episcopalian. The statements are winsome affirmations of faith in God in the face of a single event rather than of our broader vulnerability in a nuclear-armed and terrorist-threatened world. The following sections are titled, "Jesus and the Way of Peace," "Revenge, Justice, or Forgiveness?" "Will Violence Bring Peace?" "Voices from Our Global Family," "Citizens of Two Kingdoms," and "Another Way of Responding." The contributions from overseas are especially welcome at a time of official unilateralist nationalism. Included in the final section is an essay by John Paul Lederach, "The Challenge of Terror," which is probably the most widely distributed and reprinted writing by a Mennonite in response to 9-11.
The format of Where was God? allowed for a multiplicity of voices--Mennonite and non-Mennonite, men and women, Americans and Christians from other countries, academics, church leaders, and lay persons. Weathering the Storm lacked this diversity. Most of its writers were members of the General Conference Mennonite Church.
Fast track publishing allows for exceptional timeliness and relevance. But there are also drawbacks and hazards. Neither of these books has an index. The copy of Where was God? first available for this review was missing the final twenty-five pages. One hopes that such printing and binding problems were not widespread.
In general these two books reveal that Mennonites in response to crises of warfare exhibit laudable creativity, insight, and faithfulness to a tradition of peace. The nature of warfare has changed since the unlimited total warfare of the two great world wars of the twentieth century. Today Christian pacifists face a nation which is taking a role as international police power, which makes war without asking citizens for the personal sacrifice of military conscription or money, and which counts on the enthusiastic verbal endorsement by patriotic citizens. The challenges to Christian pacifist faith may be more subtle, but they are as daunting in this new context as they were in the era of total war. We do need to nurture the "seeds of faith and hope" lifted up in these books.
James C. Juhnke