You have heard that it was said,An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was saidYou shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
— Matthew 5:38–45
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
— Ephesians 3:16–19
You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
— Ephesians 4:22–32
[5:1–2:Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.]
I would like to reflect with you this morning on the shape of our peace tradition, on the biblical roots of our peace position, and how we might strengthen our response in the coming days.
Certain New Testament biblical texts have been primary in our Mennonite understanding of peace, especially those well-known verses from Matthew 5 that we have heard read again this morning. And, along with those texts comes our Mennonite tradition's way of interpreting the texts - the teaching of nonresistance, which our tradition has distilled into a refusal to take part in war as conscientious objectors.
It is my confession to you this morning that in my own life's experience, and increasingly in light of my historical work, I have found our traditional Mennonite interpretation of the "nonresistance" texts of Matthew 5 to be lacking in what I would call "spiritual rootage." I have come to the conviction that the dimension of spiritual grounding–about which I will speak in a moment–is presupposed in the New Testament and continues to be a necessary foundation to our peace witness. I also see a recognition of the need for spiritual grounding in the records of the ancient ascetic tradition of the Christian church, reaching back through the patristic period. I see some of these deeper dimensions in the earliest Anabaptists as well.
As a young person, I recall being taught in no uncertain terms, that a follower of Jesus is nonresistant. I don't remember many nuances in that teaching. I remember hearing the words of Jesus in Matthew 5 read and explained: turning the other cheek was especially relevant to a young boy with a bit of a temper. I remember a little boy - a classmate of mine at the mission school in Puerto Rico - pelting me with rocks. My response was not nonresistant. But a follower of Jesus, I was told, turns the other cheek. It is the way of Jesus. You go the second mile. You love enemies. It is a command. And, I was told, it is like that in the bigger world as well: as it is in the playground, when bullies punch, kick or throw stones, so it is in the wider world, when violence is used. We followers of Jesus are nonresistant. We don't do that, because Jesus said we shouldn't. That is biblical, and that is good enough for us.
Perhaps I received a deficient Mennonite upbringing in this regard, but I suspect that my education in the way of peace was not atypical for a Mennonite young person for that time and place. If we analyze the biblical passages chosen, and analyze their interpretation, what do we conclude?
One of the most notable things about my own teaching on peace as a Mennonite young person - and here it will become clear that I was raised in the Swiss tradition - was the way in which the way of peace was explained as being essentially passive, rather than active. One was to "turn the other cheek," or give up that coat, or walk that second mile, or be pelted with rocks without retaliation. Be meek, be passive in the face of violence - this was the crux of the matter. There was an emphasis on "non" resisting.
I believe that significant sectors of the Mennonite church today have come to a better understanding on this issue. We now understand more clearly that Christ's call to peace is not a call simply to get beat up - a call to take our lumps, no matter what - but rather is a call to active peacemaking - we are called to overcome evil with good, as Paul says in Romans 12:21. Of course, attempting to do this may result in our getting beat up anyway, but the point is not the result, but rather a different, more positive approach to the problem. The call to active peacemaking is a very positive development, in my view, and I am thankful for it. As The Missing Peace, the wonderful book by Jim Juhnke and Carol Hunter has demonstrated, the historical fact is that there almost always are alternative paths that lead to peace, but all too often, they are paths not taken. We need to be a people who seek the peaceful solution, and promote it.
But on another front, I don't believe we have gained as much ground as we could have, in comparison with the teaching on peace I experienced as a child. Notice that the verses in Matthew 5 all take the form of commands: "It has been said to you, but... I say to you, do this..." Namely, turn the other cheek, etc. Why should we work for peace instead of wreaking vengeance? Because Jesus said so... Because it's biblical. Because we follow after Jesus, in his footsteps, as he commanded us. We are called to discipleship, and on this score, Jesus' words and example leave no room for doubt.
Shifting from passivity to peaceful action is certainly right, but on what basis are we acting? How is active peacemaking grounded? In what soil is it rooted? These are crucial questions, if we care about the health of the plant, and its ability to withstand severe conditions.
Sometimes it seems to me that our understanding of the peace of Christ has become a prolonged discourse on biblical ethics. There is a politics of Jesus, and the fact that the world is a place of grays and shades of black and white doesn't matter in the least. If Jesus said so, it is an absolute. It is a command of the Lord. It is as it is, and our only task is to obey, not to introduce relativizing caveats of any kind. Far be it from me to question the truth of the matter: It is clear that Jesus gave some clear commands to his disciples, and that includes us.
The problem I had, and still have, is that an ethical approach to the peace of Christ strongly tells us the ought of the matter, but it does not tell us the how to of the matter. Just how are we supposed to manage this amazing obedience? Does being born Mennonite, being raised Mennonite, or being baptized into a Mennonite church, automatically turn us into superhuman men and women - ethical superheroes? Is this all we need - namely, some correct information about what Jesus expects of us? Will an intellectual enlightenment take place so that we, suddenly and inexplicably, become a people blessed with heavenly levels of self control?
Because here is the problem: What Jesus asked us to do does not follow the dictates of human nature. I knew that well enough as a kid. When somebody slugged me good, Mennonite or not, I slugged back. That is human nature. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus commands us to be un-naturally holy. Granted. Good enough. But how are we supposed to achieve this un-natural state?
The question of how we can possibly become peaceful people is a foundational question for our pacifist church. Because if Jesus' call to us to follow and obey as disciples is all that there is, and if we find that we don't have the strength to achieve this level of obedience, as individuals or as a church, then what we have is a recipe for despair and hypocrisy, and not a liberating Word at all.
There are times when I fear that some of this has happened in our church. On the matter of nonviolence, we have inverted Law and Gospel, and treated the Law as if it were capable of liberating us. Our tradition often embraced biblicism here, and the fact that it was a Christocentric, New Testament biblicism really doesn't help much. It is a good thing, but not enough simply to embrace and teach the right laws of behavior. We must also understand and teach the path that must be walked in order to make that behaviour a real possibility. Maybe if Michael Sattler had been a better Benedictine - or perhaps if he had lived long enough to guide the Anabaptist church for another decade or two, I believe we would have inherited a teaching on peace that would be more solidly grounded in the realities of human nature and conversion to the peace of Christ.
The Anabaptists were not the first to read the counsels of perfection in Matthew 5, nor the first to take seriously the call to discipleship. The ancient church had long since recognized the call to discipleship, but the ancients recognized that obeying the commands of Jesus would take some serious training. In the "Prologue" to his famous Rule for Monks, for example, St. Benedict described the process this way:
We are about to open a school for God's service, in which we hope nothing harsh or oppressive will be directed. For preserving charity or correcting faults, it may be necessary at times ... to be slightly severe. Do not fear this and retreat, for the path to salvation is long and the entrance is narrow. As our lives and faith progress, the heart expands and with the sweetness of love we move down the paths of God's commandments. Never departing from His guidance, remaining in the monastery until death, we patiently share in Christ's passion, so we may eventually enter into the Kingdom of God.
What Benedict and the ancients established was a process of training in the un-natural art of surrender to the Spirit and will of God. They established "schools" (monasteries) in which the goal was to become loving children of God. Benedict and the ancients knew very well that no force of the will could achieve this - only training in spiritual disciplines over a lifetime could hope even to come close. And even then, achieving the victory would be thanks to God's grace, and not thanks to human endeavor.
This is where I believe our tradition has failed to read the biblical record as completely and thoroughly as the ascetic tradition before us did. I asked that some verses from the fourth chapter of the book to the Ephesians be read prior to the sermon today. Paul writes there:
You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds... ...clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
We can see immediately that Paul is very much aware of the ethical issues; he is speaking ethical language. Nevertheless, he also speaks to the means by which this new life is to be lived. What makes a disciple is not a "grit your teeth; you can do it" attitude, but rather a disciple is someone who has been "renewed in the spirit of the mind."
Earlier in his letter to the Ephesians, in chapter 3, Paul writes the following prayer:
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.
So there it is: A disciple is one who has been strengthened in the inner being "with power through the Holy Spirit, so that Christ can dwell in the heart of such people." It is here that the Peace of Christ is located (Colossians 3:15).
If we are concerned with obedience, we have to be concerned with rebirth, a rebirth that grants the power, the means, of obeying. This is something that a mere command or law cannot give. The law can make clear what the demand is, but it takes the power of God to accomplish what Jesus calls for in the Sermon on the Mount.
But there is still more in the Ephesians passage that we would do well to notice. Paul is aware of the fact that exercise will be necessary if the disciple is going to attain to the fullness of love in Christ. Earlier we heard read a list of things to be practiced in Ephesians 4:
Speak the truth; be angry but do not sin; give up stealing; let no evil talk come out of your mouths; put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
All these things are not so much "commands" as they are exercises for those who have set out on a path of renewal following a spiritual rebirth. The re-making of a human being into an un-naturally loving person will require a lifetime of training in heeding the living Spirit, in learning how to grow in following God's will. The point is not to pretend that one has arrived at the goal, and is now capable of perfection, but rather, as Paul says, we must
be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Love of this kind needs to be exercised if it is to come into being. The love of enemy is not the beginning point; it is the culmination point of a long and arduous spiritual journey.
Permit me to make one more observation about Paul's little outline in Ephesians. Notice that he does not speak to the most blatant case of public violence, namely open warfare. He speaks rather to the kind of petty wrangling that takes place in families, among friends, among members of the same church and community.
Could it be that the political case of warfare has sometimes worked as a smoke screen, diverting our attention from the truly radical call that Jesus makes upon us as individuals and as a church? If our love is to be a love like God's sacrificial love, then notice that this is in force not only in the rare times of warfare, but more significantly, it is in force in all relationships of daily life.
We profess to have become new people, and we are in the process of nurturing the spirit of love. This will certainly be evident in our relationships with our families, our neighbors, our colleagues, or even in traffic when some jerk cuts us off (I put that last one in as a public confession).
I find that the early Anabaptists were attuned to the biblical themes of rebirth, regeneration, and discipline in the spiritual life. I propose to speak about this at more length over the coming days. For today I would like to read some words written by Pilgram Marpeck that are typical of the early Anabaptist understanding, and that speak to our topic. Marpeck wrote:
Just as the Holy Spirit, through faith and with faith, assures and sanctifies us, brings us to obedience, and leads us according to God's pleasure, so also our spirit (which has peace and oneness with Christ's Spirit) brings flesh and blood into obedience, with all the bodily works of faith in Christ. They are baptism, Lord's Supper, footwashing, laying on of hands, teaching, discipline, prayer, almsgiving, and clothing ourselves in love for our neighbour. They continue through tribulation, suffering, and patience for the sanctifying and reconciling of the whole person - spirit, body, and soul - into full obedience to the God of peace. God sanctifies us through and through and will keep us unblemished until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 5). In the same way, the Spirit of Christ assures our spirit that we are children of God and guides it. (Later Writings by Pilgram Marpeck and his Circle. Volume 1: The Exposé, A Dialogue and Marpeck's Response to Caspar Schwenckfeld, trans. by Walter Klaassen, Werner Packull, and John Rempel (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 1999), 76.)
Obedience to the God of peace, Marpeck says, comes because the Holy Spirit brings us into obedience. The faith that comes from God results in "bodily works of faith," among which are teaching, discipline, prayer, generosity, and works of love. In the same way that the Holy Spirit renews us, our renewed spirit works to bring "flesh and blood" into obedience, so that we can do the un-natural thing of clothing ourselves with love for our neighbors, and even love to those who wish to harm us. The appearance and growth of such un-natural people is the result of a continuing relationship with the living Spirit of God - none of which happens without considerable effort and discomfort.
Let me conclude, and in concluding try to ensure that I am not misunderstood. Our Mennonite emphasis on the ethics of nonviolent witness to the state has not been misguided. Certainly not. If anything, we need to speak out with an even stronger faith-based, nonviolent witness to the state. Nevertheless, we need to be honest with ourselves. A witness to the state cannot be allowed to divert our attention away from the necessary and continuing steps we need to take, in order to be able to make our witness one of integrity. Growing into the peace of Christ, on which our witness rests, is the sincere work of a lifetime. The biblical evidence and strands of our own tradition point the way to such a witness, and suggest some central elements in the process.
First: We must be reborn and empowered by the Spirit of God if we expect to do something as un-natural as loving enemies. This "rebirth" is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the Peace of Christ. It is the first step of a long journey. I believe that as Mennonites, we need to more-intentionally nourish the spiritual roots of peace.
Secondly: If we are serious about heeding Christ's call to unconditional love, we will need to become experts in the habitual exercise of love and obedience. We will have to become obsessed with the exercise and expression of love in our daily lives. A truth that Paul seemed to know, and that St. Benedict certainly knew, is that it is only in the daily, practical exercise of love, that the love of Christ will be nourished and grow within us.
And then finally, let us give a powerful witness of peace to the state, based on our daily commitment to peace through love and forbearance toward family, friends, church, community, and jerks in traffic.
I hope very much not to be misunderstood. What I hope you heard me say this morning is not that we must abandon our witness to the state, our witness for peace, but rather that we need to continue that witness by strengthening our traditional teaching on peace, at the roots. There will be no peace of Christ where there is no rebirth, where there is no exercise in love and obedience, or where there is omission of loving relationships in the small matters that concern our daily lives.
May God help us and guide us on this pilgrimage through the power of the Holy Spirit.