I would like to thank John Roth for drawing attention to the divisions that are clearly present among us as Christians in the United States. I also appreciate his call to prayerfully seek more unity as Christ’s body in the world. Before I respond specifically to his analysis and suggestions, I would like to share two experiences which have especially influenced me and my view of the world.
Particularly formative for me were the five years my husband and I lived in the country of Laos. Just weeks after we arrived, I traveled to an area that had been heavily bombed by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. During that visit, a mother of eleven children was killed by an anti-personnel bomblet while hoeing in her garden. We were taken to visit the family, who showed us the place where she died and then gave us the remains of her hoe.
Please show this to people in the U.S. and tell our story, they said.
Please tell your government what these bombs have done to us, so that this kind of destruction will stop and people elsewhere will not need to suffer as we have. Twenty-five years later, we still have that broken hoe-head, as a vivid reminder of our responsibility to advocate for those whose voices are rarely heard by our nation’s leaders.
Another significant influence has been my experience as a woman in the church. Very early in life, I sensed a profound unfairness in the way the church treats women as compared to men. Although this is changing in some areas, many women who sincerely love the church continue to feel that their needs and perspectives are not valued or taken seriously. Recently, for example, I received a phone call from a young woman seeking a support group for survivors of domestic violence. Although she had found help and guidance from a secular women’s shelter, she was looking for a Christian group who could address these problems from a Biblical and faith perspective. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find this type of support within the church. Instead, I continue to hear stories about how church leaders blame women for the violence and violation they experience and refuse to hold men accountable for their behavior.
With these experiences in mind, I would like to offer several comments about Roth’s paper and his suggestions:
- Roth describes a fundamental divide between church and state. Within this framework, the church is essentially compassionate and nonresistant (
a light on the hill) while the state is scarred by coercion and violence (
outside the perfection of Christ). While he acknowledges this dichotomy to be unstable, he does not mention what I find to be most problematic.
For me, this way of posing the issue fails to recognize that violence and oppression exist not only
in the worldbut also within the church. This is not a new reality but has been present from the very beginning. Indeed, our Anabaptist forebears suffered persecution not only from the hands of the state. Rather, given the unity of church and state at that time, the terrible reality is that Anabaptists were killed by others who also claimed Christ’s name.
Similarly, Jesus’ opposition came not only from government officials but also from religious leaders who resisted his understanding and interpretation of God’s will. Those who urged Jesus’ death were not primarily secular figures, but rather religious authorities who used their access to political power to try to end Jesus’ message and movement.
Sadly, one could list many, many examples of how Christians have repeatedly succumbed to these temptations and joined themselves to the power of violence in the name of God: in the Crusades against Muslims; in the colonization and slaughter of the peoples of Africa and the Americas; and in the enslavement of millions of African peoples. More recently, soldiers in Hitler’s army wore belt buckles which said
Gott mit uns(God with us); men have used God’s name and authority to violate their children, wives, and sisters; and religious leaders in the United States have sought God’s blessing for our nation’s military efforts.
We must be honest about this tragic but real history. For this violence from within has had devastating effects on Christian witness, and in fact led some to embrace secular institutions as an alternative to the violence caused by those who claimed to follow Jesus. Indeed, given Europe’s many religious wars and the German church’s cooperation with the Nazi regime, is it surprising that many Europeans have turned away from Christian faith? Similarly, is it any wonder that abused women and children have left the church, turning instead to secular groups for help and support?
I am not suggesting here that we abandon the church. But we do need to be more candid about its failures, more humble about the claims it can make. It is not enough to say we must root ourselves in the church or practice spiritual disciplines, for all the Christians identified above also prayed and worshiped and proudly bore Christ’s name. We must therefore find additional ways to assess faithfulness and hold ourselves accountable.
- On the other hand, we must also be truthful and realistic about the state. While the traditional Mennonite formulation about the state is very negative, it is also ironically optimistic about the state’s ability to use violence to maintain order. There is even an implication that violence is necessary in order to avoid chaos.
This assumption fails to recognize that violence (and especially the violence of the state) actually creates disorder. In truth, this is a key Christian claim. By declaring Jesus as Lord, Christians have asserted that a legitimate (and religiously sanctioned) state actually killed God’s son. In attempting to impose order, these leaders sought to destroy God and nullify God’s will. The resurrection was God’s answer to this violence — and a strong, active declaration that God brings forth life and order through the Spirit, not the sword.
One could, of course, cite a long list of wars fought by states in the name of some greater good. In Indochina, for instance, the goal was to defeat
godless Communismyet the legacy has been long-term devastation and disorder, along with a great deal of suspicion about the meaning and intentions of Christian faith.
Closer to home, we must also acknowledge that the violent coercion used to provide domestic
orderis often felt by people of color as repression and brutality. Rather than supporting just and equitable economic and social policies, our police, prisons, and criminal justice system have often been used to impose order primarily for the privileged, and against the poor and people of color.
- Despite all this (and how grim it all appears!) we cannot escape being human and living
in the world.While I understand Roth’s desire to reassess our political involvements, withdrawal is not possible. Rather, opting out of the system is a very political act, for this inevitably reinforces the status quo. And we have to be honest: the systems of our world today are set up to benefit white, male, economically privileged citizens of the United States. Thus, it can look unrealistic and even self-serving (especially to those most negatively affected by our public policies) to suggest that we just step out of the picture for awhile. Rather than supposing that we can be politically disengaged or neutral, let us focus instead on how we engage in political activity, how we can best demonstrate the way of Jesus in all that we do.
- I would therefore like to offer several other suggestions for addressing these issues:
- No participation in or listening to media (even religious media) that is filled with hate and derision, or which glorifies and promotes violence. Our society is saturated with messages that violence solves our problems and brings us peace. We need to consciously resist these messages and instead reinforce our faith in the way of Jesus as the way of God.
- No claims that God supports one particular political party or leader. Political power is indeed seductive, tempting all of us to trust its strength and energy. Yet, we cannot give any earthly power ultimate allegiance. Rather, we must constantly remind ourselves and each other that God stands outside and over all. Further, God’s power is active not in the threat of death but in those deeds and policies guided by love, justice, and accountability.
- More action with our advocacy and prayer. I agree with Roth that we have too often engaged in political witness ’on the cheap.’ To have integrity, our advocacy needs to ask more of us: more willingness to stand alongside people who are homeless, to support young women with children, to nurture healthy family relationships and to share our resources through our church agencies. In a similar way, we need to be careful that our prayers are also not given ’on the cheap.’ As we pray and witness, let us resolve to open ourselves to what God calls us to do.
- More advocacy with our action and prayer. If we take the above seriously and truly support people in need, we will not be able to avoid political witness. As happened so often in Laos, people will ask us to share their stories and seek ways of preventing the devastation they have experienced. Thus, we will need to understand not only the personal aspects of poverty and violence, but also how our structures and institutions are involved and need to be challenged and changed.
- More prayer with our action and advocacy. Roth is also correct that our actions and witness should be spiritually grounded and nourished. If we participate in vigils against war, for instance, we can use this time to pray for ourselves and our political leaders. Prayer helps us remember our common humanity before God and see our own complicity in violence and injustice.
- More serious conversation within our congregations and communities. Traditionally, Mennonites have backed away from vigorous discussion, fearing open disagreement and conflict. Let us recognize instead that we actually need differing viewpoints. None of us is God and knows all truth, so it is essential that we learn from those who have had different experiences and can share other perspectives. Can we ask each congregation to learn more about handling conflict in constructive ways? Can we engage in significant but respectful dialogue about the issues which divide us? For example, the MCC Washington Office is encouraging people to engage in
safe spaces dialogueand offers several good resources on their web site, http://www.mcc.org/us/washington/safespace/. Let us support and participate in these efforts.
- More learning from Mennonites in difficult circumstances. I would urge that we focus not only on the Mennonite experience in Paraguay but also learn from Mennonite churches in Colombia, Honduras, Indonesia, and the Congo. Further, those in dominant culture groups in the U.S. must find ways to listen to, learn from and be accountable to groups who are most at risk here at home, such as immigrants, people of color, and women. God has always championed those most vulnerable to violence and oppression (the stranger, the widow, the orphan) so we need to stand with these groups in order to fully understand our world and God’s will.
- More discernment regarding Christian faithfulness. Jesus cautioned that
Not everyone who says to me, ’Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.(Matt. 7:21) We need to be very clear that Jesus is our model and the lens through which we read all of Scripture, the church, and the world. Not only is he a Savior who will take us to heaven when we die, but his life and teachings show us how to live here and now. What if we would memorize the opening lines of Jesus’ first sermon (in Luke 4:18) and use this as our standard? What if we would look at all our actions, beliefs, and policies and ask if they bring
good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to those who are oppressed?
We must be cautious, however. Earthly kingdoms also promise good news and freedom. Yet, these promises tend to be exclusive - for those of a certain gender, nationality or racial group - and delivered through violence and oppression. Significantly, in this sermon, Jesus did not use the rest of the quote from Isaiah 61:2 which proclaims
the day of vengeance of our God. Rather, Jesus promised that God’s favor would come through the power of the Spirit to all people, and especially to those most often disregarded by the systems which try to shape our lives.
Truly, we will need to be
wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matt. 10:16) May we also, as Roth urged, be filled with love for God, the world, and each other.