Does the Mennonite approach to the state emerge from Mennonite theology? Or does Mennonite theology respond to Mennonite experiences of the state? While many theologians argue that the separation of church and state has been a consistent cornerstone of Mennonite theology over the last 500 years, the relationship between Mennonite theology and Mennonite approaches to the state is dynamic. A variety of male Mennonite theologians, including Harold S. Bender, John Howard Yoder, Hans Hillerbrand, Ted Koontz, Perry Bush, Keith Graber Miller, Ted Grimsrud and quite a few others who have attempted to pin down a consistent Mennonite “theology of the state’ argue our theology should guide our approach to the state.
Duane Friesen suggests this may not be realistic; in practice, Mennonite theologies and approaches to the state may emerge from unique historical contexts. But all these theologians seem to view the state as ethically inferior to the church. As a Mennonite woman and political scientist, I have not found the church to be the ethical refuge or beacon of hope seen by most of these Mennonite men.
As a product of Mennonite institutions (Bluffton University, Eastern Mennonite University, Goshen College, Conrad Grebel University College), I have seen abuses of power to hide sexual abuse, sexism, silencing of LGBTQ voices, authoritarian decision-making that refused to listen to and engage with people of diverse experiences, and a racism that has often insisted that only “ethnic’ Mennonites lead Mennonite institutions. I have seen state leadership on human rights and women’s rights that puts the state ahead of the church’s ethics. I view both the church and the state with suspicion, recognizing the harm that has already come from patriarchal, authoritarian decision-making in both institutions. In my experience, the concept of the separation between the church and the state works more as a set of checks and balances than a protection of church ethics. The church can and should push the state toward an ethic of human security, and the state can and should call the church to recognize the dignity of all people.
In many ways, the church and the state are similar institutions. The church and the state both provide governance. Governance is the way decisions are made that order people’s lives and has never been solely a function of the state or ruler. Governance is always fluid, including a variety of state and non-state actors. Throughout history, kings, rulers, states, tribes, religious groups, labor unions, artist guilds and ordinary people have participated in governance. Ideas about governance, and who has the legitimacy to govern, are constantly changing and being challenged.
Today, the role of civil society in providing governance is much more widely acknowledged. Civil society includes all types of social organizations outside the state or the private business sector. Civil society includes religious institutions, educational institutions, labor unions, artist guilds, sports associations, tribal and Indigenous communities, etc. No state can provide all public goods. Ideally, the state and civil society work together to provide public goods.
Mennonites are not the only religious group questioning their theology of and relationship to the state. Jews, Muslims, Hindus and other Christians also have internal conversations and debates over governance. Fundamentalist religious groups tend to argue the state should be under the control of religious leaders. Progressive religious groups tend to recognize the necessity of the state protecting freedom of religion and promoting religious tolerance. In France, the secular state prohibits Muslim headscarves, Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps in public. In Myanmar, Buddhists kill and expel Muslim Rohinga to enforce state purity. In Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, Muslim-led governments discriminate against Jews, Christians and other religious minorities. In Israel, Jews protect the Jewish nature of the state and discriminate against Christians and Muslims. In the United States, a country set up to protect religious freedom for various Protestant sects, Christians dominate all parts of government and Muslims and other minorities experience discrimination. This pattern has a long history. The secular state persecutes religious groups. Religious states persecute other religious groups.
From a political scientist’s point of view, there are as many Mennonite theologies of and approaches to the state as there are countries where Mennonites live. Mennonite relationships with states depend on historical and geographic context. The state system is not static, and it is not surprising that Mennonite theology evolves in parallel to the shifting nature of states and the concept of governance. This article identifies 11 varieties of Anabaptist approaches to the state and argues that Mennonite theology adapted and transformed in response to particular political contexts. Rather than viewing the relationship between the church and state as inherently conflictual, this article argues there may be checks and balances that emerge when the church and state are separate, and both challenge each other on ethics.
Theology of empire: The early church’s bargain
Political scientists trace the evolution of the state and its relationship with religion. In ancient history, rulers from the Aztecs to the Egyptians concocted religions and deities to define their political power. Leaders’ authority and legitimacy came from a mix of religious justification of divine power and brute force.
The Roman Empire, with its own set of deities, taxed Jews and interfered in certain political matters, but largely left Jews to govern themselves. Jewish law governed many aspects of life. Jesus was Jewish and followed Jewish law. Jesus preached a relationship with the state that both avoided direct confrontation by advising to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ and empowered Jewish communities to keep their dignity and follow Jewish law. The Jewish followers of Jesus embraced pacifism.
As other Jews revolted against Rome, and Rome in turn waged war against Jews, destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem and attacked the last Jewish holdout at Masada, Jewish rabbinical leadership abandoned violent revolt and accepted subjugation. This rabbinical advice continued for centuries, until the birth of Zionism.
After centuries of persecution, inquisitions and pogroms, Zionist Jews began to rebel against rabbinical advice to accept violence as a sign of God testing Jews’ covenant. Zionism articulated the Jewish need for a state in which they would be able to protect themselves. To this day, the debate within Jewish theology about the relationship between people of faith and the state continues.
In the centuries after Jesus died, the early church distanced itself from Jewish law and society. Early Christians did not want to fight against Rome. But the early church’s bargain with Constantine’s imperial power fused and confused the ethics of the church with the ethics of empire. In the era of emperors, kings and popes, rulers taxed and controlled public life in return for offering protection from violent anarchy where hordes of ax-wielding tribes massacred and wiped out any unprotected villages.
Anabaptism grew in opposition to this bargain with Empire. For some Anabaptists in the United States today, it is not clear that this aspect of Anabaptism is important. Joining with other fundamentalist, Evangelical and conservative Christians, many Anabaptists seem to value conservative social values more than separation of church and state, pacifism or avoidance of political candidates that support violence. Inasmuch as American Mennonites today live in an “empire’: most Mennonites drive cars fueled by the empire’s wars for cheap oil and pay taxes to pay for the military; we engage in consumerism; many Mennonites back Republican candidates, even those who support U.S. military action abroad. The Christian bargain with Empire continues to be one manifestation in a diverse typography of Mennonite-state relations.
Theology of redemptive suffering: Separation of church and a repressive state
But Anabaptism did grow out of a rejection of this bargain. The Protestant Reformation critiqued this toxic cocktail of church-state power arguing for elbow room between the institutions of the church and those of state governance. Early Anabaptists in the 1500s took the principle a step further, arguing for a complete separation of church and state within a historical context where they believed the state corrupted the church. The Catholic authorities were fighting Muslim Turks engaged in the Ottoman-Habsburg wars, including terrorist attacks on villages. The Anabaptists’ refusal to baptize their babies and register them as potential soldiers for this war was a central point in Catholic persecution of them.
Early Anabaptists decided that they could not both be followers of Jesus and obedient citizens of violent empires. Authorities did not take kindly to this decision. For decades and centuries and across continents, kings, rulers, Catholic princes and states punished Anabaptists for their rejection of state authority. When the state system developed in the 1600s with the Treaty of Westphalia, the state was primarily responsible for maintaining “the monopoly of force.’ This meant that states could kill or punish those who challenged it. State legitimacy, then and now, was tied to military power. Anabaptists hid in caves, fled to more tolerant countries, and developed a theology of redemptive suffering.
Like Jews after the fall of the Second Temple, Mennonites came to see persecution as a test of their faithfulness. Suffering state persecution became a sign of piety. An Anabaptist theology of redemptive suffering developed in response to this context. In this second manifestation of church-state relations, Anabaptists viewed martyrdom by the state as redemptive, bringing them salvation and an opportunity to demonstrate their faith.
Two-kingdom theology: Separation of church and a tolerant, protective state
But this theology of redemptive suffering was impermanent. Early Anabaptists escaped repressive Swiss authorities to more tolerant governments in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Ukraine, Russia and eventually the Americas and elsewhere. Anabaptists came to call a truce with the state. Given land in remote, isolated communities, Mennonites agreed to pay taxes to the state, additional fees to avoid military service, and to abide by special laws that, in many cases, applied only to Mennonites, Muslims and Jews, religious groups distrusted by the state. In return, the state offered them safe havens from persecution. These Anabaptists made a bargain with these tolerant, protective states. In most areas of the world today, Anabaptists live in religiously tolerant states who protect them.
In this third manifestation of church-state relations, many Anabaptists embraced a two-kingdom theology to deal with the inconsistencies of living in states that do not follow Christian ethics. In a two-kingdom theology, Christians live their lives in a separate domain from the state, which abides by secular law. The church was separate from the state. There was one set of rules for secular life, and another for religious life.
The security apparatus of the state was seen as separate from the church. In France, some Mennonites supported the state probably not because they were wealthy, but because they were too poor. Unable to pay a fee to avoid military service, some, including my great great-grandfather Peter Schirch, served in the French army. A large number of U.S. Mennonites continue to join the military, despite provisions for conscientious objection. In most cases, some version of two-kingdom theology justifies what Mennonites do for the state, versus what Mennonites must do in the church kingdom.
Mennonite theologians reject wars like the U.S. war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, believing wars like this are against their pacifist theology. The Taliban are known for killing girls in school because they object to female education. But many Mennonites have no problem calling the state police to report a crime. When an armed man broke into an Amish girls’ school in Pennsylvania and threatened to kill them, the Amish called the police. In each case, Mennonites draw on a two-kingdom theology which allows them to call the police or join the military to deal with the secular threat or obligation, which is seen as separate from the religious obligations of the church world.
Progressive theology: The church in support of a tolerant state
A fourth approach to the state evolved in some progressive parts of the Netherlands, as Anabaptists became wealthy and prospered. The progressive Waterlander Anabaptists began to hold government office, particularly at the local level. Waterlanders were tolerant of other religious groups and welcoming of outsiders into their congregations. They maintained a commitment to pacifism, and so rejected political offices that involved any use of violence.
The Waterlander Anabaptists rejected the term “Mennonite’ as they did not want to take a name of a human being. Waterlanders split from other Anabaptists over the use of shunning. Waterlanders were tolerant of others, allowing intermarriage and not practicing the ban of those who varied from church teachings. Other Anabaptist groups referred to the Waterlanders as Drekwagon, or “garbage collectors,’ because of their disregard for the “purity’ some Anabaptists believed was necessary for faithfulness. A tolerant, progressive theology seemed to emerge from the peace relationships Anabaptists had with a relatively tolerant and progressive state in the Netherlands.
Governing theology: The church as alternative state
Other Anabaptists in other political contexts developed different theologies. The armed Anabaptist Münsterites are the infamous example of the church violently overthrowing government and creating their own governing structures. The Münsterites’ bizarre polygamist theology and intolerant rule branded them as the closest thing to ISIS in Christian European history. Other Anabaptists rejected the Münster-style violent attempt to set up an Anabaptist “caliphate.’ But they did not reject Anabaptist governance structures.
For those Anabaptists pushed to the margins of public life and mostly removed from contact with government, their religious communities developed self-governing structures. Intentional Anabaptist communities run alternative state structures to provide education, health care and rule of law. Amish and Hutterites in North America continue to largely govern themselves, rarely interacting with state institutions. A theology of intentional community, self-sufficiency and simple living emerged from a context where Anabaptists saw themselves as not just separate from the state, but setting up a separate state structure to rule the church.
Nazi theology: The church in support of an authoritarian state
The worst manifestation of Mennonite’s relationship with the state occurred in Germany with the rise of the Third Reich, as detailed in Ben Goossen’s book Chosen Nation. While many pacifist Mennonites left Germany for North America in anticipation of the Third Reich, many of those who stayed opted to support the Nazi regime.
Some German Mennonites began to see their German culture and nationality as central to their Mennonite identity. They seemed enamored with Hitler’s vision of German superiority. They were complicit with Hitler’s racial profiling portraying Mennonites as “pure Germans’ and “anti-Jews.’ Hitler and his men favored Mennonites, whom they saw as the one of the purest examples of the so-called “Aryan race.’ Some Mennonites fought on behalf of the Nazi authoritarian state, participated in massacres of Jewish villages, benefited from the confiscation of Jewish property, and all the while theologically justified this as part of their religious duty. They developed a nationalist, racist theology that believed they were superior to other groups. This theology justified a departure from pacifism and embraced militarism. Goossen’s book documents Mennonite families with soldiers seated around an open Bible, illustrating the allegiance to the state’s military and the Christian Bible.
Nationalist theology: The church as nation-state
Following World War II, many Mennonites guilty of participating in Hitler’s Third Reich and those pushed out of Ukraine escaped to Holland. There Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) issued them “Menno Passes’: Mennonite passports, indicating again the concept of a Mennonite peoplehood and national identity. This protected those Mennonites who had collaborated with the Nazis from retribution, while simultaneously giving them refugee status. With 12 million Germans and other Europeans also seeking refugee status, the Menno Pass was an attempt by ethnic Mennonites to help other ethnic Mennonites. In this historical context, the theology of ethnic and national identity superseded other Anabaptist ethics. A step beyond the “governing theology’ of Anabaptists like the Münsterites, this manifestation of church-state relations asserted Mennonites as having their own nationality.
MCC then advocated for the establishment of a Mennonite state in the Chaco region of Paraguay. Operating similar to the Jewish National Fund, MCC helped Mennonites escape from post-WWII Europe and advocated for Mennonites to have their own national status. (Ironically, Mennonites today largely criticize the state of Israel for colonial policies against Palestinians while most Mennonites do not speak out against Mennonite colonial policies against the Indigenous people of the Chaco, who were displaced like Palestinians to make way for Mennonites from Europe.
It is not surprising that generations of persecution and Anabaptist isolation from broader society created a sense of shared ethnicity and genetic code. Today’s “Mennonite game’ of figuring out “how we are related’ is a ritual of the ethnic rather than theological ties that bind Mennonites together. Today, Mennonite national rhetoric is still found in church newspapers. Allegiance to ethnic Mennonites is still strong, with many Mennonite institutions preferring or even requiring that key leaders in these institutions be ethnic Mennonites. But this romanticization of ethnicity needs interrogation. A focus on culture and genetic code displaces a theology of ideas.
A theology of God’s politics: A separate church challenges state ethics
Since WWII, new global institutions like the United Nations have pressured states to be “citizen-oriented’ and protect human rights. In this political conversation, state legitimacy comes not from religious authority nor from weapons or a “monopoly of violence.’ Instead, state legitimacy comes from elections and the provision of public goods. In contrast, “elite-captured’ states are run by a small group of elites who use military power to repress the public and take public wealth. International organizations, drawing on international law, press these corrupt governments to be accountable to protect human security.
As the number of Mennonites living in free and democratic states increased, they began to articulate a new theology of relating to the state as advocates of a human rights ethic. With the publication of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, a Christian theology that informed the ethics of governing became more explicit. The field of peacebuilding, heavily shaped by Mennonites, reflects this approach to the state. In peacebuilding, an active civil society holds the state accountable for its civic responsibilities and partners with the state to solve public conflicts and foster human security. In 2005, when I was in Iraq with MCC, local Iraqi peacebuilders told me: “It is great you Mennonites came here to support our local community peacebuilding. But what we really need you to do is to teach your government and military how to build peace.’ That was the beginning of a long journey that has resulted in me teaching a Mennonite approach to peacebuilding at dozens of military bases in the United States and Europe, giving keynote talks at the Pentagon, and sitting on panels beside military generals and U.S. ambassadors.
Some Mennonites condemn this work, claiming it cannot be Anabaptist to engage with the state institutions in this way. But my work to promote nonviolent approaches to human security is not a departure from Anabaptist history. Early Anabaptists in the 1520s in Zurich and Bern engaged with state authorities to convince them to do their job of governing in a way that focused more on citizen-oriented human security, and less on authoritarian, elite rule. The Waterlanders in the Netherlands also took this approach, urging for ethical governance. In some historic contexts, it makes sense for Mennonites with access to power to push the state to foster human security, and to partner with the state to prevent and stop violent conflicts.
A white patriarchal theology: The church falling behind state ethics
The church is not always more ethical than the state. On some issues, like sexual violence and racism, the state is sometimes more ethical than the church. While the church asserts the rights of white men, democratic states are pushing the church to honor the human rights of all people, male and female, gay and straight, black and white. In this ninth expression of church-state relations, the church struggles to live up to state ethics.
While some North American Mennonites were at the forefront of racial equity, the U.S. government’s racial desegregation laws were the prompt for many church institutions to open their doors to African Americans. When it comes to racism, both the church and the state have a long way to go to become more ethical.
The same can be said of government regulations on LGBTQ rights and sexual violence. In Mennonite churches, discrimination against LGBTQ is common. Church schools were exempt from the types of civil rights legislation that prevented public universities from firing LGBTQ faculty and staff.
Churches also fell behind state ethics in addressing child abuse and sexual violence. Churches were slow to respond to legal obligations for mandatory reporting. Churches kept abusive pastors and youth leaders in positions despite reports of abuses of power. Victims of sexual violence at Mennonite institutions continue to publish stories of vast cover-ups, church attempts at silencing victims, and moving church workers from institution to institution without warning those institutions of a sexual offender’s past or psychological addictions to coercion and manipulation. Mennonite institutions have broken the law, and they have allowed sexual abuse to continue while showing little regard for victims and survivors. The state’s laws and policies about sexual violence are often more ethical than the churches. States are pushing religious organizations to adhere to these moral standards.
Selective theology: Loving the enemies of the state
A tenth expression of state-church relations applies a selective ethic of love of enemies. Some Mennonite churches have programs to help rehabilitate offenders, including sexual offenders. This is a worthy program, but it is curious why such churches simultaneously seem to shun victims of sexual violence. It appears that the ethic of enemy love applies to sexual offenders, but an ethic of love and care for victims is missing. Mennonites take Matthew 5’s command to love enemies seriously. But it is not always clear who exactly is lovable as an enemy and who is not.
Similarly, Mennonites sometimes seem to believe that it is more faithful to love the enemies of the state than to love the state that is perpetrating violence. Mennonites had considerable outreach to North Vietnamese but relatively less with the U.S. military fighting in Vietnam. Similarly, Mennonites have had an ongoing presence in Iran and a dialogue with Muslim leaders, even while U.S. antagonism toward Iran is longstanding. This led to MCC organizing a dinner in New York City in 2008 with then President Ahmedinejad. While some criticized this action, MCC cited biblical reasons to reach out to Iranian leaders.
But when it comes to loving the U.S. military, or U.S. allies like Israel, there is no equal call to love or engage. A prominent Mennonite chastised me for working to change the U.S. military’s role in Afghanistan instead of working directly with the Taliban. I disagreed with both the Taliban and the U.S. military. Does Matthew 5 contain some hidden code to determine which enemies are worthy of love? Some Mennonites denounce my work with the U.S. military as a betrayal of the people affected by U.S. military occupation abroad – even though it was Iraqi peacebuilders who asked Mennonites to do the work of reaching out to the U.S. military.
Similarly, Mennonites have largely taken an oppositional stance to Israel, opposing and denouncing Israeli occupation of Palestine without building the kind of long-term relationships with Jews that they have with Muslims in Iran. Mennonites rightly have offered support to Palestinian refugees and worked for Palestinian rights. Mennonites have been outspoken denouncing Israel and calling the legitimacy of a Jewish state into question. But until the Mennonite Church USA resolution on Israel-Palestine in 2017, Mennonites have been relatively quiet about Jewish refugees, Jewish rights and anti-Semitism. In fall 2017, my husband and I took a group of students from Eastern Mennonite University to Israel and Palestine. We lived and worked in Bethlehem with Palestinians, learning about home demolitions, the Separation Wall and other realities of occupation. We also spent considerable time talking to a variety of Israeli settlers in the West Bank. In this dialogue, we learned a great deal about their point of view and began to see a variety of creative political solutions that were emerging from a dialogue between Palestinians and Jewish settlers. But Mennonite activists denounced our visits with settlers, suggesting that any contact with these Jews was a betrayal to Palestinian rights.
Again, this seems like a selective application of peacebuilding processes of dialogue and the theology of love of enemies. Matthew 5 is not advocating a love to those enemies with whom we have sympathy, or the “enemies of our enemies.’ Matthew 5 is a description of God’s security strategy, a recognition that we cannot solve problems without recognizing people’s humanity and understanding their point of view making dialogue not optional, but a necessity with all those with whom we disagree.
Thinking beyond the state: Anarchism or regional cooperation
This survey of varieties of Mennonite theologies of, and approaches to, the state leaves out one important topic: those Mennonites who support anarchism or the dissolution of the state. A number of Mennonites argue anarchism better reflects pacifist theology. These voices assert that the state’s main purpose is to maintain a monopoly of violence, and thus the state is inherently evil. What they may not understand is that the state system evolved from a situation where there were so many contending armed groups that there was no peace. The state system was developed to decrease public violence, and at least some researchers believe that even with all its flaws, the state system has decrease violence.
Before the state system, there was rampant violence of marauding warrior tribes decimating unaffiliated villages and towns during the last 5,000 years of recorded history. There were even more territorial conquests and battles. Without the state’s rule of law and justice systems with codes of law, there were few institutions that could administer justice fairly. Tribal and religious courts did not assert equal rights to all human beings or establish checks and balances on political power. While the state system is clearly flawed, it is not clear that removal of the state system is the answer.
The Anarchist movement in the early 1900s in Europe was intensely violent. Some researchers note these Anarchists began the popularity of terrorism; deliberate violence against civilians with the goal of bending state policy. While decentralized decision-making, local ownership and democratic deliberation are hallmarks of neo-Anarchism, these processes also exist within a state system.
Perhaps a bigger threat than states are corporations. Corporations in many ways already rule the world. Corporations rarely operate on the sustainability and community responsibility principles of “profit, people and planet.’ In many countries, corporate power and state power commingle, with corporations pushing political agendas and helping to elect candidates that will weigh in their favor and political leaders advancing corporate interests. Yet states also restrict and regulate corporate power. Without state power to protect public interests like affordable health care, public education, public transportation, public news sources and national parks, corporations would monetize all of these.
Yet the state system is flawed in many ways. White European men drew the lines of what would become states in Africa, Latin America, Asia and beyond. These states cause much conflict. But we cannot prove that there would be less conflict without these state lines. The movement to create regional economic and security cooperation, such as the Organization of American States, the African Union and the European Union is a more compelling and evidence-based trend toward less inter-state violence.
As a Mennonite woman and political scientist, my experiences with the state and with the church have been remarkably similar. There are two places in my life where I am frequently the only woman in the room: discussing pacifist theology with a group of Mennonite men or training the U.S. military in peacebuilding. As a Mennonite woman, the challenges for me inside Mennonite institutions are just as great if not greater than in state institutions.
Both the church and the state claim to serve people. Both institutions can operate democratically, allowing participatory decision making. Yet both institutions can get hijacked by special interests to serve an elite group and face temptations of authoritarian rule. Both the church and the state reinforce patriarchy, male rule over women, heterosexual dominance to exclude LGBTQ people, and white supremacy, where Europeans rule or “administer’ over people of color.
There is nothing inherently good about Anabaptist-led institutions. Just as Anabaptists accused Catholic and then Protestant leaders of authoritarian decision-making, younger Anabaptists critique Mennonite institutions for their “violent process’ related to listening to sexual minorities and sexual violence in the church.
It is untrue to conclude “The state is bad; the church is good.’ Governance by the state or by the church is only as good as the degree to which people feel safe and can meet their basic needs in these systems. It is important not to ignore nor embrace the state. Sometimes the state can serve the public good. Sometimes its employees can help victims of violence. Other times, we know the state’s employees are abusive and predatory.
Church institutions are the same. Instead of embracing, ignoring or fighting the state or the church, we should take a principled stance on ethics of and theology of human security. An institution’s legitimacy and trust rests on public legitimacy. Do the public or members of a church institution feel safe? Is their God-given inherent dignity acknowledged? As powers, both the church and the state are fallen, and both are redeemable.