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Peace from our tradition

posted Mar 16, 2017, 2:44 PM by John Garland   [ updated Mar 16, 2017, 2:44 PM ]

This is a speech given by our beloved Rachel Epp Miller on Ash Wednesday:

Muslim and Christian Women Discussing Peace from our Traditions

University Incarnate Word

March 1, 2017


            The wisdom for peacebuilding in the Mennonite tradition comes directly from Jesus, himself. Known in the bible as God’s Wisdom, Jesus is the center of our faith. We look to Jesus to show us the way of God’s heart, the way to live a life of prayerful engagement, to be in community, the way to live in the midst of an often violent world. Since the 16th century, Mennonites have been committed to pacifism because we have seen nonviolence lived out in the story of Jesus who calls us to love our enemies, to do good even to our persecutors, to turn the other cheek and walk a mile in the “other’s” shoes. In a tradition that expected the Messiah to be a military hero, Jesus chose a radically alternative way. Centered in prayer and community, steeped in the tradition of the Jewish prophets, Jesus refused violence. He was constantly breaking down barriers through connection with others. Even at the point of death when Jesus could’ve taken up arms (indeed his disciples tried to) or called down angels—to protect himself or to further his mission—he refused, knowing the way of God’s heart is forgiveness and a radical peace that comes alongside, lifting up those who are suffering or oppressed. Every chance he got, Jesus invited people, ordinary people, to follow him. And this is what we try to do—certainly never perfectly and definitely never alone. Following Jesus takes the kind of courage that is only found in relationship to others, in the strength of community.

            In the Mennonite church we have, for centuries now, refused to fight in war. Our forebears have been conscientious objectors, choosing to serve this country in ways that support life. Many during WWII, for example, gave years of their lives not in the military, but in Civilian Public Service—in areas such as forestry, as guinea pigs in medical testing, and serving in mental health institutions. Many of the reforms in the 1940s-50s in our psychiatric facilities can be traced back to Mennonite conscientious objectors who worked for mental health reform in this country during and following WWII.

            It seems every generation of Mennonites has to learn anew what it means to follow Jesus, particularly in the area of nonviolence, in our own time and place. For generations, Mennonites lived in close-knit communities where conformity to the community’s norms was of utmost importance. They were known as the “quiet in the land,” living mostly separate lives from the world around them. This is, for many Mennonites, no longer our reality. We are engaged in the larger world. And with that comes a deeper sense of call from Jesus that goes beyond not fighting in war to really wrestling with issues of justice with and on behalf of our neighbor.

            In the 1980s, Ron Sider, stood before the gathered Mennonite World Conference in France and gave an address that challenged Mennonites to revisit our peace stance. He told those gathered that until we are willing to give our lives for the cause of peace (to the same extent that people offer up their lives in the cause of war, in the hopes of peace), our pacfisim will mean nothing. Inspired by this challenge, Christian Peacemaker Teams was born, an organization that has served all around the world in places of conflict, getting in the way of violence, building partnerships with other local peacebuilders, putting their lives on the line for peace. All of this out of a conviction that this is what Jesus calls us to do.

            There are many areas within the Mennonite church where we are struggling to know how to build a true and justice-soaked peace. We struggle with the same fears that seek to divide our larger society—the fear of scarcity, homophobia, racism and sexism, to name just a few. But it is exactly in the face of such fears that the call to peacemaking arises and Jesus draws us to deepening connection and engagement. Just recently our brothers and sisters of color in the Mennonite church met together. Out of their conversations arose their own definition (really, it’s a mandate) of what a peace church is (and I believe it sounds very much like Jesus). It reads, “A peace church recognizes the imago dei in all humanity. It not only prays, it takes action. A peace church responds to violence inside and outside its doors. A peace church stands with Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, LGBTQ people, immigrants and against all forms of violence. A peace church empowers disenfranchised and marginalized people. It understands multi-faceted forms of violence—systemic, educational, and environmental. It is more than the absence of war or the protesting of war.”

            The wisdom for peacebuilding in the Mennonite church is Jesus, and it is lived out in our daily lives as teachers, parents, business people, doctors, neighbors, gardeners, marchers...It’s lived out in gatherings like this as we commit to listening and learning from the stories and traditions of others, seeking the way of God’s heart together.


Rachel Epp Miller