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Peace call helps Mennonite Church USA to call for renewed peace witness


Mennonite Church Canada on behalf of Mennonite Church USA
For immediate release
May 31, 2005
-by Laurie Oswald

Newton, Kan. — Due to the two-year war in Iraq, participants at Charlotte 2005 face a different world than they experienced during Atlanta 2003. But a nationwide conference call on peacemaking April 12 shows that people in Mennonite Church USA are striving to also make a difference in the world through their peace witness.

In an unexpected flood of support, more than 750 people across the United States joined the conference call April 12, organized by Susan Mark Landis, Executive Leadership peace advocate. In e-mails and notes that Landis received, participants said the call – marking the second anniversary of the U.S.-led war on Iraq – reawakened their commitment to follow Jesus' way of peace. The call also gave them renewed solidarity with other Mennonites, even when they don't agree on all the details of peacemaking.

Landis and the Peace & Justice Support Network (PJSN) of Mennonite Mission Network will not provide a follow-up to the call at the joint church-wide assembly to be held July 4-9 with Mennonite Church Canada in Charlotte. But they will provide activities, Bible studies, worship and a public action that will help people to continue to discuss some of the issues they discussed by phone April 12.

“At the end of the call, I was both weak with emotion and deeply encouraged,” wrote a caller from California. “Your closing comment that at least 750 people had been part of the call prompted my husband to say that it made him feel as if we're not alone. ... We both felt we were being upheld by the church we love and the Spirit of Christ who gave it birth.”

Someone who grew up Mennonite but who hadn't been connected to a Mennonite congregation for years wrote, “For about 10 years of my life, I was not connected at all to one church. But God is faithful and gracious, so here I am again, re-connecting to fellow Mennonites and rediscovering what God's plan is for me.

“Since the closest Mennonite church is about a five- to six-hour drive from here, I am thankful for the Internet to stay in touch with Mennonites, as well as for all of us to stay informed and to fellowship around the world.”

Landis' responded to these communications with gratefulness that people – Mennonite or otherwise – are feeling new hope and unity around peacemaking. “One Mennonite man from a very strong peace church wrote that even in his congregation he can feel alone,” Landis said in an interview after the conference call. “He said the call really touched him and let him know a broader of network of people who care.”

“And then there were others who aren't Mennonite and said that they joined the call to see how Mennonites are addressing the violence in our world. Still others, who had grown up in the church and had left, simply wanted to see how Mennonites are now responding to these issues. They wanted to see if the peace stance is still alive in the church.”

Added to a sense of solidarity was a humble spirit, said Jim Schrag, director of Mennonite Church USA, in an interview after the call. “I was impressed by the many references to the factors of our identity as a world power and how the American people contribute to and make possible the wars that we're engaged in,” he said. “There was a thoughtful analysis of the root causes of conflict. We weren't talking about other people's violence, and it wasn't a Bush-bashing experience. It was confessional in tone.”

Those who helped set this tone of humility included Landis, who guided the discussion during the call, and speakers. They were pastors, denominational leaders, educators and others who represented diverse viewpoints on the theological, sociological, practical and spiritual aspects of the issues. They talked about being a faith-based discerning community and understanding what security means in an age of terrorism. They shared ideas from congregations to help sense God's call for Mennonite Church USA to model the life of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

“The center of our message on peace always needs to be Jesus Christ,” said Myron Augsburger, an evangelist, a former pastor and one of several pastors who spoke April 12. “To be consistently evangelical, one can't take the life of the person for whom Christ died when you are also seeking to make him a brother in Christ. We need to model the self-giving love of Christ in our community so as to be a people who are reconciled to God and who are reconcilers in the world.”

Along with remaining Christ-centered, maintaining humility and connectedness in the face of differences is also important, said Pearl Hoover, pastor of Northern Virginia Mennonite Church in Fairfax. “I realize it's important to ... monitor when my language, attitudes and reflections sound self-righteous. ...Gentle humility can do amazing things.

“Connectedness is also important. There are two retired couples in our congregation whose views differ greatly. But even while they hold strongly to their views, they realize that they very much need each other. And they've been a witness to all of us on how to stay connected, to differ and yet to sit together peacefully.”

Other speakers included Schrag; John D. Roth, professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and author of Choosing Against War: A Christian View; Daryl Byler, Mennonite Central Committee Washington office director; Ron Kraybill, associate professor of conflict studies at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU); David B. Miller, pastor of the University Mennonite Church at State College, Pa.; and MCC appointee to Center on Conscience and War; and Carol Rose, co-director for Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) and a former pastor.

Byler and Kraybill added to the pastors' perspectives on theology and congregational life. They shared how we can have an effective peace witness with our government, society and the world. “Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has become the world's only superpower,” Byler said. “Our nation has struggled with how to handle that graciously. ... Our military spending now exceeds the combined military spending of all the other countries.

“We are now spending $225 million every day in Iraq. ... The most severe cost to us is the cost of relationships. Our wars are contributing to the growing anti-American sentiment, and are making us less secure.”

Kraybill shared facts from a Washington Post story regarding the growth of terrorism since the Iraq war began. "Experts say that the Islamic terrorists are exploiting the Iraq conflict to ... build transnational terrorist cells," he said. "In my conflict transformation classes at EMU, we talk about how people all over the world were with Americans after 9/11, and they said ‘our hearts are with you.’ But then we turned to weapons and everyone turned suspicious and skeptical.”

Schrag invited the denomination to integrate and shape a peace witness that has balance and integrity and an understanding of the complexity of the issues. Delegates will have time in Charlotte to discuss how and when the denomination should address the government on peace and other social issues such as equitable access to healthcare for all.

“Witnessing for peace is important to our integrity, but other Christians are also depending on our denomination for leadership,” he said. “In these days, the situation has become more complex.

“It's become easier to dichotomize. ... Mennonites experience a deep ambivalence about how and when to speak to government. ... But we aren't only talking about the war in Iraq. We are also dealing with forces in ourselves and in the culture. The Christians' call to peacemaking is larger than any particular war.”

Participants at Charlotte will have many opportunities to integrate understandings on peace during activities sponsored by PJSN with cooperation from Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) and Mennonite Church USA's Executive Leadership. Some activities include three evenings of worship, singing, peace stories and Bible study. Locations and times of all PJSN-sponsored events will be posted at the PJSN display booth at the Convention Center.

A public action is scheduled, "Proclaiming Truth and Health: A Charlotte Public Witness." The witness will reclaim Christ's Lordship of our bodies and money through a prayer pilgrimage. For more information on the action, contact Mark Frey, CPT, at 773-277-0252.