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Reflections on peace


Janet Plenert, Executive Secretary of Christian Witness, Mennonite Church Canada

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October 13, 2006
-by Dan Dyck

Winnipeg, Man. — Born into a military family in Canada (her father served in the air force), Janet Plenert spent her earliest years moving from base to base – which gave her one perspective on peace. As a missionary adult living in Kananga, Zaire (now Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo), with two young children, she had to flee when riots broke out on her street – adding another perspective.

Baptized in the United Church of Canada, confirmed in the Catholic Church, and then rebaptized into the Mennonite tradition as a young adult, Plenert was never far from the church and scriptural imperatives.

But when her husband-to-be introduced her to the Mennonite church, the computer science major discovered the community life she had been seeking as a youth. As she learned of the Mennonite peace tradition, Plenert began to reflect on a deeper spiritual level about the implications of a peace theology.

Today, as the early 40-something, multi-lingual head of Mennonite Church Canada Witness and part-time Masters of Divinity student, Plenert has had many more opportunities to think about and integrate Mennonite peace theology into her life and into the life of the church.

At a recent event, Plenert heard some churches asking, “Should we be a peace church, or are we a peace church?” Plenert contends there is a bigger question. One speaker offered an analogy: Being part of the church is like being a citizen of one’s country. Plenert says, “It’s like asking, ‘Should I be a Canadian?’ The reality is I am a Canadian. I can decide how I will live that out. I can ignore it or deny it, but I am still a Canadian.”

Similarly, she believes Christians cannot choose whether they want to live a peace theology; it is part of being a Christian. “There is no question of whether we want to be a peace church or not. We are a peace church because that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. We cannot exclude peace from it. The question of peace theology isn’t if, it’s how.”

Having lived in Zaire, Colombia, Brazil, USA, and Canada, Plenert’s duties now take her to many other places in Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. An observation she often shares is the disproportionately large influence the Mennonite peace witness has in other countries, denominations, and cultures.

At a 2005 mission and evangelism conference sponsored by the World Council of Churches in Greece, Plenert heard numerous pleas for Mennonites to share their peace theology more broadly. “For the small presence we have, we certainly get a lot of press,” says Plenert, who was one of a just a few Mennonites present in a field of 700 church leaders from 105 countries. “Why aren’t you speaking louder?’ is a refrain she heard (and hears) frequently.

Even within the Mennonite church, Plenert says, “We can’t assume that we’re a peace church,” observing that her three teenage daughters remind her how little they have been taught about peace and, “our own church’s peace perspective.” Her daughters realize this is part of Mennonite history, but they assert that peace theology isn’t just part of our history, it is something Mennonites should talk about today – not something that is assumed.

In today’s world, the cultural assumption is that war is an option, says Plenert. “The church has to boldly proclaim that it’s not an option. Peace isn’t just about the absence of violence. Peace is a culture. It’s how we respond to people. It’s how we work. It’s how we worship. It’s how we make decisions. It’s how we deal with our relationships, and that needs to be a more concrete part of our teachings.

“In Mennonite Church Canada and USA we need to actively address those questions too. Do we assume it underlies everything, or are we missing things because we’ve made that assumption for too long? And that doesn’t mean we should do everything that looks like peace agenda, but it does mean that we must have it in our active conscience in all that we do and are.”

Plenert sees the future of the church as one that will be tested by fire “… in ways we have not experienced in a few hundred years.” The future church may be smaller, but more passionate and more committed, she asserts. “People will go [to the church] if the church presents an alternative. Our peace theology is one of the clear alternatives that is desirable in a world that is so broken and violent.”

Plenert hopes congregations will become more deeply committed to peace, “…not as an activity we do but as part of who we are, the air we breathe. Are we different, because of our peace theology, than other churches or denominations that embrace the just war theology? Have we been faithful to our understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Is it good news for all persons? Are we assuming that the good news is good news for all, or only for ‘good’ people?”

Plenert pauses, recalling memories of scooping up two preschool daughters and fleeing the streets of Kananga, in 1992, not wanting to leave but nonetheless heeding instructions to do so.

Plenert concedes that her questions are easy to ask – but so much more difficult to answer.

Sidebar: Mennonite Church Canada Witness

“The vision of Mennonite Church Canada Witness is to lead, mobilize and resource the church to participate in holistic witness to Jesus Christ in a broken world, thus aligning the being and the doing of the church with God’s work.”

  • Mennonite Church Canada Witness is the denominational department responsible for the international and national mission work on behalf of 225 congregations in five area conferences.
  • International Ministries supports 70 workers serving in 31 countries. The National Ministries staff work with Native Ministries, Multicultural Ministries, and Congregational Partnerships in Canada.
  • November 5 is Peace Sunday in Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA. This day emphasizes peacemaking and justice ministries as central in the mission of the church at all levels of expression.