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Symposium on War and Peace: Mennonites and Christian Reformed Churches discuss and discern
November 13, 2009
WINNIPEG, Man. — Mennonite Church Canada leaders have logged another event towards the denomination’s collective “1,000 Acts of Peace” initiative.
On Oct. 17, Bruce Adema, Director of Canadian Ministries for the bi-national CRC and current president of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC), and Robert J. Suderman, General Secretary of Mennonite Church Canada hosted a Symposium on War and Peace together with the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) of Canada at Bethel Mennonite Church in Winnipeg.
The Symposium was the product of discussions between Suderman and Adema, after a May 2008 CCC event in which Suderman presented a paper entitled Faith and the Public Square: The church’s witness to peace (see www.mennonitechurch.ca/tiny/1203).
The CRC has a long standing tradition of just war theology: war should be used only as a last resort for the defence of the weak and vulnerable who are unable to defend themselves, and military service to one’s country is an obligation because “government is a positive force in our society and divinely ordained,” said Adema – though duty to obey government is neither absolute nor unconditional, but subject to God’s law.
If any conclusion can be reached, it would be that the CRC practices “selective pacifism” (the use of weapons of mass destruction – such as nuclear weapons – is never just), while Mennonites do not justify the use of violence even when it promises to be redemptive.
Adema said that CRC adherents live in a tension: in one hand they hold a deep desire to “never want war,” and in the other hand they hold a desire to stand up for the weak and vulnerable – using redemptive, violent force by serving one’s country’s military if no other solution is evident. But, “If just war happens, we have not been effective agents of peace,” he acknowledged.
Seating arrangements for the 43 participants mixed Mennonites and Christian Reformists – and generated much passionate conversation when the participants were paired up and assigned the task of creating a Remembrance Day service palatable to both denominations. A common theme that emerged was that such a service would need to focus on lament for all war dead rather than honouring only those who gave up their lives in military service.
Position papers from each denomination were also presented. Herman Keizer, a theologically trained, retired military chaplain from Grand Rapids, Mich. and long time high level pentagon ethical advisor said, “... as we walk through some of our history on war and peace, we have gained a deeper appreciation of the peace churches and what they can contribute to our efforts to be peace makers,” citing a recommendation from a 2006 Synod calling for the CRC to work more closely with peace churches and learn from one another.
Keizer also noted doctrinal statements from a 1939 Synod which dictate that “... as a general rule, the orders of the government are to be obeyed,” and “... a Christian who cannot be certain that his government is waging war justly ought therefore to do as ordered.” Moreover, “in a sinful and imperfect world, it may even be necessary to submit to an unjust law.” But conditions that define the justified use of military force were surprisingly absent from the 1939 document, Keizer said. The 1939 document eschews both militarism and pacifism.
With a Purple Heart pinned to his lapel, Keizer advocated for a re-examination of attitudes and conventional weapons. “In WWII only 20% of the fighting force shot to kill, today that is up to 85%... We, the US and Canada, have trained and have fielded the deadliest and most lethal force in the history of war fighting. I am concerned because soldiers are more concerned with killing than being killed,” he said.
Helmut Harder, Emeritus Professor of Theology, Canadian Mennonite University, and former General Secretary of Mennonite Church Canada, presented a paper that addressed the question, of how Mennonites have responded to contemporary challenges on issues of war and peace, and how this has shaped and reshaped its identity. In a Q&A after the presentation, challenges to absolute pacifism were rewarded by Harder’s simple explanation that “extermination of life is always wrong.” Keizer’s and Harder’s papers can be found at www.mennonitechurch.ca/tiny/1198.
Christian Reformists would not disagree with Harder’s assertion that “We believe that peace is the will of God” and is most fully revealed in Jesus. However, exegetical differences showed fissures on how peace can be achieved; scripture citations, such as Jesus’ claim that he came to bring peace by the sword (Matthew 10:34), were filtered through both CRC and Mennonite lenses. Mennonites interpret this story as the suffering servant model: Jesus sought to bring peace be making himself a sacrifice of the sword, not by wielding the sword, while the CRC understand that the text does not forbid the use of violent force.
But just how far towards the Jesus model is it possible for humans to move? CRC theology intimates that this is a complex issue that requires a carefully nuanced response – a simple answer would not do it justice. But the hope is for ultimate and lasting peace, said Adema. Mennonites see it as a goal to ever strive toward.
The event inspired better understanding between the two denominations – and perhaps a renewed valuing of those who have different understandings of peace and how to achieve it. Many Christian Reformed members have very recent memories from World War II that continues to shape their thinking. Some Mennonites also share that story, but more are shaped by a collective 500 year history of migration prompted by violent religious persecution –illustrated when Janet Plenert Executive Secretary of Mennonite Church Canada witness, read excerpts from The Martyr’s Mirror.
Jeremy Segsto, a CRC representative in grade 12 at a Mennonite school said, “Before today I saw very different and distinct views of Christianity but they’re actually very similar and they’re exactly the same in the most important aspect of it in that we all have the same goal in mind.”
Herman Keizer expressed a desire to learn more about the Mennonite history and practice of conscientious objection to war, and could see “selective” conscientious objection as a possibility in cases where a war would be deemed unjust. “[This] is very disturbing for the government because it could mean they declared war and nobody showed up,” he said to chuckles from others.
Natasha Plenert, a Mennonite student at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU), observed that among her peers it was very easy for her to write-off people with non-pacifist viewpoints as being “pro-war.” “There’s a very big distinction to be made between not thinking war is wrong and thinking war is the right answer.”
Janelle Dykxhoorn is a CMU student who grew up in CRC schools and churches. “I found out today how much going to a Mennonite university has already changed my thinking. In the discussion we’ve had I felt like I was half Mennonite and half CRC.”
Both denominations led in common worship that framed the opening and closing of the day. Before adjourning for a communal supper meal, Adema reflected in his worship mediation that, “When I look in your Mennonite eyes, I see Christ looking back at me.”