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“Timeless” message about war and peace


Mennonite Church Canada/Mennonite Publishing Network joint release
January 8, 2010
-John Longhurst

WATERLOO, Ont. and SCOTTDALE, Pa.— John Howard Yoder is one of the best-known Mennonite thinkers on peace. But before Yoder there was Guy F. Hershberger, whose reflections on war, peace and violence not only helped Mennonites navigate perilous times in the early-to mid-20th century, but also laid the foundation for Yoder's groundbreaking work.

"Up until the arrival of Yoder, Hershberger was the most important figure in the Mennonite Church for translating pacifism into practical life," says Theron F. Schlabach, author of War, Peace, and Social Conscience: The Life and Thought of Guy F. Hershberger, a new book from Herald Press.

Among other contributions, Hershberger, who lived from 1896-1989, helped lay the foundation for what became the Alternative Service Program in the U.S. during World War II; played a key role in the creation of Mennonite Mutual Aid in 1945; and helped guide the Mennonite Church's response to the civil rights movement-nudging the church toward greater openness to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call for justice for African-Americans.

Schlabach, formerly a professor of history at Goshen College, took time to reflect on the important role Hershberger played in the Mennonite church in the last century-and why Mennonites and other Christians today should want to know more about him.

Why was Guy F. Hershberger such an important figure?

Schlabach: He came along at a hinge point in Mennonite history in the U.S. It was a time when Mennonites were beginning to engage the world more, become more educated and more urban. Mennonites were also becoming more aware of the wider world, and their role in it. He helped that generation to articulate their faith and beliefs, and see how they could practice them in the world.

But he wasn't just important for the Mennonite Church. He had influence in other Mennonite groups, and in other Christian denominations, too. Many people benefited from his thinking on a Christian response to issues like war, labour relations, economic justice, racial equality and capital punishment.

What was the special contribution Hershberger made to the church?

Schlabach: He offered Christians a biblically-based rationale for pacifism, in contrast to pacifist approaches that were grounded in other rationales, such as socialism, humanitarianism or activism. He believed that Christians should actively seek peace in order to help people in need, but he felt strongly that our pacifism should be grounded in the Bible, and in our desire to be disciples of Jesus.

What is the connection between Hershberger and John Howard Yoder?

Schlabach: Personally, I find it hard to imagine John Howard Yoder without Guy F. Hershberger. Yoder took what Hershberger started and expanded on it in even more scholarly and sophisticated ways. He put it into terms that modern scholars and intellectuals could appreciate at another level.

How did Hershberger view Yoder's success?

Hershberger never felt slighted by how well Yoder did. He was delighted with Yoder's achievements. He studied and supported Yoder, and celebrated his success.

Why should Mennonites and other Christians who are committed to peacemaking be interested in Hershberger today?

Schlabach: The world we live in is not so dissimilar to his. Like him, we have war, chaos and uncertainty today. Like us, Hershberger had to wrestle with those issues. His thinking on how we can live out our faith and commitment to peace can be of great help today, particularly when some wonder if a degree of force is necessary to achieve peace.

At the same time, his message of keeping our pacifism closely connected to our relationship with Jesus is timeless. His life and thought reminds us that we don't seek peace on humanitarian grounds alone. Rather, it grows out of our belief in the Bible, and our being Christians. It is an integral part of how we live as regenerated people in the world today.

Theron F. Schlabach taught history at Goshen (Indiana) College from 1965-98. His previous books include: Gospel Versus Gospel: Mission and the Mennonite Church, 1863-1944 and Peace, Faith, Nation: Mennonites and Amish in Nineteenth-Century America.

War, Peace, and Social Conscience: The Life and Thought of Guy F. Hershberger is available from Mennonite Publishing Network (MPN) at Cost: $39.99 USD/$45.99 CAD. The publication of the book was made possible through the generous support of Mennonite Mutual Aid and the Mennonite Historical Society.

Herald Press is the book imprint of MPN, the publishing ministry of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.

Sidebar: Endorsements for War, Peace, and Social Conscience: The Life and Thought of Guy F. Hershberger

"What Schlabach has given us is an invaluable, honest account of a life lived in the tensions of the Mennonite Church as that church explored the implications of being a people committed to non-violence. The resulting account is a crucial account not only of Hershberger's life, but of Mennonite life-an accounting I hope non-Mennonites will find instructive because it may help them understand Mennonites, but more importantly how Mennonites help us better understand what being Christian entails." - Stanley Hauerwas, professor of theological ethics, Duke Divinity School.

"In War, Peace, and Social Conscience, Theron F. Schlabach provides not only an insightful biography of Guy F. Hershberger, but also a detailed analysis of one of the most important Mennonite thinkers to shape Mennonite social ethics in the first half of the twentieth century . . . readers will find a careful treatment of Hershberger's work for alternative service and for conscientious objectors, and the impact of his thought and work related to labour, race and civil rights, and Mennonite concerns for a Christian sense of community." - Jeff Bach, Director, The Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College.

"In exploring the life and thought of this leading Mennonite thinker and activist, War, Peace, and Social Conscience also illuminates the larger contours of twentieth-century Mennonite life, and challenges twenty-first-century readers to reassess Hershberger's thoughtful reflections on issues and dilemmas that remain with us still." - Paul Boyer, Editor in Chief, Oxford Companion to United States History.