Levi Miller, peace and justice and the Mennonite chattering class

crossposted from As of Yet Untitled

Dried Love in the Mist seedpods

For the last few weeks, I’ve been wrestling with how to respond to Levi Miller’s column on "peacenjustice". My first reaction was one of anger and frustration. No wonder the Mennonite church has had such a hard time integrating peace and justice into our whole denomination! The director of our publishing house mocks it as a buzzword and sees it as a product of "cultural chatterers." Miller seems to see shalom (the bible’s word for peace and justice) as a little more then a worn out fad. It was much loved by the Sandinistas and Sojourners in the ’70s, but it is time to grow up and move on.

Over the weeks, I wrote several paragraphs expounding on my outrage at an old white guy maligning a theology of liberation that challenges the unjust status quo. But then I realized that some day I too will be an old white guy, so I’d best not be too hasty. I was also forgetting what I’ve spent the last 6 years learning, first in the UK and then in Chicago: peace and justice and personal redemption belong together, not on opposite sides of an angry debate.

Through 17 years of U.S. Mennonite education I bought into Miller’s dichotomy. I could either be a peace and justice Christian or I could be an evangelical. It was until I encountered the Anabaptist movement in England that I realized what a disservice I had been doing to myself. I discovered a charismatic vision of shalom that centered on God’s vision for the redemption of all of creation, not just the soul and not just society. I befriended trade justice campaigners who sang classic praise songs. They talked about repentance for personal and social sin as they knelt in prayer outside the government arms trade offices. I heard a lot about God’s heart for justice and shalom. I realized that we in the United States were missing out. Big time.

And so rather than throwing another log on the fire in the Mennonite culture wars, I’d like to suggest that our witness to the world will be stronger when we recognize that peace and justice is at the center of the gospel, right along side "Christian conversion, community, discipleship and hope in the resurrection." Jesus’ invitation to redemption was for all of creation, not just individual souls, but whole communities, whole ecosystems. If we ignore structural sin of the powers and principalities to focus on personal bondage and sin, we do no more justice to God’s invitation to wholeness than when we make the opposite mistake.

Miller is not the only Mennonite leader who sees discussion of peace and justice through the lens of their own experience in the ’60s and ’70s as a flower child. At the Mennonite convention in San Jose in 2007, I sat in on a panel discussion with young Mennonite leaders like Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, Hugo Saucedo and Immanuel Sila. I was sitting near the back and watched two senior leaders in Mennonite Mission Network whispering and giggling to each other through much of the presentation. When I asked them about it afterwards, they said that they’d heard it all before in the ’70s, this talk of egalitarianism and justice. It isn’t practical. It doesn’t work in the real word.

So why doesn’t shalom work? Miller has it all figured out:

However optimistic we peace and justice flower children were as youth, we lost our liberality on babies. The conservatives remained more hopeful, fruitful and multiplied—and eventually those trends influence the church membership and Sunday school attendance.

So basically conservatives "win" because they have hope and productive sex. On the first point, I realize I have to agree with him. Too often a theology overfocused on peace and justice can end up strident and triumphalist. We will shape the future! We will not be silent! We forget that it is God, not us who will save the world. Each time our attempts to shape the future fail or even backfire miserably, we grow a little more brittle and a little more cynical. Its no wonder that after 40 odd years of this cycle, Miller starts calling it "peacenjustice." But conservatives had hope. On this, I’ll turn to Andrew Sullivan, a well-known conservative commentator. In a recent column he says:

Hope is not optimism. We have little reason for optimism given the first decade of the twenty-first century. Hope is a choice (emphasis in the original) As much a choice as faith and love.

Hope grounded in resurrection and Jesus triumph over death will not be so easily swayed by the latest political failures. It recognizes our need for personal liberation is as great as society’s need for redemption. I have learned a lot about this from friends who depend on the redemptive power of Jesus in their lives on a daily basis. I think many Mennonite liberals could do well to learn this too.

Miller’s second claim for the basis of conservative triumph is flawed in a number of ways. Reproduction rather then conversion as the basis of a faith community is the model of the old testament, not Jesus. It may have worked for Mennonites for 400 years, but you don’t have to look much farther then the rapidly rising age of Mennonites to realize it won’t work for the next 400.

So what about conversion? We often associate conversion with personal redemption and those first joining the Christian church, but new Mennonites may also come from other Christian backgrounds. In the ’70s a whole new wave of converts came knocking on the Mennonites’ doors. These are the people Miller derisively calls "Anabaptist camp followers." If this is the attitude of someone who was sympathetic at the time, how much more hostile were older, more traditional communities? Miller blames the new converts for unrealistic expectations. They shouldn’t have expected so much from "home-grown" (in other words, white Swiss-German) Mennonites. I wonder if perhaps the problem wasn’t instead leaders more concerned with envelope licking rather then envelope pushing (thanks, Joe). They were (and are?) more interested in keeping everyone inside the envelope happy than engaging with challenging ideas and people.

Today, we are seeing a new wave of "Anabaptist camp followers". As with the earlier wave, many of them come from evangelical backgrounds looking for the missing peace and justice. I’ve heard many first and second hand stories of young evangelicals walking into Mennonite churches longing for the whole gospel only to find a church doing its best to blend in with all the other Christian churches in town. Will we once again blame them as naive idealists and turn our back on them as we focus on keeping those inside the fold happy? Will the the ecumenical Anabaptist movement and the Mennonite church join, cross-pollinate and thrive together or will merely mingle and then go our separate ways? The choice is ours.

P.S. Inspired by Ben_Jammin, I want to have more photos and illustrations with blog posts here on YAR. If you’ve writing a piece and would be up for including a photo or illustration to publish with it, drop me an email and I’ll help you find something.

Comments (11)

  1. Josiah Garber

    I don’t find his piece too offensive. After all it is his opinion. But I don’t find yours very offensive either. Thanks for posting it.

    Reply
  2. Steven Hunsberger

    Another issue that I, as conservative (theologically and politically) deal with in regards to peace and justice is the idea that the Left co-opted peace and justice in the 60’s. Rather, it seems the people most interested in P&J to be left leaning liberals. Where and with whom can a conservative like me talk about peace, in terms of an Anabaptist perspective, and not bring politics in to the conversatation? We will lose a whole segment of the movement if we don’t address this issue and bring it back and talk about P&J in terms of salvation through Christ. We need to cut across theological and political lines.

    Reply
  3. chad MIller

    This issue has been with us for years in the Mennonite Church. Many things have contributed to this dicotomy here are two. Many of our more conservative congregations get their theology from moody radio rather than the a solid anabaptist understanding, on the other hand much of what we heard from our academic and national publications promoting peace and justice seemed at some points to be un-related to Jesus and very closely related to left wing politics. In many churches people would only see two options.
    For starters we need a robust understanding of the gospel – starting from a kingdom prespective. The upside-down kingdom was a start but wasn’t really theological – more recently – Nt. Wright the Challenge of Jesus, Lee Camp “Mere discipleship” and Greg Boyd’s books. The last two solidly anabaptist – Peace and Justice and Jesus – from non- mennonite writers. Our Menn. Conf. of Faith has great theology…
    This has been a passion of mine to help promote a robust kingdom gospel where – Peace and justice are crucial part of this good news of God’s Shalom breaking in – and that people are invited into this new life – “Salvation” because of the cross and the ressurrection. We are called as the church to point to that day when God’s reign will be over all and swords will be turned to plows. We are called to be a for-taste of what is to come(Growing up in mennonite churches my whole life I never heard this reason giving for our understanding of peace and non-violence)
    Last year the Vineyard Church in columus OH hosted a Justice – Revival with Sojourners seeking to bring these two parts of the gospel together.

    Reply
  4. TimN (Post author)

    Steve,

    Thanks for your comment. It’s nice to hear a conservative perspective on peace and justice. I’d be interested in hearing more about what constitutes bringing politics into the conversation. Does that mean party politics for you or something broader?

    Reply
  5. AlanS

    I’d like a bit of clarification on what everyone means by “conservative”. This term is not very helpful for me; here’s why.

    I’m a pastor in a small town in South Central Kansas. Out of about 12 churches total, there are two Mennonite churches in town, let’s say #1 and #2. At 90 people on a Sunday morning, #1 is the biggest church in town and, at times, draws a wide swath of people, along with some “traditional” Mennonites. It’s also the church where I work. #2 has about 15 people on a Sunday and, outside of one couple, is mainly made up of traditional Mennonites. Between the two Mennonite churches #2 has always been considered the more “conservative” of the two churches. However, Church #1 would have a much higher percentage of political conservatives.

    I am a staunch pacifist. For many in church #1, that puts me squarely in the liberal camp. For church #2, it puts me squarely in the conservative camp. So what am I?

    When people I come across use the term “conservative” I usually ask; conservative like Amish or conservative like Pat Robertson? But really that definition is too weak.

    The term Conservative is only helpful in relation to that which someone is trying to conserve. It merely means a preservation of a belief of practice as opposed to acceptance of a new one. Perhaps the issue that both Tim and Levi seem to miss is that neither the “liberals” or the “conservatives” that they are referring to are actually conserving the Mennonite tradition. Both camps are at fault for setting up a false dichotomy of peace vs. faith. The early Anabaptists managed to both reject the sword and be so spirit filled that they would give the Pentecostals a run for their money.

    Both Tim and Levi have made some great points, but are we talking about the right thing here?

    As always, this is food for thought. I might be completely off base too.

    Grace and Peace

    Reply
  6. jdaniel

    TimN,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and well written response to Levi Miller’s post. As I read Miller’s entry I was surprised by a couple of things. First, it seemed poorly written & edited for a piece by a former editor (I mean, seriously, doesn’t he know the the impotence of proofreading?)! Secondly, and more importantly, he didn’t seem to say much that was constructive or useful. I found myself wondering, “What was his point?” I think you did well gleaning from the chaff(and constructively challenging in turn) his main points.

    I also like the food for thought from AlanS regarding the utility of the terms “conservative” and “liberal.” It was a beautiful illustration of the limits of our language! However, I think TimN did not miss, and in fact argued, the point that peace and faith are not at odds (AlanS’s “false dichotomy of peace vs. faith”).

    Reply
  7. Joseph P

    The article was difficult to make clear sense of.

    I didn’t understand Levi to be deriding “peacenjustice” Mennonites. I understood that he is one and that he feels they never accomplished enough. I expect he would support a sturdy, Christ-centered effort to create Shalom. Also I didn’t notice him throw up a dichotomy between personal salvation and peacenjustice.

    He’s right that peace and justice are both buzzwords that get over-spoken (and I actually know a late-90’s EMU student who did run a peacenjustice meter on professors…not that that proves anything). These words are uncontroversial and in a sense substanceless compared to words like “compassion and generosity.” Peacenjustice gets represented mostly through anti-war demonstrations, which is a far weaker witness to God’s Kingdom than living compassionate and generous lives.

    I know that peacenjustice evokes much more comprehensive and concrete ideas to many of us than represented by anti-war demonstrations. That is a good thing. I think Levi is reflecting on what he was a part of and what he noticed. I appreciated that he mentioned the Mennonites contribution to Conflict Resolution literature.

    Also, I had a different understand than Tim of Levi’s comment on “Anabaptist camp followers.” I thought he was noting that peacenjustice became a sort of marketing label that attracted people to Mennonite churches without giving them a sufficiently broad understanding of Mennonites. The reality of Mennonite churches–especially conservative (sorry Alan) “heartland” Mennonites–disappointed them, he says.

    I guess I just resonate with the notion of “peace” and “justice” being cliche words that have gotten too attached to a particular political philosophy. Obviously I want the world to be peaceful and full of justice…we all want that, which is exactly why those words are so easy to throw around without it amounting to anything.

    And finally, may I ask Tim and Alan, why do you believe that peace and justice work needs to go along with personal faith? Do you specifically mean faith in salvation through Jesus? Can an atheist not play a role in creating Shalom on earth?

    Reply
  8. TimN (Post author)

    Joseph P,

    Thanks for your perspective on Miller’s article and my piece. Miller’s December 22nd comment on my post on the Mennonite site confirms your claim that he would “support a sturdy, Christ-centered effort to create Shalom” and does not want to divide personal salvation and peace and justice.

    However, I disagree with your suggestion that peace and justice or shalom inherently have less substance then compassion and generosity. If our experience of peace and justice is limited to anti-war demonstrations, then we are suffering from a lack of imagination. The last few decades have seen a blossoming of diverse and creative movements around the world working for peace and justice. While compassion and generosity can also be powerful and transformative personally, they don’t really address structural injustices in our society. I wrote more about this theme in one of my comments on the other version of this post, so I won’t repeat it all here. Suffice it to say that I think Jesus ministry was grounded in a manifesto significantly more radical then just being nice to people.

    Your comments on the “marketing” of Mennonites brings up some big questions for me. You suggest that some drawn to the Anabaptist tradition don’t have “a sufficiently broad understanding of Mennonites.” Who owns what it means to be Mennonite? Is it Mennonite Church USA? Is it a certain grouping of people connected by ethnicity and blood? For me is it a set of values that many “cradle” Mennonites are drifting away from. For us to look us to tell cradle Mennonites that their understanding is insufficient is deeply problematic.

    Finally, I don’t believe that peace and justice work can only be done by people of faith, and I didn’t mean to give that impression. I do think that within the Anabaptist movement we would benefit from a stronger synthesis of peace and justice and personal redemption.

    Reply
  9. Joseph P

    Tim-

    Thanks for replying!

    Regarding “peace and justice” versus “compassion and generosity,” what I mean to say is that the latter refers to a specific way of acting while the former merely refers to an ideal condition of society. Yes, we want peace and justice, but how do we get it?

    I read the comment thread at “The Mennonite” and see that you’ve elaborated on what peace and justice means to you; clearly these words carry specific connotations for you but to me their popular usage often rings hollow.

    I agree that the Gospel is about more than being nice to people but also resonate with Steve Dintaman’s comment saying: “While a passion for structural change is part of the gospel mix, my concern is that so often that passion takes on a kind of Messianic certainty that simplifies the complexity of structual issues and turns the gospel into a fixed and utterly predictable political ideology.”

    And regarding marketing of Mennonites: I heard Miller to be saying that in popular culture Mennonites were known for “peacenjustice.” Since this was a very narrow (not to mention highly interpretive) representation of the total Mennonite package, many people found in Mennonites something different than what they expected, particularly in “heartland” churches where structural change was not on the radar. In other words, these people were not “drawn to the Anabaptist tradition” but were attracted by the (unintentional) marketing of a cliche.

    In your post you say that Miller, “blames the new converts for unrealistic expectations.” I heard Miller blaming the Mennonite congregations for not doing enough. To be sure, there are many newcomers to the Mennonite church who are closer in spirit to the Anabaptist roots than many “cradle” Mennonites.

    Reply
  10. Dave Hockman-Wert

    Tim, I’ve felt the same frustration with Levi for a long time. But after having a number of conversations with him over the years, I take his needling less seriously. Levi is sort of the Mennonite equivalent of David Horowitz, 60s radical turned hard-core conservative (although Levi hasn’t gone that far right).

    On another matter, it’s interesting to me that you quote Andrew Sullivan from a piece where he’s basically laying out how Niebuhrian Obama is, and how much he likes that. Given your comments here and on the GC national anthem issue, that seems slightly ironic. (Also, on a practical corrective matter, I think you have some of your text in the Sullivan text box. At first I was amazed that Sullivan was referencing Mennonites!)

    It seems that The Mennonite doesn’t keep the comments up for very long, eh? I don’t see any with Levi’s article at the moment. I didn’t actually know about his piece until I saw your blog piece today. Yes, I’m a little behind.

    Reply
  11. Pingback: Legacy Mennonites and Anabaptist Camp Followers: a conversation » Young Anabaptist Radicals

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