Peace. The final frontier. This is the hope of the Mennonite Church. Its mission: To witness in a strange new world. To seek renewed life, renewed community, and to boldly go where only one man has gone before.
I operate in some decidedly non-Mennonite circles and responses are interesting when I self-identify as a Mennonite. After inquiries about my plain black suit and horse and buggy, even those unable to articulate another piece of Mennonite theology know that Mennonites and peace go together like the cookies and cream of an Oreo. Whichever part you may choose to eat first—I’m surprised we haven’t had a church split over Oreo-eating preferences yet!—you can’t have one without the other.
I enjoy a love-hate relationship with peace; most of the time I love to hate it for what I perceive it represents. I use quotations to reflect how it grates on my nerves, like fingernails scratching along the surface of a chalkboard. I find in contemporary society—and dare I say church?—a narrow word usage describing the absence of armed conflict.
I wonder if our preaching of peace has become similarly narrow, focused primarily on war and its instruments like fighter planes, and secondarily on the man who is our source and example of peace.
My personal experience within our churches reflects an unspoken assumption that encouraging people to live a life of peace (as per Mennonite exegesis and hermeneutics) implies an invitation for humans to be reconciled to God. But peace advocacy is not limited to faith-based groups, and I find myself frustrated by this implied belief that preaching peace and preaching Jesus are synonymous.
With this history and attitude, I walked into Tom Yoder Neufeld’s Biblical Foundations of Peace class at Conrad Grebel University College last fall. (See page 4 for a feature interview with the now-retired professor.) I walked out enriched, but with unreasonable expectations unsatisfied—more confused than clear, more questioning than resolving.
My hope was to confirm that Mennonite preaching of peace is misguided, not because peace is undesirable, since I am not an advocate of indiscriminate war, but because we exaggerate its centrality to the biblical narrative. After a detailed exegesis of the biblical words of “peace”—in Hebrew, shalom, and in Greek, eirene—my hope was both confirmed and denied.
Peace in the Bible has a more comprehensive meaning than I might want to admit. It can include, but is not limited to, the absence of war (God as peacekeeper), and represents a fundamental shift in relationships brought about by the presence of God. God-as-peacemaker peace in the Bible is both individual and relational. It includes completeness, wholeness, safety, provision, reconciliation and unity, and is rooted in Yahweh. It describes the state in which God intends all his creation to live, and is a central message of the biblical narrative.
I find us quick to proclaim an incomplete conception of peace exclusively framed as a reconciled relationship with God, but if we imply that reconciliation with God doesn’t play a big “piece” in “peace,” isn’t our conception of peace equally incomplete? What does it really mean to not resist, or resist in unconventional ways, and what if we translate that verse as “do not retaliate”? How do we respond when the peace of the weak is oppressively violated by the ambition of the strong?
Biblical peace is central to Jesus’ teaching, but is the totality of Jesus reflected in the preaching of peace? In our teaching and practice, do we risk a separation of faith and life in a way inconceivable to the apostle Paul? Might he express equal surprise at those proclaiming faith without living a life of comprehensive peace and those living a life of comprehensive peace without a proclamation of faith?
Are we interested in only a “peace” of Jesus—or would we rather have the whole darned thing? I remain convinced that what we proclaim cannot simply be the establishment of peace, but must simultaneously point those who may not know him towards a relationship with the establisher of peace as well.
I wonder if the peace theology of our Mennonite fabric and tradition has become so determined a focus that its distinctiveness distracts us from our shared distinctive with all Christian denominations: as followers of Christ. And yet it is with much surprise that I find myself longing not for the cessation of preaching of peace, but for a broadening our conception of it, and for our church to exhibit as much passion in preaching Christ, who established our peace, as we do advocating for the peace he established.
I get really excited thinking about how he really could become our peace, and about how the political and social
changes we so desperately advocate might just come right along with it.
Sean East is pastor of West Hills Mennonite Fellowship, New Hamburg, Ont., and a student in the master of theological studies program at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ont.