Learning about peace from those ‘who have gone before’

Author Interview

November 9, 2011 | Artbeat | Number 22
Herald Press

Mennonite Church U.S.A. executive director Ervin Stutzman believes people today can learn from those who faced challenges over peace in the past, gaining perspective and humility as they study history. That’s why he wrote From Nonresistance to Justice: The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric, 1908-2008, published this year by Herald Press. In the interview below, he reflects on changes in the way the Mennonite church has approached the issue of peace over the past hundred years.

Q. Why did you write this book?

Stutzman: I wrote this book because I care deeply about our peace witness. I believe that we have much to learn from the way that our spiritual forebears dealt with the challenges to their peace convictions.

Q. What has changed about the way Mennonites in the Mennonite church tradition have thought about, and spoken about, peace over the past 100 years?

Stutzman: There have been some dramatic shifts, such as the virtual abandonment of the use of nonconformity and nonresistance as the foundational biblical rationale for our peace witness.

Another major shift was the pursuit of justice as an essential part of peacemaking. Still another is the wide diversity of ways that peace convictions are expressed within the church.

Q. Why do you think the church moved from an emphasis on nonresistance and nonconformity to engage in advocacy for peace and justice?  

Stutzman: One reason is that the church is no longer as separate from the rest of society. As we become more involved in our communities, as well as the political process, we gradually reflected the thinking of those outside our church. Sadly, we now also reflect the political divides that separate our neighbours.

Another reason is that we have developed new understandings of theology and Scripture; as peace movement leaders studied theology, they interpreted the Scriptures in a more systematic and rational approach. They were also influenced by writers in the mainline churches who had a different understanding of the church and its responsibility in the world.

All of this helped to shape an evolving peace stance.


Q. What prompted that change or who led that change?

Stutzman: The forces of change came from both inside and outside the church.

The church gradually changed as it modernized and took on more of the thinking patterns and habits of the surrounding society. The church also changed as greater numbers chose higher education and experienced the world more broadly.

Each international conflict or war . . . required the church to restate its peace convictions and find ways to be faithful to God’s call to peace; this response looked very different, depending on the context. For example, [in the U.S.] in World War I there was a draft with no provision for conscientious objectors. This was a very different situation than the Gulf War, which had no draft and relied heavily on advanced technology.

Q. What have been the losses and the gains from making that change?

Stutzman: The church has lost much of its sense of separation or nonconformity to the world. We now reflect many of the values of our . . . society, even those that run counter to biblical values.

At the same time, we have gained a much greater sense of responsibility to engage with society and to make a difference in the world around us. People from other faith communions now look to us as examples of biblical faithfulness to the way of justice and peace.


Q. You have said the church needs “a greater emphasis on the way that God’s activity must guide our work in the world.” What do you mean by that?

Stutzman: It means that we must be attentive to the signs of God at work among us. As a missional church, we believe that we are to look for God’s activity in the world, and then follow that. We must be alert to the ways that God is at work in transforming situations of conflict among individuals, communities and nations.

Q. You also say there must be “a stronger link between God’s grace, justice and peace.” What do you mean by that?

Stutzman: I am calling our church to keep our peace convictions grounded in the biblical witness and Anabaptist theology. That means we need to maintain uniquely Anabaptist-Christian approaches to peacemaking, even as we join people of other Christian faiths or religions in developing a more peaceful world.


Q. How can the experiences of the past guide Christians today in this increasingly complex and frightening world?

Stutzman: There is much that we can learn from the peacemaking efforts of people who have gone before us. Many of them strove to follow God’s way in the midst of overwhelming challenges. We can learn from their courage.

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