The session had not gone well. It was part of the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference’s new pastors orientation that I helped lead about ten years ago. I had done the section on Anabaptist ethics. The segment on our peace position had turned into an argument. Although many in the room agreed with me, others attacked me. Perhaps because they felt attacked?
The next day flying out of Winnipeg I sat on the plane reflecting sadly on the session. I had used the same material that I had used in my Discipleship and Ethics class for a number of years. We looked at some biblical texts and I told my story of converting to Christian pacifism through experiencing the reality of war in El Salvador and reading Jacques Ellul. Often this class session at the seminary had an element of tension and argument because many in the room did not agree with my position, but the tension in Winnipeg had been much worse. Why?
In a moment of clarity and humility I recognized that I had done the very thing I teach against. I had operated from a bounded group mentality. I headed into the new pastors orientation with a bit of crusading zeal to move Mennonite Brethren towards being more Anabaptist. I hoped that I could use the fact that the peace position is in our confession of faith as leverage to get the new pastors to change their stance—if they were not already pacifists. Of course I sought to be persuasive, and give good arguments, but fundamentally my attitude was: this is not an option for a Mennonite pastor (or shouldn’t be). I saw those who argued against me as being on the wrong side of a clear line.
Then, reflecting deeper, I recognized that not just was I communicating a strong sense of “ought” in a litmus test way, I also personally felt a strong sense of ought. I was trying to pass a litmus test myself and stay on the right side of a line. I imagined the true Anabaptists among the MB’s (and other Mennonites) cheering me on for addressing this issue directly in this setting. I could also, however, imagine their cheers would turn to jeers if I did not press the issue. So with that group looking over my shoulder I felt pressure to not just talk about peace, but specifically about Christian pacifism in relation to the military. I had practiced line-drawing judgmentalism as a way of staying on the right side of a line myself—of being included in the group of true Anabaptists. Although not as intense, the same dynamic had influenced my teaching on peace in Discipleship and Ethics. In a course rooted in a centered approach I had continued to approach one topic in a bounded group way.
There is enough bounded group paradigm still in my being that thoughts like “what will they think of me?” continue to pull at me. Yet sitting on that plane I knew I did not want to repeat the bounded teaching I had just done. I wanted out. I brought all this to Jesus. I rested my insecurities about being on the wrong side of line in his loving embrace. I felt liberated—and not just emotionally. It liberated me to ask: what is Jesus calling me to do in the class session on peacemaking?
As I stepped away from my litmus test of true Anabaptism and centered on Jesus I felt energy for that class session I had not experienced before.
Rather than seeking to get students to line up in agreement with my position, knowing that many would reject or resist, I felt a calling to seek to move everyone in the class to become more active agents of peace—no matter where they are on the just war-Christian pacifism spectrum. I decided to address underlying issues relating to the gospel and the violence-condoning world we live in. I now ask students to think of ways that people in their communities, church, families, city, and nation trust force/power as the best means of dealing with various situations. I seek to lead them to think critically about the myth of redemptive violence. Mostly what I do now in that class is tell stories of Christians (individuals and communities) that imaginatively use other means besides force and coercion to address problems (diverse situations from breaking up fights, defusing riots, VORP, stopping thieves, church conflicts, to cooperative business models). I invite students to imagine how they might do the same.
I think the material I used to share in class is valuable, and I still include it, but now as part of the pre-class reading. Students read a biblical argument for Christian pacifism by Tim Geddert and my story of converting to that position. They also read a document by the Christian Reformed Church that argues for a just-war position. I make some brief comments on the question of the appropriateness of Christian use of lethal force at the beginning of class. I underline that there is a whole continuum of positions on that question, and encourage them to think deeply and clarify where they are at on the continuum. Then I exhort the Christian pacifists to be active pacifists, and exhort the just-war people to really practice that position, take it seriously, and not just follow wherever the governments leads in any military action. Then I say: “The previous question about whether it is appropriate for Christians to use violence to defend justice is an important one. It does, not, however capture all that is entailed by a gospel of peace. Nor do I think it is even the most important thing for us to reflect on in this class session. Therefore, for the rest of the class I want to press broader and deeper. What does it mean to be agents of peace and reconciliation in our setting today? How can we live out this calling? I believe that God calls all Christians to engage these questions--regardless of how you answered the question in the previous section.”
What has happened as I have shifted from a bounded approach to a centered approach in this class session? The tension level has decreased dramatically. I have had students tell me, “I was braced for this class session. I almost skipped it. But to my surprise, I did not feel attacked and the class was very helpful.” Of course one way to lower tension is to lower demands, to take a fuzzy approach. I have not done that. I have changed the challenge, but the challenge is there. My experience with this class session reinforces my conviction that a centered approach facilitates greater change and transformation than a bounded approach. Previously the class contributed to change in a small slice of the students in the class—those who were unsure of their position and were open to explore. For those who already were pacifists they were unchallenged—the “choir” cheering me on. And those in opposition tended to dig in their heels, or just tune out for this class session—letting the Mennonite do his Mennonite thing. Now, however, most all of the students lean in, engage the material and display an openness to apply it in some way.
Writing this blog has also led me to reflect how a different setting calls for different application of the centered approach.
At the seminary, on the issue of Christian use of lethal force, students have different centers. That, I think, leaves me two appropriate options. I could have a class in which we acknowledge that and in a respectful, non-bounded, way dialogue about our differences. Or, the option I took, leave that question and move to the level of a common center and engage the topic of peacemaking from that shared center. The gathering of Mennonite Brethren pastors is different, or should have been. There should have been a shared center of the confession of faith’s stance. It still bothers me that people were becoming licensed to minister in Mennonite Brethren churches and openly disagreed with the confession of faith’s articulation of our peace position. Even so, my bounded-group approach to that reality was not appropriate or helpful. A centered approach to the problem of having pastors who did not embrace the church’s peace position requires much more than a one-hour session at orientation. It would require conversation much earlier in the process. If the potential pastoral candidate did not affirm the denomination’s position it would be important to discern if there is openness to journey toward that position--to begin dialogue about it. If the person states firmly that he or she will not change, then I think an appropriate centered response would be to suggest the person seek a different denomination that has a center more closely aligned with the potential pastor. A session like the one I gave could be a valuable part of a process like that, but not in the way I gave it.
I advocate for taking a centered approach in all areas. It is, however, especially imperative in this area. We must talk peacefully about peace. As former student and current TA David Ewert observed after editing this blog: “The medium must fit the message. A bounded approach to peacemaking is ineffective because it is self-contradictory. Peacemaking seeks to connect rather than separate people. Therefore humility is vital to the process of dialogue.”
How might you enlarge the number of people you talk with about peacemaking and enlarge the call to peacemaking through taking a more centered approach?