Raleigh Mennonite Church
The Scriptures you heard today may not be the Bible passages that first come to mind when we’re engaging our pacifist tradition. We tend to turn towards gentler texts, the “blessed are the peacemakers” verses when we talk about peace. But today I’ve moved us away from those well-known words. I wonder if these can distract us from the gritty reality of what it means to live out Christian non-violence. I wonder if it can make the harshness of this call, the complication of it, less apparent.
I once worshipped at a Mennonite church near Washington DC. One Sunday a Chinese woman spoke up during sharing time.
She was a political dissident from China, a woman whose life and the lives of her family had been threatened because of her engagement in political action against the authoritarian Chinese government. She was a Mennonite Christian who managed to escape China to the United States where she became a political refugee.
It had taken years for her to establish residency, years of paperwork, and lawyers, and hurdles to jump. Ten years after her arrival she was going to become a naturalized citizen. A decade of hard work, of battling, a decade of fear of being sent back to China, back to possible arrest and imprisonment.
She showed up for the naturalization ceremony and found the printed ceremony on her table. And it was here, for the first time, that she read the Oath she was being asked to take:
“I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law;
and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
She read it, once then twice, turning the words over in her head. And without pause or second thought she turned to the immigration official. “I cannot say these words,” she told him. “I will not bear arms and my only allegiance is to Jesus Christ. If becoming a citizen of the United States means taking this oath, I cannot become a United States citizen.”
And then she waited, her certain future suddenly very unclear.
You will be relieved to learn, as I was, that modification to the oath can be made with a waiver. And this woman was allowed to proceed with her naturalization.
But that story always struck me deeply. In that moment, without hesitation, the answer was clear. She could not take an oath, because Jesus taught us to let our yes be our yes and our no be our no. She could not bear arms, because Jesus taught us to love our enemies. She could not pledge allegiance to the Constitution, because her allegiance was already pledged, all of it, all of it pledged to Jesus Christ.
I wonder if this same Jesus was already preparing us for moments like this, reminders that the peace to which we are called is often getting confused in the world, is getting mixed up with things being easy, of just getting along, of passing over difficult situations in order not to make a fuss.
The Mennonite church bears both kinds of stories in its bones, stories of the harsh truth of peace that divides, a peace that feels like a sword.
The roots of that tradition are grounded in Matthew 5:38, “resist not evil, turn the other cheek, love your enemies.” For a long time, Mennonites distanced ourselves from the kind of peace position we now think of as core to our identity. Instead Mennonites used the language of non-resistance. Mennonites saw themselves as the “quiet in the land,” a people set apart. We did not vote or run for office or pay taxes.
But even this disposition towards the world was costly. It has always been a sword for the people of the peace churches. In WWI, when military service was mandatory for all young men, Mennonite and Hutterite youth were thrown into prison, starved to death for their refusal to take up arms. There are stories of young men being hung by their thumbs until they exploded. There are stories of young men sent home in coffins, only to be opened by grieving mothers who discovered that their children had been dressed in military uniform, one last insult to their conviction of peace.
By WWII Mennonites had worked towards established conscientious objector status. We served in alternative ways, in hospitals and clinics, scattered throughout the United States. Many of us are here today because these conscientious objectors planted the first churches outside of traditional Mennonite centers, places like Oregon and Wisconsin.
It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement that our non-resistance, our non-participation in political movements, began to shift. Mennonites began to recognize that non-participation is also a passive form of consent. We began to imagine how participating in peace was more than avoiding armed conflict. Peace was more complicated, more nuanced. And it would be just as costly.
That’s the inheritance of this church, a church that grapples with structural violence, the violence of sexism and racism, of homophobia and classism. We have inherited this tradition. We bring the gift of our tradition to movements in which we’re involved, the gift of profound skepticism towards institutions and hierarchy. Yet we are always returning to this other-worldly conviction that God has called us to love our neighbors and our enemies alike.
But that’s not our only inheritance. Non-resistance has been costly for the Mennonite church in other ways. Like many churches, both Protestant and Catholic, we are also inheritors of a tradition that has consistently protected pastors engaged in sexual misconduct. We have protected those who enable sexual abuse in the church and the home.
Ruth Krall has written extensively about this quandary. How can a people so committed to non-violence be so willing to tolerate sexual abuse? I echo Krall’s bafflement: “Ideologically protesting other men’s violence in war, while accepting Mennonite religious leaders’ acts of domestic violence and clergy sexual violence as a cultural given, simply made no intellectual or theological sense to me.”
Every church must grapple with the roots of their sexual abuse, and part of our call to pacifism, to non-violence, is to reflect on what in particular has caused us, the Mennonite church, to tolerate what is intolerable. Those who have investigated the abuse in the Mennonite church, ask us to interrogate the ways our theology has formed us to resist or tolerate sexual abuse.
I will admit that over the past decade, as I’ve seen the church fail at confronting abuse, words that were once holy and rich for me have become difficult to say. I know these words, these concepts, have been used in the service of violence against the vulnerable. I cannot say forgiveness or hear reconciliation without remembering the long history of women in our church who have heard these words as a demand to forget their abuse. I know that those in abusive relationships have been taught to turn the other cheek. They have been taught that they must never be angry, must return good for evil, must never cause conflict, must forgive.
Friends, these are difficult things to hear today. It is difficult for me to fathom that, a pastor in our conference enabled an abuser in his church, protected this abuser, lied on his behalf. But that is what happened. Once again, after all we have learned, we are discovering that our conference’s structures and administrators made it difficult to report this enabling, that the pastor of this church consistently used the language of victim-blaming in his reporting, further entrenching deeply a culture of sexism. Confronting this abuse feels like a sword.
But we know something else. The peace of Jesus is a peace that will divide, that refuses to say “peace peace” when there is no peace. It was women raised in the peace tradition, women who recognized systemic abuse, who recognized that peace would be costly, would cause conflict, would divide – it was these women who encouraged and spoke out when a pastor refused, when everyone else sought to sweep violence under the rug. Within us, within our tradition are those who saw and responded to violence, who refused to be silent, even when it was costly.
We have both these roots anchoring our church to the past, both roots of passivity and pacifism feeding our future. We’re talking about this today because in doing so we’re letting one of those roots thrive. In talking about this today we’re cutting one of those roots off.
Pacifism is our conviction to name and confront when others cry “peace peace” when there is no peace, to cut off the root of passivity, to cut off allegiance to a tradition, to a family lineage, to sweeping conflict under the rug.
In our Old Testament reading today we hear Jeremiah’s rivals refusing to do just that. These prophets are offering alternative facts about the state of their community, about how bad things have gotten. They look around at the disasters brought on by people and say, “this is a good situation, look away, there’s nothing to see here, go on as you have been.” Jeremiah warns us that, just because those in control are telling us that “all is well” doesn’t mean that God thinks so.
We have to get the diagnosis right. That’s the problem in Jeremiah. Disaster is everywhere but religious leaders put a spin on the news. All they can manage to get out is “everything is fine.” In Jeremiah 6 it is the religious leaders’ lack of shame that the prophet condemns. They have grown accustom to evil until they are unable to recognize that evil is happening all around them.
Jeremiah has a different word. The people have to face what they’ve done, what led to their idolatry in the first place. Sowing among thorns produces more thorns. Instead of ushering in this kind of false peace, Jeremiah does the difficult work of truth telling, of naming ingrained habits that Israel never could quite shake, the same habits the religious leaders have come to tolerate.
Jeremiah prophesies that the peace to which we are called is costly. It will divide a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. For those who stand up to sexual abuse in the church, peace has no doubt felt like a sword. In a church where bonds are still deeply constituted by family and ethnicity, I can think of no truer words for our conference today than those that arise from Scripture.
For you, in our current political climate, in the current conversations with our conference – you too may be reckoning with this costliness. You may be realizing that faithfulness in this time, faithfulness to the Gospel of Peace, may be riskier, more public than you imagined a Mennonite church might be.
A group of us came face to face with this as yesterday Hans shared with over 200 religious and non-profit leaders the consequences of sheltering immigrants in our church, as part of the sanctuary movement. His powerpoint slide listed these consequences, which included ten years in federal prison, under a slide entitled “the cost of discipleship.”
Be wary of those who tell you peace looks like staying away from conflict, of not getting involved. As we look around us we see those who are leading us to peace are leading us into agitation, to protest, to confrontation. The peace of Jesus, the kind not of this world looks like thousands of people spontaneously showing up at the airport to protest unjust detention. It looks like lawyers, huddled around immigration law books. It’s all of us who stand in the way of the horrific, anti-Gospel immigration policies of President Trump. It will be costly.
Jesus promises us this life – nothing more and nothing less. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” he tells the stunned disciples, words he leaves here, with us. “I do not give to you as the world gives,” Jesus tells us.
But Jesus goes on. The story ends in a different place. Take these words with you today. Put them deep inside you because we need them as we go out to do this costly work.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”