I see them nearly every week as I bike home: sometimes there are five, sometimes only one. They’re on the sidewalk by the county courthouse, holding large white peace symbols and raising signs before the oncoming traffic. They stand for peace.
Mennonites stand for peace as well, but maybe in a slightly different way! Living a life of peace has always been a part of Anabaptist teaching, as the third principle states: “The ethic of love and nonviolence taught by Jesus applies to all relationships.” For believers, peace is Christ-centered, others-oriented, and kingdom-focused.
Peace is a popular message right now. People around me appreciate the fact that members of my church don’t serve in the military and that we emphasize love for mankind. Yet peace for Anabaptists and for all Christians doesn’t start with these extensions: we firmly believe that true peace with our fellow man is only possible when we’ve first found peace with God through Christ. Through His sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus opened the way for us to end our war with God. Only then will we be empowered to follow the way of Jesus’ exemplary life and live in peace with all people.
An apt way of illustrating this idea is by recalling the shape of the cross, which has one vertical and one horizontal component. The vertical beam represents our relationship with God; the horizontal beam, our relationships with all humanity. Both connections are fractured in our current human condition – just take a look at world news if you’re not convinced! Yet we can’t find healing in our human relationships until the vertical dimension, our relationship with God, is repaired. And the Bible makes it clear that that happens only through Jesus. The only lasting peace that we can experience must be a Christ-centered peace.
But what about people who talk about – and seem to achieve – peace without Christ? Why not just love everybody and get along without religion? Again, the facts of the world we live in reveal that we’re not doing a very good job of that. I believe that the type of love advocated by many today is actually a very shallow love, because it’s ultimately self-focused. Our society selectively chooses who we want to extend peace to, based on what is politically correct and what makes us feel good about ourselves. We’re all about peace, love, and tolerance until someone insults us on Facebook or breaks into our house. Sure, we’ll welcome our friends, African Americans, Muslims, and gay activists, but not robbers, racists, or fundamentalist Christians!
By contrast, when Christ has made peace between us and God, the Bible teaches that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live peaceably – truly peaceably – with those around us. As believers, we’re commanded to follow the teachings of Jesus given in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, offer him the left cheek as well. Love your enemies. Pray for your persecutors. Whatever you want others to do to you, do that to them.
This is different from the self-focused “love” described above in at least two ways: first, Anabaptists argue that we are to extend peace to all people in all scenarios, not because we always feel like it, but because Jesus commands us to. In the Christian worldview, every person bears the image of God in a unique way, and so believers are called to respect the dignity of men and women everywhere. No exceptions! Anabaptists tell the story of a Mennonite, Dirk Willems, who was fleeing across a frozen river from a man who intended to imprison him because of his faith. His pursuer broke through the ice, and instead of running to safety, Dirk ran back to his persecutor and saved him from drowning, even though it meant imprisonment. That’s the kind of peace and love we’re talking about!
Secondly, one goal that Anabaptists hold in peacemaking is to invite the other party to find healing in their broken vertical relationship – with God – and then in their horizontal relationships with other people. Sometimes this means challenging bad ideas, habits, or sins that those around us have acquired. Biblical love isn’t a passive tolerance, but an active striving toward the goal, in our lives and others, of a living relationship with Christ.
So far in this article, we’ve discussed the Christian perspective in general; these ideas aren’t unique to Anabaptists! But Anabaptists do have some unique applications when it comes to peacemaking. To illustrate this, think for a minute of the nation in which you live. You are a citizen of that country. You receive all the rights and privileges afforded to citizens, and you have some responsibilities in return: you pay taxes and contribute to the good of that nation. Mennonites teach that believers are first and foremost citizens of another nation, but one that we can’t see: it’s the kingdom of Christ. The Bible tells us the rights and privileges of the citizens of that nation, and teaches us about their responsibilities. As Christians, our first allegiance is not to our political nation, but to Christ’s kingdom.
For Anabaptists historically and for many groups today, this has meant that we steer clear of the traditional ways our political nations have used to influence people. We do not serve in the military or in security roles that require the use of lethal force, we do not run for political office, and many of us do not vote. We’re working to bring true peace to our world, and it’s hard to peacefully convince a person of Christ’s love if you’re killing them or politically coercing them! Though it may seem surprising, Anabaptists do not usually identify as pacifists. The traditional position has been that earthly “kingdoms”, or governments, must use force in order to order, control, and protect their citizens, yet believers as citizens of Christ’s kingdom are called to a higher standard than the world around us. We wage war by a different method, and our weapons are words of truth and sacrificial love in action.
The name of my church, Shalom Mennonite Fellowship, reflects the Anabaptist emphasis on peace. Shalom, in Hebrew, means peace and carries the idea of completeness or wholeness. As an Anabaptist, that’s what I want to see in my own life and in the lives of those around me: wholeness, first in their relationship with God and then in their relationships with fellow men. This is the only lasting form of peace, and this is what the third principle of Anabaptism is all about.