This is an independent blog and is not affiliated with any particular church, group or conference. The term Bruderthaler refers to a specific ethnic or cultural Mennonite heritage, not to any particular organized group. All statements and opinions are solely those of the contributor(s). Blog comprises notebook fragments from various research projects and discussions. Dialogue, comment and notice of corrections are welcomed. Much of this content is related to papers and presentations that might be compiled at a future date, as such, this blog serves as a research archive rather than as a publication. 'tag

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mennonites and Christ's Militia

Does the above message truly reach others for Christ?
    Facebook™ is both and neither good or evil, but it is loud.  Someday, Sociologists will be able to quantitatively sift through this mound of networked words and images to understand, describe and, um, er, yes, well… judge current generations.
    Now let me be straight up – I am a bona fide pacifist non-resister in the tradition of the Brüderthaler, and at the same time, a proud descendent of about 1000 years of military heroes – in fact, my last name was conferred on the family for heroic service on the battlefield some 1100 years ago in the forests and estuaries of the Batavian lowlands.  I have dated military and spend a lot of time worrying about and supporting our boys and girls (my friends, cousins and former girlfriends) in the forces around the world.  But… I am still a non-resistor, a Mennonite and an American.
    So, I understood when my cousin posted the above graphic on her Facebook page, but do indeed find myself, well, yes -- offended.  This isn't the first time -- she has a history of posting similar graphics (see below) and so I am used to the fact that we see things very differently, there a double standard here?  And does this truly reflect a Christian witness?

    Back to Facebook – in the historic perspective of the Brüderthaler, we have noted and been long wary of the United States sense of the common weal, the popular wit or what J. T. Neufeld referred to as “pre-cooked” religious teachings.  As the 19th Century turned into the 20th, Elder Isaac Peters warned about the dangers of passing along and accepting simplified, mass media religious precepts rather than reading the Bible and attending church for oneself.  In the 1960s, pastor and historian J. T. Neufeld pondered the impact of mass media church and Sunday School materials – especially non-Mennonite materials being passed along without evaluation in the Anabaptist churches of the Vietnan-era:
We chose for a time to follow the Graded course of the Standard Publishing Co.  But there too we ran into some difficulties; for example the beginners leaflet had a brightly colored picture of David standing over Goliath, with Goliath’s head in Davids [sic] hand and the blood dripping on the ground, a good picture for the present day colored T.V. … This reminds me of a sermon in our church by a M.R.M. minister, (Middle of the Road Mennonite).  He waxed very warm about the loyalty of David and his warfare with Goliath, and I could see all our mothers thinking of their sons in the war as little Davids killing the giants.  But all of a sudden it dawned on him that he was a Mennonite preacher and this was a Mennonite church, and his sermon ended like the dying embers of a roaring bonfire,” (Neufeld, transcripts).

    More recently, Harvey Schultz of Saskatchewan urged caution in the evaluation and acceptance of the new, slick materials and theology of the populist emergent churches.  We have a tradition of being wary.  It’s in our heritage – it’s in our bones.
    The above “decal” was posted on my ethnic Brüderthaler cousin's Facebook page with comments and a “like”.  I wondered if she recalled the struggle her great-great grandfather, J. C. Wall, went through to support the boys who were jailed for their pacifist Christian faith during World War I, her great-great uncle A. J. Wall, who was forced to leave everything and everyone behind during the war to shelter in the barely settled Saskatchewan north – giving up school and accepting a boarding position in a rural general store to avoid the fate of the boys at Camp Funston.  Did she remember back to all of her cousins – the remnants of her European culture, being turned back at the borders of the United States and Canada in the 1920s because the emergent North American empires were already “too full” of unproductive, unpatriotic Russländer pacifists?  Did she recall how her grandfather served as an unarmed medic at the front during World War II, how her great uncles volunteered to top 80-foot spruce trees in the Rocky Mountain gorges and to fight forest fires, understaffed, undermanned, so that those whose consciences were not bothered by war would be free to fight on the battlefields of Europe and in the Pacific?  Does she recall the two Hutterite martyrs who were murdered not far from where she grew up for their pacifist beliefs?  How much does she really understand about that slick little slogan that she so casually marked “like”?  Make no mistake, we grew up in a church filled with veterans – but how much has she really thought about her heritage – or has it all been forgotten as the naïve fancies of an ethnic religion?
    In a way, while the Brüderthaler were early-on committed pacifist non-resistors, after World War I, they seemingly left it as a matter of personal conscience and pietism rather than the dictates of an out-moded religion.  Your personal stance on peace and justice was one that you thought through for yourself, immersed in prayer, fellowship and Bible study – not something you merely accepted and followed – either way. 
    When reading Neufeld’s account of his treatment during World War I, it is good to consider how other idealists would respond – insert “civil rights activist” or “NRA supporter” to gauge how others would have reacted in his place:
    … We had by this time participated in military drill at three different times.  Our idea being when we came to camp to try and make our stand clear to the officers and try to avoid any open disobedience; Trying to avoid as much trouble as possible.  We had also put on the uniform although under protest, and had worn it some.  We however found out that they did not listen to our appeals nor counted on a church membership papers for anything but thought they would drag us along as others.
    Therefore we decided under conditions like these, that it was best for us to refuse [to drill when it came to drilling with weapons.  So the next day after marching around, etc., the officer-in-charge gave the order to hand out the guns to us.  When the corporal handed me the gun, I refused to take it, saying that I could not use a gun to kill a person.  He then proceeded to hit me and knocked me to the ground.]… But this ordeal did not last long as Lieutenant Beeves came up and re-told the Corporal that there was no use in hitting a man…
    As for the Mennonite boys’ right to a defense …
    Our defendant or counsel introduced himself about 15 min. before our trial, asking us several things about our cases.  … He told us that he would do the best he could for us, but that he really had no sympathy for us…
    After being sent to Fort Leavenworth:
    Our treatment in the Stockade had been fairly good with the exception that the man Sheldan Smith was beaten up pretty bad when he refused to work around camp. … Upon receiving our goods out of the stockade office we found out that we were short some of our property.  My partner was short about seven dollars [about $140.00 US in 2012] in cash money and a watch valued at about seven [$140.00 US) dollars.  I was short a new fountain pen.  These goods have never been found…
    … We thought that although prisoners yet we would find work in Leavenworth in prison that we could do with a free conscience.  My partner’s [A. F. Neufeld] was five years at hard labor and mine was fifteen years, but we never entertained the Idea that we would have to serve the full length of our sentence….. We were hand cuffed only for the night and when we arrived at Kansas City, our sentries-in-command were very kind to us.  The experience of marching through Kansas City handcuffed was new to us but we considered it mostly from the amusing side of it.
    … Before we entered the prison [Leavenworth] gates a sentry told us to take a good long look outside as we might not get to see the outside world for a while. 
    … A Sentry told us that they had already 150 C.O.s.  This cheered us up very much as a man always likes co.[mpany] when in trouble. … We were put on the 5th gang for work.  This gang we soon found out consisted of only C.O. usually 50 in number, and was not guarded heavily, usually from 1 to 3 guards. …
(E. Kressly transcript of J. T. Neufeld journals).

    So now, about 100 years later, how much have attitudes and tolerance towards the traditional pacifists changed?  The following were pulled from other Facebook™ pages from Brüderthaler-heritage friends and relatives:
    From the 1920’s on, both United States politicians and an increasingly politicized clergy, including both the growing power of the religious and political right and such liberal theologians as the Niebuhrs in Chicago, felt the Christian pacifists to be naïve at best and free-loaders at worst.  After 9-11 in New York, popular theologian and pacifist Stanley Hauerwas was seemingly drummed out former media and commentary positions he had previously held due to his public pacifist beliefs and refusal to endorse America’s military retaliation.
    Part of the problem is that the Mennonites believe in both the providence of God’s will, a faith in God’s protection for the believer and an acceptance of the believer’s situation and life experience as being from the Lord.  Even in closely related Anglo-American Evangelical church movements, these basic tenets of the historic Anabaptist faith are both derided and called “unpatriotic” – as we have learned throughout our five hundred year history – being labeled as “unpatriotic” or merely as “other” have often led to persecutions, forced immigration and losses of identity and rights.
    Where do our fellow Evangelicals find strength, faith and support – the ability to overcome life’s challenges?  The below decal indicates that “there are few of life’s problems that cannot be solved with the proper application of a high explosive projectile.”  Beyond politicized debates over pacifism – just how is a non-believer to interpret the Evangelical message when coupled with such slogans and political jargon?
    More traditional Mennonites might question the image below left – the soldier is praying but is bowed before the flag of the United States… how is this image to be interpreted?  Many Evangelicals feel strongly that in-as-much as the United States is a Christian nation, that God’s will is revealed through the history and politics of the USA.  Without arguing that the United States is in fact a great nation or that I personally would want to live any place else – have we forgotten the dangers of such arrogance?  Who determines what Christian means?  We are all quick to jump onto this slogan-ish religious propaganda but some thought needs to be placed as to who decides and interprets God’s will.  The Spanish Inquisition was merely attempting to preserve the correct understanding of Christ’s Kingdom, spiritual truth and the role of the church in Belgium and the Netherlands.  The Prussians were merely encouraging all Christian “Protestants” to unite under a common Pietist Protestant faith that could more easily partner with the state.  Many of those Mennonites who accepted this premise and did not leave for Russia or the United States were to have significant moral and ethical issues in subsequent centuries.
    The image of the praying soldier similarly is a powerful image to Evangelical Mennonite Christians – but when coupled with the other decals, again brings disturbing questions to the forefront – What power and whose power is behind the soldier – in whom does the soldier trust?  The decal suggests that the soldier’s faith and strength are from the Lord “Be strong in the Lord, and in His mighty power, Eph 6:10)”.  But the same Facebook patron and originating website also contained the earlier decal indicating that power and problem solving came from having big guns and blowing things up.
    Propaganda is propaganda, but when these images are coming from persons of Mennonite heritage there are several concerns.  Have these individuals forgotten their pietist, pacifist Christian heritage?  Have they forgotten the testimonies and life experiences of their families?  Have we assimilated so much that we no longer tolerate debate or dialogue on controversial issues – even dialogue that our families came to the United States and Canada to preserve?  Are we telling our ancestors that if they, like the Neufelds, do not like our militarized political Christianity, that they should return to Russia?  What about our Evangelical message – are we demonstrating a testimony of gelassenheitan and faith in Christ and in His Church or selling a political message?
    Again, I am pro-military and truly support the efforts and sacrifices of our men and women in arms around the world, but as the descendants of the Mennonites and the Anabaptist martyrs, we are called to higher level of consideration – to honor and consider our historic theological narrative and the life experience of our ancestors and to carefully consider our stances and witness before the outside world and non-Christians.  We recognize that the burden to fight or to not resist is an individual one between the Christian and his or her God – but it is one that must be carefully considered – not relegated to a few catchy slogans and some “patriotic” jingoism… we owe ourselves, our heritage and our faith much more consideration – and to those with whom we disagree – we owe solidarity, acceptance and respect – not an invitation to leave, to face imprisonment or being bullied by charges of unpatriotism.  As they say on CNN – “we can do better.”

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