In June of 1984, while I was en route to a two-year assignment at a mission hospital in Shirati, Tanzania, I attended the Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg, France. There, in front of an audience of about ten thousand Mennonites from around the world, author and professor Ron Sider delivered the most compelling address I have heard anywhere. Sider is, of course, best known for his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, as well as his role as founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action. But it’s his 1984 address on Christian peacemaking that I will always remember. The full text is here, at the site of Christian Peacemaker Teams, an organization that formed out of Ron’s call. I encourage you to check out the site in further detail if you dare. . .I want to share a few excerpts from that speech.
Sider was addressing a Mennonite audience, obviously, and I doubt anyone reading this blog is unaware that Mennonites have a tradition of nonviolence and nonparticipation in the military that extends back over the entire 450-plus years of the movement. He suggested that the times in which we were living (the US-Soviet arms race was in full swing, and the US was intervening actively in conflicts around the world), were times in which the Mennonite peace witness was particularly relevant:
Our 450 years of commitment to Jesus’ love for enemies finds its kairos in these two terrifying decades (the last 2 decades of the 20th century). This could be our finest hour. Never has the world needed our message more. Never has it been more open. Now is the time to risk everything for our belief that Jesus is the way of peace. If we still believe it, now is the time to live what we have spoken.
To rise to this challenge of our Lord and history, we need to do three things: we need to reject the ways we have misunderstood or weakened Jesus’ call to be peacemakers; we need to embrace the full biblical understanding of shalom; and we need to prepare to die by the thousands. . .
Sider challenged Mennonites’ willingness to basically sit back in their conscientious objector status without engaging the wider world in peacemaking. He suggested that Christian isolationism was not an acceptable option:
. . .The most famous advocate of pacifism in our time, Mahatma Gandhi, once said that if the only two choices are to kill or stand quietly by doing nothing while the weak are oppressed and killed, then, of course, we must kill. I agree.
But there is always a third option. We can always prayerfully and nonviolently place ourselves between the weak and the violent, between the oppressed and the oppressor. Do we have the courage to move from the backlines of isolationist pacifism to the frontlines of nonviolent peacemaking?
He went on to describe the way in which Mennonites in particular had shirked their duties by basically living in our contented pacifism without seriously engaging questions of injustice that lead to violence in our world, and followed that challenge with an overview of Jesus’ active but nonviolent challenge to the status quo in his time. He laid out the case for Christians as peacemakers, drawing directly from the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, and deriving from Jesus’ own sacrifice to bring peace between humanity and God. Then he got personal and called us to engage the world in a new effort to represent God’s shalom to humanity.
But to do that , we must not only abandon mistaken ideas and embrace the full biblical conception of shalom. One more thing is needed. We must take up our cross and follow Him to Golgotha. We must prepare to die by the thousands.
Those who have believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die. Proudly, courageously, they gave their lives. Again and again, they sacrificed bright futures to the tragic illusion that one more righteous crusade would bring peace in their time. For their loved ones, for justice, and for peace, they have laid down their lives by the millions.
Why do we pacifists think that our way–Jesus’ way–to peace will be less costly? Unless we Mennonites and Brethren in Christ are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic, vigorous new exploits for peace and justice, we should sadly confess that we really never meant what we said. We did, of course, in earlier times. In previous centuries, we died for our convictions. But today we have grown soft and comfortable. We cling to our affluence and our respectability.
Unless comfortable North American and European Mennonites and Brethren in Christ are prepared to risk injury and death in nonviolent opposition to the injustice our societies foster and assist in Central America, the Philippines, and South Africa, we dare never whisper another word about pacifism to our sisters and brothers in those desperate lands. Unless we are ready to die developing new nonviolent attempts to reduce international conflict, we should confess that we never really meant the cross was an alternative to the sword. . .Making peace is as costly as waging war. Unless we are prepared to pay the cost of peacemaking, we have no right to claim the label or preach the message.
Sider then proposed that the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches lay the groundwork for a 100,000-strong “nonviolent peacekeeping force” ready to interpose itself in prayer and witness–ready to die if necessary–between warring factions. He suggested a “force” that was not merely going out and holding candlelight vigils in front of military bases, but rather trained in diplomacy, history, politics, etc., and deeply involved in (and supported by) intercessory prayer.
Our world needs that alternative. Now. But the world will be able to listen to our words only if large numbers of us live out the words we speak. Our best sons and daughters, our leaders and all our people must be ready to die. The cross comes before the resurrection.
There is finally only one question: Do we believe Jesus enough to pay the price of following him? Do you? Do I?