If there is one group that should have credible words of peace for Jews, especially those living in Israel, it’s Mennonite peace activists from North America. Mennonites, whose roots go back to the Anabaptist movement founded in 16th century Europe, have, like the Jews, a well-documented history of suffering for their religious beliefs and identity.
Because of their rejection of the practice of infant baptism, which put them at odds with their fellow Christians, Mennonites were murdered in northern and central Europe in the 1500s by Protestant and Catholic rulers alike, just as Jews were periodically killed in Medieval Europe for their refusal to accept Jesus of Nazareth as the messiah.
In post-reformation Europe, armed executioners scoured the countryside to kill Mennonites on the spot. Mennonites were forcibly evicted from their homes, thrown into dungeons, tortured, burned at the stake, drowned, hanged from scaffolds, and in one instance, gathered into a barn and set on fire – all with sanction from religious leaders intent on driving the faith community from the face of the earth. Because Mennonites also embraced a radical pacifism – another Anabaptist teaching that provoked the ire of European rulers in the process of expanding and securing territory – Mennonites did not resist and died in great numbers. Consequently, they were nearly extirpated from Europe.
Mennonites, and their Anabaptist brethren known as the Amish, recount this history of suffering in a well-known text called Martyrs Mirror. This book includes one of the most potent symbols of Anabaptist and Mennonite identity: an etching by Jan Luyken of Dirk Willems, an Anabaptist who was martyred in the 16th century. Willems escaped from prison after being arrested for his beliefs by running across a lake. Just as he was about to make good his escape, Willems turned to rescue one of his pursuers who had fallen through thin ice in his pursuit. Willems was subsequently captured and burned at the stake in 1569. Mennonites, and their admirers in the ecumenical community, invoke this etching to demonstrate the Anabaptist history of martyrdom and their willingness to forgive their enemies.
Given this history, it is reasonable to expect that Mennonite peace activists would have words of comfort for Israeli Jews contending with Arab and Muslim leaders in the Middle East who express (and act on) theologically-based hostility toward Jews and who repeatedly call for Israel’s destruction. Mennonites have suffered from this type of hostility and as a result have been historical supporters of the causes of religious freedom and tolerance. But instead of promoting these causes in the Middle East, prominent activists from the Mennonite community in the United States and Canada – whose founders came to North America to seek refuge from the oppression they suffered in Europe – have instead provided aid and comfort to those who foment antisemitism and seek Israel’s destruction. Both the Mennonite Church USA and the Mennonite Church Canada have passed BDS resolutions which place all the blame on Israel for the continued existence of the conflict and refrain from directing even one word of criticism at Israel’s adversaries.
To make matters worse, BDS peace activists have helped legitimize calls for Israel’s dissolution which would put the safety of Jews into the hands of their enemies.
The most obvious example of Mennonite appeasement is the Mennonite Central Committee’s dealings with Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In February 2007, the MCC – which serves as the peacemaking agency of the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches in the U.S. and Canada – played a leading role in bringing a group of Christians to Iran to dialogue with Ahmadinejad. The MCC also helped organize interfaith dinners with Ahmadinejad in New York City in 2007 and 2008. It also has also organized dialogues with Iranian religious scholars with close ties to the government, prompting Iranian dissident Haideh Moghissi to declare, “We’re not against dialogue but the Mennonites are naïve if they think they can open one with these people.”
To justify these meetings, MCC officials reported that Ahmadinejad’s statements “about wiping Israel off the map” merely indicated his support for a “one-state solution…in which Israelis and Palestinians elect a single government to represent both peoples.”
For Mennonite peace activists, Jewish sovereignty—not Arab and Muslim hostility toward Jews and Israel—is the cause of conflict in the Middle East. The underlying message these activists and commentators offer to the Jewish people is that they should abandon sovereignty in the pursuit of peace. “The Jewish people survived for two thousand years without a state and may need to do so again in the future,” writes Dan Epp-Tiessen, a professor at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Alain Epp Weaver, another Mennonite theologian and longtime activist, wrote that in light of the Holocaust it is understandable that Jews would want a sovereign state, but that maybe it is time for them to acquiesce to the creation of a bi-national state which they would share with the Palestinians. In other words, Weaver expected Israeli Jews to share a bi-national state with Muslim extremists who regard Jews as the sons of monkeys and pigs and who see Jewish sovereignty and freedom as a violation of the Islamic nomos, or sense of order. In sum, Mennonite peace activists insist that Israeli Jews reenact Dirk Willems’ sacrificial act of faith by walking out onto the thin ice of statelessness and greeting their antagonists with open arms. For some reason, it’s always the Jews who have to consider giving up their sovereign status.
Let’s face it. Asking Israeli Jews to sacrifice their safety and well being in the pursuit of a utopian agenda is a spiritualized form of antisemitism, one that is regularly practiced by Mennonite peace activists and sadly enough, lots of other Christians. Very rarely, if ever, do Mennonites and other Christians demand that Muslims and Arabs embrace notions of forgiveness and pacifism that they expect Israel and its Jewish leaders and citizens to adopt.
How can such a message be offered by Mennonite activists, whose forebears in post-reformation Europe fled to the safety of the North America to escape oppression by Catholics and Protestants who regarded Anabaptism as a threat to the Christian nomos the same way Muslim extremists regard sovereign Jews as a threat to their nomos?
The fact that Mennonite activists would engage in such obvious hypocrisy directed toward Israel indicates there is something about Jewish sovereignty and self-determination that represents a threat to the Mennonite belief system.
While Mennonites place great stock in their status as historical victims of religious oppression, Mennonites in North America today enjoy an enviable status as a privileged minority, with their wellbeing invoked as a symbol of the legitimacy and tolerance of the societies in which they live. Mennonites were targets of violence because of their religious beliefs in post-Reformation Europe, but not today.
While there have been times when Mennonites have suffered in North America because of their religious beliefs, most notably their commitment to pacifism, their rights have, for the most part, been acknowledged and codified in Canadian and American law, and they have been able to avoid military service during times of conflict while others have gone off to fight, kill and die. For example, Mennonites were able to avoid military service on both sides of the American Civil War by paying fines or fees to have someone else serve in their stead.
Under these circumstances of privilege, there is no real way to know if the Mennonite adherence to radical nonresistance is an authentic expression of religious belief is or merely a survival strategy that protects men in the Mennonite community from having to experience the horrors of war – horrors to which Israelis are subject to on a regular basis.
If radical nonresistance is a survival strategy (and under current circumstances, a good case can be made that it is) that challenges or perhaps disproves the Mennonite claim to righteousness and innocence. Its Mennonite practitioners are not a faithful people of God reenacting the teachings of their Savior, but are just another religious group using theology and scripture to affirm their rights and privileges in a competitive and violent world.
To be sure, life has not always been easy for Mennonites in North America, particularly in the U.S. For example, Mennonite conscientious objectors (COs) were badly mistreated during World War I. During this war, which cost 116,000 American servicemen their lives, approximately 2,000 non-resisters (mostly from Mennonite, Amish and Quaker backgrounds) were conscripted into military service, with most of them refusing to serve. Mennonite historian Guy Hersbherger reported that 10 percent of this group were court-martialed and sent to prison, 60 percent accepted alternative service, and 30 percent remained in detention camps for the duration of the war. Life in these camps was not pleasant, with non-resisters beaten, bayoneted, deprived of sleep and in some instances subjected to mock trials “in which the victim was left under the impression to the very last that unless he submitted to the regulations the penalty would be death.” In some instances, officers gave orders that non-resisters would refuse, with the express purpose of court-martialing them for insubordination.
Hershberger describes in detail one episode in which four Hutterites (a group of Anabaptists who practice communal ownership of all property) were court-martialed, sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment, and shipped to Alcatraz where they were stripped of their clothing, forced to sleep on the floor without blankets, deprived of food, sufficient water and beaten. Upon their transfer to Leavenworth, two of these men died of exposure after being forced to stand outside in the cold without their coats.
No doubt about it.
These men died for their faith.
Mennonite communities were also abused as well during World War I. Meeting houses were burned down or painted yellow, cattle were stolen, and in one instance a Mennonite was hung by his neck before he was rescued by local authorities. While the willingness of Mennonites to endure this type of treatment did not bring an end to war, it did convince officials in the U.S. that trying to get committed conscientious objectors to serve in the military during times of war was more trouble than it was worth. As a result, during World War II, COs were accommodated with the creation of work camps throughout the U.S. and Canada where young men (many of them Mennonites) could perform “work of national importance.” Work in these camps was demanding, but nothing like the horrors faced by servicemen in combat, or by Jews in Europe during World War II.
To be sure, not every Mennonite subject to the draft became a conscientious objector. During World War II, many Mennonites, especially those who had contact with other non-Mennonites in their daily lives (in high school for example), served in the military partly because their non-Mennonite cohorts were serving. Another factor was the overwhelming acknowledgement that Hitler was indeed a bad man who needed to be defeated, by force if necessary. Some of these young men returned to the Mennonite church after the war (after confessing the error of their ways) but others were lost to the community.
The departure of these men from the Mennonite community represents a failure in the “sacred canopy” of the Mennonite faith tradition. The phrase “sacred canopy” was coined by sociologist Peter Berger in his landmark book The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Doubleday, 1967), in which he describes the role religion plays in determining and legitimating the order of human society, and on the understanding of reality on which society is based. According to Berger, religions provide their adherents with a nomos or sense of order that gives meaning to human existence in the face of a chaotic universe and the inevitability of death which threaten to make life meaningless. “Religion,” Berger writes, “is the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established.” This cosmos encompasses more than just the physical universe, but also the “specific institutions and roles within a given society.”
Once this order is established, people are able to interpret their own experiences against this backdrop of meaning and to enjoy the fruits of an “ordered and meaningful life” largely because they know what type of behavior is expected of them. Their societal roles are rooted in the expectations of the people they live with and firmly affixed in the cosmos itself or the mind of God. Under these circumstances, people are pretty well protected from the threat of meaninglessness or anomy. On this score, society, Berger writes, is not merely “the guardian of order and meaning … in institutional structures … but in its structuring of individual consciousness.”
Once this nomos, or sense of order, is created, it must be protected, or maintained, because like other human institutions, it is precarious and can fail in the face of historical change – as did the Incan belief system when the Spaniards killed Atahualpa, the sovereign of the Incan empire in 1533. Most of the time, the threat is not as cataclysmic, but the fact remains that a belief system adopted or constructed in one era (such as the Middle Ages) may find itself threatened by the circumstances of another era (such as the Enlightenment). A nomos can also find itself threatened by the presence of a competing nomos, or set of religious beliefs, because repeated and persistent exposure to a competing set of beliefs can threaten the plausibility of previously held beliefs. It can even lead to adherents of one nomos (Roman Catholicism) adopting another belief system (Anabaptism). Under these conditions, protecting the credibility of a nomos or religious belief system is often achieved by maintaining a monopoly on religious authority in a particular territory – which explains why Protestants and Catholics fought so viciously in post-Reformation Europe and why both groups were so adamant in their hostility toward Anabaptist teachings.
Berger’s insight on this precarious nature of religious belief is summarized by two Mennonite theologians, Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill, as follows:
Beliefs … are precarious. They are only plausible in certain social settings. Their continued credibility and believability requires a friendly social context. The ordination of women is scandalous in a patriarchal society. Slavery is of course abhorrent in modern societies that herald individual rights. The Mennonite belief in nonresistance is more believable and more likely to be sustained in some social settings than in others.
This is exactly the issue for the Mennonite faith community as it struggles with the plausibility of its adherence to non-resistance. On the face of it, North America would seem to be a pretty congenial or friendly social context for adherents of pacifism. Instead of being martyred for their beliefs in pacifism, as Anabaptists were killed for their rejection of infant baptism in 16th century Europe, pacifist Mennonites in modern North America enjoy great privilege.
Ironically enough, this privilege may in fact be a threat to the Mennonite faith community. In particular, the privilege enjoyed by Mennonites in modern North America raises questions about the credibility of the group’s commitment to pacifism. In short, during times of privilege, there is no way to tell if Mennonite pacifism is an honestly held religious belief.
In 16th century Europe, when Mennonites were murdered because of their religious beliefs, there was little doubt that Mennonite pacifism was motivated by deeply held religious belief. Many of the people who witnessed the suffering of the Mennonites were impressed by their deep sense of piety and willingness to die for their religious beliefs.
As despicable as the World War I-era mistreatment of the Mennonite community was, it helped demonstrate that the Mennonite commitment to nonresistance was a deeply held religious belief and not merely a survival strategy to evade the horrors of war. In short, the suffering endured by Mennonite conscientious objectors added a new chapter to the stories of martyrdom that began in 16th century Europe. Stories of abuse of World War I-era conscientious objectors were told to young Mennonite men in one of a series of six MCC booklets distributed in work camps used to house conscientious objectors during World War II.
Still, doubts remained. For example, Guy Hersbherger wrote in one of the booklets distributed at work camps that “If a man declares himself to be a conscientious objector because he is unwilling to make sacrifices or lay down his life for his fellow men, he is not a true conscientious objector. He is a plain coward or a slacker, living a life selfishly unto himself.”
Two years later, in the influential Mennonite text, War, Peace, and Nonresistance, Hershberger revealed why such an admonition was necessary by admitting that many Mennonite conscientious objectors were not all that sincere in their commitment to pacifism. He wrote that “not all of the men in [Civilian Public Service] succeeded in capturing the true meaning of nonresistance. Some registered as conscientious objectors because it is traditional that a Mennonite should do so, or because it was the wish of their parents they register that way. Men of this type did not have the conviction which they should have had, and lacked those spiritual qualities for the perpetuation of the non-resistant faith. While these men did not represent the rank and file of the church, the situation was serious enough to be a matter of genuine concern to the brotherhood.”
The obvious disconnect between Mennonite teachings and privilege may explain why Mennonite activists have served in Christian Peacemaker Teams throughout the world, particularly in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This organization was founded in 1988 in response to a speech given by Mennonite Theologian Ron Sider at the Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg in 1984. After acknowledging the comfort and safety enjoyed by Mennonites in North America and Europe, Sider called on Mennonites to create a “nonviolent peacekeeping force” that would stand peacefully between warring parties. Speaking in apocalyptic and messianic terms, Sider said that Mennonites would die “by the thousands, even millions” for their faith. “Do we not have as much courage and faith as soldiers?” Sider asked.
CPTers who have been in the West Bank since the 1990s have not died by the thousands, nor have they brought peace and justice to the area. Instead they have been a constant source of stories of Jews behaving badly. Their accounts of misdeeds by Israeli soldiers and settlers have become the lens through which peace activists throughout the U.S. and Canada – particularly those in mainline Protestant churches – view the Arab-Israeli conflict. In their defense, CPTers regularly remind people that they did ride on Israeli buses to show solidarity with Israelis after a Hamas suicide bombing in the 1990s, but the fact remains: the vast majority of their confrontations are with Israeli soldiers and settlers. Whatever confrontations they have with gunmen from Hamas, Hezbollah or Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade do not seem to make it into print.
The consequences of this peacemaking approach are readily apparent in CPT activists Arthur Gish’s book Hebron Journal: Stories of Nonviolent Peacemaking, published by the Herald Press, a publishing house owned by the Mennonite churches of the U.S. and Canada. In this book, published in 2001, Gish depicts his fellow CPTers as principled and courageous activists confronting Israeli soldiers and settlers who bully Palestinians without reason. Israel’s Muslim adversaries are portrayed as religious idealists with benign attitudes toward Jews and Israel. For example, Gish describes Khalid Amayreh, a Palestinian journalist with close ties to Hamas, as if he has the instincts of a mainline Protestant in the U.S. “He shared his vision of an Islamic society, a world in which there would be justice, equality and no oppression, a society guided by moral values rather than by the notion that might makes right … He emphasized that there should be no compulsion in religion.”
Since when does relaying, without challenge, the lies extremists tell themselves to excuse their violence qualify as Christian witness? Since when?
Israelis get much rougher treatment in Gish’s book. He writes that Israel’s “national symbol should be a gun. Guns are the source of their security. Guns are their gods.”
On one count, Gish gets it right. Guns (or the willingness to use them) are a source of security for the Israeli people, just as they are for Mennonites in North America.
The only difference is who is carrying them.
Because they have taken responsibility for their own safety, Israeli Jews have had to carry the guns themselves, while Mennonites, who are pacifists, have been able to rely on their fellow North Americas who are willing to use guns for their safety. The irony is this: Mennonites have been able to live “quiet in the land” (taken from others) in North America since the late 1600s because other settlers from Europe were willing to perpetrate acts of violence against the people who previously inhabited the territory.
This is not a new issue for the Mennonite pacifists. In 1937, Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr characterized Mennonite pacifism as a form of asceticism and as “a parasite on the sins of the rest of us, who maintain government and relative social peace with relative social justice.” Niebuhr acknowledged that Mennonite pacifists witness to the “absolute ideal of love” but ultimately, they lack a realistic response to the problems society faces.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Mennonite peacemaking efforts in the Middle East. History has shown that the Jewish people cannot rely on others to provide for their safety. Since 1948 they have been forced to defend their right to live in their homeland – to which they have undeniable historical and moral ties – through use of arms. Consequently, they, like all sovereign people, have blood on their hands, because in the world we live in, a people can be sovereign, or it can be innocent; it cannot be both.
With Israel’s creation in 1948, the Jewish people took responsibility for their own safety and wellbeing and with this responsibility comes the inevitability of sin. Mennonite peace activists from in North America have not had to make this decision. And yet they sit in judgment of Israel, while excusing the sins of those who seek its destruction.
In a world where people with guns and explosives express (and act on) a desire to murder Jews because they are Jews, pacifism is objectively antisemitic, just as, in the words of George Orwell, pacifists revealed themselves to be, “objectively pro-fascist” during World War II.
It is not as if the people who are intent on murdering Jews will take the ministrations of Mennonite peacemakers seriously (especially when were so easily buffaloed by people like Ahmadinejad and Amayreh). Israeli Jews, on the other hand, will lament the fact that their country – like all others – uses force to protect itself and take criticism to heart, no matter how unreasonable. Mennonites in North America who enjoy circumstances that allow them to ignore Islamist hostility toward Jews in the Middle East, have no right to expect Jews who are the target of this hostility to do the same.
It is time for Mennonite peacemakers – and those who support them – to take stock. It is probably too much to ask of them to acknowledge that their utopian pacifism is an unreasonable response to the existence of evil, but they can at least ask why they have pinned their millennial hopes solely on Jewish disarmament and have stayed so quiet about the sins of Israel’s enemies in the Middle East.