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Peacemaking in contemporary Mennonites

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9).

Everyone should be familiar with this quote from the Bible and has come across it more than once. But should one understand this expression of Christ from the “beatitudes”? What is the concept of a peacemaker? Can Mennonite pacifism be called "peacemaking"? What happened to the Mennonites who violated the principle of "not resisting evil with violence"? How do Mennonites react to the protracted war in Ukraine?

Quote explanation

William Barclay, in his book Barclay's Commentaries on the New Testament, wrote the following on this verse: “Blessed are the peacemakers, not necessarily the peace-loving. One often incorrectly shows his peacefulness, contributing more to the emergence of trouble than peace. Many people think they love the world, while they only pile up problems for the future by refusing to face the circumstances. The Bible considers blessed not the peace that is the result of avoiding problems, but the one that is the result of assessing reality and its problems, solving and overcoming them. This kind of beatitude does not require passive acceptance of problems out of fear of the difficulties that may arise in connection with them; it requires active problem-solving and peacebuilding, even when the road to peace lies in struggle.


Many theologians of the early Church understood beatitude in a purely spiritual sense and believed that it had the following meaning: blessed is the man who has established peace in his heart and soul ... who has given his heart to God. But the word “peace” has another meaning. The rabbis liked to ponder about it, and Jesus almost certainly had this meaning in mind. The rabbis believed that the highest goal that a person can achieve is to establish right relationships between people. This is what Jesus means here. Such people are doing God's work, for God's great purpose is to bring peace between men and Him, and between man and man. A person who divides people is serving Satan, but a person who unites people is doing God's work. And therefore, this beatitude might read: “O the bliss of those who produce right relationships between man and man, for they are doing a godlike work!”


Historical footnote

Mennonites from the very beginning were supporters of the Christian pacifism. They were motivated by Christian beliefs of renouncing wars and violence as ways to resolve social or personal conflicts. They refused to take up arms and serve in the army. The basis for such views and behavior was the recognition of the unconditional nature of the gospel principle of “non-resistance to evil by violence”, first introduced in the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus Christ (New Testament, Gospel of Matthew, 5th chapter, v. 38-39).


In 1848, when the Frankfurt Parliament declared that “religious confession should not interfere with the performance of civic duties,” the prospect of personal military service confused the East Prussian Mennonites and forced them to migrate to the south of Ukraine in 1950.


At that time there were cases of Mennonites rejecting the ideas of pacifism. One of the Mennonite deputies present in Parliament spoke out against the exemption of the Mennonites from military service, calling it "a relic of the past, disagreeing with the spirit and requirements of the new state."


In the mid XIX century, in the circles of Prussian Mennonites, the conviction began to be expressed that war and military service did not contradict the Word of God. The spread of this belief was facilitated by a member of the Danzig community, Mannhardt. He stated: “In our days, refusal of military service would not make sense where there is conscription, where citizens go to war to defend their fatherland. And if the Mennonites of the XVI c. spoke out against military service, then at the present time, they can fully speak out in favor of it, without denial of their confession.


With the introduction of general military service in Prussia (legislative November 9, 1867), the Mennonites of the East Prussian regions were involved in serving this conscription. Part of the Mennonites, not wanting to obey this law, emigrated to America and Russia. For the rest, service in the army was replaced by service in non-combatant and convoy teams by the cabinet decree of King Wilhelm (March 3, 1868).


Migrants in Imperial Russia were freed from military service and given freedom of religion. But it didn't last too long. In 1874, they were summoned to defend their homeland. Many again had to flee to America and Asia. But there were those who decided to stay. Here is what Abraham Koop writes in his diary in 1880: “There is a Russian-Turkish war going on, and some of our people still serve at the front. But we do not take up arms, because we are not soldiers. We rescue the wounded at the front, we work as doctors and orderlies. After all, human life is priceless. In 1914, the Mennonites also did not go to war, but were engaged in charity work and sent hundreds of thousands of rubles to the Russian Red Cross.


In early April 1918, when the Austro-German troops captured Yekaterinoslav, the Mennonites greeted them kindly, in part because the Soviet authorities had been oppressing the colonists during the war. This caused a protest among local residents and all the Mennonites were classified as "traitors". Groups of Makhnovtsi began to destroy Mennonite settlements: shoot families, burn down villages, steal livestock and property, rape women and abuse children. Under such conditions, no peaceful means of resolving conflicts worked. This was where pacifism began to crumble, and the Mennonites rose defend their families, using weapons given to them by the Austro-German soldiers. As a result, neighboring villages felt threatened.


The peasants accused them of hypocrisy: “When Russia was in danger in 1914, you refused to take up arms to protect our children and women, arguing that this was impossible because of your faith. But when the question of protecting your property arose, you did take up arms! “Don't kill!” - you used to say, but now it’s you who break your own rules.”


The Mennonites were demanded to hand over their weapons, and relying on their sacred values, everyone agreed and breathed a sigh of relief from the fact that they returned to the idea of ​​pacifism again. But after that they began to suffer from robberies even more.


The one who once crossed the line cannot go back - the bitter truth, which the Mennonites did not give due importance to and, as a result, got defenseless against the cruelty of the Makhnovtsi, the White movement, the Army of Wrangel and the Red Army.

Can it be said that the Mennonites did nothing for the sake of reconciliation? No, many times they made appeals to local residents in an attempt to solve problem peacefully. But people gave the title of German traitors to them and deprived them of forgiveness. Mennonites found themselves in an environment where it was impossible to continue to follow the principles of non-violence. Everything they did only harmed them.


On these grounds, it can be assumed that the issue of Mennonite pacifism is a very old one, but has not yet been finally resolved. Many believers continue to take a strong moral stance of non-resistance to violence, while others living in war-torn countries justify the use of physical force by self-defense or defense of others. The main difference factor is the environment and loyalty to the principles against the background of a threat to one's own life and the lives of loved ones.


Modern peacebuilding spirit


In the 21st century, modern peacemaking is perceived as a type of social activity aimed at destroying the threat of war or at its termination. But for the most part, this can be attributed to UN peacemaking troops. There is a profound difference in the gospel understanding of peacebuilding. A peacemaker is a person who has involuntarily become a witness or one of the parties to the conflict and does everything to stop this conflict peacefully. The difference lies in the fact that peacekeepers, who today are called "Blue Helmets", are still primarily engaged not in reconciliation of people of their own free will, but in enforcement of peace by order.


The Ukrainian Brethren Mennonites had adhered to the ideas of pacifism, but in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of an armed conflict, the question was raised: “If we do not defend our country, who will?”. “Most people in our churches won't pick up a gun, but we won't blame a soldier for it,” said Maxim Oliferovsky, pastor of AMBCU and director of the New Hope Center in Zaporozhye.


Resource link: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2022/april/ukraine-russia-war-donbas-mennonite-baptist-mcc-pacifism.html?fbclid=IwAR3zqykb2gmg1hT2FgqJDb7z-xcrFoGzIyiqbgBnBHY5aFz74T5vPhAWXx0


Some Mennonite brothers went to alternative service. Oleg left the worship band at the New Hope Church and set off to the front. He did not take up arms, but instead worked as a driver. Five brothers took up volunteering. The pastors of the churches blessed everyone for the performance of this work, reminding them that in any conditions one must remain a light for the world. Close cooperation with the "cruel world" did not destroy the principles of the Brethren Mennonites of Ukraine, but showed a new way of ministering, which had a special need. Thus, military peacekeepers appeared.


Many remember too well the time when Ukraine was not ready for military offensives. The army was in an unprepared state, and volunteers supplied the army with body armor, helmets and food faster than the state. Every soldier had to fight with inner chaos. The soldiers would booze during the service and disobey the orders of the commanders. Oftentimes they unleashed small wars within the collective, because they could not overcome the chaos within themselves.


Chaplains - military priests – go to the military to sow God's word there. They act as peacemakers within the army and call for forgiveness, obedience and repentance. This work is not easy. Many soldiers do not know God at all and reproach the whole world for the injustice and the situation in which they find themselves. The chaplains themselves were perceived as "faith fanatics" and the personnel would come to general meetings only on orders from their commanders. Chaplains were treated like Orthodox priests, who came for a couple of hours, and then again left for cozy houses, where there was water, good food and comfortable conditions. Such evangelism did not work due to the lack of a living relationship.


The book “Peacemaking and Christian Conflict Resolution” states: “Peacemaking begins after the proclamation of the Good News, and is not treated as an integral part of the message. As a result, the vitality of the message itself is lost. Separate the concept of peacemaking from the proclamation of the gospel, and the very content of the gospel will change. The Good News in this case becomes something that can be expressed in words, but need not be performed, can be told to someone and believed in, but need not be lived. The gospel in this case heals hearts, not relationships. As a result, the proclamation of the Good News will suffer. Observers can no longer say: "Look how they love each other," but only: "Look how happy they are." This means that when the Church calls unbelievers to repentance, the call will be directed not only to inner peace, but also to reconciliation between people. The church must take responsibility for summoning new believers not only to do good deeds, but also to participate in the specific tasks of reconciliation, which are the primary goals of man as God's new creation.


In other words, evangelism and peacemaking are two inseparable parts. There is no evangelism without peace and relationship, just as there is no peacemaking without evangelism.


Chaplains began not only to call for repentance, but to establish relationships with the soldiers, staying with them for 2-3 weeks, or even more than a month. They work in spirit and deed, whereby the soldiers see the true behavior of the Mennonite brothers in the conditions of war. A look at the situation from the side of combining the two concepts yielded results. Established relationships of trust contributed to the sowing of God's Word: the soldiers increasingly turned to the chaplains for heart-to-heart conversation and were more willing to go to general meetings. In places where chaplains lived, the scale of drunkenness, robbery and profanity notably decreased.


But as soon as any chaplain deviated from the declared principles and agreed to have a drink with soldiers just along for the ride or take weapons, he lost all the credibility. “Aha, that's what a Christian you are,” the soldiers would say. Moreover, the attitude changed not only to a particular minister. A bad example called into question the credibility of all chaplains. Often the brothers turned to the churches of the Association with a request to pray that the mistakes of other chaplains would not affect their relationship with the soldiers. This confirms that the violation of any Christian principle, stated at the beginning, subsequently gives basis for distrust.


Living amidst a war, preaching the gospel, and resisting temptation is a test of faith and fortitude. Not everyone returned with the same outlook. But the brothers who have traversed this path have witnessed their fruits. Tens of thousands of soldiers turned to Jesus in repentance and accepted Christ as their savior.


Brother Yury has been serving the soldiers since 2014 to this day. He held annual charity events to support the army and encouraged people to pray near the Zaporozhye Regional Administration. Thanks to his peacebuilding mission, more than 500 soldiers became aware they needed repentance. A church was also planted near the military headquarters, where soldiers gather for prayer and evangelism. In the fall of 2021 alone, 15 people were baptized.


Thus, Brethren Mennonites, violating the principle of refusal to perform military service, but following the command of Christ, act as peacekeepers in the army. If not for their determination, the soldiers would not have known the healing power of the gospel.


Peacemaking mission. Church and peacemaking in the Ukraine’s conflict of 2022

“In Ukraine, it is legal to replace service with the use of weapons for the alternative service that is not related to weapons. Thus, by helping people in the country, we are helping the state.” - the words of a minister of the New Hope church.


The ministry of chaplains, the search and distribution of humanitarian aid, the help in lodging and temporary housing, the evacuation of people from the occupied territories, helping the wounded, feeding the hungry, psychological and moral support for the displaced, counseling ministry - this is a large amount of work that members of the AMBCU do every day together with the leaders of the "School Without Walls" in 9 aid centers in Ukraine.


An important component of this work is peacemaking. People live in the state of stress, constant fear and concern for their loved ones. The nervous system of people simply does not have time to filter the news. The cruelty of Russian soldiers creates hatred in the hearts of Ukrainians. More and more Ukrainians say: "We hate Russia, we hate Putin." This feeling is fully understandable, but it only harms the nation and leads to disastrous consequences.


Therefore, in addition to helping, each member of the team, each participant in the ministry must carry the Gospel and build relationships with people. “Word and deed are one inseparable whole! Reconciliation is central to the gospel, and Christians must be active in reconciliation in order to proclaim the Good News.” - Bolton Reimer and Oksana Bevz write.


The position of the churches in Russia is upsetting, which is perfectly demonstrated by the quote by Andrey Nekrasov: “The position of neutrality is tacit consent, and therefore support for aggression and violence.” When Russian churches pray for peace, but claim that they do not want to interfere in the country's politics, they take the side of the State - they support Russian aggression - and at the same time proclaim themselves peacemakers. This position of the churches is not aimed at fulfilling the beatitudes. It only further preserves the false inner world of Russian Christians and does not go beyond the walls of the church.


“The Old Testament promises that during the ministry of reconciliation, God's children themselves will be made new.

“Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isaiah 58:9-12).


Thus, the longstanding question of pacifism has undergone a transformation. The Ukrainian Mennonite Churches are supporters of peace, and at the same time, in order to achieve this peace, they are ready to go to places where violence prevails. In other words, they follow the call of Christ to become peacemakers. As a result of this transformation, the power of God's Word becomes not only audible, but visible to every Ukrainian helped by the AMBCU.

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