I don’t believe in Peace

Such a statement is bound to raise eyebrows. But it must be said- I don’t believe in Peace.

That might sound funny coming from someone whose religious tradition is known as one of the “Historic Peace Churches.” It sounds even more peculiar given that I entered college as a Peace Studies major. The more and more I travel among the denomination, and the more I hear people speak of Peace, the more uncomfortable I become with the idea. More specifically, I have grown weary and skeptical with the way Peace has become an ideology.

All it takes is sharp ear. Listen to the way people invoke the word Peace. Often there is not much detail given, but the word is spoken in such a way as to draw nods of affirmation from those in the room. There is rarely any effort to define the word, nor any articulation of what such a Peace would look like. Even more striking, there are rarely any practices outlined that bring about and support Peace.

When Peace is mentioned, it is invoked in ways that prevent any questions about such details. The rhetorical force of the word prevents any critical assessment of what Peace is and how we get there. It carries such weight that those in the discussion can only agree. Even more so, the word is presented so that any questions, even the most affirming, can only be seen as dissent.

David Fitch, author of the insightful book The End of Evangelicalism?, similarly critiques the way certain concepts have come to serve similar ideological roles within the Evangelical tradition. Using the work of social philosopher Slavoj Žižek, Fitch demonstrates how elements of a tradition- in his case ideas such as “The Inerrant Bible” and “The Christian Nation”- function as master signifiers. A master signifier is a term that represents a whole collection of other ideas, practices and perspectives  in such a way as to enable people to “believe without believing.” The master signifier stands in place of all these other things, nearly eclipsing any of the particulars. A master signifier without these pieces, however, is an empty term. It only has power is so far as it rhetorically closes off the possibility of questions, the searching out of the specifics.

American political discourse gives us a prime example of the master signifier at work. All politicians invoke the Constitution in their  speeches. Just the idea of “The Constitution” is enough to rally an audience. Yet, the speaker doesn’t need to reference how he or she reads the founding document, nor does there need to be any specifics mentioned. Those who support the politician are faithful to the Constitution, while those who are against him or her are undermining its authority.

We in the Peace Churches have begun to use Peace as a master signifier. Rhetorically, we speak of Peace without describing the details or inviting people on the journey. I mean, really, who is not for Peace! We fail at working for the Peace of Christ when we do not invite others onto the journey or make clear that Christ’s peace is foolishness to the world. It asks much of how we live and more often than not leads to social ostracization.

All it takes is a conversation with any soldier. I can’t count how many times I have heard the phrase “no one wants peace moe than those who bleed.” It is clear that Peace is valued by everyone, it is a matter of how we get there that is the biggest difference. What is more, we in the Historic Peace Churches partner with those who speak of Peace without giving the background of the kind of peace we seek. Those most conservative in our traditions point this out- You can be for Peace and never come into contact with the Prince of Peace, or even understand Christ as a central component of the peace we envision.

Some have begun work on the topic of a Just Peace. While the attempt to define the ideology in terms of the things that make for peace in place of violence is laudable, “A Just Peace” is too easily elevated as a master signifier. Who isn’t for Justice and for Peace?

More appropriate to our way of living Christ’s peace is the language of nonresistance and non-participation. Far from the “still in the land” caricature of early Mennonites and Brethren, this mode of living makes personal action the foundation for making peace. There is no expectation that the government will finally come around to the logic of peacemaking. Nor is there an implicit assumption that peace is cheap. Rather it follows closely to the logic of “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s” and the infamous thorn in the pacifists’ side- Romans 13.

Through these two passages we encounter the realities of living the Heavenly Peace on earth. When accounting for our citizenship requirements as Christians, our first priority is to the laws and practices of God’s reign. When those commitments conflict with the laws of the state, ours is to live into God’s law. Being subject to the governments of this world, however, means that the punishment of the state for disobeying is accepted at full price. Being subject to the state is not the same as obeying the state. Rather, it says that our guiding principles will define all that we do- and if the Empire disagrees, we are ready to take on the result.

This is not the Peace of modern times, neither is it the practice of the current Peace traditions. We have been so infected by the modern democratic rhetoric that we assume Peace is the logical language of all people. Not so in Jesus’ time, and not true today. The ways of Jesus Christ exact a huge toll- up to and including our very lives. So when true peace is sought, the world cannot help but push it down. So we talk of Peace in cheap, empty ways so as to not offend the rulers that be and not to require a thing from those who seek Peace.

When and where nonresistance and non-participation costs a lot, and a true accounting for what it is that we seek is given, that is where true peace can be found. That is the kind of peace I believe in, not some empty, master signifier.


Filed under Discipleship, Theology

18 responses to “I don’t believe in Peace

  1. This quote from Donna Freitas, from Sex and the Soul, seems appropriate: “I suspect that what is appealing about ‘spirituality’ (‘Peace’?) as opposed to’religion’ is precisely that it is undefined – spirituality appears to be a symbolic label adopted to free oneself from the moral obligations and rituals of tradition” (16).

    It seems to me that Brethren, because of a long tradition of anti-intellectualism, have been particularly susceptible to being caught up in the winds of whatever prevailing ideology happens to animate a particular area and group of people. Peace is but one example of that, but there are countless examples from those within the denomination who think “Peace” is a dirty word but end up doing essentially the same thing with American political conservatism.

    My reading of MacIntyre has really started to bring this into stark relief. Ideology really is the enemy of traditioned communities of practice, and “belief without believing” is a brilliant way to put it! Leave it to Zizek to convict brainwashed Christians. 🙂

  2. Shawn Flory Replogle

    Great piece. I was particularly encouraged to see you get beyond the “political” peace (war/international conflict) that “peace” so often rests upon these days. In some respects, the Greatest Generation formulated this concept for us, and that conversation about peace has continued (in society and in church) ever since, even though times have changed. Having survived World War II (society) and having to put conscientious objection into practice (churches of the peace tradition), “peace” became equated with international politics. Nuclear weapons galvanized this conversation, with good cause. As the threat of nuclear attacks has waned, the need for a new conversation has emerged. In the congregations I’ve experienced the conversation hasn’t kept up with the changing conditions. Thanks for helping to push that forward… and for reminding us that “peace” isn’t really our tradition, so much as “non-violence” and “nonresistance”. “On Earth Nonviolence/Nonresistance” just doesn’t have the same ring, does it? 🙂 To OEP’s credit, that organization has made/is making the shift from a global focus to a local community/individual focus that is helpful in this “recalibration of conversation.”

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Shawn for jumping in. I really appreciate the helpful historical context setting you offer here. As I said in a conversation about this post, it does have a critical edge to it. But, I am more aiming that criticism to contemporary times. That is to say I am not trying to evaluate the ways the tradition was articulated in days gone by.

      For example, I have done some preliminary research on Andrew Cordier who took s significant role in the shaping of the United Nations. From my seat today, I disagree with the vision for creating another political entity within the movement for supporting the ways of peace. Yet, as I read his documents and biographical portrait, I am amazed with how a person of his time and raised in the Brethren culture implemented his values and vision. As I said in an earlier post here ( http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2011/09/13/guest-deacon-post-anabaptism-after-hauerwas/ ) the Brethren have shaped disciples who have had a profound effect in the wider world.

      And yes, to be fair, there are groups like On Earth Peace who have begun to shift the practices from the global political stage to more localized and contextual peace-making.

      • The shift of focus from global to local (or better, glocal) at OEP is a helpful turn, but it must be accompanied by a social-imaginative shift away from notions of “peace” and “justice” that are entirely indebted to either 1) the modern nation-state and its political and economic arrangements or 2) radical progressive politics. I have much more sympathy for #2 than #1, and see more creative opportunities for conversation/engagement in #2, but still…caution should be exercised. Rather, a “radical ecclesia” approach is what I think the church in America should start working toward in its worshiping life together and its public witness and work for the common good.

        I try to make this argument in my recent seminary capstone: Wringing Out Saturated Selves: Christian Education in a Secular Age. My focus there was on the educational task of the church but the critical part of that paper has all kinds of implications for congregational and agency work within the church.

  3. Ellis Shenk

    I just came upon the “I Don’t Believe in Peace” posting. Though I agree that using the mantra that Brethren are one of the Historic Peace Churches is a “master signifier” I disagree with most of the balance of the article.
    Rather than citing scholarly texts, I cite my own rich life experience. I matured during what I believe was one of the golden eras of Brethren witness and peacemaking – as Brethren joined in forming the NSBRO, in gaining recognition of Civilian Public Service, and then financed and managed CPS camps for half a decade. Brethren Volunteer Service later committed Brethren to service beyond the demands of government. In the years following WWII, Brethren also shared in the founding of Heifer International, CARE, Church World Service and the World Council of Churches.
    Fresh out of a college whose motto was “Educate for Service”, a quarter century of my life developed within the arc of activities that M. R. Zigler had a hand in bringing into being – BVS in Europe, NSBRO, the Don Murray refugee resettlement project in Italy, and the Castaner Hospital in Puerto Rico.
    For hundreds of Brethren youth from farms and small town America, across three decades, serving abroad opened them to a realization of the wider world. But the experience, with the guidance of mature Brethren leaders, also led youth to examine more deeply what they had been taught. I believe the cumulative effect was to energize many of these former volunteers to be better Brethren and better peacemakers.
    My own experience led to Ecuador and Bangladesh, and then seven years of working to support joint efforts of Catholics and Protestants to improve life in their communities in a dozen countries of Asia and the Pacific. I had the fortune to meet amazing Christians from Pakistan to Papua New Guinea.
    In working hand in hand with those Christian minorities, many of whom faced great challenges on every side, I never felt more like a Brethren peacemaker. When we kneel to wash the feet of others, it is always clear that kneeling is a peaceful stance. And in visiting scores of communities, I saw clearly that injustice breeds poverty, tensions and strife. Though undoing the injustices of wealth and power (including our own country’s part) may not be easy, justice is a needed foundation for peace.
    Your comments seem to suggest that OEP and emphasis on peace making among ourselves is the right priority. Learning how to live in peace within our Brethren family is important. But I can not conceive of peacemaking that does look at global issues.
    I believe peacemakers must understand the global community in which we live. We Brethren used to get our education about the world from missionaries or in BVS overseas. Now we acquire our understanding of the world from television, travel abroad or in the context of jobs which have ties to all corners of the globe.
    So I contend that Brethren need 21st century knowledge and involvement with the world’s poor, those facing injustice, the powerless in world’s autocracies, or in ecosystems in trouble, to name a few. When Brethren come face to face with people with problems, we step in and tackle the job with them. But we have become isolated from the world’s poor. To be content in that status belies our mantra that we are peacemakers.

    • Joshua Brockway


      I am so glad you came across the post, and for your really insightful response. I really have no criticism of the examples and interpretation you give. In their best forms, each of these examples is exactly what i mean by the kind of Peace I can get behind. I don’t know if you read the post I shared in the link to my comment to Brian above. There I argue that the Brethren have formed disciples to radical effect- Brethren Volunteer Service, Civilian Public Service (in addition to the CO’s before WWII), and even the role of Andrew Cordier in international relations.

      The place I imagine we differ is how Peace has begun to mean that we expect the State to somehow legitimize or endorse the peace we work for in these many areas. I think you get the sense of what I mean by that in the sermon I posted here titled “Where have all the prophets gone.”

      To me, peace as you have outlined it in these fantastic element of the Brethren tradition emerges out of and should invite others into a life of discipleship.

      Again, I am thankful for your witnes, wisdom, and comments!


  4. So, I wanted to take my time and get settled before I gave this a full read and response. On the whole, I think I agree with your diagnosis of the problem – that for many in our tradition, Peace has become a master signifier – a nice word we throw up as what we believe in, and then very often leave undefined.

    Before I take up my major objection to where you go with all of this, let me start with some smaller ones ☺ First of all, I think part of the reason the Brethren witness for peace has lost some of its radical edge is that, well, we have invited the rest of the world into our witness – much of which Brother Ellis lays out. Through our active participation in the world around us (rather than non-participation), the rest of the church has started to catch up. We were not unique in opposing the war in Iraq, in speaking out against torture as perpetuated by the United States, and other such international events of the past decade. In fact, at the end of the Decade to Overcome Violence, the churches together were able to say that “war should be illegal”. That kind of a statement is a testament to the way the Church of the Brethren has invited others into our lived witness for peace.

    I would also object to your brief treatment of the idea of Just Peace. It is in fact more than just a beginning definition of “justice and peace”. It is, to me, exactly what you are calling for – a roadmap for a lived witness of peace in all aspects of out lives – from the way we live in our communities, to our economic practices, to our care for creation, to issues of international affairs. The point of Just Peace is that there is not an aspect of life that living for peace does not touch – and in fact offers from the ecumenical community the kind of challenge you are trying to throw down here – what are we willing to say that we are for, and how will our peace witness affect the way we live?

    Finally, I would say that instead of nonresistance and non-participation, what we need is a re-defining of what it means to live as conscientious objectors. There are a couple of reasons for this – the first of which is that we are, likely, never again (at least not in our lifetimes) going to be asked to go before a draft board and give a public account of our reason for not fighting. We need to re-think what it means to conscientiously object to the systems and reality of violence around us. And quite frankly, this demands both resistance and participation.

    The other piece of this is that it recognizes that we are all participants in a democratic system of government – our voice and our vote matters, and to pretend otherwise is to ignore our responsibility. It is not a matter of thinking that the governments of this world will one day wake up to the reality of peace, but of recognizing that the systems of the state can be used as a partner for bringing that peace into being. Not that they are pursuing it for the same reasons, or even that the peace they are pursuing is the same – but that they can partner in bringing the peace that we already know a step closer into being. Also, we cannot pretend like we don’t participate – if we drive on roads, pay our taxes, vote in elections, use power, we are participating in the systems of violence around us – whether it be the criminal justice system, the degradation of creation, or the militarization of our foreign policy. We have the ability to make changes to these systems, if we are willing to be aware and use our voice. For some, this may mean an off the grid house, not paying taxes, and full non-participation. That is one form of powerful witness. For others, it is being willing to use the public voice we have to speak from the peace we know, and use our role within the systems of this world to bring that peace one step closer.

    Regardless of the path chosen, we have the ability, and the need, to live consciously in this world, and to conscientiously object when we see violence being perpetuated. And it is incumbent upon the church to name and offer an alternative to that violence that is born out of the peace we know.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks for Jumping in Jordan. I’ve been waiting for you to jump in.

      First, let me address the Just Peace critique. The document itself finally handles the constructive element we in the peace traditions have needed for some time. Being for something is much more attractive and clear than just saying we are against something.

      As for your first critique, I want to address it along with the last, and more central criticism.Part of the master signifier is that it is a rhetorical heart string. It gets working on the heart and mind without making clear what is asked. While we might have been joined by the world, as you say, the world doesn’t necessarily follow in the fullness of the witness we present. More specifically, the Christological claim about peace in the ways of Christians and in the world.

      Now for the Churches who have joined us. I do celebrate that. But I do not necessarily agree that “war should be illegal.” That is precisely the problem with the democratic ideology of the state you offer. The more appropriate, and true statement is that “All war is Sin” as the Brethren have said for some time. When peace is a master signifier, it is too easy to forget the fullness of the witness we offer. It is too easy to allow the state and political discourse define the terms. We are not talking about policy, or international law, but the moral and spiritual nature of human actions. All of this to say simply that we do not just speak of the peace between nations, but the critique of the very systems that perpetuate violence in the name of anything. What happens when the Peace we invoke in the prayers of worship directly contradict the peace the state seeks? As I have been saying in other circles, Romans 13 does not require participation, but subjection. We are within the state as it is, and follow it as such. That is until our values and practices conflict- then we act from our faith regardless of the consequences.

      Otherwise, we have equally absorbed the discourse and the values of democratic liberalism. I am all for the witness of the Church in, speaking out of it’s values and practices. However, as I have said in a post below, the prophetic witness of the Church is not one welcomed into the halls of power. Instead, the state asks us to “speak our voice” without actually challenging the systems that most are to blame. As Peter Rollins says, the decrees and official statements are just the release valve that is required to prevent us from being truly prophetic.

      All of this is to say I agree with your opening statements. The Church must take on the very radical discipleship that has brought us this far. I just simply think that times have changed, we have adopted the magisterial and Christendom perspectives we rejected in the 18th century. So this means, for me at least, non-participation does not equal no action. Quite the contrary. We are to act from within our unique Christian practices. Non-resistance simply highlights that when we do act from these practices, we do so “counting the cost”, knowing full well there are times the state rejects our very witness.

      Looking forward to the conversation brother!

  5. Ellis Shenk

    As I was about to respond to your earlier comments, I note that Jordan has chimed in. In a quick read, I find a great degree of agreement with his comments. I am long out of the world of academic philosophy and theology, so perhaps miss some of the discourse.
    I went back to read the other pieces you cited in your response, Josh, for a bit more of your perspective. I quite agree with your portrayal of the limited role of Elgin and Annual Conference, and the recognition that in reality the Church of the Brethren is the members and congregations across the USA. These two have long been somewhat different worlds.
    One of my retirement interests is genealogy, and in that connection I read a good many Brethren obituaries. Not infrequently I find congregational leaders who “proudly served their country” in various wars, just like Lutherans, Catholics or Methodists. Recently one brother’s role as deacon and member in the local VFW were cited in the same sentence. This highlights the fact that COs have long been a minority within the church. And current attempts to grow congregations may soft pedal our differences from other Christians. Not only is the thinking of Elgin and “peace-minded” Brethren counter culture in the USA, often it stands at odds with the people in the pews of local Brethren congregations.
    A few more words about OEP. I was out of US Brethren circles through most of its life and still fail to understand its precise goals and accomplishments. Therefore my questions about the apparent respect you, Shawn and Brian have for their work. I for one believe that On Earth Peace sounds global. Yet the comments seem very content with what it does, essentially only for Brethren in the USA. Perhaps the use of the acronym OEP is a hint that On Earth Peace is becoming a master signifier and not precisely what its full name sounds like. A quick review of Luke 2:14 in multiple translations adds little context. It seems just an angelic blast from the sky: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom he is pleased!” That appears to be more about giving glory to God and pleasing God than a Biblical basis for peacemaking.
    You suspect we disagree on politics. Let me share where I stand on peace and politics. Living and working abroad, one frequently is reminded that presence in another country is a privilege granted by state authorities. Like it or not, witness and work abroad my be limited by one’s nationality. Especially in countries where Christians are minorities, Christian presence may become a matter of internal politics. So I have learned to accept that fact and not strive to fake the contrary.
    Then too, I was born long enough ago to remember an America in which perhaps two thirds of American Christians were either Roman Catholic or members of one of the denominations comprising the National Council of Churches. This was also a time during which the Social Gospel and church unity were still discussed. Embers of hope for greater unity and broader effect of faith on community and nation are still alive in a corner of my being. But in the years I lived abroad, decay and splintering have affected most denominations. Defiantly independent churches and conservative separation seem the order of the day.
    But back to the more political. While at the NSBRO I assisted Ralph Smeltzer in citizenship seminars in Washington. During those years Norman Baugher and Harold Row and came to Washington to explore the idea of a Brethren Washington Office. I much appreciated the FCNL and Methodist representations in the city and gave my own support to the idea. Ruth Early, who replaced me at the NSBRO, after Annual Conference approval the next year opened the Brethren Office in Washington.
    As a Christian citizen, I feel impelled to express to authorities my views on some issues. But I don’t believe that either peace or war simply happens by popular vote. Rather than votes on peace, a first step might be the creation of a climate in which peace has at least an equal chance with use of force when resolving international issues. As to Brethren in colonial America, I believe they were aware they were foreigners and acted accordingly. Many gave allegiance to the King of England because they understood the Bible to tell them to do this.
    Democracy did not exist either in Biblical times, or in Colonial times. Voters now have a role in government. In this context, I believe it is a duty of Christian citizenship to voice one’s position on issues that involve faith concerns. Government can not honor all constituent concerns, but awareness of them may temper what policies are made and how they are enforced. My commitment to speak to authorities was strengthened as I reflected that what I was doing with and for people and communities abroad was often undercut or undone by Congressional or Administration action in Washington. As one who believes that failure to exercise citizenship rights and duties weakens the Christian witness, I was saddened when the Brethren Office in Washington was closed.
    There is one specific issue which I believe peace-minded people need to keep raising until it is resolved, namely Israel’s dehumanizing subjugation of the Palestinian people and the illegal occupation of their land. My country, the United States, is the sole nation able to move Israel off dead center and toward a negotiated peace, therefore our increased responsibility. Back in the 1950s while still in college, John W. Barwick, long term YMCA staff in Europe and the Middle East, and Brethren overseas worker, introduced me to the issues. This has been a deep and ongoing concern ever since. It is utterly wrong for a people to be boxed into a tunnel with no light at either end for two thirds of a century – whole generations without hope. It pains me that my country has failed the Palestinians. And I have no doubt that identification with Palestinians and their cause has fueled terrorism, violence and anger across these decades. All the while, the USA has extended the largest slice of our “foreign aid” to arm Israel to the teeth, and this aid has been used to control and diminish Palestinians, and even to turn Gaza into a shooting gallery.
    Above and beyond what you may call my politics, my higher concern is that Brethren seem not to be tuned to the realities of a rapidly changing world. After WWII I thought we learned that the best time to make peace is when there is no war. In the caldron of war, life loses value. Patriots are often deaf and blind to anything but victory. But instead of advancing efforts in peacetime, several decades of Brethren retrenching seem to have shrunk our very horizons and diminished our peace efforts abroad. I think it is a telling fact that the sharp decrease in our BVS assignments overseas pretty much coincides with the end of the military draft. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that it was a letter from the draft board that moved me to volunteer for BVS in September 1953.) What would be a realistic plan for today?
    The Peace you “don’t believe in” is more about reciting our history than planning for present or the future. In my life journey, I have encountered many who have heard of the Church of the Brethren. But on further discussion, it is clear their knowledge relates to New Windsor and the Brethren Service of distant decades, not the present. In fact, it might be interesting to reflect on what history will write about the Brethren in these early years of the 21st century. What is ongoing that will stand tall enough to be called back to memory in 25 years, especially as it concerns our involvement with the wider world?
    Brethren have done a lot of good and creative work in disaster response in the USA and in a limited way abroad. But we seem to overlook the world’s poorest for whom most days are deep crises and utter disaster by our standards. After seeing so many desperately poor in country after country, to then return to the wealth of America, I have come to the believe that peacemakers dare not simply exclude economics from our understanding of peace – neither their economics nor ours. It is easy to mouth the words of peace if it has no cost for me. In reality, peace is both simple and complex. Christ’s commandments to love God and neighbor are clear – two simple rules for peace making. The challenge is to interpret those concepts in the complexity of today’s world, and bring creativity which makes the message new and relevant for ourselves and others.


    • Joshua Brockway


      Thanks again for joining in. I think in effect, each time we share something here we are populating the empty signifier. We can collect a number of grand examples in our tradition and outside of the Brethren that give some meat to this thing called Peace.

      Let me say, I know my post and subsequent responses sound critical. In many ways I want to have the conversation in the Church of the Brethren just as to what the Peace we invoke looks like. I think that is what happened with M G Brumbaugh. At the turn of the 20th century, in the face of modernity itself, he took the values of mutual aid and non-resistant non-participation and rearticulated them for the generation you highlight. Now we talk of service and peace-making as if they are second nature and the previous “core values” need some explaining.

      That said, I agree that I am trying to import a part of our past into the contemporary conversation. I don’t do so out of what some call Old Order Envy, but rather to reclaim a peculiarity that we have lost in becoming like so many other parts of the Christian tradition (echoing some of what Jordan said early in his comment).

      You are absolutely correct that those who have championed peace in the Brethren have almost always been the minority. The draft numbers of Brethren in WWII shows that just as Carl Bowman’s recent survey does today. Those two points also inform my statement. We could even re-frame the eye catching title in terms of the whole CoB: “Do the Brethren believe in Peace?”

      I hope you hear in my affirmation of you comments, and Jordan’s as well, another Brethren value- respect for conscience. As I try to reframe the discussion, and even challenge the way we use the ideology of Peace, I hope I am not doing with an air of excommunication. There are a variety of ways to go about witnessing to Christ’s peace so the last thing I want to do is condemn one in favor of another. To me that would be like trying to say that one gospel narrative is sufficient and that the other three are some how out of bounds.

      One of the things I do struggle with, however, is that even in the Just Peace document there is not much acknowledgement of the ways the current governmental and economic systems support and continue to encourage violence. That is what I was referencing with Jordan. Appropriate actions as citizens are but one way to engage and speak to those problems. I am asking, however, how our engagement contradicts the values of our faith. What does it look like when the Church finally says that Free Enterprise and the current use of financial instruments for creating wealth beyond imagine violate the convictions of abundance, simplicity, and the sharing of resources? Or are we such realists now that these systems are just “what is” and so we must work with them as such. All of this is to say, as Brian Gumm has said on his blog- I think Brethren have drunk the Kool-Aid of modernity and have yet to fully critique its ideologies. The same can be said of the way we have assumed that the American system is the ideal form of seeking the common good. Maybe, as I am saying here, the system has some fundamental flaws, and maybe our witness of peace is best cast in Christian terms- the role of the local church, the value of evangelism as a way of making peace, and ultimate end of the Kingdom of God as the defining reality.

      Maybe it just sounds as though I am trying to have it both ways. But I think the CoB is in dire need of a new conversation about Peace. The Just Peace document from the World Council of Churches may just present us with that opportunity. I am sure though, that I will have some critiques of the ways it describes peace- mostly in the form of critiques of modernity and the political structures it has created. At the same time, I can hold up the witness of people like Andrew Cordier as one way of being peacemakers. Though the story I tell of him will most likely cast him as a Brethren man, living out his discipleship to Christ- all the rest, the political savy, the intellectual insight, and the vision for the United Nations would emerge from that faith. That is, at least, in the story I tell.


  6. Gloria

    I love this. Keep posting and prodding Jake!

  7. Ellis Shenk


    This responds your posting of yesterday. Yes, I too do believe the Brethren have at least tasted the Kool Aid a number of times – some more than others. But I don’t see any way to put pages back on the calendar and go back to old ways. I have seen plenty of people who survive from one day to the next out of necessity, and their lives are no more pure or God centered for it. In our modern world, super-simple living off the main grids can become an intense, time consuming project of its own, detracting from ultimate ends and higher purposes. Furthermore, living and working in six countries on four continents builds some tolerance for the fact that societies and nations are not logical or perfect and realization that the struggle of faith is at another level.

    I think I understand your concern about missing signifiers. My questions is how is it possible to keep the search for unidentified signifiers from being a totally subjective process. If we know that peace has been linked with Brethren but don’t know what it may have meant across several centuries, how do we determine that we in hindsight now understand it for any point in history. Had the Brethren been a church with creeds or dogma, it might be easier. But Brethren were modest in both word and deed. So where do you expect to find clues and how do you keep from reading your own biases into the interpretation of values in such unwritten history?

    Perhaps it could help to study anew the exact German words used for peace and allied concepts by Brethren in Europe and America, until the time that English took over. I rather suspect their words were more complex than the simple noun Frieden or the adjective friedlich. A similar understanding of usage of these concepts by early Friends and Mennonites might shed further light on commonalties and differences.

    Though refusal to take up arms in the military was a basic Brethren teaching across centuries, this was hardly the sum total of their peace witness. My guess is that Brethren understanding of peace was ever changing in response to changed settings in which they lived, migration to America, and then life in a new country in the process of growing rapidly. As I have researched Bernese Anabaptist ancestors, I am struck by how they stayed in their home villages until they were evicted. In contrast, Brethren gathered intentionally under a friendly ruler in Schwarzenau, then moved on to Solingen, Holland, Germantown and elsewhere in America.

    But if I understand you correctly, the Brethren actions and pronouncements for peace at any time are useful grist for the “signifier” mill. They are the signifiers for that time period. Whether they are in consonance with those of other times may remain to be determined. But they are what they are for when the happened. So why not study more recent Brethren history where decisions are documented and statements of beliefs may be recorded in minutes of meetings or church papers. I believe the quarter century from 1939 was such an unusual time of Brethren pronouncements and activity that many unexpected clues would be found.

    I find it interesting that you seem fascinated by M G Brumbaugh and Andrew Cordier who in order to be successful in education, government and international relations had to drink a good deal of Kool Aid, or its equivalent. Furthermore, both made their mark very much as individuals rather than within the body of Brethren.

    Andrew Cordier as chair of BSC did give leadership until he joined government, and some less direct assistance thereafter. And I accept your point that Brumbaugh’s history of the Brethren gave a historical perspective that aided M R Zigler and others as they faced conscription and WWII. But I suspect that the WWI experience (the fiasco of Brethren leadership speaking out against the war, then withdrawing their language) was of greater effect, creating resolve to do better in WWII. But from what I know, all that happened among Brethren as WWII spread to the USA was a forward look of Brethren leaders, building on the church of the 1920s and 30s.

    Though M R Zigler gave leadership; the effort was widely supported across the denomination. When the time came to mobilize for action, Zigler assembled a strong staff who subsequently went on to lead spin off programs. That included W. Harold Row, John Eberly (student exchange), Dan West & Thurl Metzger (Heifer), John Metzler (CROP), Eldon Burke (CRALOG Germany), Kurtis Naylor (Ecuador & WCC) and Ora Huston. Later Don Snider, Wilbur Mullen and Don Durnbaugh, among others, were called to lead programs in Germany & Austria.

    But Zigler early built strong ties with Friends and Mennonites, especially Orie Miller. In part he built a program that positioned Brethren within the conciliar movement, more conservative than AFSC, but more liberal and connected than MCC.

    I must admit that I have not read the Just Peace document. I believe so strongly that Peace is at risk when we deal unjustly with others. Perhaps I fear that the document may be less convincing than the title. But you have piqued my interest. I have no disagreement that injustice thrives in society, the economy, government, international relations, etc, etc. Driving desire for wealth, power and recognition and a host of other ungodly characteristics have been around a long time. However, ten percent of the population might not acquire such a large slice of wealth and power if voters did some independent research about candidates and stopped sopping up uncritically all the sound bytes thrown at them, or voting on debate performance, looks or a good feeling.

    Instead of being totally cynical about government, we may need to be reminded that even Christians carry some of these very same human characteristics into our church dealings. We are still all too human.

    You say the system has flaws and that evangelism is a way of making peace. I believe that with goodwill and honesty, many systems can work. The major flaw is often the human one. And about evangelism, where there is strong belief to the contrary, evangelism can be like a sword. On my staff in Bangladesh there were both a Hindu and a Muslim convert whose very lives were threatened by their own families when they converted. When the status quo is challenged, the individuals most vested in the current status will be most violent in opposition.

    Finally, I agree we would benefit from a Brethren dialogue about peace. You seem more focused on the past. My focus would be about the future and about doing things that make for peace now. About a year ago the Brethren Newsline commented on the Mission and Ministry Board Strategic Plan 2011-2019.

    Click to access 2011-2019-strategic-plan.pdf

    I read through the plan several times trying to envision the church and the witness this document represented. The Brethren Voice section calls for strengthening of Anabaptist and Radical Pietist values, including teaching about Brethren peace witness and conscientious objection. The Service section calls to provide education, advocacy, and opportunities for conscientious objection to war and alternative service in the event of a military draft. That seems to be about the extent to which the strategic plan calls for action on peace. Furthermore, I found no hint this plan envisions Brethren presence and action abroad, other than in International Mission.

    So where do actions for peace fit in? My conception of peace making is an integrated “towel and basin service/witness” kind of relationship that seems to bring out the best of Brethren faith, interpersonal relations and technical skills. Brethren have always sought to minister to the full human being – body, mind, soul, family and community. That is the kind of help needed by many of our distant neighbors around the world.

    I recognize that the planning document was an early step in a longer planning process. And I acknowledge too that there were a lot of high sounding phrases about reconciliation and healing, humble service, courageous proclamation, servant leadership and dedication to peace in the Preamble/Prayer.

    But my experience is that such words lose their impact if they are not spelled out in program action within a plan. And if no money is designated for those actions in budgets, the net result of the process will likely be just so many nice words. In a world where we learn both from our doing and from our failures, I believe we need to keep on acting out for peace, even if we don’t fully understand how we got painted into this corner called peacemakers.


  8. Ellis Shenk


    Just finished reading “Just Peace” and could not help reflecting back to the 1950s. A decade after WWII, M R Zigler’s simple, plaintive and repeated question to his somewhat annoyed colleagues at the World Council of Churches was: “When will Christians stop killing each other?” In comparison, “Just Peace” is a full litany of peace – almost a Hallelujah Chorus. When our words change that dramatically, I believe there is hope for change in action.


  9. Carl

    I am not going to chime in, but want to express appreciation for this kind of dialogue. I will add a couple of details:
    1. The early Brethren spoke of Christ’s peace much more than of “nonresistance” and the like. That said, they understood participation in Christ’s peace as having action implications, one of which 19th century Brethren enshrined as “nonresistance.”
    2. Refusal to engage in lethal violence against others didn’t become a minority Brethren position until the early 20th century. Before that, it was a baptismal commitment. Now, only a wee, wee fraction of our members (how’s that for scientific precision?) believe that our congregations’ children should be counseled against military involvement. The largest Brethren congregations keep bulletin boards up in the children’s education wings honoring “our men and women” in the service.
    3. Relatedly, “peace” is a master narrative for only a small number of today’s Brethren; would that it were more. From that vantage point, perhaps we should be critiquing the _lack_ (or thinness) of a Brethren master narrative of peace.
    4. The most recent, comprehensive Annual Conference statement on peace and peacemaking (from the 1990s) does an excellent job of interpreting peace as something that springs from faith, affects all daily relationships, and also has global implications.
    5. The Fellowship of Reconciliation used to market the phrase (maybe still do), “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.” I wish Brethren could speak so clearly. Of course, “all war is sin” is pretty clear, but I doubt that Brethren could get “all war is sin” through AC these days. And anyway, it’s less radical in its implications for daily living than “peace is the way.”
    I said I wouldn’t chime in. Sorry.
    And I am grateful for this e-exchange. It’s important.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Carl for (not)jumping in. I appreciate the affirmation of the conversation and what you have added.

      Have a Blessed Easter All!

  10. The Virginia Mennonite Peace Committee, for which a friend of mine is currently working, is grappling with this question as it relates to coming to grips with what “conscientious objector” means in a post-draft age. The focus for their youth now is shifting to “nonviolent discipleship” rather than C.O., which also makes it more gender-inclusive!

    They’re developing lenten devotional material in blog format that will also be making its way into printed materials. It’s called “A Covenant of Christian Nonviolence.” Great stuff…

  11. Ellis Shenk

    Brian Gunn’s account of the Virginia struggle with the term “conscientious objector” in a post-draft world clearly shows how much we have allowed ourselves to be defined by that limited Selective Service concept and terminology. Though conscientious objectors may be their name for us. It need not be the name we give ourselves.

    This also reminds how we seem tied to terms that contain a negative in them – conscientious objector, non-violent, non-resistance, not to mention National Board for Religious Objectors. In this sense, it is a concern that last year’s Strategic Plan that I referred to appears not to go beyond the negative, and perhaps now outdated, term “conscientious objection”.

    Brethren peace concerns are far more positive and broad. Casting about for a parallel, I see similarities with ardent environmentalists. Their values affect their life perspectives as well as their day to day living. Even though their goals may be far off in the future, every container recycled, every eco-friendly product used, the increases in miles per gallon – all edge ahead in the right direction. Yet despite not yet reaching their goal, they have real satisfaction in doing what ought to be done in the moment. In fact, they themselves are changed by the very process.

    Certainly Brethren believe that the discipleship of peace witness and peacemaking is a positive interaction within community, nation and world. For Brethren, peace covers a wide range of expressions of our faith. It is about both ends and means and the very essence of the process of striving toward a goal of peace. At a faith level, it is a testimony to our belief in the Prince of Peace. And in believing in the goal and acting out our faith, we ourselves are changed. We need a new set of words to capture all of this, and more.

    A quick read of CoB staff titles shows only one person with the word Peace in their title. Some might want to include a portion of BVS and other staffing in this number. Nevertheless, in comparison, the amount of peace activity that goes on outside the structure of the Mission and Ministry Board is noteworthy. There are of course OEPA, the New Community Project, Brethren partnership in the Center on Conscience and War, individual participation in Christian Peacemaker Teams, and perhaps others.

    What does it say about our peace commitment when there is more Brethren peace activity, on the side lawn, so to speak, than inside the main building? To change the metaphor, perhaps it is simply a way to worship in different chapels within our larger Brethren cathedral? Or is this evidence that the larger body is finding it increasingly difficult to tolerate this peace tradition of a minority? Might it represent a quest by the smaller groups for more freedom, urgency and autonomy in carrying out their witness? Is it an expression of present day aversion to top down programs and eagerness to decide our own issues and actions? Or are we simply succumbing to disconnected self expression which may nurture divisions among us?

    But getting back to the issue of “peace” as a master signifier, I don’t believe the Brethren are the only ones with problems with this word. The King James version of the Bible uses the word peace 420 times; The Message 224 times, and the Good News Translation 322 times. Why the differences? In discussing what the Bible says about peace, one source lists ten headings: peace, prince of peace, false peace, gospel of peace, peace makers, god of peace, perfect peace, peace of god, my peace, live at peace.

    Even Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/peace?s=t gives 10 definitions of peace.

    Like the Mennonites in Virginia referred to by Bryan, I believe there is a need for Brethren peace makers to redefine what we are talking about. The simple word “peace” is too broad, too unlimited. Working for peace is about as broad as witnessing, evangelism or discipleship. Any group or person can do almost anything, and say it is about peace. Even with a common word peace, we may disagree about what constitutes peace in the community, nation or world.

    So I believe it could be a useful process for the Brethren peace contingent to assess together whether we are doing what needs to be done as well as what we can best do. That, and learning about changing issues in our communities, country and world – looking ten years over the horizon to anticipate how issues might intensify or new issues emerge – might give a perspective we do not now have. And from emerging goals and objectives, I venture to say that we would be more clear about what to call ourselves.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s