Chasing after peace: An autobiography

How a shy missionary kid ended up becoming a peace and justice advocate in the Anabaptist tradition

By Harriet Sider Bicksler

From my earliest years, I’ve had a strong sense of justice and fairness. When I was 3 years old, I refused to speak to my father for nine months. As Brethren in Christ missionaries, our family had moved from one mission station in Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia) to another, and apparently I was not happy with the move. I told my older brother, “When Daddy takes us back to Matopo, then I’ll talk to him.” At Matopo Mission, I’d had an African nanny whom I’d dearly loved. When we moved, she didn’t go with us. As a child, I had no way to express my grief. I felt a wrong had been done, however unintentionally, and I protested in the only way I knew how.

I tell this story not because I am particularly proud of what I did to my father but because the passion and sense of justice I’ve described, coupled with the environment in which I came of age, have profoundly shaped the trajectory of my life and faith. My story is about how one person has tried—however inadequately or incompletely—to follow Jesus and His example of passionately pursuing peace and reconciliation.

Foundations for advocacy

Graduating from Messiah College (Grantham, Pa.)
I’m in the top row, second from the left!

My family returned to the United States from mission work in 1961. My adolescent years were lived in the midst of the unrest of the 1960s and the Vietnam War. Although I grew up in the Brethren in Christ Church, I actually don’t remember receiving much specific teaching on the issue (a fact I find a bit disconcerting now, as I reflect on it), but I always knew we were part of the historic peace church tradition and didn’t go to war.

As the conflict in Vietnam escalated, I gained new understanding as a student at Messiah College (Grantham, Pa.). There, I discovered the historical and biblical basis for conscientious objection to war and the peacemaking stance of the Brethren in Christ Church.

My career as a writer and advocate began at Messiah, as well. My senior year was a tumultuous one on campus, fueled in part by the war, but also because a favorite teacher was refused a contract renewal due to his less-than-orthodox views. I remember protesting to the college president about what felt to us students like an injustice, and I wrote editorials about the issue for the college newspaper.

During my early years of marriage, the Vietnam War finally ended. I watched the return of the POWs on TV while I was at home with our first child. Throughout this time, I didn’t participate in peace marches nor was I particularly active in any other way—it just wasn’t in my nature.

Called to action

A classic scene: me hard at work—papers scattered, pens uncapped, and thesaurus out—with the cat calmly looking on.

My life as a more active participant in speaking out against war took shape slowly in the 1970s, after I attended a “New Call to Peacemaking” conference. Spurred on by a movement among the historic peace churches to revitalize their commitment to peacemaking, I read several Anabaptist classics, such as Ronald J. Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and Christ and Violence, as well as Donald Kraybill’s Upside-Down Kingdom. As a result of these formative influences, I finally internalized the historic peace position. More than simply learning about my Anabaptist heritage, I knew deep within my heart and soul that God was calling me to be an agent of reconciliation in the world.

I read the New Testament with new conviction. Jesus modeled nonviolence and love for enemies in His own life and taught His disciples to do the same. He came to give more abundant life. How is abundant life possible if we prevent others from having access to it by killing and oppressing them?

I became convinced that if I could help people more deeply engage the biblical mandate to pursue peace and reconciliation, I needed to. And I embarked on a career of writing, editing, and advocacy. For more than three decades, I’ve edited Shalom! A Journal for the Practice of Reconciliation, a publication of our denomination that has tackled many of the most difficult peace and justice issues confronting Christians.

In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 2003, meeting women who had known my parents.

I also became involved with the board of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)—a relief, development, and peace agency of Anabaptist denominations—and had the opportunity to travel to other parts of the world, such as Vietnam, Cuba, and Palestine. Visiting these nations, which have a history of difficult relationships with the U.S., I met wonderful people who don’t fit the “enemy” label our country has put on them. I learned to view the world through different eyes and to think more about the lives of ordinary people in far-off places.

Pursuing holistic peace together

I certainly acknowledge the many ambiguities and hard-to-answer questions related to justice and reconciliation. I know that many sincere Christians who also take their Bible seriously have come to different conclusions about war and peace, violence and nonviolence. In my personal journey, however, I keep returning to the words of the New Testament: seek peace and pursue it, overcome evil with good, live peaceably with all, love your enemies.

As we consider our contemporary world, we can clearly see that war and violence aren’t working very well. What would happen if we engaged our imagination to find redemptive alternatives to these means? What if more Christians followed Jesus’ radical example of nonviolence?

Given the desperate need for alternative voices on this matter, one of my great disappointments over the past three decades has been the continuing erosion of a strong commitment in the Brethren in Christ Church to hold firm to its historic peace stance. Sometimes, I have wondered if I should focus my energies on other things besides trying to help the denomination preserve this particular part of its Anabaptist heritage.

The most important reason I don’t give in to these thoughts, however, is my belief that the resurrected Jesus calls us to join in His redemptive work of overcoming great evil in the world with great good. Rather than yielding to the temptation to join the majority of the Christian community in accepting war as legitimate, I think we should celebrate our peace heritage and find ways to make it even more relevant today.

I also believe that peacemaking is about more than finding alternatives to war. Conflicts occur at home, at church, in our community, and at work. As Christians, we need to learn and practice healthy ways to handle the conflict in all these contexts. I’m glad that the Brethren in Christ Church has worked hard to promote a more holistic view of peacemaking that includes issues like interpersonal conflict, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and racial/ethnic divisions. Sometimes this kind of peacemaking feels as difficult and painful as speaking out against war—and it’s just as important.

I deeply believe that God calls Christians to peacemaking along the continuum—from homes to churches to nations. As Brethren in Christ, we’ve identified Pursuing Peace as one of our 10 Core Values. When we use the word pursuing” to describe our approach to peace, we acknowledge that it is a continuous activity. Sometimes peace is elusive, sometimes there are complications, sometimes there are obstacles to overcome. Maybe we will never quite capture peace, but we are always pursuing, always chasing, always following after Christ.

This essay is adapted from a speech written for the 2004 Sider Institute Conference and later published in the August 2005 edition of Brethren in Christ History and Life.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2012 issue of In Part magazine.

Harriet Sider Bicksler serves as editor of both Shalom! and Brethren in Christ History and Life. She and her husband, Dale, are part of the Grantham (Pa.) Church. They have two adult children and three grandchildren.

Comments

Jonathan Owen Posted on December 27, 2012

What a great article! The peace position is one of the reasons I joined the Brethren in Christ. From what I've seen of this issue of In Part (online), I'm very excited to read the whole issue. Thank you for your contribution, Harriet!

Donna (Climenhaga) Wenger Posted on December 21, 2012

Likely, I am one of the few readers of this engaging essay who knew the author when she was in her most formative years. Harriet and I are girlhood friends. Happily, I never crossed her sense of justice to receive the silent treatment.
I too can attest to the powerful influence of my days at Messiah College. As is Harriet, I am proud to have attended the college and been instructed by wonderful dedicated professors.

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