When it comes to peace, there seems to be gap between what we say we believe as Brethren in Christ and what reality shows.
For more than 200 years, the people of Brethren in Christ Church have embraced the values of Anabaptism, including its emphasis on peace. We express our conviction in our Articles of Faith and Doctrine that “preparation for or participation in war is inconsistent with the teachings of Christ.” And in our Core Value on Pursuing Peace, we declare, “We value all human life and promote forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict.”
Foundational statements like these confirm the Church’s longstanding commitment to nonviolence, belief in the centrality of peacemaking to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and understanding that genuine faith is expressed in outward acts of compassionate service.
In 2006, however, the Church Member Profile revealed a different story. This survey studied the beliefs, attitudes, and practices of Brethren in Christ in the U.S. and Canada. While 90 percent of Brethren in Christ respondents agreed that peacemaking is important to their personal faith commitment, more than half (55 percent) said that in the event of a draft, they’d be willing to engage in some sort of military service.
How can we account for the seeming contradiction between our statements of faith and our actions?
Shifts in our peace perspective
Several factors help to explain what has happened over the past several decades.
A gradual process of acculturation. In earlier centuries, Brethren in Christ individuals separated themselves from the world in a variety of ways, including their plain dress, their rejection of “worldly activities” like voting, and their belief in nonresistance and nonparticipation in war.
Since the 1950s, the Church has become much less visibly distinguishable from the surrounding culture, and many members and attendees identify strongly with national values, including the importance of national security and the accompanying reliance on military might.
The influence of evangelicalism. Simultaneous with the process of acculturation has been the growing influence of the mainstream evangelical movement, most of whose adherents take the just-war position and accept violence as an acceptable response to evil. More Brethren in Christ might now identify more strongly the views presented by evangelicalism than by Anabaptism.
Church growth among people not familiar with the peace church tradition. In the beginning, the Brethren in Christ community was knit together by family ties. Most adherents had BIC parents and were raised in the tradition.
Today, two-thirds of the people in the BIC family in North America are new to the denomination; they did not grow up learning about the values and practices of the BIC Church. As a result, they may not be as familiar with the denomination’s core teachings, including the belief that there is an alternative interpretation of Scripture that rejects violence as an acceptable response to evil.
Ministers recruited into pastoral service without a clear commitment to peace. Despite the requirement that all pastors seeking ministerial credentials agree to support denominational doctrine and practice, some rarely (if ever) teach on “Pursuing Peace,” while others seem to reject the concept of nonviolence completely.
The absence of contemporary stories of peacemaking and nonviolence. Brethren in Christ members of earlier eras heard the stories of people like Canadian bishop E.J. Swalm, who went to jail during World War I for refusing to join the army. While there are undoubtedly individuals today who have demonstrated a commitment to peace and nonviolence, their stories have, for the most part, not become part of the narrative of the Church.
A broader understanding of peace. Whereas previous generations may have primarily expressed their commitment to peace with a general spirit of nonresistance and by being conscientious objectors to war, today, we emphasize the holistic nature of genuine Christian peacemaking. We believe that God’s spirit in us requires us to be peacemakers in every area of our lives—with nations around the world, as well as with family, church members, co-workers, neighbors, friends, and those who seem very different from us.
Embracing beliefs, practicing values
To address the gap between our official beliefs and our de facto beliefs and practices, a number of strategies could help us strengthen our peace commitment and witness.
Collect new peace stories. We need to be listening for and sharing stories about individuals who are living out their commitment to peace in a variety of contexts today. This will enlighten us to what others are doing and challenge us to view peace as relevant to us here and now.
Re-imagine what nonviolence might look like. Very often, it seems that we get so bogged down in the reality of evil that we find ourselves conceding that force and violence are the only satisfying responses. We have suffered from a failure of imagination to come up with more creative, nonviolent, and redemptive solutions to conflict and evil. We need to see beyond what nonviolence has looked like in the past (e.g., conscientious objectors) in order to imagine new ways it might take form in our lives.
Renew our language. Terms like “pacifist” and “conscientious objector” have been used in the past but may not be as relevant or as helpful in conversations today. For example, “pacifism” is often misunderstood to denote inaction or passivity, but we understand nonviolence to be an active pursuit. “Conscientious objector” applies almost exclusively to those who have practiced non-participation in war, while we recognize that our commitment to peace extends beyond the issue of war. So, we will need to come up with new language to communicate our commitment to peace in all contexts of our everyday activities.
Strengthen our ties to other peace-oriented groups. We in North America need a stronger connection with those who share our Anabaptist roots, such as our brothers and sisters in Mennonite World Conference and Mennonite Central Committee. Cultivating these relationships will enable us to learn from others who are trying to peacefully live out their faith in dangerous and violent circumstances.
Create focus groups to promote peace initiatives among us. For almost two decades, there has been no denominational structure with the specific responsibility of promoting the peace commitment of the Church. Such a structure could intentionally direct attention to developing a Church-wide peace education plan to offer skills in areas like disciplining children and managing conflicts in healthy ways, helping individuals develop a peace-oriented worldview, and cultivating an understanding of and concern for social justice issues.
Ensure that pastors support and teach the BIC commitment to peace. Pastors who serve in the denomination should be able to do more than agree not to undermine our peace commitment in their preaching and teaching; ideally, they should be able to affirm and be prepared to preach on peace the same way they teach other central elements of the Gospel.
Despite the pressures of our culture and the growth and changes that have occurred in our community over recent decades, it’s encouraging that our fundamental commitment to follow Jesus in being “a people of peace and reconciliation” remains steadfast. May we, in the coming years, grow in our understanding of what it means to be called to suffer and not to fight.