From his fifth-floor window in Mennonite Central Committee's D.C. office, Daryl Byler can keep an eye on the Supreme Court while he takes calls from a press that since Sept. 11 has been scrambling for sidebars about pacifists. Reporters want theology briefings, history lessons, or alternatives to bombing; and there's the occasional interviewer who hauls out the old Niebuhrian indictment: Pacifists are "parasites on the sins of others." To which Byler replies with a grin, "I belong to a church that's been doing preventative defense for years. And, you know, with $21 trillion spent on this country's military since World War II, never has the government sent us a check for our work."
Mennonites—and their historic peace church fellows, the Brethren and Friends—were doing the work of homeland security long before it became a household phrase, pioneering Victim-Offender Reconciliation Programs, founding Christian Peacemaker Teams, establishing Mennonite Central Committee, Heifer International, and American Friends Service Committee. For all their acronyms, the U.S. peace churches don't have a corner on committees, nor on nonviolence; but post-Sept. 11, what they have to offer the media and the mainstream churches is a centuries-old peace theology that's rooted in Christ and community.
The Sermon on the Mount is for now, not later, the peace churches say, and the reign of God is already here (Luke 17:20-21). The task of the church, then, is to witness to the kingdom, to let the world know it's been reconciled (2 Corinthians 5:17-20) by creating a culture that creatively and nonviolently confronts evil, makes peace, and seeks justice.
The goal here is not to establish a Christian society—civil religion and the defense it demands are precisely what the Anabaptists and Pietists rejected at the Reformation. Jesus never promised political freedom, the peace churches remind us; our liberty is in Christ, our security is in community, and we're willing to suffer rather than fight for rights.
CERTAINLY THE PEWS of the peace churches aren't filled with war tax resisters and anti-nuke activists, but when Mennonite kids learn the stories of martyrs with the Old Testament miracles, when Quaker youth hear the testimonies of COs with the parables of Jesus, what you get is a rank-and-file that's deeply committed to peace and obliged to speak truth to the powers-that-be. So then it's Brethren blue-collars who are supporting the radical work of CPT. It's Amish farmers who are footing the bill for MCC's progressive Washington office. It's a crowd of Christians unswayed by public opinion polls 90 percent in favor of war, because they know a longer history and a larger community.
It remains to be seen whether the witness of the historic peace churches, born in persecution, can survive prosperity. Those who emphasize "in the world" have, in places, fallen prey to consumerism and militarism, while those who read "but not of the world" have, at times, abandoned their witness to the state for a two-kingdom spirituality.
There is a growing conviction that if the peace churches are to be more than a media curiosity in the 21st century, they've got to enlist the creativity of the ecumenical community. Last summer, a delegation of peace church leaders met with the World Council of Churches in preparation for the Decade to Overcome Violence. "Could we," they asked, "urge the Christian community of churches—Protestant, Orthodox, and Pentecosts—to accept a self-understanding that includes peace and nonviolence as an essential element of the church by definition?"
Is it too much to ask that Christians everywhere remember their martyrs, respect their pacifists, and reread the life of Christ? These days, the world needs all the peace churches, all the preventative defense it can get.
Bethany Spicher is editorial assistant at Sojourners. For more on the WCC International Historic Peace Church Consulation,"Theology and Culture: Peacemaking in a Globalized World," visit www.peacetheology.org.