Ted Grimsrud recently wrote a response to my edited book, From Suffering to Solidarity: The Historical Seeds of Mennonite Interreligious, Interethnic, and International Peacebuilding, on his blog, 'Thinking Pacifism.' It was a mainly positive response at the outset, remarking that “the peace-focused writings make an excellent contribution” and ultimately recommending the book and concluding that “[t]he writing throughout is clear. The book gives a wide-ranging sense of the present application of Mennonite peace convictions and how this emerging field of peacebuilding has evoked many creative and life-enhancing responses by Mennonites and those influenced by them in ministering to a violent and often quite broken world.”
But after underscoring what was good about the book, his primary critique revolved around the book’s perceived omission of any attention to peace theology, asking, Have Mennonites moved past peace theology?
Now, I don’t want to write a response simply because I think someone’s critique is mistaken and it makes me look bad (although I’m human and this is probably part of the equation). And I don’t make a habit of responding to reviews, but the nature of Ted’s blog and this particular post as a “response” rather than a review suggests that this is an opening for a constructive and respectful conversation. In this sense, I want to write a response to correct some misconceptions, but also to ask for clarification on points I found confusing or potentially misleading. In this sense, as my book is only the beginning of my ongoing research on the uses of history in peacebuilding—especially how a historical infrastructure can help generate empathy—I want to know how I can improve in the future without uncritically meandering down a path that may not have been legitimately cut in the first place.
There are, no doubt, several shortcomings of my book, as all books have, and I’ve already identified many in my head. One such shortcoming that stands out to me the most is that an example of conflict in North America is missing from the book, an omission that unfortunately signals a Western elitism and a tendency to gloss over our own atrocities and shortcomings that actually exacerbates the dehumanization of the Other and unhelpful “us vs. them” dichotomy that this book seeks to undermine. A perfect example to include would have been the negative effects of European colonialism on First Nations communities and resulting conflict then and today, a colonialism that Mennonites participated in—sometimes unwittingly—when they immigrated to North America and for which Mennonites have more recently offered official apologies in ceremonies co-arranged with the indigenous peoples they harmed.
Another glaring shortcoming I noticed after the book was finally published was that, as the editor of an anthology of different authors, perhaps thinking I could demonstrate the genetic links between Anabaptist-Mennonite historical experiences and the inspiration to carry out peace work in various forms, the types of peacebuilding initiatives that Mennonites use, and their application in present-day violent conflict settings was too ambitious. But as a book that made points based on keen observation and a deep understanding of history and that seeks to ask initial questions to get the ball rolling, the book has, I think, fulfilled its mandate. In this sense, the book could more accurately be characterized as a springboard for my ongoing research that will one day demonstrate more definitively and comprehensively where genetic links between Anabaptist-Mennonite history and Mennonite peacebuilding approaches may reside as a part of my overarching research on the uses of history in Mennonite peacebuilding.
Questions and Concerns
1. So, with this background and the critique that Mennonites have moved past peace theology in mind, the first point I want to make is that I’m not Mennonite; I study Mennonites. This may be a more recent phenomenon—a non-Mennonite studying Mennonites—and it may be a phenomenon with which Mennonites are uncomfortable, but as a non-Mennonite with a PhD that focuses on Anabaptist-Mennonite history and theology, I think I have the prerogative to carry out this work regardless. So, although admittedly a bit nitpicky, in this sense it might be unfair to say that Mennonites have moved past peace theology since I’m not even a Mennonite.
Yes, most (though not all) of the contributors to this book are Mennonites, but I—as the editor—came up with the whole idea behind the book, recruited the contributors, set the parameters within which contributors could write their chapters, and guided the authors to write on their particular topics and themes.
Despite these regulations, this doesn’t mean, however, that I’m disinterested in Anabaptist theology, and peace theology as a subset of this theology; although I’m not Mennonite, I certainly admire the internal consistency and beauty of Anabaptist theology and continue to learn from their peace theology, emphasis on socio-economic justice, and traditional embrace of simply living. I wouldn’t have devoted my doctoral work and subsequent research agenda to Anabaptist history and theology and Mennonite peacebuilding approaches if I didn’t.
2. Now, I don’t know Ted Grimsrud well, but I have corresponded with him and he co-edited a book in which I have a chapter (Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend [Wipf and Stock, 2011]). And I have immense respect for his wonderful work refining and articulating an Anabaptist-Mennonite peace theology. His blogs have helped me on numerous occasions and are go-to resources for me. But, at the risk of using a trite aphorism to make an important point, Ted’s response to my book may be a case of, “To a hammer, everything is a nail.” And admittedly, a part of me thought, “Leave it to the creator of a blog called, ‘Peace Theology,’ to underscore that peace theology is missing or isn’t prominent in my book.” But, of course, this underscores an important point: my book was never meant to be on peace theology. From Suffering to Solidarity is interested mostly in Anabaptist-Mennonite history and the peacebuilding initiatives and their application that derive from and are inspired, influenced, and shaped by this history. If anything, it’s a peace history book.
3. Ted's critique therefore seems to underestimate the reality that some Mennonites—rather than “moving past” peace theology—have already built upon their peace theology by allowing this theology to inspire and shape the nonviolent responses to violent conflict in the form of peacebuilding and conflict transformation decades ago long before my book was published. Ron Kraybill, a contributor to my book, began moving toward the field of peacebuilding as a teen in the 1960s, was the first director of Mennonite Conciliation Service since the late 1970s, and began his important peace work in South Africa in the late 1980s. And John Paul Lederach—by all accounts the (perhaps somewhat reluctant) guru of Mennonite peacebuilding—was participating in the mediation and reconciliation between the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and the Yatama indigenous resistance movement in the 1980s. These are only two examples of many, of course, and so why my book published in 2015 somehow marks the shift away from Mennonite peace theology is a bit of a mystery to me.
Now, Ted is aware of these decades-long contributions to Mennonite peacebuilding (including the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding that was started in the early 1990s by Lederach, Kraybill, and others at EMU, the university at which Ted teaches), and he even alludes to them in his own response to my book, which is part of why I’m confused and would like clarification on this point in particular. Maybe there’s something I can correct or improve upon in the future.
And yet, in his response, Ted seems most complementary of Ron Kraybill’s chapter in From Suffering to Solidarity because it highlights the spiritual formation that capacitates a peacebuilder to carry out her or his work—a theme that enhances the efficacy of peace theology. But this is precisely why I wanted Ron Kraybill to write on this topic—because I think it’s important. The book as a whole, however, is not exclusively interested in this theme, but views it as a vital component of a much larger scope. Further, that Ted points to an article by Alain Epp-Weaver (another contributor to From Suffering to Solidarity) called “Peace Theology and Peacebuilding” as a noteworthy integration of the two disciplines shows that this integration tacitly animated each author who contributed to this volume—or Epp-Weaver in the very least.
However, with both my and Ted’s awareness of the Mennonite peacebuilding pedigree, I found it odd that he believed “[i]t is clear from the book, though seldom brought to the surface for overt reflection, that something new is going on with Mennonites with this turn toward peacebuilding,” which, according to Ted, warranted more discussion of what peacebuilding is in relation specifically to “defenselessness,” “nonresistance,” “pacifism,” and “nonviolence.” Aside from simply not feeling the need to differentiate these terms in a book that Ted himself laments are not foci of the book, it’s not that “something new is going on with Mennonites,” but instead that Mennonites have been engaged in practical peacebuilding and conflict transformation for so long and are so well known and well respected for this work around the world despite their disproportionately small numbers that they warrant an outsider’s more objective investigation into this pioneering and impressive work.
4. That said, the book does (aside from Kraybill’s chapter mentioned above) raise points that highlight the role of Mennonite peace theology from time to time even though that wasn’t the purpose or objective of the book. For example, Esther Epp-Tiessen concludes, “it was not the suffering itself that spurred MCC and Mennonites to embrace a peace witness and practice that has become increasingly explicit over the years. Rather, I believe it was a deep faith commitment to a nonviolent Christ and his gospel of peace that provided the foundation for MCC’s work and witness for peace” (p. 89). For a book, whose editor didn’t tell his contributors to write anything on Mennonite peace theology, to indeed include anything on peace theology may actually suggest that Mennonite peace theology is robust and active enough today even to stretch the parameters of a book that isn’t even on that subject.
5. For the most part, however, my book assumes that a peace theology underpins and is ineluctably inseparable from the practical peace work of Mennonites—a safe assumption, I think. To “move past” peace theology would be to abandon it, which—as members of a historic peace church—Mennonites who work for peace in practical ways are not doing; they’re undergoing the painful and challenging—often gut-wrenching—process of determining how their theologically-informed peace convictions must impact their litany of rapid-fire decisions on how they act within the minutiae of everyday circumstances in the midst of the chaos and intractability of violent conflicts around the world today.
If, however, Ted is suggesting that Mennonites have moved past the discipline of peace theology, I don’t think my book is influential or important enough to be even remotely considered the final nail in the proverbial coffin. For this reason, I can’t agree with Ted that “From Suffering to Solidarity could be seen, maybe most alarmingly, as a kind of last gasp of the embedded peace theology of the North American Mennonite tradition, where the link between peace work and peaceable faith convictions may still be taken for granted and left unarticulated.” If the suggested outcome weren’t so lamentable, I’d be flattered.
Future Research Trajectory: Peace Theology and History Together
I will close, however, by saying that I plan on—and have planned on all along—incorporating the importance of Anabaptist-Mennonite peace theology in my future research. As I mentioned above, my research more generally in the coming years is on the uses of history in peacebuilding, specifically how historical infrastructures (including narrative formation, myth building, and storytelling—and the attendant self-awareness and active listening) can help generate empathy—with Mennonites and Anabaptist-Mennonite history as my subject of investigation.
There are several layers to the use of history in peacebuilding and peace research, but one layer seeks to determine how Anabaptist historical experiences helped inspire, influence, and shape their peace convictions—or, if this is preferable, their peace theology. It is hoped that if we can determine which historical experiences, reactions to these experiences, and underlying reasons for these reactions helped shape and preserve Anabaptist-Mennonite peace theology, we can adaptively replicate these conditions for various identity groups that are subjected to violence and persecution through a historical infrastructure that pays close attention to the way identity groups form and position themselves in their narratives, build and disseminate their myths, and tell their stories so that they too can form robust peace convictions as a bulwark against cyclical violence. In this sense, peace theology—and why this peace theology developed the way it did—is also an important historical question and one that will advance the field of peace and conflict studies. As Ted asks, “Is it necessary, though, for the future, to find ways to more directly articulate the faith convictions that undergird the practices?” Answer: yes. Perhaps, then, a trilogy is in order: Peace History; Peace Theology; Peace Building.
Peace theology will therefore survive the publication of my book because I’m going to make sure it does.