Unpacking the Core Convictions (7)

by Stuart Murray Williams

On the inside back cover of Anabaptism Today are seven “core convictions” that summarise the values, principles, commitments and concerns of many who are part of the Anabaptist Network. They represent an Anabaptist way of understanding what it means to follow Jesus at the start of the 21st century. In a series of short articles we are unpacking these convictions, exploring their implications for faith, mission and discipleship.

The seventh and final conviction reads:

Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society and between nations.

Anabaptism shares with the Quaker tradition the designation of being a ‘historic peace church’ – a movement that regards peace as fundamental to the gospel rather than an incidental item and that regards the use of violence (especially lethal violence) as incompatible with Christian discipleship. Although early Anabaptists were not all of one mind on this issue, opposition to warfare, capital punishment and other forms of violence characterised many branches of the movement and the developing tradition came to espouse non-violence as a core conviction.

According to Anabaptists, peace is multi-faceted. It includes peace between humanity and God, but embraces also inter-personal relationships, attitudes towards those who are different from us, approaches to crime and punishment, strategies for resolving conflict and global politics. As the wonderfully rich concept of shalom in the Old Testament indicates, peace is not just the absence of conflict but implies well-being, wholeness, justice, community and harmonious relationships with all of creation. Peace is at the heart of the gospel for those who follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

But the use and justification of lethal violence and participation in warfare are critical issues. The so-called ‘war on terror’ is the latest in a long line of conflicts that depend on convictions about the capacity of violence to resolve conflict. Anabaptists have challenged Christians from other traditions to reject the dominant ‘just war’ approach (which derived from classical rather than biblical sources under the influence of the Christendom shift) and the crusading ideology of ‘holy war’ in favour of a return to the predominantly pacifist tradition of the early churches.

At times, this opposition to war and other forms of violence has appeared ‘passivist’ rather than pacifist, leading to accusations of disengagement from society, lack of concern about injustice and irresponsible idealism. But Anabaptists have also been at the forefront of initiatives to find non-violent alternatives to violent and punitive approaches to conflict that appear more ‘realistic’ in a fallen world but often fail to deliver.

Examples of non-violent alternatives include:

• Christian Peacemaker Teams that take risky initiatives in conflict zones in the hope of protecting those who are in danger and stimulating different ways of thinking and relating across divisions. See the Christian Peacemaker Teams UK website for more information.

• Victim-offender reconciliation programmes and other restorative justice practices that offer alternatives to retributive and anonymous approaches to crime and punishment.

• Mediation services (such as Bridge Builders at the [url="http://www.menno.org.uk">London Mennonite Centre) that work for healthy congregational life and conflict transformation.

Members of the Anabaptist Network are involved in these initiatives and in efforts to challenge reliance upon what Walter Wink calls the ‘myth of redemptive violence’. It has been encouraging to discover growing numbers of Christians – and many other people – who no longer believe this myth, who are opposed to the use of violence to resolve conflicts between nations and who are interested in exploring alternatives.

Our commitment is to continue reflecting, experimenting and learning. After centuries of adopting the ‘just war’ and ‘holy war’ approaches as if these were authentically Christian, finding peaceful alternative strategies will take time and imagination. The Anabaptist tradition is a resource, pointing us back to the life and teaching of Jesus and offering historical examples both of resistance to the use of violence and of the struggle to be consistent.

One of the iconic figures in the Anabaptist tradition is Dirk Willems, who belonged to an underground church in the Netherlands in the second half of the sixteenth century. Fleeing capture across a frozen canal he heard the ice give way behind him and turned back to rescue from the icy water a bailiff who was pursuing him. This compassionate act cost Dirk his life, as he was promptly arrested and soon afterwards burned at the stake. As Anabaptists have reflected on this story (see Why Did Dirk Willems Turn Back?) and asked why Dirk turned back, many have concluded that this reflexive behaviour was possible only because he had been nurtured in a community in which enemy-loving was regarded as normative for disciples of Jesus. Becoming a peace church is not achieved by issuing statements or even ‘core convictions’ but by developing counter-cultural reflexes in our community life, worship and understanding of God’s purposes. See the Becoming a Peace Church Study Guide for a more in depth exploration of this transformation.

At the conclusion of this series of articles on the core convictions of the Anabaptist Network, it is worth underlining that these are aspirations and commitments, values that we hold but have not yet fully worked through. We find the Anabaptist tradition helpful as it points us back to Jesus and challenges us to creative and faithful forms of discipleship. Together with many brothers and sisters in other traditions, we want to continue to discover how to follow Jesus beyond Christendom in a world we cannot control but within which we can hope to live provocatively and distinctively. Finding and modelling non-violent alternatives in a divided and violent world may be one of the most useful contributions we can make to contemporary society and one of the most attractive expressions of Christian discipleship.

Stuart Murray Williams, editor of Anabaptism Today, lives in Oxford and works as a trainer and consultant under the auspices of the Anabaptist Network.