Called to be Peacemakers
Synopsis: Our call to be peacemakers begins with inner peace rooted with spiritual virtues such as gentleness and freedom from anxiety. Jesus teaches us to not retaliate and to even love our enemies. Loving my enemies is about my actions, not about warm fuzzy feelings. We can learn a lot about how to love enemies from our 16th century Anabaptist spiritual ancestors and how they responded to the social and spiritual crisis of their time. Our call to be peacemakers, in turn is about putting this into action in the religious, social, and environmental crisis of our time.
Today is designated as Peace Sunday by the Mennonite World Conference. We join with our sisters and brothers around the globe to embrace our call to be peacemakers. Our identity as a peace church goes back to our Anabaptist roots in the 16th century. Beyond that, it goes back to various Catholic religious orders such as the Franciscans, to the early church and Jesus, and even much further back into history to Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah.
As Paul told the church in Philippi, being a peacemaker is rooted in spiritual virtues such as joy, gentleness, and freedom from anxiety. We fill our minds and meditate on “things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly, things to praise, not things to curse.” In this way, God’s peace stands guard and keeps our hearts and minds.
Jesus tells us to not lose our tempers or retaliate in kind against a wrongdoer. Then he takes it even further by telling us to love those who hate and harm us. Why does he expect the impossible? Let’s probe into this more deeply. He’s not asking me to have warm, fuzzy feelings for people who abuse me. Loving my enemy is about my actions. Rather than responding in kind, I pray for that person. To pray is to see him or her from God’s point of view and to acknowledge our common humanity—we’re both made in God’s image. As biblical scholar Douglas Hare explains:
We cannot earnestly pray for enemies without reminding ourselves that the God who is able to love us despite our disobedience is able to love those who hate and abuse us. Seeing our enemies in the light of God’s love is the first step toward surprising them with positive acts.
It doesn’t mean that I condone evil or appease a bully. No, we stand up to bullies. As in Jesus’ example of turning the other cheek, we don’t grovel or respond in kind. We, instead, stand up with dignity. So you like to hit and demean me; here hit my other cheek as well. We respectfully yet emphatically reveal that person’s behavior for what it is. I would add that bullying and demeaning others is most often done verbally rather than physically. We don’t verbally slap back, we don’t grovel, and we don’t pretend it didn’t happen. We instead reveal such behavior for what it is. In this way, we put love into action.
Anyone can love those who are lovable. Loving abusers and bullies is hard! Through the kinds of actions Jesus advocates, we grow in our ability to exemplify God’s love. Jesus calls it being perfect as God is perfect. It’s best to interpret this in the future tense. By putting love into action, I will grow in my ability to reflect God’s unconditional love and, thus, become more and more like God.
With this, let’s turn to how our Anabaptist spiritual ancestors embraced following Jesus’ way of peace and nonviolence. Sixteenth century Europe was filled with social, political, religious, and technological upheaval and change. The Anabaptist spiritual awakening fit into this mix. It’s complicated because it includes the Protestant reformation and the Catholic counter-reformation.
Much of church history, including the 16th century, is written as the story of the different church leaders and their theological writings and positions within the context of various empires and political rulers. We don’t know much about how the lives of common people shape the story. With my background of doctoral studies in religion and culture, I try to include this missing part of the puzzle.
The feudal system that created social stability in Europe for centuries was collapsing in the 16th century. It’s hierarchical rigidity had provided a degree of security for common people that the emerging capitalist economic system did not. Many were uprooted from land that their families had farmed on shares for their feudal lord for many generations. Workers guilds in towns also collapsed.
The widespread social agitation and revolt among common people in Central Europe became known as the German Peasant’s War. It began nonviolently but, in the face of intense, armed opposition from the aristocracy, peasants mounted a desperate attempt defend themselves with whatever weapons they could muster, including pitchforks. They were no match for the professional military of the aristocracy, which slaughtered an estimated 100,000 poorly armed peasants.
Prominent Protestant reformers like Martin Luther sided with the aristocracy. The radical, Anabaptist part of the reformation, on the other hand, was aligned with the peasants. Several early Anabaptist leaders had been involved in the peasant uprising. The most prominent reformer to align with the peasants was Thomas Muntzer, a former colleague of Martin Luther. He was eventually captured and executed after the ill-fated Battle of Frankenhausen in 1525.
An insightful part of the story is that the Anabaptists in Switzerland wrote a letter to Thomas Muntzer in 1524 in the heat of this confrontation. They were concerned about his recent turn to violence and wrote, “The gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor are they thus to protect themselves, which, as we [have heard] is your opinion and practice. True Christian believers . . . do not use . . . war since all killing has ceased with them.” This letter demonstrates that the Mennonite peace position was developed in the midst of agonizing life and death choices.
No Anabaptist martyr story has captured the imagination like that of Dirk Willems who was caught, tried, and convicted during the harsh Spanish rule of the Duke of Alva in the Netherlands. He was able to escape the prison where he was being held by letting himself down from a window with a rope made out of knotted rags. A guard spotted him and pursued him as he fled. Dirk was able to safely cross the thin ice of a pond but his heavier pursuer broke through. Hearing the guard’s cries for help, Dirk turned back to rescue him, whereupon he was immediately seized and led back to captivity. Soon after that he was burned to death. The woodcut print of Dirk rescuing his guard in the Martyr’s Mirror has become iconic.
I recently made the fascinating discovery that the social upheaval during the 16th and 17 centuries was related to a climate change phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age when temperatures dropped precipitously. Farms and villages were destroyed by encroaching glaciers in the Swiss Alps. Throughout Europe it resulted in famines, hypothermia, food riots, and the rise of despotic rulers who brutalized an increasingly dispirited peasantry.
This adds a whole new twist to the circumstances under which my ancestor Hans Zimmerman fled religious persecution as an Anabaptist in Switzerland and arrived in America as a teenage refugee without his parents in 1732. It also gives us lots to consider in response to social, political, religious, and technological upheaval and change in our day. These changes are no less dramatic than the changes in the 16th and 17th centuries. They are, however, potentially more consequential because this time our entire ecosystem as we know it is at risk. This gives added urgency to climate change activism such as the recent demonstrations by young people around the world.
I will point out two aspects of the present crisis. The first is the precipitous decline in church participation around the world, including here in the United States. One religious scholar has dubbed it “the great religious recession.” The other is the growing environmental crisis. My wife Ruth has been at the forefront of this in the development projects she has been working on in South Asia and now in Africa.
Several days ago I talked with her via Skype from the small country of Lesotho in the middle of South Africa. She arrived there from the Congo and is in the midst of meetings where they’re working on social development strategies and goals. One thing they’re working on is “climate smart agriculture” in response to climate change. In Lesotho this includes switching from growing corn to growing ground nuts in response to continued drought.
As we seek to navigate this crisis fraught religious, social, and environmental terrain, we will do well to return to the vision of the church that the Anabaptists developed in the 16th century. For them the church was neither a religious institution, nor focused primarily on evangelism, nor a resource group for individual spirituality. We’re, instead, a fellowship of transformed people who love God and follow the teaching and example of Jesus. As such, we’re a voluntary community (nobody is coerced into participating). We’re accountable to each other and we care for each other. Nobody is above anyone else. We live simply and care for the earth. And we take seriously the call to be peacemakers and to love all people, including our enemies.
 As translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message.
 Douglas Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 59.
 Walter Klaassen, Anabaptist in Outline Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 267.
 Diana Butler Bass, Christianity after Religion (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 18.
 Earl Zimmerman, Practicing the Politics of Jesus (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2007), 44-45.