by Berry Friesen
Imagine a contemporary dialogue between Peter and Cornelius with Peter cast as a Mennonite activist and Cornelius as an active duty combat officer who has completed multiple tours of duty in the Iraqi cities of Samara, Mosul and Fallujah.
To set the stage, assume Cornelius is on a short stateside leave before heading back to Iraq. He is the kind of soldier who enlisted after 9/11 out of the best of intentions: to rid the world of al-Qaeda and make the world a safer place. His conversation with Peter occurs in a conference room at the military base where Cornelius is staying. Several of Cornelius’ family and friends are present too.
How do we account for Cornelius’ open-hearted welcome of this Mennonite who opposes participation in the military and has never previously set foot on a military base? Peter knows nothing of the terrible world Cornelius has seen, yet Cornelius wants to hear from him. We sense Cornelius has been disillusioned by what he has seen and done and is searching for answers.
How would a dialogue between these two men unfold? Of course, we would expect the Mennonite activist to talk about peace. Indeed, in the biblical account recorded in the tenth chapter of Acts, Peter started that way with his reference to the “peace of Jesus Christ.” It was an obvious contrast to the “peace of Rome” Cornelius had given his life to. But Peter wasn’t moralistic and he said nothing to shame Cornelius. This bit would be a hard act for a Mennonite Peter to follow.
In the biblical account, Peter adds to the tension over contrasting understandings of “peace” by his use of the word “Lord.” Peter’s description of Jesus as “Lord of all” was highly provocative; everyone knew the emperor was Lord—it was the emperor’s brand name. Peter’s meaning was clear: this is a political conversation as well as a religious one. To make the same point in our updated script, perhaps we should substitute “Commander in Chief” for “Lord.”
Peter and Cornelius shared faith in the same god, YHWH, which was partly why their improbable meeting ever happened. This is the part of the story that most strains our credulity as a modern audience. How would a Mennonite pacifist and a career military officer ever recognize in each other a devotion to the same god?
In the biblical text, it appears Peter also had his doubts, which he confronted head-on by describing the allegedly seditious Jesus as “doing good” and “healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). The Greek word for “oppressed” is akin to “trampling” and is also used in the Bible to describe how the Egyptian Empire treated the Hebrews (Ex. 1:13), according to Wes Howard-Brook. The word had a highly political meaning, in other words, and as used by Peter implied that the Roman Empire was the devil doing the trampling. Peter then spoke of the execution of Jesus by crucifixion, which “they” (i.e., Roman officials) did. Did that comment strike a nerve? Might Cornelius have had something to do with that execution?
We can imagine Peter expected to be evicted from the room at this point, but Cornelius did no such thing. Perhaps this is what convinced Peter that the god Cornelius worshipped was YHWH, the only true god. And so Peter forged boldly on, declaring that this man unjustly executed for sedition by the Romans had been raised to life and “is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). Obviously, this included the reigning Roman emperor, whom Cornelius served.
What does all this suggest for Mennonite Christians who want to engage armed services personnel and returning vets?
First, their experiences deserve our respect. They have an understanding of the empire’s way of pursuing peace that few of us in propaganda-saturated civilian life will ever have. We need their grasp of that reality, in other words.
Second, if our conversation is rooted in shared faith in YHWH, it will be a political conversation. Jesus claimed to be Lord of Earth and its peoples, a claim that directly contradicted a core claim of the empire. Any attempt to separate the political from the religious is a dead–giveaway that some god other than YHWH is being invoked.
Third, the heart of the conversation will be about Jesus. He is the judge, not only of the dead but also of the living. His way of seeking peace is the measure of all things on Earth, not only things in heaven. Once this is clear, the rest will readily follow, even among conversation partners as different as Peter and Cornelius.