by Berry Friesen
It is time for a conversation to start: how do we Anabaptists living in the USA bear faithful witness to the Way of Jesus to our friends and neighbors, to our children and grandchildren, while living in a nation perpetually at war?
This conversation is not about the government; it is about us and our faithfulness to the witness of Jesus.
John the Revelator repeatedly equated Jesus’ “witness” with the “word of God” (Rev. 1:2, 1:9, 20:4). This reminds us how important “witness” is to the work of God in the world. John described Jesus as “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). These are bold and shocking claims, made credible by God’s vindication of Jesus in the resurrection.
Will his faithful witness become our faithful witness?
1. Our context has changed
Those among us who are older formed views about war and the state during an era when fascism and communism threatened the world with overwhelming force. The widely-held view combined opposition to war with recognition that the state claimed a responsibility to defend itself from ideologies of conquest.
Today, it is terrorism—not any foreign power or ideology—that “explains” the frequent war-making of the USA. But as evidence increasingly shows that the US war on terror has created more terrorists, other explanations for war-making have emerged: a humanitarian “responsibility to protect” and the importance of maintaining US dominance in the world vis-à-vis Iran, Russia, China, even Venezuela.
A century ago, the rivalry among the mighty nations of Europe plunged the world into a horrific war. Many historians say that nothing important was at stake. Nevertheless, through propaganda and deceit, those who wanted war mobilized public support for war. A great evil in itself, that war opened the door to even greater evils later in the 20th century and nearly extinguished the witness of Jesus within Europe.
Are we living today in a similar context?
2. The witness of the Bible
The Hebrew prophets preached against the worship of any god but YHWH. They also described the pathway to idolatry: greed, the desire to be esteemed, a reliance on coercive power and threats of violence.
Jesus reflected that prophetic tradition. He did not attempt to reform the Roman Empire. Instead, he called people to a new social and political reality, the Kingdom of God.
Paul focused on large urban settings where Roman officials and propaganda were a constant presence. Following Jesus, Paul called people to trust in the Kingdom of God instead of the empire and to stop participating in events that honored the empire (1 Cor. 10:21).
3. Naming our reality
Here is some of what we have learned over the 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed.
- War is a bread-and-butter issue for millions of people because it provides jobs. Our country has become addicted to the economic stimulus of war and war preparations.
- On matters related to international affairs, war and national security, the mainstream media no longer function as independent voices seeking the truth. Instead, they report primarily what the government tells them.
- The results of the wars pursued by the USA over the past 25 years have been horrifying. Functioning societies that provided economic and social opportunities have been destroyed. At least one million have died.
- The violence has brought great harm to all who participated in it, including US soldiers who often carry unbearable burdens of guilt related to their involvement in war. The emotional scars from moral injuries are severe; 22 veterans commit suicide each day.
- Many feel ashamed of the death and destruction these wars have produced, but that shame is suppressed by patriotic clichés and reminders of how indispensable the USA is to the future of the world.
- As congregations and as individuals, we feel overwhelmed by the scope and complexity of these realities. We need help from church-related agencies.
4. Imagining a faithful witness
Each follower of Jesus has something to contribute to this; being a faithful witness is a communal task, carried on via sustained reflection, shared discernment and action.
Following are suggestions for witness that can be implemented locally in the USA. We hope they will be part of this conversation.
- Elections are public rituals to legitimize the power exercised by government. We must question our participation in the part of this ritual that legitimizes a foreign policy based on military intimidation and war. Is our witness muddled when we act as if it is important that the next Commander-in-Chief is a Republican or a Democrat?
- Let us follow early church writers in dethroning the reigning empire within our worldview (see Rom. 1:24-25; 1 Cor. 2:6-8, 10:21; Eph. 2:1-3, 6:12; Phil. 3:20; Col. 1:13, 2:8-10; 1 Thess. 5:3; 1 Peter 5:8-9). This is a delicate matter, in part because our children are taught in schools the very myth of our nation’s exceptionality that faithful witnesses must lay aside.
- Our times of worship are absolutely vital to this work of repentance and reorientation. How might we be changed if we routinely remember the victims of US drone strikes in our times of corporate prayer?
- Public engagement is a necessary part of a faithful witness. This does not mean we must be “protesting” in the streets. It might mean inviting soldiers returning to our communities to join us in the healing presence of Christ.
- Our personal testimony is that war tax resistance is a helpful teacher as we seek to live as faithful witnesses to Jesus. For those interested in learning more, go to www.1040forPeace.org.
To repeat, it is time for this conversation to start; the faithful witness of Jesus and the well-being of our loved ones and neighbors require it. May we have the faith and courage to begin, and may agencies of the wider church also join this urgent task.
(Authored by 1040 for Peace members to promote discernment around the resolution by the same title, which will be considered by the July, 2015 Mennonite Church USA Convention. Text also available in Spanish. For more about the biblical perspective of the authors, see www.Bible-and-Empire.net.)
Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. He blogs at www.bible-and-empire.net