Revisiting Joseph’s Choice

by Berry Friesen

This post marks my last as a contributor to PeaceSigns.  Although I reach this juncture due to illness rather than choice, it is fitting to use this final opportunity to reflect on changes—if any—in Mennonite peacemaking during the six years I’ve been published here.  Has anything changed?

My first essay for the January, 2012 issue of PeaceSigns recounted the story of Joseph, the Hebrew slave who became administrator of Pharaoh’s empire (you can view it here).  Though holding great power, Joseph was never convinced that “his family’s story and Egypt’s story were one.” And I wrote, “If we desire to be part of God’s faithful witnesses, we will need to embrace Joseph’s insight” as we live here in the USA, the heart of the reigning empire.

So how are we doing on this?  Have we been convinced that our story as Anabaptist followers of Jesus and America’s story are not one?

Mennonite peacemaking has always included three emphases:  (a) the peacemaking of YHWH in reaching out to us through Christ Jesus; (b) reconciliation with neighbors through the love and forgiveness we’ve experienced in Jesus; and (c) resistance to propaganda, militarism and war, those great destroyers.

Since the late ‘90s, other more topical concerns have become Mennonite peacemaking priorities: (d) family and intra-church violence; (e) hostile and exclusive practices directed toward racial and ethnic minorities; (f) hostile and exclusive practices directed toward sexual minorities; (g) integrating Mennonite relational, negotiating and reconciliation practices into conflictual contexts (e.g., military occupation and other stabilization efforts, refugee resettlement, etc.).

All of these emphases belong; each is important.

Yet as the Mennonite peacemaking agenda has broadened, important questions of strategy have come undone.  How does a peacemaker carry out her/his calling?  What is the core strategy and how is that strategy distinguished from the approach of billions of others who also desire peace? Who are our core collaborators?  What are “the best practices” for this work?

This unravelling of a common strategy has included self-examination of how well we inside the Mennonite church are performing in regard to this key agenda, especially the newer items on the list.  Thus, we have learned of our own failures—some of them very uncomfortable—related to our protection of sexual violators, our disinterest in reconciling our conflicting view of human sexuality, and our inability to imagine a biblically-based paradigm for “the healing of the nations,” (e.g., racial and ethnic group differences). Some of us have been left demoralized by this self-critique, especially as it has been enthusiastically amplified by church media.

Meanwhile, the violence visited on the world by the US-led empire has intensified.  The rape of Libya by the Western powers occurred in late 2011 and that country’s disintegration has continued apace ever since.  In 2012, the Western powers dramatically escalated their invasion of Syria, a war that eventually produced around a half-million dead.  The US-backed coup in Ukraine followed in February, 2013; it launched a civil war between those who welcomed the coup and those who opposed it. In 2015, the Saudi-led, US supported invasion of Yemen began.  These aggressions and provocations produced millions of refugees, most displaced internally, but many fleeing north to Europe.

Covert US-backing also empowered al-Qaeda and ISIS, fueling their barbarity across the Middle East, West Africa and Europe. Distracted by the trendier peacemaking agenda here in the US, however, we peace activists have largely neglected the exponential growth in violence abroad and the need to engage and resist popular support for war.

How then shall we respond to this challenge of demoralization, rising violence and distraction?

First, we must return to the key insight orienting Anabaptist peacemaking over the centuries.  It is simply this:  the church of Jesus Christ is the key agent of YHWH’s plan to save Earth, not the state. This is our basic theological, ecclesial and political stance as Mennonite peacemakers.  To repeat:  we do not believe YHWH in Christ is saving the world primarily via the state, but via the church.

For us to respond in a vital way to the challenges we face, we must stand together on this principle. It will relativize the other strategies that currently occupy much of our time and energy as Mennonite peacemakers.

Ted Grimsrud’s essay in AT PEACE AND UNAFRAID (Herald Press, 2005) sketches two of these “other strategies.” One is “the empire story,” which affirms the US as the world’s great hope for peace and prosperity and sees the expansion of America’s power as the extension of YHWH reign on Earth.  A second is “the democracy story,” which also portrays America as the world’s great hope in creating a culture of conversation and community engagement, of participation in public life, and of revitalized grassroots activity to work through conflict and seek peace.

Others advocate “stories” that build on one or another aspect of American’s capacity, ingenuity or spiritual insight.  Some are focused on wealth and technology; others sound a call to revitalize the spirit of liberation that animated the labor movements, the abolitionist struggle against slavery and the Civil Rights movement.  Others focus on a feminist ideology and the struggle by women to vote and fully participate in public life.  The most recent iteration of this call to liberation focuses on our need to be freed from archaic sexual and gender identities that shackle our individuality.

Then there is the call for us to recover and restore our traditional sectarian story where we practiced distinctive ways related to dress, cultural mores, sex, and disentanglement from secular structures of society.

These strategies compete powerfully against Anabaptism’s clear and singular focus on the saving power of the church of Messiah Jesus.  And as I see it, we are far from resolving the ambivalence we feel.  Unlike Joseph—who abandoned his hope for Egypt—America’s story still captivates us the most and shapes our peacemaking.

Six years ago as I started writing for PeaceSigns, I said that one of the first things we can do to bring ourselves in alignment with Joseph’s conviction is to remind our families that “our witness to Messiah Jesus does not depend on the success of the USA.”  Similarly, as peacemakers, one of the first things to get moving is to declare to one another that our effectiveness as peacemakers does not depend on our alignments with American political and social developments, but on our going all-in with the witness of the church.

We carry a vision of shalom given to us from the past. We are animated by the living Spirit of YHWH.  Our future remains hidden in the promise Jesus made to the community—his body—established here in his name.  Let us embrace this promise.  And let us deepen our roots in the Anabaptist understanding of how YHWH in Christ is saving the world.


Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, PA and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city.








2 thoughts on “Revisiting Joseph’s Choice

  1. Thank you for your Nov 29 post. Sorry it is your last one. Although I have never met you it seems as if you are a dear friend. I always look forward to your posts and I will miss your comments. May the healer of all ills be near you.

  2. Thank you, Wally. I too wish our paths had crossed; I know a bit about your work in Iran, but not of your work in Indiana. Blessings to you both.

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