Ever since Sept. 11, the historic peace churches—Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers—have had to examine how effectively they are witnessing for nonviolence. For some, the reaction of their members has sparked controversy, while others see renewal and fresh hope for the peace witness in their midst.
As Christian peacemakers, Dale Brown, a Church of the Brethren theologian, and Kathryn Damiano, of the Religious Society of Friends, observe and work with the tension that often exists between the traditional peace churches and other mainstream groups that do not aspire to nonviolence, especially in times of war.
They also work with the tension within their own denominations, where a variety of opinions and stances on the peace witness can often be found.
Brown—a retired seminary professor and longtime peacemaker who now lives in Elizabethtown, Pa.—said among some Brethren, the radical peace witness remains difficult to understand, much less to enact in daily life, even though the Brethren peace stance has a long history.
Brown said one Brethren seminary leader set off a mild dispute last fall when he took a provocative stance on the war, at variance with what many consider the church’s traditional teaching.
At issue was the perception that some mainstream Brethren no longer interpret the peace witness along traditional lines, and might even approve of military action in some cases.
“The mainline [Brethren] churches, they have more difficulty connecting biblical language with the peace issue,” said Brown, who is now finishing a book on biblical pacifism. “That just does not come as naturally to them as it does to the rest of us.”
Damiano—part of the Friends of Jesus, an intentional community in Wichita, Kan., that works for racial reconciliation—said among today’s Quakers, there exists a broad spectrum of interpretations of the peace witness, in part because Friends have become so assimilated into mainstream society.
“I would say we have succumbed to individualism, consumerism, pluralism,” Damiano said. “We’re losing our identity, our charisma.”
Still, she said, “that peace testimony is still there,” especially in what she sees as “the woundedness of the church.”
Such uncertainty also offers an opportunity to look within and examine one’s convictions more closely, she said.
“You can go into frustration or you can think that this is how God works when we are stripped and brought low,” Damiano said. “We are challenged by many divisions now.”
Another Quaker, Jerry Frost, voices some of that frustration when he looks back at 9/11 and tries to reconcile the peace stance of his church and the actions of his country.
A historian, author and librarian at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, Frost said the peace witness of the Friends takes many forms, ranging from efforts to change the world order to making peace into an individual expression of nonviolence and humility.
With the U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan and with war looming in Iraq, “I feel like I’m living in a time of madness,” Frost said.
Among some Quakers, peacemaking focuses on empowering minorities and the downtrodden and rebuilding broken societies with aid and assistance, as with the work of the American Friends Service Committee.
“The American Friends Service Committee has been fundamentally rethinking what it has been doing,” Frost said. “But then there are also Friends like myself, who say empowerment is not the peace witness.”
Other Friends view peacemaking as a more traditional opposition to wars and violence. Others have no particular peace philosophy they turn to, making the testimony hard to pin down for many and even harder to define for the Friends as a whole.
“Right now we are in a situation where the peace witness has become much more amorphous,” Frost said.
This column was reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.