When Peace Preserves Violence

War is Over (If You Want It) As I continue to think about John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct and the reality that within his theology there is either implicit or explicit justification for this kind of behavior, I am concerned that my own theology is not only susceptible to this, but has already been impacted.

  • How can I become more aware of my own blind spots?
  • In what ways am actively participating and benefiting from patriarchy within my family, my ministry, my friendships, and my teaching?
  • How am I allowing myself to be held accountable to other men and women?
  • Am I really sharing power or am I finding ways to put on appearances while getting my own way?

If I follow out the idea of “Biography as Theology,” then I really want to know, and reflect on, what it is that I could be building instead.

I realize that challenge lies ahead.

I cannot take coverage as a “progressive” white male from this.
I can no longer take coverage in what we Quakers call the “peace testimony.”
For that matter, I cannot take coverage in calling myself a Quaker, either.

I think the peace testimony actually covers up a lot of problems within our peace churches. It is easy to call oneself a Quaker, a Mennonite, a radical, an anarchist, whatever your handle, and say we adhere to peace. But what does that really mean? That we preach sermons on peace? Or go to protests and hold signs? That we have anti-war stickers on our $1000 computers made in terrible working conditions or on expensive cars made from rare materials stolen from mother earth and by the hands of those who we disregard? That we continue to talk about how Bush was wrong, or all the problems with wars long since past?

In reality, I am more interested in the question: is talking about peace really helpful any more to anyone other than ourselves? We often use “peace” as code language. Under the name of peace we do a whole lot of violence, we tell a whole lot of people we devalue them and the choices or beliefs that they hold. Peace often operates as a cover to hide from the fact that we are in fact not interested at all in the kind of peace that would cost us our positions, our power, our own sense of being right, and our own group belonging.

In what way has our understanding of peace meant to do away with violence actually preserved a war between “us and them,” preserved violence upon others who are different from ourselves?

The more I dwell on this, the more I realize that I am in need of confession. That I have been wrong about the peace testimony. I have been wrong in calling myself a pacifist. Just as much as I have wanted to believe in peace as a way to protect others, I have used it to protect myself from others who might critique my use of power. I have been brazen and arrogant in thinking that somehow I understand the complexities of other’s lives, while at the same time not living a life that reflects the deep love of God.

If we use others to our own end, then we have no right calling ourselves practitioners of nonviolence. If we think that blowing the trumpet horn of peace somehow makes us more right or righteous, or justifies our own “marginalization” and shrinking numbers, then we have duped ourselves and bought into a lie sold by the devil himself.

Any theology that protects our position, that doesn’t expose us to critique and challenge, is violent. We – and yes I – have used the peace testimony against others. We have turned it out like a shield, hoping that it would somehow shelter us from assault, and protect us from the critique we desperately need to hear.

Yoder’s fall is symptomatic of a deeper problem within our current understanding of “peace.” What I am trying to say here is that what often gets labelled as “peace” is nothing more than a middle-class, white supremacist grasping at straws, used to justify our existence, our abuses of power, our disgruntled attitudes, and our inability to play well with others under a noble-sounding cause. How many non-whites do you know who think about, talk about and obsesses over peace the way we do? If we want to have a peace forum, let’s invite a diversity of voices, experiences, classes, and thought around the subject. It’s time to shut down the echo chamber.

This whole thing is not only wrong-headed but just down right dangerous. The fact that many have been hurt, excluded and often attacked by those who claim to be pacifist is an indication that the peace movement is broken, dead, or has lost its integrity.

The world doesn’t need more pacifists, the world doesn’t need more people adhering to the peace testimony, and God knows, the world doesn’t need more stickers claiming that “war is not the answer” – full disclosure, I have one of these stickers on my vehicle too. The world needs people committed to loving their neighbors and loving their enemies. This is a far more challenging call. This has a much sharper prophetic edge. Jesus never suggests his followers become “pacifists.” Jesus embodied the way of nonviolence, a way that is non-abusive, a way that holds the tension of neighbor and enemy, a way that does not call profane what God has called sacred, nor does it create an us vs. them. In other words, it’s nothing like most of our churches and meetings today. Instead, Jesus taught us to see the God of love as the one who calls us all together into a new humanity. Jesus said those who live by the sword die by the sword, which I take as his way of saying that absolute power will kill you no matter what your weapon of choice is – a sharp metal object or beautifully written theology.

We need less violence in this world. We need a lot less male theologians and pastors abusing others. We can start from a place of recognizing that we are all guilty of violence, even and especially when we claim to be practicing peace.

How about we take a break from sermons on peace? How about we take our flags of peace down? How about we stop talking about peace for a while and lay this whole thing to rest? Saying “peace” is cheap, building a community where people are honored for who they are and are welcomed regardless of where they stand on “the issues” would be a far better place to start.

Maybe in letting the thing die something new will be born in its place, something that is truly reflective of the beloved community where brothers and sisters are in mutual participation, where many voices are presented, and where we no longer avoid the hard work of becoming fully human.

God Help Us.

Edited: I want to identify that I was greatly helped in these thoughts by Jamie Pitts and Malinda Berry, two people whose own thinking and work in the peace church world is exemplary.

Flickr image credits – link

32 responses to “When Peace Preserves Violence”

  1. Wess, I am very challenged by your words here. I am not sure if I am thankful or not for them, but I will be chewing on them for sometime. thank you!

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Wess, very powerful. To use Wittgenstein’s distinction, it is time to stop saying peace and to start showing it.

    • Jamie – Thank you for bringing this all up with me and helping me to reflect on it in our conversations. There’s more to come and if you want to guest post you’re welcome to.

  3. You raise a critical point, Wess: non-violence starts in the self, and in our interactions with and perceptions of others. However, I am sticking with peace…perhaps with a bit more self-observation now (thanks to your words). I know of whole countries of ‘non-whites’ (humans) obsessed with peace – with experiencing peace, not talking about it – the countries we bring war to. We participate in these wars by allowing it, by letting our commitment to peace be usurped by something else…the desire for peaceful communities or relationships, etc. I agree with Jesus and John Lennon, and all peaceniks everywhere…all we are saying is give peace a chance.

    • I really appreciate your point here:

      “We participate in these wars by allowing it, by letting our commitment to peace be usurped by something else…the desire for peaceful communities or relationships, etc.”

      I just wonder if for those of us in the West if we need to take a break from talking about it, even giving it a chance, and instead focus on finding the places where we have avoiding the real work necessary to embody peace.

      Thanks for bringing up a different perspective.

  4. Just discovered your blog today when a friend pointed me to this post. I’m glad to have arrived here, and as one who has carried that pacifist mantle proudly as well, I’m also challenged by your words here. In general, I’m much more likely to try to redeem or movement, rather than abandon it all together, but I get it. What can we learn from those who have come to peace traditions because they have been drawn into a radical new posture that makes a difference in their communities and their day-to-day lives? A lot, I would think. It’s too easy to rest on “peace church credentials” for those of us who grew up in these traditions and were educated in them. Living these things out is a lot harder, and often way more complicated. Thanks for the food for thought…

    • Hannah – thanks for your comment. My feeling is very close to yours in this. But rather than a recovery, I am thinking more a long the lines of a “faithful betrayal,” hoping that by abandoning all of this talk about peace that something new, something truly nonviolent, egalitarian, flat, etc. might arise in its place. Robin Mohr wrote a post awhile back that gets at the broader perspective of what we’re suggesting here. http://robinmsf.blogspot.com/2011/02/faithful-betrayal.html

  5. There aren’t a lot of non-whites in American peace forums because they’re out doing the work of peace. Peek into any non-profit in a heavily diverse community, and the majority of people at the phones, doing the outreach, working with the marginalized, are non-whites. They don’t go to peace forums because they’re either too busy, prefer to be with their families and immediate community when they aren’t working, or don’t feel comfortable being the token fill-in-the-blank-American of the group. So, what does a white person who wants to hear/see the other perspective do? Go out and work or volunteer in their organizations, rather than “invite” the others into the white peace organization. One pacifist (and largely, in the US, white) example is Mennonite Central Committee. MCC makes a point to not start churches or organizations in the areas it brings workers. Instead, they work with organizations/religious institutions already in place.

    It is important to ponder and discuss the dangers of the peace shield, but it is too easy to think and talk and not just jump in and work with imperfect institutions. That is where you start. Talk while working.

  6. This is great Wess, thank you for your faithfulness in bringing this message up!

    I think this might be deeply related to the core of Quakerism and reminded me of this conversation about God ignoring people in their fasting and prayer:

    What God looks for in answering prayers “to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked clothe them, and never hide yourself from your own kin? Then shall your light blaze forth like the dawn and your wounds shall quickly heal; your Righteous One will walk before you, the Presence of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will can, and the Lord will answer; when your cry, God will say: Here I am. If you remove the chains of oppression, the menacing hand, the malicious word; if you make sacrifices for the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted; then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your night will be bright as noon; the Lord will guide you always; He will slake your thirst in drought, and renew your body’s strength; you shall be like a watered garden, like an unfailing spring.” Isaiah 58.1 – 14

    In being responsive to our love of other people we are placed on this path where we are moving toward the wholeness of God. (or something like that – not sure about the right words…) What do you think?

    • Shannon – What a powerful passage of scripture. Thank you for bringing this into this this context. And yes, *doing* this is what moves us towards wholeness.

    • Susan – yes! Sometimes we need to ask new questions. Especially when the old questions keep giving us the same results.

  7. Exactly what I needed this morning. I stopped attending Mennonite churches over a year ago and have located myself among brothers and sisters of the African Methodist Episcopal tradition. There are theological tensions there–no doubt. There is an American flag in the sanctuary. Many of our members have been in the military, have children in the military and encourage our youth to become part of the military, albeit as a way out of economic and social oppression and of gaining dignity in a country that routinely belittles the contributions of black and brown people. And yet, peace is yearned for, worked at, sought out, and practiced like I have not experienced in almost a decade. Shades of Anabaptism are present in that community in a way that routinely delights me. I am so very glad that I took the risk of joining a worshiping community that not only energizes me as a woman of color, but that also humbles my distorted, myopic narrative that somehow “the Mennonites” have got it. I have not wrestled with issues of racism, classism, sexism, and other systemic and interpersonal sins in as embodied of a way as I have in this community. What we believe on paper does not line up all the time–and I don’t downplay that. I think theological distinctions are crucial and I want to raise those as I become more connected. And yet, in the day-to-day, St James is more positioned to deal concretely with the tough stuff than the vast majority of the comfortable, middle-class, cloistered, homogenous Mennonite communities I have been in. Peace churches have a to learn about peacemaking and justice doing, and our teachers may come from surprising sources. Are we ready to open up to them?

    • Nekeisha – Thank you for your comment. I love the tension you draw here. This is exactly what I am trying to get at. Our churches should be able to hold these tensions and work together to listen to Christ’s leadership. I am a part of a meeting where we have people on different places around these issues you bring up and I think it makes us a more enriched community when we allow these things to be part of who we are rather than “drawing lines in the sand.” It is more challenging work, as you mentioned, but I trust it is good work to be done.

      Thanks for living into this and sharing it with us.

  8. I’m quite sure I don’t understand this, but what I’ve been reading here looks like: ~ ‘John Yoder did some sort of sexual misconduct; therefore we shouldn’t object to people joining in organized industrial-scale state violence.Such violence is not evil, wrong, innately contradictory to Christianity and everything Jesus stood and died for — In fact it has been quite snooty and rude of us to have been saying so all these years when we should rather have been sharing and encouraging the delusions that make people join teams to kill one another for allegedly good and noble reasons.’

    Just what sort of a bandwagon is this and why doesn’t everyone just get off?

    • Actually – here’s closer to what I’m trying to say:

      “If we are not tasting the fullness of now, we will play the games of power to fill the emptiness. If we’re playing the domination game, we can be as trapped on the left as on the right. Our great disillusionment with so much of even contemporary progressive thinking is that it is still playing the power game. It’s playing it on the left side, the liberal side, but the game’s the same. Even while being politically correct, we are still looking for control and righteousness. That demon has never been exorcised. Freshness and creativity will not come from there. Such false “enlightenment” is either all in the head or is mere counterdependency on that which it opposes” (Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs, 57).

      • So a fairer version of your position might run somewhat like this:
        ~’We are all damaged human beings and relate to one another in dyscommunicative ways; and our efforts to make peace in the world reflect this, and suffer from it’


        Okay. Sounds like the world I know; what’s new? I mean, there are issues to be addressed and these involve things like people being torn to bloody pieces by high explosives — not by “terrorists” but by minions of a government that most of our nice neighbors consider good, reasonable and necessary. Not some lonesome preacher thinking he’s found love with people who just find him weird & scary. That’s tragic; it’s not something that routinely kills & maims people who never heard of the guy.

        People imagine that we’re different from one another; and that makes them willing to form ‘virtual Quaker lynch mobs’ over sexual misunderstandings, or to engage in armed violence against each other for reasons not much better. We may not be different (in our deepest essence) from anyone else — but we ought to be able to recognize each other as fellow crazy poorsouls, in need of mutual forbearance, not harsh condemnations — not even of ourselves.

  9. thanks, Wess – the part I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is “How can I become more aware of my own blind spots?”
    and my day-to-day spiritual discipline is trying to stay calm and really listen to those with whom I disagree. Very challenging.

  10. Powerfully said. I have a lot of issue when people claim pacifism and then neglect how their everyday actions cause so much (often unseen) violence. I loved how you summed up Jesus’ views. Thank you for posting this!

  11. From today’s Sojourners Voice and Verse:

    “We can say ‘Peace on Earth.’ We can sing about it, preach about it, or pray about it, but if we have not internalized the mythology to make it happen inside us, then it will not be.” -Betty Shabazz