Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a seven-part series by the presidents of Mennonite Church USA colleges and seminaries. From March to June […]
Though the fig tree may not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength.—Habbakuk 3:17-19a
On Oct. 29, 2014, only six months after the radical insurgent group Boko Haram abducted some 200 schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria, the same group attacked the headquarters of the Ekklesiay Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), forcing the church’s staff and Bible college students to flee for their lives.
During the past year, at least 3,038 EYN members have been killed, 96,000 forced from their homes as refugees, and at least 18 of the 50 EYN church districts have been closed altogether, with another 19 districts directly impacted by the violence.
As I read the weekly updates on the Church of the Brethren websites, I feel both outraged and helpless. Nearly as many EYN members have suffered violent deaths in recent months as the total number of Anabaptist martyrs in the entire 16th and 17th centuries. Do people care about the devastating persecution that these brothers and sisters in the faith are undergoing? And even if we did take notice, what, exactly, should we do in response?
Mennonites in North America have been largely shielded from the raw violence unleashed in the world today—for most of us, mass suffering remains as distant and impersonal as the U.S. drones flying silently above the Pakistani and Iraqi borders.
We are war weary, numbed by the all-too-familiar images of beheadings in Syria, civil tensions in the Ukraine, suicide bombs in Afghanistan or Israel, student massacres in Mexico and funeral processions in Palestine.
In the face of overwhelming suffering, I confess that sometimes it seems like ignorance is the better option—if we don’t know what is happening, perhaps we wouldn’t feel so helpless.
But deep down, I know better. I have been inspired by three small expressions of resistance and hope, all of them anchored in the Psalmist’s conviction that ultimately God is indeed the Lord of history.
1. For more than a decade, a small group of Christians has gathered at noon every Wednesday outside the courthouse in my hometown of Goshen, Ind., in a public lament for the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. They sing a few hymns, pray for the victims of violence and remind our community that the suffering of these people—soldiers and civilians alike—matters to God and should matter to us.
2. Then, in late November 2014, the student-led hymn club at Goshen College organized a hymn marathon, resolving to sing every verse of every song in Hymnal: A Worship Book. Leaders of the initiative invited participants to regard their singing as a prayer for peace in the world, and they encouraged supporters to contribute funds to support Christian Peacemaker Teams. As I participated in that circle of song, gathered around a flickering candle, I was overwhelmed with a renewed sense of God’s love and providence and presence, in all places and for all God’s children.
3. Finally, last fall, a group of teachers at the Bienenberg Mennonite Theological Seminary in Liestal, Switzerland, issued a statement, only a few pages long, called “Using Violence Against Violence? A Peace Church Perspective.” The statement openly named the sense of powerlessness they felt in light of the recent terror in Iraq and Syria.
And it recognized the standard objections that people have raised against Christian pacifism. But then in simple, nondefensive language, the teachers at Bienenberg restated their commitment to the gospel of peace.
Their language was deeply biblical, humble in tone and modest about any claims that the gospel of peace would guarantee a certain outcome. But it was unmistakably clear in their conviction that the resurrection—not enmity, fear or death—will have the last word, that God’s love “will make everything whole.”
I confess that I do not fully understand what all this means when I read the morning headlines. But I am committed to naming the suffering I see in the world, to voicing my lament, to singing songs of praise and petition, and to embracing the deep mystery that God’s love is stronger than fear and that life in the resurrection is stronger than death.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.
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