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Global Anabaptist: World War I and the global church

9.1. 2014 Written By: John D. Roth 32 Times read

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

Late in the morning of June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian nationalist standing in a crowd in Sarajevo, Bosnia, drew a pistol and fired two shots into a passing motorcade, killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife, Sophia.

Although it seemed at the time to be a matter of only local significance, the event triggered a rapid sequence of escalating diplomatic reactions. Within a few short weeks, all of Europe’s major powers had declared war

Although it seemed at the time to be a matter of only local significance, the event triggered a rapid sequence of escalating diplomatic reactions. Within a few short weeks, all of Europe’s major powers had declared war

The devastation that followed defies the imagination. By the end of 1914, the Austro-Hungarian army had already suffered more than 1.27 million casualties, the French around a million, with some 800,000 Germans killed or wounded. When hostilities finally ceased in 1918, trench warfare, machine guns and mustard gas had become household words, a whole generation of young men had disappeared, and millions of civilians struggled to restore order and meaning to their disrupted lives.

Although the global church today may seem far removed from the events that unfolded in Europe 100 years ago, the aftershocks of the First World War can still be felt, and the lessons of that traumatic conflict are still worth pondering.

1. The world is deeply interconnected. As most historians now acknowledge, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was not the cause of the First World War, only the spark that set other events in motion. Long before June 28, 1914, the empires of Europe had been engaged in a frantic competition to extend their power and influence around the world. So when a relatively minor crisis emerged, the response of one nation inevitably affected the others—and, ultimately, the world. Since then, the webs of global interdependence have become even thicker. Today, isolation is not an option. The pressing question is how we will manage our interconnectedness.

2. Be cautious about the claims of nationalism. In retrospect, World War I seems inevitable in part because so many ordinary people in 1914 were wildly enthusiastic about the war, regarding it as an opportunity to demonstrate the virtues of duty and honor on behalf of the Fatherland. By the end of the war—following the death of 16 million people—those patriotic sentiments sounded hollow.

3. Group identity is not simple. The collapse of the Hapsburg, German and Russian empires following the war gave rise to new questions regarding political identity. President Wilson’s principle of “self determination” sounded positive, but it did not clarify what the basis for new groups would be: language? ethnicity? religion? cultural memory? abstract ideals? The violent events in the century since then—in the Balkans, parts of Africa, the former Soviet Union, Iraq and Israel/Palestine—are all legacies of these unresolved questions.

4. The costs of war extend far beyond the battlefield. World War I made it clear that the war did not end when the fighting stopped and the dead were buried. Veterans with missing limbs and lingering trauma of shell shock (what we know today as PTSD) were visible reminders of the ongoing costs of war. The grief of widows and orphans and the loss of irreplaceable cultural treasures were less visible but no less real.

Next summer, as centennial observances of World War I continue, thousands of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ believers from around the world will gather in Harrisburg, Pa., to celebrate the 16th assembly of Mennonite World Conference (MWC).

That gathering of 103 member churches is a visible witness to the fact that we are indeed interconnected—we cannot live in isolation from each other. But our connection to each other is based on love, trust and mutual regard, not on a quest for dominance.
Like Mennonite Church USA, most MWC members are national churches. But we gather as brothers and sisters in the family of Christ, not to defend or promote our countries.

The identity of the global Anabaptist-Menno­nite church is not always clear. Differences of belief, practice and worship styles reveal tensions between our groups and within our churches. Ultimately, however, identity is not something we create. It is a gift of our shared life in Christ, incarnated in visible ways in the world.

Finally, at our gathering next summer, we will bring with us the lingering pain and brokenness of our past. We have much to lament. But the MWC assembly also has the potential to heal wounds, restore strength to withered limbs and give new life to the spiritually dead or wounded.

As we remember the beginnings of the First World War, let us also recall that the body of Christ bears witness to a different reality.

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. This column appeared in the October print issue of The Mennonite.

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