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From Nonresistance to Justice: The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric, 1908-2008.

From Nonresistance to Justice: The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric, 1908-2008. By Ervin R. Stutzman. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press. 2011. Pp. 424. $39.99, U.S.; $45.99, Can.

Front Nonresistance to justice opens with a memorable boyhood story of the author, Krvin Stutzman, working alongside his grandfather to clear brush from a wooded shelterbelt around the family house. When the dead branches had been chopped up and fed to make a blazing tire, Stutzman's grandfather turned to him, axe in hand. "This axe once belonged to my grandfather," he said. "He passed it down to my father, who passed it down to me. It's gotten hard use. The handle had to be replaced twice. I think they replaced the head on it too" (11). Stutzman came to realize that his grandfather was "a steward of that axe," so that the axe might continue to be passed from one generation to the next. Stutzman tells the story in the same earnest voice with which he also makes plain why this long-ago day with his grandfather holds fast in his memory: it reminds him of the many ways in which the Mennonite Church is also a steward. With this volume, he ensures a deeper appreciation for one of the enduring convictions of the church, "the rich legacy of peace given to us as a gift from our Anabaptist/Mennonite forebears" (12).

At the heart of Stutzman's story is the profound transformation of the peace doctrine and practice in the branch of the Mennonite Church with Swiss-German historical roots. Though the book does include ample references to General Conference Mennonites, he focuses on the "Old" Mennonite Church in part because that branch was the larger of the two and produced more peace-related material. In examining peace rhetoric from 1908 to 2008, Stutzman draws heavily on corporate resolutions and other formal church statements, supplemented by index terms, articles, letters, and editorials in the church press. In the early years, he notes, the doctrines of nonconformity and nonresistance held sway in the life of church communities. Stutzman uncovers a significant shift in official statements over time, from advocating nonresistance to embracing peace and justice. The texts reveal a church that moved steadily toward political engagement, increasingly willing to confront the state and to recommend specific policies and actions.

The editor and church leader Daniel Kauffman figures prominently in the early going. The Gospel Herald offered an influential platform for Kauffman, who saw himself as "an 'aggresso-conservative' with a mandate to keep modernism from putting down roots in the Mennonite Church" (51). Stutzman deftly applies understatement, as when he quotes Kauffman reflecting on church values during World War I. Kauffman wrrote: "A cannon shot or shell explosion is heard but a few miles distant; but a silent prayer is heard before the Throne millions of billions of vigintillions of miles beyond the most distant star." And then Stutzman noted: "Kauffman was not averse to the use of hyperbole to make a point" (59). Delegates from the church adopted a confession of faith in 1921 (in effect updating the Dordrecht Confession of 1632) "in order to safeguard our people from the inroads of false doctrines which assail the Word of God and threaten the foundation of our faith" (63). While Mennonites provided famine relief in the Ukraine through the new Mennonite Central Committee in the 1920s, the church was more intent on preserving boundaries from the world than applying peace principles in visionary ways. To many church members, nonresistance served as a reminder of what not to do rather than as an invitation to take positive action. But in the decades that followed, the church found a different voice and pair of hands through which to express its peace convictions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, church rhetoric became especially heated in the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War roiled the nation. John Drescher assumed the editorship of Gospel Herald in 1962, prepared to beard the lions of Washington. He challenged the nation's evangelist, Billy Graham, when Drescher believed that Graham's visit to Vietnam suggested that the American side enjoyed God's blessing. Stutzman points out that an editorial critical of President Richard Nixon drew a record number of letters to the editor (i.e., Drescher). Peacemaking was replacing nonresistance, signaling a new kind of social engagement. A study series from Mennonite Publishing House challenged church members to get with the times: "Ask someone in your congregation what peace means. Ask yourself. You will likely get a string of non answers--like noninvolvement, nonparticipation, nonresistance.... We must get the wall-breaking action-oriented word for peace into our vocabularies and into our blood" (165).

From Nonresistance to justice will make a valuable addition in libraries across the church and provide an essential resource tor historians and others with an academic bent. The casual reader may find the reading heavy going. A book that emerges from stacks of corporate resolutions and other written documents is on serious ground. Stutzman passed up some opportunities to develop stories alongside the arc of rhetorical analysis. For example, when he traces the church's engagement with race relations, he refers to a declaration by delegates in 1955 (hat racial prejudice and discrimination are a 'Violation of the basic moral law which requires a redemptive attitude of love and reconciliation toward all men" (HI). Stutzman could have engaged the reader at a different level by describing with rich imagery the stirrings of the civil rights movement at the time, and the actions of church leaders apart from conference sessions.

The book is gracefully, if formally, written. The editors might have reconsidered the heavy use of abbreviations in the text. Full or partial names of church bodies could have been put to better use. For example, even armed with a two-page list of abbreviations in the front of the book, readers may get lost in this account of the Peace Problems Committee: "For decades, the PPC and MCC worked closely together to encourage and shape peacemaking convictions in the MC Church, the PPC worked as a committee of the MGC, highlighting vital concerns regarding peace and nonresistance" (63). The list of abbreviations contains one of the few errors spotted in the book: MGC stands for Mennonite General Conference, "the name of the church begun in 1998, later called Mennonite Church, generally abbreviated here as MC Church" (29). The first chapter makes clear that the Mennonite General Conference emerged 100 years earlier. Photos provide an important supplement to the text, though not always with requisite details. For example, a photo of six people who attended all Puidoux theological conferences includes all their names, but without any identification. The index is no help in tracking down some of the six, such as Colin Fawcett and Jean Lasserre.

The research that underlay this study of Mennonite Church rhetoric was clearly a labor of love, carried out over many years. The study is grounded in doctoral research completed in 1993 at Temple University; in 2008, Stutzman, as a dean, pressed forward with the manuscript during a summer sabbatical at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. To be sure, he speaks with authority in a scholar's voice, as when he explains how rhetorical analysis takes a measure of the arguments and counterarguments that shape a denomination on the macro-scale. But Stutzman also speaks as one who is deeply committed to the church in the most personal of ways, having served as an ordained minister, evangelist, bishop, denominational moderator, district overseer, seminary dean. In 2010, he became executive director of Mennonite Church USA. One hears the voice of Stutzman as a denominational leader when he writes: "I love Mennonite Church USA and desire for her to be faithful as a steward of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a keeper of the Anabaptist legacy of peace" (13).

In the final chapter, Stutzman turns from description to prescription, as he weighs "the next frontier in corporate peacemaking" (281). He reminds readers that Mennonites have long paired peacemaking with other ideas. Early in the twentieth century, peacemaking stood alongside the twins nonviolence and nonconformity; in time, peace and justice replaced them. Stutzman proposes that the church now embrace triplets instead of twins: grace, peace, and justice. He writes: "Grace must be considered an equally valued member of the family as the siblings named Peace and Justice" (281). The language of grace and of the cross of Christ should remind Mennonites that they do not possess a special "peace know-how" to leaven the world on their own. Grace, which keeps God in the foreground, figured prominently at the most recent Mennonite Church USA convention, Pittsburgh 2011, when delegates agreed to forgo voting on formal resolutions in favor of extended conversation and discernment. In looking ahead to the next convention in Phoenix in 2013 one wonders whether the church will return, as it so often has, to issuing corporate resolutions from the debate floor. However the delegates decide, as executive director of the church, Stutzman can be expected to advocate for a process that conveys a sense of God's action, a gracious tone, and a recognition of "our own shortcomings" (297).

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Author:Stoltzfus, Duane C.S.
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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