Illustration of man reaching his hand out to another man with his arms crossed


Quiet No Longer

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Lisa Schirch

In the early 1500s, Mennonites were fiery preachers who openly defied both political and religious powers in European city-states by rejecting infant baptism and arguing for the separation of church and state and adherence to nonviolence in all relationships. They were activists, publicly opposing the government’s control over religious matters and proclaiming a new vision for the Christian faith and church-state relations. They were anything but quiet and passive. Within a few decades, persecution and repression by governments and other religious groups wrought so many traumas on early Mennonites that they retreated from all open conflict with the state. They became the “quiet in the land,” and most remain so to this day.

“Chosen traumas” and “chosen glories” are significant defining events in history that get remembered and passed on through narratives from generation to generation, according to the conflict psychiatrist Vamik Volkan. Chosen traumas and glories become the heart and soul of the people, part of the very core of their identity. Mennonites preserved their stories of torture, imprisonment, and death for their beliefs during the Protestant Reformation in a book called The Martyrs Mirror. The book also contains images and stories of Mennonite chosen glories: martyrs giving up their lives, loving their enemies, and taking great risks to practice their faith. These stories and wood-engraved pictures are carved into the theological imagination and core identity of many Mennonites.

These chosen traumas and glories continue to shape Mennonite theology and peace-building practice 500 years later. Trauma expert Carolyn Yoder writes that the collective historic trauma experienced by Mennonites is reflected in the retreat from state and public life, and a focus on an inner life, individual salvation, and community harmony. Mennonites continued to set themselves apart from secular society and its focus on consumerism, through a lifestyle commitment to “simple living.” Mennonites carried their

chosen traumas and glories with them into the New World. Safe from religious persecution, Mennonites set up their own communities and prospered. Now, within the Mennonite Church there is a wide diversity of religious practice, from those who do not own cars or use electricity to progressive members who can be de-scribed as mainstream Americans.

Many Mennonites here in the United States still follow a “two kingdom” theology, which dichotomizes the state kingdom and the “kingdom of believers.” In North America, Mennonite pacifism and a theology of nonresistance has often been interpreted as “passive-ism,” or being “the quiet in the land.” Today, there are increasing contradictions between Mennonite peace theology and progressive North American Mennonite lifestyles.

Progressive Mennonites in the pews pray and sing songs about peace and ending the war in Iraq. Yet many of these Mennonites seem to have all but abandoned the historic commitment to simple living and have instead embraced mainstream consumerism. This creates a tension with the theological belief in separation from the state, as the consumer-based lifestyle is supported by a variety of public policies governing trade relations with other countries supplying cheap goods and by military policies defending United States economic interests abroad.

Many Mennonites might be more like ostriches with heads in the sand, or chickens in a well-guarded cage, than peace-loving doves. The silence of the quiet in the land now may have more to do with the economic gain some Mennonites reap from current public policies. While many Mennonites articulate a belief in pacifism that rejects violence, progressive North American Mennonites have a more difficult time discussing the contradictions of how they benefit from cheap oil and other foreign resources, yet reject the wars that, at least in part, help to defend their access to and freedom to engage in a consumer-based lifestyle.

Mennonite efforts at building peace in the world similarly illustrate contradictions that grow out of the same dynamic mix of historic trauma, two-kingdom theology, and isolation from the state. While Mennonites have a small staff working in Washington, D.C., on policy issues, the vast majority of Mennonite peace efforts are aimed at the community level through economic development, providing education and health care, leadership training, and reconciliation efforts. Mennonite peace-building efforts in community development, reconciliation, dialogue, and victim-offender mediation began as theological experiments in putting faith into practice. Mennonites have a history of bringing Christians and Muslims, Tutsis and Hutus, and countless other groups together to find creative ways out of their conflicts. These grassroots efforts around the world have made a significant impact, resulting in widespread institutionalization of peace-building organizations and academic programs.

Peace building requires efforts at all levels of society and in all sectors of society to prevent, reduce, and transform all forms of violence. At its heart, peace building is about building relationships across the lines of conflict. Yet Mennonite peace building has avoided building relationships with state or military actors, and some exhibit a profound skepticism that trans-formation of the state is possible. While encouraging groups in conflict to dialogue with each other and transform their relationship, Mennonites have not practiced this discipline with their historic enemy, the state. There is continuing reluctance within the Mennonite community to influence the state, particularly the U.S. government and military. One colleague notes that U.S. Mennonites embrace a theology of despair when it comes to contemplating how they can influence U.S. foreign policy. Mennonites in the southern hemispheres challenge U.S. Mennonites, claiming this despair is a luxury in a world where impoverished people find ways of hoping and working for social and political change.

Mennonites have put more emphasis on being faithfully innocent as doves and less effort in being strategic or effective in their peace-building practice.

The theologian Walter Wink articulates how Christians should be involved in “re-deeming the powers”—where people of faith work actively to change public policies. Matthew 10:16 reads, “Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” In practice, Mennonites have put more emphasis on being faithfully innocent as doves and less effort in being strategic or effective in their peace-building practice. There is a preference for standing outside the Pentagon and resisting current foreign policies in the Middle East, for example, than for entering into relationships with people inside the U.S. security system. There is a strong concern that building relationships with people in state institutions is more likely to lead to the co-optation or corruption of Mennonite pacifist purity than it is to the transformation of these systems.

As my peace-building practice has come to focus almost exclusively on translating grassroots Mennonite peace-building experiences into the U.S. state security policymaking community, I have felt increasing pressure from Mennonite theologians to be more explicit about my theological commitments to our historic two-kingdom theology. Mennonite peace-building practitioners like myself want to discuss more practical dilemmas: Do we work in contexts like Iraq at all? Should we accept armed guards when working in Iraq? Do we work with the Department of Defense as it shapes its new peace-building strategies?

While most Americans continue to think of Mennonites as quiet, quaint pacifists who are against war and military spending, few would think of Mennonite peace building as being relevant to today’s security crises of terrorism, the spread of nuclear weapons, or the threat of climate change. Yet there is increasing consensus in Washington that current security strategies are not working. What should replace them?

Mennonite peace-building experiences have much to offer security policy discussions. Just as Jesus co-opted the use of the term “kingdom” in his time, so too can people of faith today use the term “security” and redefine it using the language of peace building. Peace-building efforts, such as offering micro-credit loans and reconciling enemies through dialogue, help people prevent violence and build security from the ground up. In an age of global warming, insecurity, and globalization, Mennonite “simple living” lifestyles are also a vital element of global security. We can positively impact our relationships with the environment and our global neighbors by buying food and clothing made closer to home and fostering greater awareness of how our consumption patterns impact others.

Today, as the United Nations and government agencies around the world are beginning to develop their own “peace-building” programs, the term “peace building” itself connects Mennonite faith-based efforts to secular security discussions. Building relationships with people in the military and government could signal a return to early Mennonites’ efforts to deal with authorities at the beginning of the Reformation. While leaders then had little room to press for democratic dialogue and change, Mennonites today have much broader access to democratic forums. Building relationships between peace-building practitioners and U.S. policymakers is precisely within the tradition of a pacifism that emphasizes love of enemies.

Perhaps we’ll discover all that it might mean to be wise as serpents as we interact with state actors and as we live out a faith that has clung more tightly to being innocent as doves. Perhaps this church-state engagement—of engaging national security policymakers—could be our new “chosen glory.” Perhaps we’ll discover the redemption possible in reconciled relation-ships that we preach to others around the world. And maybe we can redefine what it means to be the quiet in the land: for peace building is almost always best done in quiet ways, gently building relationships and let-ting others take the credit for the successes of reconciliation and change.

Lisa Schirch is a professor of peace building and program director of the 3d Security Initiative ( at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. This essay is adapted from her presentation at the CSWR’s “Visions of Peace and Reconciliation in Religious Traditions” conference.

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