October 1999 Beck

October 1999

The Politics of Rudy Wiebe in The Blue Mountains of


Abstract: Although Rudy Wiebe’s novel The
Blue Mountains of China was published in 1970, two years before John
Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, the novel reflects many elements
of Yoder’s political ethics. The influence of Yoder upon Wiebe was direct,
both through Yoder’s essay “The Original Revolution” and through the friendship
that developed between the two men from 1963 to 1967, when Wiebe taught
at Goshen College. John Reimer-who bears traits of both Yoder and Wiebe-is
the main voice for Yoderian ideas in the novel and, indeed, was created
as a unifying device by Wiebe as his direct response to “The Original
Revolution.” This essay discusses four concerns of Yoder that are also
present in Wiebe’s novel: the nature of the church, strategy and revelation,
effectiveness and faithfulness, and the outcome of history.

From 1963 to 1967 a friendship
developed between novelist Rudy Wiebe and theologian John Howard Yoder,
when Wiebe taught English at Goshen College and Yoder taught at the Associated
Mennonite Biblical Seminaries and worked for the Mennonite Board of Missions,
both in Elkhart, Indiana. After Wiebe moved back to Canada, their friendship
was nurtured mainly by correspondence that continued until just before
Yoder’s death in 1997.[1]

One important consequence of their friendship was that
Yoder’s thinking on Christian pacifist ethics-as now embodied in his The
Politics of Jesus (1972, 1994)[2]-deeply
influenced Wiebe’s third, and possibly best, novel The Blue Mountains
of China (1970).[3]
In fact, some of Yoder’s ideas apparently gave Wiebe the unifying vision
he needed in order to transform a set of discrete stories about Russian
Mennonite history into a more or less coherent, albeit modernist, novel.
Hence, The Blue Mountains of China represents the remarkable coming
together of the work of the most important twentieth-century Mennonite
theologian and the most important twentieth-century Mennonite literary
artist. At the end of the century, and especially with the recent death
of Yoder, it is time to understand and celebrate that important relationship.[4]


Both The Politics of
Jesus and The Blue Mountains of China are the results of their
authors’ personal struggles to come to terms with the challenge that World
War II posed for Mennonite nonresistance.

Yoder was director of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)
work in France from 1949 to 1955, beginning when he was only 21 years
old. His work with orphans in France familiarized him with the possibility
of service and relief work as a nonresistant strategy, but his later involvement
in Algeria (1954-57), which began with relief work following an earthquake,
also exposed him to the Algerians’ armed struggle for liberation from
French colonial control. In the midst of his MCC work, as early as 1952,
Yoder criticized the complacency of the postwar Mennonite Church in his
deliberately provocative essay, “The Cooking of the Anabaptist Goose.”[5]
The Politics of Jesus has a clearer origin in the paper he presented
at the second Puidoux conference in 1957, where he first considered the
need for, and implications of, a more active Christian involvement in
political issues.[6]
The challenge was refined for him in the summer of 1966 during his lecture
tour of South America and again in 1970-71, when he was a guest lecturer
and researcher at the evangelical seminary in Buenos Aires and the Mennonite
Seminary in Montevideo, in the midst of the nascent Latin-American liberation
theology movement. “The Original Revolution,”[7]
based on a sermon he first preached at the Iglesia Metodista Central in
Buenos Aires in 1966,[8]
calls for Christians to become involved in liberating activities while
remaining faithful to a Jesus-like nonresistance.

While Wiebe was less exposed than Yoder to World War
II-Wiebe was only six years old when it began and eleven when it ended-his
engagement with the issues it presented for faithful Mennonites was intense
and personal, although on a more imaginative level. For his master’s degree
in creative writing from the University of Edmonton he wrote, over a nine-month
period, the novel that was to be published in 1962 as Peace Shall Destroy
Its title invokes the theme of war and peace that infuses the book and
that has as its dramatic focus the main character Thom, who will be subject
to conscription for World War II in a month’s time when he turns 18. Thom’s
well-intentioned Christian anguish over which option to choose-alternate
civilian service, like Cornie Lepp; noncombatant service in the armed
forces, like Joseph Dueck; military service, like Hank Unger; or missionary
work, like David Wiens-remains unresolved at the end of the novel. Throughout
the novel, Thom has been most influenced by Joseph Dueck, yet his last
overt statement is that he will join the army. Although he makes that
declaration in an emotional outburst during a crisis moment (220), which
renders it suspect in projecting his future beyond the book, it may be
Wiebe’s way of forcing upon his reading audience the issue of taking greater
responsibility in the world than either Thom’s closed community or Wiebe’s
own Mennonite Brethren were then prepared to do. “There must be a better
way!” the novel implies.

That issue was sharpened more for Wiebe when he moved
to Goshen, Indiana from Canada in 1963, following the furor in his Mennonite
Brethren constituency over Peace Shall Destroy Many that led him
to resign as editor of The Mennonite Brethren Herald. At Goshen
Wiebe was surrounded by colleagues in the college and the seminary who
vigorously debated the proper Christian pacifist response to the escalating
war in Vietnam and who also were increasingly attracted to liberation
theology, especially as it had affected Mennonite intellectuals, relief
workers and missionaries in Latin America. In 1966, when Wiebe spent August
24 to December 22 in Paraguay doing further research for The Blue Mountains
of China among Russian Mennonites, he also became sensitized to the
political oppression found elsewhere in Latin America.

For instance, in a sermon, “Jesus Christ, Revolutionary,”
which he preached several times in 1967 and 1968,[10]
Wiebe said that when he deplaned in Quito, Ecuador he saw “the rev[olution]
still brewing” and knew that over the mountains the Amazonian Indians
were resisting plantation owners and in Bolivia government forces were
seeking out Che Guevara’s army because they knew they had “everything
to lose” if Che’s forces won. Even in the Mennonite colonies the oppressive
hand of totalitarianism disrupted personal lives. A Toba Indian man with
whom he spoke while watching Indians play soccer was, the following week,
arrested because of “communist papers” found in his hut. Later in the
same sermon Wiebe’s political references ranged even farther afield-to
the FLQ in Quebec, the Sioux Indians in the Dakotas, the “Negro situation”
in the U.S. and even the oppression of U.S. workers by their “white cut-throat

With its first eleven chapters devoted to the politically-induced
suffering of Mennonites in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and
its final two chapters concerned with the Canadian centennial and the
Vietnam War, The Blue Mountains of China clearly reflects the conflicts
that dominated Wiebe’s life and thought during 1967-68 when he was writing
the book. If Peace Shall Destroy Many is his World War II book,
then The Blue Mountains of China is his Vietnam War book. But if
Peace Shall Destroy Many ends in a frustrated questioning of what
a Christian pacifist should do in wartime, then The Blue Mountains
of China better articulates an answer, and that answer came, in part,
through the influence upon Wiebe of John Howard Yoder.


Wiebe has not been reticent in acknowledging
the life-changing influence upon him of Yoder and others in the Mennonite
academic community of Goshen and Elkhart, Indiana. In fact, he has been
lavish in praising the people he became acquainted with during those four

In looking back at Peace Shall Destroy Many,
Wiebe has acknowledged that an immature theological orientation hampered
his resolution of the problem of Christian pacifism. In a 1981 interview
by Shirley Neuman with Wiebe and Robert Kroetsch, Wiebe admitted that
when he wrote the novel he was a “fundamentalist Christian in the sense
that my major stories came from a certain kind of fairly narrow understanding
of what the Bible was talking about, which is how I grew up.”[11]

But that orientation was radically changed for Wiebe
at Goshen College, where he acquired:

a wider way of understanding the world-view the Bible
presents to us. That is due-I wouldn’t want to underestimate it-to the
time I was in the United States teaching at a small Mennonite college.
There, for the first time and over an extended period, I encountered .
. . really literate Christians who saw themselves as Jesus’s followers
and at the same time were acquainted with the thoughts of others and had
brought that understanding to bear on what it means to be a Christian.[12]

In particular, he singled out John Howard Yoder as
the greatest influence upon him at that time:

There were the best theologians there . . . the Mennonite
Church has ever had. . . . [John Howard Yoder] is a brilliant thinker;
I think he has influenced my thoughts about what it means to be a Christian
more than almost anything else.[13]

In 1998, following Yoder’s death, he summarized Yoder’s
impact on him in this way:

He was an intellectual: he made the life of Jesus sound
like a believable intellectual construct in an Anabaptist kind of way-not
merely a devotional weight that simply sits more or less mindlessly in
the pit of your stomach, demanding devoted attention from a part of your
awareness that you never ordinarily use in daily living-or that your university
training has presumably tutored you in. Also, oddly, his rigourous thinking
made imagination possible: one could dare to think about Jesus in any
kind of way whatever-including the possibility that he had no more, no
less, relevance than Buddha or Confucius. The mind could explore everything
with him: the answers you got all depended upon how you framed the question.
[Yoder’s] mode of thinking . . . did not exclude the imagination.[14]

Apparently Wiebe’s most intense interactions with Yoder
occurred during the regular meetings of a small-group fellowship to which
both John and Annie Yoder and Rudy and Tena Wiebe belonged. As Wiebe put
it, “The best thing that ever happened to me was the meetings we had every
two or three weeks in one home or another.”[15]
The group also included Alice and Clarence Bauman, Lois and Leonard Smucker,
and Fran and Mel Funk. Bauman-like Wiebe, also a Mennonite Brethren from
Canada-was professor of theology and ethics at Mennonite Biblical Seminary
and a specialist on the Sermon on the Mount. Leonard Smucker and Mel Funk
were counselors at Oaklawn Psychiatric Center in Elkhart; Fran Funk was
a lifeguard at the YMCA and Lois Smucker was a high school teacher and
guidance counselor.[16]

One other colleague at Goshen College who had a particular,
direct influence on Wiebe while he was writing The Blue Mountains of
China was J. R. Burkholder, missionary to Brazil (1954-57), professor
of religion at Goshen College (1963-85) and, with Atlee Beechy, founder
and director of the Peace Studies minor there in the early 1970s. The
Wiebes lived only two houses away from the Burkholders, and the two men
had adjacent offices in the old North Hall on College Avenue across from
the main campus. Both were academics who commiserated in the throes of
writing long, difficult works-Wiebe working on The Blue Mountains of
China and Burkholder on his doctoral dissertation.[17]
Of Burkholder, who today remains a self-confessed “Yoderian,” Wiebe recalls
that “he sometimes lay on his couch in his office across the hall from
mine . . . thinking about what a pacifist could do in the Vietnam escalation.”[18]

As one result of those conversations, Burkholder influenced
Wiebe’s creation of an important character in The Blue Mountains of

I got the idea and wrote “Sam Reimer” [Chapter 12]
then, during that time, from talking to him . . . [Burkholder] seemed
the kind of person, then, who might do such a thing, walk, going apparently


Drawing from Wiebe’s interview with Neuman, W. J. Keith
has identified The Politics of Jesus as a direct influence upon
John Reimer’s sermon-like speech in the last chapter of The Blue Mountains
of China.[20]
Although my thesis also is that the politics of Yoder influenced the politics
of Wiebe-and throughout the book, not merely in the last chapter-the nature
of the influence of one text upon the other is not as literal as one might
assume. After all, Wiebe’s The Blue Mountains of China was accepted
for publication in 1968 and then published in 1970-four and two years
before The Politics of Jesus appeared in 1972. And the only writing
by Yoder that Wiebe had read before completing his novel was a manuscript
version of Yoder’s “The Original Revolution.”[21]

But by 1968-the year Wiebe submitted his novel for
publication-Yoder had written a publisher’s proposal for what would become
The Politics of Jesus. Hence the content of Yoder’s book
was already latent in his mind and, to a great extent, present in shorter
writings, including the three essays mentioned above, as well as a lecture
titled “The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic,” which Yoder gave in April
of 1968.[22]

As we shall see below, the influence of “The Original
Revolution” upon The Blue Mountains of China was direct. However,
the influence on the novel of what later appeared in The Politics of
Jesus was informal and diffuse, apparently derived by Wiebe from conversational
exchange and debate, both with Yoder himself and with other “Yoderians,”
such as J. R. Burkholder, who knew Yoder and were acquainted with other
lectures and writings by him. Since the Yoder-Wiebe friendship and discussions
occurred during Yoder’s own formative thought on Christian pacifist ethics,
one might assume that Wiebe contributed to Yoder’s thought in the same
way that Yoder contributed to Wiebe’s, although that reciprocity cannot
be documented.[23]

The particular influences of “The Original Revolution”
on Wiebe’s novel are both striking and crucial to that novel’s success.
That sermon-essay existed in manuscript form as early as 1966 and circulated
among Mennonites in the Goshen-Elkhart area. Wiebe was directly influenced
by it in writing chapter 13, “On the Way,” and used it more generally
to shape the entire novel.

Wiebe even borrowed lines directly from the text of
Yoder’s sermon-essay for the content and phrasing of the impromptu near-sermon
that John Reimer gives to the Mennonites gathered around him on the Trans-Canadian
Highway. In a cacophany of voices and conversational fragments, it seems
to rise above all of them, hence being addressed to all, although it is
also the reasonable continuation of what he had been saying earlier to
Dennis Willms, the Mennonite millionaire businessman, and his young grandson
Charles, who thinks that a study of economics will best help him understand
the world.

As does Yoder in “The Original Revolution,” John Reimer
grounds his understanding that Jesus came to lead “a revolution for social
justice” (257) in such biblical texts as the Magnificat (OR, 13;
BMOC, 251) and John the Baptist’s “The kingdom of God is within
your grasp, repent and believe the good news” (OR, 31; BMOC,
258). Like Yoder, John gives to “good news” a political meaning (OR,
25; BMOC, 257) and interprets “repentance” to mean “thinking
different,” not feeling bad (OR, 31; BMOC, 258). Most
important, both Reimer and Yoder claim that the Christian church, properly
understood, is the agency for this radical revolution in socio-political
reality (OR, 28; BMOC, 258).

Wiebe quotes almost directly some of Yoder’s articulation
of the “new way of life” to which Jesus called the church. As Yoder put
it, in part:

When He called His society together Jesus gave its
members a new way of life to live. He gave them a new way to deal with
offenders-by forgiving them. He gave them a new way to deal with violence-by
suffering. He gave them a new way to deal with money-by sharing it. He
gave them a new way to deal with problems of leadership-by drawing upon
the gift of every member . . . He gave them a new attitude toward the
state and toward the “enemy nation.” (29)

Wiebe created a kind of free-verse poem, or psalm,
out of four of these parallel statements, added two of his own, and put
them in the climactic position of what we might regard as Reimer’s “Sermon
in the Ditch”:

Jesus says in his society there is a new way for man
to live:

you show wisdom, by trusting people;
you handle leadership, by serving;
you handle offenders, by forgiving;
you handle money, by sharing;
you handle enemies, by loving;
and you handle violence, by suffering.
In fact, you have a new attitude toward everything,
toward everybody. (258)

Reimer’s sermon-the most notorious “purple passage”
in the book-is a bold move by Wiebe that most critics of the novel love
to hate because it makes the book too didactic-in reality, too religiously
didactic-for current taste. The literary offensiveness of Reimer’s sermon
is even increased by Wiebe’s setting up the six parallel phrases in poetic
form, which perhaps calls too much attention to the author behind the
statement. That Wiebe used Yoder’s ideas and wording in taking such a
literary risk is perhaps the most obvious tribute by Wiebe to Yoder in
The Blue Mountains of China.

In addition to this specific influence of “The Original
Revolution” on The Blue Mountains of China, Yoder’s sermon-essay
also had a powerful shaping influence on the entire novel. Rudy Wiebe
was so impressed by “The Original Revolution,” which he was given in manuscript
form by Yoder, that he adapted it for his own lay sermon, “Jesus Christ,
Revolutionary,” mentioned above, which he gave on a number of occasions-first
at his home church, the Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church, Edmonton, Alberta
on Peace Sunday, November 12, 1967; then at Braemar Baptist Church on
Palm Sunday, March 30, 1969; and again, by special request, at Lendrum
M.B. Church on Palm Sunday 1973. Wiebe’s sermon was a rather straightforward
adaptation of the essay by Yoder, to whom Wiebe gave explicit credit in
his public presentation. After summarizing Yoder’s five different attitudes
of the church toward worldly powers, Wiebe used the points made by John
Reimer in his sermon and also, word for word, the six-phrase poem-psalm
that he eventually wrote into Reimer’s speech in the novel. As Wiebe says
about the sermon, “In the conclusions you may find a lot of John Reimer.”[24]

Wiebe developed and first gave that sermon at the time
when he was preparing the Blue Mountains of China manuscript for
publication. In fact, he says that the sermon helped him discover a way
to transform his set of stories of Mennonite history into a “whole book,”[25]-which
must mean that the sermon led to his discovery of a unifying theme, or
sense of purpose, that would give unity to his twelve stories. He subsequently
set out to write the final chapter 13, “On the Way,” with John Reimer
as the central character: “I wrote [On the Way] last of all, after I got
the order of the stories together and saw how, with changes, they could
make a kind of whole book.”[26]

Although I do not have access to Wiebe’s working drafts,[27]
that comment and internal evidence combine to suggest that Wiebe then
returned to earlier stories and added or enhanced John Reimer’s presence
in them. In the final version, John Reimer also appears as a character
in chapter 11, “Wash, This Sand and Ashes,” as an agricultural worker
in the Chaco, where he learned the crucial story of David Epp, Sr. and
his last days (chapter 12), thanks to his encounter with Epp’s wife and
son. In chapter 4, “Black Vulture,” Wiebe also made John Reimer the person
to whom Franz Epp tells the story of the Mennonites’ escape from Moscow.
In addition, John is the brother of Samuel U. Reimer in chapter 11 and
“hears” his story by means of a lengthy letter. By projection, it is even
reasonable to assume that it may be to John Reimer, in Paraguay, that
Frieda Friesen addresses her four-part, first-person narration in chapters
1, 3, 6 and 10. Because Frieda Friesen dominates four chapters and narrates
in a linear fashion her entire life story, readers and critics usually
cite her as the dominant, unifying character in this sprawling, epic novel.
However, if John is present in eight (of thirteen) chapters as suggested
here, then he is a more important unifying element in the structure of
the novel.[28]

Certainly, John Reimer-a kind of after-thought for
Wiebe-supplies the informing consciousness and intelligence for the entire
novel, not only for the materials of the final chapter. He is an intellectual
with a university education, he is a veteran of international relief work,
and he is thoughtful and conscientious about the Bible, his Christian
commitment and Mennonite history. His summing-up sermon is authoritative
both because his is the largest perspective possible (in the novel) on
biblical and Mennonite history, and because he represents Rudy Wiebe as
an author who was, like Reimer, both a researcher in Paraguay and a student
of Christian political ethics. It is probably no accident that the Christian
name of both fictional hero and source theologian is “John.” And it is
even less coincidental that, as John Reimer says, “For Inter-Mennonite
Church Service I was in Algeria four years and then in Paraguay one.”
John Reimer thereby embodies the voice in fiction of both Rudy Wiebe,
whose writing was affected by his visit to Paraguay, and John Howard Yoder,
whose thought was influenced by his work in Algeria.

To consider the influence of John Howard Yoder on Rudy
Wiebe, then, means not to look for direct connections with The Politics
of Jesus as published text but with “the politics of Jesus” known
by Wiebe through more informal means. Nor should we expect to find full,
elaborate or intricate correspondences. The rationalized “system” of any
philosophy or theology gets simplified in literature, overwhelmed by-or
embodied in-art, as it were. In fiction, the image, the person and the
event, in all their fruitful ambiguity, are the imagined elements that
dominate the thought, which is present by indirection and implication,
rather than in a carefully articulated system. With these caveats in mind,
we nevertheless can relish the many ways that Wiebe’s fictional world
interacts with Yoder’s intellectual construct of “the politics of Jesus,”
which theologian A. James Reimer has succinctly encapsulated in this single

The task of the Christian in contemporary culture is
not to run the world, not to make history turn out right, but to live
faithfully within a believing community as a witness in and to the world
of the coming of the Kingdom of God.[29]

For convenience in analysis, I will discuss four separate
but obviously related assumptions of Yoder’s thought that are implied
by Reimer’s summary and that have their fictional manifestations in The
Blue Mountains of China: (1) The church is the channel through which
the Kingdom of God, in its nonviolent, liberating nature, is brought about
in the world; (2) any rationalized peace-making strategy sponsored by
the church must also respond to the revelation and grace of God; (3) the
church must be faithful, not necessarily effective, in its political actions;
(4) God, not humanity, is responsible for the outcome of history.

Admittedly these points are reductive of Yoder’s sophisticated,
nuanced thinking, which continued to be refined far beyond 1968 until
his death in 1997.[30]
But even though they are interdependent and not easily separated out in
Wiebe’s fiction, they nevertheless serve as an illuminating way of discussing
some important parallels and contrasts in The Blue Mountains of China
with Yoder’s thinking. Although the discussion of Yoder’s views will
mainly draw upon “The Original Revolution” and the The Politics of
Jesus, occasionally it will cite later works by Yoder if they seem
to cover what also seems to be latent in his earlier work.


Yoder and Wiebe seem to differ in their understanding
of exactly how the church integrates its convictions with its resources
in bringing justice to the social order, although their differences may
be in degree, not kind. One difference is that Yoder, as thinker, can
emphasize what should be the case, within the providence of God,
whereas Wiebe, as novelist, depicts what is actually the-or a-case
within the fallen world. Also, Yoder addresses the broader, post-Constantinian
Christian church, saying little about Mennonitism as such, except insofar
as he discusses “separatist” Christians’ stance to the world. However,
Wiebe’s fictional world concerns the concrete historical experience of
the Mennonite Church during the very difficult time of the Vietnam War
and in the larger context of its tumultuous history during the previous

In “The Original Revolution” (1966) Yoder asserted
that, in the Christian church, Jesus had introduced into the world not
a new ritual or a new theory of God but “a new peoplehood and a new way
of living together” that constituted a “deep social change” because it
represented a “threat” to the established order. In The Politics of
Jesus (1972) he said that the church’s calling to be “the conscience
and the servant within human society” (158) made it “the primary social
structure through which the gospel works to change other structures” (157).
Because the church will embody a “clearly defined life style distinct
from that of the crowd,” membership in it requires a “sober decision guaranteeing
that the costs of commitment to the fellowship have been consciously accepted”
(27). In “The Biblical Mandate for Evangelical Social Action” (1973) Yoder
added: ” . . . the foremost political action of God is the calling and
creation of his covenant people.”[31]
Although he seldom suggests exactly what the church should do, and how
it should do it, such assertions about the church are the cornerstone
of his political ethics.

“The calling and creation of his covenant people” in
a literal sense appears in The Blue Mountains of China at the very
end, where Jakob 4 Friesen hears the call to faithfulness expressed by
John Reimer, the Christ-figure, in his Sermon in the Ditch and then, without
comment, joins John in his erstwhile solitary “walk of repentance.” Their
association is a trial balloon, as it were, that creates a new kind of
Christian community that joins Reimer’s political protest with Jakob 4’s
personal contrition, and also joins the 1967 Canadian Mennonite reality
of the last two chapters with the historical experiences of Russian Mennonites
from the first eleven chapters.

Of course, a larger, new Mennonite community was created,
momentarily, a few pages earlier, when Reimer, Friesen, Leisel Driedeger
and the Willms extended family experienced a kind of communion service,
dining on potato chips and hot and cold drinks, while conversing in the
ditch. The moment of at-one-ment experienced by them all is characterized
by Wiebe as a gift of grace: “A sudden oneness, like a still lap of heat
on a breezy day, found them in the dust of August grass” (251,
emphasis added).

However, that community is only imperfectly and temporarily
the true church. John’s relationship to it is a prophetic one as he tries
to move each Mennonite to a higher awareness and calling. Building upon
the “resting serenity” that “had enfolded them all” (244), John first
gets Leisel and Dennis Willms to sit on the cross-Dennis “bent down, knowing
he must sit, immediately” (247)-and then John speaks the corrective or
encouraging word that each one needs to hear. He engages young, bored
Irene Willms in a religious discussion (252), questions Charles Willms’
certainty that the study of commerce is all-important (253), criticizes
Dennis Willms’ notion of success (255-56) and tells Leisel Dreideger,
“Hate your life. Just a little bit more” (259). As Wiebe says about the
church in his sermon, “Jesus Christ, Revolutionary”: “No being born into
it. You repent and pledge allegiance to the king. No second generation
members in this society.” Despite his stated belief in “nothing,” only
Jakob 4 Friesen responds to this challenge as he takes up his own cross
in following John Reimer.

Of course, Wiebe’s main criticism of the Mennonite
Church as a peace-promoting institution is found in his depiction of Samuel
U. Reimer’s church-particularly its pastor-when Samuel turns to it for
help in fulfilling his amazing call. Oddly, although the church has all
the trappings of an enlightened urban congregation-educated pastor, library
of writings on current issues, decisions by discernment, support of the
“Inter-Mennonite Church Service Society Peace Section,” which is a thinly
disguised equivalent of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)-the church
is so scorned by Samuel that, in his final exasperation, he tells the
well-meaning pastor, “I think you are the Devil,” and in his final will
Samuel refuses to leave any money to that agency because “that would be
hypocrisy” (215).

The flawed nature of the church’s response to Samuel’s
request is epitomized by the result of the last stage of its discernment
process, in turning to the Peace Section for advice. That court of appeal
“had ruled his plans were too likely to raise derision and suspicion among
both church members and government agencies for the Society to support
him, in any way. But they had enclosed more information on Vietnam Christian
Aid” (203).

On a practical level, the Peace Section condones relief
work-the traditional Mennonite response of charitable mopping up after
the carnage of warfare-but it sanctions no direct “political” action to
stop the warfare. On a more spiritual level, the rationalized attitude
and procedures of Samuel’s church-on both the local and the international
levels-conform in their own way to Yoder’s discussion of Christian churches
that, in subscribing to a “theology of the natural” (his emphasis)
rely on “common sense and the nature of things” and discern what is right
“by studying the realities around us, not by hearing a proclamation of
God” (POJ, 20), as Samuel U. Reimer did.

Samuel’s church thereby illustrates failure in the
very process of group discernment that Yoder claims must be used to lead
a community of faith to proper social action. In his later “The Believers
Church and the Arms Race,” Yoder is explicit about the crucial difference
between individual action and group-discerned action: “To hope and solidarity
let us add the accountability that means that we won’t go off alone. We
must do these things together, with responsibility for one another.”[32]
Saying that he brings no answer as to how the church can help solve the
nuclear arms problem, he adds, “If I thought I knew where to go from here,
I wouldn’t have the right to come and say it, because that wouldn’t have
been believer’s church process. . . . We get answers by working together.”[33]

Without analyzing them in detail, Yoder does point
to two normative moments in history when the people of God overcame political
oppression nonviolently as a consequence of group discernment and, apparently,
divine intervention. They are moments in inter-testamental Jewish history
as recorded by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus (POJ,
90-93). On one occasion, when the Jews wanted Caesar’s effigy removed
from Jerusalem, they spontaneously offered their heads, en masse, to the
Roman authorities, who backed down and removed the effigy. On another
occasion, when the Romans insisted that a statue of Caligula be placed
in the Temple to be worshipped, the Jews staged a massive strike and the
effigy was never erected. These events apparently please Yoder because
they represent “collective nonviolent resistance” (POJ, 93) arising
from no prior planning or training in nonviolent techniques.[34]

Two major events in Russian Mennonite history seem
to be similarly normative for Wiebe-the refugees’ release from Moscow
(chapter 4) and the villagers’ flight across the Amur River from Siberia
to China (chapter 9).

In Moscow Franz Epp and others lead Mennonites in their
struggle with political authorities to gain permission to emigrate. Seven
hundred Mennonites sign a petition to be allowed to leave. Epp selects
the three Soviet agencies that will receive formal letters of request-the
agencies having been shrewdly chosen according to what Mennonites know
about the baffling, self-contradicting Russian bureaucracy. If the petitions
gain no positive responses, Mennonites decide that they will go on a hunger
strike in Red Square in order to favorably rally world opinion to their
cause. But the Mennonites’ deliverance does not merely depend upon clever,
rationalized strategy. Franz Epp’s father prays all night for the success
of his son’s mission in delivering the letters. Franz Epp himself says
that the successful delivery of the letters was as “precise as eternal
revelation”(83), and he describes the post office girl who, amazingly,
accepts them in the middle of the night, as an “angel” (85). The surreal
depiction of the “Black Vulture” contributes to the supernatural aura
of the deliverance (84).

Similarly, the escape by the Russian Mennonite villagers
to China across the frozen Amur Ruver was debated, planned and executed
by a committee, and their decision was then accepted, in strict secrecy,
by all members of the village. Their escape represents both a criminal
action against the Russian state and a moral betrayal of other neighboring
Mennonite villages, insofar as they will now be punished by Russian authorities
and probably unable to escape, especially in the same manner. “We are
all one family, and what we do is for all,” (149) says David Epp, Sr.
Both the communal sanction for the deed and its supernatural, redemptive
nature are affirmed by the communion service that the villagers engage
in, safe in China, and that then haunts the imaginings of David Epp, Sr.,
when he returns across the river.

It is typical of Wiebe that both successful escapes
are instigated by single individuals possessing more than the ordinary
sense of spiritual and moral guidance. In Siberia it is, of course, David
Epp, Sr., who, once the ruse succeeds, goes beyond the original compact
and returns to Siberia alone, having lied to his wife and abandoned her
and their infant son, in order to offer himself as a scapegoat to the
Russian authorities on behalf of both his own village and their soon-to-be-outraged
Mennonite neighbors. The true mastermind of the Moscow escape, we learn,
is not really Franz Epp’s father but Helmut Driedeger, who similarly has
laid down his easy life as a Leningrad professor to serve “those thousands
of Mennonites” (230) by talking “to business, politicians, the President”
(230) on their behalf, both in Moscow and throughout their difficult years
later in Paraguay. Like John Reimer in chapter 13, both Epp and Driedeger
represent individual heroism in the form of Christ-figures who yield to
the call to lay down their lives on behalf of many.

With these examples of creative, successful communal
nonresistance to draw upon-from both Josephus and Mennonite history-it
is oddly interesting that when both Yoder and Wiebe considered what Christians
could do about Vietnam and other injustices in the late 1960s, their visions
seem not to move beyond the protest strategies pursued by war-resisters
in the secular world. For example, Yoder cites making statements, getting
“in the way” and refusing to pay taxes before declaring that he “can’t
bring answers.”[35]
And in the “Strategy of Proper Religion” part of his sermon, “Jesus Christ,
Revolutionary,” Wiebe talks about participating in Vietnam protest marches
and asks his audience: “On this Palm Sunday would Jesus today march on
Ottawa, or Edmonton-leading the comm[on] people-farmers, workers, Negroes,
Indians, drug addicts'” Apparently it is a rhetorical question that assumes
an affirmative response.

Statements, protest parades, nonpayment of taxes-although
all are still with us, they seem to pale in light of the more sophisticated,
proactive programs being developed and sponsored by MCC and Mennonite
mission boards in the 1990s, such as the Victim-Offender Reconciliation
Program (VORP), Christian Peacemaker Teams, conflict resolution services,
aid to Iraq and shrewdly designed Mennonite presences in Iran (earlier
Prague, Budapest, etc.) and other places of political conflict. Surely,
neither Yoder nor Wiebe would fault such programs, let alone condemn the
Peace Office of MCC as Samuel Reimer finally does. Instead, in their 1960s
writings their notions of exactly what to do were very much a part of
the times in which they were thinking and writing. They reflect both a
new Mennonite political awareness and its theological justification. But
they also reflect the despair and unpreparedness of the average North
American Christian peacemaker who came belatedly to a complex international
conflict-forced into being more reactive than proactive and ill equipped
by experience and thought to actually imagine or do anything more creative
than what others were doing.[36]


If both Samuel and John
Reimer violate Yoder’s ideal by following a personal vision and program
that their congregations do not sanction,[37]
they nevertheless do embrace Yoder’s assumption that any right course
of Christian political action will be a response to divine revelation.

Yoder does not think that Christians can fulfill the
will of God by merely devising and pursuing certain peacemaking strategies.
In fact he associates such rationalizations of shalom with secular
pacifists, who somewhat arrogantly assume that they know all one needs
to know about a certain situation and can, by mere human action, remedy
it. Such manipulative methods, Yoder says, sometimes merely embody a “cheaper
or less dangerous or more shrewd way to impose one’s will upon someone
else, a kind of coercion which is harder to resist” (POJ, 243).

Instead, Yoder says that Christian pacifist action
must always assume the revelatory and therefore surprising action of God.
Hence, Old Testament Jews were not successful because they used
violence but because God ultimately provided their deliverance, sometimes
by “concrete divine intervention” (POJ, 89). Christian ethics “must
. . . be rooted in revelation, not alone in speculation, nor in a self-interpreting
‘situation'” (POJ, 239). The Christian pacifist’s expectation should
be “. . . of novelty, of miracle, of visible witness.”[38]
The question Yoder challenges all Christian activists to ask is: “How
in this situation will the life-giving power of the Spirit reach beyond
available models and options to do a new thing whose very newness will
be a witness to divine presence'”[39]
It is this emphasis, of course, that has led many current Christian ethicists,
especially “historicists,” to criticize Yoder. As Alain Epp Weaver says:
“A pacifism based on the revelatory action (albeit within history) . .
. of an extra-historical transcendent God becomes diffficult to sustain.”[40]

Nevertheless, in their own ways, both Samuel and John
Reimer, contemporary would-be peacemakers, also illustrate Yoder’s position.
It is most clearly present, of course, in the unmistakenly supernatural
calling of Samuel U. Reimer, which defies all rationality since he has
previously been a token Christian absolutely uninformed about the Vietnam
situation to which he is called to “preach peace.” His church rejects
that revelation, insists on tape-recorded evidence but is skeptical even
when the tape-recording leaves some evidence for belief. Samuel not only
accepts the revelatory call but is also willing to let the Spirit move
him to correct action, once he arrives in Vietnam. What, effectively,
can he do there? Of course, he does not know. Rather, he accepts the words
of the Lord that came to him at night, saying, “. . . when you get there
[Vietnam] you’ll know. If I can hear it here, I can over there” (199).

Although word of Reimer’s call spreads to his region
and nation, he finds himself unable to join demonstrations or protest
parades because they “were not the way for him. Nor the way the Quaker
in Washington took in showing the world by fire. He was beginning to see
something terrifying about his way, about what he found within himself
he could, and could not, do” (211). One thing that John Reimer regrets
about his brother’s death is that the world now will never know what intervention
the Spirit of the Lord might have accomplished through him in Vietnam.

The revelatory aspect of John Reimer’s political action
is less dramatic than it is for Samuel, especially since we are not privy
to the existential moment of the revelation to John, as we are for Samuel.
In fact, Samuel’s revelation seems to be transmitted by his letter to
John (266) and therefore to be inherited by John on Samuel’s behalf. Similarly,
John never explains how he knew that public cross-bearing was his ordained
course of action, although the Christian reader sees it as a reasonable,
symbolic fulfillment of discipleship. John may have the symbolic-as opposed
to the practical-effect in mind when he says that the cross shows that
“I am not going anywhere; at least not in Canada” (269).

Like Samuel, John has no long-range strategy. “I don’t
decide anything till I do it,” he says (245). One step at a time! In fact,
the text never shows or tells when, how or why he makes the crucial decision
about whether he continues bearing his cross westward or turns north.
That question is emphasized by the newspaper story and is the one that
most intrigues Leisel Driedger when she reads the article. As she tells
Jakob 4 Friesen, sitting beside her on the plane, “All we need to find
out is if he carried his cross north, or west to the mountains” (236).
Why that is an all-important question for her is not at all clear, but
her statement does emphasize the apparently symbolic importance that Wiebe
intends for it in the novel.

Heading west has a number of implications. It is a
literary movement toward Vietnam, the site of Samuel’s, and now John’s,
calling. It is a movement away from the political and economic power centers
of eastern Canada. And it is a movement toward the Mennonite utopian dream
of a better place, as established by the appeal of the “blue mountains
of China” for David Epp’s fleeing villagers, which bears special freight
as the title of the book. By the end of chapter 13 Reimer is heading north
instead and, in light of its puzzling, seemingly irrational purpose, one
assumes that his turn was prompted by divine leading.

In any event, the concluding political meaning of the
novel points northward. One obvious meaning is that John Reimer repudiates
the utopian dream of a better, separate place somewhere over the next
range of “blue mountains.” Also, instead of to Ottawa (in the east) or
Vietnam (in the west) Reimer is now being led to take his message of peacemaking
to Rudy Wiebe’s own city of Edmonton; to the city hospital where Dennis
Willms has apparently died of actual-but also symbolic-heart failure;
to a rendezvous with the motorcycle gang; to the Metis and other Indians;
and, finally, to separated Mennonites who are still trying “to find a
place just for themselves”-perhaps in order to tell them to abandon their
separatist, utopian dream, as he has (271).[41]


One hallmark of Yoder’s thinking is the certainty
that God, not humanity, is “responsible” for the outcome of history-that
humans are too limited in their knowledge and too prone to use violent
means to make history turn out right, according to their too-narrow perception
of divine will and historical reality. The main responsibility of Christians
is to be faithful, even though they may not seem to be “effective,” especially
in the short run. Christians must do what they are led by God to do, even
though-as with Jesus on the cross-the immediate consequences may seem
to be disastrous failures. In the same way that Christ’s crucifixion ultimately
led to the redemption of human history, so may apparently failed human
actions that arise from the leading of God ultimately result in God’s
good will being done in history.[42]
This understanding infuses The Blue Mountains of China, is realized
in multiple ways and ultimately creates the unifying threads and ideas
in Wiebe’s historical novel.

The actions toward justice in The Blue Mountains
of China that seem to be more “faithful” than “effective” are Samuel
Reimer’s abortive attempt to proclaim peace in Vietnam and John Reimer’s
cross-bearing in western Canada. In the context of Yoder’s new-for Mennonites-emphasis
on Christians’ engagement with the powers, it is very important that both
Samuel and John have repudiated-or perhaps, rather, transcended or superseded-three
strategies that Mennonites earlier embraced in their conscientious efforts
to remain separate while also reaching out to others in the troubled world.
Those are alternative national service, missionary work and relief work-all
of which options are associated with somewhat immediate, tangible “results”
that benefit human beings.

For example, during World War II Samuel U. Reimer (and
many other Mennonite young men) performed alternate public service, in
the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program in the U.S. or the similar one
in Canada. As Samuel tells his psychiatrist:

“I was a Mennonite C.O. In 1943 the church worked it
out for me and I worked in a camp . . . I did, well, mighty little then-dirt
jobs, that was the way to live for others in World War II; I guess. I’ll
never be sorry for planting a tree rather than shooting a man. Anyway
that’s the way I did, then, and less ever since. Nothing really. But now-now-“he
guffawed humorously, “now such nothing isn’t enough. You see? For me war,
mutilation, starving people, that’s the worst now.” He thought another
moment. “Besides, I’ve been called,” he said. (207)

In so saying, Samuel discounts the conventional Mennonite
alternative to war that Thom Wiens, in Peace Shall Destroy Many,
also contemplated but ultimately rejected.

John Reimer turns his back on two other alternatives-missionary
work, as found in the work among Toba Indians by David Epp, Jr. in Paraguay,
and John’s own relief and service activities, for which his university
education in agriculture had eminently prepared him. Although in Paraguay
he is an uncritical, even admiring colleague of David Jr., especially
because many Mennonite settlers had been murdered by the Indians, John
is eventually unsure that missionary-led conversion to Christianity is
the most urgent obligation for the conscientious Christian: “Perhaps it
was impossible to get at anything at all essential about people by understanding.
Perhaps they did need to be saved from hell; the hell of their being born,
living and dying” (186).

John Reimer is changed from a career relief worker
to a political activist by his attempt at relief work in Paraguay, coupled
with the letter from Samuel that he receives there. He came to Paraguay
after having already served with the MCC equivalent for four years in
Algeria. And although “he knew himself, he thought,” and although “he
was university trained, a professional who could help people live with
the land, help it live for them . . ” (185), his experience of observing
and trying to help the horribly swollen Toba Indian chief apparently becomes,
for him, a parable about the near impossibility of either relieving the
Indians of their suffering or of converting them to Mennonite Christianity.

In any event, John’s experience in Paraguay, coupled
with the letter from his brother, persuades John that he has to stop “trying
to be useful” (269). Being “useful” for John can be seen as a synonym
in Wiebe for Yoder’s notion of being “effective.” John instead decides
to be “faithful.” Consequently he embraces his brother’s calling to carry
a cross down the Transcanadian Highway, whether or not it will have any
useful outcome.


But of course proof of the ultimate “effectiveness”
of the Reimers’ faithful actions is not settled at the end of the book.
How can we be sure that the influence of their verbal and physical witnesses
upon their friends, relatives, fellow Mennonites and Canadian and international
politics will come to naught-or “nothing,” Wiebe’s favorite word’[43]
For instance, what might be the ultimate outcome of John’s conversation
with the motorcycle gang member? the police officer? the reporter? the
World War II veterans? the Canadians who know about him through newspaper
or television? In the context of divine history, his crossbearing may
seem futile in the present but it may have mysteriously “effective” influences
toward peace and justice-atonement-in the distant future. Such indeed
is the outcome of the hundred-year Mennonite historical experience that
Wiebe gives fictional shape to in The Blue Mountains of China.
His “novel of stories,”[44]
in fact, is linked both aesthetically and theologically by inspired deeds
and words that seem to lead to “nothing” but that bear fruit in desperate
people’s lives much later on.

One case in point is the apparently futile prayer of
Jakob 4 Friesen’s wife in Moscow for the safety of her husband. The prayers
of Franz Epp’s father for the success of his son and the deliverance of
the Mennonites are marvelously answered, whereas Jakob 4 Friesen is arrested
and exiled despite his wife’s prayers. When “Balzer” (Samuel and John
Reimer’s father Ernst) rejoices in that answered prayer, Franz Epp’s father
needs to reprimand him by saying, “Ernst, I think Mrs. Friesen was praying,
too.” When John Reimer recounts that conversation to Jakob 4 Reimer on
the Transcanadian Highway, Jakob rightly exclaims three times on one page:
“And it helped her exactly nothing” (269).

However, the novel shows the longer-term effectiveness
of her praying. John Reimer, who hears the story from Franz Epp in Paraguay
(80), repeats it in a letter to his brother Samuel, who is moved by it
(267) to persevere in his call to “proclaim peace in Vietnam.” As John
says, “Somehow he tied that together with being called to Vietnam” (269).
Her “unanswered” prayer calls attention to the desperate lot of undelivered
people who suffer unjustly outside the apparent providence of God. Samuel
U. Reimer was led by her futile prayer to feel so strong a pity for the
Vietnamese that he can imagine-to the scandal of his fellow Mennonites-leaving
behind his own comfortable children and wife to go there: “In Vietnam
a kid is being fried into a cripple. And I worry about mine don’t have
a Chrysler to come to church in. Hey'”(206). And Samuel’s repudiation
of the personal for the universal also motivates John to leave family,
friends and inheritance for his own political witness.[45]

Thus the long-term, historical effect of Mrs. Friesen’s
seemingly futile prayer is to spread shalom beyond the Mennonite nuclear
family of 1927 into the war-torn world of 1967. Also, in the survival
of her husband beyond her own lifespan, as well as in his presumed eventual
reunion with his daughter in Canada and his possible movement toward renewed
Christianity with John Reimer, even the personal content of her prayer
has been answered beyond her understanding.

A similar, linked historical continuity and fulfilment
results from the heroic decision of David Epp, Sr. to return to his abandoned
Siberian village, as scapegoat, once his village has successfully escaped
into China. When he announces his intention to his best friend Bernhard,
he objects: “It won’t help one of the others a bit” (165). To which David
Epp, Sr., replies: “. . . we can’t know that. Absolutely. The way we know
some other things” (165). Indeed, the immediate consequences of his return
are never known, since chapter 9 ends with him alone back in his cold,
empty house. Even the letter that he then writes to his wife in Paraguay
gives no additional information. When his story is retold to others, as
Samuel U. Reimer does for his psychiatrist, the psychiatrist’s response
is typically echoic of other such responses in the novel: “So what did
his going back help'” (206).

In Yoderian terms, Epp’s return to his Russian village
was more a “faithful” than an “effective” thing to do. In the context
of the communion service of his village and the communion imagery that
haunts him as he waits “for the louse to come to his warm flesh” (168),
David Epp is another faithful Christ-figure who takes up his cross despite
its apparently doomed-to-fail outcome.

But once again Wiebe makes very clear the positive,
long-range consequences of Epp’s seemingly useless self-sacrifice. It
is the knowledge of his father’s sacrifice that motivates David Epp, Jr.’s
decision to dedicate his life to evangelizing the Toba Indians, even-as
with David, Sr.-to the point of sacrificing the ease of his own family
and risking his own life. John Reimer’s retelling of David, Sr.’s story
and the effect of it upon David, Jr. also give Samuel U. Reimer the precedent
that inspires him to do a similar deed, which, in turn, inspires John
Reimer’s own cross-bearing. Samuel’s response to the psychiatrist’s query
speaks for all three men who were later affected by Epp’s death: “That
father [David Epp, Sr.] has had more effect on the son than anything you’ll
ever see . . . But he’s made his whole life around what he knows his father
did . . . Just that, knowing his father went back when no one in the world
could say he had to” (206).

By the time Samuel’s wife uses the familiar logic and
words to question her husband’s following of his call-“Sam, what would
it have helped'” (214)-the reader knows a different answer to that now-rhetorical
question and sympathizes with Samuel in his anguished response: “Maybe
not a thing, nothing. Like that Epp that went back . . . Yes it would
have helped nothing. But do it, that’s it. Some of it, just do it,” he
added heavily” (214).

The notion that “nothing” may come of one’s best efforts
on behalf of the kingdom of God culminates wonderfully in the final conversation
in the book, between John Reimer and Jakob 4 Friesen. It begins with John
reminding Jakob that, unlike Moses who promised land and manna, Jesus
merely said, “I’m bread enough for you. Remember me.”

John’s statement reminds the reader of the eucharistic
motifs in the experience of Jakob 4 in chapter 8, “The Cloister of the
Lilies,” and, more so, of David Epp’s eucharist in chapter 9, “Drink Ye
All of It.” Jakob 4 Friesen agrees with John’s analysis but objects to
his stoic acceptance of nothingness: “That’s the big trouble with Jesus.
He never gives you a thing to hold in our hand.” Nothing, again. John
responds with his final words in the novel: “There are things, many things
that you can’t hold in your hand” (272). Among those, as the novel has
shown, are the works of God that move mysteriously through time and space-like
the rustling of feet on the hillside (272)-fulfilling his divine purpose
in history even if unperceived by humans who expect immediate results.
Wiebe therefore succeeds in illustrating-even “proving”-what Yoder can
only state in faith or theory: that God uses faithful deeds for longterm
effectiveness in bringing forth the kingdom of God on earth.

But Wiebe also succeeds in showing how Mennonite faithfulness
today is logically, or theologically, related to Mennonite history; in
other words, how a contemporary peace activist ethic derives naturally
from Mennonite historical experience, even from their sect-like, separatist
stance toward worldly affairs and, especially, from their seemingly meaningless

If the Mennonites’ deliverance from Moscow and Epp’s
deliverance of his village from Siberia serve in-group purposes, they
nevertheless are broadly “political” in that they show Mennonites confronting
secular power and injustice by nonviolent means. It is only a small analogical
step to applying those strategies to the deliverance of other non-Christian,
non-Mennonite people suffering in unjust situations. Such, at least, is
the long-range historical fulfilment of Mrs. Friesen and David Epp, Sr.
in the international peacemaking efforts of Samuel and John Reimer.

In depicting Samuel Reimer’s experience, Wiebe is especially
careful to demonstrate that, despite its radically idiosyncratic nature,
and despite Samuel’s perseverance in the face of the opposition of his
pastor, his congregation and the entire Mennonite Church, Samuel’s actions
are nevertheless grounded in the best Mennonite historical experience-in
this particular case stemming more from the faith-driven immigration of
Russian Mennonites to Canada in the 1870s than from the economy-driven
immigration in 1927.[46]
One evidence of that occurs when Samuel can get no Mennonite to sign the
character reference form required for his passport application. Desperate,
he turns to his friend, a Sommerfelder elder, who immediately signs it.
The Sommerfelder may belong to a splinter Mennonite group that, like Frieda
Friesen’s Fuerstenlander Sommerfelders, refuse to “change” (31, 34); and
the elder may wear a black coat and preach 300-year old sermons. But the
Sommerfelders’ pious yielding to God-represented best and most often by
Frieda’s “it does all come from God, strength and sickness, want and plenty”-is
a better basis for social ethics than the rational, materialistic, family-protective,
spiritually weak, acculturated Mennonites living near Winnipeg.

In describing Samuel’s village of Gartental, Wiebe
also creates a more symbolic structure to prove that only Samuel and his
Sommerfelder neighbors carry with themselves into the 1960s the truly
Mennonite values of their forebears. First we learn that Gartental was
a “farm row village” (196) originally laid out like its antecedents in
Orenburg, Russia, with house-and-barn dwellings and yards strung out along
a road and with fields surrounding the village. By 1967 all except Samuel’s
family has moved away “to new houses out on their own quarters” (196).
The transplanted community has fragmented into more acculturated, individualistic,
nuclear families. However, the Reimers still live at one end of the former
village and the Sommerfelder Church remains at the opposite end. Moreover,
Samuel insists on retaining the foundations of his wife’s family’s house,
in which they live. Theirs was “the only well and yard left behind the
long rows of cottonwoods” (193):

When they tore away the old houses (built early in
1880 Emily’s grandmother, then alive, thought) they of course tore away
the old passageway between house and barn. He put the attached garage
there, but the neighbors laughed because he built the new house foundations
where the old had been and that left room for only a one-car garage (190).

Just as Samuel is the only Mennonite in his community
who builds his new house on old Russian Mennonite foundations, so is his
revealed, inspired ethic the only one truly grounded in the spiritual
inheritance of his Mennonite people. When the mysterious voice says, “I
am the God of your fathers,” it refers as much to David Epp and Mrs. Friesen
as to the Old Testament heroes that Samuel mentions-Samuel, Gideon and

As a theologian, Yoder proves his case by biblical
textual explication and by disciplined dialogue with the theological tradition.
As a historical novelist, Wiebe demonstrates how Yoderian ethics can be
derived specifically from Mennonite history and thought. Although Samuel
and John Reimer, as political activists, seem on the surface to be opposing
their church and striking out on their own in new directions, Wiebe is
careful to show that their “politics” represent not a radical departure
from, but a renewal or adaptation of, the best in traditional Mennonitism.

In fact, as alluded to in the first paragraph of this
essay, such historical linkages probably represent the most important
aesthetic influence of Yoder’s thought on Wiebe’s writing of The Blue
Mountains of China. We may recall again that it was while studying
and preaching Yoder’s “The Original Revolution” that Wiebe discovered
the way to turn his twelve otherwise discrete short stories into “a kind
of whole book,” and he subsequently composed chapter 13, “On the Way.”
That chapter “unifies” the book, not merely because it literally unites
major characters, stories, families and Mennonite migrations on the Transcanadian
Highway, but mainly because it shows how all of prior Mennonite experience
bears fruit, finally, in the public peacemaking-and church-renewing-activities
of John Reimer. I suspect that while he was creating John Reimer, Wiebe
also went back to the preceding chapters and added many of the links of
character, language and actions that have been discussed here.[47]

As is appropriate for a historical novel, John Reimer
is the true hero of The Blue Mountains of China because only he
properly perceives and acts upon the “meaning of history” that also lies
at the heart of Yoder’s project. Second to John Reimer are those who have
acted in historically responsible ways, true to their own enlightenment:
Frieda Friesen’s long view that “all of it comes from God,” Epp’s certainty
that the future is open to the unexpected, Samuel Reimer’s almost blind
obedience to his private revelation. Wiebe reserves the most scorn for
the attitudes toward history of Dennis Willms, who in his materialistic,
businessman’s sense allows only three years for a project to prove its
value. Jakob 4 and Jakob 5 Friesen are more tragic victims of short-sighted,
expediential views. Jakob 4 mistakenly gave up faith in his son’s release
from prison. And Jakob 5 expresses his loss of hope for the future by
raping the peasant girl, by murdering (his half-brother) Escha, and then
by violently attacking the ex-Mennonite government official Sereno, even
though Sereno has offered him a kind of salvation.


As a novel, or novel of stories, The Blue
Mountains of China gains focus and coherence through these theological
and historical contingencies. In fact, they help rationalize the three
presumed aesthetic flaws at the end of the novel: the too coincidental
coming together of the interrelated Mennonites on the Transcanadian highway;
Elizabeth and Rachel’s discussion of the obsession with sex in recent
Canadian fiction; and John Reimer’s didactic, Yoderian sermonizing.

Although the reunion of Mennonites may seem too convenient
a way of unifying the novel’s widely disparate threads of personal and
historical experience, its larger function is once again to demonstrate
that God-not humanity-is in control of history. The reunion is revelation.
Other important instances of revelation in chapter 13 are the various
natural, yet supernatural, sounds that confirm the rightness in John Reimer
and Jakob 4 Friesen’s final brotherhood: first, the Spirit manifesting
itself in the wind (270) and poplar leaves (272), then in the mysterious
coyote- or locomotive-like sound (270), and finally when “the slope rustled
as from feet” (272). All of these suggestive images have been appreciated
by critics of the novel.

Similarly, the discussion of sex in Canadian novels
is more than an arbitrary discussion, unrelated to the rest of the novel.
This second purple passage is a structurally balanced counterpart to Reimer’s
seemingly arbitrary, intrusive sermon on the faithful church. Both intrusions
serve as critiques of Canadian culture in the 1967 centennial year. This
structural juxtaposition may be Wiebe’s way of implying that if the Canadian
literary establishment can tolerate and even encourage an obsession with
sex that serves no apparent aesthetic or moral purpose, then it needs
also to consider the equal-or perhaps even more important-religious and
ethical claims upon the national welfare that are articulated by John


Unlike many literary artists
who hesitate to acknowledge specific persons as influences upon their
work, Wiebe has been candid and publically appreciative in acknowledging
the influence of John Howard Yoder-in the Neuman interview, in the information
and papers that he graciously made available to me, and in the tribute,
cited earlier, that he made following the death of Yoder.

It is a teasing thought that Wiebe may have been even
more successful than Yoder in communicating “the politics of Jesus” to
mass North American culture. The Blue Mountains of China appeared
in 1970, two years before The Politics of Jesus, and to immediate
acclaim. Since its publication, it has never been out of print. It has
been translated into Dutch and, in part, German and has received critical
attention from North American, European, Indian and other Commonwealth
literary critics. In addition, Thomas W. Smyth’s dissertation shows how
Yoderian theology pervades Wiebe’s subsequent works as well, including
The Temptations of Big Bear (1973), The Scorched-Wood People
(1977), The Mad Trapper (1980), My Lovely Enemy (1983) and
A Discovery of Strangers (1994).[48]
The first and last of these books won him the Governor-General’s Award
for Fiction in both 1973 and 1994-an achievement unmatched by any other
Canadian novelist.

In 1983 David Jeffrey regarded The Blue Mountains
of China as “by any standard a remarkable novel, one of the best in
this country in our time . . . probably the most demanding novel English-speaking
Canada has yet produced.”[49]
And already in 1982 Andrew Durr, of the University of Reading in England,
paid Wiebe the ultimate compliment, by looking forward to the year “2002
when Rudy Wiebe is 68 and gets Canada its first Nobel Prize for Literature
. . .”[50]

Of course, Yoder’s books and ideas have also attracted
the attention of many non-Mennonite readers in the U.S., Canada and farther
abroad. But although 85,000 copies of The Politics of Jesus have
been sold, the book is read by a largely academic audience. Far more copies
of Wiebe’s books have been sold, and mostly to a mass reading audience.
Wiebe’s work has therefore insinuated Yoderian thinking into the minds-and,
one might also hope, the wills-of thousands of readers who would not at
all be inclined to read The Politics of Jesus.

To imply that Wiebe is a disciple more successful than
his master is only quantitatively true, and also demeaning to the true
synergy of equally creative minds that must have characterized their personal
and intellectual friendship. Wiebe may have been influenced by Yoder,
but he has appropriated and transformed that influence creatively and
imaginatively in his very different calling as novelist. One might best
regard Yoder and Wiebe as unwitting collaborators in separate, parallel
projects of creating a synthesis of Mennonite thought and experience that-more
so than the work of any other Mennonites-appeals to thoughtful people
today in the western world, and even beyond. Theirs is a new, wonderfully
effective “recovery of the Anabaptist vision.”

Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur.

Our Lamb has conquered; him let us follow.

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger
who announces peace.

Ervin Beck is
Professor of English at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana. 1. In March 1984
Yoder also gave a seminar on nonresistance at Strawberry Creek, the retreat
center south of Edmonton owned by Rudy and his wife Tena. Return to

. (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans). Page references in the text will be to the 1972 edition, preceded
by POJ when necessary. Return to Text

. (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans; Toronto: McClelland and Stewart). Since 1970 the novel has been
kept in print by McClelland and Stewart. Page references in the text will
be to the 1995 paperback edition, preceded by BMOC when necessary.
Return to Text

. The only other
study of the relationship between Wiebe’s and Yoder’s work is Thomas William
Smyth, “Rudy Wiebe as Novelist: Witness and Critic without Apology” (Ph.
D. diss., U. of Toronto, Centre for the Study of Religion, 1997). Smyth’s
work is primarily a typological analysis of Wiebe’s My Lovely Enemy
and A Discovery of Strangers as they are informed by the theology
of Yoder (and, through him, Karl Barth) and the literary theory of Robert
Kroetsch (and, through him, Mikhael Bahktin). Since Smyth is more interested
in theology than in political ethics, the Yoder texts he emphasizes are
“But We Do See Jesus” and “Anabaptism and History” from The Priestly
Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: U. of Notre Dame
Press, 1984), more so than The Politics of Jesus. Perhaps one
reason Smyth did not analyze The Blue Mountains of China is that
George H. Hildebrand had already made a fine typological analysis of that
novel in “The Anabaptist Vision of Rudy Wiebe: A Study in Theological
Allegories” (Ph. D. diss., McGill U., 1982). Some of Smyth’s work is based
on conversations and correspondence with Yoder, beginning in 1995; however,
he did not interview or correspond with Wiebe. Smyth died soon after completing
his dissertation, although one chapter has been published as “My Lovely
Enemy Revisited,” Essays on Canadian Writing 63 (Spring 1998),
113-33. Return to Text

. Typescript,
Amsterdam, April 26, 1952. Yoder actually preceded this title with “Reflections
on the Irrelevance of Certain Slogans to the Historical Movements They
Represent” and then followed it with another title “Ye Garnish the Sepulchres
of the Righteous.” Return to Text

. “Politics of
the Messiah,” second Puidoux Conference, Iserlohn, Germany, 1957. Return
to Text

. Title essay
in the volume, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism
(Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1971), 13-33. In in-text documentation this
essay will sometimes be referred to as OR. Return to Text

. The dedication
to the book The Original Revolution refers to the first time Yoder
gave the sermon, in Buenos Aires. Notes to the essay as reprinted in For
the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1997) indicate that this occurred in his first visit to South America
in 1966, not his second visit in 1970-71. Return to Text

. (Toronto: McClellan
and Stewart, 1962). Return to Text

. Manuscript
notes for the sermon supplied by Wiebe to the author, March 22, 1998.
Return to Text

. Shirley Neuman,
“Unearthing Language: An Interview with Rudy Wiebe and Robert Kroetsch,”
in A Voice in the Land: Essays by and about Rudy Wiebe,” ed. W.
J. Keith (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1981), 242. Return to Text

. Ibid. Return
to Text

. Ibid. Return
to Text

. Letter from
Wiebe to the author, March 22, 1998. Return to Text

. Neuman, “Unearthing
Language,” 243. Return to Text

. Although
surviving members of that group recall that they early on discussed Wiebe’s
novel Peace Shall Destroy Many, they do not now recall other specific
conversations relevant to this study.-E-mail correspondence with the author
by Annie Yoder, Elkhart, Oct. 16, 1998; Len Smucker, Bluffton, OH, Oct.
22, 1998. Smucker recalls: “Our group, always alive, but relaxed on the
carpet around the fireplace, was stimulating to each of us. John often
lay on his back, across the fireplace opening, with eyes closed, and every
so often raised his body to ‘qualify’ a statement made by someone else.
He seemed to hear everything. I recall him more in relation to Clarence
Bauman with whom the verbal tilt sometimes went on too long. It often
seemed that the females in the group were given less status in terms of
intellectual contributions. Rudy’s wife, Tena, and John’s wife, Annie,
were often quiet. Rudy added fire to our group, but I remember little
re his interaction with John.” Return to Text

. J. R. Burkholder,
interview by author, Goshen, July 30, 1998. Return to Text

. Rudy Wiebe,
letter to the author, March 22, 1998. Return to Text

. Ibid. Although
Burkholder’s friends will probably recognize him in that description,
he was more self-directed than that, since he was a founder and charter
member of an Elkhart County-wide, interfaith organization committed to
peacemaking during the war in Vietnam. Burkholder may also be commemorated
in the character of John Reimer, whose initials “J. R.” match those of
Burkholder’s nickname, “J. R.” Return to Text

. Epic Fiction:
The Art of Rudy Wiebe (Edmonton: U. of Alberta Press, 1981), 59. Return
to Text

. Rudy Wiebe,
fax correspondence to the author, Dec. 7, 1998. Return to Text

. Mark Thiessen
Nation, e-mail correspondence to the author, Dec. 21, 1998. This paper
has benefited from many helpful comments by Thiessen Nation, who is Yoder’s
bibliographer. -A Comprehensive Bibliography of the Writings of John
Howard Yoder (Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, Goshen College,
1997). Return to Text

. Smyth reports
that Yoder tended to “minimize his influence on Wiebe” (10). As Yoder
put it in a letter to Smyth: “What he got from the Politics of Jesus
he got not from me but from the book. The impression he got from me in
the livingroom meetings (about every three weeks) would primarily be that
I was not afraid of the psychologism of the others” (June 25, 1996; cited
by Smyth, p. 250, n. 1). Any use of “the book” by Wiebe, of course, would
have been in years following the publication of The Blue Mountains
of China. Smyth (21) assumed that the relationship between Wiebe and
Yoder resembles Yoder’s description of the relationship between Barth
and himself: as “resonance or isomorphism,” rather than direct influence.
In The Blue Mountains of China the influence of Yoder on Wiebe
is more literal and direct than that. Return to Text

. Rudy Wiebe,
letter to the author, March 22, 1998. Return to Text

. Ibid. Return
to Text

. Ibid. Return
to Text

. Now owned
by the University of Calgary Libraries. See The Rudy Wiebe Papers,
First Accession (Calgary: U. of Calgary Press, 1986), 226-40. Apparently
most of the manuscript drafts in the collection are undated. Return
to Text

. It may not
be generally known that, for Frieda Friesen’s character and story, Wiebe
made use of Meine Erinnerungen und Erlebenisse im Canada und Paraguay
by Frau H. B. Toews of Steinbach, Manitoba (n.p., n.d. [c. 1960]). He
wrote her four chapters in Edmonton after moving there from Goshen. -Wiebe,
letter to author, March 22, 1998. Wiebe also credits his years in Goshen
with helping him create in Frieda Friesen “a strong woman character.”-Neuman,
“Unearthing Language,” 243. Return to Text

. “Mennonites,
Christ, and Culture: The Yoder Legacy,” Conrad Grebel Review 16
(Spring 1998), 13. Return to Text

0. Such oversimplification
may be especially present in the sections below on “Strategy and Revelation”
and “Effectiveness and Faithfulness,” which, for rhetorical purposes,
stress dichotomies that Yoder acknowledged but intended to overcome. I
appreciate the cautionary comments by Mark Thiessen Nation, who read this
manuscript before publication: “Yoder usually (if not always) carefully
nuanced how he combined Christian convictions with matters regarding strategizing
and effectiveness. He tried to be careful not to dichotomize, not to set
up rigid contrasts. . . . He spent much of his life trying to fight the
overly rigid dichotomy that he thought Mennonites had bought into regarding
faithfulness vs. effectiveness.”-E-mail correspondence with author, Dec.
21, 1998. Return to Text

. For the
Nations, 160. The original text of “The Biblical Mandate” was an address
to the Evangelicals for Social Action meeting in Chicago in November 1973.
Return to Text

. In For
the Nations, 160. Return to Text

. Ibid., 161.
Return to Text

. Yoder also
cites, without comment, a third similar Jewish resistance to Roman authorities,
which resulted in violent massacre of the protesters. Return to Text

. “The Believers
Church and the Arms Race,” in For the Nations, 160. Return to

. For some
recent comments on the limitations of Yoder’s views, see A. James Reimer,
“Mennonites, Christ, and Culture,” Conrad Grebel Review 16 (Spring
1998), 5-14; and Alain Epp Weaver, “Review Essay: The Politics of Jesus,
20 Years Later,” Mennonite Life (Sept. 1995), 14-17. Return
to Text

. According
to J. R. Burkholder, Yoder would probably see Samuel and John Reimer as
“too idiosyncratic,” acting too much like “Christian existentialists”
in their projects.-Interview, July 30, 1998. Return to Text

. “The Political
Axioms of the Sermon on the Mount” in The Original Revolution,
51. This essay was first given as a lecture in Uruguay in June 1966. Return
to Text

. Ibid., 49
Return to Text

. Epp Weaver,
“Review Essay,” 17. Return to Text

. In moving
north toward Meti Indian country John Reimer replicates Wiebe’s own literary
direction, since the next novel he was to write, The Temptations of
Big Bear, deals with historic western Canadian Indian experience.
In fact, Wiebe’s moving away from Russian Mennonite to American Indian
experience may represent one more way in which he fulfills the political-liberational
goals of The Politics of Jesus. Return to Text

. This is the
main thesis of chapter 12, “The War of the Lamb,” POJ, 233-50.
As Mark Thiessen Nation points out, Yoder shows more appreciation for
effective peacemaking strategies in other writings, such as Nevertheless
(Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1971); “Mennonites after Niebuhr” in
Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution: A Companion to Bainton
(Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Co-op Bookstore, 1983); and some of the publications
by the Kroc Institute for International Peace listed for 1990-96 in Thiessen
Nation, A Comprehensive Bibliography of the Writings of John Howard
Yoder.-E-mail correspondence with author, Dec. 21, 1998. Return
to Text

. The frequent
use of “nothing” in The Blue Mountains of China resonates with
Shakespeare’s King Lear, which was a very influential literary
text during the 1960s because of its parallels with the then-widespread
academic interest in existentialist philosophy and “absurdist” literature.
Lear’s comment in Act I, Scene 2-“Nothing will come of nothing.”-is most
like Jakob 4 Friesen’s use of the word. The statement challenges the essential
Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo, which affirms God’s ability
to create something out of nothing. A Christian humanist reading of King
Lear finds something coming of nothing, just as I think also occurs
in Wiebe’s novel. Return to Text

. This is a
term used by Mennonite-related author Sandra Birdsell to describe her
work in Agassiz Stories. It is even more appropriate for The
Blue Mountains of China, I think, because Wiebe’s work has more
conceptual unity. Wiebe’s reference to The Blue Mountains of China
as a “whole book” (n.25) may be more than a general description, since
Andrew Gurr uses that term as a literary generic label for a set of short
stories with a kind of novelistic coherence. Gurr, who refers to The
Blue Mountains of China as a “whole book,” borrowed the term from
Kent Thompson, who used it to describe Margaret Laurence’s stories in
A Bird in the House.-Gurr, “‘Blue Mountains’ and Strange Forms,”
Journal of Commonwealth Literature 17 (1982), 155; Thompson, review
of A Bird in the House in The Fiddlehead 84 (1970), 108-11.
Return to Text

. Samuel’s
peacemaking concern for others, even to the neglect of his own family,
oddly corresponds with some conversations with Yoder reported by William
Klassen, “John Howard Yoder and the Ecumenical Church,” Conrad Grebel
Review (Spring 1998), 80. Return to Text

. The motivations
for both migrations are, of course, more mixed than that, but this common
interpretation of the differences seems implicit in Wiebe, especially
since he gives the narration of the 1870s immigration to the very pious
Frieda Friesen. In his dissertation “The Anabaptist Vision of Rudy Wiebe”
(n. 3), George H. Hildebrand makes the point even more strongly, although
he finds shortcomings in those who immigrated in the 1870s and compensating
virtues in those who immigrated in 1927. Return to Text

. In addition
to the unifying effect of such surface elements of the novel, Hildebrand’s
dissertation (ibid.) demonstrates very clearly the Old Testament typological
unity of The Blue Mountains of China as found in the many parallels
between the two Friesen family genealogies and Abraham, Isaac and Esau
(Escha) character types. Return to Text

. See n. 4.
Return to Text

. “A Search
for Peace: Prophecy and Parable in the Fiction of Rudy Wiebe,” in A
Voice in the Land: Essays by and about Rudy Wiebe, ed. W. J. Keith
(Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1981), 185-86. Return to Text

. “‘Blue Mountains’
and Strange Forms,” 153.

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