July 2006 In This Issue


Now that memories of the polarized rhetoric of the 2004 presidential campaign are receding, it may be a good time to revisit a longstanding theme in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition: the nature of the church’s witness to the state. Few topics have evoked more scholarly attention in the past fifty years; yet few topics have also seemed more resistant to a common understanding. This issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review offers readers a sampling of contemporary perspectives on this contested issue.

We begin with an essay by historian Theron F. Schlabach that reviews the content of Guy F. Hershberger’s War, Peace, and Nonresistance, and the context in which it was written. Hershberger’s seminal text, appearing in 1944, summarized attitudes in the (Old) Mennonite Church on the church’s witness to the state, and pointed forward to the political activism that would come to dominate the discussion in future generations. Lee Roy Berry Jr., a professor of political science at Goshen College and a practicing attorney, follows with a reflective article contrasting the African-American approach to assimilation with that of European-American Mennonites, particularly in light of their understandings of constitutional law. Whereas African-Americans have consistently appealed to the U.S. Constitution as the basis for their assimilation efforts, Mennonites have generally refrained from the judicial process, preferring to defend themselves against pressures to assimilate by petitioning government officials directly. Each group, Berry suggests, has much to learn from the other.

The Anabaptists of the sixteenth century, argues Ted Grimsrud, did not hesitate to challenge authorities in public and controversial ways. Drawing on the example and teachings of Jesus, they frequently found themselves in trouble with secular officials for their critique of unjust or violent policies. The example of Christ and the Anabaptists, Grimsrud suggests, should inspire contemporary Christians to witness to their faith in ways that may also bring them into public conflict with government authorities. Grimsrud is a professor of theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University.

J. Robert Charles would likely share Grimsrud’s concern for a public witness. But Charles notes that many “peace and justice” activists in the tradition have a “confused skepticism” about the role of the state-expectations are very high that the state conform to the moral standards of the Christian pacifist, yet there is little clarity about exactly what the state is, its role in modern society or how much importance Mennonites should attach to it. Charles offers a careful survey of the concerns that Mennonites have typically raised against the state; and he responds with a series of arguments defending the necessity of the state, especially with regard to the human need for social order. His conclusions provide a helpful framework for further conversation about this under-investigated topic in Mennonite peace theology.

This ambiguity among contemporary Mennonites regarding the state is not a new phenomenon. David A. Shank takes us back to the sixteenth century where he explores a fascinating reference to an “Anabaptist” burgomaster in the city of Ghent who reportedly refused to approve capital punishment for reasons of faith. Although the full story remains somewhat obscure, Shank painstakingly sifts through the evidence regarding Charles Uutenhove, Lord of Hooghewalle and Hoogh-Seylandt-a member of a leading noble family in Flanders who served in various political roles during the tumultuous years of the short-lived Ghent republic (1577-1584). Despite the lingering questions regarding the exact nature of Uutenhove’s Anabaptist ties, the account should stimulate more research on Anabaptist relations to the state in the late sixteenth century Netherlands.

Few contemporary Mennonite theologians have been more closely associated with the term “ambiguity” than J. Lawrence Burkholder-a leading Mennonite theologian, ethicist and church leader during the second half of the twentieth century. Although Burkholder never produced a major monograph, his many publications-often written in the midst of other administrative responsibilities-reflect a probing and critical mind, frequently in tension with prevailing Mennonite peace theology. We are pleased to publish a bibliography of Burkholder’s writings in this issue of MQR. We hope that the bibliography will inspire future scholarship on the impact of Burkholder’s thought on Mennonite understandings of peace, justice and political engagement.

Finally, we conclude with a sampling of recent counsel offered by contemporary Mennonites on Christian witness to the state. Several of these statements-those by J. Daryl Byler, John A. Lapp, Robert Kreider and Keith Graber Miller-emerged in the context of the 2004 presidential election campaign and the polarization of Mennonites of differing political persuasions. Another statement, issued by the Mennonite Brethren Church of Paraguay, speaks more directly to the question of ethical behavior for Mennonites who choose to engage directly in politics. I trust these essays will lead to still more thought and constructive conversation on this crucial topic. – John D. Roth, editor

The Mennonite Quarterly Review
The Mennonite Quarterly Review