Monday, April 11, 2005

Roth calls for five-year political sabbatical for Mennonites to work at reconciliation


John D. Roth picturedDownload and print the full text of the C. Henry Smith Lecture by Professor of History, John D. Roth: Called to One Peace: Christian Faith and Political Witness in a Divided Culture (234k .PDF). This is a text of his lecture and is not a published paper.


GOSHEN, Ind. – In response to what he feels is an “embarrassment to the church” – the increasing readiness for Mennonites to identify with polarized political parties – Goshen College Professor of History John D. Roth called on the denomination to take a sabbatical from partisan politics.


In his April 5 C. Henry Smith Lecture, “Called to One Peace: Christian Faith and Political Witness in a Divided Culture,” Roth began by reflecting on the 2004 U.S. presidential elections when partisan politics were heightened to extreme divisiveness. “What seemed new last fall was not so much the mere fact of diverse political attitudes, but the fervor of the passion, the depth of the antagonism and the growing fundamentalism evident among Christians on both the liberal left and the conservative right,” he said.


Roth, author of “Choosing Against War: A Christian View” (Good Books, 2002) and “Beliefs: Mennonite Faith and Practice” (Herald Press, 2005), said, “As I traveled in many different congregational settings last year, I was troubled by how consistently conversations about faith and politics among Mennonites seemed to have been co-opted by the polarized rhetoric of radio talk show hosts, direct mail campaigns, polemical ads and Web site bloggers. The Mennonites I encountered did not seem to be willing or able to engage political issues in a framework other than the partisan language of the red/blue divide.”


At the heart of the debate, Roth pointed out, is the question, “How should Christian faith find expression in the public square?” and the call to live “in the world, without being of the world,” while also recognizing the intricate tie Christians have with their governments. “I don’t think anyone is arguing that Christians should respond to these challenges by simply retreating. … But the alternative of simply entering the fray of partisan electoral politics … seems to me to be equally dubious,” Roth said.


A church historian himself, Roth offered an overview of historical tensions within the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition regarding understandings of the Christian witness to the state, offering his perspective as to how the church arrived at its current relationship. “From the time of their beginnings in the 16th century, the Mennonite understanding of the state has been deeply ambivalent. … This “nonresistant separatist” tradition assumed that government has a divinely ordained role of preserving order, but that the church’s calling is to be a gathered community, committed to living out the principles of Jesus. “The Schleitheim Confession of 1527 captured the tension inherent in this position in a clear and simple way when it described the state as ‘ordained of God, but outside the perfection of Christ,’” Roth, director of the Mennonite Historical Library and editor of “Mennonite Quarterly Review,” said.


But by the 1960s, he continued, the “nonresistant separatist” position had become untenable for some Mennonites, and with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War came a new political view among Mennonites and the beginning of “pacifist activists.” Roth said, “Political witness now took the form of protests, petitions, rallies, public prayer vigils and active campaigning for certain politicians – virtually all of whom happened to be Democrats.”


Roth gave three reasons for the widening of the gap in Mennonite congregations about politics in recent years. One reason is that the 2004 election was the first presidential campaign after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Citing a 1997 study by sociologist Fred Kniss, Roth noted that conflicts in the church have always increased during periods of broader national or cultural tension.


The second reason he gave is the perception in many congregations – long in formation – that denominational institutions are controlled largely by those committed to the “pacifist activist” tradition. “As American public culture has become increasingly conservative, the gap between denominational leaders and Mennonites in the ‘heartland’ congregations has grown wider – a tension that plays itself out in increasingly open resistance to denominational representatives or institutions who seem to be advocating on behalf of partisan politics,” Roth said.


But, Roth said, the primary reason for the apparent divisions among Mennonites regarding politics has been “the virtual collapse of the ‘nonresistant separatist’ position among traditional Mennonites, and a dramatic shift among those who had previously been suspicious of politics, to a new posture of aggressive political activism,” what he termed “conservative activists.” Roth said, “By 2004, the broader transformation in American politics, signaled by the emergence of the so-called Moral Majority in the 1980s, finally caught up with the Mennonite church. …They brought a very different set of moral and religious priorities to the political arena, and they are inclined to resolve the ambivalence of the Schleitheim formulation by tilting heavily to the ‘government is ordained of God’ side of the equation.”


In response to the complex political divide in the church, Roth offered several specific proposals that “might help the Mennonite church move toward a more unified public witness consistent with our understanding of the Gospel,” he said.


In what he acknowledged is a “fairly radical proposal,” Roth suggested that U.S. Mennonites could, at the initiative of conference leaders and ministers, “commit themselves to a five-year sabbatical from affiliations with any political party,” he said. “We should resolve to sit out the next presidential election and to consciously abstain from all efforts supported by groups partisan to the Republicans or the Democrats.”


Roth clearly stated that he is not arguing for the church to collectively withdraw from all forms of political engagement, especially at the community level. And “I am not advocating a return to the caricature of Mennonites as ‘the quiet in the land.’”


Such a proposal, Roth said, would “offers both sides a conscious ‘cooling off’ period in which we symbolically acknowledge to each other that our identity as brothers and sisters in the church matters more than our identity as supporters of a particular set of government policies.” It would also offer time for a “sustained church-wide conversation about the nature of Christian witness in the public square,” and “it may allow us to develop a shared language for political witness that is rooted clearly and unmistakably within the framework of the Church and our prior, primal allegiance to Jesus and the Gospel.”


Linked to his first proposal, Roth further described that in the five-year period of political abstinence, that Mennonites should “consciously develop disciplines that will keep our political witness clearly anchored in the church and in the language of our commitment to Christ,” specifically prayer.


Finally, Roth called Mennonites to “look outside ourselves,” and drew on an example about Mennonites and politics in Paraguay. In 2003, the country elected Nicanor Duarte Frutos as president. The wife of the newly-elected president, Gloria, was a very active member of a large, Spanish-speaking Mennonite congregation in the capital city of Asunción, and Nicanor himself regularly attends the congregation, along with the couple’s five children. The new president then persuaded four Mennonites from the congregation to serve in high-ranking Cabinet-level governmental positions.


Roth spent eight days during January in Paraguay talking with church leaders, politicians and others about the role of Mennonites in politics. He observed that, currently, the Mennonite church in Paraguay is attempting to give public voice to its Christian convictions through social programs rooted in the church, electoral politics rooted in the life and interests of the colonies and appointed positions in national governance. With these involvements, Paraguayan Mennonites have struggled with dilemmas that arise when faith and politics become so intertwined, though questions continue to persist.


“The Mennonite church in the United States would do well to learn more about what is happening in Paraguay, and use the Paraguayan Mennonite experience as a way of exploring our own assumptions about faith and politics in a context that is less likely to make us defensive, and more likely to clarify the principles that we may actually hold in common,” Roth said.


Roth concluded by saying, “We live in a culture dominated by fear. In the midst of the pain and division and violence around us, Christians should be holding out to the world a candle of hope. The good news of the gospel offers no promise of political success; there are no guarantees that the love of Christ will convince tyrants to put down their weapons, or bring an end to suffering or injustice. But by holding up the light, Christians bear witness to the world that the darkness of hatred and division will not prevail, that love is stronger than fear, that allegiance to the body of Christ comes before all other allegiances and that history is ultimately shaped not by human might nor by power but by the spirit of the living God. May the healing of the world begin with the hard, joyful, work of reconciliation in our own congregations and our own church.”


Roth and his wife, Ruth, are the parents of four teen-age daughters and are active members of Berkey Avenue Mennonite Fellowship in Goshen.


The C. Henry Smith Lecture, named for a former history professor at both Bluffton and Goshen colleges, includes a research grant for the lecturer. The grant is awarded each year to a professor at a Mennonite college, who then presents the lecture at the participating schools.


Goshen College, established in 1894, is a four-year residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S.News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit


Editors: For more information, contact News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or





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