Believers Church Conference Explores Politics and Pacifism

Bob Edgar speaking
“This world of 6.2 billion people is a different place than it was a generation or two ago. We in the Western hemisphere need to adjust our lenses to see it in new ways.”
-Rev. Dr. Robert Edgar, general secretary, National Council of Churches
Photo by Jim Bishop

If 16th century Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler were alive today, would he vote in the upcoming presidential election?

Responding to this question from the audience, speaker Gerald Biesecker-Mast replied, “Likely no, but not out of apathy … Sattler probably would abstain, but would be alarmed at the notion that doing so was an act of indifference, supporting the status quo.”

Biesecker-Mast, professor of communication at Bluffton (OH) University, was giving a paper outlining the “righteousness and mercy” motif as practiced by early Anabaptist Christians, noting the group’s determination to combine “peace with justice in the social order” and that “scripture, not the hangman,” should be the final appeal in matters of civil authority versus freedom of worship and practice.

The question of whether Christian faith promotes involvement in politics or whether that same faith directs Christians to values beyond the political realm came to the fore repeatedly at the 15th Believers Church Conference, Sept. 23-25. Some 230 persons were registered.

The gathering was co-hosted by EMU and Bridgewater College, with sessions divided between the two campuses. Using a format that combined scholarly addresses, panel presentations, audience questions and worship, the conference focused on the meaning of citizenship in the United States from a Believers Church point of view, asking what it means to be citizens of the world’s lone superpower and members of the body of Christ.

The Question of Voting

John D. Roth, “Mennonite Quarterly Review” editor and Goshen (IN) College history professor, said that as a pacifist he will not vote for president because the office includes the designation of Commander-in-Chief. In political elections generally, Roth said, “The differences, from an Anabaptist perspective, are illusory … The ballot box is not supposed to hold our personal dreams.”

Like several conference attendees, Roth decried political polarization. However, he said, “Abstaining from voting doesn’t make you less culpable for rulers’ decisions, but more.”

Roth spoke as part of a panel that sparked lively discussion from the floor.

Was it better to support “the lesser of two evils?” Panelist Lloyd Harsch, a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary professor who volunteers in Republican campaigns, said yes, noting “Jesus isn’t running.”

the international panel discussion
International perspectives were brought to bear on the Believers Church Conference by (l. to r.): Ontonas Balciunas, president, Lithuania Christian Fund; Mwizenge S. Tembo, native of Kenya and associate professor of sociology, Bridgewater College; Wu Wei, senior pastor, Chon Wenmen Church, Beijing, China; and David Radcliff, New Community Project, Elgin, Ill. At extreme left is Nancy Heisey, professor of biblical studies and church history at EMU and moderator of Mennonite World Conference.
Photo by Jim Bishop

Some participants said international friends made them feel responsible for voting when they said, “I don’t have a voice, but you have to have a voice” in influencing U.S. actions.

“What many people are calling for is a vote against what has been going on. It’s a cry of the soul. Maybe there’s nothing you can say yes to now, but you can say no,” said panelist Earl Martin. He and his wife, Pat Hostetter Martin – lifelong Mennonites and 25-year Mennonite Central Committee workers – said they grew up unfamiliar with politics, and, Pat said, “hardly aware of world problems.” That changed when they volunteered to help refugees in Vietnam, where their friends included a couple whose baby was killed when a U.S. Navy flare plunged through their roof.

Although Earl Martin said he votes, the couple focus more on peace vigils, a community voluntary gas-tax project and refusal to pay a military telephone-bill surcharge.

The Meaning of the term “Believers Church”

conference attendees having conversation
Opening conference speaker Carol Scheppard, associate professor of philosophy and religion at Bridgewater College, talks between sessions with Heidi Miller Yoder, who teaches worship and spiritual formation courses at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Miller helped plan and lead worship sessions at the gathering.
Photo by Jim Bishop

Conferees from varying traditions debated biblical pacifism. Church traditions usually associated with the Believers Church include Adventists, Baptists, Brethren, Disciples of Christ, Mennonites, Methodists, Pentecostals, Plymouth Brethren and Quakers, denominations that view membership in the church as a voluntary act of faith.

However, Robert Lee said attending the conference reminded him of “how we use the term ‘Believers Church’ differently.” Lee, a Mennonite and international director of the Tokyo Mission Research Institute, explained that Anabaptists usually think the designation indicates pacifism, but others, including Baptists, do not.

One of the more riveting presentations came from Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches. He captivated his audience as he spoke forcefully, yet in a non-judgemental manner, without notes, quoting leadership people from memory, employing self-effacing humor and underscoring “the urgency of now” in responding to “a world that is teetering between community and chaos.”

“God is calling us to re-read the Old Testament,” Dr. Edgar said. “Note that the prophets always had the minority view but believed strongly that they were acting in the will of God.

“Questioning our government and its leaders’ actions doesn’t mean that we don’t love our country,” he said. “But the world has changed so much in the last century. We live in a global village. God transcends national boundaries, and God calls us to be shapers, shakers and remakers of this fragile planet Earth.”

War and God’s Will

Mwizenge Tembo, associate professor of sociology at Bridgewater College, described Kenneth Kaunda, former president of Tembo’s home country, Zambia, as “a man of peace who reluctantly supported using force to overcome South Africa’s apartheid regime. Likewise, Abraham Lincoln reluctantly led in the Civil War’s fiery trial, said J. Michael Robertson, pastor of Warsaw (Va.) Baptist Church, who quoted correspondence between Lincoln and a Quaker friend.

Can a President know it’s God’s will to have a war? a woman in the audience challenged Robertson. Their dialogue continued after the session, in which Robertson advised his audience to “always know what you don’t know.” Warning against claiming to know God’s will, he advised fellow-pastors, “When you go home, teach the separation of church and state.”

Mark Thiessen Nation, an associate professor at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, spoke on the subject of his upcoming biography, noted Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. Living among French Mennonites following the devastation of World War II, Yoder learned, and then taught, that true pacifism and Christianit
y are extremely difficult. Decades later, Nation said, “I was shocked to read Mennonites saying ‘How can we be pacifists after September 11?’ What rock had people been living under?”

“We have so much to appreciate in this country, religious freedom not least. However, many of our nation’s practices resemble all too closely the imperialism of the biblical empires,” said speaker Ted Grimsrud, professor of religion at EMU. “It is as if we have two Americas, America the pioneer democracy, and America the dominant empire.

“Jesus presented a challenge to empire, and the empire struck back,” Grimsrud noted. “Those who attempt to follow the way of Jesus today must expect opposition from the state.”

International Perspective

Those attending the conference were largely from the U.S. with a few attendees from Canada and one from Holland. A three-member panel gave an international perspective to the discussions.

Wu Wei, Pastor of Chong Wenmen Church in Beijing, said each Chinese church faces a difficult decision over whether to register with the government.

Otonas Balciunas, president of the Lithuania Christian Fund, said his home community of Anabaptists endured terrible persecution under Soviet rule. In dealing with government, he said, their motto was “Do not fear, do not ask, do not trust. Rising individualism has become a newer challenge.”

Tembo said Zambia’s new consumer culture has been accompanied by chaos. Chatting with neighbors on a recent visit there, Tembo heard a man praising Osama bin Laden for engineering the Sept. 11 attacks. Friends were surprised to hear Tembo reply, “I could have been on those planes. I live there. I saw the suffering.” Tembo saw the man’s remark as a mirror image of the attitudes of many Americans who are unaware of the effects the U.S. government and businesses have on people across the world.

“Contrary to popular opinion, and we don’t want to say it too loudly, we are only as good and as precious as everyone else in this world in God’s eyes,” said speaker David Radcliff of the New Community Project in Elgin, Ill. Asked by a member of the audience whether Christians should seek persecution or hardship, Radcliff responded, “Those things come naturally if you live out the heart of your faith.”

open panel discussion
Carol Scheppard of Bridgewater College and Ted Grimsrud (r.) of EMU respond to audience questions following their presentations on “Believers and Political Authority in the Bible.” Brian Martin Burkholder (l.), EMU campus pastor, led opening worship and moderated the sessions.
Photo by Jim Bishop

In a closing worship service, J. Daryl Byler, director of the Mennonite Central Committee Washington Office, spoke of Jeremiah’s prophesy to the Israelites of a long, hard exile in Babylon. Notwithstanding easier circumstances, he said Christian pacifists in America face an exile in which pacifism becomes less tolerated.

“We must find ways to both love and resist the empire,” Byler said, while noting that Jeremiah’s prophecy offered an eventual vision of hope.

Connecting Scholarship with Congregational Life

“I found the balance between the scholarly and the practical, the blend of ideas and experiences [at the conference] especially helpful,” said participant Edward B. Nyce, recently returned peace development worker with Mennonite Central Committee, Bethlehem, West Bank. “I appreciated the two-pronged call from speakers David Radcliff and J. Daryl Byler to examine our current lifestyles and to be prepared, by God’s grace, to follow Christ’s teachings over the long haul,” he added.

Char Smith, who recently traveled to Hebron with a Christian Peacemaker Team, said the conference was helpful, though more academic than expected. “I needed more theoretical grounding,” said her husband, Michael, who chairs the Peace and Justice Committee of the Illinois Mennonite Conference.

“It was gratifying to have Bridgewater College and Baptist, Brethren and Mennonite offices from Washington, D.C., involved in conversation at the planning stage of the conference,” said Nathan D. Yoder, associate professor of church history at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and chair of the program planning committee. “We were also intentional in wanting to connect the scholarship of the academy with the life of congregations. One way we did that was to weave worship into the conference proceedings.”

Conference planners are working with Pandora Press Canada for a forthcoming book in the “Studies in the Believers Church Tradition” series that will continue the conversation of the conference.


Chris Edwards is a free-lance writer from Harrisonburg; Jim Bishop is public information officer at EMU.