From Nonresistance to Justice

From Nonresistance to Justice cover

Review of the book by Rolando Santiago
From Nonresistance to Justice:  The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric, 1908-2008.  Ervin R. Stutzman.  Scottdale, Pa. and Waterloo, Ont.:  Herald Press.  2011.  Pp. 424.  $39.99 USD/$45.99 CAD.
Grounding Mennonite peace witness in God’s grace

This book was published shortly after Ervin Stutzman became executive director of Mennonite Church USA.  Its main goal was to document a 100-year shift in Mennonite belief and practice about its peace witness from nonresistance to justice.  He studied official statements and published articles in one of the largest groups among Mennonite churches in the United States, which was primarily of Swiss German background.  The shift was relatively dramatic.  At the beginning of the century, Mennonites focused their peace practice on non-participation in war.  Toward the end of the century, people in Mennonite congregations were ethnically more diverse, their peace theology was more sophisticated, and the ways to practice peace were numerous – not simply refusing to bear arms in times of war.

However, Stutzman wrote this book for a deeper reason.  He believes Mennonites have “overemphasized our role as humans in bringing about God’s peace …” (p. 298), and wants to persuade them to acknowledge the role of God’s grace for attaining peace and justice.  He builds his case in the final chapter.  As he states earlier in the book, his desire is for the Mennonite church “to continue to engage in Christ-centered peacemaking, informed by Scripture and led by God’s Spirit” (p. 13).

In life, Stutzman excels as a preacher and storyteller.  These skills transfer well into the written narrative, minimizing academic jargon in this book based on doctoral research.  Eight of the eleven chapters survey specific historical periods from 1908 to 2008.  They describe historical events and spokespeople that influence denominational statements and resolutions, published articles and public letters that serve as primary sources for the study.

The tenth chapter assesses elements of change and stability in Mennonite peace rhetoric over one hundred years.  Stutzman lists fourteen transformations.  For example, he references “an increased willingness to call the state to account for its actions and to recommend specific actions to government officials” (p. 261), whereas in earlier years church statements evidenced a “clear deference and respect for government officials” (p. 262).  There is also an “increasing range and depth of concerns” associated with peace such as “woman’s rights, ecology, sexual discrimination, Native American rights, alternative dispute resolution, and militarism,” that are not limited just to non-participation in war, as in earlier times (p. 262).  Stutzman also mentions “[a] concern for global peacemaking,” facilitated in recent years by agencies such as the Mennonite Central Committee and Christian Peacemaker Teams in various overseas contexts such as the Middle East, and Central and South America.  Such agencies did not exist in 1908.

Stutzman names “social assimilation, heightened political awareness, and more sophisticated theological reflection” (p. 20) as more relevant factors than secularization for changes in the Mennonite peace witness over time.   Having said this, he laments that secularization has eroded biblical and theological rationales for contemporary Mennonite practices of peace and justice.  He cites a growing divide between progressives and conservatives.  Progressives tend to favor secular arguments emphasizing actions of humanization toward victims of injustice, and conservatives lean toward spiritual arguments stressing God’s salvific activity in the world through evangelism that leads to moral behavior.

From Nonresistance to Justice is part of Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History, a series of over 45 monographs published by the Mennonite Historical Society at Goshen College, Indiana.  Its current editor, Gerald J. Mast writes that Stutzman’s book fits well with the goal of the series “to offer high-quality scholarship that supports the church’s mission” (p. 10).  Photos in Stutzman’s book are not directly connected to the text, but they each have their own visual story to tell that enhance beautifully the narrative.

In the book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker suggests that violence in the world has been historically on the decline.  While some of his statistics have been questioned (Kolbert, 2011), recent studies of remains from pre-historic burial sites are uncovering high rates of violent deaths such as one in five or one in twelve.  In some instances, even higher rates.  For comparison purposes, Rome’s murder rates in the late sixteenth century were between thirty and seventy per one hundred thousand, but in St. Louis and Detroit in 2010 they were similar at about forty per hundred thousand.

Stutzman pays little attention to the outcomes of the Mennonite peace witness over the years.  He implies in his introduction that scholars in other fields such as sociology, psychology and history should address such a question.  However, his theological proposition that a transformed life by the grace of God leads a disciple of Jesus Christ to become an agent of peace and justice in the world insinuates that outcome is important.  In other words, Stutzman suggests that the Mennonite peace witness as practiced by individuals, congregations and the denomination, is a hopeful one that can result in concrete transformations of communities and societies.

Thus, Mennonite historians and social scientists might ask similar questions as Pinker does.  For example, how did Anabaptist adherence to the sixteenth century Schleitheim Confession influence changes in governmental structures over the years that may have helped reduce violent actions?  And then in our contemporary world, for example, how does the restorative justice movement espoused by Mennonite peacebuilders like Howard Zehr prevent violent actions as governments and civil society organizations implement effectively its approaches?

Defining peace as outcome may be one way to bridge the Mennonite theological divide between conservatives and progressives, nonresistants and peacebuilders, or those that emphasize conscientious objection to war and those who prefer multiple approaches toward peace.  By focusing on outcome, Mennonites will also be forced to ask hard questions such as, is faithfulness to a peace witness increasing or declining in congregations?  To what extent is it effective?  How is the peace witness being embraced across the new majority of Mennonite churches in the global south, or is the peace witness primarily a Western phenomenon now on the decline?  Although Stutzman does not address these questions, his book suggests a hopeful outcome for Mennonite peace witness and practice.


Pinker, Steven. 2011.  The Better Angels of Our Nature:  Why Violence Has Declined.  New York:  Viking.

Kolbert, Elizabeth.  2011. “Peace in Our Time.”  Books.  The New Yorker, 3 October, 75-78.