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Evangelical Theology and Anabaptist Peacemaking: Friends or Foes?

In March, Bluffton University professor Gerald Mast delivered the 2011 C. Henry Smith Peace Lecture, making the provocative statement that evangelical theology both challenges and renews the Anabaptist commitment to Christian peacemaking. Coverage of his lecture, “True Evangelical Faith and the Gospel of Peace,” comes from the Mennonite Weekly Review:

Evangelical theology poses a profound challenge to Anabaptist peace convictions, says Gerald Mast.

But accepting that challenge “is essential to renew biblical peace conviction in both the Mennonite church and the Christian church as a whole,” argues the Bluffton University professor and church scholar.

“When rightly understood,” he adds, evangelical theology “offers a way for peace to be practiced, not just as an art of the possible but also as an expression of the impossible.” . . .

In his address, Mast maintained that historical and sociological data “largely support the view that most popular forms of evangelicalism tend to undermine traditional Mennonite pacifism.”

He pointed out that the Mennonite denominations most visibly identified with American evangelicalism are also those with the fewest members supporting the peace position. In addition, he said, evangelical Christians are among the believers most closely identified with the American military establishment, voicing the strong­est support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and often embracing “an aggressive and God-identified nationalism.”

At the same time, though, evangelical and Anabaptist arguments “can be received as mutually challenging and supportive rhetorics of Christian assembly by which the gospel of peace might be renewed for the 21st century,” the communication professor said.

“Evangelical Christianity highlights the unmerited grace that God offers human beings in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Mast said. “God accomplishes salvation for human beings without human effort.” . . .

The grace of God toward us also defines our relationship to the neighbor, Mast said. Grace toward the neighbor can’t be produced by our own ethical effort but is the grace we have already received from God in Jesus.

“From this evangelical perspective,” Mast said, “both the traditional Mennonite temptation to defend pacifism as a nonconformist privilege, as well as the modern activist temptation to promote nonviolence as a pragmatic policy, run the risk of becoming exhibitions of self-righteousness rather than displays of God’s grace.”

Click here to read MWR’s whole piece. Click here to read Mast’s lecture.

Mast’s argument is quite cogent, and especially necessary for groups like the Brethren in Christ Church, which has felt the direct influence of evangelical theology over the last sixty-or-so years.

I would add, also, that fraternization between Anabaptists and evangelicals can result in a sharper, better articulated peace witness. This was certainly the case for the Brethren in Christ in the 1950s and 1960s, as vigilant peace advocates C.N. Hostetter, Jr., and E.J. Swalm began to affiliate with “new evangelicals” and share their church’s doctrine of nonresistance with a broader Christian audience.

I hope to make this point more conclusively in my thesis, “Born-Again Brethren: New Evangelicals and the Cultural Transformation of a ‘Plain People.’