Children of light

Some of us remember that the term “Anabaptist” was first of all an insult. This word, literally meaning “rebaptizers,” belonged to the arsenal of other insults hurled at our ancestors. Not by pagans or Muslims, but by other Christians in Europe. They called us enthusiasts, heretics, seditionists and blasphemers. Our forebears were able to give as well as they got, at least with words. Anabaptist leader George Blaurock said at his trial: “The pope with his following is a thief and a murderer, Luther is a thief and a murderer with his following, and Zwingli [and his colleagues] are thieves and murderers of Christ.”

That kind of language wasn’t new to Christians in the sixteenth century. Violent language and attitudes also permeated the communities into which Jesus was born. In their War Scroll, the first-century Essenes who withdrew to the desert to form a pure community described their expectations of a great war where God would lead them against their enemies: “The first attack of the Sons of Light shall be undertaken against the forces of the Sons of Darkness.” This text has often been compared to 1 Thessalonians 5:5, where the Apostle Paul calls the Jesus people “children of light.” Now, 1 Thessalonians is not usually called upon as a source of teaching on conflict within the church. Usually, students of the Bible looking for help on this question turn to 1 Corinthians. That letter discusses a host of troubling issues: believers taking each other to court, some people arguing that marriage is bad, rich community members pigging out at the Lord’s Supper. And, at the center of their faith—whether the resurrection was a reality.

Or we turn to Philippians, where Paul offered Christ who became a slave, as our model. Paul then urged us to “have that same mind,” and later exhorted two women leaders in the congregation to “be of the same mind.” Or we turn to the great letter to the Romans, where Paul seeks to help Jewish and Gentile believers whom he hasn’t met to make space for one another despite their many differences.

But 1 Thessalonians? Certainly, this early letter wasn’t a response to conflict among Jesus believers. Indeed, the primary issue there seems to be that they were all so fervently expecting the Lord’s immediate return that matters of daily life seemed of little importance—that is, until some of the believers died. Yet even here, in the midst all this eschatological fervour, Paul has within his core convictions the importance of how believers live together day by day.

Some of Paul’s Thessalonian imagery would have been familiar to the desert-dwellers at Qumran. Just like them, he was using Old Testament writings to reflect on “the day of the Lord.” But Paul takes a different approach than the Qumran War Scroll. For the members of the Dead Sea Scrolls community, the corrupt leaders in Jerusalem and their brutal Roman masters physically represented the “children of darkness.” Paul does recognize the reality of the dark powers in society when he notes: “People who get drunk get drunk at night” (v.6). He does directly criticize the Roman troops who enforced “peace and security” (v.3). But for Paul, being “children of light” is a community label, in the midst of the forces of darkness—not people but powers. In that very setting, Jesus’ followers can watch for the Day of the Lord with confidence, not fear or violence.

Paul knows that Old Testament prophets describing the Day of the Lord frequently described God as a warrior. In Isaiah 59:17, God puts on “righteousness/justice as breastplate,” a “helmet of salvation,” “garments of vengeance,” and a “cloak of zeal.” According to Tom Yoder Neufeld, who spoke yesterday, God’s warlike garments demonstrate God’s response to injustice.

In that case, the “cloak of zeal” images the passion that we need to respond to places of deep human suffering. At the same time, Paul recognized that zeal, or passion, even in the quest of what is good, can be bad. Paul might have been thinking about the “zeal of Phinehas” who slaughtered an Israelite with his foreign wife (Numbers 25). Perhaps he was reflecting on Elijah’s slaughter of the prophets of Baal. (As Millard Lind of blessed memory reminded us, while God ordered Elijah to challenge the prophets of Baal, God did not command him to kill them.) Paul certainly includes his own past in this dark company, certainly recalling the murder of Stephen. “As to zeal, I persecuted the church” (Philippians 3:6).

Jesus people are like the authors of the War Scroll, in much of our analysis of the political, economic, cultural and religious settings in we live. We know that the times are dark. However we describe particular things happening in our communities and our world, most of us would agree that world and even church events do not seem to be following God’s plan. The Thessalonian believers likely experienced their world in a similar way. So it is very significant that in this letter, Paul describes God’s people rather than God’s own self putting on armour. We are now the passionate ones, the zealous ones, entering into the world where God has placed us. But Paul’s verbal picture of Christian armour surprises us, in relationship to his source in Isaiah 59. We are putting on this armour, but rather than “garments of vengeance” and a “cloak of zeal,” what Jesus’ followers wear sounds like the virtues underlined in 1 Corinthians 13: the “breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”

So how does Paul’s earliest letter to the Thessalonians offer us guidance to live as children of light, especially when we disagree? We do know what time it is. No matter what else we may include in our practices and beliefs, we know that it is time for followers of Jesus to be found in the places where the darkness threatens—whether among victims of racial, religious or sexual violence and among those trapped by the crushing weight of poverty or the demons of substance abuse. We even must be present with people sitting beside us in church who hunger for a deeper experience of God in the face of overwork, over-entertainment or overeating. Paul’s counsel sounds simple: “So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already” (v.11).

One of the fundamental purposes of Mennonite World Conference has been for members of our Christian faith family to build each other up. But we all know that in many times and places we have not done this very well. The choice of location for the first MWC assembly in the global South raised big questions about the “political” appropriateness of place for an MWC meeting. In 1969, the MWC presidium, meeting in Kinshasa, DR Congo, confirmed plans to hold the 1972 assembly in Curitiba, Brazil. Motivated by a desire to hold the next gathering in the “Third World,” presidium members had taken note of the fact that meeting anywhere in South America, Africa, or Asia “meant that political and other conditions would be different from those which generally prevail in Europe or in North America.” They commented that such differences “were not considered insurmountable.” However, in late 1969, sixty European church leaders presented a dossier to Pope Paul criticizing Brazilian torture and repression of political dissenters. In response, Lutherans moved their 1970 world gathering from Brazil to France, and Mennonites in the Netherlands publicly raised the possibility that they might not send delegates to the assembly if it were held in Curitiba.

Throughout 1971 and up until the Curitiba assembly in July of 1972, debate about the appropriate action in the form of letters to the editor, news releases and official MWC statements raged through the pages of North American Mennonite periodicals. An international Mennonite group met in Curitiba in January 1971, and announced continuation of the plans to hold the assembly there. They announced that Brazilian authorities informed them of the regulation against political discussion during the assembly. The MWC executive secretary commented, in apparent agreement with this dictate: “To talk of politics would be (to most Mennonites around the world) a violation of the basic purposes of the Mennonite World Conference.” South American Mennonites agreed, labelling the reports of repression “propaganda and half-truths inspired by the communists.” In response to an official MWC report several months later, a Canadian Mennonite professor suggested satirically that no one should speak about “the lordship of Christ, for that has always been a clearly political category.” A writer in Ohio soon condemned that professor’s views as “extreme.”

Official MWC responses to the controversy made several efforts to defend the idea of a “non-political” gathering. However, over the course of the debate, the call to fellowship with sisters and brothers appeared a more persuasive argument in favour of meeting in Brazil. The president of the Conference of Mennonites in South America said those who wanted to withdraw from Curitiba did not show “a brotherly spirit,” while the MWC executive secretary noted that South American Mennonites “long for our fellowship and encouragement.” A writer reflecting ahead of time of the theme chosen for the assembly, “Jesus Christ Reconciles,” issued a call to Mennonites around the world to break down the barriers between them through practical expressions of relationship, an indirect call to attend the assembly.

Wounds from the conflict still smarted within the wording of materials developed for the 1972 assembly itself. Referring to Curitiba as the “smiling city,” the program booklet prepared by Brazilian Mennonites described the city’s tourist attractions, and briefly mentioned the coming of Mennonites to Brazil from Russia in 1929 and 1930. The program booklet further stated, “For the first time, Mennonites will be having their conference in a country belonging to the so-called ‘Third World.’” The booklet added: “We who live in Brazil are not conscious of a ‘corrupt,’ ‘terroristic,’ or ‘extortionate’ government.” Later, the official conference message indirectly acknowledged the questions that had been raised about meeting in Brazil: “As followers of Jesus Christ, we do raise a prophetic voice against all exercise of violent repression, persecution and unjust imprisonment, torture and death, particularly for political reasons.... As Mennonites who in their history have experienced what persecution represents, we feel that thankfulness for a quiet and undisturbed life cannot close our eyes to the many inequities that are inherent to the social and economic structures of today’s world.” 

While this tension among Mennonites was only partially resolved, elsewhere in our history, and in the history of Christian ancestors from other cultures, stories of building each other up are woven like tiny gold threads into the texture of institutional problems. These stories show us some pathways, not smooth or easy, but places to walk up steep and rocky ways in the middle of deep and unresolved conflicts.

One such model is Hilda of Whitby, a seventh-century English abbess. From the beginning Christians had differed sharply about when to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection. Some Christians honoured their origins in Judaism, while others resolutely refused to celebrate Easter on the same day as Passover. Many Celtic Christians, rooted in their own ancestral calendar, set the date of Easter according to those ancient customs. But they came under pressure from leaders in Rome, who continued to insist that Easter could never happen at Passover.

A decision-making synod met at Hilda’s monastery in 664. Although Hilda favoured the Celtic calendar, the Roman perspective was dominant. Hilda’s leadership was as an important reason why the Celtic Christians accepted the Roman decision even though it countered their beliefs and culture. Amazingly, after the meeting, Hilda continued to be remembered as a leader respected and consulted by all, even those who disagreed with her. Hilda was motivated by the command to “build each other up” even as she made place for views different from her own.

More than 1,000 years later, some Christians in the United States were developing a conscience about their complicity in the Atlantic slave trade. Quakers shared with early Anabaptists the protest against state coercion and use of violence. But Quakers also had among their members those who owned, bought and sold slaves. Quaker merchant John Woolman, wrote in his 1750s diary about a lengthy and painful debate in his faith community over this question. 

According to Woolman, “the case of slave-keeping lay heavy upon me,” knowing as he did that some fellow Quakers did own slaves. So, Woolman went first to the Quarterly meeting of Philadelphia Friends and then to the Yearly meeting. Although Woolman’s language sounds heavy and flowery, hearing his words directly also helps us to understand the weight of this process: “In this Yearly Meeting several weighty matters were considered, and toward the last that in relation to dealing with persons who purchase slaves. During the several sittings of the said meeting, my mind was frequently covered with inward prayer, and I could say with David, ‘that tears were my meat day and night.’ The case of slave-keeping lay heavy upon me, nor did I find any engagement to speak directly to any other matter before the meeting.”

Finally, however, Woolman spoke up: “In the difficulties attending us in this life nothing is more precious than the mind of truth inwardly manifested; and it is my earnest desire that in this weighty matter we may be so truly humbled as to be favoured with a clear understanding of the mind of truth, and follow it; this would be of more advantage to the Society than any medium not in the clearness of divine wisdom. The case is difficult to some who have slaves, but if such set aside all self-interest, and come to be weaned from the desire of getting estates, or even from holding them together, when truth requires the contrary, I believe way will so open that they will know how to steer through those difficulties.”

Despite his challenge to the economic interests of Quaker slaveholders, the meeting could not resolve the disagreement. But they did agree to put together a group of Friends who would visit and counsel with their slave-holding brothers and sisters. In 1758, Pennsylvania Quakers “made it an act of misconduct to engage in slave trading.” And although they continued to argue the question within their meetings for decades, Quakers played a larger and larger role in the abolitionist movement.

From our past, a major disagreement that led to the Anabaptist separation from the state-sponsored churches of Europe still troubles our relationships with other Christians. But now, we are talking with former Christian enemies about matters which often violently separated us 500 years ago. MWC theologians, together with both Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians, are holding conversations about the meaning of baptism today. To be Anabaptist still means, for most of us, to be baptized when we are old enough to understand the commitment we are making. So one Mennonite dialogue participant recently noted: “We are all trying to rethink the issues in terms of the 21st century, not only the 16th century.... [We all] are aware that only through the work of the Holy Spirit will this dialogue lead us closer to the mind of Christ.”

When we look at the past, or at churches far away from us, we may think their conflict issues are foolish. Does the date of Easter really matter? Does pouring or immersing in baptism really matter? When we get to questions like who can be ordained as a pastor, or whether members can serve in military forces, or how speaking in tongues shapes our worship, or who is in charge of the income from our church properties, or what language the leaders should speak, it is more complicated.

Today, some Mennonite leaders in the Congo are teaching sisters and brothers to ground their work in peace with God. They call for two disciplines in their work: “the discipline of discernment,” and a “radical Christocentric life. “Some leaders in the United States are calling to move forward as “a unified yet diverse community,” “unified because of the centrality of the person of Jesus Christ,” and refusing allow our disagreements “the power to cause division among us.” 

The Apostle Paul tells us that we know what time it is—it is a time for God’s people in Christ Jesus to be children of light in our world. His end-time words are not to call forth fear, violence or division. And they’re not meant to pull us out of living like Christ in the everyday. He wants all his churches to do what he is doing: build each other up. He insists even more strongly on this approach in the section that follows our passage: “Live in peace with each other…. warn those who are disorderly. Comfort the discouraged. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone. Make sure no one repays a wrong with a wrong, but always pursue the good for each other and everyone else. Rejoice always. Pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:13–17, CEB). In many settings in the Mennonite world, we are tempted instead to keep doing what we have been doing: fighting, splitting and using harsh and violent language about each other. It is time to take to heart Paul’s counsel and the unusual Christian stories we’ve just heard. They remind us that we can “build each other up,” even in the midst of life-wrenching differences.

May we reach into the pastoral, Christ-centred heart of Paul and those who heard his call so that our light as children of Light will make that difference, today, this year, and as long as God calls us to God’s mission on this earth.

—Nancy R. Heisey teaches biblical studies and church history at Eastern Mennonite University. She served as president of MWC from 2003–2009.