Practice before the storm

Wednesday night

When he was 17, my grandfather was forced to fight in World War II (WWII). When I started talking about my plans to study peace and peace theology, he got a little upset. He said: “You talk about peace and war, but you don’t know what you’re talking about! When war comes, you don’t have any choice. There is nothing you can do!” At that time, I believed that what Western Europe was missing during World War II was good peace theology. Which we have now, so we’ll be fine. Or so I thought.

A few months ago (and about 80 years after WWII), war broke out in Ukraine. And while our brothers and sisters in Ukraine face the evils of war, many Mennonites in Western Europe are shocked by the nearness and the reality of war. Our many years of good peace theology are forgotten. We feel again like my grandfather felt: “There is nothing we can do”. Suddenly, for many peace-believing Christians, the only possible option is violent engagement. We affirmed nonviolence when our context was peaceful, but in the face of war we see nonviolent resistance as naive and unrealistic. We have many good peace theologians, but now what they were saying has become irrelevant. Today, we are afraid that war may overtake Europe. Suddenly our theology and our beliefs feel obsolete. A storm took over Europe, and our convictions collapsed. Storms tend to do that: they break the things that we thought were solid and strong.

The Scripture we read today is the closing argument of the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon is a collection of teachings of Jesus, addressed to people living in difficult times. At that time, Palestine was under Roman occupation, and the Jews struggled under the oppression of a violent regime. Heavy taxation, forced labour and sexual abuse were part of their daily life. Yet, Jesus calls them, the people oppressed by imperial Rome, to collectively love their enemies and to not resist the evildoer. And he warns them that this will be really hard to do, and that they may pay it with their lives.

Somehow, the crowds seem to like what they hear. “Wow, Jesus sure has a lot of charisma, see how he teaches! The authority!” Jesus probably knows that many of his listeners are just curious. They’re here to see what the fuss is about, to listen, discuss, comment… and they won’t act on his teachings or practise them. But a storm is coming that will put all their ideas and beliefs to the test. For the people sitting on the mount and listening to Jesus, the war with Rome is about to get a lot worse. For Matthew’s readers, persecution will afflict those who decide to follow the Way of Christ. And these storms will break some of the opinions and beliefs that felt so very solid.

However, there is a way for beliefs to survive the storm. Jesus talks about two houses, one built on rock, the other on sand. The storm came for both. “The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house”, but one house fell and the other one did not. The difference between the two houses is their foundation. The foundation of the house is not believing or not in Jesus. Jesus tells us that the rock foundations are the practice of his words.

In the story he tells, both men have heard the words of Jesus, but only the wise man acted on them. Other translations have “put them into practice.” It’s acting on the words of Jesus, again and again, day in and day out, that prepares us for the storm. Because the storm will come anyway. There’s only one way for us to stand firm in the storm: practise! Practise the love of enemies, practise nonviolent resistance, practice disarming the oppressor without harming the oppressor. This is something we can all practise together.

If we practise together, we learn together. Before I was a pastor, I was an occupational therapist. The core idea in occupational therapy is that the brain and the body learn by doing. When we do something new, neurons in our body connect in new ways. When we repeat and practise, the connections grow stronger. After a while, we can do that new thing in different situations, without having to think about it anymore.

When we practise, we learn. That also means that if we want to learn, we need to practise. In theory, I believe I could run a marathon. But I’ll only be able to do it if I practise running. The same goes for a radical peace witness, or nonviolent resistance. In Western Europe, when we Mennonites talk about peace, we spend a lot of time talking about how we should act in different situations. And most of the time, that’s all we do. When the war actually comes, that’s when we should start doing what we’ve been discussing. But the middle of the storm is not the right time to learn how to act.

Don’t wait for the storm to figure out if your foundation is solid. Make sure it is. How? With practice! Mennonites are used to hearing calls to nonviolent resistance at Assembly.

At the 1967 MWC Assembly in Amsterdam, Vincent Harding called on Mennonites to come alongside our Black sisters and brothers in the freedom struggle, to come alongside the many revolutionary movements around the world.

At the 1984 Assembly in Strasbourg, Ron Sider urged the church to develop a highly trained peacemaking task force – which sparked the creation of Community Peacemakers Team.

But most of us have stayed on the sidelines, where things are comfortable. In a nice little house on the beach.

What does it look like to practise love of the enemy on a collective level in our time and place? It may very well look like nonviolent war resistance. Maybe Mennonites could prepare for war resistance with an “anti-military service,” like a nonviolent resistance boot camp. Nations prepare for war with military service. There is first-aid training for emergency health care. It might be time for us to create a widespread training for regular church people to learn and practise the basics of civil resistance.

Some people do and will commit their whole life to nonviolent peacemaking, and we desperately need people like that. But we also need a foundation of practice for the whole church.

In most of Europe, we have more experience in discussion and debate than we do in activism, war resistance, revolution or social change. We need the help of the global church if we want to find our footing in the field of practice. We know that we have brothers and sisters who have experience in nonviolent resistance. Please train us. Practise with us. So we can learn together. That’s how we’ll hold fast when the storms come.

—Salomé Haldemann is a trained occupational therapist and a graduate of theology and peace studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, USA. She interns as a pastor of Eglise Evangélique Mennonite de Béthel, Neuf-Brisach, France.

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier October 2022.