Pacifist policing and proactive discipleship

Sep 14, 2015 by

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Felix Manz needs no introduction. Nearly 500 years after he was martyred in Zurich, his legacy is arguably the most enduring in Anabaptist/Mennonite history. Milton Whiteman, meanwhile, needs to be made known. He should have the same kind of influence on the 21st-century church as Manz has had for centuries.

From left, Milton Whiteman, Malcolm Wenger, Alfred Habegger and William Fightingbear, at the Lame Deer church for Whiteman’s ordination to eldership on April 2, 1950. — Mennonite Library and Archives

From left, Milton Whiteman, Malcolm Wenger, Alfred Habegger and William Fightingbear, at the Lame Deer church for Whiteman’s ordination to eldership on April 2, 1950. — Mennonite Library and Archives

Whiteman was ordained at Lame Deer, Mont., in 1950 — the first member of the Northern Cheyenne to be credentialed for ministry by the General Conference Mennonite Church.

He also worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a reservation police officer, an occupation seemingly at odds with Mennonite pacifism. But Whiteman was able to reconcile the two.

He refused to use a gun.

Whiteman developed a reputation as an effective lawman who didn’t carry a weapon. He once apprehended a murder suspect by nonviolently drawing him out of his hideout.

The Manz and Whiteman stories have the obvious similarity of individuals facing danger, even death, in ways consistent with their religious convictions. But they also have significant differences.

Manz has been and remains instrumental in shaping the Mennonite tenet that the way of Christ is directly opposed to the ways of the world, that practicing peace and love can put the faithful at risk. Undergirding it is the belief in a clear distinction between the holy kingdom and the secular realm, albeit one that’s extraordinarily difficult to navigate.

Yet that line has never been as clear as purported. Otherwise, Christian history — including Anabaptist history — wouldn’t be marred by splits and dissension since the very beginning as adherents struggled to determine what belongs to church and world.

Over the years those distinctions have become even more blurred as Mennonite life and thought have become more expansive. Instead of defining the faith by what believers aren’t allowed to do, it emphasizes what they are supposed to do. For example, Mennonites shouldn’t just oppose war but work for peace and reconciliation in all aspects of life. That can change how we relate to the world.

It doesn’t mean the Anabaptist tenet of separation from the world should be abandoned or watered down, but it does require a continuous evaluation as to its meaning.

Which is why Whiteman is so compelling and so relevant today. His story admittedly lacks what many might consider Manz’s moral purity, with its obvious good and bad guys. But the account acknowledges the complexity of pursuing faithfulness in a political, religious and economic culture that is the antithesis of 16th-century Switzerland.

During the 20th century, particularly after the alternative service experiences of World War II, Mennonites began developing a more proactive, rather than reactive, form of discipleship.

Trying to help the hungry, thirsty, naked and imprisoned led to the realization that such efforts also need to address the causes of those conditions. And that has meant Mennonites can be unequally yoked, as previous generations would have called it, such as by joining in ecumenical and interfaith projects and engaging in political activities.

Thus Mennonites have come to accept, even embrace, at least some degree of earthly power, as a means to extend God’s healing and hope to all of creation. Faith, then, is as much a balancing act as a cosmological line.

Not much is known about Whiteman’s pacifist policing. While Manz is enshrined in the Martyrs Mirror, Whiteman only appears briefly in Lois Barrett’s 1983 book The Vision and the Reality: The Story of Home Missions in the General Conference Mennonite Church (and excerpted in gameo.org, the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online).

Nevertheless, it’s apparent that safeguarding the welfare of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana didn’t have to mean the use of violence or repudiation of his Mennonite faith. Whiteman still demonstrated separation from the world and a renunciation of power. Like many of us, he sought balance. Unlike many of us, he seemed to have found it.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.


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