Nonresistant love

Feb 8, 2018 by

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I was 17 the first time a friend asked me the question, “So what do Mennonites believe?” In a typical Mennonite response, I checked my way through a list of unique positions that my church holds, one of which is the idea of nonresistance. “Nonresistance? Is that, like, similar to pacifism?” Oh, no. Is it? Let me consult my references…

The practice of some version of nonresistance or pacifism is perhaps the only link that unites Anabaptist churches across the spectrum today. Whether Old Order Amish or liberal Mennonite, our churches teach the ethic of love and nonviolence as outlined in Article 18 of the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith.

Yet as Anabaptist young people, most of us think that the word “nonresistance” is a sophisticated way of saying that we don’t fight in wars, and it doesn’t seem to practically affect our lives except for the moment when we scrawl “conscientious objector” on our Selective Service form. By focusing on what this teaching leads us not to do, many of us have become increasingly uncomfortable with talking about nonresistance. We may not even be sure whether we actually believe the doctrine ourselves. In order to recapture a biblical picture of nonresistance, we need to understand its relation to the kingdom of God and its positive, others-focused orientation.

Kingdom perspective

Jesus came declaring that the kingdom of God is at hand, and his teachings laid out the rights and responsibilities of citizens in that kingdom. Read Matthew 5-7, and you’ll find that the laws of Jesus’ kingdom are like those of no nation on earth. They’re radical, counter-cultural and topsy-turvy. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer him the left cheek. Love your enemies. Pray for your persecutors. Whatever you want others to do to you, do that to them.

This is an ethic based on sacrificial love, and here is where the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith begins. “. . . A life of love excludes retaliation and revenge. God pours His love into the hearts of Christians so that they desire the welfare of all men.” No nation today would survive with statements like these in its constitution! But Christians who live by them show the value of finding God’s kingdom and offer a compelling witness of peace to a world tired of turmoil.

The language of the kingdom is the right context for understanding nonresistance. If you are a Christian, your national responsibility is not primarily to the United States of America or to Canada, but to the kingdom of God. In a sense, you’ve transferred your citizenship, and your actions should represent the nation of which you are now a part. Incidentally, this is what separates nonresistance from pacifism. Though there are Christian pacifists, pacifism is primarily a secular political view whose methods and motivations are not kingdom-based.

The idea of heavenly citizenship has led many Christians, Anabaptists among them, to steer clear of the ways our political nations use to influence people. This is why we do not serve in the military or in security roles that require the use of lethal force, but also why we do not run for political office and many of us choose not to vote. Instead, we work to proclaim the peace and love of the kingdom, found only in Christ. It’s hard to peacefully convince people of Christ’s love for them if you’re killing, oppressing or politically coercing them! We wage war by a different method, and our weapons are words of truth and love in action.

Positive focus

Biblical nonresistance is an extension of the sacrificial love for others that Jesus taught and modeled throughout His life. In fact, as the Confession states, “The supreme example of nonresistance is the Lord Jesus Himself.” Jesus accepted false accusations, torture and death for the sake of the cross. Understanding and embracing love that truly seeks others’ good can also motivate us to practice nonresistance in a range of practical scenarios, not just questions of violence. We don’t shoot others because we believe their lives are valuable. But we also don’t drag others to court, because a drawn-out legal battle builds up walls rather than tearing them down. And we don’t respond with accusations or demand vindication when we are slandered, because we seek peace among brothers rather than strife. Love is the positive reason for the negative positions, the “do” behind the “don’t.”

The Confession itself ends the discussion of nonresistance with a call to action. “. . . We must aggressively, at the risk of life itself, do whatever we can for the alleviation of human distress and suffering.” The pursuit of biblical nonresistance isn’t weak, passive or cowardly. Boldly loving others like Jesus did might lead us into dangerous situations, and it might involve us getting hurt or sidelined. But as citizens of a heavenly nation, we are free to love across all boundaries, for we represent a holy kingdom more permanent and glorious than any earthly country and a King who will triumph in the end.

In what everyday situations might you be called to practice nonresistance? How can we conceive of nonresistance as an active position of love rather than a passive stance of fear?

Seth Lehman is a graduate student studying mathematics and working as a math teacher and tutor at Indiana University. He lives in Bloomington, Ind., with his wife, Heather, and twin boys, and is a member of a Biblical Mennonite Alliance congregation. This post originally appeared at Radi-Call, a blog with weekly posts “Calling young Anabaptists back to The Root.”

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