I grew up in a Mennonite church, attended a Mennonite college, and graduated from a Mennonite seminary. Along the way I was indoctrinated with the classic Anabaptist perspective that governments—with their use of coercive power and violence—are for the unredeemed, but that true Christians dedicate their lives to the service of the church: a counter-government that lives by the radical politics of Jesus’ nonviolent love.
The logical consequence of this philosophy was that for many years I did not involve myself in community politics or vote in government elections. If I was rejecting the coercive power of the state, how could I vote for people to exercise that power, or advocate for legislation that would be backed up by force? On the other hand, I was not an anarchist. I did not reject the necessity of government for the general population; I simply believed it was unneeded by genuine Christians. I was content to be a law-abiding citizen so long as the laws did not violate my conscience. Even the payment of taxes—despite the half that went to military-related expenses—was not objectionable to me. I figured it was the government’s money, and the government had a legitimate need to collect taxes for a wide variety of uses approved by public representatives. But as much as possible I ignored the government. I had a higher, better calling: serving and promoting the church.
But this neat two-kingdom theology contained numerous conundrums that pestered me. First, can nonviolent Christians live without a state government? Who is going to pave the roads and regulate commerce—and collect taxes from everyone to pay for it all? The church? I had to admit that even nonviolent Christians rely upon a non-Christian government for all sorts of needed services in a pluralistic society.
Second, can nonviolent Christians live without a government of laws and law enforcement? Don’t Christians, like everyone else, drive faster than the speed limit and need the deterrence of police writing speeding tickets? Don’t Christians call the police when they’ve been robbed, hoping for the recovery of their possessions and the apprehension of the robbers? It’s all fine and good to say I want to promote restorative justice, but in the meantime, I want the offenders caught!
Third, do nonviolent Christians realize what the consequences would be if the United States government disbanded its military forces? Following Jesus’ example, I have always advocated responding to threats and aggression with disarming grace, and overcoming evil with good. I can choose to do that in my personal life, but the government cannot without opening up the world to chaos and much greater violence. I had to admit that the presence of the military—our own as well as that of other nations—often effectively serves to deter war and greater violence. Ultimately, I would like to see all nations gradually replace their military forces with police forces, and rely on a United Nations peacekeeping force. But that cannot be done at this moment, and even that future dream still relies on the threat of force.
When I was a young pastor, I heard J. Lawrence Burkholder (former aid worker, philosopher, and Goshen College president) make an assertion that startled me at the time, but which now seems obvious: Governments can do more good on a much larger scale than can churches. It is government policies and actions that make possible such things as free public education, Social Security, food safety, clean water, and a fair marketplace. If we want to make the world a better place, we need to work with and involve ourselves in the government, not just the church. This does not diminish the unique and crucial role of the church in society, but it recognizes that the church is not all-sufficient.
As my attitudes toward the government shifted, I wondered if my biblical interpretations had been too narrowly focused on the evil of governments and empire as expressed in Luke 4:6 and the Book of Revelation. I paid more attention to Jeremiah’s advice to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile . . . for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The Book of Daniel was also instructive. Though it portrays pagan empires in the darkest terms, its counsel is that Jews can work faithfully within the system—as dangerous as that may be.
In classical Anabaptist theology (at least as I was taught it), the state is incapable of exhibiting Christ’s way of love. The Quakers, on the other hand, believe that the light of Christ is in everyone and everything, and we can appeal to that light and help make it shine. I think American history has shown the Anabaptists to have been right about how self-serving and violent a government can be, but it has also shown the Quakers to be right about how much better a government can become.
Several years ago, I read Henry Kissinger’s classic study, Diplomacy. Despite Kissinger’s own commitment to a heartless realpolitik, I was surprised by the idealism he often reported in American foreign policy during the 20th century. Several presidents and State Department heads, time and again, favored policies that promoted fairness and self-determination in other nations rather than just the narrow self-interests of the United States. The patriotic idealism of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a movie that during my childhood inspired me to want to run for Congress, isn’t a complete fantasy. Such idealism is part of our political mix. Sometimes the government does important things that look suspiciously decent and even Christ-like.
Martin Luther King Jr. called on the United States to live up to its own highest ideals of liberty and equality. He blended his appeal with biblical allusions to justice, and he called on the conscience of all Americans to demand a change in the laws. Through the heroic nonviolent sacrifice of tens of thousands of boycotters and protestors, civil rights legislation was finally enacted. Here we see an ironic combination: nonviolent action for the sake of the passage of laws which will be enforced by the coercive power of the government.
I believe in Jesus’ way of nonviolent love, and I believe in the church as a communal expression and political witness to that love. But I also believe in the government, in particular the United States government, more than I ever have before. I want this experiment in democracy to succeed. I want the ideals of liberty, equality and fair representation to shine in the hearts of people in our own nation as well as in other nations. I want the United States to use force as little as possible, but I accept that it must enforce laws within our nation, and it may even need to use violence when the alternative would be to allow even greater violence.
As a Christian, I practice and promote the ways of peace. I hope that if enough of us do so around the world we can gradually reduce trust in weaponry and the easy acceptance—even glorification—of violence. If I were not a pastor, perhaps I would become a politician. Because whether it’s through the ministries of the church, or the programs and policies of the government, I want to make the world a better place.