From Suffering to Solidarity

The Historical Seeds of Mennonite Interreligious, Interethnic, and International Peacebuilding

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Andrew Klager
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , October
     2015.
     428 pages.
     $49.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781625648006.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Mennonites and related Anabaptists have long been known for their pacifism. As such, in times of war and military drafts governments have counted them among the “historic peace churches” for the purposes of conscientious objector status. Andrew Klager has gathered together seventeen scholars and practitioners of multiple disciplines to explore the connection between Mennonite history and contemporary peacebuilding enactment. The range of authors is impressive—from historians to scholars of peace studies to workers abroad (from the North American context)—providing the reader with essays both academic in rigor and personal in reflection.

Klager states that the purpose of the book is “to show, through the lens of a particular ethno-religious group, how a historical infrastructure that preserves and disseminates narratives, stories, memories, and myths of suffering and nonviolence … in the midst of persecution can inspire identity groups … to act in solidarity with those who suffer in similar ways today” (2). To this end the book “is primarily about the role of history” in the pursuit of peace and justice (4). Thus, the seventeen essays are organized into three groups: (1) “Historical Conditions of Anabaptist-Mennonite Peacebuilding Approaches”; (2) “Analysis of the Historically Conditioned Mennonite Peacebuilding Approaches”; and (3) “Application of Mennonite Peacebuilding Approaches in Conflict Settings”

The first section is comprised of five essays that explore the historical contexts of Mennonite peacebuilding as emerging from significant traumatic experiences of martyrdom and persecutions from the 16th to 20th centuries. These provide an excellent, if episodic, introduction to Mennonite history. Walter Sawatsky’s essay on Soviet Mennonite history stands out for distilling the 20th century experience as an important corrective for much of how the Russian Mennonite story is often told—concluding with migrations to North America in the 1920s and the rise of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Here we read an account of tremendous Communist oppression throughout the Cold War and the resulting religious resilience of the group.

The second section offers an analysis of Mennonite peacebuilding and, as is the case with portions of part 1, documents areas where the peace witness of Mennonites is sorely lacking. This is mademost clear in Marlene Epp’s essay on women and violence experienced by them at the hands of their male co-religionists. Within this section too are calls for Mennonites to more fully embrace human rights law and, in this sense, become more modern, as suggested by Lowell Ewert (169-70). Yet, despite the claim that the book is about the role of history, that aspect for the most part wanes in part 2, and mostly disappears in part 3 except for some institutional history of the post-1970s decades. Fidele Ayu Lumeya, however, provides a very helpful historical context—both political and religious—of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the work of Mennonites there. Despite the ostensible significance of Mennonite history for this project, the contributions in the final section are the least historical of the essays and at times the connection to the Mennonite past seems a bit forced. 

As an introduction to the field of peacebuilding studies, we learn much of the thought and influence of John Paul Lederach who looms large in many of the essays. As important as his influence remains, at many points too this project highlights the organizational policymaking end of peacebuilding emanating from North America. Another significant theme that emerges in several of the essays is that of the professionalization of peacebuilding in terms of academic infrastructure formation and evolving relationships with government. It seems that peacebuilding can also be a story of assimilation into North American society from working on the issue of alternative service to the expansion of large-scale organizations such as the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) and the growth of academic programs and institutes.

There are some points that invite further consideration. Despite the appeal to history to locate Mennonite peacebuilding efforts, there are a couple of instances of brief commentary on Cold War American foreign policy that are swatted away as deficient without much consideration of the geopolitical realities for governments at the time. There are in some of the essays helpful critiques of Mennonite memory-making and simplistic mythologizing of the past, notably by the iconic Dirk Willems story and engraving—of his rescuing of his drowning persecutor—which is the most reproduced image and story from Martyrs Mirror used for this book’s cover. This is given serious attention but it also reminds us to take care in how representations of government policies and strategies are made.

From Suffering to Solidarity provides a valuable introduction to the field of Mennonite peacebuilding primarily in the latter decades of the 20th century. The reader comes away with a real sense of the magnitude of the work undertaken by a small religious group that tries to take its history seriously as it lives out a significant part of its Christian faith in the present. Though it reads at times, in a small number of essays, as a story of organizational triumph, in its overall conception and execution Klager’s volume is rich in all it attempts and accomplishes, including providing critique and acknowledgement that despite good work and good intentions people sometimes fail. The collection also demonstrates how a small group can have a significant impact in its willingness to adapt and evolve while reflecting the larger post-World War II Mennonite embrace of modernity in its emphasis on professionalization, institutionalization, and expertise. These essays are, collectively, an impressive introduction to 21st century Mennonite peacebuilding.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian Froese is Associate Professor of History at Canadian Mennonite University.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew P. Klager is on faculty at the Centre for Mennonite Studies, University of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, British Columbia, and is an adjunct professor at the Anabaptist-Mennonite Centre for Faith and Learning, Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia. He holds a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Glasgow, focusing on sixteenth-century Anabaptist history, and is the author of several articles and book chapters on Anabaptist origins, history of Christianity, Mennonites and peace and conflict studies, and interreligious peacebuilding between Muslims and Christians.

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