Peace Theology

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From Nonresistance to Nonviolence--New Accents in the Peace Discussion

Since at least the middle of the 20th century, peace theology among Mennonites has become one of the most distinctive expressions of theological reflection in the spirit of the Anabaptist movement, the strongest marker of Anabaptist identity. At the same time, Mennonite peace theology is neither uniform nor normative in its claims. Rather, it has emerged out of a strong and consistent emphasis on the principle of discipleship and a foundation in the local congregation as a peace church. Whereas the initial focus was on conscientious objection, or nonresistance, the relationship to the state, and a self-understanding as a separatist, confessing congregation, today the concept of nonviolence is increasingly finding expression as a foundational principle in every aspect of theology. Nonviolence is much more than an ethical choice; it is itself a substantive focus of theological reflection, dialogical methodology, and engagement. Nonviolence has become a "regulative principle" of all Mennonite theology.[1] A growing number of nuanced exegetical contributions has also contributed significantly to this.[2]

At least three political and ecclesial developments during the 20th century have spurred this sustained, creative--and somewhat self-critical--discourse. The first impetus has been the major social upheavals during and after two world wars, which directly affected Mennonites in Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Americas, along with the subsequent East/West confrontation during the "Cold War" era, including the more recent challenge of pluralism, including religious pluralism.[3] Second, Mennonites have been increasingly assimilated into their respective social contexts. Starting from a position of absolute nonresistance as a "persecuted church" and a posture of separatism driven by external toleration and internal convictions--reflecting, in part, the principles of the Schleitheim Articles (1527)-- Mennonites, especially in Germany, gradually abandoned these defining features of their identity toward the end of the 19th century in favor of more differentiated forms of engagement within modern democracies that encouraged greater political participation and changes in their attitudes toward war, violence, freedom, and social responsibility. These challenges to the Mennonite self-understanding as a distinct "community of believers" have also led to corresponding changes in theological reflection regarding their relationship to the state. Third, the ecumenical movement has led to an increasing openness among other churches to engage Mennonites in dialogue. This growing ecumenism has stimulated intensive discussion and critical engagement, challenging Mennonites to explain their position to other Christians and leading to more independent approaches in peace theology.[4]

Theological initiatives from North America had a significant influence on other Mennonites around the world, eventually giving rise to a sustained self-understanding as a historic peace church. By the early 1990s, the growing differentiation of Mennonite peace theology could be described topologically.[5] The ten types of peace theological approaches noted below all share: (a) a claim to be part of the Anabaptist tradition; (b) a fundamental rejection of lethal violence as an option for believers in that tradition; (c) an appeal to the Bible as the highest authority; and (d) a primary loyalty to the church community rather than to society at large. Since then, many newer developments, increasingly from elsewhere around the world have emerged, calling for modifications to this typology.

Defenselessness and Radicalized Two-Kingdom Doctrine

  1. The position of Historic Nonresistance--advocated especially by Guy F. Hershberger, Harold S. Bender, John C. Wenger--emphasized an almost literal obedience to the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount not to resist evil, to turn the other cheek, and to love one's enemies, for "blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5-7). This attitude finds its clearest expression in conscientious objection to military service during wartime. It does not expect to transform the social order, since it assumes that the church holds to a fundamentally alternative set of values than society. Political engagement may be a task and a calling for individual Christians, but it is not for the church as a whole.
  2. Out of this emerged the category of Apolitical Nonresistance, which made a strong appeal to the dualistic themes of apocalyptic traditions (Sanford Shetler et al.). This attitude can still be found today, especially among conservative Mennonites.
  3. Neo-Sectarian Pacifism can be described as a newer variant of this radicalized two-kingdom doctrine. This position recognizes that the state may legitimately use force in certain situations but regards nonviolence as the only legitimate option for Christians (Ted Koontz et al.).

Active Nonviolence with the Church as an Alternative Society

Here, peace theology is no longer reflected as an attitude of pure denial, but calls for a pro-active nonviolence, which regards the church as an alternative community to the dominant society. Several variations of this have emerged.

  1. Radical Pacifism, represented by "evangelicals" such as Dale Brown, Ron Sider, and others, combines a radical understanding of non-violence as an expression of discipleship with a commitment to social and political action influenced by the thought of Mahatma Gandhi and Gene Sharp.
  2. John H. Yoder, John Driver, J. Denny Weaver, and then by many others have developed a pacifism of the messianic community. This attitude proceeds from a confession of Jesus Christ as the "Lord of the world." Following Jesus--including, and especially, in the form of nonviolence--is only possible through the life and redemptive work of Christ: his nonviolent surrender to death on the cross, and his resurrection that overcomes death and violence. The Church is the gathering of those who profess this "way of the cross" and live in alternative communities, oriented to the reality of Christ’s revelation and the values of the Kingdom of God ("messianic community"), that contrast with the mainstream of the dominant culture.

    This completely renewed life becomes a credible witness to secular society, especially in love of enemies. The church expresses its social responsibility precisely in this. Peacemaking is the central content of a life committed to following Jesus. In a certain sense, this is also a radical understanding of pacifism.[6]

    John H. Yoder's contribution has been to describe this conviction through historical, exegetical and theological research as the "politics of Jesus," presenting it as an actual possibility to be implemented in within the world of "powers and authorities." Yoder’s decade-long engagement in ecumenical work contributed significantly to the reception of this peace ethic framework. Jesus' death on the cross is the response of a fallen creation to the unconditional love of God as revealed in the incarnation of Christ. The suffering Jesus experienced is also a model for the believers as a church, who thereby participate in the life and death of Jesus. In this way, the church is distinguished from the world. At the same time, the church remains completely related to the world because it testifies to the reality of the kingdom of God-- above all, through its "messianic" way of living.

    Following John Driver, J. Denny Weaver also presented, in the context of this basic approach, a related alternative interpretation of the doctrine of atonement, or Jesus' death on the cross. Most other understandings of the atonement--the Eastern Church’s concept of a legal transaction between Christ and Satan, for example, or the satisfaction view of atonement by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), or Peter Abelard's (1079-1142) understanding of the revelation of love--implicitly legitimized violence by presenting Jesus only as a voluntary victim and ultimately attributing the violence inflicted on him to God himself. Against the conventional separation of the person and the work of Christ, Weaver argued that Jesus’s death was the logical consequence of his nonviolent journey. A "narrative Christology" that describes Jesus as the one who embodied the kingdom of God on earth clearly reveals that the political powers of the time were responsible for Jesus' violent death. In the resurrection, however, Christ overcame these powers and thus remained the active subject in these events (Christus Victor), rather than a passive victim. In this way, the narrative of Jesus becomes good news, since being a Christian means, above all, to allow oneself to participate in this same Jesus narrative, which begins with a social message: the liberation from direct and systemic violence.

    Newer approaches that draw directly on Yoder’s work--many of them by non-Mennonite theologians--are also based on this "narrative approach." The most prominent representatives, the Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas and many of his students, have taken up Yoder's basic ideas and creatively developed them further. The Baptists Glen Stassen and David Gushee also see themselves inspired by John H. Yoder, as well as by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in their wide-ranging Kingdom Ethics (2003).
  3. The Realistic Pacifism promoted by Duane K. Friesen, Gerald W. Schlabach, and others, is closely related to radical pacifism and the concept of the messianic community. However, it goes much further in its optimism that nonviolent action can bring about social change. Friesen incorporates research and insights from non-theological disciplines to emphasize the need for the church to ally itself with secular movements for the purpose of peacebuilding. Like his theological mentor Gordon D. Kaufman, Friesen argues for taking post-Enlightenment culture seriously, dominated as it is by a scientific worldview and other important epistemological shifts. Even if a universalistic Christian triumphalism is no longer conceivable in this context, a distinctive Christian testimony in word and deed remains both possible and necessary. Clearly, coercion and violence in matters of faith must be excluded. If the church is indeed empowered by the Holy Spirit to be the body of Christ, then it will shape its witness in a non-conformist way vis-à-vis the forces of modern culture, which are characterized by an ontology of violence. The "myth of redemptive violence" must be challenged. The anticipation of the kingdom of God leads Christians in the present precisely to assure responsibility for the world.[7]

    Friesen thus resolutely opposes a dualistic ethic. Nonconformism and nonviolence do not drive us to flee from the world, but to seek "the welfare of the city" (Jeremiah 29:7). In the prevailing culture of today, it is not enough to simply reject violence; rather, creative, persuasive, and theologically grounded alternatives must be developed. Friesen has always advocated for feasible ways of implementing this non-violent approach to peacebuilding. Together with Gerald Schlabach--and in intensive engagement with Roman Catholic peace theology--Friesen and others have introduced the suggestive concept of "just policing" as a way of responding to the dilemma between consistently rejecting all military force on the one hand, and the responsibility to protect those directly threatened by violence on the other.[8] They helpfully distinguish between military force (violence)--which is to be rejected--and acceptable police force (coercion)--which aims at restricting public force within the democratically legitimized oversight of law. The latter, they argue, should have a monopoly on the use of force. In the exercise of such coercion, human rights are to be respected, personal dignity is to be protected, and all actions should be oriented toward minimizing and preventing violence.

Justice as the Primary Responsibility of the Church in a Pluralistic Democracy

  1. Drawing on the concept of social responsibility, J. Lawrence Burkholder and others have taken up H. Richard Niebuhr's criticism of the Historic Peace Churches.[9] Although Niebuhr embraced nonviolence as a personal option, he argued for an "ethic of responsibility" that was prepared to make "ethical compromises" in the interests of others if the situation demanded it, after weighing the outcomes. The so-called "Canadian Pacifism" of Frank Epp and John H. Redekop can be classified as a variation of this position, which sees in modern democracy an ideal opportunity for political participation by Christians.
  2. Arnold Snyder, Perry Yoder and others have advocated for a liberationist pacifism, drawing on liberation theology and the principle of God's "preferential option" for the poor and oppressed. Here, the quest for justice is granted a status at least equal to, if not higher than, nonviolent peacebuilding. Nonviolence as an absolute norm can legitimately be questioned in favor of justice.
  3. As yet a further variant Gordon D. Kaufman promoted the principle of nonviolent governance already in the 1970s.[10] Here, unconditional charity--not nonviolence per se--becomes the highest ethical principle. In politics this may well lead to decisions and actions that are contrary to one’s personal conviction. Especially in his later publications, Kaufman developed the "implicit axiom" of nonviolence and peacemaking into a creative, radically pluralistic, theology of peace. The intention of his "constructive theology" is to repeatedly modify traditional Christian beliefs.[11] While Kaufman once spoke of the "central symbols" of Christian faith ("God" and "Christ"), the concept of "creativity" became central in his later work. This creativity found expression in "Jesus" and is the essence of humanity. Kaufman’s choice of terms was an attempt to overcome anthropomorphic language. To acknowledge God means, above all, to accept one's own biological and historical limitations. The goal is not to make judgments about "right" or "wrong." Indeed, by liberating oneself from one's own absolutist claims can help one overcome a self-important arrogance toward alternative forms of thought and belief, thereby clearing the way for genuine dialogue. In his opinion, this consequence is itself an expression of an ethic that is inherent in the claims of a peace church. In a similar way Kaufman’s understanding of Mennonite pacifism in the sense of "divine creativity," included a commitment to the preservation of creation as an integral part of Mennonite peace theology.

Church as an Ecumenical Community for "Just Peace" in the World

In addition to these diverse formulations of peace ethics and practice, newer approaches can be found in the work of A. James Reimer, Fernando Enns and others, who have called for a more comprehensive theological approach embedded in an ecumenical perspective. These theologians are seeking to anchor peace ethics even more strongly in the broader ecumenical discussion in the hopes of discovering additions or corrections to their own confessional positions. The universality of the "body of Christ" exceeds the tendency to limit the discussion to issues raised within the Mennonite peace church.

For A. James Reimer faith--as the existential encounter with God--remains the precondition of all theology ("faith seeking understanding"). Simply naming the Bible as a norm for faith and life is not enough; rather, an account must be given of how Scripture is to be interpreted, for the tensions and contradictions of the biblical witness itself must be taken seriously, especially with regard to the question of violence. As the formation of doctrine in the early church demonstrates, philosophy has always proven itself as a useful tool for understanding faith. Therefore, the traditional sources of Christian orthodoxy--e.g., creeds and early church doctrinal formulations--should also be considered in peace theology and ethics. In a deliberate dissociation from John H. Yoder, Reimer did not regard the so-called "Constantinian turn" as the fall of the church, but rather as an illustration of the irresolvable dilemma of following the path of nonviolent love on the one hand, while also, on the other hand, standing up for universal, consensual social values that ensure justice and the protection of the weak.[12] Thus, Reimer did not advocate elevating a particular position in peace ethics as the norm of the church. Rather, he called for the individual examination of conscience--to be sure, always in conversation with fellow believers. In the end, an ecclesiology emerges characterized, above all, by an alternative perspective: the model of the "voluntary peace church" that seeks to live out its calling in a variety of ways.

Like Reimer, Fernando Enns, has situated theological reflections on peace within a Trinitarian understanding of God, giving it a decisive role in structuring and ordering systematic theology so as to guard against distorting or minimizing blurring basic theological insights. The suffering of Jesus can only be adequately understood within the larger context of creation (God), reconciliation (Christ), and consummation of life (Holy Spirit). This serves to remind us, Enns argues, that the God of the Hebrew scripture--the God who "liberates Israel from the house of bondage"--is identical with the God of the New Testament, who became human in the form of Jesus Christ and whose living Spirit remains present still today in order to liberate the world from its violence and to lead it to its intended purpose. Implied in this approach is a dynamic understanding of God’s presence in the world shaped by the powerful movement of love within the divine, trinitarian community. The basic insight of faith is that believers "in Christ" participate in this divine community. The kingdom of God is therefore not established through human efforts; rather, because of this pre-existing participation in the kingdom of God, Christians can live as if they are truly liberated from violence.

In the Trinitarian understanding of God a peace church ecclesiology finds an appropriate rationale for a way of a life that overcomes violence--a model of community that does not exclude others but creates a new identity. This identity is not constituted by moral behavior but liberated for responsible living. It leads not to legalistic separation from the world, but always moves outward from God’s grace to establish anew the divine relationship with all of creation. Individuality and community, independence and relationality, boundaries and openness, identity and communication can thus all be described as complementary.

From here, an appropriate perspective on the reality of violence in the world can emerge that is truly in accordance with Christ. Enns expands the understanding of violence to include a theological definition, which corresponds on the one hand to its centrality within the message of the Gospel, following the ecumenical confession of the triune God, while also, on the other hand, avoiding the danger of overlooking the pervasive reality of latent indirect violence (psychological, structural and cultural violence) alongside direct (physical) violence. Thus, violence is defined on three levels of relationships: the individual, the interpersonal, and the intercreational. The use of force (Gewalt)--understood here as violence, rather than coercion or power--includes a) physical or psychological acts of denying, violating, or destroying a human’s personhood--including one’s free will, integrity, dignity; all that, which is encompassed by their divine image as well as his justification by grace; b) the denial of the community that God calls into existence through creation, reconciliation, and consummation, and that becomes possible in just relationships among human beings; and c) the violation or destruction of nature, the refusal to respect creation as a gift of God or to steward it as “God's household."

Such a definition already provides clues regarding the basic axioms that can lead to peace-building--namely, every human being, man or woman, regardless of age, ethnicity or skin color, religious affiliation or sexual orientation, is created in the image of God (Genesis 1). This foundation of human dignity remains unassailable. Christians believe that, in Christ, God has restored and renewed the relationship between himself and creation, making the relationship eternally and unshakable. Human beings are justified in God’s presence and thus liberated to live in just relationships. Accordingly, no human being can be reduced to his deeds, but remains justified before God, even if violent deeds a person commits must be condemned. Thus, Christian faith sees life itself as "sanctified"--often still broken, to be sure, but in the confidence that God's Spirit will complete its healing. For Christians, the unconditional commitment to the protection of human rights is not grounded in a humanistic idea of individual freedom, but in these beliefs shared by the ecumenical community.

In this way, the question of peace becomes directly and inextricably linked to the question of justice--or Just Peace.[13] For a long time it seemed that peace ethics from a Mennonite perspective had to choose between nonviolent peacebuilding (at the expense of justice) and an unconditional commitment to justice (at the expense of nonviolence). It is precisely here that the approaches of restorative justice or transformative justice, which have emerged out of practical experience in the work of peace and reconciliation, open up new possibilities.[14]

While Enns has framed this approach primarily in conversation with international ecumenism,[15] Reimer has also sought to apply it directly to interreligious dialogue.[16]

See also: Theology, Mennonite; Peace

This article was originally published in 2012 in German for the Mennonitisches Lexikon (MennLex) and has been made available to GAMEO with permission. The German version of this article is available at


  1. Cf. the "regulative principle" in George Lindbeck, Christian Doctrine as Grammar of Faith, 1994.
  2. Cf. Millard C. Lind, Perry Yoder, Willard Swartley, Moisés Mayordomo, Elaine Enns and Ched Myers.
  3. Herfried Münkler, Die neuen Kriege, 2003.
  4. Cf. the contributions to the Puidoux Theological Conferences in the 1950s or the "Decade to Overcome Violence, 2001-2010" organized by the World Council of Churches.
  5. John Richard Burkholder and Barbara Nelson Gingerich, eds., Mennonite Peace Theology, 1991.
  6. Cf. Hans-Jürgen Goertz, John Howard Yoder: Radikaler Pazifismus im Gespräch, 2013.
  7. Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's thought on the "pro-existence" (Pro-Existenz) of the church.
  8. "Responsibility to Protect."--Cf. Fernando Enns, Ökumene und Frieden, 220-237.
  9. Cf. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 1951.
  10. Gordon D. Kaufman, Nonresistance and Responsibility, 1979.
  11. Fernando Enns, Ökumene und Frieden, 327 f.
  12. Cf. A. James Reimer, Christians and the War, 2010.
  13. Fernando Enns and Annette Mosher, ed., Just Peace, 2013.
  14. Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses, 2005; Jarem Sawatsky, Justpeace Ethics, 2008.
  15. Konrad Raiser and Ulrich Schmitthenner, eds., Just Peace, 2012.
  16. Harry Huebner and Hajj Muhammad Legenhausen, eds., Peace and Justice, 15-20.

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Author(s) Fernando Enns
Date Published May 2022

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MLA style

Enns, Fernando. "Peace Theology." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. May 2022. Web. 10 Aug 2022.

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Enns, Fernando. (May 2022). Peace Theology. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 10 August 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, May 2022. All rights reserved.

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