Marlene Epp

The Conrad Grebel Review 17, no. 2 (Spring 1999)

The photograph on the cover of this issue of The Conrad Grebel Review was taken by a Mennonite visiting conflict-ridden Vietnam in 1966. At the time, this depiction of an American relief worker planting a watermelon seedling with a Vietnamese woman was likely viewed as a triumph of peacemaking in the midst of war. Thirty years later, a postcolonial mindset may cause us to see other layers of meaning–a paternalism of west over east, even impressions of sexism and racism in the relationship between the helper and the helped.

Seen through this dichotomous lens, the image is a suitable accompaniment to Perry Bush’s revisionist look at Mennonite involvement in the Vietnam war. Initially prepared as the C. Henry Smith Peace Lecture for 1998, Bush’s article demonstrates how “the call to service and the imperatives of peacemaking clashed unmistakably” as Mennonite efforts to aid victims of the war indirectly supported the continuance of the bombing that necessitated aid in the first place. His perceptive account demonstrates that the burden of Mennonite history is not just the heavy mantle of nonconformist pacifism, but also the weight of complicity in militarism.

Bush addresses, by way of historical case study, an ongoing locus of Mennonite theology and self-understanding, that is the peace position. For many contemporary Mennonites, a pacifist stance is the essence of adherence to an Anabaptist tradition. Yet there is ongoing debate about what is “essential”–what is at the core of–Anabaptist theology. This question is explored in different ways in three provocative articles by J. Denny Weaver, Thomas Finger, and P. Travis Kroeker.

Both Weaver and Finger examine twentieth-century Mennonite theology by proposing elements that are unique to the Anabaptist tradition and exploring “outside” accretions to that core. By means of a useful chronological outline of ten Mennonite writers and church leaders, Weaver observes that Mennonite theologizing has had a foundation in theology-in-general– including fundamentalist, evangelical, liberal-progressive, creedal orthodox models–to which various Anabaptist emphases, including rejection of the sword, were added. He argues that this approach is inadequate so long as no consensus exists amongst the generalist traditions regarding Jesus’ teachings on peace. Instead, Weaver asserts that its core identity as a peace church should be the starting point for a Mennonite theology.

Thomas Finger takes a more ecumenical approach, suggesting that a distinctive Anabaptist theology inevitably, and positively, appropriates other traditions in its evolution. He draws on two twentieth-century non-Anabaptist theologies–that of Hendrikus Berkhof and his idea of God as “the defenceless superior power” and Rosemary Ruether’s emphasis on Jesus as liberator of the lowly and marginalized–as elements that could be incorporated to enrich an Anabaptist perspective.

While each of these two essays seem to desire, in varying degrees, a unity of thought and program in Anabaptist/Mennonite theologizing, one wonders to what extent the politics of identity(ies) that shapes so much of thought and behaviour at the end of this century needs to be applied to summations of Anabaptist theology. Travis Kroeker points most directly to the particularity of theology, one that arises from existence and experience, that is shaped by an individual’s own tradition and community, or “memories and motions,” yet in the end is part of the “all in all” of God’s cosmic order. Through an analysis of three novels, Kroeker demonstrates that theology is less an academic exercise than a penitential ascetism depicted especially by Menno Simons and in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, where suffering and celebration culminate together out of God’s self-giving love.

In addition to these thought-provoking essays, literary editor Hildi Froese Tiessen introduces some prose by British Columbia writer Andreas Schroeder. An assortment of book reviews rounds out this issue.

Marlene Epp, Editor