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Fall 1995 · Vol. 24 No. 2 · pp. 104–6 

Book Review

Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism

Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1994. 344 pages.

Reviewed by Duane K. Friesen

The central thesis of Mennonite Peacemaking is the documentation of a dramatic shift among North American Mennonites from passive nonresistance, the position prior to 1950, to activist peacemaking by the 1980s. The authors, sociologists Leo Driedger from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Donald Kraybill from Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, use a descriptive and analytical method to interpret the data of historians, theological/ethical positions of church groups and individuals, and two sociological surveys (1972 and 1989) of five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ denominations. 1

Part one is a historical survey which first establishes that prior to 1950 passive nonresistance was the primary language of Mennonites, as well as the normative way of life (symbolized by Guy Hershberger’s book, War, Peace and Nonresistance in 1944). The authors acknowledge that this {105} position was held more strictly in the Swiss-South German tradition than in the Dutch-Russian tradition where there was more variety in the language, and more active peacemaking and involvement in politics. The authors then trace three stages of development: 1) the ferment of the 1950s (led especially by John H. Yoder, J. Lawrence Burkholder and Gordon Kauffman); 2) the growing activism of the 1960s and 1970s (fueled by civil rights and the Vietnam War), and the Mennonite movement away from a two Kingdom dualism to the concept of the lordship of Christ over church and world; and 3) the new theological formulations of the 1970s (John Yoder’s Politics of Jesus) and new linkages of peace and justice.

Part two primarily analyzes the sociological data from the two denominational surveys to see how Mennonites’ normative visions of peacemaking fare in the face of the corrosive impact of modernity. It also surveys several visions of peacemaking in the 1980s: Duane Friesen’s realistic peacemaking, Ted Koontz’s modified dualism, Ron Sider’s activist nonviolence, and voices attracted to liberation theology. An analysis indicates that urbanization and education do not undermine the Mennonite commitment to peacemaking. Increased education and attendance at Mennonite colleges is correlated positively with peacemaking. However, individualism and materialism do have corrosive effects. An Anabaptist theological orientation sustains a holistic vision of peacemaking that includes evangelism and peace action, whereas a fundamentalist theological orientation supports evangelism but undermines commitment to peacemaking.

The argument of the book is built upon a typology of contrasts between passive nonresistance and activist peacemaking: e.g., 1) between an attitude of meekness, even self-denial, and more assertive behavior (i.e., the use of nonviolent force) in confronting evil; 2) between a two-kingdom theology of separation from the world and a commitment to a common norm (Lordship of Christ, Kingdom of God, etc.) to guide in the witness to government; and 3) between a discouragement of political activity and more engagement in the political process.

In an epilogue the authors identify each of these three areas as enduring dilemmas for contemporary Mennonite peacemaking: 1) whether nonviolent force may be used by Christians; 2) whether Christians have multiple ethical norms (different for church and government) or whether there is one standard for church and world; and 3) whether or in what sense Christians are responsible for the shape of the political order. A fourth dilemma they identify is how the church can make peace an essential component of Christian commitment (since peace is integral to the gospel and not just an individual option) without a kind of legalism that could also undermine the gospel of unconditional acceptance and God’s forgiving {106} grace.

The book is a monumental achievement. It is readable, comprehensive in coverage, thorough and analytical, and provocative in raising the important questions. The argument depends, however, upon a sharp dichotomy between nonresistance and active peacemaking. Establishing nonresistance as a benchmark leads to two tendencies in the book. First, it tends to exaggerate the differences between earlier periods of Mennonite history and the present. Secondly, there is a tendency to overstate the discontinuity between elements of nonresistance and active peacemaking. For example, the 1941 General Conference statement at Souderton, PA refers to our peace principles, the 1947 letter addressed to Harry Truman calls for removing the causes of war, and the 1953 Portland, Oregon, statement uses the language of nonresistance but almost always together with the term peacemaking. 2 Contrary to what is implied in the typology, nonresistance was not a position that rejected coercion. Nonviolent coercive force was used within the family and the church as a means of discipline to achieve conformity to the norms of the Mennonite community. The issue is, then, whether nonviolent force is an appropriate form of social action in the world beyond the confines of the church community. Finally, throughout the entire period, North American Mennonite positions (from nonresistance to active peacemaking) have emphasized that Jesus Christ is the norm for ethics and have consistently rejected Christian participation in war.


  1. The results of the 1989 study are available in The Mennonite Mosaic: Identity and Modernization, by J. Howard Kauffman and Leo Driedger, Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991.
  2. Mennonite Statements on Peace and Social Concerns, Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, Peace Section, 1980, pp. 140-141, 217, 142f
Duane K. Friesen
Professor of Bible and Religion
Bethel College
N. Newton, Kansas

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