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Spring 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 1 · pp. 88–89 

Book Review

Wise As Serpents, Innocent As Doves: Mennonites Engage Washington

Keith Graber Miller. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1996. xiii + 314 pages.

Reviewed by Richard Kyle

Keith Graber Miller teaches in the religion department at Goshen College. Strictly speaking, he writes as an ethicist. But he draws on several disciplines—history, political science, theology, philosophy, and ethics.

In 1968 the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) opened an office in Washington, D.C. to monitor the actions of the federal government. In a narrow sense, Wise As Serpents, Innocent As Doves is the story of MCC’s Washington office. But this book goes well beyond the activities of MCC Washington. Substantial portions focus on the larger subject of Mennonite involvement in the world, especially the political arena.

Traditionally, Mennonites have traveled down a path determined by their two-kingdom theology. Hence, American Mennonites have had a long history of noninvolvement in political affairs. Their focus has been on maintaining a church without “spot or wrinkle,” not on transforming society.

But this would change. As Graber Miller describes, the Mennonite history of assisting with social needs allowed them to participate in local, state, and national affairs without defending the nation militarily. Such experiences in domestic and international service prompted {89} American Mennonites to enter the political realm. They observed firsthand how America’s policies impacted people throughout the world and felt compelled to speak out. And according to Graber Miller, MCC’s Washington office is “one institutionalized expression of this recent movement from withdrawal to service to political engagement,” a development coinciding with the theological shift away from a rigid two-kingdom theology (p. 7).

Wise As Serpents, Innocent As Doves goes on to highlight one aspect of this shift—the activities of the MCC office in Washington. Chapter one (of seven) sets the stage. It examines the conceptual aspects of Mennonite political involvement, introducing the tensions and anxieties that accompanied their shift from being “the Quiet in the Land” to being politically engaged. The next chapter focuses on the founding of MCC Washington as a mediating institution. The third chapter examines the Mennonite political coalitions with mainline Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, and nonreligious lobbyists in Washington. Such advocacy groups have had a mutual influence on each other. Chapter four compares the MCC Washington lobbying practices with those of other advocacy agencies. The next chapter elaborates on MCC Washington’s international connectedness and illustrates how such contacts have made its advocacy distinctive in the Washington setting. Chapter six examines MCC Washington’s political and religious discourse, describing how it communicates with both religious and secular communities. The last chapter ties together the conclusions made by this study.

Graber Miller writes as an advocate of Mennonite involvement in society. His thesis—that the establishment of MCC Washington coincides with the shift away from the traditional Mennonite two-kingdom theology—is generally well supported. He also interacts with the various ways Mennonites have struggled with this and related issues. How can one maintain a pure church while influencing the world? What role do pacifists play in transforming society?

Wise As Serpents, Innocent As Doves is a quality book. The author does a good job chronicling the development of MCC Washington. Still, the book’s strength lies elsewhere—namely in interacting with the tensions Mennonites have experienced as they moved into the political arena. Finally, this volume is adequately researched. The author notes most of the authorities relevant to the subject at hand.

Richard Kyle
Prof. of History and Religion
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

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