Helping history become more just, free, equal, and nonviolent is the heart of the pacifist enterprise. In the twentieth century binding up the wounds inflicted by the violent history-makers has been a particular vocation of those most persistent pacifists, the historic peace churches (the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and the Friends). They have constituted a tiny assemblagesome hundreds of thousands of soulsunited in their refusal to join the crusades to make history come out right.
An obvious example from the Cold War era is their refusal to join the effort to create either a Pax Americana, or a Pax Sovietica. That pacifist refusal, while morally and perhaps even politically defensible, did not get pacifists off the hook. Political, moral, and spiritual accountability demanded that pacifists find other ways of dealing with the tragic intractability of human history. The Pax program described in this book offers a near-perfect example of that pacifist agenda put to work.
This book describes and analyses this quintessentially Mennonite pacifist enterprise. It is an engaging and inspiring story of simple, youthful, practical Christian idealism applied to real human problems. Whether teaching Africans, Greeks, or Latin Americans new farming techniques; helping care for lepers in Vietnam; building roads in Paraguay; or building houses for refugees in Germany, the focus was always on practical solutions for the problem at hand. Pax was a program which tapped the latent talent of young men and women and gave them scope to use their ingenuity.
In 1943, Harold S. Bender had laid the groundwork for a new understanding of Anabaptism with his famous Anabaptist Vision essay. Twenty years later, in 1972, John Howard Yoder published his pathbreaking book, The Politics of Jesus, which, better than any other single work, expressed the essence of the new post-war Mennonite theology. Harold Bender made discipleship (nachfolge Christi) the centerpiece of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology. The Concern movement, which originated in Amsterdam in 1952 and included Paul Peachey, John Howard Yoder, and Calvin Redekop, embraced discipleship and added the idea of the fellowship of believers (the church) as the hermeneutical community where how to follow Jesus in life (history) became the primary focus of attention.
Discipleship became the theological justification for service, and church happened wherever two or three gathered in his name to find where and how to be Jesus disciples in the world. In this new understanding the church could be a highly mobile and informal gathering of believers who went wherever their discipleship led them. With the focus on praxis, on lived faith, this new concept of the church was admirably suited to the needs of the burgeoning Mennonite Central Committee program in the postwar period. The Pax program fit nicely into that new understanding.
Most of the men and women who served in Pax were born between 1930 and 1950, years that began and ended two of the most chaotic and violent decades in human history. In 1930 the world was in the grip of the Great Depression; in 1950 the Cold War, driven by nuclear and ideological politics, dominated human life. Bracketed in the middlethe 1940swas World War II, a catastrophe so calamitous that it defies explanation. One can only conclude that in the birth-decades of most Pax men and women, the world suffered a global nervous breakdown.
The aftermath of World War II did not usher in a new era of peace, but brought the onset of a new form of warthe so-called Cold War. What some at first saw as simply an aftershock of the Second World War had, by 1950, become a state of normality; a world order locked into a permanent ideological conflict between communism and democratic capitalism. Armed with atomic weaponry and deadly new delivery systems, it seemed just a matter of time before the world would again erupt into another round of world war. The formation of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 seemed to confirm those fears.
By 1950, Americans felt beleaguered. Despite their heroic efforts during the war and the expenditure of billions of dollars for postwar reconstruction, the world seemed less safe than ever before. By the late 1940s, Eastern Europe had fallen under the sway of the Soviet Union. To everyones dismay, the Soviets quickly broke the United States monopoly on the atomic bomb.
Many Americans suddenly found the optimistic assumption that history was on their side to be no longer credible and wanted to know why or who had lost the postwar peace. How could they have won the war so convincingly, only to lose the postwar peace so quickly? The result was the McCarthy era and the search for scapegoats who could be blamed for losing the peace.
The invasion of South Korea by Communist North Korea on June 25, 1950, not only affected the destiny of millions of Asians and several hundred thousand American soldiers, but the lives of thousands of young American Mennonite conscientious objectors as well. The Korean War convinced American policymakers that the United States military must be placed on a state of permanent readiness. A key feature of such readiness was a universal conscription system to provide the necessary manpower.
Consequently, a new conscription system was put in place by the Congress just about the time the first contingent of Pax men arrived in Europe in April 1951. Over the course of the next twenty-five years, some 20,000 young Mennonites would be drafted and opt for an alternative service assignment as conscientious objectors. Of those 20,000, close to 1,200 would serve in Pax.
Twentieth-century history has been brutally invasive; few people escaped some aspect of its harsh character. Mennonites in Europe and the Soviet Union felt some of historys harshest blows simply because of their physical location. Those who lived in the Western hemisphere, where the actual devastation of the two world wars was avoided, were more fortunate.
There, however, the Anabaptist faith-heritage of pacifism put Mennonites on a collision course with the public policy of their nations. As conscientious objectors in a world at war, American and Canadian Mennonites were required to test as never before, their assumptions about how to deal with the modern nation-state.
Like most of their contemporaries, Mennonites found themselves threatened, by the fury of twentieth century wars. American Mennonites first felt the effects of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia vicariously through the starvation of thousands of Mennonites in the Ukraine, who were caught in the chaos of that great conflagration. American Mennonites responded by creating the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in 1920, an organization designed to feed their starving brothers and sisters. Over the course of the next eighty years, MCC became the embodiment of the Mennonite desire to cope with and remedy the cruelties visited on the weak and defenseless in the world.
World War II taught Western Mennonites that they had a special responsibility for the victims of historys calamities. World War II seemed an unusually clear example of a good war and some Mennonites felt a twinge of remorse that they could not join the crusade to rid the world of Hitler and his minions. Many Mennonites found it hard to say no to the call to arms, and more than half of all Mennonites drafted during the war endorsed the cause by joining the military.
Those who became conscientious objectors (COs) served in a special program, Civilian Public Service (CPS), operated by an unusual partnership between the historic peace churches and Selective Service. The COs worked at a variety of conservation, agricultural, and social work projects. In all, some 12,000 Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers worked in the program during World War II.
Pax men were not only the sons of the CPS generation, but CPS became a model for the Pax program as well. Most Mennonites believed that the CPS program, with its focus on simple, hands-on service by unskilled, but capable young men, not only offered COs an alternative to war, but provided an example of how Mennonites ought to embrace post-war reconstruction.
Mennonites saw binding up the wounds of war as one way to compensate for not helping win the war. But there was another motivating discovery, within a few months of the end of the war. Western Mennonites learned that tens of thousands of Russian and Prussian Mennonites had fled west with the retreating German armies in the last months of the war, and were living under incredible hardships in refugee camps in Germany and Denmark.
The news of the plight of their sisters and brothers in the faith unleashed a flood of funds and volunteers. In response, the MCC relief program grew by leaps and bounds. So much money came in to the MCC coffers in the first years after the war that its managers were hard-put to create enough programs to deploy the new resources. Mennonites, like all American farmers, had prospered during the war, and had substantial means to fund the new relief work. By 1948, MCC had several hundred American Mennonites placed in relief and rehabilitation work in Europe.
By 1950, American Mennonites had rediscovered their European Mennonite brothers and sisters. That was a new development. During the first half of the twentieth century American Mennonites had perceived their European counterparts as fallen brethren who had lost their pacifist convictions and embraced modern liberal theology. The perception was so pervasive that only seven American Mennonites attended the 1936 Mennonite World Conference held in the Netherlands.
The 1941 Mennonites in Europe history by John Horsch reinforced the fallen brethren notion. Horsch argued that the European Mennonites had abandoned the three linchpins of early Anabaptism: nonresistance, nonconformity, and biblical literalism. The result was that the American Mennonites came out of World War II with the notion that American Mennonites were the real bearers of authentic Anabaptism.
One heartening byproduct of the massive MCC post-war relief effort was the re-connection of American and European Mennonites. The new relationships forged by the MCC relief and refugee work, which included the Pax program, led to a somewhat guileless, even smug, but nevertheless genuine American Mennonite effort to help the European Mennonites renew their Anabaptist faith heritage. Nearly 1,000 American Mennonites crossed the Atlantic to attend the 1952 Mennonite World Conference at Basel, Switzerland. Many Pax men also attended. European and American Mennonites were beginning to fellowship with each other in serious and important new ways.
By the mid-1960s, the passage of Mennonites across the Atlantic ocean had become a pilgrimage, as American Mennonites sought to rediscover and visit the scenes where early Anabaptism emerged. The American Mennonite travel organization, Tourmagination, led thousands of American Mennonites on three-week pilgrimages to visit Anabaptist and Mennonite locations and communities. The effect on Mennonite self-awareness and a sense of trans-Atlantic fellowship has been quite extraordinary.
The Pax program began with the Korean War; it ended when the Vietnam War ended. Part of the Pax élan lay in the fact that Pax men and women understood that they were saying no to the American and the worlds war system. But they were also saying no to American hubris and the American way of being in the world.
In hindsight it has become apparent that the Cold War was never a true contest between two equal powers, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The U.S. always possessed a preponderance of power, bestriding the world like a modern-day Rome and imposing its will with an intimidating array of high-tech war machinery. The trowels, paint brushes, road graders, experimental agriculture plots, pipe pumps, and more used by Pax men were an eloquent alternative to the high-tech engines of destruction brandished by the American and Soviet imperialists.
The Cold War was also an ideological contest, pitting capitalism against communism. To much of the developing world, however, it also appeared as a religious conflict, for much of American Cold War rhetoric used Christian justifications and images. The ugly American was also an ugly Christian in the eyes of many. To understand the symbolic significance of the Pax program we must see it as a way Mennonites gave life to a nonviolent way of being Christian in a world where American Christianity was perceived to be on a crusade, characterized by overwhelming power. The meek and humble work of Pax men offered a credible, and an incredible, witness to Jesus call for another way of being in the world.
No account of the Pax program should neglect the profound effect that the Pax experience had on the young men and women who served. This book offers numerous windows to that story. Many, perhaps most of the Pax men came from the farm or from blue-collar occupations although some were college educated. For most, the Pax experience was their first venture abroad and their first encounter with another language. The new sights, sounds, and smells encompassed what we now call a cross-cultural experience.
Educationally, we know the power of such an experience to change perceptions and to create possibilities for new behaviors. Almost without exception the Pax experience had a transformational effect on the men and women in the program. It changed their lives and often led to faith-inspired decisions regarding career directions for their lives.
But the Pax experience also had consequences for the communities to which the men returned, and the congregations where they worshiped. For twenty-five years, Pax men returned to witness to the new insights and convictions they had garnered from their time abroad. A remarkable number of the Paxers became vocationally involved in social work, education, health, and church ministry.
When one adds the many thousands of other Mennonites involved in I-W (see Appendix B for explanation of how Mennonites provided non-military service for conscientious objectors classified I-W), voluntary service, Mennonite Disaster Service, and other VS assignments the amount of activity becomes staggering. The steady year-in, year-out return of VSers to their congregations bearing stories and new knowledge has had enormous consequences for the Mennonite church.
But if Pax was so wonderful, why did it not become a bigger operation? Only about five percent of those Mennonites who were drafted during the quarter century from 1950 to 1975 chose Pax assignments. Was this a promotional failure? Was it a failure to find important projects with which to challenge young people? Did the peculiar organizational structure of the Pax program within MCC militate against innovation and new program initiatives? This book helps us think about those questions.
An equally important
question is whether there are contemporary possibilities
to create a Pax-like program for todays young
pacifists. While there is no current military draft to
generate a cadre of persons in search of alternative
service assignments, we who gained so much from the Pax
experience must carry some responsibility to find
equivalent challenges and opportunities for our
biological and spiritual grandchildren. Certainly the
messy, tragic chaos of history has not lessened. The
contemporary world is strewn with the victims of
calamitous history. I hope this book will rekindle in all
of us a renewed determination to find contemporary
applications of the Pax ideals.
The Pax Story orders:
|Click here to join a Pandora Press U.S. e-mail list and receive occasional updates.|
© 2001 by Pandora Press U.S.