The first time I read this manuscript it shocked me. It still shocked me when I read this final, revised version a few years later. The antiwar, Christian, pacifist sentiments of the Assemblies of God that Paul Alexander describes in chapters three and four juxtaposed in close proximity to their pro-war and anti-pacifist passion and identification with America in chapters six and seven is simply striking. It should get any readers attention. The plot line of Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God exposes the transition from one to the other of these contradictory stances within the space of three or four short decades.
The recounting of this story has two distinct audiences. One is the Assemblies of God, Paul Alexanders denomination. His address to the denomination is direct. It is Alexanders hope and prayer that telling this story of transition from peace church to pro-war church will bring questions about pacifism and Jesus ethic of nonviolence once again to the fore within the Assemblies of God and invite renewed Assemblies consideration to Jesus call to nonviolence.
A particular question implied by the description of the transition is "Did it have to be?" The narrative shows that it did not have to happen. With other decisions taken and choices made, the Assemblies of God could still be a peace church. Another question immediately follows : "Do conditions now have to continue the way they are?" Again the answer is no. Change is possible. And Alexander cites some recent voices to show that in fact more change is possible and that the Assemblies of God could once again become a peace church. This book now becomes a major voice in that movement. I commend it for that purpose and pray for its success.
The Historic Peace Churches, and in particular Mennonite Church USA, compromise another distinct audience for this book. The peace churches should read and note the ease with which the Assemblies of God ceased being a peace church. The transition was not inevitable, but neither was it because a conscious decision was made to abandon the teaching of Jesus. It happened through a combination of forces that included acculturation and espousal of individualism as the ultimate authority for ethics. It occurred through "drift" rather than specific decisions.
With that sliding in mind, Mennonites as a peace church should think, for example, of the many concerns raised about the denominations peace stance being a hinder to evangelism; or of the letters and articles in church publications apologizing for having made an idol of our peace tradition; or the letters of support in Mennonite periodicals for the administration that invaded Iraq; and the letters that proclaim either invasion of Iraq a "just war;" or the pastor who told me that being a peace church is hard work, and "my people are tired being different, they just want to blend into American society"; or the recent arguments that as an acculturated church, we need to be willing to get our hands dirty and get involved in armed security forces; or the fact that only twenty-three per cent of Mennonites believe that it is "always wrong" to enter the military.1 Sadly, this list could be extended. Just as the Assemblies of God can see that "it did not have to be," Mennonites can examine this drift and decide that "it does not have to be." Paul Alexanders book can serve as a warning for Mennonites. I pray that the book may fulfill that potential.
Other valuable learnings emerge from Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God. One concerns the decision of the Assemblies of God to make "individual conscience" the ultimate test with regard to military participation. As Alexander notes, when individual conscience is defined as the ultimate test, then any answer is acceptableand that becomes a stance that no longer considers the rejection of violence intrinsic to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
More than once Alexander mentions that one reason for the loss of pacifism by the Assemblies of God was the failure to develop a broadly based biblical and theological defense of pacifism beyond the injunctions to obey the commands of Jesus. Nonviolence was not integrated into their early message of the gospel they preached, and they did not develop an ongoing tradition of pacifism. That observation pertains both to those seeking to recover or restore this teaching as well as to those in longstanding peace church traditions. A commitment to the nonviolence of Jesus dare not be taken for granted. When it is believed that rejection of violence is intrinsic to the good news of Jesus, then that commitment and confession should be part of any message about Jesus. This teaching should be renewed and restated in every generation, and it is quite appropriate and important to extend the appropriation of nonviolence into new areas of theology, as in current discussions about violence in atonement theology and in our understandings of God and the nonviolence of God.
The need to renew and restate peace theology in every generation points to another learning from this book. The Christian commitment to peace, pacifism, and nonviolence does not depend on a particular view of the Bible nor on a particular brand of hermeneutics. In this book, contemporary readers who have benefited from seminary education will encounter pacifism based on views of the Bible and a hermeneutic not learned in a modern Anabaptist seminary. But the point is that although Christian pacifism does depend on taking the story of Jesus seriously as the place where God is revealed in the historical arena in which we live, pacifism does not depend on a particular hermeneutic or theory of biblical inspiration. It is the story of Jesus that orients believers in discipleship, and any number of theories of interpretationhermeneuticsarrive at the conclusion that Jesus rejected the sword even as they differ on many other issues.
Placing the importance of the story ahead of a particular hermeneutic points to another implication of Alexanders narrative. Christians do not need to agree on some supposed beginning presuppositions to agree that Jesus example and his teachinghis storyenjoin his followers to reject killing. The identifying practice of the Assemblies of God provides one stellar example. As Paul Alexander notes, although speaking and praying in tongues is a definitional aspect of the Assemblies of God, only half their members actually speak and pray in tongues.
Mention of speaking in tongues points to a valuable learning for Mennonites as a peace church. Alexander points out that speaking in tongues became separated from social contexts and social issues, and became only a practice for worship. It ceased being a practice that undergirded social concerns or social ethics and became essentially a definitional but empty practice. In recent years, many Mennonites have come to stress spirituality and prayer retreats, to call for a higher view of sacraments to undergird a more experiential worship, and to call for increasingly experiential worship as a means of church renewal. Such practices are not harmful in and of themselves. However, the experience of the Assemblies of God provides a warning. The commitment to the nonviolence of Jesus needs to be a visible and intrinsic element of these experiential practices, in which case they become practices that nurture the witnessing of the peace church in the world. But if Jesus rejection of violence is not made intrinsically visible in these practices, they are already on the way to becoming practices devoid of social relevance for the ethic of the peace church.
Paul Alexanders manuscript was challenging and thought-provoking as I worked with it. In our working together, I came to appreciate this manuscript greatly, and to experience Paul as a Christian brother. I am grateful for his willingness to enact changes, to develop suggested new material, and to implement the revisions and additions suggested by the anonymous reviewers. Those efforts show in the quality of this book. It has been a growing experience as well as a pleasure for me to work with him on this manuscript. The volume is a fitting addition to the C. Henry Smith Series, which publishes material from a variety of disciplines in support of a peace church agenda. I am grateful to the Mennonite Historical Society for its generous support of the publication of this manuscript.
J. Denny Weaver
1. Conrad Kanagy, Road Signs for the Journey: A Profile of Mennonite Church USA (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2007), 127.
© 2008 by Cascadia Publishing House LLC