In 1569, Dirk Willems was fleeing for his life across a frozen pond. Imprisoned for his faith, he had escaped custody, but a “thief-catcher” was hard on his heels. Dirk made it safely across the thin ice but his larger pursuer fell through. Rather than taking this opportunity to secure his freedom, Dirk turned back and rescued his enemy. Nevertheless, Dirk was burned at the stake for his faith a few months later.
In the chaotic period between the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the rule of law in the new Soviet Union, bloodthirsty brigands roamed the farming lands of the Mennonites in the Ukraine. With no stable army or police force to defend them, the Mennonites gathered to wrestle with the application of their peace position in a lawless society. Should they form self-defense militias? Many resolved to not take up arms, choosing to be victims of, rather than participants in, violence. And many were.
Heroic stories such as these make up a large piece of the mosaic of our reputation as an historic peace church. It seems reasonable that a people whose commitment to the way of peace is symbolized by such poignant stories should have something to say to a world craving peace. But there are problems associated with these stories. First, they’re extraordinary. Second, being extraordinary, they’re inappropriate examples of our peace witness.
As Anabaptists, our ethic doesn’t rise out of a grand societal vision. Instead, it’s built on the mundane relationships of the home and workplace. The Sermon on the Mount sets the context: “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:22).
We’re a peace church because we believe what our Teacher told us: in our most ordinary relationships we’re to be people who walk the way of peace. As such, our archetypical response to assault is to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39 and Luke 6:29).
Holding to such a command has implications for how we live.
It tells us that, as fathers, we’re not to exasperate our children (Ephesians 6:4). It tells us that, as servants/employees, we’re to honour our masters/bosses (1 Peter 2:18). It tells us that, as spouses, we’re to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21).
There was a time when it was popular to expound on the hard sayings of Jesus.
It’s certainly hard to imagine turning the other cheek if our adversary should be a malicious antagonist. What would I do in place of Dirk Willems or the Mennonites in post-revolution Russia?
But when it comes to being “struck on the cheek” by a brother or a sister, by a friend or a co-worker, by a child or a parent, we don’t need to imagine how we would act; we simply need to look back and remember what we have done.
When I was a young employee feeling exploited and unappreciated, the way of peace was not my lens. With the luxury of being able to look back on raising teenagers, I can safely recall that the way of peace did not rule in my heart during difficult seasons. Life as a spouse is even more private, complex, and multi-dimensional, but Jesus didn’t put marriage beyond the ethics of the Kingdom. The way of peace, if it means anything, applies in marriage just as it does in the workplace, school ground, and public square.
But did we “turn the other cheek”? The honest answer is “seldom.” We may have been beaten down, we may have become passive, or we may have struck back in anger or with a deep sense of righteousness, but when, out of love, did we “turn the other cheek” – that is, be deliberately peaceful when offended and wounded? Bringing his command into the household and workplace is what makes Jesus’ saying really hard.
But it does more than make Jesus’ teaching hard. It also brings our peace witness into the place where it’s desperately needed.
Broken marriages, wounded children, mistreated employees, and frustrated employers don’t make headlines, but they are the ingredients of our disintegrating culture.
It is to this world that Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27). That is very good news.
We’re known as a peace church. It’s a title worthy of those who serve the Prince of Peace. But we need to remember what it actually means.