When Mennonites thought they had a responsibility to protect
The ultimate test of nonresistance for Mennonites in Russia occurred during the Bolshevik Revolution. Nonresistance seemed ludicrous to many in the face of mounting violence, but the armed Mennonite resistance reflected a bankruptcy in Mennonite peace theology, according to historian John Toews.
The Russian government had collapsed, the army disintegrated and was fighting amongst itself, and there was no police force – a situation ripe for criminal gangs and would-be warlords wanting to seize power. In that situation in Ukraine from 1918–20, armed gangs came and took whatever they wanted, murdering and raping in the process, Toews says.
A retired history professor (University of Calgary and Regent College, Vancouver), Toews says that when Mennonites found themselves in that chaotic situation, some decided to resist. They formed an armed militia, the Selbstschutz (Self-Defence Unit), whose purpose was to protect, not to fight. Gradually, though, the Selbstschutz moved from being protectors to engaging in armed conflict.
In considering armed self-defence, Mennonite church leaders debated the idea. They affirmed the nonresistance principle, but allowed individuals to disagree and follow their own conscience. “A key element of the Mennonite confession of faith was declared optional,” says Toews.
In the self-contained and self-governing Mennonite villages of Ukraine the line between government and church was unclear, blurring the interests of church and state. “The Mennonites had made a decision – allowing individuals to join the Selbstshutz.” Toews does not fully blame the Mennonite pastors, many of whom lacked theological training. They were influenced by German evangelists, whose preaching and teaching brought renewal to the soul along with overtones of German nationalism.
Initially, the self-defence idea seemed logical, as villages were threatened and self-defence was very different from actual participation in war, and protecting family and home was a fundamental duty. Mennonites were seduced into fighting with the “White” Russian army against the “Red” Russians. The Red Army was victorious and consequences began to be felt in Mennonite villages.
The Mennonite foray into militarism came to an ignoble end, Toews reports. Some members of the self-defence group were tried and executed by a military
tribunal in Melitopol. Mennonite villages were attacked, people massacred and village buildings were burned – retaliation for armed Mennonite activity.
Toews says the Mennonites finally did what they should have done all along – they organized a prayer meeting and prayed for forgiveness. In times of crisis, he says the interests of the state tend to triumph over the church.
Toews notes that Selbstshutz advocates lacked a long-term perspective; to them, non-resistance in the face of growing violence directed at families, women, and children seemed ludicrous. The position of self-defence also reflected a bankrupt theology, so, when faced with violent evil to person and property, the historic peace position seemed an abstract principle.
Toews cautions that 21st century Mennonites not judge their ancestors too harshly. “Like us, they lacked a theology of the suffering church,” he says. For Mennonites in Ukraine, life was comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, he says, drawing parallels with Canadian society today – so they had to learn to become a suffering church.