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Mennonites offer more than peace

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The Peace Church and the Ecumenical Community: Ecclesiology and the Ethics of Nonviolence
Fernando Enns, translated by Helmut Harder

Pandora Press with World Council of Churches Publications, 2007

Fernando Enns (keynote speaker at the Believers Church Conference held in Winnipeg in June) is emerging as a very important Mennonite voice. The German theologian is active in peace church theology and ecumenical studies, is a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC), and pastors a Mennonite church. His ecumenical work has been central to the WCC’s important peace initiative, Decade to Overcome Violence (2001–2011).

In this book, translated from German by Helmut Harder, Enns addresses a two-part agenda: to bring peace church insights into ecumenical discussions, and to encourage the peace churches to learn from other ecumenical voices. Enns focuses particularly on the connection of ecclesiology (theology of the church) and peace.

He proceeds by tracing the history of WCC discussions concerning the church. Looking carefully at the way historic peace churches (HPC) have understood the theology and practices of the church, he focuses on the singular contributions of John Howard Yoder to an understanding of ecclesiology and peace.

Enns traces the role of the HPC within the WCC, then narrows that discussion further to describe a variety of bilateral dialogues in which Mennonites have been involved (i.e., Mennonite-Reformed, Mennonite-Baptist, Mennonite-Lutheran, and Mennonite-Roman Catholic).

The conclusion is more explicitly constructive, working at developing a theology of church and peace based on Trinitarian foundations, that is, on the inner dynamics and expression of the Trinitarian God.

Enns is doing very important work here. (I commend Harder for making this book available in English.) The HPC, which include Mennonite Brethren, have often been reduced to a caricature of the “peace position.” This ethical position or “distinctive” is viewed as the only contribution we can bring to the table. Our own ecclesial self-understanding has also been too narrow, with a tendency to focus on ethics based vaguely on following Jesus.

Enns challenges both these descriptions, highlighting a variety of dangers – reductionism, separatism, self-sufficiency, christomonism, and so on. To get beyond the HPC being seen as a single ethical position both by themselves and others, Enns argues for a more robust Trinitarianism, suggesting that a church community that seeks to model itself on the life of the Trinitarian God secures oneness but not uniformity, takes the individual seriously within a worshipping community, and provides a way for reconciliation, community, peace, and justice to coalesce.

Enns argues forcefully that the church should understand itself as participating in the life of the Trinitarian God – a way of understanding our faith, he maintains, that does not reduce the emphasis we place on the imitation of Jesus Christ. Neither does a Trinitarian foundation reduce the visibility of the church as a called-out body, argues Enns, since we continue to live in the tension between what he refers to as the “believed” and the “experienced” church: the church brought into being by God, and the church life that we experience “on the ground.”

In all of this, Enns continually argues that the HPC have much to offer the ecumenical movement, and also have much to learn.

Enns’ book and even his ecumenical work will raise questions from those who wonder how much energy should be put into working with the WCC, and from those who see in his Trinitarian emphasis a shrinking from an understanding of “following Jesus in life.” Indeed, this kind of Trinitarian emphasis is hard to find in Mennonite theology, where our tendency is to think more in Christological terms. For example, the focus of the MB Board of Faith and Life’s next study conference is Christology.

I believe more work needs to be done, for example, in exploring questions of imitation and participation. While I welcome a robust attempt at Trinitarian ecclesiology, much work remains to be done here, too. It’s one thing to argue for participation in the Trinitarian life of God as the model for the church, it’s quite another to understand the shape of that participation in the theology and practice of the church.

Figuring out the lessons conveyed by the Trinity is a task that is fraught with perils and complexities as even a cursory glance at contemporary theology will show. Although he has opened a fruitful line of theological exploration for Mennonite theology, Enns’ work does not recognize these complexities clearly enough.

Nevertheless, this important book deserves to be taken seriously because we have something to offer, but we also have much to learn.

—Paul Doerksen

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