NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – As Perry Bush prepared to give the 2016 Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College, he couldn’t help but consider current economic and political realities in the United States.
Bush, professor of history at Bluffton (Ohio) University, delivered his three lectures over two days, Oct. 30-31, under the general title “American Mennonites, History and the Common Good.”
“In these lectures, I’m trying to present a few … elements of ‘a usable past,’” Bush said, “an interpretation of the past that can be of service to the present, ultimately designed to serve the church, to address the crises of the day and help it respond accordingly.
“A central problem of our time is the inescapable chasm of economic inequality. It has widened to Grand Canyon dimensions over the past three decades, though it has entered the political dialogue just recently. … The top 1 percent [of Americans has seen] a 30 percent rise [in income], and the rest of us about a half percent, in the past 10 years. We are now, finally, starting to see the political reaction to that.”
One reason for the growing gap, Bush posited, is “a declining commitment to ‘the common good’ … but things have not always been this way.”
The common good is an idea older than America, Bush said, dating from a European standard that individuals were to put the good of the community over personal gain.
Mennonites began to feel tension with the common good as their “two-kingdom theology,” which began with the early Anabaptists and carried over well into 20th-century American life, began to crumble in the wake of the Second World War.
Two-kingdom theology asserts that (referencing Romans 13) God ordained political structures to keep order and that Christians should obey the authorities as far as conscience allowed but not engage with them – for example, by refusing to swear oaths or serve in the military.
To put it bluntly, Bush said, “The state kills so we don’t have to.”
Mennonite contribution to the common good, according to 20th-century leader Guy F. Hershberger, was to create “colonies of heaven,” to witness purely by example rather than action.
For most of their history in North America, Mennonites could maintain this position “in the world but not of it” by living in rural, isolated communities in which generation followed generation, farming, raising children and submitting to the authority of the church.
That began to change when Civilian Public Service, the World War II alternative service organization for which Mennonites were some of the strongest lobbyists, took young men (and some young women) off the farm and into the city.
“Unvarnished two-kingdom theology made sense when Mennonites were able to keep the church and state far apart,” Bush said. “By the middle of the 20th century, these boundaries began to disintegrate.
“My argument is that Mennonites from a variety of traditions [increasingly] did not understand the two-kingdom [view] as absolute and began to challenge it.
“The church contributes a great deal to society just by being the church. But we have to consider not just what two-kingdom theology did for Mennonites but what it cost us.”
In his second lecture, aimed at a Bethel student audience, Bush noted that though his topic was “Mennonite” history, “These are questions anyone who’s religious has to struggle with … [about maintaining] basic group beliefs while remaining engaged in the wider society.”
His questions: “What advice do we give to the state? And why should the state listen to us? It’s a secular state. It operates by different values than the kingdom of God.
“So where do I get off prescribing Christian ethics to the non-Christian world? I discovered this was the gist of Mennonite nonresistance, the two-kingdom theology that meant Mennonites didn’t have much history in engaging with or supporting the common good.”
Two things began the change: a specific event, World War II (which resulted in the creation of alternative service for conscientious objectors), and “the broader reality of acculturation.”
“In World War I, there was immense persecution of Mennonites in the Southern Plains. So when the Second World War comes along … you want some kind of alternative service, because you’re patriotic and you want to contribute to your country, too.”
Guy Hershberger’s assertion, Bush said was that “we ‘act’ by curing, or healing,” rather than by engaging.
“But as time went on, this became less and less satisfactory. Institutions and organizations were born out of this – for example, Mennonite Disaster Service, born in Kansas in the 1950s, Mennonite Mental Health Services and its institutions. More and more, Mennonites were saying, ‘This [strict separation] isn’t enough.’”
Mennonite Central Committee’s “Winona Lake Declaration” of 1950, issuing from a study conference organized by MCC’s Peace Section, was more explicit: in essence, Mennonites “need to witness to the state. We need to ‘judge all things in the light of God’s Word,’” Bush said.
For his final lecture, Bush returned to where he began, “the massive gap of income inequality [in the United States],” with the suggestion that “one key cause seems to be the growing weakness of labor unions.”
For decades, the solid wages and good benefits that unions made possible for their members contributed to the steady growth of the middle class – a trend that has reversed, with “unionized workers now [making] up about 13 percent of the American work force, at the bottom [for] all industrialized countries.”
Bush looked at the question of labor unions vis-à-vis Mennonites by examining the extensive writings of Guy F. Hershberger on the topic, the contributions of a Church of the Brethren lay pastor and union official from northern Indiana, Kermit Eby, and Eby’s eventual challenges to Hershberger’s thinking.
Eby declared that “there are no islands, no refuges, left in the era of the bomb,” Bush said, “that Christians need to plunge into politics to protect the good of all, to be willing to advocate for those outside the church, ‘outside the heritage.’”
In 1959, three years before his premature death from cancer, Eby spoke at a church conference in Des Moines. “Love is only half the heritage,” he said. “The other half is the struggle for justice. We can love as much as we wish, but only when we challenge the power structures does the cross emerge.”