I just composed a thank-you letter to Peace Mennonite Church in Burlington, Iowa. The church who first started me down the journey toward my conversion to the way of Jesus. Enjoy.
October 18, 2010
To the family of Peace Mennonite Church,
Hello, my name is Donnie Miller and I’m the pastor of Trinity Family Church of the Nazarene in Gardner, KS. I grew up in Burlington First Church of the Nazarene, graduating from Fort Madison High School in 1996 and am the son of Dan and Lori Miller, long-time members of Burlington First Nazarene.
In the spring of 2003, I was taking a worship class during my 3rd year at Nazarene Theological Seminary. That class gave me the assignment of visiting three worship services of different denominations. Being a staff member at a Nazarene church, it was difficult to get away on a Sunday morning. So when I was visiting my parents one weekend in March, I decided to worship with your church that Sunday morning.
The Sunday morning in which I worshipped with you was a unique Sunday, not only for Mennonites but for all American Christians. It was the Sunday after the beginning of the Iraq war. As we were driving to your church building, the person I was with that morning mentioned that Mennonites were pacifists, adding “if it wasn’t for our military, they wouldn’t be able to believe that way.” At the time, I simply agreed with that statement, going along with the conventional “wisdom” held by most American Christians.
That morning’s worship gathering was filled with prayers for peace. I appreciated the biblically based prayers while at the same time believing the most likely prospect for peace was a quick victory by US military forces. After worship was over, someone in your congregation gave me the book Choosing Against War by Mennonite theologian John Roth. I politely smiled and thanked the man for the gift, while at the same time, not expecting to actually read the book. Upon returning home, I placed the book on my bookshelf and forgot about it.
One year later, I was in my last year at NTS and taking an ethics course that required extra reading. Due to its convenient location, I pulled Roth’s book off my shelf. By the end of that book, my conversion to the way of Jesus had begun. I still had a long way to go but I could see the beauty of Jesus’ message of nonviolence and how the casual statement about the US military protecting the rights of Mennonites to believe in nonviolence was completely wrong. I ended that book with the realization that while the US could not survive if all her citizens became pacifists, the Kingdom of God would not only survive but thrive if its citizens lived out the way of Jesus.
Over the next several years, I began to explore writings about the Sermon on the Mount, and more specifically, Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence. I was influenced by theologians such as Walter Wink, Greg Boyd, Shane Claiborne, Rob Bell, Tony Campolo, Shane Hipps and others who faithfully call the people of God to fidelity to the message and example of the Son of God. Somewhere between my disillusionment with the Iraq war as a result of the Abu ghriab incident and an understanding of the political and unbiblical history of Just War Theory, I embraced nonviolence. The most important point in my journey however, might have been hearing Walter Wink’s explanation of the “Third Way” and the nonviolent resistance message of Jesus from Matthew 5.
There is no need for me to go into a full explanation of the way of Jesus and the gospel of peace so faithfully proclaimed and modeled by the Mennonite church. I believe it will be sufficient for me to tell all of you that I now “get it.” I understand that Jesus meant what he said on the Sermon on the Mount. I understand that it takes a higher faith and a stronger courage to be committed to non-violence rather than violence. I understand that earthly kingdoms aren’t the point but rather the Kingdom of God and how a love for one’s enemies is the strongest possible testimony to the present and future reality of that Kingdom. I understand that this life isn’t the point and that we can, if necessary, lay down our lives for our enemies knowing that the First-Fruit of our future resurrection has already defeated death. I understand that true victory and lasting peace comes through the cross, not the sword.
I also understand how a commitment to Jesus’ nonviolent teachings makes one quite unpopular as a citizen of world’s most powerful empire since the Rome. I’ve experienced everything from the condescending scoffs to the angry attacks that come from both well-intentioned nonChristians and Christians who are caught up in the myth of redemptive violence and the idolatry of nationalism.
Now, my heart hurts while participating in a worship gathering that celebrates military violence, when I see American Christians confusing Christianity with nationalism or observing how Evangelicals are known more for their pro-war stance then their commitment to serving the “least of these.”
With the above lamented, I’ve also seen the beauty that comes out of Jesus’ message. I’ve been able to learn about and support peace-making teams. I was able to play a small part in the conversion from nationalism to the Kingdom of God in the life of a close friend who is also a church member and Iraq war veteran. This young man is now sharing his conversation story with anyone open-minded enough to listen. I’ve been able to help some members of my congregation take steps toward a lifestyle of peace or to at least begin considering the option. I’ve even begun dreaming of ways I could begin educating my own denomination about Jesus’ message of nonviolence. I’ve been able to find a middle ground that respects good-hearted Christian brothers and sisters who risk their lives for what they believe by serving in the military while still challenging those fellow Christians to take the words of Jesus seriously.
Finally, I’ve developed a deep respect for the testimony of Mennonites. From your steadfast commitment to beliefs despite the murderous persecution of the European State and Church to your ability to reform mental health hospitals as a result of your refusal to kill for your nation during WWII; the Mennonite commitment to take Jesus seriously shines brightly in a nation full of Christians who easily disregard Jesus’ teachings for the sake of their nation.
I’ve been wanting to write this letter for about a year now and I’m glad to finally get around to it. I thought you’d like to know how a small Kingdom seed planted almost 7 years ago is now bearing Kingdom fruit. If you’d like to contact me, I’ve enclosed by business card.
Grace and Peace,