Article: “Teaching Peace as Christian Witness,” by Gerald Mast

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Teaching Peace as Christian Witness

Gerald J. Mast, Ph.D.
Professor of Communication
Bluffton University

Abstract: The peace of Jesus Christ is both a spiritual and a cosmic reality to which Christian educators may bear witness not only in their life and example, but also in their scholarship and teaching. If the life and teachings of Jesus Christ make visible a new creation that is being born all around us, then the disciplines of the academy may be employed to provide an accounting of the ways in which this peaceable reality is being revealed. The primary reference point for such awareness of the gospel of peace is the life of the church, which cultivates the critical and spiritual capacities for attention to Christ’s way of peace.

Keywords: peace-teaching, peace-making, Christian witness, Mennonite, faith-learning integration


In this essay, originally given as a sermon, I share about a subject that is very close to my heart—the peacemaking and peace-teaching vocation of all who seek to follow Christ.[1]  In the past few years I have been increasingly impressed with the call that comes to us from the writings in the New Testament, particularly from Paul, to be Christ’s ambassadors for peace, to carry the gospel message of reconciliation into the whole world and to apply it to every area of life (II Corinthians 5:11-21). In the Mennonite tradition that has shaped me, this expectation has often been expressed in terms of expanding the witness of peace and nonviolence beyond our opposition to war to the everyday practices and social relations of our lives. In my own experience, having not faced the military draft, I have often found that it is far easier oppose war in general or a war in particular than it is to be an agent of reconciliation in my everyday life. I think it is often easier, at least for someone like myself whose Christian faith formation was defined by the gospel of peace, to critique the fallacies of crusading and just war forms of reasoning when it comes to national wars and presidential rhetoric, than to confess the seemingly “just wars” and righteous crusades that we are tempted to conduct in our own professional and personal lives. This temptation arises perhaps from an inadequate acknowledgement of the new reality that God has revealed in the life and work of Jesus Christ. In recent years I have been increasingly impressed that the cross of Jesus Christ is more than a compelling example to follow but is also a sign for a deeper reality that is being born around us and with which we are called to align our lives as Christian believers.[2]

In this essay, I would like to reflect first of all on the biblical claim that in Jesus Christ there has been revealed the basic form of the new creation that God is bringing into existence. Secondly, I would like to suggest how this claim might refigure our understanding of the world, whether it be the theoretical assumptions that we bring to study that world as scholars or whether it be the basic world view that each of us accepts as the given common sense out of which we live our daily lives. And finally, I would like to make some suggestions about how this new or renewed christologically-focused understanding of the world might impact the way we speak and teach as those who have been entrusted with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The New Creation Born in Jesus Christ

In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul invokes a hymn that establishes Jesus Christ as both the “image” and the “firstborn” of all creation, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15-16 NRSV). The Christian professional or scholar or teacher or activist who accepts this biblical hymn as true cannot escape the Christological claim on all action and thought that follows.  For if the Jesus Christ whose birth, death, life, and resurrection are recorded in the canonical scriptures is indeed the one in whom the universe is founded, then there can be no truthful knowledge about the universe that is not qualified by the nature, teachings, and practices of Jesus Christ.  Such a confession must first and finally come to terms with the peace that Jesus preached and that his cross and resurrection make possible.

The centrality of peacemaking to Jesus’ character and ministry is clearly affirmed by the concluding lines of the hymn just cited: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). Such a conclusion to this well-known biblical hymn confirms the peacemaking and peace-giving character of the God revealed in Jesus Christ that is witnessed throughout the biblical text and that can be seen now in the “beauty of the earth” surrounding us. That “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19) is a claim that impacts not only our spiritual self-understanding but also our perception of the emerging world around us. This Christological perspective asserts that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Theologian Douglas Harink argues rightly that “the new creation being asserted here is not a claim about the state of the Christian; it is a claim about how the world, and in particular the human being, must be acknowledged as a new creation by the Christian…”[3]

In other words, a central feature of the peaceable new creation that is coming into being is that it is a renewed way of understanding the world; it is a shift in perspective, a perspective which accepts Jesus Christ as the Alpha and Omega, as the firstborn of creation, as the one in whom everything moves and has its being. A crucial dimension of this understanding of the peaceable new creation is that it is an apocalyptical understanding, not in the popular Left Behind sense, but in the sense that the world around us is being dragged kicking and screaming into a new way of being—or to use Paul’s language: “The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). This apocalyptic view of reality makes the cross of Jesus Christ the foundational sign of the emerging new reality—a sign that in the scandalous weakness of Christ’s body, God is triumphing over the arrogance and bullying of the powers of this age. John Howard Yoder has eloquently described this apocalypse of the cross in the following passage from an essay entitled “Armaments and Eschatology” written during the nuclear arms race of the 1980s:

The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the sword are not as strong as they think—true as that is: we still sing, “O where are Kings and Empires now of old that went and came?”  It is that people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe. One does not come to that belief by reducing social processes to mechanical and statistical models, nor by winning some of one’s battles for the control of one’s own corner of the fallen world. One comes to it by sharing the life of those who sing about the Resurrection of the slain Lamb.[4]

This passage from Yoder calls attention not only to the authority of the cross as a paradigm for the new world that is on the way, but also to the authority of the church as the community of knowledge in which we come to discover the point of view of the cross. Yoder’s academic prose brings to mind a less academic text, the Martyrs Mirror, in which we find a beautiful letter written by Anna Jansz of Rotterdam to her son, shortly before she was executed by drowning for her Anabaptist testimony.  She writes to her son, “Do not regard the great number, nor walk in their ways…But where you hear of a poor, simple, cast-off little flock, which is despised and rejected by the world, join them; for where you hear of the cross, there is Christ; from there do not depart.”[5]

The New Creation Understood in Scholarship

The new creation that was born in the reconciling work of Jesus Christ on the cross and that continues to be made visible through the life of the church is not merely a mystical or spiritual experience—although it may be that. This new creation is a concrete reality that can be both experienced and studied, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. A significant task for those of us who understand ourselves to be Christian scholars, particularly peace church scholars, is to describe this emerging creation in our research and analysis. For those of us in the humanities and social sciences, this means that we must give attention to the historical, social, psychological, and rhetorical dimensions of reconciliation.

One of my favorite stories about reconciliation is found in a book written by communication scholar Quentin Schultze from Calvin College.  I’ll use his narrative here:

Two days before Christmas, a drunk driver killed a Kentucky couple’s eighteen-year old son, their only child. Consumed with hatred, the grieving couple fought for justice. They doggedly pursued the killer through the courts, seeing to it that he would be required to fully pay for the crime. When he eventually pleaded guilty and was freed on probation, they made sure that he spent the required night in jail every other weekend. For years they monitored all of the accused young man’s court appearances. After all, their son was dead. They deserved revenge. As the distraught mother said of the killer, “All I can think of is that he should die, and how he should die.”

Over time the couple’s preoccupation with revenge softened. Discovering details about the driver’s background, they realized that he was a human, not a monster. They heard that he had grown up without the kind of love and support that they had lavished on their own son. As the couple identified with him, they began to empathize with their son’s killer, to feel some of his pain, confusion, and regret. Eventually the couple invited him to their home to share meals. In word and deed, they began to love him. As a remarkable testimony to grace, they accepted like a son the man who had killed their only son. Freed of a vengeful spirit, they nurtured their “adopted” child, loving him as they once had loved the son whom he had killed.[6]

From the perspective of the world; that is, from the perspective of our current judicial system, which assumes that retribution is the only natural way to restore justice, this story is incomprehensible. From the perspective of the reconciling church of Jesus Christ, however, this story illustrates perfectly the emerging new creation that we expect to find around us. We are not surprised when we hear of people moving from retributive rage to reconciliation with enemies, even though our news media tends to avoid reporting such stories. Such movements are to be expected if it is true that “people with crosses are working with the grain of the universe.” Thus, we should be able to explain the psychological processes whereby people move from retributive rage to empathy to reconciliation. We should be able to describe the social structures and habits that either prevent or encourage reconciliation. We should be able to recognize the historical and literary influences on the horizons of human imagination within which people are capable or incapable of being restored to right relationships. And we should be able to understand which words and images and narratives and dramas are the most truthful; that is, the most fully aligned with God’s reconciling love as manifested in Jesus Christ. We should be eager to find and tell the stories of such reconciling love wherever we discover them, whether they be in the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams, or of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, or in the work of Victim/Offender Reconciliation Programs (just to name a few public examples), or in the multiple experiences we have in our daily lives of being reconciled with those from whom we had been alienated.

This work of recognizing the reconciling grain of the cosmos is not limited to the struggle for right human relationships and a new humanity in which those who were formerly enemies are now friends. When we have eyes to see and ears to hear, the natural world around us also becomes a witness to the gospel of peace. Two examples come from the book entitled Teaching Peace. An essay by Todd Rainey describes how conflict resolution behavior by nonhuman primates such as baboons and chimpanzees is far less violent than previously thought. Such a conclusion is reached both through rigorous observation but also by rethinking categories and definitions. For example, physically aggressive behavior among chimpanzees under some circumstances can be understood less as evidence of inherent violence and more as a demonstrative, even if at times coercive, communication practice that often leads to reconciliation.[7]

An essay by Angie Montel calls attention to the prominence of war metaphors in accounts of cell behavior by cell biologists. According to Montel, our descriptions of the human immune system as a violent battleground are no doubt partly a result of the dominance of war narratives and images in the surrounding culture but these violence-oriented accounts of the human immune system also have led to a kind of arms race against germs that have actually left our children more susceptible to allergies and asthma, as their immune systems become inadequately stimulated. Montel suggests that more helpful and even more accurate images might describe a struggle or a dance between the host and the pathogen that is mutually beneficial. She concludes: “I believe in furthering our knowledge of how the human body protects itself from microbes and of how microbes foil the human immune system. But it is my desire to retrain my senses also to see the dance between microbe and host, to feel one with the great circle of life, and to appreciate the ‘sacrificial suffering through to something higher’ that binds us to all creation and to the nonviolent, suffering Redeemer himself.”[8]

These are just two examples of how peace-church scientists are seeking to observe and analyze the natural world from the perspective of the coming peaceable creation. It is important to note that this approach does not require the researcher to ignore the obvious violence that shapes so much of the natural and social world. To anticipate the coming of a new creation also requires close attention to the fallen and violence-shaped order that is being displaced. Yet, the scientist who seeks peace will be able to better account for the limits of the violence that shapes the natural world and to notice where the peaceable kingdom prophesied by Isaiah is being fulfilled, where swords are being beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, where the wolf is living with the lamb and the leopard lying down with kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a child leading them, where they will not hurt or destroy, and where the earth is full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 2:4; 11:6-9).

The New Creation Proclaimed in Teaching

Now it seems to me that this understanding of the gospel is an extraordinarily exciting and hopeful one. Instead of being seen as merely a spiritual transaction that ensures a home in heaven when I die, the gospel can now be recognized for what it is—the truth that sets us free, that reconciles us to God and all of our enemies, that is bringing about a new world altogether. This is good news! And this good news has the capacity to capture the imagination of both teachers and students. Those of us who study and teach cannot be silent about this earth-shattering gospel. So how can we become ambassadors of this gospel, teachers of peace, agents of God’s reconciling work?

First of all, we must remember that the church is the primary place where God’s work of reconciliation is being made known. The church is where God has reconciled Jews and Gentiles, slaves and masters, men and women. It is where those who were not a people become a people and where those who had not received mercy, receive mercy, as the apostle Peter writes (I Peter 2:10). It is where the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down. It is where the manifold wisdom of God is being made known to the rulers and the authorities, as the writer to the Ephesians puts it (Ephesians 3:10). It is the body in which God is creating one new humanity, reconciled to God and each other through the cross of Jesus Christ. It is the body of Jesus Christ, the one who came preaching peace to those of us who were far away as well as to those of us who were near (Ephesians 2:17). And because both groups—those far away and those near—have access to the same Father through the one Spirit, a new relationship is being formed: “Consequently, we are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19).

All this means that for Christians teaching peace starts in the church, even if the peace to which we bear witness is already being displayed in the world around us. We cannot really know the full meaning of God’s reconciling work without having come to understand it together with our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Without the disciplines of worship and discernment practiced in the church, we lose our capacity to recognize in our scholarship and professional work the peaceable world that God is bringing into existence. Without the study and interpretation of scripture in the church it is easy for educators and students to forget the reconciling mission of Jesus Christ that cannot be separated from our task as Christian scholars.

Secondly, we must be committed to a visible public witness to the peaceable reign of God. The church teaches peace when it participates in demonstrations against war, when it participates in relief projects for disaster victims, when it organizes and maintains voluntary service programs, when it sends mission workers across the street and around the world, when it protests the recruitment of young people to the military through the public school system, when it encourages its members to refuse pledges of allegiance to any entity other than God. In my hometown of Bluffton, Ohio, the Mission, Peace, and Service commission of my congregation sponsors a prayer vigil on the town square whenever there is an execution in the state of Ohio. It is a somewhat pitiful gathering of a very small number of people and the media seldom show up anymore to record the event, given how routine executions in Ohio have become. But that gathering, however weak and small and pitiful it seems, arguably precisely in its weakness, is a powerful sign of the gospel of peace. More recently, in the wake of repeated reminders of how our criminal justice system, political system, educational system and health care system commit violence against black lives, our church has joined with other churches in our rural community to plan a march in support of black lives, which included the opportunity for us to listen to stories of people who experienced hurt and harm in our community and to repent of our racism and violence. Of course, these affirmations of the centrality of the church and the importance of a visible public peace witness are not surprising claims. Peace churches such as the Brethren, Quakers, and Mennonites have long been committed to both forms of teaching.

However, the idea that we should be taking our peace witness to the academy is perhaps a somewhat new thought. The idea that the whole gospel of peace and reconciliation is an event that must be proclaimed in the liberal arts disciplines and in professional programs may seem preposterous to some of us. We have perhaps thought it is good to have peace church colleges or Christian colleges where our young people can be socialized into lives of service and mission, where they can learn a profession within a relatively “safe” environment, and where they can perhaps find a good mate. And these are good reasons to have church colleges. But to say that there is a “peace-church” perspective that could actually alter the very shape of the academic disciplines—that may be a little hard to swallow and it extends the project of peace church education beyond church schools to students and educators everywhere who are committed to the gospel of peace.

At Bluffton University where I teach, we have been giving a great deal of attention to this project in recent years. The Teaching Peace book that I cited earlier is one of the fruits of that attention. That book demonstrates that there is a peace church contribution to be made in rethinking basic aspects of practically all of the major disciplines represented in the academy. We have now had three academic conferences related to this topic, an informal working conference that resulted in the Teaching Peace book, an international conference that brought together scholars from many different institutions of higher learning, and, more recently a conference that focused on teaching peace in Mennonite schools. What we learned in these discussions and in the scholarship presented at the conferences is that the project of peaceable research and teaching has the capacity to impact the academic disciplines far beyond the reaches of the relatively small circle of Quaker, Mennonite, and Brethren colleges.[9] There is more interest in teaching peace throughout the world of higher education than we had thought.  And this interest extends both to questions of disciplinary content as well classroom practices of learning. The gospel of peace is being heard as good news among scholars and teachers who are weary of the ways in which their institutions and disciplines are all too often mustered to support our nation’s judicial, military, and economic establishments with all of the violence that these powers promote.

It has been a joy for me to participate in the mission of the church with many colleagues who seek to carry out in our scholarship the “ministry of reconciliation” given in Christ. For us, it has become evident that when our research concerning the created world takes account of the “new creation” that is in Christ,” the old does indeed vanish away, and all things do indeed become new. Whatever our occupational sphere of engagement, the invitation comes to all of us: come and drink from the water of life; receive the holy city that is becoming visible, and bear witness to the peaceable new creation that is being born around us through the victory of Jesus and by the faithfulness of the church (Revelation 22:17-19).



[1] This essay was first given as a sermon at the Michigan State University Mennonite Fellowship in East Lansing, Michigan, on November 6, 2005.

[2] J. Denny Weaver and Gerald J. Mast, Nonviolent Word: Anabaptism, the Bible, and the Grain of the Universe (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010).

[3] Douglas Harink, Paul Among the Postliberals (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003),  Ibid., 252. This point is also made by John Howard Yoder in The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972), 226-228.  As Yoder puts it, “The old has passed away, behold the new has come,” is a social and historical statement, not an introspective or emotional one.”

[4] John Howard Yoder, “Armaments and Eschatology,” Studies in Christian Ethics 1. Yoder is the foremost Mennonite theologian and ethicist of the twentieth century and wrote profound works of biblical and theological discovery. However, his witness as a theological ethicist was compromised by his sexually abusive behavior, as documented in Rachel Waltner Goossen, “Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 89 (2015): 7-80. Yoder’s sins remind us that the creation is truly groaning for redemption; the new day is dawning amidst the ruins of the old ways, even within the broken lives of those who bear witness.

[5] Thieleman J. van Braght, Martyrs Mirror (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988), 454

[6] Quentin Schultze, Communicating for Life (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 2000), 31-32.

[7] Todd Rainey, “Nature’s Tooth and Claw Conflict Resolution,” in J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast, eds., Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 235-45.

[8] Angela Horn Montel, “Violent Images in Cell Biology,” Ibid., 233.

[9] Essays from the more recent gathering of Mennonite educators can be found in J. Denny Weaver, ed., Education with the Grain of the Universe: A Peaceable Vision for the Future of Mennonite Schools, Colleges, and Universities (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2017).

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