With the Grain of the Universe

Dr. James Jakob Fehr says the Mennonite Church is an attempt to revive the original form of Jesuan c

One intriguing approach to reading the Bible goes behind those doctrines like sin or divine grace that strike many of us as hackneyed and dreary and asks how specific concepts were actually intended and understood “back in the day”. You know, before the theologians began brewing their spells, and by the strength of their illusion drew us on to our confusion. It is interesting to discover, for example, that the Hebrew concept of the soul is not an aspect of the human that is distinct from our fleshly existence, but includes essentially our breathing, our appetites and emotions. Consider under this perspective how one must re-read “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?” Much of the best and most arresting contemporary theological literature adopts this approach.

There is, however, another equally interesting interpretive method that is more seldom the object of serious scrutiny. It asks whether the New Testament authors had a political agenda for the people of God. Indeed, given what we know about the biblical message: that the prophets championed the disadvantaged, that Jesus criticized mainstream value-systems, and that God himself is characterized as opposing the structures of power and domination, we might well ask: Could these themes still have application for the church today? – Oops, dreadfully sorry to have disturbed your afternoon tea. But let’s consider what the Mennonites have made out of this notion.

Imagine that Jesus gathered disciples, not in order to have a docile audience for his magic acts, but in order to train a community of men and women in acts of engagement with the world. Imagine that he was not interested in adoring spectators, but wanted his trainees to continue his feats of confronting power circles and domination systems with peaceful and non-coercive acts of love. This is what following Jesus means to Mennonites. – To some this training programme may sound daft, to others it may sound heroic. But if that was Jesus’ intention, then clearly something got his community side-tracked along the way. The Mennonites have a word for that: Constantinianism.

The Mennonite Church is an attempt to revive the original form of Jesuan community that began in Palestine and that has lived on in various guises during the Middle Ages and after the Reformation. This form of community needed revival, because of the fatal alliance that the Church forged in the 4th century. After Constantine the Great purportedly used bloody violence in allegiance to the Christian God (a God of peace and love, who revealed himself in the self-sacrifice of his Son), the Church decided to use this opportunity to further her interests. She became an institution in allegiance to the state. She began to persecute those who did not believe “properly”. She developed a system of domination of her own.

It may be that such compromises are inevitable. It may be that any counter-cultural institution, when it grows unwieldy, forms unholy alliances. But it is not the way of Jesus, who claimed that those who lose their lives are the true winners. A revolution of stubborn, steadfast love creates just, merciful, humane communities. Using war and violence can bring short-term rewards. But in the long-term, only the peace-work of reconciliation and healing overcomes all the side-products of violence. In other words, mechanisms of domination and power run against the grain of our world. A political and social system of non-coercive love goes with the grain of the whole universe. Or as we confess: With the resurrection of Jesus, God defeated the politics of violence.

James (Jakob) Fehr is the newly appointed Director of the German Mennonite Peace Centre. He has served as an academic researcher and a Pastor in the Mennonite Church in Germany (AMG)
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.