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)
Richard Burden
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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.