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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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue