17 Pieces of Peace

The Mennonite Church has often been stylized as an historical peace church, Dr. James Jakob Fehr say

When I was a child, I thought like a child. When I was a hippie, I thought like a hippie: Why can’t everyone live in peace? Growing up was painful. I learnt that when you bump into sharp objects, it hurts. And I learnt that when you bump up against other people, they sometimes have sharp edges.

The Mennonite Church has often been stylized as an “historical peace church”. And yet we too quarrel amongst ourselves. How reassuring it would be to believe that conflict exists “out there” in the world, whereas we enjoy the blessings and comforts of harmonious faithful living in our peace communities. How reassuring, how naive. Community life is full of great joys and surprises. It is full of laughter and wonder. It supplies friendship, emotional support, meaningful work, intellectual challenges, divine inspiration. But you cannot live in community without difficulties, duties, rules, restrictions and – dare I say it? – personalities.

When we confess that our faith community is the foretaste of the ultimate Kingdom of God, why does it sometimes have a bitter flavour? Are we missing the right ingredients? Perhaps we should simply gloss everything over with sugar. But no. There is a more honest, life-affirming and godly approach that has taken hold in some of our Mennonite communities. One example among many is the work of Bridge-Builders at London Mennonite Centre, which offers courses on conflict transformation in various churches in England. We begin by confessing that we are conflictual and prejudiced, but that this situation is not in itself evil. It depends on how we deal with it. When we react to dispute with gossip, when we react to divisions by building alliances, the seeds of greater strife have been sown. But when members of a community are able to speak their mind directly to one another and are prepared to hear what their “enemies” have to say, a great deal has been won. It is an important starting point. Without such communication, the community cannot proceed on the way to forgiveness and healing.

A good friend of mine recently confessed to me his dissatisfaction with the attribution “peace church” for the Mennonites. He has witnessed so many unresolved disputes among us that he would prefer we set aside this appellation for a few decades. We have not arrived at a place of peace.

I do not claim to have the solution for this disarray. But I will make two observations that are equally true for any efforts at achieving peace on the larger political stage. First, we adopt the individualist spirit of our age all too often and leave the broken potsherds at the feet of the warring parties. We set aside an essential element of our humanity: that we are responsible for each other. The work of peace is seldom possible without a third party who is disinterested and yet keenly interested in achieving reconciliation. Second, we need to be clear about goals. There is no place of peace. In a broken, displaced world, peace should not be idealised as a enduring state. Peace is like all goodness in the world ephemeral. It consists of discrete deeds of reconciliation in a warring world. Our community may never be “peaceful”, yet it lives in its peaceful deeds.

I once purchased a clay sculpture of four figures with their arms flung around each other. Three minutes after I bought it, it shattered into 17 pieces. The patient work of gluing it back together was an exercise in rebuilding; the sculpture with its visible cracks has become a symbol of peace.

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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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