A balancing act

Dr. James Jakob Fehr talks about the Mennonite movement's struggle to distinguish community from th

The question is not unlike Zeno’s paradox. How does one form a peace community that engages the world and yet embodies a social alternative? Connecting with the world means conversing with the world. But as soon as you start to talk like everyone else, you think and behave like everyone else. You lose your critical distance. You get tempted to use your influence, to apply pressure, to exercise power. The peace witness is elusive. It is a tight-rope act.

This has been the experience of the Mennonite denominations in their attempts to follow the advice of St. Paul to be in the world, but not of it. The community of Jesus should stand over against the world as a prophetic witness of how life can be. And yet it is not its own raison d’etre. It exists to serve that world. Now if involvement with secular instances is necessary in order to call them to act justly, that implies the community will also be influenced by that “other”. The result: In any given community of faith there are those who think that some among their number make too many compromises and these others think their non-compromising brothers and sisters are dragging their heels. The Anglican fellowship is currently experiencing this push-me, pull-you on various issues, most notably with regard to homosexuality. (Conversely, it is not without significance that on a matter that is also dear to the hearts of Mennonites, namely poverty and social injustice in undeveloped countries, the Anglican bishops are undivided in their advocacy for revised political priorities.)

Depending on whether you see the glass half-empty or half-full, you can call this situation a chronic problem or the challenge of faith. It is a reflection of that most fundamental and yet difficult of theological concepts, God’s incarnation in Christ. Divine acts in human form? Is that not the ultimate balancing act?

From its very beginnings the Mennonite movement struggled with the question of how to distinguish community from world. All agree that doctrine cannot be the shibboleth of faith, because we are called to be doers of the word and not hearers only. That is, not what we affirm, but how we live must be the mark of Christ in our communities. Therefore, instead of confessions of faith, exclusion from community was used to exercise power over others. The breakaway community of the Amish began when the Mennonite leader Jakob Ammann decreed that any member of the congregation who told a falsehood should be excommunicated and shunned. If Ammann had convinced the majority of Mennonites of the correctness of his views, who knows? Perhaps all Mennonites today would be wearing long beards or kerchiefs.

Through several centuries shunning became the main tool of the hardliners for maintaining the purity of the faith. As a psychological control mechanism it worked. But leaders fearful of change often erred on the side of zealousness. For a community that holds high the banner of peace and reconciliation, it is humbling and disappointing to see how our history is repeatedly marred by conflicts that led to schism. In the last few decades Mennonites have gone another way, reaching out to others with new-found self-confidence. An example of this is the fruitful dialogue with the Roman Catholic church, which has led us to embrace each other in our differences. Two centuries ago, driven off by their persecutors, Mennonites ensconced themselves in isolated corners of the world. Now we speak boldly to government agencies and work for change, trusting that prophetic witness is the best means for keeping our faith communities alive.

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 rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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