Historical Background

Where we’re

coming from

Historical Background for the Peace and Justice Project by Harriet Sider Bicksler

Harriet Sider Bicksler is editor of Brethren in Christ History and Life and Shalom!: A Journal for the Practice of Reconciliation. This article is adapted from a presentation given at study conference of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College in Fall 2013.

I think it is fair to say that the early Brethren in Christ were not particularly concerned about “doing justice” as we talk about it today. But that is not to say that the seeds of our more contemporary approach to doing justice weren’t there in earlier days. Three beliefs have informed the development of a Brethren in Christ understanding of doing justice, and have led to various denominational structures to address issues of peace and justice. The three beliefs are nonresistance, separation from the world, and commitment to caring for others.

Three beliefs

Nonresistance.

The Eighteenth Century Confession of Faith affirmed that “it is completely forbidden to bear the sword for revenge or defence [sic]”. The basis for this statement is Matthew 5:39-40, where Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” This suggests that instead of violently resisting someone who threatens harm, the early Brethren believed they should be generous. There is a respect for human life and the dignity of others that is integral to the belief in nonresistance (or nonviolence or pacifism, as we might be more likely to call it now) that is a fundamental principle guiding the Christian’s response to injustice and the needs of people.

Separation from the world.

The early “perception of the world as a hostile force confronting the church,” to quote Carlton Wittlinger, was based on the call in Romans 12:1 not to be conformed to the patterns of the world. This separation from the world, or nonconformity, was most obviously expressed in the plain dress that characterized many Brethren in Christ people well into the twentieth century. Nonconformity to the world also included prohibitions against decorations in homes and churches, weddings, musical instruments, photographs, and activities like dances and sports events. Gradually, as the church became more acculturated and there was growing awareness that the legalism inherent in enforcing plain dress and other nonconformist practices was hindering outreach and evangelism, those visible expressions of nonconformity markedly decreased.

The standards of nonconformity and separation from the world that were seen as marks of discipleship were relaxed gradually as the denomination began to reach out more broadly, leading some to question what replaced those marks. Reflecting on this in a 1988 issue of Shalom! on “contemporary nonconformity,” Luke Keefer, Jr. asserted that “it is now clear that we have suffered serious losses in both principles and practice.”

I quoted Keefer in Perspectives in Social Issues and went a little further, asking, “If nonconformity no longer means setting ourselves apart by dressing plainly (for example), but if we still hold to the scriptural principles upon which nonconformity was based, then what distinguishes us from non-Christians? Is our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord an attitude of the heart but not relevant to lifestyle or social ethics?” I also suggested that the principle of nonconformity is important in how we view social issues: guided by a Christian world view, we don’t respond to violence with more violence as the world often does, we give generously without expecting anything in return, and we treat people the way we want to be treated rather than the way they deserve.

Community and the importance of caring for each other’s needs.

Our concept of the church as a community of faith means that we care not only for the spiritual needs of our members but also for their physical and emotional needs. In earlier years, this care for the needs of others was expressed most tangibly within the church community rather than to others outside the church. However, at least by the late 1880s, there is evidence that members were becoming aware of the needs of people beyond their own communities. In 1871, a “Poor Fund” was established, and then in 1913 General Conference created a Beneficiary Poor Fund Board.

Various outreach efforts in the latter part of the nineteenth century helped to introduce church members to the needs of people, most notably overseas missions. It didn’t take long for missionaries to realize that it was not enough to preach salvation when the people they were preaching to were uneducated and in need of medical care. So schools, clinics and hospitals became a major part of Brethren in Christ missionary efforts, especially in Africa and India. Providing education and treating people’s medical needs happened, of course, not out of a desire to do justice in the sense that we think of it now, but rather out of compassion and in obedience to Jesus’ call to minister to “the least of these.”

Denominational structures to facilitate response to social concerns

These fall in two categories:

First, benevolent ministries.

Brethren in Christ benevolent ministries came straight out of the primary definition of the word “benevolence”: a desire to do good, an act of kindness, compassion.

The Poor Fund and the Beneficiary Poor Fund Board were early structures for church-wide responses to people in need. As the church began to look beyond itself, benevolent institutions were established, sparked according to Wittlinger by a “sense of responsibility to aid each other in time of personal or family need,” and a “growing evangelistic and social concern.” These include various efforts across the church to launch orphanages and homes for the aged, including Jabbok Faith Missionary Home and Orphanage in Oklahoma and Mt. Carmel Missionary Training Home and Orphanage in Illinois; the latter was used by workers at the Chicago mission for homeless children.

The longest-lasting of these benevolent institutions is what we now know as Messiah Lifeways, which began with a vision for a “home for aged, the afflicted and the poor.” Wittlinger notes that there were four classes of people who were served by the original Messiah Rescue and Benevolent Home. Two of the four classes were “primary” for the homeless and destitute and “rescue” for abandoned children and those who were homeless and destitute because of some kind of perceived moral lapse (like alcoholism). As the ministry developed, leaders recognized that children’s needs required special attention, and so the Messiah Home Orphanage was launched in Mount Joy.

The effect of these and other benevolent efforts was the “identification with social concern for the aged, orphaned, and morally fallen. The men and women who pioneered these benevolent undertakings saw them as opportunities both to evangelize and to minister to basic human needs for shelter, food, and love.” These efforts also challenged the desire to remain separate from societal structures, as pressure mounted to accept public funds to help with the costs. Ultimately, Wittlinger says, there appeared to be “no conflict between their doctrine of separation from the world and the acceptance of public funds for benevolent purposes.” Later benevolent ministries included Life Line Mission in San Francisco (now Pacific Lifeline in Upland, California), Timber Bay Children’s Home in Saskatchewan (now closed), and Paxton Ministries in Harrisburg.

The second category of denomination-sponsored responses is related to peacemaking.

The two World Wars not only challenged the nonresistant stance of the Brethren in Christ but also confronted them even more directly with the needs of people beyond themselves. During World War I, the Canadian government eventually conscripted all young men ages 20-23, and several young men refused to put on the uniform. In the United States, some conscientious objectors were allowed to perform relief work instead of joining the armed forces or become noncombatants, while others received exemptions for farm work. According to Wittlinger, “one outcome of the Brethren stand on nonresistance was their increased sense of responsibility to help meet the needs of suffering people in other lands.” They sent contributions to various relief agencies, making a “connection between refusal to destroy lives in war and responsibility to save lives ravaged by war.” in 1918, the denominational executive board issued an appeal called “An Organized Effort for the Relief of Sufferers in the War Stricken Countries, noting in the appeal, “Our help and real sympathy as a Brotherhood toward a suffering, war stricken and shattered world has already been too long delayed, and, as we become conscious of this fact, may it dawn upon us, with such irresistible force and intensity, that our comfortable—may we say rather indifferent life, may it to its utmost capacity be turned into a channel of blessing, service and relief to those who are innocently made to suffer from the blasting scourge of war.”

During World War II, the denomination designated Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) as the channel for contributions to war relief, formally joining the agency in 1942. MCC also offered opportunities for voluntary service and relief work both during and after the war, and many men participated in Civilian Public Service as an alternative to military service, which also put them in contact with people in need, such as in various mental health institutions.

Two committees—the Peace Committee and the Relief and Service Committee—merged around this time to form the Peace, Relief and Service Committee which was the liaison with MCC and helped to facilitate various voluntary service opportunities. In 1966, the Peace, Relief and Service Commission was absorbed into the Christian Service Ministries portfolio of the Board for Missions. Christian Service Ministries was responsible for the “concerns and witness in Christian social welfare and peace testimony.” Then in 1969, a separate Commission on Peace and Social Concerns was formed, still amenable to the Board for Missions. Its duties were to “guide the church in ‘an effective understanding and practice of the doctrine of nonresistance’ and to stimulate the conscience of the brotherhood ‘toward a Christ-like response to the ills of society.’” One of the initiatives of the Commission was a position paper, adopted by General Conference in 1976, on “The Church, War, and Respect for Human Life,” addressing such issues as euthanasia, capital punishment and suicide. Wittlinger points out that one difference between this position paper and traditional understandings was the way it articulated the relationship between nonresistance and political activism.

In response to a growing sense of responsibility for ministry to the material and social needs of the world, the Commission also launched the World Hunger Fund in 1974, of which seventy-five percent was sent to MCC and twenty-five percent retained for use in Brethren in Christ settings, usually in other countries. In addition, General Conference commissioned Dr. Kenneth Hoover to “assist the brotherhood to gain greater awareness and understanding of world poverty,” stressing, among other things, “the underlying causes and unjust structures which contribute to widespread poverty and hunger in the world.” This may have been one of the first statements acknowledging that human need is caused in part by societal structures and systemic injustice.

When the denomination restructured in 1984, the Commission and the Board of Benevolence, which had the responsibility for oversight of agencies like Messiah Village, were merged to create the Board for Brotherhood Concerns (BBC). In another denominational restructuring in 1994, the BBC was dissolved, and since then there has been no separate denominational structure for addressing peace and social concerns. Instead, there have been efforts to address peace and justice as integral parts of the church’s core values, and more recently, a group of concerned individuals affiliated with various local Brethren in Christ congregations have organized the Peace and Justice Project as a grassroots initiative attempting to be a more intentional voice for peace and justice issues. One consistent voice since 1994 has been Shalom!, originally a newsletter of the Commission, then a publication of the BBC, and now a general denominational publication.