Killing Hitler with the Mennonites

Menno Simons

I have always been fascinated with Christian pacifists. When I was young I became acquainted with a Mennonite sect who lived near my home town. The men wore beards, the women wore black caps on the crowns of their heads and they lived separate from the surrounding community. They were farmers and since my dad was in agri-business he knew something of their habits and reputation. They were good about paying their bills and valued customers in the community.

They cooked great food with lots of butter. Most of them had what many people back home called “yankee” accents. (I found out years later that many of them came from Kansas and some from Indiana.) The children rarely attended high school. The entire Mennonite community was friendly even if a little standoffish.

My dad bought a pickup that had been owned by a Mennonite family. It was an early ’80’s Chevrolet short bed with a 350. I loved that truck. When he brought it home the white walls were turned inside and the radio in the cab was removed with an after market clock in it’s place. They traded the temptation of worldly entertainment for the weight of a clock. These were two signs of their commitment to living as strangers in this world.

Their commitment to God and community was concrete and expressed in very clear paths of discipleship. Their commitment to God was not theological or philosophical but tangibly expressed through “thick habits” of sharing, forgiveness, and non-violence. Their commitment to community was not abstract either. Their community was the people they lived with, shared meals and worked with. Community was not an ideal to reach out toward but an often hard reality that they faced daily as they made space for one another.

As with all Mennonites this group were pacifists. After generations of persecution in both Germany and Russia many Mennonites settled in the United States. Their peculiar ways and their refusal to be pressed into military service made them outcasts. While I never understood their pacifism I was always fascinated and impressed by it. It was a kind of witness to me. Growing up in a part of the country where going to church was the norm and abstinence from Christianity the odd exception their expressions of faith inspired me to think more seriously about my own faith.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Not long before WWII a young pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was contemplating the importance of non-violent resistance by Christians. He was so serious about this possibility that arrangements were made for him to meet with Ghandi to explore the practice and the possibility of Christians in Germany resisting, non-violently, the advancing anti-Christian agenda of the Nazis. He never made it to his meeting with Ghandi. Instead, Bonhoeffer returned to his native Germany to serve alongside his brothers and sisters who were doing what they could to testify to the reality of God’s goodness, grace and love in a country, (and later a world) that had gone crazy.

The details are sketchy and there is some debate about the following. However, the best history and witnesses, including reliable friends of Bonhoeffer, hold that he was actively working for the overthrow and assassination of Adolph Hitler. The would be pacifist moved to overthrow the most powerful man in Europe as his deeply held ideals clashed with the necessity of the moment.

Here is how his friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge describes Bonhoeffer’s actions:

Not, that he (Bonhoeffer) believed that everyone must act as he did, but from where he was standing, he could see no possibility of retreat into any sinless, righteous, pious refuge. The sin of respectable people reveals itself in flight from responsibility. He saw that sin falling upon him and took his stand. (from the Introduction in Life Together)

Both Bonhoeffer and the Mennonites found very tangible ways to follow Jesus. In the 1940’s it cost Bonhoeffer his life. In previous generations it cost Mennonites and Anabaptists theirs.

Some might say that the Mennonites are too legalistic and Bonhoeffer exceptional and too driven. Others will say that pacifism is too simplistic in a world like ours and a fact with which I tend to agree. But I wonder if we don’t sell ourselves short by not taking God, and our lives, seriously enough and by risking too little.

Rather than adopting pacifism or denying ourselves car radios what can we do in both our personal lives and corporately as a Christian community to testify to the goodness, grace and love of God? How can we testify to the resurrection of Jesus by engaging the world instead of fleeing from it?

Without following exactly in the footsteps of either there is much inspiration in Bonhoeffer and the Mennonite movement to challenge us to engage the world as God would have us.

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9 comments

  1. queeniepoo

    i recall how mom always had room for one more at the dinner table. i think she acquired that hospitality by watching grandma as her example.

    “to engage the world as God would have us do so.” i like that. it’s a reminder that just because its not my way, that could be God’s way for them. hmmm… “the risks?” i still have my hang ups.

    I enjoyed the post. Shalom, Qp

  2. Pingback: Pacifism and Hitler « Douglas and Main
  3. Jamie

    After ten years of going to ultra-Pentecostal church camp every summer, I was blessed with the opportunity to counsel at a Mennonite summer camp for high school students.

    I was floored by the hospitality, the relationships I seemed to make instantly. I was touched by the acceptance of my homosexuality, which had alienated me from my former method of practicing my faith. Most of all, I enjoyed the attitude that camp was fun time, not cry-and-sob-and-speak-in-tongues time. It was much more laid-back; it was what a summer camp (I thought) should be.

    Also, the food was much better 🙂

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