Thursday, February 13, 2014

Pen or the Sword Part III

The issue of whether to use violence or words came to a head for the German-speaking settlers of the Mennonite colonies in southern Russia in 1918.  Should they abandon four hundred years of tradition upholding non-bearing of arms in time of war or defend themselves against the vicious enemy at their door—the vicious anarchistic Makhno bands?

These bands consisted of hundreds of released prisoners and an untold number of unhappy, miserably poor, landless peasants. They murdered, looted, burned and raped at will. Mercy was not part of their vocabulary.

When the Mennonites arrived in south Russia in the late 1700s and early 1800s, at the invitation of Empress Catherine the Great, to settle the rich farmlands along the Dnieper and Molotschna rivers, they had her promise of freedom from bearing arms in time of war for “perpetuity.”  What more could they want?

They came. They saw. They settled, developing thriving, self-sustaining communities, enclaves, if you will.

For the next century their young men fulfilled their civic cuties in alternative service such as forestry work. My father spent three years as a medic with the Russian Red Cross during World War I.When the new regime was unceremoniously ushered in under Lenin, that type of service was no longer an option. All previous promises of privileges became null and void.

Now, in 1918, the Mennonite colonies were faced with the threat of being murdered willy-nilly by the anarchist or picking up guns and resisting. The Red and White armies raged back and forth, and this group, referred to as the Blacks, did as they pleased without government restraints.

The decision on the part of some Mennonites, as I wrote in my previous blog, was to form their own armed self-protection units, or Selbstschutz.  This is well-documented in history books. Is there a lesson for us today as gun violence increases and people are urged to protect themselves?

David G. Rempel, in his excellent account of his early life in the village of Rosenthal in the Old (First) Colony in Chortitza, has a thorough discussion of the self-defense issue. (See A Mennonite Family in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union 1789-1923). Rempel received his Ph.D. from the University of Stanford and taught at the College of San Mateo as well as serving as military historian to General Dwight Eisenhower. I can only summarize his thoughts here.  He writes that the Mennonites chose to take up arms and kill for several reasons;

The German occupation troops of the previous year encouraged young men’s “protective instincts and manliness.”  In other words, you weren’t macho if you didn’t fight. According to Rempel, the German military dispensed two wagon-loads of rifles, ammunition, hand grenades, and even one machine gun in his area of Nieder-Chortitza. They likely did the same in other places.

The Mennonites believed that nonresistance was no longer a viable option with an enemy that wouldn’t negotiate and relished using force. With an unstable government, if they didn’t quell banditry now there would probably be “future outbursts of long-simmering Ukrainian peasant hostility.”

Another concern was the question: Was the teaching of nonresistance biblically based or only a tradition?  If it was only a tradition (we do this because it was always done before), they needn’t abide by it. 

This particular concern was discussed at a meeting held in 1918 in Liechenau, Molotschna as were all other aspects of historic Mennonite nonresistance. They learned that not all early Anabaptists held to a nonviolent approach.  There had been variance in conviction even then.

They decided to remove “pious” language from their resolution, which at the same time removed its soul.  They decided to not coerce the conscience of any member who thought differently on this question.  It became a rational argument unsupported by biblical views. The reality of kill or be killed erased the privilege of being nonresistant.

Removing theological language from the argument, the backbone of Mennonite beliefs, meant the congregations and individuals  no longer had the strength of a unified body to uphold their views.  The way was open to take up arms.

Rempel’s own view is that they did not hold to their nonresistant stance because churches and schools had failed to teach basic Mennonite beliefs and history for many years. “Might not a deeper foundation in our historic beliefs have lessened the aberrant acts of many and saved us all from some of the retributive horrors later inflicted by the Makhnovites?”

He writes that many people struggled with their faith during these desperate times when innocent people were being murdered, women raped, and many other unconscionable acts of brutality committed. Later, Canadian and U.S.-born Mennonites wondered how the Mennonites in Russia could have lost their faith, resorted to self-defense, and despaired during a period of “blackest anarchy.”  Some writers refer to this as the “Russian dance of death” and the Selbstschutz as a blot on Mennonite history.

Rempel’s response is straightforward: “What do you know of such traumatic experience? And what assurance do you have that your faith would have been firmer, or that you would have offered the other cheek?”

Rempel thinks there is another lesson for people today.  He writes, “Why …. did a group [the Mennonites] which championed the separation of church and state, freedom of conscience, and so many other personal freedoms, refuse to support the most elementary rights for the native citizenry, even the cry of Russian sectarians for freedom of worship and their right to conscientious objection?  Unfortunately, with hindsight, we can see that the Mennonites’ blindness to the plight of their neighbors also made them blind to the tragedy that would ultimately befall them.”

His book upholds the need to combine words with deeds of love, with speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves, with supporting the weak, needy, and downtrodden.  Simply said, words of negotiation fail when not supported by deeds of love.  Then the weak pick up the sword.  It is interesting to speculate what difference it would have made if all Russian Mennonites, not just a few, had been known for their love for the Russian peasants. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Pen or the sword? Part II

Here is a section of a chapter on the political situation in the Mennonite colonies in south Russia at the time of the Russian Revolution 1917-19 and thereafter  from D.M. Hofer’s book Die Hungersnot in Russland, which I have been translating this winter.  The threat of being murdered in their beds was so dire, some Mennonites decided they had no option but to pick up guns to protect themselves, their families, and belongings.  The 400-year tradition of non-bearing of arms was set aside to kill and be killed.   

In April of 1918 the German military established itself [in south Russia], with plans to remain for five to ten years. Their efforts and energy were directed toward identifying the Bolshevists and restoring peace and order.  The stolen goods were returned and the thieves punished. Because those who had done the robbing were mostly Russians and the ones being robbed were Germans, the Russians now suffered a great deal at the hands of the German military.  It is only natural, therefore, that hatred against the Germans by the Russians as a people was urged and stirred up.  When the news began to be spread that the Germany military would be withdrawing because of unrest in Germany, many people were filled with fear and anguish because it was clear that after the Germans left the heavy-handed power of the Bolshevists would again be felt.

Unfortunately these fears were fulfilled. While the German military was in power, headquartered in Taurien, groups of bandits under the leadership of Makhno [leader of an anarchist group] organized in the area of Alexandrowsk and targeted isolated economic enterprises and little villages, robbing and often murdering the inhabitants. It was apparent that these bands of anarchists with their terrifying actions would find their way into Molotschna after the Germans left.  Therefore the Molotschna inhabitants decided to organize an armed Selbstschutz (self-protection) army to protect life and belongings from the anarchists. 

The Mennonites were deeply conflicted about the issue.  On the one hand they had maintained a 400-year tradition of non-bearing of arms in time of war. On the other, they faced the practical question of reconciling how to deal with the heavily-armed Makhnovites and basic principles of their faith regarding bearing arms.  This question had already been discussed earlier when the German military attempted to get small self-protection units organized among the Mennonites.  It was also the main subject of debate at the Allgemeinen Mennonitischen Bundeskonference  in Lichtenau in the summer of 1918  where a resolution was passed to remain steadfast to the position of non-bearing of arms based on  the witness of their forefathers  Now [with heavily armed bandits at their gates]  they were faced with the decision: To take up arms or to remain nonresistant.

The arguments offered became more heated and urgent.  One person told stories of assaults on defenseless women; the number of refugees was increasing,  among them women with gunshot wounds to their breasts and chopped-off limbs. Children were being killed in their mothers’ arms.  They decided to fight. Some persons who only a year ago believed that nonresistance in all cases was the right position had changed their thinking entirely because of the experiences of the last year. Against their conscience, they had concluded that if circumstances required them to do so. It was their duty to take up arms on behalf of their own people for the cause of what was right and righteous, for freedom and law. They decided to fight with a weapon in their hands. 

In their 400 years of history the Mennonites had never lived through anything similar to what was happening in their midst—organized bands of lawless, armed men completely disregarding the laws of the land maintaining order, causing the peaceful populace to live in fear for their lives.  Though the many years of undisputed tradition was the reality, it was being set side. This issue forced many Mennonites, especially those of the younger generation, to pick up arms to protect the lives of their loved ones and the honor of their mothers, wives, and sisters. This change of thinking was not a great surprise, but took place with full awareness and after a difficult inner struggle for many.

We don’t want to judge or condemn.  We don’t know what we would have done in similar circumstances.  However, when one tries to reconcile their decision with the sixth commandment given by God and the teaching of Jesus to Peter, it is hard to understand.  In his book Wehrlos? Rev. G.A. Peters from Ladekop writes as follows:

About three to four months ago the Selbstschutz held back a front consisting of about 100 werst of Makhnovites, but the pressure by the bandits reinforced from the North  became too strong at the end of February 1919 so that the Selbstschutz, small in number and insufficiently armed, couldn’t hold out any longer.  The last decisive battles were near Blumental where the members of the self-protection group fought for five days without interruption or reinforcements against a fiend ten times larger.  These battles so depleted the Selbstschutz men that they fell down out of sheer exhaustion and had to give up further resistance.

With this defeat the fate of the Mennonites was determined.  Whoever had the means fled to the Crimea. On February 26 the Makhnovites invaded the Molotschna area.  Nearly all  inhabitants of the 27 Lutheran villages in the Prischib district as well as the people from the villages from Halbstadt to Lindenau fled because they feared mass murder. When they were given the assurance that as peaceful people they had nothing to fear, many refugees returned.

These roving bands [Makhnovites] soon vented their hatred toward the Germans freely and aroused the lower Russian classes against them.  The Mennonites were blamed for everything, including the increasing inflation, but especially for the organization of the Selbstschutz.  A whole row of young men from the Selbstschutz were shot on the spot where they were found or hacked to pieces with swords.  Others lost their lives in the area of the cities Melitopel and Berdjansk in gruesome fashion. Mennonites were arrested by the dozens, cruelly tortured, ridiculed, and often beaten until they lost consciousness and then doused with cold water. Many were whipped with iron rods, gun barrels, and leather boot straps until their flesh hung in shreds. Many were crippled for life.

In addition to this the Makhnovites brought more than ten thousand Russians into the Molotschna, divided them among the villages, and demanded they be housed and fed. They issued the stern warning that if the Russians complained about their treatment  the most severe punishment would be meted out to the Mennonites according to laws established by the revolutionary government.  What that meant the Mennonites knew well enough. Many of these Russians took advantage of every opportunity, demanding money, means of travel, and rich cooked and roasted food.  

Part III One scholar’s analysis of why the Mennonites forsook their tradition of non-bearing of arms. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Pen or the sword? Part I

“The pen is mightier than the sword.”  An archaic idea in this modern world?

Some days I have to acknowledge that here in modern America words no longer are powerful enough to bring about peace between individuals, groups, or nations.  Violence is swifter and more defining. Yet violence never brings light to a situation, only more darkness. And violence leads to more violence.

Guns are plentiful, and so are words.

Has there ever been a time when so many words (or symbols for words) were entered into keypads and transmitted electronically to thousands of owners of other keypads to be hastily scanned and sent into oblivion?  What is their lasting effect? I wonder. 

Facebook, the darling of millions, is something I scroll down quickly, looking for something personal, significant.  But too often it seems that the entry was quickly copied, pasted and then posted. Would incessant Facebook and Twitter enthusiasts know how to have a face-to-face meaningful conversation with another person? Even attempt peace by negotiation?

While Facebook and Twitter are thriving, newspapers, once the most powerful conveyers of words, are struggling to survive.  The pages of my morning paper is getting tissue thin, curling at once on being opened--to save money. And growing smaller (except for sports pages) while costing more.

Magazines, once the heavy hitters in the arena of words, are in the same survival mode because people don’t have time for anything longer than  thirty seconds in reading time. So they’re being downsized, merging, folding, waving good-bye. 

And book publishing? It was with sorrow that I heard that another book publisher with Anabaptist connections had declared bankruptcy before Christmas – Good Books.

Add bookstores, also word people, to the same group struggling to stay afloat. 

Where words are most popular these days is in advertising, all forms, especially  TV commercials and mailings.   I throw away all kinds of “buy me” or “give me” come-ons. Junk mail, otherwise known as marketing, fills garbage trucks. 

Yet nothing seems more vapid than computerized mailings, churned out week after week. I see it filling trash cans in our apartment building, unopened, because the words are empty.  Every entity, whether for profit or not-for-profit, engages in this all-out effort to find the right words to persuade the reader or listener to let go of their money. 

Words, too,too  many empty words. 

At one time governments feared the words of poets, words that might be right for the times, words that might be true words, speaking to truth, bringing light, revealing weakness and rottenness. 

Writers like the Russian novelist Solzhenitsyn were imprisoned in gulags because of the truth of their words.  More recently I heard that deceased folk singer Pete Seeger, peace activist, was attacked as a communist and banned from television for more than decade because people in power feared his words.

Words of writers like these men and others persuade thoughtful readers to think along new paths. As careful explorers of their worlds. They do so at their own pace, even if takes years to get one poem or one novel just right so that it speaks to the evil they  encountered and upholds the good.

However, elected public figures are not usually among those who have years to think through an idea. They’re expected to have a word ready whenever someone sticks a microphone before them.  At the same time they fear they might misspeak and say a word with an unintended connotation or a word not fit for public consumption. 

This happened here in Wichita a few weeks ago when a newsman, thinking his microphone was turned off, made an end-of-day comment using the f-word and was promptly fired.  

That told me that he, like so many others, has two languages – one for public use and one for private occasions – and the private language is crude and vulgar.  I used to tell my students that if they needed to use vulgarisms and obscenities as intensifiers it revealed a paucity of vocabulary.  You don’t need f-words, n-words, s-words, d-words and h-words to express feeling if you have a rich vocabulary.  

Has the era of words left us?  

Daily I read about killings across the nation. Some people believe in violence. Yet I continue to believe in the power of words.  And pray they might retain  power.