The Nation's Pulse

Getting Angry, Mennonite-Style

A pacifist tradition gives way to a new belligerence.

By 5.18.07

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Mennonites, according to old stereotypes, are quiet people in dark clothing who like to live in the country. Sometimes their women-folk wear white bonnets, and the men-folk wear wide brimmed hats. But unlike their spiritual cousins, the Amish, most Mennonites live in the modern world, with electricity and automobiles.

Descendants of European Anabaptists, the Mennonites have traditionally been cultural separatists, who were wary of political involvements and declined to serve in the military. Their pacifism was typically personal, and they did not condemn the majority of Christians who adhered to just war teachings.

The 1960s radicalized their church agencies, like the Mennonite Central Committee, who reinterpreted pacifism to mean active resistance to U.S. foreign and military policies. The late Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, who taught at Notre Dame, adamantly insisted that Christians must politically reject all violence. Through Stanley Hauerwas at Duke Divinity School and other disciples, Yoder's "radical pacifism" has become a cause celebre among the wider evangelical left.

This more radicalized version of politicized Mennonite beliefs was lived out most vividly in March, when a prominent Mennonite couple harassed U.S military recruiters at a public library in a conservative Akron, Ohio suburb. Writing for the Progressive, Matthew Rothschild summarized the resulting fracas in his regular column, "The New McCarthyism."

Gulf war veteran and Mennonite convert Tim Coil and his wife, Yvette, were at the Stow-Munroe Falls Public Library when they spotted military recruiters talking to a potential enlistee behind a large glass window. Mrs. Coil urgently began putting her faith into action by writing angry messages of protest on index cards and flashing them through the window: "Don't fall for it! Military recruiters lie," one message from the Mennonite lady said. "It's not honorable to fight for a lying President," declared another.

This precipitated a confrontation with the military recruiter, who failed to deter the Coils. Mrs. Coil put up another index card message in the window glass aimed at the potential young recruit: "To the military, you are cannon fodder." The library director asked the Coils to stop their protest but instead the Coils knocked on the window and implored the young man not to join the military. The police arrived and asked the Coils to leave, which they started to do, but not before Mr. Coil called the library director an unpleasant name.

Ignoring a warning from a police officer, Mr. Coil shouted: "Don't let the military recruit people in the library." He was promptly arrested for "causing a disturbance within a library," and he has rejected a plea bargain. His trial is June 5.

Mrs. Coil explained to Rothschild's column: "We're Mennonite. To lie about that would be wrong. I don't want him to go to jail. Neither does he. He doesn't need that. But I believe that God's going to take care of it. We're OK with whatever happens. The point is if we don't stand for these freedoms and we don't allow ourselves to be put on the line for those things, there won't be an option anymore."

UNMENTIONED IN ROTHSCHILD'S ARTICLE is that the Coils are spokespersons for the Mennonite Central Committee's "Conscientious Objection" program. The Coils' story is prominently featured on the program's website.

Mr. Coil joined the U.S. Army in 1985. During the Gulf War build-up, while still stationed in Germany, he converted to pacifism. Coil credited his spiritual awakening to the birth of his son and the death of his sister. He has claimed that his commanding officers threatened him, and he complied with his transfer to the Gulf, while still refusing to carry a weapon. Meanwhile, the Mennonite Central Committee offered its services to the Coils.

While Mr. Coil was serving in the Middle East, Mrs. Coil publicized his case back in Germany and condemned the impending Gulf War to liberate Kuwait from Iraq. Mr. Coil eventually accepted an honorable discharge in 1992 and moved his family to Ohio. There they joined a Mennonite Church, and Mr. Coil received counseling for the traumas and harassment he said he received in the military for his refusal to bear arms.

Referring to 9-11, Mr. Coil told the Mennonite website: "The recent violence has solidified my beliefs even further. Violence begats violence.... For Christians, the values of our country shouldn't come before the values of God."

The Coils speak about their pacifism at Mennonite events and are interviewed on a Mennonite "Peace DVD." Mrs. Coil told the Mennonite website: "We are still fighting for peace and justice in Christ's name, and we always will."

Though Christ could get angry too, His own encounters with soldiers of His day were more hospitable than the Coils angry fracas with the recruiters at the Stow-Munroe Falls Public Library. Traditional Mennonites once and usually still believe that they witness to their peaceful faith through quiet example, not loud confrontations that impugn the motivations of others.

Doubtless the wider Religious Left will salute the Coils' more aggressive interpretation of Mennonite pacifism. "Good for our Mennonite brother and sister!" enthused Chuck Gutenson at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. Himself a pacifist, the Methodist professor quoted Jack Nicholson in saying the military recruiters obviously "couldn't handle the truth" and wanted to deny the Coils' "freedom of speech."

Of course, the free speech and beliefs of the military recruiters and the young man who was interested in their offer seems not to merit respect from the Coils' supporters. And the old dignity that used to accompany traditional Christian pacifism becomes even more of a fading memory, as angry and more belligerent successors replace it.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.