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Fall 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 2 · pp. 285–287 

Book Review

From Suffering to Solidarity: The Historical Seeds of Mennonite Interreligious, Interethnic, and International Peacebuilding

ed. Andrew P. Klager. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015. 409 pages.

Reviewed by Conrad Stoesz

The aim of this book is to illuminate how the Mennonite community’s painful history from the Reformation to the Russian Revolution has helped it cultivate empathetic solidarity for others in pain. A second, closely related aim is to demonstrate how other communities can gain strength and inspiration from the Mennonite example and transform conflict in their own contexts. “Mennonites,” says the author, “have been able to assemble a rich and enduring historical infrastructure that has allowed them to preserve and disseminate their stories, memories, and myths to inspire love of enemies” (2). That infrastructure is available to the entire world.

Klager is an adjunct professor of history at Trinity Western University in B.C. His research focus has included peace and conflict studies, Anabaptist-Mennonite studies, and interreligious peacebuilding. Klager identifies himself as both an outsider to the Mennonite community and insider: he is an active participant in the Eastern Orthodox Church but has been educated in Mennonite schools, studied Anabaptist and Mennonite history, and worked with Mennonite Central Committee. Moreover, Klager’s wife was born and raised in a “thoroughly ethnic and religious Mennonite family” (6).

The intended audience of this essay collection also consists of both insiders and outsiders, academics and non-academics. Klager hopes his book will be an encouragement to Mennonites. While contributors to the book do not shy away from Mennonite failures in peacebuilding, Klager observes that Mennonites are more critical of their history than non-Mennonites and, thus, more likely to discount its value. He believes that Mennonites need to know more of their history and own it because of “unique positives in the realm of peace and conflict studies, on which they hang their collective hat” (7). For the non-Mennonite audience, Klager suggests that Mennonite self-examination offers lessons for everyone.

From Suffering to Solidarity brings together an impressive array of seventeen authors, most of them academics or peacebuilding practitioners, and often both. Firsthand accounts take the reader from North America to Russia, Colombia, Egypt, and Palestine-Israel, showing how Mennonite history has been formed, transformed, and disseminated, and uncovering its influence around the world. The book is divided into three parts. The first consists of essays that recount Anabaptist-Mennonite history and show how the peace theme was formed, nurtured, and tested. John Derksen’s contribution underscores the social and religious contexts of Anabaptists that led them to value peace. Walter Sawatzky and Royden {286} Loewen’s essays discuss the Russian and North American Mennonite contexts. Loewen claims that in North America the idea of peace shifted from a focus on group privilege to a personal right to an imperative of social responsibility (59). Esther Epp-Tiessen’s essay on Mennonite Central Committee includes a discussion of how the relief agency helped build bridges between Mennonite groups by bringing them together for a common purpose.

Part two considers the “historical seeds” of peacebuilding in a modern context and how it has influenced memory, intergenerational storytelling, myth-building, and preservation. Janna Hunter-Bowman narrates the life of peacebuilding practitioner John Paul Lederach. Carl Stauffer explores the power of mythmaking, both its incredible positive power and its shadow side. Lowell Ewert describes Mennonites’ ambivalent relationship with human rights language and approaches to peacebuilding, calling out the Mennonite approach for “ignor[ing] the positive potential of international human rights and humanitarian law” (170).

The third and final section has essays from Mennonite peacebuilding practitioners who explore peacebuilding activities in some of the world’s hot spots. They describe how Mennonites’ historical consciousness and peace identity have impacted the approach to peacebuilding in such contested zones as Colombia, Indonesia, Congo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bonnie Klassen’s essay on peacebuilding in Colombia describes how persecuted Colombian Anabaptists were driven to “dig back in history to find theological brothers and sisters that can help make sense of the actions they feel called to carry out today” (252)—a clear example of Klager’s stated purpose, namely, to show how the history of one group can inspire another group in a vastly different time and place.

The book draws heavily on Canadian Mennonite authors and examples from the experience of Mennonites from Russia. Unfortunately, it draws little from the experience of Mennonites with roots in Switzerland. The title of Klager’s book captures the progression in Mennonite self-understanding from separateness (the quiet in the land) to engagement with the world and its politics. Today, advocating for the underprivileged and alleviating the suffering of those in dire circumstances require no special justification. What Klager and others seldom acknowledge is that not all Mennonites underwent this progression. There continue to be credible Mennonite examples of separation from the world.

Klager is to be commended for bringing together so many excellent authors to discuss topics that demonstrate the potential of the past to transform present thinking and practice. However, for a book that focuses on a “historical infrastructure that preserves and disseminates” transformational stories, there is no discussion of the institutions that {287} preserve and care for the community’s historical memory. The vital role of archives, for example, is indirectly acknowledged throughout the book in footnotes. But there is no explicit analysis of their role in collecting, guarding, preserving, and disseminating foundational narratives that might have the power to transform conflict around the world. A discussion of the role and health of our memory institutions would help fulfill the book’s purpose.

From Suffering to Solidarity is a welcome resource for conflict transformation studies, Mennonite scholarship, and identity-formation discussions. At a time when it seems that many Mennonites want to leave “irrelevant” Mennonite history behind them, this book provides solid examples of the positive value of that history.

Conrad Stoesz, Archivist
Mennonite Heritage Archives
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, MB

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