[Editor’s Note: The Mennonite Church USA recently awarded John Stoner with the Bring the Peace Award. In February, Jessica Griggs, blog editor for MC USA, interviewed John. The original interview with video can be found at tinyurl.com/4v549s64. This interview is published with the permission of MC USA.]
Q: What does “bring the peace” mean to you?
John: One of the first actions of the #BringThePeace campaign was to establish the Church Peace Tax Fund.
And to me, that means that the church recognizes that conscientious objection to war taxes is something that matters. I have long believed that it can’t be right for me to pay someone else to do what is wrong for me to do myself. So breaking the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” (Exodus 20:13) is not something I can pay others to do for me. I think when #BringThePeace says that peacemaking is central, not marginal, for all Christians, it’s helping me and the church focus on priorities in Christian discipleship. #BringThePeace says it’s a priority to make peace.
Q: How are you involved in peace and justice work?
John: I believe my vocation is to live out the Sermon on the Mount—to live a life of hungering and thirsting to see justice prevail and being committed to being a peacemaker. This vocation of peacemaking means that
I am willing to take risks and hold views that aren’t that popular in culture and society. One of the things my wife and I do is practice what we call symbolic war tax resistance, by underpaying the federal military tax—the federal income tax—by $10.40. 1040 is the IRS form. But to withhold a symbolic portion, the amount that goes to military uses, is a public witness to a better way to run the world. Beyond that, I’m involved in several local peacemaking groups—support groups—one of which is called $10.40 for
Peace. This group strategizes ways to work for peace and focuses on the problem of military spending. I also write letters to the local paper. A letter published in a local paper communicates with your neighbors, your friends, and those who are not, perhaps, eager to be thought of as your friends. I also buy books and share books and participate in the education and encouragement of individuals in peacemaking.
Q: Where do you encounter God and your peace and justice work?
John: I’ve felt a call to peacemaking in the voice of the victims of war. And in that, I hear the voice of God. When the children of Egypt wereoppressed, the Scriptures say that God heard their cry. And so, in the cry of
hurting people, God is listening, and God’s voice is being heard. It’s not only that reality and threat of war that uncovers the heart and voice of God but the needs and the cry of the poor. In the faces of people in poverty, I see
the face of God.
I encounter God in my own soul and conscience. Jesus never tired of reminding people that they were called to bear witness to the love of God in this world. And I think that God is visible in the lives and actions of people who do loving things. I don’t know of a better single word to describe God than love itself. And when I see love expressed, then I feel that I see God expressed. So I see the face of God in all acts of love. I see God in all
expressions of truth.
Q: How do your Anabaptist faith values propel youtoward peace building? Or how has your faith grounded you in the work of peace and justice?
John: The Anabaptists of the 16th century were clear that there is, in the world, a spirit of domination, of coercion; there are systems of abusive power, which need to be resisted. And their faith was that these systems of power that they saw both in the state and in church bureaucracy were not invincible. They believed that Jesus was pointing toward resources in the heart and soul of every living person to say no to the domination and propaganda of those systems, and instead, he was inviting people to say yes to their own wisdom, conscience and heart and to experience freedom and peace by doing that. So the Anabaptist faith has said to me that what Jesus called the kingship of God, the reign of God, is actually a different way to run the world, by a different form of power: compassion, forgiveness, creativity and non-violence. That is an immensely freeing experience — the experience of being able to see truth beyond the claims of domination systems, whether church or state, and the work of discovering and living in these larger truths, which resonate within us from birth. That process, to me, is faith. It’s the practice of faith to believe that things can change; they can be different. We do not have to be victimized by systems of homicide and domination.
Q: Why do you think Mennonites should embrace peace and justice work?
John: The world needs peace and justice to survive. Mennonites should do what all people should do because they are caring human beings. They should be seeking and discovering which kinds of peace and justice work can best
contribute to the future of the planet. As Christians, I would expect Mennonites, and actually, all Christians, to take seriously what Jesus said about peace and justice. Peacemaking isn’t just contemplating peace, or wishing it
would happen, or thinking that it would be a nice idea. Peacemaking is a vocation; it’s a task. The question really isn’t, “Why should Mennonites embrace peace and justice work?” It’s “How could they ever justify not being
centrally engaged in peace and justice work?”
I would add that Mennonites should do peace and justice work as all people should because it is personally fulfilling, and it is meaningful. People struggle for meaning in life. Where can they expect to find it? Well, they could expect to find it in engaging in creative work, which includes working for justice and for peace.
Q: What would you say to encourage those who are not actively engaged in peacebuilding?
John: First, I would ask, “What would you like to do with your life?” When we get in touch with our deepest self, I believe that we want to leave the world a better place than we find it. I know the feeling of our human limitations — I do so much less than I think I should — so I try not to use my limitations as an excuse for not doing anything. We should get more deeply in touch with our own sense of personal calling. We need help to find our calling and our gifts. Mennonites are no different than other people in this.
We need friends, we need community to return to time and again — to conversations and to a shared search for what our personal calling is, as well as what we should be doing.