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The Impact of War on Faith and Freedom

August 2, 2018 by

Heinrich Arnold giving speech

I delivered the following speech on July 27, 2018, at a panel discussion hosted by the Committee for Responsible Foreign Policy. We were considering “The Impact of War on Religious Freedom in Past Conflicts“ and I connected that theme to the history of the Bruderhof communities.

How does war impact people’s freedom, particularly the freedom to live and practice faith? Faith instructs the moral conscience of a people. When believers stand up to what is wrong, if that wrong is being perpetrated by a state, particularly a state at war, persecution is inevitable.

When thinking about the impact of war, the first question to ask is “what is war?” There are many wars – the war on hunger, on disease, on drugs, on racism, on violence, on the genocide of abortion, the fight to uphold Biblical family and marriage, and to protect freedom of religion. People of faith should be the Special Forces on the fronts of these ideological wars. The apostle Paul instructed us to “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph. 6:11).

What brings us together today is a shared concern and dislike of the wars brought on by nationalism and by cultural, religious, and political disputes; and egged on by greed and hatred. History is made up of these wars which show no signs of stopping. Plato rightly said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” These wars cause death, destruction, and suffering without respect to guilt or innocence. They are all built on lies; indeed the Greek philosopher Aeschylus noted, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” We hate such war.

When diplomacy fails, states turn to force – but the church has to find another way. Jesus showed us the way of love.

How do we stop wars? When diplomacy fails, states turn to force – but the church has to find another way. Jesus showed us that way: love. Since it is impossible to legislate love, we need to wage war on the causes of war, one person at a time, starting with ourselves. Mahatma Gandhi instructed us to “Be the change that [we] wish to see in the world.” It is human nature to strike back and seek revenge when we are wronged, but Jesus taught us to “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you” (Matt. 5:43). That is why my church is a peace church, and why I am a conscientious objector to participation in war, even though I greatly respect and appreciate the commitment and sacrifice of the brave men and women serving in the military.

Eberhard Arnold with other Bruderhof members
Eberhard Arnold (center)

This belief, particularly in times of war, has historically led to the limitations of freedom to live out our faith in Christian community. I have not personally experienced this since I have been blessed to live my entire life in this great country during half a century of relative domestic peace and security. However, for my forebears, this was not always the case.

The Bruderhof was founded by my great-grandparents, Eberhard and Emmy Arnold, in Germany in the aftermath of the First World War. Eberhard was studying for a PhD in philosophy and theology, and was a popular speaker and writer. He spent two weeks at the Western front as a supply driver before being discharged for poor health. Wishing to continue his service to his fatherland, he volunteered in a military hospital.

The stories he heard from wounded soldiers convinced him that a follower of Jesus Christ cannot, in good conscience, participate in war. The church community he began was to be an alternative to capitalism, militarism, and power politics. In June 1920 he published the following “Call to Love”:

We do not judge those who make use of violence. But we want to serve the spirit of love, which will one day supersede all force.… Driven by the living spirit of Christ, we vow our allegiance to the kingdom of love and friendship. We resolve to join in working for the transformation of society and for forging bonds of peace between all nations.

Eberhard identified with the Anabaptists of the 16th century. Basic to the Anabaptist worldview is a doctrine of two kingdoms: the world, in which order is maintained by use of violence, and the kingdom of Christ, which is characterized by peace and forgiveness. Peter Walpot, one of their early apologists, wrote around 1570, “The sword is the absolute opposite of and contrary to true love which is the first commandment in the church of Christ.”

When Adolf Hitler came to power early in 1933, my great-grandfather began speaking out against his oppressive policies. He worked alongside others who opposed Hitler, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoeller, and Karl Barth, a personal friend. But rather than respond with violence, he believed he was called to testify to the Gospel of Christ, even to the Nazis:

Our calling is to represent the kingdom of God and the church of Jesus Christ, with all the consequences. This also means opposition to the state, which has to be maintained by violence and the military. … We do not withhold our respect from God-ordained government (Rom. 13:1). Our calling, however, is a completely different one.

The first effect of persecution was the dissolution of the Bruderhof’s private school, due to their refusal to teach Nazi propaganda and racial hatred. All school-age children were secretly sent to Switzerland and the tiny province of Liechtenstein, where a small Bruderhof was started. Economic persecution followed, as the Nazi regime restricted and confiscated the livelihood and resources of the community.

On November 9, 1933 (three days before all Germans were commanded to sign a vote of confidence), Eberhard wrote a letter to Hitler. Following Christ’s command to love one’s enemy, he addressed him as “Our beloved Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler,” and he audaciously asked that the Bruderhof be allowed to remain in Germany to work and serve neighbor and country with love and dedication, while at the same time refusing to participate in military service or pledge allegiance to the Nazi party with the mandatory “Heil Hitler.” He ended the letter with:

We ask God from our hearts that at God’s hour our beloved Reichskanzler may become, instead of a historical instrument of supreme state authority, an ambassador of the humiliated Christ.

Exactly a week after this letter was hand delivered to Nazi headquarters, the Bruderhof was stormed by 150 SS and Gestapo troops. All residents were interrogated, and the place was searched for weapons. By the grace of God, they were not shot or shipped to concentration camp, but allowed to remain in Germany for another three years until April 1937, when the Gestapo returned to forcibly dissolve the Bruderhof, confiscating all their property, arresting three of the leaders, and giving the others twenty-four hours to leave the country or be imprisoned. Prior to that, my great-grandfather had died in a Nazi hospital, some think suspiciously, from sepsis after surgery for a broken leg. A day before he died, he had shouted loudly in feverish delirium, “Has Goebbels yet repented?”

Heini Arnold
Johann Heinrich Arnold (right)

My grandfather, Johann Heinrich, and the other young men of the Bruderhof were forced to flee the country because of their refusal to serve in the German army. This was dangerous since evading military service meant prison or death. He travelled with my grandmother the day after their wedding: at the border she managed to sweet-talk the customs official into granting him a visa to England for their “honeymoon.” Miraculously all members were somehow able to regroup in England, where my father, Johann Christoph, was born.

England was at war with Germany, and the German pacifists were looked at with growing suspicion. One humorous episode was when local authorities investigated a neighbor’s tip that they were secretly building German U-boats in a quarry pond on the property. All they found was mud and gravel. Despite sympathy from the Home Office, they were eventually forced to emigrate. Paraguay in South America was the only country that would accept them. That is where my parents grew up.

Christoph Arnold speaking at a podium
Johann Christoph Arnold

Following World War II, there was a grass-roots movement for peace and cooperative living in the United States. Many looked to the Bruderhof for inspiration, including those who had served in Civilian Public Service camps or prison rather than serve in the military. As a result, the Woodcrest community was founded in upstate New York in 1954.

Woodcrest was inundated with visitors from all walks of life. Eleanor Roosevelt dropped in for a few hours and stayed for a lunch of lamb stew. Dorothy Day came up from New York’s Catholic Worker. New members joined: professionals and laborers, rich and poor, religious and atheists. All were attracted by a way of life that could answer problems they experienced in society, an antidote to war.

During the Vietnam War, at the time of a military draft, young Bruderhof men applied for status as conscientious objectors. With the generous help of General Hershey, director of the Selective Service Agency, our church was able to set up alternative service programs in schools and non-profit ventures such as book publishing. That’s how my father did his alternative service.

The weapon of forgiveness is as old as humankind but must always be discovered anew.
—J. Christoph Arnold

In his later years, my father, who had been profoundly influenced by meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, served our church as Elder. He wrote and spoke frequently on the topics of forgiveness, peace and reconciliation, and traveled to numerous areas of conflict.

I would like to conclude with an excerpt from a speech he delivered at an international peace conference in Milan in 2004:

But enough about war. I would rather address the ways in which each one of us can break the cycle of violence and build a more peaceful world. … In any conflict you name, you will find people on both sides who are working to end the violence, with a weapon that is as old as humankind, but must always be discovered anew. It is the weapon of forgiveness. Unfortunately, those wielding it rarely get any headlines. …
Let us pray for all the wounded in the new wars that are tearing our world apart – and not only for the innocent, but also for those with evil intentions; for the victims of war, and for its profiteers; for the soldiers and the civilians, the cheerleaders and the dissenters. Let us pray for our presidents and prime ministers, but also for the mothers of the dead; for those lying in bombed-out hospitals, but also for those in military hospitals. Let us pray that all of these may find peace. Because as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The judgment of God is upon our world. And unless we learn to live together as brothers and sisters, we will perish together as fools.”

Today the Bruderhof communities continue to live an alternative to war, militarism, and private property. We are grateful that our country has granted us the freedom to live according to our beliefs. Today we pray that the values and liberties on which our nation was founded will continue to be protected and strengthened. Yes, “there will be “wars, and rumors of wars” as long as power and mammon drive our world; but we can live by “kingdom of God politics,” Jesus Christ’s way that can turn the world upside-down. There will be war; but for the sake of life, let us gather our armies and wage that war on hatred, selfishness, oppression, and on the final enemy – death. But let us choose our weapons carefully, and wield the sword of prayer and redemptive love.

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  • I am grateful that such a message is getting to our government. The incessant wars that we are waging or are involved in are making incredible damage to society at large and creating an atmosphere of violence and hatred between religions, peoples and within nations which can only hurt everyone. We need more workers for peace and justice, not war and hate. Thanks for raising the voice of your church-communities on this issue. As a native-American once said: "Be silent, or your tongue will make you deaf". Too many people now are deaf from their voice of violence.

    James Rhoads
  • We today remember and send our greetings and respect to the fighters of the Peace and Justice in past. We are thankful to God that there has been such people like Johann Heinrich Arnold and Johann Christoph Arnold to fight for the peace of God. So , today we can talk on peace, justice, faith and forgiveness. It is also wonderful that you and all community still carry this responsibility to continue to fight for the sufferings and wars. Yes our weapon for the peace and love is the forgiveness of God. Your father and grand father taught us and we try to live it in our hearts. As mother Teressa said years ago '' if we have no peace , it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other''. Lets not forget how the dear and beautiful people fought and died for the peace and justice years ago. Thank you Johann Heinrich Arnold, my brother.