Education with
the Grain of the Universe
A Peaceable
Vision for the Future of  Mennonite
Schools, Colleges, and Universities

Edited by J. Denny Weaver
C. Henry Smith Series 11

This moment, still early in the twenty-first century, offers stimulating and important challenges for the future of Mennonite education. For one thing, there is evident interest in things Anabaptist in ecumenical circles beyond Mennonites. I observe that interest in the wider academic community that I encounter at national meetings. And I sense that interest with the pastors I encounter in my work with the Wisconsin Council of Churches. There is an opportunity here for Mennonite education done with an ecumenical spirit.

One dimension of this interest in things Anabaptist, particularly in peace theology, comes from the growing disillusionment about the seemingly endless wars in which the United States is engaged. This country stands in need of the peace witness that Mennonite education can provide at all levels.

At the same time, issues of sexuality challenge the church within and threaten the witness the church can pose to the wider world. One issue concerns sexual immorality and the sexual abuse of women by male authority figures and men in leadership positions. Mennonite Church USA, the largest of the Mennonite denominations in the United States, is still struggling with how to respond to these sinful stories, both past and present. Schools face this issue as much as other church institutions. The case of John Howard Yoder is only the most prominent of such stories. How the church solves this question will have significant impact both within the church as well as without for the witness the church offers to a watching world.

Further, Mennonite Church USA is struggling with questions of inclusion of people who are LGBTQ, whether to affirm marriage of same-sex couples, and whether pastors should perform these marriages. This conflict presents an opportunity for education in Mennonite institutions to model acceptance and reconciliation. However, since Mennonite colleges are already teaching conflict resolution and have affirmed equality in hiring, it is not clear at the moment how willing a fragmented church may be to follow the lead of the educational institutions.

Mennonite schools also have an opportunity for modeling of a different kind. Gone are the days when Mennonite schools served primarily Mennonite students. Among the colleges, Bluffton University has long had more students who do not come from a Mennonite background than Mennonites. But the numbers for other schools as well are changing. Mennonite high schools and colleges are attracting students not of Mennonite background but who are interested in a high quality, religious-based education. Maintaining a clear peace-church-oriented outlook in an ecumenical manner and with clear regard for the issues of sexuality and power dynamics may be the most important challenge facing Mennonite education as it seeks to flourish in the twenty-first century. In a way, carrying out this task on our campuses constitutes a miniature version of modeling a peace outlook amid a violence-prone nation.

The chapters of this book propose an approach to education for the Mennonite future that addresses these challenges. The intent is to describe an approach to Mennonite education that sets it up to engage the world from within a clear orientation in peace and social justice but does so from an ecumenical framework accessible to any Christian.

This orientation is established in Chapter 1, which sketches the narrative of Jesus. Since all Christians profess Jesus, beginning the discussion with the narrative of Jesus is intrinsically an ecumenical orientation. Although the implications will unfold slowly and throughout the book, my suggestion for orientating education is actually a way to read the story of Jesus that opens the narrative to the discussion of virtually any subject in the school and college curriculum, present or future.1

A book on Mennonite education or education for Mennonites necessarily has two dimensions or faces two directions. One dimension concerns the content of teaching in Mennonite schools. What precisely belongs in the curriculum of a Mennonite school? I suggest, for example, that courses in the Bible should make clear the way a nonviolent perspective emerges from the entire narrative of Jesus, and these schools should be teaching about conflict resolution and restorative justice. 

Closely related to the discussion of content is the question of pedagogical methodology, namely how should teachers in Mennonite schools teach. As a first point, I suggest that teaching should reflect a nonviolent, invitational approach to student learning rather than an authoritative, top-down approach. In practice, the issues of content and methodology overlap. Without making an effort to separate the two questions, chapters in this book move between these two poles of discussion.

In 2003, Gerald Mast and I co-edited Teaching Peace,2 a book which demonstrated how an assumption of nonviolence could shape disciplines and conversations across a liberal arts curriculum. The volume in hand constitutes a kind of Teaching Peace: Volume II. The assumption of the current volume is that living within the story of Jesus, which makes visible the grain of the universe, has the potential to influence thinking in virtually any discipline of the school or university curriculum.3 That orientation was assumed but not particularly explicit in the previous volume, whose chapters dealt with a wide range of disciplines. The book in hand makes explicit the footing of Mennonite education within the narrative of Jesus. For those who found that dimension lacking in the previous work, consider the current book as “Volume I” and read Teaching Peace as “Volume II”!

Establishing the orientation in the narrative of Jesus is the function of Chapter 1. The narrative of Jesus is not a narrow foundation. On the contrary, the chapter identifies a number of issues of education for Mennonites that emerge directly from the narrative of Jesus, while following Parts of the book extend the discussion greatly.

The chapters of Part One carry the discussion further in theology and ethics. Chapter 2 fills a lacuna in Mennonite theologizing by using process theology to project a nonviolent God that reflects a modern cosmology. Chapter 3 challenges Mennonites to engage and learn from Black Theology. Exploring the importance of understanding Mennonite history from the perspective of Latinos and Latinas occurs in Chapter 4. The last chapter of Part One embodies the dialogue posture necessary in approaching other religions in the modern context of pluralism and relativism.

Part Two offers suggestions for interpreting the Bible from the margin. The violence in the Old Testament poses a challenge to biblical interpretation from a nonviolent or peace church peace perspective. Part Two offers two approaches. Chapter 6 suggests seeing the canon as a choir with multiple voices and recommends giving special attention to the smaller or marginal voices. Chapter 7 points to a nonviolent strand alongside the violent texts of the Old Testament and argues that the story of Jesus indicates the side of the conversation that points most truly to the character of God and the reign of God. The third chapter in this Part notes that the Bible itself has a margin, namely the Apocrypha, and shows how reading these so-called marginal writings helps interpret the rest of the canon.

The chapters of Part Three deal with problems in the communal ecclesiology embraced by Mennonites. The first chapter of the section discusses the irony that Mennonites cannot make peace with themselves concerning the question of inclusion of people who identify as LGBTQ. Chapter 10 provides an important critique of the frequently referenced “servant leader” paradigm. Chapter 11 discusses what can be learned from the church’s failures. Finally, Chapter 12 deals with the neglected idea of the development of the self within the churchly community.

Part Four displays learnings from readings of literature written from the margins. Chapter 13 uses a reading of stories out of chronological order to offer a suggestion on dealing with the debate about LGBTQ inclusion. Chapter 14 shows what the writings of women on the margins of the Mennonite and Mormon churches teach about their religious roots.

The chapters of Part Five deal with applications. Chapter 15 displays the potential contribution of international law to teaching for peace and nonviolence. The last chapter of Part Five uses empirical data to challenge the idea that just war logic actually results in less violence and war.

Part Six contains four chapters that address significant issues of in contemporary North American society, namely the pervasive faith in violence and the widespread, public distrust of certain findings of science. The four chapters display how individual teachers and practitioners can make an impact on these problems. In Chapter 17 we see how teachers and administrators can apply the practice of restorative justice in a public school system. The following chapter shows the role of forgiveness in the health of individuals and its potential role in restorative justice. Chapter 19 shows how to lead students to challenge “the pacifist’s dilemma” and thus to begin to question the pervasive assumption in United States society about the efficacy of violence to solve problems.

One particular facet of the distrust of scientific findings occurs in the areas of evolution and determining the age of the earth. Chapter 20 gives suggestions for teaching skeptical students about the compatibility of evolution with the Bible.
The chapters of this book by no means say everything that could be said about Mennonite education and how it can development on into the twenty-first century. However, there is enough material here to show the potential for development in many areas. May the conversations flourish concerning the future of Mennonite education with the grain of the universe. When the character of God the Creator is revealed in the story of Jesus, any discipline may discover and work with that grain. The scope is limited only by the imagination of those who come to the discussion.


1. The exceptions to ”virtually any subject matter” would be things related directly to the military—how to build weapons, how to lead assaults, killing in hand-to-hand combat, and so on.

2. J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast, eds., Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003).

3. The phrase “grain of the universe” is from John H[oward] Yoder, “Armaments and Eschatology,” Studies in Christian Ethics 1 (1988): 58. But whereas Yoder wrote that “It is the people who bear crosses [that] are working with the grain of the universe,” I have adapted the phrase to say that those who live within and are shaped by the narrative of Jesus are working with the grain of the universe. wise professor once told me: “It is more important to ask hard questions than to provide easy answers.”