By Frank Ramirez
Paul Alexander, a Pentecostal peacemaker and seminary professor from the Assemblies of God, was the speaker for the Brethren Press and Messenger Dinner. Photos by Glenn Riegel
A moment of fun between Alexander and general secretary Stan Noffsinger (at right above). The speaker had invited the general secretary to help him act out the cultural context of the “turn the other cheek” instruction of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
Paul Alexander (at center above) poses with a number of Brethren peacemakers, some of whom have been personally important to his understandings of discipleship to Christ: (from left) Matt Guynn and Bob Gross of On Earth Peace, Jordan Blevins of the witness and advocacy office, Alexander, Bethany Seminary professor emeritus Dale Brown, general secretary Stan Noffsinger, and Linda Williams, a peacemaker from San Diego.
For Paul Alexander, speaker at the Brethren Press and Messenger Dinner on Sunday evening, the opportunity to speak also was an opportunity to say thank you to the Brethren for the lessons that helped draw him away from the atheism he adopted during his college years, and back to a faith in Jesus.
According to Alexander, who is a member of the Assemblies of God, most of the founders of Pentecostal faith including William Seymour (1870-1922) were committed to nonviolence. They believed they should love their enemies.
But he never knew that when he grew up a Pentecostal. Over the years that peace tradition was lost. By the time the young Alexader came along, he described himself as, “A Jesus lovin’, tongue-talking, American-flag-wavin’, militaristic, nationalistic Christian follower of Jesus.”
He took time to thank the Brethren who helped bring him back to Jesus, and gave credit to John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite theologian, who was a significant influence in Alexander’s return to faith in Christ.
Alexander credited Brethren with teaching him about peace and simplicity. “I ordered 10 books about simplicity. I read them. Then I realized I should have borrowed these books and passed them on to someone else!”
He also admires the Brethren t-shirts. His favorite is the one that reads: “When Jesus said love your enemies he probably meant don’t kill them.” His wife, he said, gets into great conversations in Texas wearing hers.
Alexander quoted from Frank Bartleman, a Pentecostal preacher who descried the First World War. He reviewed early Assemblies of God statements such as one in 1917 that set forth “the principles of ‘Peace on earth, good will toward men.’” Peace, the statement stated, is an essential part of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and stated that Pentecostals “are.,. constrained to declare we cannot conscientiously participate in war…” A significant number of Pentecostals, like Brethren, went to prison during World War I.
Early Pentecostals also spoke out against nationalism as an affront to the Christian faith, but by the time of World War II members of the Assemblies of God were struggling with their consciences about the proper way to respond to the war. “Most members of the Assemblies of God served as combatants and non-combatants.” But Alexander was surprised to discover that his grandfather had served as a conscientious objector in one of the Civilian Public Service camps during World War II.
For 40 years this aspect of his family history was buried and hidden. The same was true for Assemblies of God congregations in general. Although there were hundreds of Pentecostal conscientious objectors, that, too has been forgotten.
By the 1950s the Assemblies of God were advocating that Americans take the lead in the arms race and stockpile nuclear weapons.
What did this have to do with Brethren history? he asked aloud. “I am here as the Ghost of Christless Future.” He compared a statement from 1957 with the original organizing principles of Pentecostals in 1917. “What’s missing from this statement?” he asked his audience, who quickly called out the answers he was looking for: “Jesus!” and “No scripture!”
Alexander listed several factors that led his faith fellowship astray, and that he warns also threaten the Brethren, among them: Seeking acceptability and respectability; desiring growth; giving authority to individual conscience; a shift from Jesus to conscience; and distancing from the life and teachings of Jesus. Alexander insisted that a commitment to individual conscience replaced obedience to Jesus and the gospel, which was also a factor in the shift in belief among Brethren in the 20th century. He called for a return to the gospel, and away from the temptations of nationalism and militarism.
He is now a leader among Pentecostals and evangelicals committed to pacifism. His principled stand led to him being fired from a teaching job in Texas some years ago. He soon got other employment, but the time was traumatic for his family.
He closed with a dramatic story involving his 12-year-old son, who stood up to and confronted questionable activities by counselors while attending a Christian camp. Alexander felt he had taught his son the importance of resisting, of saying no, at whatever cost, against whatever pressure, and to do what is right.
And that was possible, he said, because of the witness and teachings of the Brethren about Jesus. In thanking the Brethren from his heart, he encouraged us to remain true to our principals as well, and to continue to make statements against war, against injustice, and for peace.
Paul Alexander is now professor of Christian Ethics and Public Policy at Palmer Seminary of Eastern University; a Pentecostal peacemaker with a PhD in religion from Baylor University; and the author of “Peace to War.” He is a native of Kansas.
Coverage of the 2011 Annual Conference is by the News Team of Jan Fischer-Bachman, Mandy Garcia, Karen Garrett, Amy Heckert, Regina Holmes, Frank Ramirez, Glenn Riegel, Frances Townsend, and editor and news director Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford. Wendy McFadden serves as executive director of Brethren Press. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org