Canadian novelist Rudy Wiebe has written many fine books, but to my mind one of the finest is still his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many, which I re-read this weekend for the first time in many years.
Wiebe is a fine writer with a wonderful talent for description: witness, these first few sentences on the opening page of the book:
The school stood at the crossroads in the valley, its loggish face southward. Flanked by teacherage and sagging barn, it waited with its door yawning in the spring morning as the children neared on four roads cut like slashes through the bush. Reluctantly they came, listening to the spring frog-song, touching the buds on the slim poplars, snuffing the freshness. Soon the yard rang with their running shouts and tumbled hills’ re-echo.
Or again, this description of a river valley viewed in the moonlight:
They both looked at the pool and heard the frogs again, without thought, and then she rose and they returned as they had come, feet unsteady on the round rocks. “Let’s just look at the river”, he said, and pushed ahead through the tangle until they emerged on the lookout. She stood beside him, smoothing back her simply coiled hair. The clean curve of the moon hung naked at its height in the north. The long river lay dully silver, holding the island as in its arms. The wind flickered the poplars and murmured to the pine; there was no cry of a bird to nag. He knew that in this moment behind the hedges of France men lay silent under the shriek of shells, lurking; here, peace – as when only two people, and God, were on earth. But to stay here.
The book is full of passages like this, the work of an author who has obviously spent hours out in the bush himself, and has learned to paint vivid verbal pictures for the mind’s eye.
Peace Shall Destroy Many is set in 1944, in a small isolated Mennonite community in northwestern Saskatchewan. The community is led by Peter Block, whose strong personality and rigid conformity to the traditions handed down from the ancestors have shaped the lives of these refugees from Russia who have made a new home for themselves in the bush of northern Saskatchewan. The Mennonites, of course, are pacifists, and many of their young men of military age have left to go to conscientious objector work camps around the country. A few have abandoned the traditions of their ancestors and joined the military.
The novel addresses the contradiction at the heart of the life of this separated community. The Mennonites have built their lives on Christ’s command to love their enemies, and in obedience to this command they have refused to participate in the Second World War. They have also embraced the Great Commission and have sent a young missionary couple to India. But on the edge of their settlement live some Métis families, and they have refused to reach out to these families, because their language and customs are different. The main character of the novel, young Thom Wiens, tries to reach out to the Métis children, even holding a Sunday afternoon Bible class for them, but he is opposed by Peter Block. ‘Suppose they become Christians?’ Block asks; ‘Then what? What church will they join? There’s only one church in Wapiti, and it speaks German. Speaking German is one of the ways we maintain our separateness from the world. If we change, we will soon fall away from the purity of the life our ancestors have handed down to us’.
How do you follow Christ’s command to love your enemies when the food you are growing on your farm is used to feed the soldiers on the Normandy beaches? How is it possible to be a consistent pacifist, when the only way you can have the freedom to make that choice is because others are willing not to be pacifists, and in fact to fight for you – the unbeliever dying for the believer? How do you strike the balance between separating yourself from the world on the one hand, and loving your neighbour on the other? How is it possible for a way of life meant to help people love their neighbours to so easily itself become oppressive and dishonest? These are some of the issues raised in this novel.
Rudy Wiebe does not write as a rebel against Mennonite Christianity (although when the book was first published in the 1960’s it caused considerable controversy); he remains a Mennonite and a practicing member of a congregation here in Edmonton. He surely speaks his own conviction through the mouth of Joseph Dueck, one of the characters in the novel, who says, “We are spared war duty and possible death on the battlefield only because we are to be so much the better witnesses for Christ here at home”. And I would add, not only here at home. Jesus did not envision that his followers would love their enemies by hiding from them. That was not the way he lived and died.
In Peace Shall Destroy Many, Rudy Wiebe stares fearlessly into the paradox at the heart of Christian discipleship. He poses the big questions without feeling obliged to provide glib pat answers. This is a book worth reading and pondering many times. I highly recommend it.