European edition, Sunday, September 9, 2007
HEIDELBERG, Germany — Mennonites believe that playing any part in the military, which they call the “war-making machine,” goes against the teachings of Christ and is wrong.
“Mennonites believe that violence is never the best answer to problems or conflict, and that Jesus taught us a better way than the way of fighting and wars. They try to take seriously Jesus’ words to love your enemy,” according to a Mennonite Web site.
So what is someone from a Mennonite background — a man of the cloth, no less — doing as a chaplain in the U.S. Army? What’s he doing deploying to Iraq — twice?
Maj. Mark Nordstrom explains it this way: He points to a plaque on his wall a fellow chaplain, a priest, made for him in Baghdad during his 2003 deployment, as part of the 3rd Infantry’s 1st Brigade, when, he claims, he was the first chaplain in Baghdad.
It is a quote from St. Augustine, who articulated a theory on the “just war.”
“War is love’s response to a neighbor threatened by force,” the plaque says.
“I show love for my neighbor by putting myself in harm’s way,” said Nordstrom, 52 and a U.S. Army Europe chaplain.
“I’m not a pacifist in the way most Mennonites are.”
Talk about understatement.
“That someone who’s a military officer would call himself a Mennonite, I think is very strange," said Michael Sharp, a Mennonite from Chicago now working for a German Mennonite group which, with the Military Counseling Network, helps soldiers leave the military, often through conscientious objector discharges.
“I assumed it was, A, a mistake or B, that he may have grown up a Mennonite but did not call himself a Mennonite.”
Nordstrom is accustomed to setting his own path — or changing it as he sees fit.
Now an officer, he was enlisted for five years, serving as a military police officer. Now active duty, he was formerly in the National Guard. Once a Baptist minister, he is now with a denomination formed in 1969 from a mix of conservative denominations, including the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. And his church, the evangelical, fundamentalist Missionary Church, based in Fort Wayne, Ind., emphasizes evangelism, not pacifism.
“Some are pacifists, and our roots are. But some are engaged in the military,” said Tom Murphy, Missionary Church director of development and communications. “We do want to be a holy people and love our neighbor … and that kind of thing.”
But, he said, “We are not a peace church.”
As for Nordstrom, Murphy said, “We pray for him and delight in his ministry.”
Not everyone feels that way, though. Once when Nordstrom attended a church general conference, a missionary to France who was also attending let him know she didn’t approve of him or the U.S. Army Class A uniform he was wearing.
“She said, ‘The French military doesn’t have any chaplains like you,’ ” Nordstrom recalled. “I could tell she just despised me in my uniform.
“That’s my constant struggle, to educate them. We’re an evangelical denomination, committed to church planting and world missions. So I’m going, ‘Hey, there’s a huge mission field in the military.’ I’m going, ‘Come on down.’
“And I just can’t convince folks to send their best and brightest pastors to the military.”
Nordstrom realized that the Army was the place for him after he left the service as an enlisted soldier and eventually became a minister, then a chaplain and officer in the National Guard. He was mobilized in support of relief efforts after Hurricane Iniki devastated Kauai, Hawaii, in 1992. “We had a mission. It was what I was made for,” Nordstrom said.
He went on active duty the next year and hasn’t regretted it.
“I love soldiers and I love being around them,” he said. “I lose myself in service to those who go into harm’s way.”
Nordstrom, like all chaplains, is forbidden to carrying a weapon, and he sees the irony in that.
“I’ve got an assistant who can shoot real well,” he said. He’s seen death and pain and tragedy close-up, and believes his presence has helped the dying, as well as those who’ve killed in the line of duty.
He remembers the young soldier he had befriended and read the Bible with, and who died when his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb. He remembers another who shot himself — Nordstrom flew at his own expense to New Mexico to perform the service.
And he remembers the soldier whose heart was pierced by shrapnel and was dying as he spoke to her.
“I leaned over to her and I said, ‘Your friends and family are praying for you.’ The pulse came back. Her recognition that others were praying for her brought her 45 minutes of life,” he said.
“You can’t tell me God won’t meet each one of us in the darkness and take us through it. I was able to bring her that note of grace. It was a great privilege.”
Nordstrom has thought about the pacifism that the Mennonites — who were the first to denounce slavery in the United States and today are renowned for working for social justice and on disaster relief — believe is required of Christians.
“I admire them. They have strong convictions, and they pay a price for them. They make us better as a society, I think,” he said.
“But I have a strong sense of calling to the military. This is where I give up my rights to myself.”