Like many others, we have been following the story of the 12 adults and five children associated with Christian Aid Ministries (CAM) who were kidnapped in Haiti on October 16 and are being held for ransom. The situation is difficult to contemplate, and we join countless individuals around the globe in praying for their release.

Unfortunately, circumstances in Haiti have allowed kidnapping to become all too common, routinely placing the lives of locals—and sometimes those of foreigners—at risk. But although the CAM abduction story fits a sad pattern of sorts, the official response has provoked queries from both religious and secular observers.

The nature and tone of CAM’s public statements and the prayer requests from the captives’ families have surprised many people because they have included prayer for the kidnappers and a desire to extend love and forgiveness to the gang members holding the 16 Americans and one Canadian captive.

Yet these responses did not surprise us. To be clear, we do not personally know any of those being held captive by the gang known as 400 Mawozo, nor are we privy to the private conversations of their relatives. However, the content of the public prayers and the calls to pray for the captives reflect deeply rooted Anabaptist dispositions that we believe the wider Christian community would find both surprisingly familiar and thought provoking.

From Ohio to the world

CAM is a relief and service organization supported by many churches on the more conservative side of the contemporary Anabaptist spectrum—plain-dressing traditionalist Mennonites, Amish-Mennonites, Dunkard Brethren, and not a small number of Old Order Mennonites and Amish. Along with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), an international service agency that tends to draw support from the more assimilated side of the Mennonite family tree, CAM is one of the larger Anabaptist parachurch agencies today.

Begun in 1981, CAM was originally known as Christian Aid to Romania and grew out of an Ohio-based effort to ship care packages to Eastern Europe in the tense years of the late Cold War. Such gift giving challenged the easy way many Western Christians labeled those behind the iron curtain as the enemy.

Today CAM is involved in scores of countries. In Haiti, where CAM has been active since the late 1980s, its long-term work involves providing school supplies for children, medicines for clinics, and food for the elderly, as well as distributing Bibles and Christian literature. Short-term efforts included rebuilding in the wake of this summer’s earthquake. The hostages had been visiting an orphanage supported by CAM.

Three windows into the Anabaptist soul

In the days since the abduction, CAM and the captives’ families have issued at least ten public statements (from which come all the quotations that follow). In addition to fervent calls for prayer, the statements provide a window into the soul of the Plain Anabaptist community. They also offer an occasion for theological reflection for the rest of us.

What do we see in their response? Plain Anabaptists understand and exhibit their faith in different ways. Some are more comfortable with verbal evangelism than others. The degree to which they limit technology and avoid consumer culture also varies. Still, there is broad agreement on numerous matters, including things that bind them to other Christians.

Plain Anabaptists share many beliefs with evangelical Protestants, including the authority of the Bible, the sovereignty of God, and the availability of salvation through the work of Christ. CAM’s statement that “we commit this situation to God and trust Him to see us through” would likely resonate with many evangelicals, as would the organization’s hope that, regardless of the outcome, “the Lord Jesus [might] be magnified and many more people come to know His love and salvation.”

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Much of the group’s language and its choice of biblical references would feel familiar to American evangelicals, including affirmations that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16b) and that God invites us to call upon his name “in the day of trouble” (Psalm 50:15) and to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

But alongside these foundational sentiments, we also discover three distinctive refrains that reflect historic Anabaptist understandings of the Christian faith: the imperative to pray for the kidnappers, a nonresistant response to adversaries, and a commitment to forgive.

1) Praying for the kidnappers

In addition to asking supporters to pray for the safety of the captives as well as peace and comfort for their families back home, the CAM statements repeatedly ask us to include the kidnappers in our intercession—presenting them as humans whose actions, as horrifying as they are, do not place them beyond the bounds of love and concern:

  • “The kidnappers, like all people, are created in the image of God and can be changed if they turn to Him. While we desire the safe release of our workers, we also desire that the kidnappers be transformed by the love of Jesus, the only true source of peace, joy, and forgiveness.”
  • “One father of a hostage said this about the kidnappers, ‘We are interested in the salvation of these men and we love them.’”
  • “Many [Plain Anabaptist] children are praying for the people who have been kidnapped, [and] one three-year-old child prayed that ‘the naughty people would become good.’”

This last example, drawn from a young child’s words, illustrates how this fundamental orientation to enemies is passed on in Plain Anabaptist circles from one generation to the next across time.

Although none of the public statements explicitly refer to Anabaptist history, these sentiments enjoining prayer for enemies and longing for the transformation of adversaries is replete in the stories of Martyrs Mirror, the compendium of Anabaptist suffering in the 16th and early 17th centuries. Like the accounts in Martyrs Mirror, the calls from CAM are grounded in appeals to the example of Jesus, who said, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

2) Nonresistance in the face of adversity

A closely related but distinct theological theme is responding to adversity—even dreadful circumstances—within the spirit of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

CAM’s leadership explained, “We have received various comments about our position on loving those who wrong us. This teaching, promoted for many years in Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative Anabaptist communities, we believe is God’s desire for all people.” The statement then linked to Matthew 5:10–11 to underscore that when we follow Jesus we love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who persecute us. The linked document also included these admonitions from Romans 12:19–21:

  • Do not take revenge on your enemy for doing wrong to you.
  • If your enemy is hungry, give him food.
  • If your enemy is thirsty, give him something to drink.
3) A commitment to forgive

CAM’s requests to pray for adversaries were accompanied with appeals to forgive the kidnappers, regardless of how the situation plays out:

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  • “Jesus not only taught us to do these things, but also gave us an example of how to do them. When the Roman soldiers nailed Him to the cross, He called out to God, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”
  • “A father [of a hostage] said, ‘As a family we are giving forgiveness to these men. We are not holding anything against them.’ Though the past week has been difficult, the families are united in their desire to follow Jesus’ teaching of forgiveness.”

Forgiveness in Anabaptist circles typically means rejecting revenge and extending grace, though it does not necessarily absolve accountability of the wrongdoer.

Confidence in God’s mercy

Underneath all these themes runs a calm and reflective tone, including a profound empathy for the Haitian people. “This time of difficulty reminds us of the ongoing suffering of millions of Haitians,” CAM noted. “While our workers chose to serve in Haiti, our Haitian friends endure crisis after crisis, continual violence, and economic hardship. Despite the difficulties and dangers involved in working there, both our Haitian and American workers carry a vision to minister the love of Jesus in Haiti … [and] to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who ‘went about doing good’ (Acts 10:38).”

These sentiments demonstrate a posture that may seem at odds with the sectarianism that observers assume for Plain Anabaptist communities. Yet empathy is a close companion to the Anabaptist emphasis on humility, and both grow out of a confident—even if quietly asserted—sense of God’s abiding love and mercy.

As one supporter wrote:

“I have a beautiful mind picture—that of thousands, likely millions of believers joining hands around the globe, their prayers ascending as a sweet incense to the Father of mercies. It matters not so much what denomination, race, or culture; we are all joined in one common heart-rending plea,

Lord, have mercy.”

Donald B. Kraybill is senior fellow emeritus at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown (PA) College and Steven M. Nolt is senior scholar and interim director at the Young Center. They are the coauthors, with David L. Weaver-Zercher, of Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy.