Contemporary Counsel on Mennonite Engagement
with the State
J. DARYL BYLER*
For a variety of reasons, some Mennonites choose not to vote or to engage in the political process. Others believe this is an important part of our faith witness. This essay assumes that some form of witness to governing authorities is appropriate, and seeks to articulate what a distinctive Anabaptist-Christian witness might look like.
Based on more than a decade of public policy advocacy in Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington Office, I would suggest four criteria to guide the public witness of Mennonite Church USA. Specifically, we do well for our Anabaptist witness to be:
1. Rooted in our faith practice. Our primary witness is simply to be the church-a visible alternative community that receives God’s grace and follows the teachings of Jesus. The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective states: “The church is the spiritual, social, and political body that gives its allegiance to God alone” and is “made up of people from every tribe and nation” (article 23). We love enemies, seek justice and care for persons who are vulnerable. Our witness to governing authorities has the greatest credibility and power when it grows out of our daily lived experiences. If the church fails to first model a Christ-like way of being and acting in a broken world, its witness to governing authorities will seem hypocritical or tepid at best. How can we expect governing authorities to act justly, sacrificially and courageously if the church is not willing to do so?
On the other hand, when we put our lives on the line to build peace in places like Iraq, we have moral integrity to call upon governing authorities to pursue diplomatic means rather than war. The United States severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 1979. For the past seven years, M.C.C. has had a student exchange program in conjunction with an educational institution in Iran. As a result, trust and mutual respect have grown between American and Iranian participants. M.C.C. has pointed to this model in urging U.S. government officials to consider the benefits of restoring diplomatic relationships with Iran.
2. Offered in a spirit of humility. We do well to avoid the harsh rhetoric and strident positions often associated with the political process. Our Confession of Faith states: “As Christians, we are to respect those in authority and to pray for all people, including those in government . . .” (article 23). Our advocacy must grow out of personal concern for public officials and a proper understanding of the legitimate role of government. Policymakers work with complex issues and must make hard choices. Governments will never fully live up to the teachings of Jesus. But even the church falls short of this high ideal. So there is ample room for humility in addressing the shortcomings of governing authorities. Self-righteous judgments are never helpful.
3. Principled, not partisan. Our Confession of Faith says we witness to governing authorities by being ambassadors for Christ, calling them to “move toward justice, peace, and compassion for all people” (article 23). In developing principled positions, we do well to draw the best ideas from both conservative and progressive values rather than taking a straight party line. Jesus, not the Democratic or Republican party, is our standard bearer. Some years ago, one U.S. Senator introduced a bill that required Congress to analyze every new piece of new legislation by asking, “How will this bill impact children'” In a similar vein, what principles should guide Anabaptist witness to government? As Christians, our confession of Jesus as Lord means that his life and teachings are the standard by which we judge what is good, right and true. In his Sermon on the Mount, as in his life, Jesus emphasized those behaviors and attitudes that help create shalom-justice (Matthew 5:20), reconciliation (5:21-26), fidelity (5:27-32), truthfulness (5:33-37), generosity (5:38-42), love for enemies (5:43-48), humility (6:1-6,16-18), forgiveness (6:12-14) and trust in God alone (6:19-34). Of course God’s reign will not be legislated into being. Still, we need not apologize for calling governments to create laws and policies that undergird life-especially for those who are most vulnerable.
4. Relational. Anabaptist faith is best expressed in the context of relationships rather than in distant declarations. Whenever possible, we do well to build relationships with elected officials. Given their busy schedules, this is not always possible. But when it happens, these pastoral-prophetic relationships can be powerful conduits for public witness. It is more likely that one can develop a relationship with a legislator’s staff member. When I’ve taken time to develop a friendship, staff members will sometimes take the initiative to ask my opinion about an issue their office is considering. Some years ago, at a time when Congress was planning to add $13 billion to the U.S. military budget, one congressional aide called to ask how M.C.C. would spend $13 billion to make the world more secure. While personal visits with congressional offices are the most effective form of communication, phone calls, faxes and e-mail messages are also valuable ways of expressing your opinion. (In a post-anthrax environment, first class letters are no longer a preferred form of communication, given the sometimes lengthy delays in processing congressional mail.) Whatever the means of contact, state your views clearly, respectfully and succinctly. Focus on one issue about which you have some personal experience or knowledge. Ask questions. And don’t forget to listen to your legislator’s concerns.
What issues should we speak to as Anabaptist Christians? For decades, Mennonites have regularly spoken to government about issues of conscription and alternative service. In more recent years, Mennonite Church USA has offered a strong witness calling for alternatives to U.S. military aid to Colombia and the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The church has been less clear about a distinct advocacy message about abortion or health care. The conversations that take place within our congregations can undergird our public witness. Many congregations seem paralyzed by differences, so they simply don’t talk about political issues. But rather than mute our witness, why not explore our differences and see where we share values? Sunday school classes and small groups are ideal places for doing so.
Engaging government is not our primary form of witness as Christians. But the church can have a faithful and effective witness when it is rooted in our faith practice, offered in a spirit of humility, principled not partisan, and relational.
Suggested Guidelines for Political Thought and Action:
An Anabaptist-Christian Perspective
ROBERT S. KREIDER AND JOHN A. LAPP
As our nation pursues a “war on terrorism,” a climate of fear pervades society. In this context we seek to test a set of guidelines for a Christian walk in the thicket of political thought and action. We seek to be shaped by our Christian faith, to be biblically rooted and to express our convictions simply and briefly. We draw on the wisdom of our Anabaptist faith with its call to witness with integrity to both the worldly and the blessed communities.
1. As followers of Christ, we live in hope, not fear. We invoke faith, hope and love in thought, talk and action. Loyalty to Christ embraces all of life and overrules loyalty to any government or political party.
2. We seek to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. In the field of politics we persistently ask ourselves, “What is it to speak and act in a Christ-like way'”
3. We draw for insight and guidance on the Bible and the experience of our faith tradition.
4. We walk not alone. We are members of a blessed community and, thus, seek and yield to the counsel of brothers and sisters in Christ. We need the counsel of the faithful in other lands.
5. As ministers of reconciliation, we have a particular calling to seek and speak the truth. “Let your yes be yes and your no, no.”
6. Given the multitude of voices in the public arena, we strive to address persistent human needs in preference to the frenzied urgencies of the moment.
7. We seek to speak for the absent: the voiceless, the poor, the marginal.
8. In the public and corporate arenas we make our best contribution not by being admonitional but by asking searching questions in a humble spirit.
9. We invite those in authority to consider creative and imaginative actions which are alternative to the ways of injustice and violence.
10. Seeking to practice the fruits of the Spirit, we engage in the impolitic, nonconformist act of probing to know and recognize the mind and heart of those of other points of view.
11. We address political issues in a confessional spirit, recognizing our imperfections and our sinfulness. We speak respectfully with those with whom we disagree.
12. In striving for a peaceable society, we acknowledge the need for a generous intervention of divine grace.
13. In addressing with compassion the hurts of society, we allow the Spirit to lead us whither so ever it will, subject to the mind of Christ and the counsel of fellow believers.
14. We acknowledge gratefully that we are blessed with a life that is more than only the political-a life richly varied, complex and multi-leveled.
We invite further reflection and response.
Guidelines of the Union of M. B. Churches of Paraguay Concerning Political Involvement
(Translated by Gerhard Reimer)
This document was compiled by the Council of Elders of the Mennonite Brethren Churches of Paraguay, published in the periodical Gemeinde unter dem Kreuz des Sdens, discussed with the church councils and revised at a session of the Council of Elders in November 2002 after receiving recommendations and suggestions for change. Delegates of the Union approved the statement on February 2, 2003.
The purpose of this present document is:
a. to provide general biblical orientation in questions of politics.
b. to provide orientation for making of decisions.
c. to help individuals form personal decisions on the basis of biblical convictions.
d. to provide pastors firm guidelines for their teaching ministry.
2. Explanation of the concept.
The basic biblical principles on the subject of Christ and the state are firm and obligatory, even though their applications may appear to be different depending on the situation and the historical context. The role of the church of Christ within the frame of a totalitarian state (e.g., within that of the Roman Empire at the time of the New Testament), is different from its role in a democratic state in which there is respect for civil rights.
This document, then, considers that politics generally means concern for the common good. Political practices are a necessary instrument for communal living in the context of a humanity that has strayed away from God and is living within structures that are subordinated to sin.
In principle, we believe that the development of community and service to others are the most important contributions of a follower of Jesus to the common good, and that political involvement cannot be substituted for these. That does not mean, however, that a Christian must refrain from all forms of political involvement.
3. Criteria for decision making.
Members of a church live in a firm and responsible relationship with Christ and the church. Therefore, a Christian will make decisions based on the mind of Christ. More important decisions that affect the church as well as public society are not to be made by individuals alone, but always with great care in consultation with the church. The scriptural understanding of the church is contained in our confession of faith and serves as an guiding framework. (See articles 3, 5, 6, 7, 13, 14, 15 as well as Romans 13 and Revelations 13.)
4. Principles regarding the question of participation in politics.
4.1 We believe that God does not speak, act and create history primarily through the state or government, but rather through the church. Followers of Christ have the responsibility to express an attitude of service in whatever vocation they pursue. We therefore encourage choosing a vocation that best enables the expression of this attitude, and to avoid vocations that weaken a posture of discipleship and service or that would force a Christian to assume a position leading to unbiblical compromises.
4.2. The following criteria are intended to help in arriving at a healthy position regarding questions of politics. We differentiate between:
a. administration of communal interests within the framework of our German-Mennonite colonies.
b. influencing politics through the church and Christian organizations.
c. assuming a political or governmental position.
d. party politics.
e. fanatical patriotism and militant nationalism.
4.2.1. Communal administration, as practiced in the Mennonite colonies, provides many service possibilities in caring for the common good. To a large extent these possibilities are compatible with biblical principles and with the ethics of Jesus. This is also true because a large percentage of the population in the colonies are church members and convinced Christians. Consequently “political involvement” in the context of this basic activity has been very successful and has also provided many models that can be a blessing to the entire country. It is fair to say, however, that this kind of “political involvement” cannot be automatically equated with large national and party politics, since many of the expectations and conditions are different.
4.2.2 Inasmuch as it is the task of the church to be salt and light in the world, influencing political processes and decisions through a Christian witness is possible and meaningful. The prophets and the early Christians already took advantage of this opportunity (e.g., Acts 22-26). The Mennonite churches have influenced certain government decisions, even though these decisions were more strictly limited to their own situation. This is the kind of influencing that should be undertaken in a planned manner within the framework of church conference and in discussion with other churches.
4.2.3. In some cases a Christian citizen can exert a positive influence on regional and national decisions and political process by accepting a governmental position. If someone makes the decision to assume a government position, he should make this decision in accordance with point 3 above. The church has the responsibility to accompany him/her as a person and a member in the body of Christ in a pastoral manner.
4.2.4. Party politics are a part of the democratic civil process. In many cases a party demands absolute faithfulness regarding its party principles and the interests of its members-principles and interests not shared by the church. Party politics are also frequently characterized by aggressive behavior in word and promotion and such practices have a negative influence on our evangelistic involvement and our fraternal relationship relationships in the church. We therefore want to warn against party politics.
4.2.5. Fanatical patriotism and militant nationalism are not compatible with the Christian walk and biblical teaching. The church of Jesus promotes unity among Christians of all nations and love of one’s country must not replace the ethics of Jesus.
4.3. In matters of politics, as in all of life’s situations, faithfulness to the way of mind of Jesus must stand in first place. If decisions ever must be made in which faithfulness to Jesus stands in the way of political responsibilities, a Christian will decide to follow Christ.
5. Ordained pastors and politics.
Ministers or pastors (messengers for the sake of Christ) are, in principle, advised not to assume a political office or a government position. If an ordained minister, however, assumes such a position we recommend that for the tenure of such a position he does not exercise his functions as an ordained minister.
Reasons for this are:
5.1. According to the basic concepts of ordination this is a church rule that protects the church and its ministers from chaos. Experience demonstrates that political involvement can quickly lead to lack of unity or conflict in the church. This risk is even greater when persons in leadership positions in the church become involved.
5.2. Persons involved in proclaiming the Gospel and in pastoral work may not use (or misuse) their office for political purposes and interests.
5.3. Power politics and spiritual authority must not become confused.
5.4. Choosing a political career is a conscious displacement of priorities as opposed to the call to preaching and building the church community.
5.5. Our national constitution intends that religious leaders will lay down their office if they are elected or nominated to a position in parliament as president or vice president or as a minister, as set forth in the following articles from our constitution:
Article 197: “The following cannot be candidates for the position of senators or deputies: . . . 5) ministers or clergy of any creed.”
Article 235: “The following are ineligible for candidacy to the office of president of the Republic of vice-president: . . . 5) ministers of any religion or cult.”
Article 241: “The qualifications for being a minister are the same as for those of a deputy. Additionally they have the same incompatibilities as those established for the president of the Republic, except for the office of teaching. . . .”
Modest Proposals: On Being Pacifist Christians
and U.S. Citizens
KEITH GRABER MILLER*
Many Mennonites and other peacemaking Christians continue to feel deeply ambivalent about the language of citizenship, and about the rise of war-time patriotism. Without question, principled pacifists need to acknowledge both the ways in which we benefit by living in the U.S. and the responsibility we share for our nation’s actions through our uncritical enjoyment of some of these benefits, our payment of taxes and our silence. As part of good American citizenship, I would like to reclaim-____________
*Keith Graber Miller is a professor of Bible, religion and philosophy at Goshen College. This essay is excerpted from a larger work titled “Can Pacifists Be Patriots'” in God and Country: Diverse Perspectives on Christianity and Patriotism, ed. Tracy Wenger Sadd and Miachel G. Long (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, forthcoming).
in the spirit of our Anabaptist forebears-a prophetic critique of the government as an essential counterpoint to unmitigated support for our nation’s aggression.
I also want to continue to look for ways to be creatively Christian and creatively American, drawing on the best from both traditions. Among the specific postures and practices that may allow Mennonites and other conscientious Christians to work at God’s calling for us at this point in history are the following:
1. Teach our congregations about our historic, faith-rooted tradition of peacemaking. We need to be reminded that we are committed to be disciples of a nonviolent Christ, one whose upside-down way of encountering the world often seems nonsensical and leaves others uncomfortable. We need to revisit the Christian origins of our peacemaking, examine more closely the various (often appropriate) permutations our peace theologies have undergone, and tell stories from our faith traditions about those who lived, and died, for their commitments to peace. We need to train our young people to understand that nonviolent peacemaking is faithful to the Jesus way, even if it is sometimes perceived as ineffective or irrelevant. And when the winds of war subside, we need to sustain the teachings of peace.
2. Reinterpret the meaning of the flag. We ought to commit ourselves to not jumping on board the red, white and blue bandwagon. If we fly the flag in an effort to be good citizens, we should fly it alongside a United Nations flag, attach purple and green ribbons to it, or otherwise recognize symbolically that God loves all people from all nations. With our neighbors we should affirm the values our flag can stand for including freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, the rule of law and the efficiency of representational government. If we choose to fly the flag, we should recognize our responsibility, through the taxes we pay, for the military repression our flag symbolizes to many people around the world. We should be alternative patriots, combining our appreciation for our country with our love for all of God’s children, following the example of the Hebrew prophets who witnessed to their nation and its leaders while expressing loving care and concern for the well-being of its people.
3. Maintain our humility as we share with our neighbors and speak to national leaders. As people who believe in peace and follow the Prince of Peace, we must admit that we do not have quick or easy answers for responding to complex, twenty-first-century world conflicts. When we disagree with decisions our political leaders make, we must respond in a gracious manner, regardless of our natural inclinations. As good citizens of the United States who anticipate with hope God’s reign, we should respect and pray for our country’s decision-makers, even while we challenge and critique their decisions when necessary.
4. Listen to those who believe differently than we do. We need to seek out ways to share with those who don’t agree with us and genuinely listen to their stories. We need to listen to Muslims, Jews, and other Christians, to peacemakers and patriots, to people in our own communities and country and to those in other parts of the world. We need to be open to learning from others. Part of our “listening” should include learning to know our differently minded neighbors as well as engaging ourselves fully in the public welfare of our local communities, participating in community organizations devoted to the common good, seeking justice for those who experience oppression and exploitation, and sharing ourselves and our resources with others.
5. Challenge our nation to end its reliance on violence to solve problems and call our nation to live up to its highest ideals. Our nation responded to the violence of the September 11, 2001, attacks with violence in kind, which resulted in yet more violence and continues to perpetuate perceptions of injustice and oppression. Our violence-for-violence response in the recent war has almost certainly created more rather than less danger, more rather than fewer terrorists. We hope the U.S. and other countries responding to terrorism can work at the roots of terrorism-poverty and gross economic disparity, the arrogance of nations, imperialism, exploitation, injustice-rather than react only militarily. As a nation, we must pay attention to the causes of terrorism as much as the terrorism itself.
6. Hold our military, political and media leaders responsible for reporting the truth, and seek out that truth. U.S. citizens are often in the dark about the extent of the casualties of our military actions. By 2005 the number of Afghanis and Iraqis killed in the ongoing war were more than fifty-fold the number of Americans killed in the September 11 tragedy. We need to seek out alternative sources for news reports, some of which are available on-line. Being knowledgeable about our country’s actions is part of good citizenship.
7. Live responsibly by reducing our consumption of the world’s resources. We need to model for our children and our communities a lifestyle that needs less defending by our military. Our standard of living that demands a disproportionate share of the world’s resources increases our perceived need for a military to protect us. As conscientious Christians, we ought to voluntarily reduce our consumption of oil and other goods so that our calls for justice in other parts of the world have integrity.
8. Serve our brothers and sisters at home and around the world. For those unwilling to participate in warfare for conscientious reasons, we need to work to find contemporary moral equivalents to the sacrifices of war. Many of us have lowered our expectations for our young people and students who graduate from high school or college to consider volunteer work; instead, as parents and church leaders we have urged them to be more responsible by moving into careers more quickly. We need to repent of that embrace of American individualism and economic success, and instead model lives of service to our young people. We should encourage all of those who believe in peace to participate in a one-year or multi-year service assignment, at home or overseas, through one of many faithful church agencies or through other worthwhile humanitarian organizations around the world.
In short, pacifist Christians can be good U.S. citizens in a conflict-ridden time by being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, impassioned peacemakers, and hospitable neighbors and friends to those we perceive as “the other,” whether they are our nation’s leaders, our Muslim sisters and brothers, or our flag-waving neighbors. In a complex twenty-first century world, conscientious Christians can be good citizens by giving our first allegiance to Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. We can live our lives in ways that are faithful to the Gospel. And we can share Christ’s message of peace in a world often drawn to violence. Such a way of life is faithful to Jesus’ teaching, and that may be sufficient. But it also is a way of being that-we can humbly hope-is as relevant in a world prone to violence as are alternative responses.
. The language of “alternative patriots” is used by Paul Keim in his article “My Struggle with the Flag,” in Where Was God on Sept. 11? Seeds of Faith and Hope, ed. Donald B. Kraybill and Linda Gehman Peachey (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2002), 163-165.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Counsel on Mennonite Engagement with the State
*J. Daryl Byler is director of the M.C.C. Washington Office, Washington, D.C.
MQR 80 (July 2006)