Speaking to Government

(By William Janzen, director of the Ottawa Office of Mennonite Central Committee Canada [MCCC], October 19, 1992.)

The subject of speaking to government is only one part of how a Christian should view the state. But it is a part that is included in my work with the Ottawa Office of MCCC, so I will start there.

To begin, what have we said to the government recently? 1) In September we presented a brief to a Senate committee studying the proposed immigration law. We asked that a number of the restrictions on refugees not be enacted. 2) Earlier this year we submitted a brief to a Parliamentary committee studying the policies that regulate Canada's arms exports. We asked for further restrictions. 3) Also this year we worked with an inter-church group on a submission on violence against women. It was presented by leaders of Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, as well as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. 4) We have also asked for conscientious objector provisions for people in the military who have a genuine change of heart. Brian Palmer, who now attends an Ontario Mennonite Brethren church, was in that situation and helped us to make the case. 5) We also supported the government's efforts to enact stricter gun controls. 6) And, of course, we work on various foreign aid questions.

Why do we say these things to the government? Is there a rationale for speaking to government? Three points provide an answer. First, the opportunities are there. Canada' s current political structures and processes, unlike those in many other countries, make it easy to speak to government. The governmental committees mentioned above are designed especially to listen to individuals and groups. External Affairs officials are willing to hear the experiences and concerns of MCCers and missionaries returning from troubled areas. Government people receive thousands of letters. Should there not be some from us?

Second, on some issues we have things to say. The experience gained from the ministries of MCCC and those of other arms of the church provides a basis for certain public policy views. This experience includes refugee work, international development activities, prison ministries, etc. (One-third of the people in Canada who participate in prison visitation programs are Mennonites.) One of our "rules of thumb" is that we speak out of our experience. Mennonite and Brethren in Christ people also have certain convictions. On this basis we can say that pornography is wrong, that gun controls are legitimate, and that international arms sales should be seriously restricted and, ideally, eliminated altogether. It is expected that we will speak up on such issues.

Third, there are applicable teachings from the Bible. Consider Jesus' call to love our neighbour as ourselves. If we want governments to provide us with decent schools, medical services, safe streets, a stable economic context in which to make a living, a clean environment, and more, should we not ask governments to provide similar things for our neighbours, be they close by or in a distant country? There are more Biblical teachings. The prophets in the Old Testament made emphatic calls for justice. And the New Testament calls us to be respectful towards governments and to pray for our rulers (I Tim. 2:2).

The preceding paragraphs deal with MCCC's communications to government. What about the Christian individuals who hold government offices? Many are making a valuable contribution to the well-being of people both in Canada and abroad. They stand in a tradition that goes back to Daniel and Joseph in the Old Testament. But what about the question that they may be compromising? To illustrate, can an immigration official deny admission to a needy person and still claim to follow the teaching of Jesus about loving our neighbour as ourselves? (Should MCCC's brief have called for completely open borders?) There is no doubt that an office holder's responsibility to "the law" or "the people," or to "democratic processes," will not always coincide with the primary responsibility to God. Nevertheless, governmental institutions, though imperfect, can serve God-given tasks. If an office holder can take a partial step that may be better than no step at all. Further, we should face the question of compromise also in our ordinary lives. Can we spend money unnecessarily, e.g. buying new cars, while our "neighbours" are starving and still claim to follow the teaching of Jesus?

What about the increased political participation of Christians generally, through voting, working on election campaigns, writing letters to MPs, and going on protest marches? This increased political involvement reflects a trend in our society. However, sometimes it appears that the views held by Mennonite Christians reflect almost the full breadth of the Canadian political spectrum. Does this mean that our Christian teaching provides little guidance for our political thinking? Perhaps we need a special journal to debate and clarify our political views. Also, we should recognize that messages of protest are not the whole story. In 1977 Frank Epp wrote that he had often been on the side of protest but that "it takes as much courage to face criticism and protest as it does to generate it...At this point...I covet for myself and for the Mennonite people a greater weighting on the side of assuming the burden of difficult decision-making..."

One particular question is that of military activities and defence. Several things are clear: that Mennonites want peace, that most would seek conscientious objector status in the event of conscription, and that they support efforts to resolve conflicts non-violently. What is debated is whether, according to the Mennonite understanding of Scripture, it is ever legitimate for a government to use force. In my view an element of force is inherent in government. Taxes are collected by threat of force but we still accept government grants. Most of us are pleased that Canada has police forces. But at the time of the 1990-91 crisis in the Persian Gulf many Mennonites, including myself, made strong appeals to the government not to go to war. Some feel these appeals went too far. John W. Miller, professor of Bible at Conrad Grebel College, warned Mennonites not to neglect the Anabaptist teaching that God has ordained government to restrain those who do wrong and to defend those who do right (I Peter 2:14). Other prominent leaders made similar comments. Should we then specify conditions under which a government can use limited force? We may long for that but in my opinion our theology, as formulated in the last generation, does not provide a basis for articulating such a differentiation.

How does this affect our view of Canada's peace-keeping work? The government recently told the UN that it does not want to go on covering the costs of the Canadian contingents alone, that other countries should pay more. Can Canadian Mennonites encourage the government to continue with peace-keeping work and, if necessary, to pay for it single-handedly? Can MCC send such a message? The peace-keeping costs are only a fraction of Canada's total Defence Department budget. "My `rule of thumb' is that MCCC should not endorse the state's use of force but that there are instances when we should refrain from criticizing it. (Mennonites tend not to criticize police forces.) There is a time to keep quiet."

Finally, do we have a theology of government? One of the great strengths of Anabaptist theology is its emphasis on the church. But this great strength has a shadow side. It has left us, in my opinion, with a weak theological basis for relating to the larger society and its institutions. We have a good theological basis for doing relief and evangelism work in the larger society but sometimes we seem unsure as to whether God has purposes for the institutions outside of the church. Can we learn from the wider Christian community? Have we read the Bible adequately? Frank Epp wrote: "The idea of government doesn't come to us from Romans 13 in the first place. It comes to us from the doctrine of creation..." One aspect of the creation task was the proper ordering of things. That task remains and it is a governing task. Further, the Old Testament prophets called on rulers to do justice. They did not say there should be no rulers. The Old testament can also give us a deeper understanding of basic concepts such as justice equality, land, family, freedom, and peace, which are sometimes used in shallow and misguided ways in contemporary political discourse.

Despite all these questions, I believe the Canadian Mennonite people have made a significant contribution in a number of public policy areas. I would mention refugee work, international development, food aid, arms export controls, other foreign policy aspects, agriculture, education, disability concerns, aboriginal issues, crime and corrections, recycling, and honesty in government. Perhaps Mennonites have followed a leading in their hearts even though not all the questions were settled in their heads.

Mennonites and Interaction with Government

Although Mennonites have been ambivalent about running in elections, they have had a long history of interaction with government. Much of this interaction has occurred as they tried to secure their way of life. Late in the l700s Mennonites in Upper Canada asked for, and received, a promise of exemption from militia duties. They were also able to buy several townships for exclusive settlement. In the l870s, when Mennonites from Russia wanted to settle in Manitoba, they negotiated a "privilegium," most of which became part of an Order-in-Council. It referred, among other things, to blocks of land for exclusive settlement, exemption from military service, and freedom to operate their own schools.

In World War I, when the provisions for exemption from military service were interpreted in increasingly narrow ways, there were further appeals and petitions, many of a most urgent nature. After that war, when there was a strong anti-Mennonite feeling, there were elaborate appeals by conservative Mennonites in Saskatchewan and Manitoba for permission to continue operating their own religiously-oriented schools. When the provincial governments refused, approximately 6,000 Mennonites moved to Mexico.

At the same time, other Canadian Mennonites were appealing to federal authorities to lift a l9l9 ban on further Mennonite immigration. They wanted to bring in Mennonites from Russia who at that time were facing extreme hardship. In l922 the newly-elected government of MacKenzie King allowed 21,000 Mennonites to immigrate before the door was closed again at the end of the decade.

When World War II came Mennonites proposed that they be allowed to render an alternative national service. At first government officials were reluctant about setting up a separate, civilian service program; eventually they agreed and nearly ll,000 men, including 7,500 Mennonites, served in it during the course of the war.

In the "cold war" years which followed, Mennonite leaders met each new Prime Minister to seek further assurances that in the event of another war, their claim to exemption from military service would again be respected.

In the mid l960s, when the Canada Pension Plan was enacted, Amish and Old Order groups in Ontario made numerous governmental submissions in an effort to be exempted from the Plan. Eventually, in l974, an exemption was enacted.

Since the l970s several Mennonite groups have set up their own schools. In Alberta the Holdeman Mennonites encountered considerable difficulty in doing this. A court case resulted and the judge ruled in their favour.

While much interaction with government was undertaken on behalf of themselves, Mennonites have also interacted with politicians on the behalf of others. Many of these interactions have been calls to government to follow policies which they felt would lead to peace and justice in the world. Most of these actions have been taken by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada, which was set up in l963 by the various church groups to promote international relief and development work and also to present Mennonite concerns to government.

These interactions on behalf of others have included encouraging the government not to reinstate capital punishment; on behalf of refugees; in support of Canada's commitment to assist people in the developing world; on behalf of Native people with regards to issues such as land claims, flooding, resource development and low-level military flight training over Labrador.

Staff at the MCC Canada's Ottawa Office, set up in l975, are instrumental in drafting a number of written communications to the government. They also arrange for MCC workers and missionaries returning from various areas of the world to share their observations and concerns with External Affairs officials and Members of Parliament. They also prepare materials to encourage individuals in the churches to write to their Members of Parliament.

Regarding particular issues, Mennonites have differed on capital punishment, but there seems to be a widespread pro-life tendency on abortion. Most Mennonites want the government to assist refugees, to support international relief and development work, and to uphold religious freedom, including conscientious objection. It would be surprising if this were not so, given the history of the Mennonites and the international church work that they have long supported.

For more information on Mennonites and Government, contact:
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Ottawa Office (613) 238-7224
or the Washington Office (202) 544-6564, mccwash@mcc.org
See also the Speaking to Government Index at the Mennonite Central Committee WWW site.

Contact webmaster: webcomm@ppjr.org

Location: www.ppjr.org/faithpol/chgov.htm
Last Updated: 11/10/96