Michael Sharp visited Elizabeth Namavu and children in Mubimbi Camp, home to displaced persons in the Democratic Republic of Congo, during his time in the country. When he was killed, he was part of a U.N. mission. Jana Asenbrennerova/Courtesy of MCC hide caption
Michael Sharp visited Elizabeth Namavu and children in Mubimbi Camp, home to displaced persons in the Democratic Republic of Congo, during his time in the country. When he was killed, he was part of a U.N. mission.Jana Asenbrennerova/Courtesy of MCC
Michael Sharp believed in the power of persuasion. The 34-year-old Kansan with the round face and a penchant for plaid shirts would walk, unarmed, deep into rebel-held territory in the Democratic Republic of Congo, sit in the shade of banana trees with rebels and exchange stories.
Inevitably, those stories would turn to the past. "Rebels love talking about the past," Michael once told me.
Michael's deep understanding of how these rebels saw their country's past — the mythical version of that past that they used to justify their own violence — allowed him to emerge from the jungle each time unscathed. And it enabled him, and his Congolese colleagues, to connect with rebels in a way few others managed to do. After every trip, the team of church workers would be followed, days later, by rebels who had been persuaded to surrender and give up the fight. By his count, Michael's team persuaded at least 1,600 rebels to abandon the jungle and come home.
Michael entered rebel-held territory for the last time two weeks ago. He was no longer working for the church group, which had lost its funding. He had been appointed to the U.N. Security Council Group of Experts and was investigating a relatively new rebellion in the Kasai-Central province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He did what he's always done — headed into the jungle, this time with his interpreter; his Swedish colleague, Zaida Catalan; and their motorbike drivers.
The bodies of Michael and Zaida were discovered in a shallow grave on Monday. The Congolese nationals who were with them are still missing.
I had the opportunity to meet Michael in January 2015. I was struck not only by his optimism and kindness but by his determination — increasingly rare today —to engage in dialogue with violent people who perceive the world so differently from how he did. Michael's particular calling was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, persuading rebels to surrender, but he believed his approach could be applied to other violent groups, from ISIS to neo-Nazis, that rely on myths to recruit members and sustain themselves.
Michael and I met by accident, both passengers on a commuter boat crossing Lake Kivu, the two-fingered lake dividing DRC from Rwanda. The ferry boat had been chartered by the U.S. State Department for a VIP entourage that included former Sen. Russ Feingold, then special envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa.
I was there to follow Feingold's mission for a few days. Michael Sharp had talked his way onto the boat to try to save his Peace and Reconciliation program, part of the Congolese Protestant Council of Churches, the program that sent people into the forest to persuade rebels to come home. Their shoestring budget — $12,000 a month — once provided by the government of Norway, had just been pulled. (Sharp was told that the money was diverted to help Syrian refugees.)
Michael was far happier to sit with me, in the stern of the boat, answering my many questions about how he persuades rebels to give up the fight than he was in walking over to the former senator to make a plea for funding.
In our conversation, Michael explained how he approached the very violent rebels. It starts, he said, with understanding their world view of the past as "the good old days and we need to go back to that. And that is the classic narrative of exile." The rebels, he said, were nostalgic for a mythical home and aimed to rewind history to a time that never really existed in the first place. For the Congolese rebels, their fantasy was an era when they — in their imagination — ruled neighboring Rwanda and killed their ethnic enemies with impunity.
How do you find common ground with that?
Michael did not condone the violent ethnic fantasy but acknowledged its existence and understood the psychology behind it. One who dreams so deeply of home, isn't he deeply homesick? That homesickness became a weakness that Michael and his church colleagues aimed to exploit.
Later I sought out some of Michael's Congolese colleagues to understand this better. As I reported on this blog in 2015, one of Michael's colleagues, Emmanuel Kambale, explained the blunt message that he'd deliver to older rebels:
"You," he tells them, "you're over 50 years old, it's too late for you to take over Rwanda. But your children are growing up uneducated in the bush. Don't you see that your children, who are the future of Rwanda, when they go back they'll be the slaves of those who are there! Because they are illiterate!"
That use of the word "slave" is deliberate. For those who dream of ethnic domination, there could be no greater terror.
I spoke to Michael a few times after that ferry ride, but we never met again, despite our plans to. My last image of him will always be back on that boat, watching him talk to Russ Feingold, having finally mustered the courage to approach the former senator. Feingold looks interested, as he often does; Michael is smiling and talks with his hands. I can't hear what he's saying over the boat's motor, but I know he's attempting to raise money for the church workers to allow them to continue their risky forays into the bush. That funding never came.
Of course, even Michael didn't believe that his strategy of "getting to yes" under the banana trees could by itself resolve a 20-year conflict with complex international roots. But he believed that without those quiet conversations, the war would never end.
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Fall 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 2 · pp. 63–76
The Politics of the Mennonite Central Committee
John H. Redekop
The intent of this essay is to ascertain the extent to which the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has become political in its activity.
In expanding its mandate, MCC has moved not only to political analysis and to indirect politicking, but increasingly to direct political action.
Two terms need to be clarified. In this essay the designation MCC incorporates the binational, national, and subnational entities in the organization. Because of the intent of the paper, the research focuses almost entirely on the policies, activities, and publications of MCC itself and not on those of the umbrella agencies to which it belongs. The time period in view will be the past decade, especially the last five or six years.
The second term to be defined is “politics.” As used here, “politics” refers to the structures, processes, and impact of governments at various levels, as well as attempts to influence governments, agencies of government, or political decision-makers. The term includes affirmation and criticism of governments, because expression of such stances has political consequences; it also refers to attempts to support, endorse, or defeat governments.
At the outset we need to inquire whether MCC’s mandate includes political activity. The undated Handbook of the Mennonite Central Committee (Akron, Penn., c. 1976) spells out as one objective a commitment “to follow the example of Christ in striving for justice, in identifying with the weak and oppressed and in reconciling the oppressor and the oppressed.” Another objective is: “To attempt to influence, out of our experience, public policy decisions which affect victims of war, hunger and injustice. . . .” (27). The 1991 pamphlet, Mennonite Central Committee: Principles That Guide Our Mission (Akron, PA: 1991), states, “Our service cannot escape the realities of power in the world system. . . . Responsible action in today’s world includes humbly ‘speaking truth to power’ which includes a concern for the public policies of government but especially of Canada and the United States.” The 1991 Constitution of the Mennonite Central Committee Canada refers in its “Purpose” section to “peace witness, alternative service, government contacts, immigration, and such other matters as may be designated to it by the member conferences or organizations.” It appears that MCC’s mandate includes attention to political matters.
Two additional preliminary matters must be addressed. First, part of the substantial MCC political agenda results not only from an expansion of MCC interests, but also from an expansion of governmental agendas, including the giving of financial assistance and a greater regulation of service. Second, while some critics lament the presumed increase in MCC’s political activity, others strongly affirm what is being done. Many observers also correctly point out that for centuries Mennonites have not hesitated to negotiate with governments to secure not only rights, but also special privileges for themselves. The question of political activity being a dubious undertaking seems to arise only when the issues being addressed deal mainly with other groups.
In searching for evidence relating to the following questions, the intent will not be to demonstrate that all levels and agencies are involved, but that significant activity of a political nature has occurred.
TO WHAT EXTENT DOES MCC COMMENT ON OR DISCUSS POLITICAL PHENOMENA?
Because the head office in Akron, Pennsylvania, still has overarching responsibility, and because the Washington Office, established in 1968, is substantially larger than the Ottawa Office, established in 1974, I will focus mainly on data associated with Akron and Washington. We should note, however, that MCC Canada, established in 1963, and the Ottawa Office have produced many hundreds of political articles, statements, position papers, and reports as will be described later.
Some discussion of political affairs developed naturally as the initial “relief mandate” was implemented. Knowledge of political settings was important. It became even more important as additional kinds of activities were undertaken. At various times, especially in recent years, MCC spokespersons have discussed the interaction of politics and practical Christianity. For example, in MCC’s Annual Report published in MCC Contact (February, 1994), MCC Executive Secretary John A. Lapp states (5):
In our 1991 statement of mission we say our primary concern is ‘to demonstrate God’s love through committed men and women who work among people suffering from poverty, conflict, oppression and natural causes. . . . MCC strives for peace, justice and dignity of all people by sharing our experiences, resources and faith in Jesus Christ.’
The stated Biblical basis for such an inclusive stance includes the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) and Paul’s admonition to overcome evil with good (Romans 12). Matthew 25 and Micah 6:8 are also frequently cited as justification for increased political involvement. Lapp acknowledges, “It is always a temptation to reduce peacemaking to a political activity,” but adds: “While Jesus was an intensely political figure, he nonetheless approached the human condition through the synagogue rather than through the state-house."
In the same report (6), Lapp explains the theological rootage of MCC’s political commentary and analysis:
Because peace has been so essential to the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ sense of obedience to God’s call, the churches asked MCC to administer alternative service programs in the United States and to address government as appropriate in Ottawa and Washington. The work of our Peace and Justice Ministries, Peace Office and Peace and Social Concerns program has been an important vehicle for articulating our theology of peace and extending our peace witness.
Implying a need for a greater political presence than the founders had probably anticipated, Lapp adds:
The arena of peace concerns and witness has grown as we discover our own involvement in structures that create much of the world’s violence. We now know that if we are to ‘overcome evil with good’, we must promote new strategies for making peace.
Given such an orientation, it is hardly surprising that theological, political, and social analyses blend into one another, and that the advocacy to which Lapp refers has come to include extensive amounts of political commentary. In many articles the focus has shifted from discipleship of Christians to politics of government. Significantly, the twelve-page July-August, 1993 MCC Peace Office Newsletter (hereafter PON) which dealt almost entirely with “Spirituality and Peacemaking,” focused on peacemaking mainly in reference to political and military matters.
Many MCC statements refer to the Christian gospel as “Good News.” The November/December 1993 Peace Section Washington Memo (hereafter PSWM) extended the meaning of “Good News” beyond the usual incarnation celebrated at Christmastime. Keith E. Gingrich, senior Washington Office staff person, writes:
In applying the Gospel (Good News) standards of peace and justice to history’s unfolding events of our times, positive or progressive movement is not self-evident. All too often governmental authority and policymaking tends to undermine the welfare of the poor and the environment, on whose behalf we are called to advocate.
A series of articles in this issue of PSWM illustrates the broad, largely political, perspective being espoused: “Hope in Africa; A Vision for the Future”; “Change Coming to the Middle East; Hopeful Signs for a New Beginning”; “Good News for the Poor: US Budget Offers Some Relief”; “Small and Large Miracles; Healing Old Wounds in Southeast Asia”; “Good News on Nuclear Testing, But Will the Moratorium Hold?”; “Good News Mixed with the Bad: 1994 Military Budget”; “Dissecting Health Care Reform; President Clinton’s Plan v. Single-Payer”; and “Environmental Justice for Toxic Communities.”
Another example of how theology and politics intermingle in the MCC lexicon is found in the November-December 1980 Peace Section Newsletter. The lead article, “Symposium on Anabaptism and East European Expressions of Marxism,” sets the tone. An August 6, 1993 MCC News Service story was entitled, “MCC Commentary: Is New Law Restraining Foreign Missions in Russia a Cause for Concern?” A May 20, 1994 News Service release was entitled, “Land Mines and Cluster Bombs Keep on Killing, MCC Testifies to US Congress.” Such articles raise basic questions about bridging theology and politics.
Explanations of American issues given to the supporting constituency cover most of the national political agenda. For example, the lead article in the January/February 1994 PSWM deals with “Being a Peace Church in a Country Obsessed with Violence.” It is followed by a survey describing the legislative status of eleven major bills. Other articles include “1994 Military Budget Synopsis,” “Militarism Top Priority,” and “The Balanced Budget Amendment—Why This Cure is Worse Than the Problem.” A cursory survey of the PSWM and MCC News Service releases during the past decade indicates that on average, about 60 to 70 percent of the PSWM and about 10 to 15 percent of the News Service stories deal with American politics. Reading this material for several hours at a time, I find it easy to see how a theology stressing Biblical peace can evolve first to become a Biblical critique of secular politics and then become, at times, a virtually secular critique of the military, the budget, social policy, free trade, and health care.
Increasingly, MCC publications also help readers to understand political realities in other countries: Somalia ( PSWM, January/February, 1992), the deteriorating situation in Zaire (News Service, January 14, 1994), Serbia and ethnic cleansing (PSWM, March, April, 1993), military intervention in Haiti (News Service, July 22, 1994), austerity in Cuba (News Service, January 7, 1994), “Hot Spots in East Asia” (PON, July-August, 1994), and “Middle East Peace Accords” (PON, January-February, 1994).
Perhaps the most advanced type of political comment is typified by Jalene D. Schmidt’s leading essay, “Searching for the Common Good; Building Community in the U. S.” (PSWM, July/August, 1993). In her brief but excellent essay, Schmidt writes poignantly:
Justice is human action in history that joins God’s active involvement in history. It is the structure of human rights and responsibilities that best express God’s covenantal love in society. Shalom, the potential of mutual welfare, health, wholeness, harmony and ultimately peace, is God’s gift in community and in all its relationships.
Shalom cannot be legislated, of course, but MCC tries to promote policies which further the common good. MCC’s work in Washington is to advocate for those who cannot afford lobbyists—to “speak out” for “the least of these” (Proverbs 31:4-9; Matthew 25:40). The ethical questions of judgment found in the biblical text are addressed to individuals and nations.
One can see how some observers, perhaps not fully cognizant of the fact that constituent conferences never delegated “mission” activity to MCC, might conclude that MCC is committed only to a social gospel.
Clearly, as we reflect on our original question we must conclude that MCC discusses, analyzes, and communicates views about political affairs to a degree and in ways obviously not anticipated by the founders seventy-five years ago.
DOES MCC PUBLICLY EXPRESS SUPPORT FOR OR OPPOSITION TO GOVERNMENT POLICIES?
Not surprisingly, we find a long-standing and continuing rejection by MCC of all militaristic policies. A strong argument can be found in the January 27, 1979 MCC pamphlet, An Agenda on Militarism and Development. One section states, “We call upon all people and nations to renounce the research, development, testing, production, deployment and use of nuclear weapons.” In the January/February, 1992 issue of the PSWM, Delton Frantz is extremely critical of expenditure for “Star Wars.” He also rejects “[our] countries’ national priorities and foreign policy. . . . still determined by the victory-at-all-costs logic of war,” and insists as well: “It is also time to bring US troops home from Europe and South Korea.” Frantz concludes his advice to Washington by saying:
The new administration must develop a coherent view of the new era. The new government’s challenge is not to pursue U.S. dominance or status as the world’s police force, but rather to seek creative and effective means of peacemaking, conflict resolution and community building.
The MCC stance on military matters is consistent and predictable. “We believe the military spending level proposed by the President for 1995 and those likely to be approved by Congress are unacceptably high,” wrote Keith Gingrich in the PSWM, May/June, 1994. At an MCC-sponsored consultation, one observer termed such responses “prophetic opposition” (MCC News Service, November 12, 1993).
In recent decades, MCC responses to public policies have proliferated to cover many, perhaps most, major policy areas. For example, a May 14, 1993 News Service report is entitled, “MCC U.S. Endorses Publicly Financed Health Care Reform.” The story quotes MCC U. S. chairperson Richard Garber: “The executive committee took a fairly bold step in stating a preference for the single-payer plan.” The May/June, 1994 PSWM carried an article by Le Anne Zook, “Public Prayer and Politics,” which asserted: “Although some lament the loss of Christian school prayers, this wall between church and state is particularly important for minority denominations like Mennonites.” Significantly, the article then quotes a January 13, 1994 Mennonite Weekly Review editorial which says: “Christians should accept the sacrifices that must be made to protect everyone’s religious freedom.” This raises a fundamental question. When MCC supports or opposes certain policies dealing with racism, feminism, the environment, or balanced budgets, is it out of step with its constituency, is it prophetically leading the constituency, or is it wandering away from its mandate?
A telling measure of how much the MCC political agenda has moved beyond traditional, often self-serving, peace concerns is evident in a feature page called “Sound the Trumpet,” now carried frequently by the PSWM. In chart form, the page presents some four to six political issues with information provided under four headings: Issue, Legislation, Status, Advocacy Needed. Some 1993 pages discussed the following items: “Central American Foreign Aid Bill,” “Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban,” “Ecojustice in the Department of the Environment,” “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (PSWM, May/June, 1993); “Handgun Bill,” “Economic Conversion,” “UN Peacekeeping Funding,” “Sudan,” “Ending the Draft” (PSWM, July/August, 1993); “Health Care Reform,” “Nuclear Test Ban,” “Environmental Justice,” (PSWM, November/December, 1993).
In the area of foreign affairs, MCC has severely criticized President Mobutu of Zaire (MCC News Service, January 14, 1994), denounced violence in Somalia (MCC News Service, October 15, 1993), and analyzed the human rights situation of the Chiapas in Mexico (MCC News Service, January 21, 1994). A complete list would be lengthy.
While MCC Canada has a much more limited array of communication vehicles, it has also taken numerous stands for or against government policies. It has stated many views in numerous letters to the Prime Minister, e.g., to Prime Minister Jean Chretien on January 25, 1994. Two MCC Canada News Service releases on June 16, 1994 noted that MCC welcomed the Canadian move towards rescinding sanctions against South Africa and stated, “[The] Review of Canadian social programs must include agencies working with poor, MCC in Canada says.” I conclude that MCC publicly and extensively expresses support for or opposition to government policies.
DOES MCC INDIRECTLY SUPPORT ACTIVITY TO CHANGE PUBLIC POLICIES?
The basic question here is whether MCC utilizes the standard pressure-group practice of requesting others to put pressure on political decision-makers in order to achieve that group’s goals. MCC moves in this direction would probably have perplexed its founders in the 1920s.
We must consider the entire situation. If an organization decides to analyze political affairs extensively, and if that agency has strong moral views as MCC does, then it follows logically that not only will that agency find itself evaluating public policies, but also encouraging activity to change certain policies. The record of MCC illustrates such evolution. Over time, an agency which decides to address political affairs cannot remain neutral about political affairs.
MCC’s increasing activity in indirectly working to achieve policy changes can be illustrated in several ways. In the first place, many articles and stories put out by MCC now end with a clear challenge. Several articles in the March/April, 1994 issue of PSWM make the point. An article on arms sales ends with “Action: . . .We urge our readers to contact your representative and senators and request them to co-sponsor the House bill (H.R. 3538) and Senate bill (S. 1677).” An article on the Five-Year Military Budget Plan concludes: “Action: Urge your members of Congress to: 1) challenge the ‘two-war strategy’ of the Bottom Up Review; 2) call for major reductions in the Clinton military budget; and 3) request increased funding for economic conversion and domestic programs in the 1995 budget.” An article on Jewish settlements on the West Bank concludes with: “Action: Ask President Clinton to reaffirm publicly the U.S. administration’s opposition to Israeli settlements and infrastructure building in the occupied territories, with specific mention of East Jerusalem.” Such calls to action--addressed to third parties--abound, especially in Washington Office publications.
Increasingly, Akron publications also contain calls for grassroots pressure. The practice has a considerable history. For example, the 1979 MCC pamphlet, An Agenda on Militarism and Development, states: “We call upon the supporting churches to work for a moratorium on all military expenditures.” It also notes the “new urgency” of “attempts to influence public policies of the United States and Canada.”
A similar trend towards encouraging letter-writing and other forms of grassroots pressure can also be found in the material produced by MCC Canada. The 1982 pamphlet, A Better Way, concludes with these lines:
Call on the Canadian government to move courageously in the direction of disarmament and alternative global security policies. Let people in public office know that there are individuals and groups who are thinking, praying and working peaceably for peace.
On June 18, 1993, MCC Canada circulated a statement dealing with the proposed “Peace Trust Fund.” It included comments by Ray Funk, a Mennonite Member of Parliament from Saskatchewan:
. . . (I)t now looks like the debate on the Peace Trust Fund (Bill C-414), which was scheduled for June 18, will not take place during this Parliament. . . . I have received many more letters and petitions than I ever expected to receive. I want to thank everyone who has responded for their support and encouragement.
Both the U. S. and the Canadian branches of MCC have urged grassroots action. Anabaptist/Mennonite theology may not have changed, but the traditional withdrawal from political affairs, or at least very limited involvement, has undergone a major metamorphosis. Instead of grappling with the questions of whether to vote and how to avoid military service, Mennonites, through MCC, have become extensively involved in pressing for public policy changes by urging targeted segments of the public to become politically active. A rationale for such a stance was provided in the January/February, 1994 issue of PSWM:
For a church which distinguishes itself as a ‘peace church’, our witness should be a clear and poignant contrast to the ethos of violence that surrounds us. One arena needing to hear that witness is Congress. Currently a variety of legislation is pending which addresses the violence in our land. Whether it be gun violence or TV violence, violence against women or executing prisoners, choose one area of concern and let your representative in Washington hear your convictions.
DOES MCC ITSELF ENTER THE POLITICAL ARENA IN AN EFFORT TO ACHIEVE CHANGES IN PUBLIC POLICY?
In defining and expanding its mandate, MCC has moved not only to extensive--and excellent--political analysis and evaluation, as well as to indirect politicking, but also, increasingly, to direct political action. In other words, MCC has itself become an actor in political arenas. This action has been undertaken in at least three ways. First, advocacy of policy changes is included in mailings sent to an array of readers, including government officials. This action is used frequently because it puts pressure on decision-makers by spelling out what one wants, while simultaneously communicating the fact that a significant organized group and many voters have been informed of the issue at stake. Of the hundreds of examples which could be cited, the March/April, 1993 PSWM’s call for government to “Repeal Mandatory Minimum Sentences” for prisoners is typical.
Second, by preparing written submissions delivered or mailed specifically to political officials, MCC personnel function as participants. Governments expect to receive many such submissions and give them considerable weight in formulating policies. Two recent examples document this type of activity. At a May 13, 1994 Congressional hearing moderated by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, “Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) submitted written testimony supporting a land mine ban and urging that restrictions be widened to include a ban on cluster bombs. . . Two MCC Washington staff, Ken Martens Friesen and Keith Gingrich, attended the hearing” (MCC News Service, May 20, 1994). In the second instance:
The MCC Peace Office, in conjunction with the MCC Washington Office, prepared a statement on military intervention in Haiti, and sent it July 19 to US President Bill Clinton with copies to six other senior officials, including the secretary of state, and members of congressional subcommittees handling Caribbean affairs (MCC News Service, July 22, 1994).
This News Service report adds, significantly: “In a similar vein, John Dyck, Canada Executive Director” sent a letter on July 15 “to Andre Ouellet, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs. He also sent copies to the Prime Minister, the minister of national defence and the secretary of state for Latin America.”
A third way in which MCC enters the political arena is by appearing before legislative committees and otherwise directly interacting with individual political decision-makers or groups of political decision-makers. (In quite a few instances, at least in Canada at both provincial and national levels, this includes meeting with Mennonite legislators and civil servants.) Other recent kinds of direct political involvement include participation in demonstrations; actively campaigning for or against certain candidates; making financial contributions to politicians; and joining with other groups to form more powerful umbrella or “peak agencies,” which MCC in both Canada and the U. S. has done quite frequently.
An early experience in demonstrating publicly occurred on November 15, 1969, when close to one million people went to Washington to protest against the Vietnam War. About 350 of these protesters were Mennonites. John A. Lapp, then secretary of the MCC Peace Section, met with these Mennonites in a church gymnasium. Secondary accounts suggest that he spoke words of encouragement (MCC News Service, August 6, 1993).
In a May, 1994 circular distributed by the Peace Section, we read the following:
Unlike any other newsletter, the Washington Memo tries to inform its readers about public policy issues from an Anabaptist faith-based perspective. In addition to publishing the Memo the Washington Office advocates directly to government officials on behalf of those in need.
Direct Political Advocacy
Such direct advocacy, as practiced by MCC, deals with a variety of issues. For example, “The MCC Washington Office has been contacting legislators asking them to co-sponsor bills which provide universal (health insurance) coverage” (PSWM, May/June, 1994). Interestingly, at the same time another Mennonite umbrella agency, Mennonite Mutual Aid, was actively “garnering Congressional support for an amendment to exempt it from regional health alliances” (PSWM, May/June, 1994). Thus we have the intriguing spectacle of two Mennonite “ecumenical” agencies arguing their differences in the national U.S. legislative arena. That must be a “first”!
Person-to-person contact is a common and often successful lobbying technique, especially if the political person involved has substantial rank. On September 26, 1977, the Washington Post carried a front-page story about Old Colony Mennonites facing deportation from Texas. Shortly thereafter, Delton Frantz, the Washington Office director, “met with Senator Lloyd Bentsen, Democrat-Texas, who then introduced legislation to grant the Mennonites permanent residence status” (MCC News Service, August 6, 1993).
The Canadian MCC practice in direct action closely parallels the American. Political advocacy publications are extensive. For example, on April 4, 1993, the MCC Canada (MCCC) News Service announced, “The MCCC Executive urges Resumption of Lubicon Negotiations” concerning native land claims. On January 18, 1992, MCCC adopted a constitutional view as set out in an 8-page booklet entitled “Supporting Canadian Constitutional Reform.”
Written perspectives targeted specifically at government officials are also numerous. For example, in September, 1993 MCCC sent a letter to the Department of External Affairs urging it to:
encourage the Tanzanian government to release the result of an investigation into the plight of the Barabaig, a nomadic tribe of 30,000 to 50,000 cattle herders who were driven from their land 20 years ago by a wheat project financed and managed by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
In another instance, Daniel Zehr, MCCC Executive Director, sent a letter on February 5, 1990, to the Right Hon. Joe Clark, Minister of External Affairs, in which he urged the government not to reduce foreign aid to “the two-thirds world.” On October 31, 1990, William Janzen, Director of the Ottawa Office, wrote Clark urging Canada not to go to war over Iraq’s actions against Kuwait.
One of MCC Canada’s key means of trying to influence policy directly via written material targeted specifically at government is to write letters to the Prime Minister. These carefully reasoned letters, often several pages long, are typically sent several times a year. In a December 15, 1969 letter to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, MCCC presented numerous requests: exemption for the Amish and Old Order Mennonites from participation in the Canada Pension Plan, continuation of governmental ties with Taiwan, permission to send above-quota shipments of wheat as foreign aid, less spending for military purposes, and reduction of NATO and other defence commitments. Subsequent letters raising numerous issues were sent, for example, to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (March 28, 1989, September 23, 1989, January 11, 1991), and to Prime Minister Jean Chretien (November 8, 1993, January 25, 1994). Significantly, the September 23, 1989 letter, which dealt with abortion, was actually a joint effort by 25 religious groups, including the Brethren in Christ Churches, the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, and the Evangelical Mennonite Conference. Perhaps equally significant, the November 8, 1993 letter to Prime Minister Jean Chretien described MCCC as “the relief, development and advocacy arm of the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches in Canada.”
In addition to the hundreds of submissions to individuals and committees—the 1993 Governmental Communications Register (September 1, 1992 to August 31, 1993) lists 40 items sent by MCCC and 92 sent by coalitions of which MCCC is a member or associate—, MCCC has made numerous direct presentations to parliamentary committees and other governmental bodies including regulatory agencies and courts. For example, during the March 21-22, 1994, National Forum on Canada’s International Relations, sponsored by the Departments of Foreign Affairs, International Trade, and Defence, MCCC made a presentation entitled, “Don’t Forget the Poor of the World.” MCCC was the only church-based relief agency invited to the forum (MCC Canada News Service, April 7, 1994).
Given MCCC’s numerous direct submissions to political bodies, it is not surprising that as early as September 12, 1987, William Janzen wrote to his Ottawa Advisory Group that: “In Canada we may think of MCCC as a service agency but in reality many MCCC portfolios are actively involved in speaking to government.”
How should one view such direct MCC political advocacy in the U. S. and Canada? In a lead article in the September/October, 1993 PSWM, Delton Frantz presents one perspective: “Advocacy: A Biblical Calling.” Earlier, referring to the relative significance of political advocacy, Frantz observed that his office “currently spends about 70 percent of its time as a ‘listening post’. . . . The rest of the time is spent in advocacy of specific causes. Secular groups call this ‘lobbying’, consultation participants encouraged the MCC office to see this as witnessing” (Mennonite Reporter, February 9, 1989).
IN CARRYING OUT ITS WORK, DOES MCC COOPERATE WITH GOVERNMENT OR AGENCIES OF GOVERNMENT?
The answer to this question must be an unequivocal "yes." At home and abroad, the cooperation is both extensive and at times intensive, especially with Canadian governments. The far-reaching assistance by Canadian provincial and national governments given to the Foodgrains Bank is an impressive example. Of course, the many millions of dollars of CIDA money which has been entrusted to MCC Canada is another. There has also been much cooperation in the sponsorship of refugees, especially the "boat people" who came from refugee camps near Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Additional examples include the large-scale Edmonton recycling program established by MCC Canada and MCC Alberta in cooperation with the City of Edmonton, the construction of a British Columbia housing project with government assistance (MCCC News Service, October 27, 1993), the partial government funding of the Victim Offender Mediation Program (Accord; April, 1993), a Calgary 42-week job-training course funded by Employment and Immigration Canada (MCCC News Service, November 1, 1993), and cooperation by MCC with the Laos Mines Advisory Group. Many other examples could be mentioned. Such recent cooperation, while extensive, is hardly novel. For generations, Mennonites have cooperated very closely with governments in negotiating many benefits—exemption from military service, resettlement, block land purchases, family reunification, educational privileges, language privileges, etc.—for themselves. Interestingly, John A. Lapp notes that following World War II, MCC “found ways to work with the military in reconstruction efforts” (MCC News Service, July 2, 1993).
MCC, in both Canada and the U. S., has expanded its mandate to the point where it is heavily involved in political commentary and analysis. This comment and analysis, in turn, has led to extensive evaluation of political policies and, logically, to indirect as well as direct efforts to have governments change public policies. It has also led, especially in Canada, to extensive MCCC-government cooperation. While the traditional self-serving relations with government have been undertaken by MCC for generations, interaction with governments to help others and to advance the general political well-being of society evolved gradually after World War II and expanded greatly after the opening of the Washington Office in 1968 and the Ottawa Office in 1974. The two respective and long-serving directors, Delton Frantz in Washington and William Janzen in Ottawa, must be given much of the credit, or other assessment, for giving focus and direction to the more extensive and more other-oriented new “politics of MCC.” For better or for worse, large numbers of the erstwhile largely apolitical, separated people are now at least knee-deep in politics, including what someone has termed “engaged institutionalism.”
In moving into its new role, has MCC exceeded its mandate? The answer depends largely on whether one adopts a rigid constructionist view of that mandate or whether one adopts a broader interpretation which emphasizes its spirit. Has MCC, in addressing questions ranging from the national debt to free trade and from sanctions to the “Endangered Species Act” (January/February, 1992 PSWM), secularized and unduly politicized the traditional Anabaptist peace teaching, which focused more on the atonement (peace with God) and on living peacefully (nonresistance)? A person’s theological beliefs will largely shape one’s answer. Whether MCC should be praised or faulted for dealing with a host of new political issues and utilizing new methods, the evidence clearly suggests that the political analysis and the strategies of pressures and cooperation have been undertaken much more for others than for MCC. The marginalized, the needy, and the exploited have been the main beneficiaries. It needs to be said that in practicing its new politics, MCC has, with very few, if any exceptions, sought influence but not power.
In recent decades numerous critics have said that MCC is lopsided in its emphasis, not making much of the atonement or sin. It should be noted, however, that MCC was not established as a missions agency; that task was retained by the constituent conferences for themselves. Nor was MCC established to be a church-planting agency, although some churches have, in fact, been organized because of MCC activity.
The problem, as I see it, is that though the MCC mandate never incorporated the full Christian gospel, some MCC people have seemingly been reluctant to acknowledge that fact. When they fail to affirm publicly, at least occasionally, that the atonement must also be emphasized by the church, then they may come across as theologically liberal, as near-social activists.
The MCC mandate did not, in the traditional sense, include soul-care. Not surprisingly, it is therefore always easy to demonstrate that MCC stresses the physical, the social, the economic, and the political needs of people without emphasizing their spiritual needs. The literature is rife with such evidence. To point out that MCC is not particularly evangelistic is hardly valid criticism in light of its mandate.
Finally, there is some truth, however, in the criticism that in its peace emphasis, MCC has in recent decades focused heavily on a more secular definition of peace and less on peace advocacy for the benefit of historically pacifist Anabaptists. Whether such a shift involves commendable practical theology or a deviation from what the founders and the constituent conferences had in mind, may be an open question. What is more Christian, to advocate for others or for self? The new politics of MCC can be interpreted as moving into the worldly realm, or it can be interpreted as an implementation of that which Jesus commended in Matthew 25. Is the latter view one which Menno Simons had in mind when he said that “true evangelical faith cannot lie dormant”?
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