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Fall 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 2 · pp. 77–87 

Witness and Struggle or Politics and Power: MCC Engages the World

Ronald J. R. Mathies

Our local congregation is caught in a moral dilemma. Approximately three years ago, one of our members met and befriended a recently arrived refugee family. Introduction to a church care group, regular attendance at church activities, part-time employment in the church, and deep friendships followed. The story of a separated family, ongoing political turmoil and conflict in the “home” country, threats and insecurity for their relatives, sounded all too familiar to many of our members who had had similar, though long past, experiences. Consequently, when immigration officials denied refugee status and threatened deportation to the country of origin, (which in all likelihood would mean imprisonment, political harassment, or worse), church members were incredulous. What could be done? Pray. What more? Attendance at immigration hearings, appeals to members of parliament and the responsible cabinet minister followed. Some members offered their homes as “sanctuary” should the threats of deportation become a reality. The congregation awaits the outcome of the next government decision. Should it countenance civil disobedience? Should it abandon the family?

“Most, if not all MCC activities have a political dimension, though not necessarily a political intention.”
“Our service cannot escape the realities of power in the world system.”

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a Christian relief and development agency soon to commemorate a seventy-fifth anniversary, faces many similar dilemmas. A recent review of the {78} Haiti program recommends that long-standing development work cannot continue because of the ongoing political, military and economic crisis. Permission from the military is required in some areas for groups of farmers to meet to discuss agriculture. For farmers to plant corn across hillsides as they’ve been taught, or to use oxen in ploughing, are seen as politically subversive activities, supposedly indicating an ideological affiliation. The review recommends that while agricultural, educational and health activities should continue as possible, greater priority should be given to advocacy and conciliation roles since current development programs are essentially unsustainable in the midst of conflict and violence. Should MCC countenance this more potentially politicized role? Should MCC abandon Haiti?

Politics, Power or Love?

Concern about involvement in “politics” remains high in the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ (BIC) faith community. Some worry that the current emphasis on peace and justice, within the church generally but specifically within MCC, is too political or at least the wrong kind of politics. 1 Others argue that MCC isn’t being sufficiently political, and thus not faithful. 2 Still others suggest that any separation between Mennonites and the “structures, practices, and ideas that constitute international politics” is just imagined. 3 Thus, Hugo Zorrilla contends that the question is not “whether” the church is involved in politics, but rather what kind of political position should be taken:

“Politics” . . . refers to human action in society—seeking to live together justly . . . The question is not whether we should meddle in politics or not but rather what kind of political position we should take. Every Christian, every church, is involved in politics . . . Every Christian activity—interpretation, preaching, prayer, singing—is carried out within a political framework. . . . But the New Testament message does not separate itself from the political character of the prophets. Our motivation for political involvement should not be a love of power, but a love of God reflected in love for our neighbours. Whether we like it or not, we are at the service of human beings in society for the glory of God.

It is the contention of this paper that most, if not all, MCC activities have a political dimension, though often not necessarily a political intention. John Lapp offers the following perspective:

While nearly everything [MCC is] involved in—food, poverty, refugees, education, health, immigration, housing, community organization, church relations, choice of partners—everything has the potential of making a political statement—our primary interest is to incarnate the gospel, to witness to God’s love and to encourage the local church. We believe in the power and integrity of simple, helping actions which become the seedbeds of God’s reign. {79}

Further, as the above two quotations suggest, the motivation for this involvement is not “politics” nor “power,” but rather a Christian response, as a witness to our faith, to the anguish and struggle that is part of so much of our global reality. To make this point, the paper will briefly outline some of MCC’s current programming, followed by delineating four perspectives (experience, missiology, theology, and ecclesiology) which are pushing MCC to be more fully engaged in the world.

The stance of the writer is not that of an objective arms-length theoretician, but rather that of an MCC chairperson offering an apologia.


The mission statement indicates that “MCC seeks to demonstrate God’s love through committed women and men who work among people suffering from poverty, conflict, oppression and natural disaster. MCC strives for peace, justice and dignity of all people, by sharing our experience, resources and faith in Jesus Christ.” This translates into a plethora of different programs, projects, and places for an MCC presence. In her summary of the 1993 MCC Workbook, Charmayne Denlinger Brubacher likened the work of MCC to aspects of Psalm 23: “green pastures” were provided as 12,316 metric tons of food were shared with people in 28 countries; “still [clean, adequate] water” was insured in parts of 16 countries; people were led in “paths of righteousness” as Bibles were provided, Bible Colleges supported, seminaries given teachers; people in 22 countries were “anointed with oil” through the health and healing work of 49 workers; MCCers stood by and ministered in several countries to people with AIDS who were “walking through the valley of the shadow of death”; and MCCers also “prepared tables in the presence of enemies" in over two dozen countries where there were armed conflicts. These activities and concerns do indeed form the backbone of MCC work around the globe.

But to be involved in the anguish and suffering of others is to be concerned for social justice. In the words of the MCC Guiding Principles, “We confess our involvement in the imbalance of privilege between our societies and much of the rest of the world. Our service cannot escape the realities of power in the world system. The political, economic and cultural impact of North America is a major issue all over the world. Responsible action in today’s world includes humbly speaking truth to power.” It is precisely in this regard, speaking prophetically to ourselves and to our own power structures, that our supporting churches are most anxious and at times paradoxical about the “political” nature of MCC work. The call is for MCC to speak both “boldly and clearly,” yet “carefully.” {80} 7

Three recent statements are illustrative of MCC’s effort to be a prophetic presence within the church, within North American society, and in the global arena. All three, “A Plea for Peace” (Gulf War Statement, 1991), “Statement to the Aboriginal Peoples of the Americas” (1992), and “A Commitment to Christ’s Way of Peace” (1993) follow a similar format: a contextualizing underpinning indicating MCC’s experience with the situation or issue; a theological/missiological rationale spelling out MCC’s faith convictions; and a concluding call to the church or to others for commitment and action.

The Gulf War statement outlined the forty-year connection between MCC and the people of the Middle East. It spelled out MCC’s faith position: a dependence on God in the face of political and military crises; a love for enemies; a conviction that the church transcends political, economic, cultural and social boundaries. It called the church to commitment and action: to follow Christ’s way of discipleship; to respond to victims of violence; and to active communication, pastoral care and bridge-building.

The statement to Aboriginal people indicated MCC’s long experience with Aboriginal communities, since the 1940s overseas, and since 1972 in North America. The statement was a response to Micah’s call to “love justice, seek mercy and walk humbly,” and it asked forgiveness of Aboriginal people where Mennonites/BIC had been guilty of sins of commission or omission. And it set forth a list of commitments to work towards mutual respect and justice.

The 1993 Peace Statement was a reformulation of the 1950 Winona Lake statement made by Mennonite/BIC church leaders. After spelling out a series of theological convictions (God created the world; God has saved us and proclaimed peace to us; God calls the church to demonstrate by its life the gospel of peace; there is no peace without justice), the statement proceeds to list a number of commitments: to share with all people the good news of Jesus Christ; to build up the church as a community of love; to contribute to the relief of human need and suffering; to live in relationships of love and mutual respect; to pray for and witness to those in authority; to show by our lives that war is an unacceptable way to solve human conflict; to resist evil and oppression in the nonviolent spirit of Jesus; to discern what God’s reign means for our lifestyles and economic systems; to restore the earth which God has created; to submit to the study of Scripture.

How does one analyze these statements? Norman Thomas suggests that there are four alternatives for church-state relations: “active identification” occurs when the church identifies itself with the goals and intentions of the nation states; “passive identification” occurs when the {81} church withdraws into the sphere of the religious; “critical collaboration” occurs when the church evaluates political policies in the light of the gospel; “opposition or resistance” occurs when church leaders propose and support civil disobedience. 8 The three statements cited, as well as MCC programming more generally, would suggest that MCC’s involvement is clearly in the latter two categories. Rarely does MCC activity fall into the first category. As the introduction to this paper and the following paragraphs argue, the second category, withdrawal into the sphere of the religious, is neither possible nor faithful.


For many Mennonites/BIC, the MCC assignment was the first prolonged and in-depth exposure to global realities. That service experience has fundamentally changed our understanding of the world; it brought a farewell to innocence, and denied a safe retreat into isolationism. For individuals, and for the organization, service was usually begun “devoid of political aspirations and likely unaware of the political ramifications . . . Only gradually did MCC workers, administrators and constituents recognize that ‘our service cannot escape the realities of power in the world system’ ” and that “all service is woven into social and political structures.” 9 J. R. Burkholder summarizes the point:

In the 20th century, formerly withdrawn Mennonites have been catapulted into the world. A new internal dynamic in the life of the church—in particular its tremendously expanding global mission and service activity—has interacted with the cataclysmic events of external history—world wars, revolution, famine—to bring about significant change in the way Mennonites have come to think and act in the political realm. 10

The result of this experience has been a reorientation of thinking: away from seeing engagement as being first-and-foremost “political,” to viewing engagement rather as a faithful response of witness.

In trying to be faithful to the Great Commission, [Mennonites/BIC] have been forced into painful awareness of just how pervasive and determinative are the actions (or neglects) of government in affecting the lives of people we care about, next door or across town or around the world. It’s not a partisan political act when overseas missionaries or service workers seek hearings with [political leaders] to testify about human rights or African famine, but an expression of justice and mercy . . . It’s simply been the result of efforts to respond faithfully to the needs of suffering human beings whom we have encountered in the amazing expansion of our mission and service activity. 11

Consequently, it was not surprising nor out of the ordinary that, when in May 1993 the Guatemalan President suspended constitutional liberties within the country, mission boards (e.g. Evangelical Mennonite Mission, Mennonite Brethren Missions and Services) and MCC should put out a call to North American Christians to support the church in Guatemala by (1) prayer for a peaceful resolution for the conflict, a return to democratic rule, and respect for human rights and (2) a request for appropriate Mennonite agencies in Canada and the USA to make contact with their governments, asking them to encourage the Guatemalan president to reinstate constitutional guarantees.

If the MCC experience of the past 75 years has brought about dramatic change in our understanding of the world and our concomitant response to its anguish, then there is a high probability that in the next 25 years that experience will engender even greater change. Conditions external to MCC will provide the pressure: instant global communication superimposed over a more or less continuous global emergency, in which low-level warfare, famine, deprivation and injustice, and political crisis all run into one another. An international impetus for change will be the MCC agenda of “connecting the constituencies” of the South and North, of “listening and learning,” and of “reverse mission.”


The experience with the global church has also profoundly shaped our understanding of mission, the missio Dei. The church is pushed out into the world in preaching the gospel, feeding the hungry, promoting justice and working for peace, giving shelter to the homeless and healing the sick. 12

That ministries of social justice, with their attendant political ramifications, are an integral part of the mission of the Christian church is not surprising, given the context of its founding. Paul Hiebert reminds us that “the cross was a sign of political execution,” on which was killed “God’s first missionary,” having been accused of being a subversive. 13 Indeed, various (Mennonite and other) missiologists focus on the necessity of the gospel to speak the word of compassion and justice to social issues such as racism, 14 violence, 15 politics 16 and repression.

The church must be the voice of the violated ones who have no voice, or this repression will be a whirlwind which sooner or later will explode. The church cannot ignore today’s problems, isolating itself from reality. This only sustains injustice. Our silence and indifference must be replaced by a commitment to the profound truths of the gospel, and we must administer these to all. . . . The church must demonstrate a just society to a world which faces serious social danger. This means that churches cannot support repressive regimes where human dignity and the common good are put in danger, but churches need to take risks {83} and present other options in leading the way to harmony among all people. The crucial element is not thinking rightly but living rightly. . . . We need a church that, without changing its faith and practice, walks among the saddened. 17

It is the Third World church that reminds us, through example and painful experience, that this call to involvement in the world is not predicated on power politics but comes out of socioeconomic and political weakness. 18 Mission is not a triumphalistic enterprise--it is by definition done in weakness. 19 Indeed, without divesting ourselves of status considerations (such as wealth, power, education), it is impossible to work at interdependence with our partners in the global church. 20


Mennonite theology, especially its peace theology, has undergone considerable change in the last half of the 20th century. Some suggest that the move from quietism to activism is a result of modernization, 21 while others label it secularization. 22 Most agree, however the change is labelled, that international involvement with a hurting world, including service and perhaps especially MCC service, has augmented the direction and rate of change.

Those that serve are changed for life by those they serve. This is well recognized. That Mennonite theology is also changing in response to what we have heard and seen, especially through MCC, is less well recognized. . . . Praxis has definitely influenced our theology. 23

Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill map the contextual, organizational, psychological and political changes that have had an impact on this theological shift, and then describe its key components: moral responsibility shifted away from a strictly two-kingdoms approach, to something more ambiguous which called for action within the civic arena, not just church community; the ethical norm of nonresistance changed to one of love and justice; a posture of separatism was traded for one of cooperation with the larger society. 24 As evidence of this paradigm shift, they trace the dominant themes in Mennonite/BIC peacemaking in the last one hundred years: the doctrine of nonresistance (1890-1920); the principles of peace (1920-40); biblical nonresistance (1940-50); the way of love (1950-60); witness to the state (1960-68); nonviolent resistance (1968-76); peace and justice (1976-83); and peacemaking (1983-90). 25 The major theological forces at working forging these changes, they suggest, were "The Anabaptist Vision," ecumenical conversations, and liberation theology. 26 They cite Hugo Zorrilla’s statement describing holistic evangelism, which represents Mennonite voices in the Third World, as the clearest statement exemplifying this shift and combining these forces. Holistic evangelism: {84}

Sees the effects of exploitation and injustice through the eyes of the poor; Participates in and feels the cruel anxieties of those who suffer, because of personal sin and because of the sins of others; Denounces unjust practices and structures that impoverish, dehumanize, and kill;

Identifies the systems and structures that produce death . . . poverty is not voluntary--but caused by centers of power; Sees the gospel of the kingdom to the poor in correct perspective. The good news of justice is for all . . . who have systematically lost everything, even their hope of a better life. 27

The changes in this theology, and the proliferation of its understandings, have been so dramatic, that some ask, “Can we make sense of Mennonite Peace Theology?” 28 Yet most would agree that the direction of change has been away from an apolitical ethic to one that is more socially engaged. Indeed, Ron Sider calls for direct political engagement by a biblically grounded Christian movement that would renounce political ideologies of the left and right and would seek to develop concrete political proposals. 29


MCC service takes place in the midst of an international church residing around the globe. We are part of a much larger Mennonite/BIC world conference of churches that further engages the wider evangelical and ecumenical churches in uncountable ways. MCC often acts as a broker between these segments of the church as decisions are made on vision and programming. The task is to hear, amplify, interpret and challenge the voices coming from all sides. Not to be so mutually accountable, to listen only to the stronger and closer voices of the supporting North American churches, would be abnormal and unhealthy. 30

But those international voices will push us further in some directions we are already going, and in altogether new directions. In response to a recent consultation on peacemaking after the Cold War, Japanese Mennonites were surprised that the issue of guns and violence in American society was not addressed. 31 European Mennonites wondered why there wasn’t a clearer acknowledgement of our complicity in world conflicts in that armaments for these wars often originate in our countries. A response from Africa reminded us that there are perspectives on and contributions to peace coming from that setting that are different from those in North America. As a Latin American voice suggested, “The salve to see and the perspective to understand is the multi-cultural lens. We all need others’ viewpoints to understand the cruel reality which afflicts us. . . . How can one reach a complete perspective with only one lens, that of the Anglo-Saxon?” {85}

The North American Mennonite/BIC church will be increasingly challenged by the costly stance taken by the church in other continents. MCCers routinely receive such messages and are asked to relay them to their supporting churches: Mozambique Christians asked that arms stop being sent for the violence and fighting that is occurring in their midst; Laotians asked MCCers to tell the story of their splintered hoes, hoes shredded by bombs dropped many years ago during the Vietnam war but still taking a terrible toll in lives and injuries; Salvadoran Christians challenged Mennonite/BIC churches to lead in the reconciliation process between their alienated governments. Those challenges are often pointed, critical, and demanding of a response.

A Latin American Campus Crusade director . . . shared his problem: of every ten students who rejected his gospel presentation, he reported, nine did so because they saw Christianity and the churches as socially reactionary and supporting an unjust status quo. . . . When John the Baptist preached the good news of the kingdom, the Roman government imprisoned and beheaded him. When Jesus preached his good news to the poor, he was crucified. Peter and Paul were always getting carted off to prison. But when we preach our revised, apolitical version, dictators and tyrants are eager to help us cover the cost. 32


This paper has suggested that MCC has been drawn ever more fully into engagement with a hurting world. This service “in the name of Christ” is being profoundly shaped by the cumulative experience of the MCC family, by an expanding understanding of missiology, through an active perspective on theology, and through the lenses of an international church community. This involvement has not had political power as its motivation, but rather has been an attempt at faithful witness to the Prince of Peace in the midst of struggle and uncertainty. That is, activities have grown out of who we are and how we understand mission. But while the motivation has not been political, the results of that service have often had (and, it has been argued here, should have) significant social and political ramifications.

There will be ongoing points of tension between those in the church who see MCC service as “too political” and “not political enough.” Indeed this tension will in all likelihood increase as governments in Canada and the USA and elsewhere call upon the expertise that agencies such as MCC have acquired and provide the funding and programmatic opportunities for it to be applied. A recent Canadian International Development Agency paper on “Peacemaking” indicates that MCC experience in behind-the-scenes mediation and mediation training has had an influence on {86} policymaking and will be increasingly in demand. A meeting between church agencies and U. S. Pentagon officials last year included such questions as: “So, what can we do for you in Sudan? What kind of ways can the US military help you in your programs?” Indeed, at the time of writing, MCC had been asked by another religiously-based relief and development agency to consider a joint operation of humanitarian assistance with the military in Haiti. (MCC promptly declined.)

Some will see the greatest danger as being too involved in things they see as “political.” Others suggest that there is a greater danger in pulling back from words and actions that have political ramifications. In each case, the concern and critique is a helpful and needed reminder for MCC to be “in but not of the world." This tension demands that all within the Mennonite/BIC church dialogue, evaluate, and then fashion the vision, mandate, and program of MCC. The task ahead is not an easy one and will demand the best that we have and can be.

. . . the world has learned well her ways of making enemies, weapons and wars . . . can MCC and its constituents be wise as serpents and harmless as doves? Can we live and teach Christ’s reconciling way of making enemies into friends in our daily walk and across the world? . . . these days call for much fasting, prayer and inner cleansing and commitment to the biblical foundations of our Anabaptist peace and justice witness. . . . self-righteousness, hate, and fear impede that witness, while hope, trust and love release and enhance our witness. Let us express our witness with confidence, humility and joy. 33


  1. Ervin Ray Stutzman. “From Nonresistance to Peace and Justice: Mennonite Peace Rhetoric, 1951-91.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Temple University, 1993, p. 10. See also occasional letters to the editor of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ periodicals.
  2. Mark Neufeld. “Critical Theory & Christian Service: Knowledge and Action in Situations of Social Conflict,” Conrad Grebel Review. Vol. 6, No. 3 (Fall), 1988, 247-262.
  3. Roger Epp, “Rethinking International Relations: An Introduction,” Conrad Grebel Review, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Winter), 1994, iii-vi.
  4. Hugo Zorrilla. “The Christian and Political Involvement,” in Victor Adrian & Donald Loewen (Eds.). Committed to World Mission: A Focus on International Strategy. Winnipeg: Kindred Press, 1990, 103-105.
  5. John A. Lapp. “Church and Society: Critical Issues for an International Service Agency.” Address to a university class, 1993.
  6. Charmayne Denlinger Brubacher. “MCC 1993 Workbook Speech,” at the MCC Annual Meeting, Sarasota, Florida, February 18, 1994.
  7. Response at the MCCC Annual Meeting, Calgary, October 28-29, 1993.
  8. Norman E. Thomas. “Church-State Relations and Mission”, in Phillips, James M. and Robert T. Cootes (Eds.). Toward the 21st Century in Christian Mission. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993. {87}
  9. Keith Graber Miller. “Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves: American Mennonites Engage Washington.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Emory University, 1994, p. 93.
  10. Quoted in Miller, “Wise as Serpents” 4.
  11. J. R. Burkholder, quoted in Miller, “Wise as Serpents,” 329.
  12. Hans Kasdorf. “Clarifying Our Mission,” in Adrian and Loewen, Committed to World Missions, 15-27.
  13. Paul Hiebert. “Mission in Times of Conflict,” in Adrian and Loewen, Committed to World Mission, 37-45.
  14. Nzash U. Lumeya. “The Curse on Ham’s Descendants: Its Missiological Impact on Zairian Mbala Mennonite Brethren.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1988.
  15. Henry J. Schmidt. “Being Peacemakers in the World of Unrest,” in Adrian and Loewen, Committed to World Mission, 101-103.
  16. Samuel Escobar and John Driver. Christian Mission and Social Justice. Kitchener: Herald Press, 1978.
  17. Gabriel Mosquera Orejuela. “Dimensions of Social Responsibility in the Mission of the Church,” in Adrian and Loewen, Committed to World Mission, 98-100.
  18. John Driver. “Messianic Evangelization,” in Shenk, Wilbert R. (Ed.). The Transfiguration of Mission: Biblical, Theological and Historical Foundations. Waterloo: Herald Press, 1993. p. 200.
  19. David Bosch. “Reflections on Biblical Models of Mission,” in G. H. Anderson, J. M. Phillips and R. T. Coote, eds. Mission in the 1990s. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991, 182.
  20. Calvin E. Shenk. “A Biblical Vision for Global Belonging and Mutuality in Relationships.” A paper presented to an MCC Africa consultation, 1993.
  21. Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill. Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activitism. Waterloo: Herald Press, 1994.
  22. Stutzman, “From Nonresistance to Peace and Justice.”
  23. Rod Sawatsky. “Mennonite Central Committee: A Faith/Action Dialectic,” Conrad Grebel Review, 6, 3 (Fall, 1988), editorial.
  24. Driedger and Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking, 47.
  25. Driedger and Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking, 62.
  26. Driedger and Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking, 135.
  27. Driedger and Kraybill. 262.
  28. J. R. Burkholder and Barbara Nelson Gingerich (Eds.). Mennonite Peace Theology: A Panorama of Types. Akron: MCC Peace Office, 1991.
  29. Ronald J. Sider. One-Sided Christianity? Uniting the Church to Heal a Lost and Broken World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.
  30. David W. Wright. “The Pitfalls of the International Aid Rationale: Comparisons Between Missionary Aid and the International Aid Network,” Missiology: An International Review, XXII, 2 (April 1994), 196.
  31. “Mennonite Peacemaking after the Cold War: International Response,” Peace Office Newsletter. 24,3 (May-June, 1994).
  32. Thomas D. Hanks. God So Loved the Third World: The Bible, the Reformation and Liberation Theologies. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1983. xi, xii.
  33. Atlee Beechy. “First They Make Enemies,” Peace Office Newsletter, 21, 2 (March-April, 1991), 3.
Ronald J.R. Mathies is the Director of Peace and Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel College, Waterloo, Ontario. He is currently Chair of Mennonite Central Committee.

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