A Christian Declaration on Amnesty (Mennonite Central Committee, 1973)

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Christian Declaration on Amnesty, A (MCC, 1973)

A Christian Declaration on Amnesty

With the U.S. troop involvement in the Indochina war ended, it is important that the suffering and tragedy of the millions of war victims in Southeast Asia and North America not be forgotten. In a real sense everyone is a victim -- those who promote misguided policies as well as those who suffer from the terror of bombs and napalm and the thousands of civilians still imprisoned in South Vietnamese jails. Another group which continues to be victimized by the war, though they courageously refused to participate in it, are the thousands of fugitives from compulsory military service. It is for these persons that amnesty is needed.

  1. Canada and the United States were once known by the nations of the world as lands of refuge for persons who opposed peacetime conscription or who refused to fight in wars. Among those who came for such reasons were some of our Mennonite and Brethren in Christ forebearers. Many came as fugitives from compulsory military service. With the war in Indochina, this situation changed and the United States became a land from which men fled. Canada, among other nations, has been the recipient of many of these fugitives of conscience. Many Christians in Canada have rallied to aid those troubled, conscientious young men and their families; they have provided food and shelter and fellowship. These ministrations of mercy grew out of a deep sense of Christian obligation to help "the stranger within the gates." It was also a repayment, in many cases, for the hospitality and friendship given to those who earlier came to Canada as refugee-immigrants. We thank God for these demonstrations of love and compassion.
  2. As Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Christians, we oppose all wars and believe that the refusal to participate in war is the Christian's duty. The Indochina war is no exception. Indeed this has been a particularly heinous war in the way it has been fought. It is our strong belief that Christ's message of peace and reconciliation is at the very heart of the gospel. From this perspective and with this concern we speak for amnesty, an action which we believe can help heal the wounds of the war. Reconciliation and the restoration of civil rights can come through a general amnesty -- an amnesty which will, as the word in its origin implies, forget the legal offenses because of a greater interest at hand. For us in this situation, amnesty is the law's ability to set aside its own power to indict and punish. Many not faced with the life and death decisions of the draftee or a person in military service see amnesty either as a generous act for youths who made a mistake or as forgiveness for those who broke the law. For Anabaptist Christians, the view is quite different. We join with many of these young men in believing that taking a stand against the immorality of the Vietnam war needs no forgiveness. The "premature awakening of conscience" should not cause the young men who early opposed participation in this immoral war to continue to be considered criminals. Indeed are these not a part of that creative minority who have helped to change American opinion from supporting war to the recognition that it was a fundamental mistake?
  3. Most Mennonite and Brethren in Christ young men have refused military service for conscientious reasons and have accepted alternate service assignments. For some from our churches, however, the decision to refuse military service also led to questioning the validity of performing alternate service. The decision to refuse alternate service was usually the result of deep struggles of conscience and a serious attempt to be a faithful Christian disciple. These Mennonite young men, perhaps numbering several dozen, are part of the larger group of potential amnesty recipients.
  4. Several hundred thousand men may be affected by a general amnesty. Some of these have never been in the military. A minority of this group chose not to cooperate with Selective Service or the military in any way. Most Mennonites who would be recipients of amnesty are in this group. A larger group of men, however, did attempt without success to gain conscientious objector classification. Despite their opposition to all war, some of these were denied conscientious objector status, often because of administrative mishandling by Selective Service. Others were not recognized as conscientious objectors because they felt participation in some wars may be right, even though they believed participation in the Vietnam war was wrong. These men accept the just war position which calls on persons to discriminate individually between just and unjust wars. Most Christian churches take this position officially? it is not recognized legally, however. These potential recipients of amnesty who were not in the military generally find themselves in one of several situations. First, they may already be convicted of draft law violations and be in prison, on probation, or released after serving a sentence as a felon. Since 1964, 7,7201 have been prosecuted and convicted thus losing some fundamental rights of citizenship. Another 11,0332 are awaiting prosecution. Second, they may be living in Canada or other countries to escape military service and prosecution. Between 30,000 and 40,0003 men are in this group. Third, they may be living "underground" in the United States or its territories and be liable for prosecution. No firm statistical evidence is available regarding the number of men in this group, but it is commonly estimated that this number is as large as that of the group which migrated.
  5. The largest group of potential amnesty recipients did not initially claim conscientious objection to war. They were drafted or enlisted in military service and then discovered that their conscience would not permit them to continue performing such service. As a result, these men find themselves in one of three situations. First, there are those sentenced to military prisons after unsuccessful attempts to obtain discharges. Second, there are those who were less optimistic about getting such discharges and deserted from the military; these men when apprehended are also subject to military prosecution for their actions. The third and largest group includes those who have received other than honorable military discharges for actions based on principled objection to war. These 460,0004 men face consequences somewhat less severe than a convicted felon, but carry a stigma as a result of other-than-honorable discharge that may hinder future chances of employment or favorable character references.
  6. Amnesty is in the best tradition of the United States; eleven presidents have granted amnesty following wars and rebellions. A general amnesty was granted to all following the United States Civil War-even to those found guilty of treason. The time has come again to bind up the nation's wounds, wounds resulting this time from the Vietnam war. Amnesty will help reconcile the nation and a large group of its alienated sons.
  7. In light of the above considerations, the Peace Section of the Mennonite Central Committee:
    1. Asks our congregations to welcome back those who because of conscience violated the Selective Service Act or Military Law to avoid military service;
    2. Urges our Mennonite and Brethren in Christ bodies to support a universal amnesty which without being punitive would restore all civil rights to those having refused military service for conscience sake;
    3. Appeals to the United States Government to recognize the value of the witness of the men who opposed the war by restoring full civil rights with impunity to these men;
    4. Commends those governments such as Canada which admitted young men who chose to leave the United States rather than to fight in the Vietnam war.

This statement -- A Christian Declaration on Amnesty -- represents the consensus of the Peace Section of the Mennonite Central Committee. The document was prepared to generate honest discussion and to help to focus the moral and theological issues regarding amnesty.

Both within the Christian churches of North America and within the larger society, there is a broad diversity of thought concerning amnesty for those who would not participate in the Vietnam war. It is an issue which must be faced and ultimately resolved. The Peace Section has attempted to state with clarity and precision the position which it feels is consonant with our Mennonite theology of peacemaking and reconciling.

Walton Hackman Executive Secretary Peace Section

1General Counsel Selective Service, January 1974 Return to text

2Office of General Counsel Selective Service, January 1974 Return to text

3National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors Return to text

4Department of Defense Office of Manpower and Reserve Affairs, 1974 Return to text

Context of the Statement

This statement was drafted by Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section in 1973, prior to the end of the Vietnam War. A draft was endorsed by Mennonite Central Committee Canada on Jan. 12-13, 1973 at its annual meeting in Saskatoon, Sask. Some revisions were suggested at the Mennonite Central Committee annual meeting in Leamington, Ontario, held Jan. 19-20, 1973. The Peace Section made some further modifications that were approved by the Mennonite Central Committee Executive Committee.

The text printed above was published in 1974 by the General Conference Mennonite Church with minor modification to the statistics in section IV and V, in order to reflect the latest numbers. This version also added the references. The first sentence of the statement was also modified to reflect the end of the U.S. military's involvement in Vietnam. The sentence in 1973 began "As a major chapter in the Indochina war ends,..." The General Conference Mennonite Church approved the resolution at its 1974 convention in St. Catharines, Ontario.

In 1974 President Gerald Ford, shortly after issuing a pardon to Richard Nixon, offered an "earned re-entry" clemency program to persons who have violated military law. Less than 20% of eligible persons participated before the program ended in 1975. President Jimmy Carter established an amnesty program in 1977.


"MCC (Canada) endorses resolution on amnesty," Mennonite reporter 3 (January 22, 1973): 11. (This article contains the text of the draft endorsed by MCC Canada.)

Hackman, Walton. "Some clarification on the Peace Section amnesty statement." Mennonite Reporter 3 (February 5, 1973): 6.

Hackman, Walton. "A Christian Declaration on Amnesty." Christian Leader 36 (May 15, 1973): 14-15. (This is the version approved by the MCC Executive)

General Conference Mennonite Church, Minutes 1974 General Conference Mennonite Church (Newton, Kan. : General Conference Mennonite Church, 1974): 15-16, 27-30.