Amnesty (Mennonite Church, 1975)

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Amnesty (Mennonite Church, 1975)


A Summary Statement Accepted by Mennonite General Assembly August 5-10, 1975, Eureka, Illinois

A Report of the Study by Congregations

Steps Leading to the Study

In response to a request from the Assembly 73 Arrangements Committee, the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries (MBCM) prepared a study document for congregational use. The document was discussed at Assembly 73, and the delegates authorized revision and circulation to all Mennonite congregations for study, action, and response. The document "Amnesty: a Peace Church concern" was sent to pastors inviting them to order copies for congregational study and to fill out a response form.

A Summary of the Survey of the Study by the Congregations

The 155 responses returned from a mailing to 1,085 congregations contained a variety of views. From the 26 congregations which studied the issue some supported universal unconditional amnesty, some preferred selective amnesty, and some supported the earned reentry program of the Ford administration. Others said it is not appropriate to study the issue and opposed the granting of amnesty.

Observations Growing out of the Study

From all the responses, these observations emerge:

1. Many congregations felt no need to discuss the issue because no one in the congregation was directly involved.

2. The responses indicate that one's view of amnesty grows out of one's views on the nature of the state and its relation to God's rule, the meaning of the separation of church and state, whether and how the church witnesses to the state, the relation of law and gospel, and finally one's view of history.

3. A survey of the responses shows a variety of viewpoints in regard to amnesty. Two broad points of view (of which there are variations) can be stated briefly:

A. One view holds that the state is divinely ordained to enforce laws and orders. Those who break laws should suffer the consequences, for the state does not bear the sword in vain. When the state declares amnesty it threatens the rule of law and order. The state makes provision in conscription for those who for conscience sake cannot accept any kind of military service. Amnesty avoids the fact that many persons committed crimes and should be punished by the state. Further, amnesty deals with a political and legal situation about which the church not only lacks the necessary expertise but also has no right to speak to the state.

B. The second view affirms that the state is instituted by God and has the primary function of the maintenance of a stable society enabling the church to pursue her divine ministry of reconciliation and prophetic witness under the lordship of Christ. The state has a legal system to assure justice and implement the ideals it holds. Amnesty is a provision within that legal system which tempers justice with mercy, especially when fulfilling the letter of the law overlooks extenuating circumstances in the offender's case or obstructs a higher good which society needs or calls for. To call the state to declare amnesty is to call it to implement its own provision to express its own ideals. The church is to witness to the state in respect to the righteousness by which it will be judged.

Some Basic Affirmations

As members of the body of Christ which rises above human boundaries, we affirm that the lordship of Christ calls us to look at human experiences through the mind of Christ. For us this means the ethic of love and nonresistance permeates our outlook as expressed in "A statement of position--peace, war, and military services" (1937), "A declaration of Christian faith and commitment with respect to peace, war, and nonresistance" (1951), and "The Christian witness to the state" (1961). On the basis of these we affirm the following statements:

  1. As nonresistant Christians we respect the authority of the state and seek to be obedient except where its demands violate the dictates of conscience.
  2. We express gratitude to our governments which have recognized that right of conscience and the freedom of worship and evangelism.
  3. Where conscience calls us to disobey the state we expect to suffer the consequences.
  4. We appeal to our governments for recognition not only for ourselves where for conscience' sake we cannot obey its laws, but also for others whose consciences have not been recognized by the state.
  5. We recognize in our own history in North America a growing change of conscience in acceptable response to the claims of the state in regard to conscription and military service with an occasional new generation calling for a more costly response than the previous generation. We acknowledge some indications that such a situation exists at the present time.

Some Basic Understandings on Amnesty

Amnesty is a legal provision within the state which the chief executive officer or parliamentary body can exercise.

  1. Amnesty is a legal provision which literally ignores and forgets an offense before or after conviction so that an individual can stand "before the law precisely as though he had committed no offense." Amnesty is legal grace, the law's own way of granting what, in strictly legalistic terms, is not deserved.
  2. The purpose of amnesty is to forget the law breaking in order to seek a greater good for society.
  3. In granting amnesty, the state does not justify the action of the offender. Neither does it admit guilt in its action which led the offender to disobey.
  4. Earned reentry is not amnesty, for it asks the offender to atone for his breaking the law, requiring a special pledge of allegiance. Earned reentry is a form of clemency, which is a process for reducing punishment and showing mercy in accordance with changed attitudes in society.
  5. The declaring of amnesty is within the history of our governments. In the United States amnesty has been declared at least 37 times. For example: (A) On December 8, 1863, before the Civil War was over, President Lincoln declared a full pardon to all implicated in or participating in the "existing rebellion." (B) On December 29, 1933, President Roosevelt pardoned 1,500 persons convicted of having violated espionage or draft laws in World War I, who had completed their sentences. (C) On December 23, 1947, President Truman gave 1,523 individual pardons for draft evasion in World War II based on recommendation of the President's Amnesty Board.

In Canada following World War II an Order-in-Council was issued declaring that members of the armed forces who deserted or were absent without leave or missing for any other reason were considered not to have served in the Canadian armed forces. Amnesty has not been limited to draft resisters and deserters, but has also been extended to pirates, common criminals, rebels, revolutionaries, politicians, religious groups, and citizens of foreign countries.

6. The scope of amnesty ranges from individual to universal. Amnesty in this statement is intended for all who opposed the Indochina War for reasons of conscience. It does not include those persons convicted under the criminal code.

The Bases for Continuing Concern

The Need on the Part of the Offenders

The issue has not gone away. In 1974 after pardoning former President Richard M. Nixon, President Gerald R. Ford established a clemency program for persons who violated selective service and military law in one form or another. This short-lived program expired on March 31, 1975. Only 24,000 out of an estimated 122,000 known deserters and draft evaders accepted "earned reentry" into American life. It is important to recognize that upwards of four times the 122,000 suffered some legal disabilities directly related to opposition to the Indochina War. Likewise, of the 22,000 going through the clemency process by April 1, 1975, only a small percentage has begun an alternative service assignment.

Substantial numbers of people continue to reject this conditional clemency because of the implication of their wrongdoing. Does the support of earned reentry ignore the conscience of those youth to whom we pledged support in the Mennonite General Conference sessions at Turner, Oregon? (1969 Mennonite General Conference Proceedings, Action 4, p. 13). This 7 1/2-month experiment has not been satisfactory. Clemency may satisfy some sort of legal nicety, but it has done little to effect any kind of reconciliation.

The Need in Society

The question of amnesty continues within North American society. The United States has yet to deal fully with the deep divisions which have disrupted its society. Canada continues to be the haven of thousands of persons who cannot be reunited with family and friends without fear of prosecution. No provision is made for those persons accepting citizenship in other countries to return for periodic visits.

The desire to punish those who broke the law concerning the draft leads to unrest in the American body politic and is a drain on its resources, both spiritual and material. Amnesty provides a legal way to effect reconciliation and healing in society. We should urge the government to make use of its own provision to aid the healing process.

Our Faith Calls Us to Seek Reconciliation

The biblical heritage of faith expressed in the statements listed in the section "Some Basic Affirmations" impels us into a ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation is integral to the gospel. Vindictiveness of any kind has no place in the church's vocabulary or in its life and witness. The church replaces vindictiveness with reconciliation and goes beyond amnesty. Broken human ties and walls of hostility which are the result of the war and its aftermath need the compassion and reconciling ministry of persons who have experienced the gospel of Christ. Our congregations need to hear and feel the anguished cries of persons, families, communities, and nations which suffer from such brokenness and barriers of hostility.

Our Heritage and the Freedom of Conscience

Basic to our faith is the conviction that the individual must take responsibility for decisions before God. Our forebears frequently have had to migrate from nation to nation for conscience' sake. This recognition of conscience which is foundational to the believers' church faith and history calls us to espouse this privilege for all persons. The obligation is upon us to speak in behalf of those persons who suffer loss for conscience' sake because they opposed the Indochina War. If we choose to ignore them, are we saying that we are concerned for freedom of conscience for ourselves only? The appeal to government for amnesty for such persons is rooted not only in a basic truth in our heritage but also is consistent with the American tradition of freedom of conscience which has been recognized constitutionally by our governments.

Suggestions for Further Work by Congregations

Because of our affirmations, understandings, and bases for continuing concern, we urge congregations:

  1. To use this period of the aftermath of war to review again the meaning of the "nonresistant gospel" and explore what this lifestyle means in a militarized-social order.
  2. To provide the supportive community necessary for the restoration of relationships broken by the impact of war.
  3. To continue to study the issue as set forth in this statement and in the 1973 document, "Amnesty: a peace church concern."
  4. To encourage local and national (U.S. and Canada) action toward amnesty for all who opposed the Indochina War for reasons of conscience and the binding up of the wounds of war.


By early 1973 Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section was raising the issue of amnesty for persons who had resisted the U.S. military draft for the war in Vietnam. Mennonite Central Committee Canada approved a resolution calling for universal amnesty at its annual meetings in Saskatoon that year, as did Mennonite Central Committee which held its meetings in Leamington, Ontario in 1973.

In this context the Mennonite Church's Board of Congregational Ministries (MBCM) prepared a discussion document on amnesty for the Mennonite Church General Assembly meetings in Harrisonburg, Virginia in August 1973. The document was commended by delegates to congregations for study and action along with a cover letter that reminded them the Mennonite Church had recognized noncooperation with the draft to be a legitimate witness in 1969. At the same time, the delegates approved letters to President Nixon and Prime Minister Trudeau. They called on the former to declare a universal amnesty to American citizens "who, in expressing their disapproval of the current war in Indochina, disobeyed the law." They expressed appreciation to the Canadian government "for the generous way in which [Canada] has provided sanctuary for the many young men who have found it necessary to leave their homeland in the USA because of their conscientious objection to the war in Indochina."

In 1975 the Board of Congregational Ministries then brought the statement appearing above. By this time President Nixon had resigned in disgrace and received a pardon from President Gerald Ford. Ford had established an "earned reentry" program which met with limited response. The MBCM statement was approved with one dissenting vote after minor changes.

The Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries was a program board of the Mennonite Church established in that denomination's restructuring of 1971. Of the board's twelve members in 1973, the only Canadian was Phil Bender of Tavistock, Ontario.

Statements by the Mennonite Church General Assembly state the understanding of the Mennonite Church at the time of the action. Statements have informal authority and influence in the denomination; they have formal authority as confirmed or endorsed by area Mennonite Church area conferences and/or congregations.


For reports on MCC actions see Mennonite Reporter 3 (22 January 1973): 9, 11; (5 February 1973): 6.

Proceedings, Second Mennonite Church General Assembly, August 8-11, 1973. Rosemont, Ill. : Mennonite Church General Assembly, 1973: 11, 15, 23-29, 37-39.

Proceedings, Third Mennonite Church General Assembly, August 5-10, 1975. Lombard, Ill. : Mennonite Church General Assembly, 1975: 14, 45-48.

Miller, Melissa and Phil M. Shenk. The Path of Most Resistance : Stories of Mennonite Conscientious Objectors who did not Cooperate with the Vietnam War Draft. Scottdale, Pa. : Herald Press, 1982.