Governmental Oppression and our Christian Witness (General Conference Mennonite Church, 1977)

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Governmental Oppression and our Christian Witness (GCMC, 1977)

Finally then, find your strength in the Lord; in his mighty power. Put on all the armour which God provides, so that you may be able to stand firm against the devices of the devil: For our fight is not against human forces, but against cosmic powers, against the authorities and potentates of this dark world, against the superhuman forces of evil in the heavens. Therefore, take up God's armour; then you will be able to stand your ground when things are at their worst, to complete every task and still to stand (Ephesians 6:10-13).

To be faithful to Christ calls us to reach out in compassion to suffering brothers and sisters everywhere. As we meet here in peace and freedom, comfortable in our wealth, we do not hear the muffled sobs and the cry of terror of those who at this moment are being persecuted for their faith in Christ. In the name of law, order, and national security, repressive governments -- both those of the left and of the right -- undermine freedom, impose an ideological conformity, violate justice, strike fear in the defenseless and harass the innocent. People in diverse places live in fear of rulers who are a terror not only to evil but also a terror to good works.

Oppression has been with us since the Fall. And yet, as populations soar, natural resources ebb away, conflicts intensify, and societies grow more complex and chaotic, power gravitates to those who can wield it ruthlessly and decisively. The State becomes the center of a cult demanding homage and servility. With the new technology, whole peoples are held captive by systems of surveillance. Torture acquires frightening new forms and is practiced not only by dictatorships but also by democracies.

Since the Day of Pentecost, Christians have affirmed "we must obey God rather than men" and have called themselves strangers and pilgrims. As they live under the Lordship of Christ, they are deemed a threat because they refuse to give blind obedience to the State. We also recognize that among the dissenters who have cried out against despotism are many who are not Christians. They too have suffered for conscience' sake.

We who are gifted in detecting the specks in other people's eyes often fail to see the beam in our own eye. Those who bear the name of Christian have sometimes been oppressors. Since the time of the Emperor Constantine, misled Christians have slaughtered tens of thousands in holy crusades. Those who have called themselves Christians have been architects of the Inquisition, Buchenwald, and Hiroshima.

In Canada and the United States, where we sing praises to freedom and human worth, we may not always observe the creeping cancer of oppression in our society: harassing of dissenters, installing electronic spying systems, designing master intelligence networks, financing despots, equipping police states with lethal weaponry, training police forces in the diabolical arts of torture, rationalizing the despotism of our nation's allies. We know the temptation to be like the priest and the Levite who saw the wounded and half dead and yet "went past on the other side."

As missionaries cross boundaries in all lands to call out a new people in obedience to Christ, a new community arises. Jealous rulers of this world see this as a direct rival to their repressive states. We hear the words of the Apostle: "For our fight is not against human forces, but against cosmic powers, against the authorities and potentates of this dark world, against the superhuman forces of evil in the heavens" (Ephesians 6:12).

We say to our missionaries who are guests in other societies that they walk circumspectly as children of light -- peaceably, respectfully, sensitively, but also courageously. We invite them to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit through prayer and mutual consultation with the church in that place. Further, as they see terror and oppression about them, may they be led to speak the truth in love to those in power. We are confident that as they seek earnestly together for direction it shall be given to them in that hour what they, shall do and what they shall speak. "For it is not you who will be speaking: it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking in you" (Matthew 10:20).

As systems of oppression press in on Christian brothers and sisters on all continents, we encourage them to stand firm and share with joy the liberating Good News of Christ. Let them know our solidarity with them as they witness against wickedness in high places. May we, too, ponder these concerns and witness with courage against the forces of oppression in our land.

Because of a concern which has developed out of a series of crisis experiences with repressive governments and a process involving several study conferences on the subject,

We recommend that this statement be accepted as our corporate Christian witness at this moment in history.

We further recommend that this statement be --

  1. Shared with our missionaries for their encouragement and as a resource for their witness;
  2. Shared with our congregations, together with supporting materials for study, prayer, and action;
  3. Transmitted with an appropriate accompanying letter with specific information to government leaders in Ottawa and Washington.

As we send this to our missionaries, our home congregations, and to heads of state, we are persuaded with the Apostle "that there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths-nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38, 39).

Scriptural quotations from New English Bible.

Context of the Statement

This statement was shaped by the General Conference Mennonite Church's Commission on Overseas Mission. It was driven by a series of high profile cases of harassment of North American Mennonite volunteers -- Patricia Erb in Argentina and Thomas Capuano in Brazil. Atrocities and random arrests in countries like Uganda and South Korea also influenced the statement.

Letters were sent by the General Conference leadership both to President Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The text of the latter is included in Additional Information.


Minutes, General Conference Mennonite Church, forty-first session, July 28-August 3, 1977. Newton, Kan. : General Conference Mennonite Church, 1977: 7, 14.

Additional Information

Below is the text of the General Conference's letter to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau:

Dear Mr. Prime Minister:

At the forty-first triennial assembly of the General Conference Mennonite Church held in Bluffton, Ohio, on August 1, the nearly one thousand delegates representing over three hundred local congregations in Canada and the United States, unanimously adopted the attached resolution entitled, "Governmental Oppression and Our Christian Witness." We are respectfully sending this resolution to you as an expression of our corporate Christian concern for the many persons of various religious persuasions and political preference who are denied their basic human rights at the hands of repressive governments.

In recent months the North American Mennonite church community was shocked by the kidnapping of Miss Patricia Erb, daughter of a Mennonite missionary in Argentina, by that government. We were also saddened by the recent expulsion of Mr. Thomas Capuano, a volunteer worker under the auspices of the Mennonite Central Committee, of which our denomination is an active participating member. We lament the fact that these two individuals, representatives of the Mennonite churches of Canada and the United States, experienced harassment and imprisonment by political regimes who violate fundamental human rights.

Our General Conference Mennonite Church is not only concerned for our missionaries around the world but for scores of persons who suffer torture, indignities, and even death often without cause or trial. Our Christian conscience calls us as members of the General Conference Mennonite Church to protest these immoral violations of human rights.

Canada stands in the tradition of welcoming people who have migrated from many countries because of political, religious, and racial oppression. These people have found peace and freedom from totalitarianism in Canada. As Prime Minister of Canada and a world leader, you are in an excellent position to speak out against all forms of repression. We urge that the policies of your administration be supportive of a firm stand against repressive governments who abuse and deny human rights.

Signed on behalf of the General Conference Mennonite Church, September 26, 1977