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Speaking to Our Government

Speaking to government: An Important Part of Faithful Witness

Given the controversy that it seems to spark, why should Mennonite Church USA even bother to witness to government?

Our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective assumes that we will. It speaks about two ways that we witness to governing authorities.

First, "by being that 'city on a hill' which demonstrates the way of Christ" (Article 23).  That is to say, our primary form of public witness is our public practice. We cannot expect the nations to act in ways that the church fails to act.  So, we witness by being a new creation in Christ that:

  • Seeks the interests of others, not simply self-interest
  • Shares rather than hoards
  • Trusts God for its protection -- not weapons of war
  • Welcomes all persons on equal footing regardless of their race, ethnicity, economic status or gender.
But is speaking to government an important part of our faithful witness to the Lordship of Christ? And a necessary part of our calling to love neighbor as self? I think the biblical answer is "yes." And for that reason, we dare not keep quiet.

Second, our Confession says that we "witness by being ambassadors for Christ, calling the nations . . . to move toward justice, peace and compassion for all people" (Article 23). Just as with evangelism, our example alone is not enough. Words are also necessary.

Let me quickly offer four additional reasons why we as Christians do well to speak to government.

Because it's biblical. The Bible is filled with stories about people of faith who resisted unjust laws and called rulers to act more justly.

  • Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives, risked their lives when they refused Pharaoh's order to kill all the Hebrew baby boys (Exodus 1:15-22).
  • Moses challenged Pharaoh to let the enslaved Hebrew people go into the desert to worship God (Exodus 4-12).
  • Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused King Nebuchadnezzar's order to bow down and worship his 90-foot golden statue (Daniel 3).
  • Daniel continued to pray to God when King Darius ordered his subjects to pray only to the king (Daniel 6).
  • Esther risked her life to plead the case of the Jewish people before the king (Esther 4-9).
  • When the governing authorities demanded that the apostles relinquish their "religious free speech," Peter responded, "We must obey God rather than any human authority" (Acts 5:29).

Because it's part of our Anabaptist theology and practice. Anabaptists begin with Jesus. Paul describes Jesus as both "head of the body, the church" (Colossians 1:18) and "head of every ruler and authority" (Colossians 2:10).  If we believe that Jesus is Lord of all, then his teaching and example are God's standard for human relationships and for the social order.  Governing authorities may not acknowledge Christ, but this does not mean they are exempt from God's ways as revealed most fully in Jesus.  And while we recognize the ordering role of government, Romans 13 is not a blanket license for governing authorities to do whatever they please or to use unlimited force. Rather, the "punish the wrongdoer language" of Romans 13 seems to envision a role for policing and judicial processes.  It is hardly an endorsement for governments to go to war.

Menno Simons made this point. He supported the role of government in restraining evil, but called for leaders to do so without shedding blood:

"Your task is to do justice between a man and his neighbor, to deliver the oppressed out of the hand of the oppressor; also to restrain by reasonable means, that is, without tyranny and bloodshed . . .  In this way, in all love, without force, violence, and blood, you may enlarge, help, and protect the kingdom of God with gracious consent and permission, with wise counsel and a pious, unblamable life." (The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, p. 193.)

In practice, North American Anabaptists have, for many years, spoken to government officials about issues like military conscription that directly impact our own congregations. So speaking to government is nothing new.

Because our global sisters and brothers are asking us to.  If we are committed to loving neighbor as self, it's hard to explain why we would speak to government about issues that affect us (like the draft), but would not speak to the government about issues that affect our global sisters and brothers.

Several years ago Colombian Mennonites issued an urgent appeal to U.S. Mennonites, pleading as Mordecai pleaded with Esther, to intervene with governing authorities about a matter of life and death -- in this case, U.S. military aid to Colombia.

"We plead with you, just as Esther did, to call together all believers and to fast and pray for the Holy Spirit to change the mind of your governors, and to give strength and wisdom to members of Colombian churches so that we might console, offer hope and continue to take a message of life and peace from our Lord Jesus Christ to this people and this suffering church."

We are Christians living amidst the world's lone economic and military superpower. And we live in a democracy where we have the opportunity to make our voice known. These two realities create a special responsibility for us.

Because church has prophetic imagination.  People of faith see possibilities that others cannot. Indeed, why would Christians want a public policy that is devoid of a moral voice? Paul says that God's wisdom is made known to the rulers and authorities through the church (Ephesians 3:10).

Congressional staffers have told me that Mennonite workers coming back from international settings help them to "think outside the box" and to see alternative possibilities.

Is speaking to government our primary task as the church? Certainly not.  Is it hard work agreeing what to say about which issues?  You bet.

But is speaking to government an important part of our faithful witness to the Lordship of Christ? And a necessary part of our calling to love neighbor as self?  I think the biblical answer is "yes." And for that reason, we dare not keep quiet.

May God's Spirit empower us to be that city on a hill that, by its example, offers compelling witness to the way of Christ. And may we be humble enough to listen to and learn from one another so that we may also find a more united voice in calling the nations to act justly and with compassion for all people.

This speech was presented at the Mennonite Church USA Delegate Assembly in Charlotte, NC on July 6, 2005


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