Privilege, right and responsibility: peace and Mennonites in the U.S. and Canada

At the core of Mennonite identity in the U.S. and Canada is the practice of peace. It goes by various names, including nonresistance, pacifism and nonviolence. Even within an historic peace church, however, peace has not been a static term. Over their 300-year history in the U.S. and Canada, Mennonites have seen peace, in sequence, as a “privilege,” a “right” and then as a “responsibility.” But the three terms have overlapped, and in some respects all three exist today.

The privilege of military exemption

The story begins in 1683 as Mennonite victims of persecution in Europe sought the privilege of military exemption in Quaker-run Pennsylvania. Deferential to authority, they were “absolute pacifists.” As an English missionary in Lancaster County put it, Mennonites always chose “to leave their Properties and Liberty exposed to the first Invader, than bear arms in their Defence” (McMaster, 229). Local lore recounted the cost of this idea; Mennonites were in some ways the privileged—encroaching on the lands of Native Americans—but as the 1764 murder of the entire John Roads family shows, they came to be known in time as a people who would not defend themselves under any circumstances (Dyck, 200). In 1775, during the American Revolutionary War, Mennonites petitioners declared that because of “the Doctrine of the blessed Jesus Christ” and “finding ourselves very poor [in spirit]” they were “not at Liberty in Conscience to take up arms to conquer our Enemies” (McMaster, 256).

Following the War of Independence, some Mennonites headed to Canada, embracing its 1793 Militia Act offering commutation fees in lieu of military service. The United States adopted a similar policy in 1862 during the Civil War with the first federal American draft. Mennonites, thus, were more worried about youthful volunteers joining the war than being compelled to fight.

In the meantime new waves of Mennonite and Amish immigrants from western Europe in the 1830s and from New Russia in the 1870s bolstered the old idea of group privilege. Both groups encountered modernizing governments who were re-imagining the state as a “nation” and heralding “universal military service” as its handmaiden (Loewen and Nolt, 13). In the New World they found frontier land to buffer them from these changes. Especially in Canada the newcomers found a British system still recognizing group “privileges.” In 1873 a federal Order-in-Council exempted them from military service, an arrangement that remained in effect through the First World War.

The right to alternative service

During the First World War, events in the United States changed the meaning of pacifism. A universal military service act in 1917 granted draftees the “right” to seek personal exemption. But it was only a limited right, lightly enforced by a Secretary of State who declared that “war was the purest mission that a nation ever espoused” (Juhnke, 230). Hazings, threatened hangings and the death of two young Hutterite men, Joseph and Michael Hofer, from mistreatment in a military camp in 1918 revealed the limitation of the supposed right to personal exemption.

World War II enshrined the idea of “rights” for pacifists in both countries. Conscientious objectors now were exempted if they could demonstrate personal religious scruples. COs then joined the Civilian Public Service in the U.S. or performed Alternative Service Work in Canada, mostly as forestry, soil conservation and mental health hospital workers. Even within this system were the seeds of a new view on pacifism. Robert Kreider spoke of being restless as a CO, longing to do work of “real . . . national importance” (Kreider, 19). In both countries some 35 percent of all Mennonite draftees answered the call to arms. Pilot Henry Pankratz of Canada spoke of his service as the “highlight of my life” (Regehr, 36) while Roland Juhnke of the U.S. declared “a sense of duty to my buddies” (Bush, 271). Mennonite COs, on the other hand, faced taunts of being cowardly “yellow bellies” and ethnocentric rural bumpkins (Epp, 110).

The responsibility to peacebuilding

After the war many Mennonites considered more engaged ways of expressing their pacifism. In November 1950, at an MCC-supported conference at Winona Lake, Indiana, Mennonite thinkers overrode the word “nonresistance” for a new imperative, the “responsibility . . . to the total social order of which we are a part” (Driedger and Kraybill, 85). During the 1960s and ‘70s, in the midst of the Cold War, the Vietnam War draft and the Civil Rights Movement, Mennonite thinkers recalled their own “radical” and “revolutionary” Anabaptist heritage (Klaassen).

Reflecting a broadening acceptance of engaged pacifism, MCC opened advocacy offices in both Washington, D.C. (1968) and Ottawa (1975). The first Washington office director, Delton Franz, spoke of the chance to “sensitize the powerful to the impact of their actions on the world’s powerless” (Loewen and Nolt, 316). Later organizations, including Mennonite Conciliation Service and Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), pushed for international justice through action (Miller, 16).

Later, even these ideas broadened. In 1997 one CPTer, Patricia Shelly, challenged the binary of “personal” versus “political” peace, demanding it confront all of life, including consumer greed and the attending “need to protect what we have” (Heisey and Schipani, 39). At the same time, some Mennonites began to re-envision the very idea of conscientious objection. During the Vietnam War, MCC had provided a way for U.S. draftees to perform alternative service in many settings, including Vietnam. However, some draftees chose not to register with Selective Service as an act of noncooperation with and as a prophetic witness to the system. In 1969 the Mennonite Church even went on record in support of such acts of civil disobedience, while Canadian Mennonites hosted draft resisters and deserters arriving from the U.S.

More recently, Mennonites in the U.S. have participated in broader efforts to counsel military personnel seeking CO status as a way of linking privilege and responsibility. Similarly, in the 1990s the Ottawa Office of MCC Canada felt the responsibility to advocate on behalf of soldiers who developed a conviction of conscientious objection while in service. Additionally, some Mennonites began to practice “war tax resistance” as a new form of conscientious objection that aims to address the system, while also asserting the rights of the individual.

Conclusion

After 300 years in the U.S. and Canada, many Mennonites still held to the old “two kingdom” theology and a nonresistance of the “quiet in the land.” Still other initiatives highlighted “responsibility.” Attention to conscientious objection continued, particularly in the U.S., but it occurred within a much larger framework of proactive and “responsible” peacemaking. Clearly a fundamental shift had turned an historic peace church from attending to a question of “privilege” to one of “responsibility.”

Royden Loewen is Professor of History and Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.

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