A steady witness for peace: MCC in Washington, D.C.

Individual articles from the Summer 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog twice per week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.

In Washington, D.C., in November 1969, a small group of Mennonites stood in the early morning chill to participate in the March on Washington, one of many peace marches held during the Vietnam War. (MCC photo/Burton Buller)

As the year 2002 wore on, U.S. military action against Iraq seemed imminent. J. Daryl Byler, then-director of MCC’s Washington Office, worked with staff of Mennonite Church USA to mobilize church members against the impending war. They set a goal of gathering 5,000 signatures on a letter to President George W. Bush. In two weeks, more than 13,000 Mennonites representing nearly 250 congregations throughout the country, had signed the letter. [Eventually over 17,000 people signed.] Printed out, the signatures were 300 pages long—a six-inch stack of paper that Jim Schrag, Mennonite Church USA’s executive director, held up at a press conference in September 2002 to demonstrate the church’s opposition to the war. Ultimately, these advocacy efforts opposing U.S. military action were unsuccessful and the U.S. military invaded Iraq in March 2003. But it was a key moment in a steady witness for peace over the past five decades by the MCC U.S. Washington Office (originally named the Peace Section-Washington Office).

The time has come when we can no longer maintain faith with the homeless, the hungry, the orphaned and the wounded to whom we minister unless we speak out as clearly as we can against the savage war in which our country is engaged.

— MCC letter to President
Lyndon Johnson, 1966

Even before the office opened in 1968, U.S. Mennonites had been communicating with government officials about conscientious objection concerns, including a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937. Between 1940 and 1967, Mennonite leaders testified 13 times before congressional committees about conscientious objection. Concerns about the rights of conscientious objectors continue today, with the Washington Office helping to convene a gathering of Anabaptist church representatives in June 2019 to respond to recommendations from the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service.

MCC’s work around the globe has also helped Mennonites understand that their advocacy to the government needs to extend beyond the protection of their own rights as conscientious objectors to calling for an end to war and militarism. During the U.S. war in Vietnam, MCC staff heard a clear plea to advocate for an end to U.S. military involvement in the war. MCC leadership conveyed this message in a 1966 letter to President Lyndon Johnson. “The time has come,” they wrote, “when we can no longer maintain faith with the homeless, the hungry, the orphaned and the wounded to whom we minister unless we speak out as clearly as we can against the savage war in which our country is engaged.” MCC opened its Washington, D.C., office for public policy advocacy in 1968. In its early years, MCC vigorously advocated for an end to the Vietnam War. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, this advocacy shifted to urging the U.S. to normalize economic and diplomatic relations with Vietnam and Laos.

Delton Franz, right, and Senator Mark Hatfield (R-Ore) discuss issues they worked on together during their time in Washington at the 25th-anniversary celebration of the MCC Washington Office in 1993. (MCC photo/David Schrock-Shenk)

The Washington Office has also spoken out against U.S. militarism more broadly throughout its history, including the increasingly steep levels of funding for the Pentagon. In 1975, the office’s director, Delton Franz, lamented the Secretary of Defense’s use of Scripture to introduce a military budget that topped $100 billion for the first time. “If the Defense Secretary’s understanding of Scripture is found wanting,” Franz wrote, “perhaps equally serious is the ignorance of all too many of us in the Christian community on the realities of the militarization of our economic and political system. Do we understand the immensity of the military juggernaut that we are being asked to buy into?”

Drawing on the experience of MCC’s partner organizations in situations of conflict around the world, the Washington Office has consistently opposed U.S. arms sales and foreign military assistance. So, for example, in the 1980s, the office arranged meetings between MCC workers in El Salvador and congressional delegations who visited the country, helping members of Congress understand the impact of U.S. involvement in the civil war.

In 2000, Colombian Mennonites issued a plea to U.S. church members, urging them to oppose “Plan Colombia,” the U.S. anti-drug initiative that sent billions of dollars to the Colombian military. “Just as lighter fluid among flames produces more fire,” they wrote, “more arms produce more war.” The Washington Office worked persistently—and successfully, in some cases—to change the voting record of members of Congress on the issue. The voices of MCC’s constituents were critical in bringing about this change.

Karen Ventura was a consultant in the new office for Mennonite Hispanic Immigration Service in Washington, D.C., in 1978. The MCC Washington Office began doing advocacy on immigration in the late 1970s. (MCC photo/Lynn Roth)

An August 2013 action alert from the Washington Office generated more than 5,000 emails to policymakers, urging them to oppose U.S. airstrikes against Syria. Washington Office staff heard from congressional aides that congressional office phones were ringing off their hooks, with the vast majority of callers opposing military action. In the end, this grassroots pressure helped move the U.S. to support a diplomatic resolution to the immediate crisis. More recent work by the office to address U.S. militarism includes calling for a formal end to the Korean War and opposing arms sales to the Nigerian government in its fight against Boko Haram. The office also opposes efforts to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border, calling instead for more humane responses to migrants arriving at that border.

The MCC U.S. Washington Office is certainly not the only organization in Washington, D.C., that advocates for peace and against militarism. But since its founding over fifty years ago, a vision of peace rooted in God’s justice and care for the marginalized has guided the Washington Office’s work. This work has mobilized Anabaptists to engage in public policy advocacy as part of their Christian witness, and has been undergirded by testimonies and calls from churches and peace leaders around the world about the destructive impact of war and militarism and the need for transformative, peaceful approaches to conflict. Over the past five decades, public policy advocacy through MCC’s Washington Office has been an essential element of what it means to work for peace in the name of Christ. May this witness continue as MCC begins its second century.

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach is director of MCC’s Washington Office.

Miller, Keith Graber. Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves: American Mennonites Engage Washington. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee, 1996.

Washington Memo. Available at https://washingtonmemo.org/newsletter/. Published three times a year by the MCC Washington Office.

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