For several centuries Mennonites were not activists in the sense of directly pressuring for political and social change. Their main witness was against war and resulted in conscientious objection. Otherwise they tried to live a peaceful life and engaged in acts of Christian compassion toward victims of war and other disasters. Mennonites have often made a distinction between nonresistance and nonviolence. Peace Activists who use "nonviolent direct action" engage in political, economic, and social action even when it may involve coercion of an adversary. Mennonites have often hesitated to use coercive actions such as strikes and boycotts, whereas nonviolent activists permit themselves to use such tactics as long as they do not cause harm to people. In recent decades, organized nonviolent direct action has been proposed by some theorists as an alternative national defense strategy (e.g., Sharp, summarized in Friesen, 149-57).
In the period between World War I and World War II some Mennonites became involved in some of the larger peace movements. World War II did not produce a great deal of active opposition. Nevertheless, Civilian Public Service brought many American Mennonites into contact with pacifists who were inclined to activism. Some Mennonites became more involved in such issues as race relations, improving conditions in mental hospitals, and opposition to conscription.
The period after World War II gave rise to an increase in Mennonite peace activism, both in Europe and in North America. The particular issue was the concern about nuclear weapons. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, members of the Doopsgezinde Vredesgroep (Dutch Mennonite Peace Association) participated in marches against nuclear weapons. The Vredesgroep has had a continuing debate between those who would hold to the more traditional Mennonite position on nonresistance and those who would be more politically and publicly active on behalf of peace.
In the United States and Canada some were influenced by Catholic activists such as Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Others participated in demonstrations against nuclear weapons and even in civil disobedience by trespassing at nuclear weapons installations or production facilities. The emergence of the civil rights movement in the United States, particularly beginning with the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1956 and later activities such as the Freedom Ride, the sit-ins, the marches, drew attention to nonviolent direct action. Already in the early 1960s Mennonites were participating in such activities, The next major development was the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. Many Mennonites, particularly Mennonite students, became involved in peace activism during that period.
An evidence of Mennonite growing awareness that making peace is more than just refusing to participate in war or to bind up wounds of the victims of war is found in the establishment of offices of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in the national capitals of Washington and Ottawa. The constituent members of MCC have not come to full agreement on whether or not Mennonites should be involved in influencing legislation and government programs except when it directly affects the rights of Mennonites to practice their religious convictions. Issues on which they are ready to seek redress from the government include the right to refuse military service, to establish private Christian schools, and not to participate in the United States social security program.
MCC experiences have brought more active involvement and have raised awareness of injustices in places such as the Middle East, South Africa, the Philippines, and Central America. Mennonites have struggled with the issue of uses of power for justice in relation to their traditional views on nonresistance.
More recent issues have included the question of refusal to pay military taxes. This began in the United States but, after Vincent Harding raised the issue at the Mennonite World Conference in 1967, Dutch and Japanese Mennonites also have acted on the issue. In the 1970s and 1980s broader issues of sociopolitical activism include women's rights, refusal to register for future military conscription, and abortion.
An Annotated Bibliography of Mennonite Writings on War and Peace, 1930-1980, ed. Willard Swartley and Cornelius J. Dyck. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987.
God and Caesar. War Tax Resistance Newsletter, Commission on Home Ministries, Newton, KS.
Op zoek naar een vredesgemeente. Amsterdam: Algemene Doopsgezinde Societeit, 1980.
Shenk, Phil and Melissa Miller. The Path of Most Resistance. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1982.
Harding, Vincent. "The Peace Witness and Modern Revolutionary Movements," in The Sitness of the Holy Spirit, ed. C. J. Dyck. Elkhart, IN: Mennonite World Conference, n.d.. [ca. 1967]: 337-44.
Verheus, Simon L. "Beleden vrede -- omstreden vrede," and Sjouke Voolstra, "De roerige Karen dertig," in Wederdoopers, menisten, doopsgezinden in Nederland 1530-1980, ed. by S. Groenveld, J. P. Jacobszoon and L. L. Verheus. Zutphen: De Walburg Pers, 1980.
"Vre deskerk of geen Kerk." Doopsgezind Jaarboekje (1979): 72-79.
Sharp, Gene. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973.
Friesen, Duane K. Christian Peacemaking and International Conflict. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1986.
Mennonite Central Committee (search for Ottawa and Washington offices on MCC's search page)
Cite This Article
Keeney, William. "Peace Activism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 Oct 2017. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Peace_Activism&oldid=76909.
Keeney, William. (1989). Peace Activism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 October 2017, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Peace_Activism&oldid=76909.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 685-686. All rights reserved.
©1996-2017 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.