The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me;
He has sent me to announce good news to the poor.
To proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of the sight for the blind:
To let the broken victims go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
One of my first and firmest convictions is that we have spent the week here talking about a Spirit who often seems to avoid conferences of professionally religious people. At least this seems a reasonable conclusion to draw not only from our Lord’s statement about the rather free-blowing quality of this creative being, but from the pages of history.
Therefore, I have no difficulty believing that they Spirit of truth was using that black American genius, W. E. B. DuBois, when 67 years ago he said that American and the world,
The problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line: the relationship of the white races of Europe and America to the darker races of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the islands of the sea.
Nor do I find it strange that the totally free Spirit should bring from another genius, Leon Trotsky, the announcement in the 1920’s that the world had moved into an age of permanent revolution.
A second conviction is that most of us who go by the name of Mennonite know—and often care—very little about the explosive worlds of color and revolution, especially as these worlds have developed since 1945.
Therefore it has seemed to me imperative that some introduction be offered to the now interrelated worlds of racial revolutionary thinking. It would be best of all if some of the revolutionaries were among us, entering into honest dialogue with our easy answers, but since that is not possible, I would like to present a selection of modern revolutionary documents at this point. These represent a significant portion of the world we are privileged to love. These are the points of view of men and women who heard vaguely that we have a witness concerning peace and reconciliation. Let us hear them, so that we may not answer unasked questions, love unreal persons, or bear witness to an unknown world.
In almost every case one can hear the words of John F. Kennedy as a background:
Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolutions inevitable. Perhaps the most important way to listen, though, is to ask,
what would I do if I were in their situation, suffering as they suffer, backed up against the same wall? Such are the questions of compassion.
Voice of Revolution
Testimony of Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress of South Africa, at his trial in 1965:
At the beginning of June, 1961, after a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I and some colleagues came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force.
The conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle, and to form Umkonto we Sizwe. We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the Government had left us with no other choice.
Statement from a member of the National Liberation Front of a South Vietnam in 1966:
No brutal force in the world, not even that of American imperialism, can bring to their knees a people who have pledged themselves to die rather than to live in slavery. We have endured the sufferings of 20 years of unrelenting warfare; that is why, more than any other nation in the world, we want peace, a life free of bombing, where all families would be reunited and could freely rebuild their lives in happiness and prosperity. But we want a real peace, a peace that gives freedom, and not one obtained under the crushing heel of the aggressor.
Proclamation and editorial of the Mozambican Liberation Front, 1964:
In September, 1962, the Congress of the Mozambican Liberation Front affirmed unanimously the will and determination of the Mozambican people to fight by any and all means for the achievement of their national independence.
FRELIMO tried, through peaceful means, to convince the colonial-fascist government of Portugal to give satisfaction to the fundamental political demands of the Mozambican people. In spite of this, Portuguese colonialism continues to dominate our country.
The richness of our country and the work of the Mozambican people continue to be exploited by the Portuguese colonialists and their imperialistic allies.
Our brothers are daily murdered for participating actively in the struggle for the liberation of our country. The prisons are full of patriots, and those who are still free live in uncertainty of what the next day will bring.
Therefore, concurrent with its peaceful efforts, FRELIMO prepared itself to face the eventuality of an armed struggle. Today, faced with the constant refusal of the Portuguese government to recognize our right to independence, FRELIMO again declares that armed struggle is the only way for the Mozambican people to achieve their aspirations of liberty, justice, and social well-being.
It was only after exhausting all possibilities of a peaceful solution that we decided to take up arms. We are now sure that this is the only means by which to convince the Portuguese people in Mozambique to get out, to give back what belongs to us, to restore to us our land…
When we decided to confront Portuguese colonialism—when we resolved by a conscious and pondered decision to destroy the world of oppression and misery that strangers established in our country, to build to a world of justice and equality, we had already weighed the forces of repression. We knew that for many of us death would be the price of that ideal. We are ready to pay any price for it.
We have nothing to lose. Existence itself has no meaning in a regime of servitude. We have nothing to lose but the chains that destroy our dignity.
We shall never turn back. Nothing can stop our revolution. The Mozambican revolution is an immense movement—irreversible as a force of nature—with roots in the will and in the aspirations of each Mozambican.
The armed struggle which we announce today for the destruction of Portuguese colonialism and of imperialism will allow us to install in our country a new and popular social order. The Mozambican people will thus be making a great historical contribution toward the total liberation of our continent and the progress of Africa and of the world.
Paraphrased statement of some Black Power leaders in U.S.A., 1967:
We are tired, America. We’re just plain tired—and fed up and angry, and outraged. We’ve been quiet; we’ve worked; we’ve slaved; we’ve dance; we’ve smiled; we’ve shined your shoes and made up your bed. We’ve said,
Thank you, sir; and still we’re not free to be our own men, to control our own lives and destinies.
We’ve marched; we’ve prayed; we’ve sung,
We Shall Overcome until it hurt, and then we sang it some more. We’ve pleaded; we’ve prayed; we’ve had our heads split open. Still our children are being given a poisoned education; our communities are left to rot; our men cannot be employed, our middle-class blacks are kept out of your neighborhoods. We’ve been lynched and beaten and jailed and subjected to all the quiet, deadly violence of the white status quo. And America, you still won’t let us be free, be equal in opportunity to live and grow.
Now we’re tired. We’ve had enough. You’ve taught us about violence and we’re going to use our lessons well. We’re going to kill some white men. If we’ve got to go, we’re going to take some of you with us. If you won’t let us go free, we’re going to bring this whole rotten society down over all our heads. Give us liberty or give us death, white America. We’re not going to have our children go through this madness anymore.
This is war, America. You’ve been killing us for more than 300 years. Now we declare war. The movement for Black Liberation has begun.
Statement of Father Comilo Torres, Colombia, 1966:
I have left the duties and privileges of the clergy, but I have not left the priesthood. I believed to have devoted myself to the revolution out of love for my neighbor in the temporal, economic, and social realms. When my neighbor has nothing against me, when I have helped bring about the revolution, I will say the holy mass again. Thus I believe to obey Christ’s command:
If you are offering your gift before the alter, and there remember that your neighbor has something against you, leave your gift before the altar, and go; first be reconciled to your neighbor, and then come, and offer your gift.
(Father Torres was murdered some time after he had made this statement. He was 37 years old.)
Something Against Us
These are the voices of revolution; and as they end it would appear that the blood of a Roman Catholic revolutionary priest cries out from the ground to all the safe Mennonites of the world. He reminds us that there are millions of men scattered over the globe whose inarticulate groans are their only way of saying that they have something against us.
These are the men who could work for ten years and not have the cost of one Mennonite tour. These are the children who never see in a month the food we have eaten in a week. These are the women whose sons have been killed because they wanted America, Dutch, and Belgian oil companies to give up their strangle-hold on the dark people’s economy. They have something against us. What is our response?
It might be well to make sure we have heard them clearly and followed their arguments and their pleas. They remind us of intolerable injustice, of warped human relations, of men controlling the lives of their brothers in ways that must break the heart of our elder brother. They tell of vast sectors of their economy controlled by those who drain the wealth into already vast profits. They speak of twisted stunted growth as societies and as individuals.
In almost every case they tell of pleas for justice, requests for negotiations, nonviolent demonstrations, letters and petitions, all answered by subterfuge, hypocrisy, violence, or death. Out of this grows a conviction that they can obtain justice, independence, manhood, self-determination only by the use of physical force. Their legal channels are blocked and their moral appeals fall on deaf ears. What shall they do?
The central theme of a search for justice is transformed by a struggle for power, out of conviction that the oppressors respond to nothing else. This is the meaning of Black Power in the political realm. Its roots are to be found in a thousand crushed hopes.
But in the midst of these documents, too, is a faith in the rightness of their cause. There is an underlying, unspoken religious understanding of true community. There is an assumption that men are not meant to live as parasites on others.
They are convinced that if the earth is indeed the Lord’s then he means for those who live on it to determine how they shall use it as faithful stewards. This, they believe, is their responsibility, not Wall Street’s or the Hague’s or Lisbon’s.
And here we come to one of the most difficult issues of all: These men who have been driven to revolution often consider the good Christians of the West as some of their major enemies. We are part of the problem, not the solution. We live off the earnings of their land. They are paying for our comfort. Our continued acquiescence in all the benefits of Western corporate capitalism is for them a negation of all our prayers of concern and our conference statements wet with tears of pity.
Then, above all the rest, they see America as the leader of counter-revolution for the world, and they mark us as enemies until we prove different.
Nevertheless, even against so great a power as the military colossus of North America and the massed wealth of the West, these revolutionaries seem often to have a faith that their cause will triumph. Much of this expression of faith may be no more than rhetoric, but they appear to be more clearly allied with the sufferers of the world than many Christians. They appear to be more ready to die for their convictions than many Christians.
What Should We Do?
How do we address our revolutionary brothers? They have something against us. What is the peace witness for such situations? Perhaps even more appropriate questions are these: What would Mennonites do? What have Mennonites done? What would you do?
In the United States I have noted that Mennonites rarely hesitate to appeal to the legislatures and governors on issues which seem important to the group’s life and concerns. I have noticed in the U.S. and elsewhere an increase in the number of Mennonite lawyers, and I am aware of various conferences struggling with the issue of the use of the courts.
Mennonites rarely hesitate to collect damages where insurance is concerned, I suspect. What I am suggesting is this: We usually have no hesitation about seeking justice for ourselves. Most often in this generation in the West we have not found legal channels completely blocked; but when there has seemed no relief, Mennonites have moved out of intolerable situations.
In the light of such awareness concerning our own practices, what do we have to say to others who seek justice? How shall our
peace witness be valid if it refers only to their quest for justice and not ours? What can we say to those who have been pressed up against the wall for so many years that the life seems crushed out of them by oppressive regimes? Do we solve anything by quoting Romans 13? Is that a real response to our brother’s agony?
Often in the recent past Mennonites have had friends outside of the oppressing situation to help get them out, to help get them settled, to help them survive for a time. How does this experience help in speaking to those who have no outside friends, to those who do not desire to leave the land in which their fathers are buried?
How do speak to those who wish to stay and drive our Western nations off from exploitative uses of non-Western lands? What do we say when we have stocks in the companies who exploit and money in the banks who finance the very profitable adventures in foreign investments? How do we speak to such persons when our own Congress cuts off their aid to almost any nation that wants total control over its own economy? What is our peace witness when we live as citizens of the nations that make peaceful revolution impossible?
We cannot escape such questions by saying that we do not believe in violence when we participate in the
violence of the status quo. Nor can we affirm law and order when they maintain a situation in which men rob another people cruelly, legally and systematically, and share some of the profits with us. We are not excused by a refusal to be concerned with
politics when we so readily appeal to the politicians to save our own skins. Moreover, if politics has to do with the order of men’s lives in such a way that they may achieve their fullest potential in the community, then dare we remove ourselves from concern with it?
Of course, one of the things we may say to those who are sorely tempted toward revolutionary seizure of power is this:
Such power is not the answer. We have learned from our Lord that it is only through the renunciation of this world’s kind of power that true and lasting changes come for man and society.
We may say this, but how shall we prove that we believe it when we sit in the midst of the fortress of Western military power and take advantage regularly (though often unconsciously) of political, economic, and military power? Even though we may not always wield these ourselves, we are glad to be protected by them.
Sometimes, though, we clearly control the power, subtle power, like the power of Mennonite prestige, the power of middleclass respectability, the power of whiteness. Can we recommend the way of powerlessness while we dwell comfortably among the powerful? Can we really praise the purity of poverty and the blessedness of humility in such surrounding as these (or from church buildings and family houses not unlike this)?
I am convinced that we have not yet squarely faced this dominant human issue of our time, and I am also certain that we will be untrue to our Lord and his suffering brothers if we continue to avoid a matter so central to so many lives. (I realize that many of the non-Western churches have been forced to deal with this matter in some existential ways, but we have not drawn sufficiently on their wisedom at such a conference.) Therefore I would make this proposal:
An Exploration Proposed
It would seem crucial and right to me if some official or semi-official portions of our church sponsored a major working exploration of this issue within the next 18 months. Such a gathering would be essentially concerned to listen to Christ and our brothers and to seek to discern the Spirit’s blowing of truth from whatever source.
It should most appropriately be in a non-Western location where we could draw on some authentic revolutionaries, especially some of those who have felt compelled to leave churches to become part of such struggles.
Our main concern would be to know what a witness of non-resistance or Christian pacifism means in situations where men honestly sense that they have been pressed by oppression to violent resistance. A critical part of this search would be to know how those of us who live as the wealthy of the earth can find a peace-making style of life, but at least half of the seekers should be from the lands of the poor and crushed.
I would further propose that part of the preparation for such a conference might properly involve the support of a person like John Howard Yoder, along with non-Western theologians, in exploratory missions among some of the modern revolutionary groups. Let such men live among the revolutionaries and listen to their deepest concerns.
Let them learn what kinds of witness might be possible on such frontiers of faith. If newspapers can send reporters to live among such men simply to get a good-selling story, we could certainly consider sending scholar-witnesses to learn and to share. Can we truly love this world of revolutionaries if we do not know it?
Such a proposal is no mere academic matter for me. I have sensed a calling to try to stand faithful to our Lord among the black revolutionaries of America—and wherever else I might be. Such a task is completely uncharted, and I am seeking for help and guidance from all who are similarly concerned. I do not wish to appear melodramatic, but there are ways in which this seems to me a matter of life and death.
Now, more than enough words have been spoken on this subject about which we know so little. Let it suffice here to say that Jesus may have had such a time in mind when he called us away from the storing of treasures, from anxieties about possessions. The revolutionary poor are understandably skeptical about pleas for non-violence from Christians who live with more than necessities in an oppressor’s land. Perhaps it will be easier to hear God’s spirit concerning the marching poor if we had no houses or lands to defend.
perhaps because I do not know. That is why I plead for counsel. One last conviction: the Spirit we seek in Amsterdam might be here; but wherever he blows he is a Spirit of justice, truth, and love. Christ is our guarantee of that. Such a Spirit surely understands and is compassionate with the desperate men who often are driven by a hunger for justice, a search for human relationships, and the building of a new community. With such a Spirit abroad, let this be our final question: Whose sin is greatest, the desperate men who use the wrong weapons to fight for justice, or the complacent men who have all the right weapons and fight no battles at all, except their own?
Let us pray for the Spirit to fill us, but let us remember that the Spirit who fills is also the Spirit who drives men out into the desert of solitary testing and refining. If this is not the Spirit we want, then let prayers and conference cease, beginning now. But if, with fear and trembling, we are willing to be driven beyond all the limits of physical, intellectual, and spiritual safety that we know now, then the anointing may come. Then the broken victims will leap for joy at our appearance, and the humiliated will sing a song of praise.