World War I and the Humanitarian Imperative for Nuclear Disarmament

This week’s guest writer is John Siebert, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a non-governmental organization that works with churches, governments and civil society, in Canada and abroad, to advance policies and actions to prevent war and armed violence and build peace. Project Ploughshares is a longtime coalition partner of MCC.

The widespread use of weapons of mass destruction in World War I (WW1), particularly chemical weapons such as chlorine gas, shocked the public conscience and added to the existing demand for banning such weapons. The staggering numbers — 100,000 dead but more the hideously disfigured bodies of the wounded 1 million — shocked the conscience of the public as these poor souls returned home and compelled efforts to make chemical and biological weapons illegal to possess or use.

Attempts by nations to ban chemical weapons reached back into the 19th century, and extended well forward into the 20th. And yet in Syria chemical weapons were recently used in civilian areas. You scratch your head and wonder how long and how effective these efforts are if, after over a century of work to outlaw this particular class of weapons, it is worth the candle.

It is.

Photo credit

Photo credit

Setting norms in international law is notoriously difficult and time consuming. Implementation and verification are even more difficult and more time consuming. The difficulties of implementation and verification typically are used by opponents of constraints as an argument for not even trying to set new international norms. It becomes a vicious circle favouring a lack of action.

So, the advocates of legal restraint on specific military technologies have to somehow overwhelm the natural momentum of advocates for hard security realism, those who argue for the primacy of power as determining the outcome of conflicts and the use of dodgy military technologies, with another kind of argument.

The good news is that the machinery of disarmament for conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction has made great strides since WW1. Chemical and biological weapons have been deemed illegal; both possession and use. Certain classes of conventional weapons have been banned as well, including personnel land mines and cluster munitions.

But efforts dating from WW1 took almost a century to bear the less than comprehensive results we have today in outlawing and eradicating chemical weapons.

The way it works in practice is that these international norms are eventually nearly universally accepted and observed. The legitimacy of these weapons is then permanently degraded so the world can focus on the outliers, or spoilers, who continue to possess or use them. It isn’t perfection but the process makes the world considerably safer if not absolutely safe from the banned weapons.

no nukesSimilar arguments used to ban chemical and biological weapons, and some classes of conventional weapons, are just as applicable and arguably more so to nuclear weapons.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC), following the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, in 2011 passed a resolution indicating “that the principles and rules of international humanitarian law apply to nuclear weapons and that the threat or use of such weapons would generally be contrary to the principles and rules of international humanitarian law.”

Why? Nuclear weapons violate the principles of war because their use fails with respect to distinction, precaution and proportionality. Nuclear weapons cause incalculable human suffering that are unconstrained by time or space, there is no way to prepare for, or to meet, the overwhelming humanitarian needs of those affected even by a limited nuclear exchange, and damage to the natural world would be incalculable and could not be mitigated. We often explain this by the term “nuclear winter.”

In short, the possession or use of nuclear weapons threatens the future of human and other species, and the biosphere of the earth itself.

The ICRC sought in 2011 and going forward to “reframe the international debate” on nuclear weapons from considerations of geopolitical, security and deterrence to the humanitarian imperative to make them illegal and eliminate them.

Experience from other disarmament processes says that certain weapons, or a class of weapons, have been eliminated only after they have been outlawed. Civil society reflects and focuses widespread public disgust and mobilizes sympathetic states against the outlier and spoiler states who want to continue having them in their arsenals.

Not since the post-Cold War draw down of nuclear weapons from approximately 60,000 warheads to the current 17,500 has there been such a sense of optimism about the prospect for eliminating nuclear weapons. Let’s make the momentum continue!

“We just want peace” — from the global to the local

On Sunday, September 21 and throughout the preceding week, churches, communities and individuals around the world celebrated the UN International Day of Peace. It is a general call for peace around the world, but also a specific call for communities caught in the midst of ongoing conflict, violence and war.

Every year on this day in Colombia, where I have been working with MCC for almost three years, various churches, including Mennonite churches, come together for forums, marches and vigils as part of a national campaign called Pan y Paz or Bread and Peace.

bread The idea behind this campaign is that peace cannot thrive at the national or local levels without economic and social justice. It is why our events include a symbolic action — offering bread to all who pass by. Peace from this perspective demands that everyone has access to the necessary resources in order that all can live in dignity — that no one goes hungry.

Pan y Paz is a call to action for the Colombian state, but also to society in general. The impacts of 50 years of conflict, which has left over 200,000 dead and approximately 5.5 million internally displaced by the violence, run deep throughout society. As peace talks between the Government and the FARC (Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) enter their third year, it is critical that issues of economic and social justice are central in any movements forward. However, communities and individuals also need to become involved as well, promoting peace, dignity and justice within their own neighbourhoods, and caring for those around them.

This focus on peacebuilding and the conviction that all people are image bearers of God and deserve to be treated with dignity is what originally drew me to MCC — leading me to work with MCC in Winnipeg, three years in Colombia, and now joining the Ottawa Office team. I love to engage and analyze overarching political and social issues, but what has been most rewarding and inspiring are the personal connections to communities. I am inspired to think about what peace and justice look like within a community, for a family, in the life of a friend.

For the past two years I have participated in Pan y Paz with the Mennonite Church community in San Nicolas, a neighbourhood of Soacha, just south of Bogota. San Nicolas, as with Soacha in general, is an area in which many displaced people live, having fled violence in other regions, with more people arriving every week. As a result, issues like poverty and urban violence, especially among the youth, are rampant. Families are struggling to start over and many youth are seeking and finding their sense of community within gangs or armed groups.

Colombia march with Pedro LuisChildren and youth well outnumber the adults within the Mennonite Church community in San Nicolas. Many of the children joined due to participating in the church’s daily lunch program. The youth have also found a community within the church, forming music groups, and taking on leadership roles.

This year, before the church community marched through the streets with their banners, candles and bread to share chanting “¡Más pan, Menos balas!” (More bread, Less bullets!), there was a mixture of celebration and sadness. The celebration came as the children led the time of worship, singing songs of God’s hope and love, all while dancing and jumping.

But as the service came to a close, the pastor shared the news of yet another young man, known to many in the church, who had recently passed away. It appears that he killed himself. This is not a rare occurrence in the area, as young people are frequently lost in the despair of their circumstances, or others killed for their involvement in gangs and other violent activities.

One of the youth led the congregation in a prayer for all of the youth in the area.  He prayed for peace in the community, for joy, happiness and purpose in the lives of the children and youth, so they can bring change within their neighbourhood, their city, their country. The children and youth within this church community are struggling for peace and for change and are refusing to give up hope.

As the community lit their candles and marched in the streets, I kept thinking of something the pastor said to me as we walked out onto the street, making the high level peace talks reach down to the community level — “ Solo queremos la paz.“ We just want peace.

By Rebekah Sears, new policy analyst for the Ottawa Office. Originally from New Brunswick, Rebekah is still in Colombia where she has been serving as policy educator and advocacy worker for MCC; she will relocate to Ottawa in late October. She has a Master’s degree in International Affairs from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and has completed policy analysis and research for World Vision and Citizens for Public Justice, and has also worked briefly on Parliament Hill.



This week’s guest writer is Natalie Frisk, Curriculum Developer at The Meeting House Church – a church for people who aren’t into church. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario and is ordained with the Brethren in Christ Canada. Natalie is married and has one amazing daughter. We invited Natalie to contribute to our Ottawa Notebook, when we heard about her amazing personal initiative. Read on….

I used to be a Just War Theorist. I’m a person of action, and so when there is a person being persecuted or unjustly injured in some way, I want to jump into action. I would have never expected that my jump to action would be as a peace advocate.

About 9 years ago, I started to go to The Meeting House Church while attending Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. The idea of church in a movie theatre felt strange, but what felt even stranger to me was the sense that after years of feeling slightly unsettled in various denominations, I was home.

Dauda Babangida, left, and Abubakar Idris are Peace Club participants at Muhammadu Abdullahi Wase Private School in Wase town, Nigeria.

Dauda Babangida, left, and Abubakar Idris are Peace Club participants at Muhammadu Abdullahi Wase Private School in Wase town, Nigeria.  MCC provides significant support to the development of Peace Clubs in several African countries.

Week by week, I experienced beautiful people, beautiful teaching, and was able to anchor myself in a beautiful home church. After a short period there, I was confronted with what would become one of my greatest hurdles: peace teaching. I couldn’t seem to wrap my mind around it, and so I took it to my home church to wrestle through. A leader in that home church kindly said, “Why don’t you just look at what Jesus said?”

Could it be so simple? I thought I had. I mean, I knew the Gospels. I knew what the Bible said. Didn’t I?

And so, I took up the challenge and all I could find over and over again was Jesus preaching enemy love. “Pray for those who persecute you.” “Love your enemies.” “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.” They went on, and on, and on. Jesus taught peace. Jesus lived peace. Jesus was and is the Prince of Peace.

I had a choice: I could continue on in the way I had always thought about war as if fighting was “helping,” or I could follow the way of Jesus.

Jesus. I wanted to follow Jesus. I wanted to know and learn the way of peace.

Fast-forward a few years, and I found myself becoming a voice for peace; however, I started to realize that being a voice just wasn’t enough. Peace required action.

Roughly a year ago, I read an article about a five-year-old girl who decided to sell pink lemonade for peace. It’s a fantastic piece that I’d invite you to read here. In short, this little girl had a vision to sell lemonade and donate the funds raised to peace initiatives. She raised a couple of thousand dollars, had a huge impact in her city, and was able to actively promote peace. Did I mention she was just five?

This story stuck with me and I wasn’t able to shake it. Maybe it was the innocence and creativity combined. Maybe it was the other-centredness of a child at such a young age. Or maybe it was because peace was such a passion of mine.

Whatever the reason, the story made me restless. It inspired me to act.

Peacebuilding among young people spreads conflict transformation skills throughout society. Mittapab ("Friendship"€) is a group of Lao young adults and teachers. They build peace in Vientiane by working with high school students, using their own curriculum. Students learn to promote relationship peace and cope with daily conflicts. Global Family support helps Mittapab teach conflict transformation to teachers and students. This photo shows a peace training among high school students.

Mittapab (“Friendship”€) is an MCC-supported peace project in Lao. It trains teachers and young adults in conflict resolution skills which they pass on to high school students in Vientiane. Students learn to promote relationship peace and cope with daily conflicts. This photo shows a peace training among high school students.

And so, one morning, I woke up and announced to my husband that I’d like to raise $30,000 for peace initiatives with MCC by my 30th birthday. He said it was crazy – but that was exactly why I needed to do it! I called my initiative PeacebyPiece.

I realized that peace is something we talk about, aspire to, and hope for, but we very rarely take action for it. I needed to push myself (and encourage others!) to put my money where my mouth was when it came to putting peace into action.

My birthday has come and gone. I raised about $5,000 for peace, but have readjusted my goal to continue to raise funds during this year. I have sold Poinsettias for Peace, Popcorn for Peace, t-shirts, and even threw a fundraiser birthday party for peace for myself. For me, failing was still succeeding. I’ve had to opportunity to share in churches, in youth groups, and will continue to call others to creative active peace making wherever I go. The funds that have been raised to this point will make an impact.

My hope is to continue to raise the conversation of peace in our every day lives, peace around the world, and be able to help support some of the incredible work that Mennonite Central Committee is doing to build peace in our world now and for the future.


Lessons from Sandra

Every two weeks I visit Sandra at the provincial Women’s Correctional Centre west of Winnipeg. When I arrive, I lock my belongings and outer clothing in a locker, pass through a metal detector, and wait until a heavy locked door opens electronically and a guard ushers me into the visiting area.

Sometimes Sandra and I sit and talk at a round table. More recently, because of a misdemeanor on her part, our visits have been “non-contact,” which means we sit in a tiny booth and talk via telephone, while separated by thick plexiglas.

Open CircleI visit Sandra (not a real person but a composite of people I have met) because I am a volunteer with Open Circle. Open Circle matches inmates in several Manitoba prisons with people who commit to visiting them twice a month for at least a year. My job as a visitor is to be a friend — someone who doesn’t ask many questions, offer much advice, or judge. Mostly, I am there to listen and to be “radically present.”

When I signed up with Open Circle, I did so with some selfish motives. I wanted to connect more closely with “real” people who suffer from the real world and its very real structures of oppression. In our work in the Ottawa Office of MCC, we try to address systems and structures of violence and injustice and work for policy change. I believe in our work deeply, but I often feel myself losing touch with the very people who are the reason for this work.

Sandra has put me in touch with reality very quickly. I have learned so much from her. These are just a few of her lessons for me.

  • Approximately 80-85% percent of the women at the WCC are Aboriginal – as Sandra is. I knew this intellectually before I ever entered the WCC. It is quite another thing to see it and comprehend it at a heart level. It is an absolute travesty that Aboriginal women should be so over-represented in prison.
  • Virtually every one of the inmates, whether convicted or charged with committing an offense, has also been a victim of terrible violence, abuse, trauma and or neglect. I regularly hear about beatings, assaults and rape. Some of the violence is self-inflicted — Sandra’s arm is covered from wrist to shoulder with razor scars.
  • Photo Credit Radio Canada

    Photo Credit Radio Canada

    The prison is not a cozy place. The only chairs I’ve seen are plastic stacking chairs. Sandra wonders if her back and hip pain is related to the fact that she can never sit in a comfortable chair or lie in a comfortable bed.

  • In Sandra’s unit there are two treadmills and a WII for about 120 women to share. Along with a prison diet that is heavy in high-fat foods, it is almost certain that the inmates will gain a lot of weight. Sandra tells me she has gained 40 pounds in six months.
  • One of the most painful things, for Sandra, is being separated from her children for long periods of time. She loves her kids deeply and worries intensely about them, even though she acknowledges the mistakes she has made as a mother.
  • The prison is located in a field outside the city and far away from any public transportation. This makes it very difficult for Sandra’s family members and friends to visit and it compounds her sense of isolation in prison.
  • There are countless daily humiliations – the ugly grey sweatpants and T-shirts which all inmates wear, the overcrowded cells, the withdrawal of privileges such as time outside one’s cell, the lack of information about the status of one’s case.
  • The prison can also be a place to celebrate small victories – as when one inmate can walk away from a fight, when another can stop biting her nails, when another can learn a craft. There is also the kindness of particular officers and prison staff.
  • Although Sandra hates being “inside,” she is afraid about what it will mean to be “outside” again. She is fearful about how she will find food, clothing, and a place to live, about having to make decisions, and about being drawn back into a destructive lifestyles.
  • Aboriginal communities view crime and criminal behaviour as resulting from a lack of balance in individuals and communities. Traditional restorative justice practices focus on helping people recover balance. Sandra doesn’t quite articulate it this way, but she lets me know that the prison system, with its focus on punishment, exacerbates imbalance and further diminishes some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

I always come away from my visits with Sandra with a jumble of contradictory thoughts and feelings. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with sadness and I cry a good bit of the way home. Sometimes I am filled with rage at a system which, rather than helping women to heal from a terribly wounded existence, only harms them further. Frequently I am reminded of the legacy of colonization of which both Sandra and I are a part.  Always I am confronted with my sheltered and privileged existence.  Always I feel like I’ve walked on holy ground.

I continue to believe that addressing systems and structures at a macro level and working for policy change is ever important. But that work must be rooted in relationship with “real” people. Sandra has also taught me that.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office.


A prayer for peace in the Middle East

This prayer was written by Steve Plenert, peace program coordinator for MCC Manitoba.  Through the month of August, MCC Manitoba has organized weekly gatherings for staff and constituents to pray for peace with justice in the Middle East.  This prayer was written for use on August 29, 2014.

Volunteers wearing MCC and Al Najd Development Forum vests deliver mattresses to families who opened their homes to other Gazans displaced by the Israel-Hamas conflict. MCC provided $35,000 of bedding and related supplies that were distributed through partner organization Al Najd in late July. (Photo courtesy of Al Najd Development Forum)

Volunteers wearing MCC and Al Najd Development Forum vests deliver mattresses to families who opened their homes to other Gazans displaced by the Israel-Hamas conflict. MCC provided $35,000 of bedding and related supplies that were distributed through partner organization Al Najd in late July. (Photo courtesy of Al Najd Development Forum)

Lord God,

We pray to you for peace in this day.  We give you thanks for life, for love, for hope and for goodness.  And we give you thanks for peace.  Sometimes it feels that peace is elusive both within our hearts and in the world.  We ask that we might know and understand your peace and your way of peace.  We pray that our world – your world – would experience true peace in the ways incarnated in Christ and in ways that reflect your coming Kingdom. Forgive our doubts, our faintness of heart, and our complicity with structures of violence. Guide us and all the earth into the ways of peace.

O God, we give you thanks for the ceasefire in Gaza. We grieve the deaths of Palestinian civilians, especially children, even while we mourn the loss of all human life and are grateful that the bombs have stopped.**  We pray that the blockade of Gaza will end. We pray, O God, that against all odds and predictions, this ceasefire would lead to a lasting truce with the conditions for true justice and reconciliation for Israelis and Palestinians, Christians, Muslims and Jews.  We pray that as children of Abraham we would all learn to see each other as a blessing to all nations.

Our hearts remain troubled with the plight of the Yazidi people of Iraq. We pray for mercy, kindness and justice for them and for all. We pray that the Yazidi would experience alleviation of their distress. O God, the fruits of your Spirit are needed in every region, in every corner of this world.  We pray that we would live by these fruits and be known by them also.

O Lord, for many of us these situations are distant and do not impact our day to day lives.  For those living in many parts of the Middle East the impacts are much more tangible.

For those who have lost homes – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have lost family members – we pray to you, O God.
For those whose lives and potential have been lost to their communities – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have killed in the name of their religion – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have killed in the name of the state – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have ordered killings – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have killed because they saw no alternative – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have sought to bring peace in the Middle East – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have labored to heal those injured and traumatized – we pray to you, O God.
For those who provide humanitarian assistance to those in need — we pray to you, O God
For those who negotiate ceasefires – we pray to you, O God.
For those whose lives are indirectly impacted by these conflicts – we pray to you O God.

We pray for the healing of the nations, for the healing of our own souls and for the healing of people in the Middle East.  Lord have mercy on your children.  Listen to your children praying.  Amen.


** As of August 28, 2014, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the  Occupied Palestinian Territory  noted the following: “Palestinian fatality toll is 2,104, of whom 1,462 have been identified as civilians, including 495 children, according to preliminary assessments… As of August 20,  10,224 Palestinians, including 3,106 children and 1,970 women and 368 elderly, have been injured. The cumulative Israeli fatality toll is 69, of whom at least four were civilians, including one child, in addition to one foreign national killed in Israel.”

How can we be heard?

It has been hard to settle on a topic for my final contribution to the Ottawa Office Notebook. There are far too many important issues I have grappled with over the past five years than I could ever hope to summarize in a single post. And I’m sure I would leave out something crucial if I tried to provide an overview of the highlights of my time with MCC.

As I scanned the headlines in the stack of periodicals that awaited me after a lengthy summer vacation, I was reminded that there is a certain repetitiveness to world events and to the world of politics. While the twenty-four hour news cycle often feels frenetic and relentless, the dramas that are the most consequential tend to stick around for a while, or repeat themselves over and over.

IMG_1061One case in point is the latest conflict in Gaza, the topic of the final letter to the Prime Minister from MCC that I have had a hand in shaping. MCC shared virtually the same message a few months before I started serving as the Ottawa Office Director, calling for an end to an earlier round of violence in Gaza and for international support to address the underlying causes of the conflict.

Obviously, what MCC and our Palestinian and Israeli partners had been hoping for failed to happen.

Change that addresses the root causes of the problems in our world often takes a long time. And thus, unfortunately, progress in the pursuit of advocacy is usually measured over decades, not days, months, or years. Injustices are persistent, and peace seems elusive.

In part, this is because what needs to change is not simply the thinking and behaviour of the individuals who instigate and perpetuate problems, but the systems or the patterns of relating, and the structures or the institutions that embody and enable this thinking and behaviour.

On several occasions, Prime Minister Harper has made it clear that he doesn’t agree with me on this point. He isn’t terribly fond of talk about systems and structures, or of the examination of root causes that go beyond the individual will.

Last Spring he sharply criticized the newly crowned Liberal leader’s response to the terrorist attack at the Boston marathon.

Last week he rebuffed calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, another issue that MCC wrote to the Government of Canada about a few months before I started working in the Ottawa Office. The Prime Minister was quoted as saying:

“It’s very clear that there has been very fulsome study… of these particular things. They’re not all one phenomenon… We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime.”

My point in raising this disagreement is to highlight what I see as another fundamental and ongoing challenge for those who pursue advocacy: How do we convince those who think that justice and peace depends solely on changing the hearts and minds of individuals that our societal and political context matters?

indexPut another way, how do we change the very hearts and minds of individuals, including the Prime Minister, whose vision for public policy doesn’t seem to include the sensibility that there are larger forces at play in our world, forces for both good and evil that transcend the individuals who make up communities, cultures, and, of course, governments.

I don’t think there is just one answer to this perpetual and perplexing question. But clearly there are systems and structures—or principalities and powers, to use a biblical concept—that are at play here too, blinding us all to the blind spots in our thinking.

As a person of faith, I remain convinced that God’s Spirit is at work redeeming the systems and structures that govern our existence. Change is possible.

I am also more convinced than ever that our modest efforts to contribute to this work through advocacy requires both courage and savviness. One helpful reminder of this obligation that has stuck with me comes from a single verse in, of all places, the book of Leviticus: “You shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself” (19:17).

Advocacy is not an optional or secondary calling.

At the same time, however, this verse serves as a reminder that advocacy is not an end in and of itself.

As Reuven Firestone has pointed out, Rabbinic teaching focuses on this verse as a source of support for reconciliation efforts, rather than an invitation to cast judgment or keep our hands clean. The purpose of reproof, rebuke, or admonition should always be to bring closure to a festering conflict. It should seek to establish or re-establish relationships rather than exacerbate points of disconnection.

Thus this command is properly understood to say “Do not reprove in a way that cannot be heard.”

There has been no shortage of disconnects between MCC and the policies—and policy-makers—of the Government of Canada over the almost forty years that MCC has had a presence in Ottawa. And I think there has been an earnest effort to reprove in ways that can be heard. Clearly though, much work remains!

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

Is God on our side?

This blog post was originally written for KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives as another in its series of “Spirited Reflections” on Lectionary Texts.

If it had not been the LORD who was on our side – let Israel now say –
if it had not been the LORD who was on our side,
when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us…  Psalm 124:1-3

On a recent trip to South Africa, my husband Dan and I visited the Vortrekker Monument in Pretoria. The massive granite structure – 40 meters tall – towers mightily over the city. It was built in the 1940s to commemorate the 1838 victory of Boer pioneers over Zulu warriors in the “Battle of Blood River.”

In the 1830s, large groups of Boer (later known as Afrikaner) farmers moved out of Cape Colony in the western portion of southern Africa and into Zulu territory in the east. The organized exodus of these farmer-settlers became known as The Great Trek and the participants as “Vortrekker.” An initial encounter between the Vortrekker and Zulu king Dingane resulted in the death of the Boer leader and the massacre of several hundred Boer men, women and children.


Vortrekker Monument, Pretoria, South Africa

In response to the massacre, the Boers lured the Zulu into a battle they felt they could win. Prior to the battle, they made a vow that if God would “protect us and give our enemy into our hand,” they would observe a Sabbath annually to commemorate the event. On December 16, 1838, some 460 Vortrekker, with musket rifles and cannons, fought off thousands of Zulu warriors, killing about 3000. Only three Boers sustained injuries.

The Boer people interpreted their amazing victory as a sure sign that God was on their side. The Vortrekker Monument, built a hundred years later, features a plaque inscribed with the 1838 vow: “For the honour of His Name will be glorified by giving Him the fame and honour for the victory.”

In Psalm 124 the psalmist thanks God for deliverance from enemies and attributes the victory to God: “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side…, when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us…” (verses 1-3). Similar sentiments are found in other Psalms and in the historical writings of the Bible.

Ancient Israelite faith reflects contrasting understandings of God. On the one hand, the Israelites saw Yahweh as the Creator of the universe, the One who fashions and cares for all life – including all peoples. On the other hand, they also frequently envisioned Yahweh as their tribal deity who chose, saved, and protected them, often at the expense of their enemies.

In the belief that Yahweh was on “their side,” the ancient Israelites were not unlike their neighbours. Most peoples in the ancient Near East worshipped tribal deities who supposedly cared primarily about their welfare. It is remarkable how Israel’s prophets and Jesus strengthened the understanding among the Israelites that God’s love and compassion embrace all people, including enemies.

In South Africa, the Afrikaner people eventually built a theology and ideology of Apartheid on the foundation that God was on their side. But they are certainly not the only ones who, like the ancient Israelites, have held this belief. Through the ages, the Christian church has sanctioned the conquest and colonization of indigenous people because it believed God was on its side. During World Wars I and II, Allied commanders and clergy invoked the idea that God was on their side, blessing their war-making. For that matter, Adolf Hitler did the same. More recently, President George W. Bush claimed God was on his side when he likened the war on terror to a religious crusade and the U.S. as God’s instrument of good to destroy evil.

There is deep and profound truth to the claim that God is on our side, and this is one reason the conviction is so compelling. But it matters how we understand this truth. God is on our side, in the sense that God is with us, especially in times of great suffering. But God is also on the side of all people. The idea that God is on our side – and our side alone – can be very dangerous. Over the centuries, it has served to legitimize conquest, slavery, dispossession and war. It has provided religious license for people of faith to kill others.

Those of us committed to “decolonizing” our faith do well to read Psalm 124 – and other scripture texts like it – with care and suspicion. We do well to remember that God is not a tribal deity sanctioning brutality by some against others, but the One who holds all creation in a holy embrace.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office.