A prayer for Earth Day

April 22 is Earth Day.  Each year, KAIROS: Ecumenical Justice Initiatives provides an Earth Day worship resource that invites congregations and faith groups to express their gratitude for God’s good creation and to commit themselves to care for and nurture it. We post this prayer from the resource with special permission from KAIROS. The full worship packet is found here.

Prayers of the People

ONE: O God of All Creation
Our hearts fill with gratitude and wonder at all you have made.
We bask in the abundance of creation
and are nourished by all that is good in it.
Our thirst is quenched by clean waters.
The rivers and oceans team with life.
Our hunger is satisfied by bountiful harvests;
The orchards and fields burst with food.
We are comforted and loved by friends and family.
We freely create and work and play.

creation

MCC Photo/Melissa Hess

ALL: Every day we are reminded: all life depends on all life.

ONE: Our hearts fill with sorrow and guilt
for the destruction we have caused.
We misuse the abundance of creation
and squander the goodness in it.
Our thirst for resources knows no end,
the land and waters die by our hands.
Our appetite for power blinds us
to the vulnerable and the sacred;
we hurt and oppress each other;
we freely consume and pollute and destroy.

ALL: Every day we forget: All life depends on all life.

ONE: Our hearts fill with courage and hope
for a New Heaven and New Earth.
We heed your call to care for and restore creation,
and are energized by the goodness in it.
Our thirst for justice knows no end;
our hunger for peace opens us to new ways of being.
We find joy and support in each other;
we freely share and cooperate and grow.

ALL: Every day we learn: All life depends on all life.

ONE: With ancient words we pray as Jesus taught us…

ALL: Amen


					

$1.7 trillion

In 2016, global military spending amounted to a staggering $1.68 trillion.

Courtesy of SIPRI

It likely won’t be surprising which countries topped the military-spending charts—that year, the U.S. and China clocked in at $611 billion and $215 billion respectively.

While states like the U.S. are, of course, in a league of their own, Canada is not off the hook. Though not commonly known as a “military superpower,” Canada is still in the top 16 highest defence spenders worldwide (and 6th out of 28 NATO countries).

What’s more, last June the Canadian government unveiled a plan to further expand its “hard power” on the world stage.

Driven by everything from armed conflict to foreign policy objectives, geopolitical interests, and perceptions of security, the “necessity” of high military spending can be difficult to challenge in political circles.

But what are the implications of such excessive spending on global peace, security, and development? Are global defence expenditures—which the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says tend to be weak in transparency and accountability—connected to genuine security needs?

And how do such bloated defence budgets square with international obligations under Article 26 of the UN Charter, which calls for peace and security “with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources”?

As former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once said, “the world is over-armed—and peace is under-funded.”

Enter the Global Days of Action on Military Spending (GDAMS, for short). Birthed in 2011 by the International Peace Bureau, this campaign—running from April 14th to May 3rd—calls for a reduction in worldwide defence budgets and the re-allocation of those funds for social spending.

This year’s slogan? “Reducing 10 percent of military assets will help save our planet!”

It goes without saying that the economic and human costs of war are overwhelming. Weapons—primarily small arms, cluster bombs, landmines, and other conventional weapons—have a devastating impact on people in conflict zones. And in the wake of war, rising health care and reconstruction costs take an incredible social and economic toll on communities.

Moreover, as Eisenhower warned back in 1953, excessive levels of defence spending also have an enormousopportunity cost.” While the world diverts a huge proportion of public resources to the defence sector, basic human needs such as food, health, education, housing, employment, and environmental security are chronically under-funded. Such under-funding only serves to create and exacerbate conditions of social, human, and economic insecurity.

But back to Canada…

The day after Foreign Affairs Minister Freeland delivered her foreign policy speech in the House of Commons last June (setting up the rationale for a bigger defence budget), Defence Minister Sajjan introduced his 113-page plan to hike Canada’s military spending by more than 70 percent over the next decade—from $18.9 billion today to $32.7 billion by 2026-7. Most of these funds are set to be delivered after 2021 (after the next election cycle!).

With big ticket items like fighter jets, military personnel, war ships, new capabilities for Special Forces, and so on, the defence plan was an unexpected pivot away from the Liberals’ election promise to “build a leaner military.”

Not surprisingly, National Defence is already the largest spender among Canadian government departments. And, of course, this prioritization of defence spending isn’t unique to Canada.

As SIPRI writes, globally there is “a gap between what countries are prepared to allocate for military means to provide security and maintain their global and regional power status, on the one hand, and to alleviate poverty and economic development, on the other.”

Just compare, for a moment, worldwide military spending against the entire budget of the UN. As Doug Roche—former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament—wrote in a recent book, “all told, the entire body of work of the UN, including peacekeeping and the sweeping economic and social development programs of forty specialized agencies and programs, costs $30 billion per year. This works out to about four dollars per person on the planet. It is only 1.76 percent of the $1.7 trillion that nations spend annually on arms” (p. 79).

Yet, for decades, the UN has faced financial difficulties and been forced to cut back on programs.

This spending imbalance—and its implications for peace and security—is precisely what the Global Days of Action on Military Spending tries to draw attention to.

During tax season, some groups, like Conscience Canada, even encourage Canadians to withhold the military portion of their taxes and call for the creation of a government-controlled Peace Fund where that money can be diverted for non-military peacebuilding purposes. 

What could be achieved if governments re-directed even ten percent of current defence spending towards social development needs? 

Indeed…what if?

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office director

Canada and Martin Luther King Jr.

Fifty years ago today—April 4, 1968—Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I was less than 3 months old at the time, so I have no recollection of that day or the man when he lived. But at some point, I became aware of his work for civil rights and his untimely and tragic death.

Recently, I began to wonder what connections Martin Luther King Jr. may have had to Canada. Certainly, his name is recognized by most Canadians, and parts of his famous “I have a dream” speech would also be familiar to many. But what may not be well known is that in 1967, Canada’s centennial year, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s annual Massey Lectures.

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The Massey Lectures were started in 1961 as an annual series of lectures by leading thinkers, originally broadcast on the CBC radio program Ideas. CBC producers initially planned that for 1967 the prominent lecture series be delivered “by a group of leading Canadian lights reflecting on Canada at 100.”

However, in the summer of 1967, race riots erupted in black neighbourhoods in Detroit and Newark. The immediate cause was police brutality, but the real issues were segregated housing and schools and rising black unemployment. In five days, 43 people were killed (33 blacks and 10 whites) and nearly 1200 injured. In the midst of the “largest urban uprising of the 1960s,” Martin Luther King Jr. called for radical nonviolent social change through mass civil disobedience in Washington, D.C.

King’s powerful oratory, his passion for racial equality, and his commitment to nonviolent action caught the attention of CBC producers in Canada. In a letter dated August 11, 1967 Janet Somerville, the senior producer at Ideas responsible for the lectures, approached King with a request to author and deliver the lectures for that year.  

“This summer’s harsh new evidence (on several continents) has made the case for non-violence harder to hear. We need to hear it argued with all the new evidence considered. But this same summer has also begun to demonstrate to everyone the interconnectedness of the problem of violence – world-wide, history-long, bone-and-soul-deep… Anything implied by the question ‘is it human to hope to move forward without violence?’ is relevant to the series we would like to broadcast.” 

1967-massey-kingThe result was a 5-part lecture series entitled “Conscience for Change” which was broadcast in December 1967.  In the first four lectures, King explored the impasse of race relations, the effect of the Vietnam War on the social fabric of the US, youth and social action, and nonviolence and social change. The final lecture was a Christmas sermon on peace delivered in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia and broadcast by CBC on Christmas Eve 1967.

While King’s call for nonviolent social change stemmed from events and experiences in the US, it was relevant beyond those borders. Canadian cities weren’t suffering violent riots, but Canada too possessed economic and social inequity and racial and ethnic tension. The growing demand of Indigenous people for the dismantling of racist systems of oppression put Canadians on notice. Social change was certainly needed here as well.

King’s challenge to remember our human inter-connectedness, both nationally and globally, and to work for change through nonviolent means is worth hearing again as we celebrate his life on the 50th anniversary of his death.

As King boldly stated at the end of lecture three, “If the anger of the peoples of the world at the injustice of things is to be channeled into a revolution of love and creativity, we must begin now to work, urgently, with all the peoples, to shape a new world.[i]

– Monica Scheifele, MCC Ottawa Office Program Assistant

[i] Bernie Lucht, ed. The Lost Massey Lectures: Recovered Classics from five Great Thinkers (Toronto: House of Anasi Press, 2007), 198.

 

 

 

“How long, oh Lord…” The war in Syria enters its eighth year

Once again, we find ourselves at the pinnacle of Lent. Holy Week is upon us. It is a week that evokes deep emotions: grief and desolation followed by profound joy and hope. Amidst the darkness all around, hope persists and breaks through.

Every year we know this is coming. We know for certain that after 40 days, Lent ultimately culminates with Easter and resurrection. There is an empty tomb – He is Risen! – for which we say a resounding Thanks be to God!

But what about the seasons of Lent in our own lives here and now? The times of darkness and confusion? Times of injustice, violence and grief? Times when it seems like there will be no end to human suffering around the world? How can the light even begin to break through in the moments when all hope appears to be gone?

“How long, oh Lord?” cry the Psalmists and the prophets – speaking out of places of deep suffering and isolation, as those who would cry for an end to violence and injustice.

A few weeks ago, I was in Lebanon with two colleagues from MCC’s other advocacy offices, meeting with several of MCC’s partners in the region, including some of MCC’s Syrian partners. We were so privileged to meet with Archbishop Matta Al Khoury of Damascus and Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Al Nemeh of Homs, both from the Syrian Orthodox Church – a longstanding partner of MCC – who drove in from Syria just to meet with us at their monastery in the mountains.

Syria and Lebanon, bishops and Garry

Archbishops of the Syrian Orthodox Church came to Lebanon to meet with representatives from MCC’s Advocacy Offices and speak to the current political and humanitarian context within Syria. (left to right, Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Al Nemeh of Homs for the Syrian Orthodox Church; ; Archbishop Matta Al Khoury of Damascus for the Syrian Orthodox Church; and Garry Mayhew, MCC Co-Representative for Lebanon and Syria: MCC photo, Doug Hostetter)

The Syrian war is about to enter its eighth year, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people, forcibly displacing over 13 million people – often multiple times – in a protracted and seemingly unending conflict that has resulted in a humanitarian crisis beyond measure. Bishops Matta and Selwanos and their surrounding communities have lived this crisis from the beginning: offering food and comfort, shelter and little bits of hope where they can.

Eight years. I can’t even begin to imagine. A conflict shifting and moving throughout the country; sectarian violence and regional powers fighting a proxy war on Syrian territory on over a dozen fronts; countless bombings and the physical markings of destruction; trauma and re-traumatization, as no one is untouched; a generation of children knowing no context other than war, destruction and displacement. In this past month alone, devastating attacks overwhelm the people in rebel-controlled East Ghouta, while deadly shells and rockets wreak havoc in government-controlled Damascus.

Homs old city

Destroyed buildings line a street in an area of Homs, Syria, that was devastated by mortar shelling. (MCC photo/Doug Enns, March 2017)

As the Bishops outlined the crisis and some of the main challenges one phrase really hit home: “There is hope, but it’s very small among Syrian people. How long, oh Lord…?”

Yet the Bishops insisted that the sheer fact that people outside of Syria are noticing, are speaking up, are wanting to stand in solidarity, provides them just a little more hope. Our visit with them inspired us and stirred within us new energy to speak and to act.

As we as MCC advocacy workers come home and share these stories and messages with our friends, churches and communities, we want to lament and pray and stand in solidarity with our partners. In this Lenten time and period of waiting and uncertainty let us all cry out for justice and peace to come.

As advocates we invite our supporters to speak truth to power and raise these voices up in the halls of power. Our group asked the Bishops what message they wanted us to bring to our respective governments. They replied, simply “peace comes first.” Priority must be given to negotiating diplomatic peace as soon as possible, without the continuing support to military efforts, beginning the long process of sustainable peacebuilding, justice, healing and reconciliation.

In such a protracted conflict, the Bishops outlined, every party carries its own economic and political interests and objectives, but above all they must be urged to seek the welfare and human dignity of the people. Sectarian, political, religious and national divides have brought about acts of horror on all sides, and are often manipulated and have been exacerbated by armed actors and by intervening countries, such as Iran, Russia, the U.S. and Canada. The act of supporting a military solution, both in words and in actions – which Canada and the U.S. are intent on – will only fuel these divisions and carry them into the future.

Long-lasting peace, instead, comes with addressing the root causes of violence; promoting genuine immediate and long-lasting dialogue between religions, national, political and sectarian groups; supporting the urgent humanitarian and development needs. Inclusive and immediate diplomacy is paramount.

There is by no means an easy or quick-fix solution. MCC’s partners in Syria and the region have long been responding to humanitarian and development urgent needs. MCC’s response to the crisis Syria and the region is our biggest humanitarian response since World War II. Partners are also highly engaged in peacebuilding, bringing together people from different communities, sects and religions, seeking to build peace from the ground up.

oldhomsstreetscenes

Flowers bloom amid the destruction in Homs, Syria, a site where MCC partners with the Syrian Orthodox Church in supporting orphans and providing monthly allowances. MCC photo/Doug Enns, 2017

As this year’s Lenten season draws to a close, I pray we all can be renewed again with the hope of Easter. And may that hope somehow spread out into what often seems like never-ending darkness, and may this hope of resurrection give us all strength to continue to cry out for justice and peace. “How long, oh Lord…”

Bekah Sears is the policy analyst for MCC’s Ottawa Office

Could it happen again?

Could Mennonites once again be drawn into supporting, collaborating with and even perpetrating such evil?

This is the question that haunts me after attending a recent conference on Mennonites and the Holocaust at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas.

HolocaustThe conference, attended by over 200 people from Ukraine, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, U.S. and Canada, was the 3rd in a series of conferences on the same topic. The first two occurred in Germany (2015) and Paraguay (2017). These three conferences have highlighted an emerging body of scholarship on Mennonite complicity in the Holocaust.

Over the course of the two days, we heard 20 different speakers present their research into a profoundly disturbing story.  These are a few of the things we heard…

…German Mennonite churches (both conservative and liberal) bought into National Socialism’s racist and anti-Semitic ideology that valued blood purity and Aryanism. Many Mennonites considered Adolf Hitler as God’s instrument to restore the fatherland of Germany.  Their theology gave them few tools to resist Nazi propaganda because they had abandoned earlier Anabaptist commitments to nonviolence and had also lost a sense of the centrality of the Kingdom of God as inaugurated by Jesus.

…Many Mennonites in the Ukraine knew about—and a few even participated in—massacres of Jews around their communities during the period of German occupation, 1941-43.  In one three-day massacre near Zaporizhia (and the Mennonite community of Chortitza) over 3,000 Jews were murdered and thrown into a mass grave. A Mennonite named Heinrich Wiens became an SS commander and was responsible for killing thousands of Jews. Many of the Mennonites hired by the Germans to act as interpreters translated lists of Jews who were subsequently murdered. Mennonites benefited from the German occupation while their Jewish neighbours suffered unmeasurably.

Bergen-Doris

Dr. Doris Bergen of the University of Toronto gave the keynote address.

…Some Mennonites in Poland accepted homes and businesses confiscated from Jews. Refugees accepted the clothing and effects of Jews who had been killed. One prominent local Mennonite, Erich Ratzlaff, assisted in rounding up Jews for a new ghetto. Later in Canada, he edited the Mennonitische Rundschau for many years.

…In the Netherlands, many Mennonites actively supported the occupying forces. One such individual, Jacob Luitjens, played a role in the Nazi propaganda service and also helped to track down Jews. In 1991 he was extradicted from Canada to the Netherlands to serve the prison sentence handed down in absentia decades earlier.

…During the German occupation, some Mennonites in the Netherlands participated in the resistance movement and some also hid Jews. One of the latter, Gerrtje Pel-Groot, took a Jewish baby into her home while the baby’s parents hid elsewhere. The little girl survived the war, but Geertje died in a German concentration camp after someone informed on her.  She is one of 40 Dutch Mennonites who have been honoured by Israel as “righteous among the nations.”  But, as the Dutch scholar put it,  why only 40?

…Mennonite Central Committee actively worked after the war to identify Mennonite refugees in Europe as Dutch rather than as German, and to minimize Mennonite connections to the Nazis. It did so in order to better enable the refugees’ escape from Europe to destinations in South America or Canada. MCC worked closely with avowed Mennonite Nazi supporters and party members like Benjamin H. Unruh.

0004216-friesennot-1935-dorf-im-roten-sturm

A 1935 film produced by the Third Reich’s Propaganda Ministry and featuring Mennonite themes was shown at the conference.

At the end of two days of hearing these stories and much more, my heart ached and I struggled to hold back the tears.  Questions swirled around in my mind.

  • Why the silence? Why are we only hearing these stories now? This question was actually put to me by the one person attending the conference who publicly identified herself as Jewish.  “Why has it taken Mennonites so long to acknowledge this?” she asked.
  • How does memory shape a people and a narrative? The conference highlighted that memory is constructed—shaped and re-shaped to “make sense” of people’s experience.  Memory can, for example, reinforce identities of victimhood, while denying identities of victimizer. How can memory serve to honestly bear witness to truth in all its complexity?
  • Does a community’s own experience of trauma absolve it of complicity in the harming of others? Soviet Mennonites were, when German occupying forces arrived in 1941, deeply traumatized. Under Stalin, they had lived through forced collectivization, starvation, repression, and the murder or disappearance of thousands. Does that reality lift the burden of responsibility? Or does it simply explain why Mennonites did not come to the aid of the Jewish community?
  • How do Mennonites recognize, acknowledge and atone for this dark side of our collective story? How do we lay aside the sense of “Mennonite exceptionalism” that we are somehow better than others?
  • And this one: Could it happen again? Could Mennonites once again be drawn into supporting power structures that commit such horrible atrocities?  How does the church in our day nurture the robust theological and spiritual resources, and the foundational commitments to justice, peacebuilding and Christian discipleship so necessary to resist systemic evil?

I am thankful to the historians and theologians, the preachers, poets and artists—as well as the organizers of this conference—for guiding our community in this painful but necessary journey.

More information on the conference is available here.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for MCC’s Ottawa Office.

To help or not to help: Eritrean refugees in Israel

By Nicholas Pope, Advocacy Research Intern in MCC’s Ottawa Office. Nicholas has a law degree from the University of Calgary. He has served with MCC in Palestine and also Alberta, where he has been the MCC Alberta Refugee Sponsorship Coordinator.  He continues in that role part-time, while serving in the Ottawa Office.

On January 1, Israel announced an ultimatum for the thousands of East African asylum seekers within its borders: take $3,500 USD and a one-way ticket to Africa or face indefinite imprisonment.

Israel-Eritrea Map (002)There are around 34,700 East African asylum seekers in Israel. 27,000 of these are from Eritrea. Israel calls them “infiltrators,” claiming they are economic migrants who illegally entered Israel in search of work. However, this is far from the truth.

Eritrea is ruled by one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. The authoritarian government forces everyone between 18 and 50 to serve indefinitely in the military. There they endure abusive conditions, including being used as slave labour. Because of the horrendous human rights situation, Canada has recognized 97 percent of Eritrean refugee claims as valid. Israel, by contrast, has recognized less than 0.1 percent (10 persons to be exact).

For the past few years, Israel has periodically detained asylum seekers in Holot Detention Center, a special immigration detention centre in the Negev desert. The difference now is that Israel will send those refusing to be deported to a regular prison to live with convicted criminals in a much more restrictive environment.

Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel

Eritrean asylum seekers outside the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, January 29, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Since the announcement, Israel has issued 600 deportation notices to single male asylum seekers and it has jailed seven. According to Israeli human rights groups, at least two of the men imprisoned in the Saharonim prison are torture survivors.

Most asylum seekers will choose to remain in an Israeli prison rather than be deported. Those who have accepted Israel’s voluntary deportations in the past have paid a huge price. After arriving in Uganda or Rwanda, many have reported having their documents confiscated and basic rights denied. Feeling unsafe because they are known to have the $3,500 payment, many travel hundreds of kilometers, suffering abuse, torture, and extortion—sometimes even dying—in their quest to get to safety in Europe.

exit_eng-piba-flyer-300x480

The flyers distributed around South Tel Aviv by the Population Immigration and Border Authority on February 2, 2018.

Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and is thus legally obliged to provide protection for those with a well-founded fear of persecution. Why then is it ignoring its international legal obligations?

While I don’t know the mind of the Prime Minister, the probable answer comes down to the concept of “demographic balance.” Israel is extremely concerned with ensuring that a solid majority of its population is Jewish so as to preserve its identity as a Jewish state.

When I spent a year living in Jerusalem with MCC’s SALT program, I saw this concept enacted firsthand. Jerusalem is the most important city for Israelis and is often a microcosm in which you see all aspects of Israel collide. Thus, understanding policy related to Jerusalem can help us understand what is happening in the rest of the country.

For decades Israel has had official policies with target demographic ratios for the city. For example, in 1973 the Gafni Committee recommended a ratio of 73.5 percent Jews to 26.5 percent Arabs in Jerusalem. More recently, in 2009 the Jerusalem Master Plan stated a demographic goal of 60 percent Jews to 40 percent Arabs noting that more ambitious goals were unattainable due to a higher growth rate of the Palestinian population.

Over the years prominent Israeli politicians have affirmed this aim. In 1982 mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek proclaimed, “I am seeing to the Jewish majority.” And current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said “[T]here is a demographic problem” due to 20 percent of Israel’s population being non-Jewish Arabs (or Palestinian citizens of Israel).

This desire to maintain Jewish demographic superiority leads to all sorts of human rights abuses against Palestinians in Jerusalem and throughout Israel, including residency revocations, home demolitions, and unequal provision of municipal services. It is this same desire that motivates the violations of Eritrean refugees’ rights.

MCC has a long history of helping refugees. Because of this, we have the unique ability to give these vulnerable people a third option besides imprisonment or deportation: resettlement to Canada.

However, this is not without its tensions.

On the one hand, sponsoring these refugees assists Israel in its quest for Jewish demographic superiority. I believe that all people are equal no matter their ethnicity or background, and the state should not give preferential treatment to anyone based on race or religion. How then can we be complicit in aiding a state to achieve its distinctly anti-multicultural and discriminatory objectives?

On the other hand, there are innocent refugees being sent either to indefinite imprisonment or potential death or torture, and we can do something to help.

In the end, we must help these refugees caught between prison and deportation. I cannot, in good conscience, allow someone to be left in that situation no matter the larger political context. Each person has immeasurable value, and they do not deserve to be victims.

African asylum seekers protest

African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against the deportation plan in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, Israel on February 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

At the same time as we help these refugees, I must raise my voice and say, “I protest!” I protest being an instrument in Israel’s demographic agenda that has hurt my Palestinian sisters and brothers and now hurts my Eritrean sisters and brothers as well.

We must help the individuals, but we must never stop speaking up about the greater systemic injustice that is behind it all.

Step onto your land

Our guest writer this week is Paul Esau, a participant in our Ottawa Office annual student seminar, held February 15-17 in Ottawa. The theme of the seminar this year was “Palestine and Israel: Let no walls divide.” Paul is from Abbotsford, BC. He is a Ph.D. student in history at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo and his research focuses on Canadian arms control and disarmament initiatives in the 1990s. He visited Palestine and Israel in 2009.

On the first day of the MCC Ottawa Office student seminar, MPs and government officials explained to us all the reasons why Canada will not pressure Israel to end the military occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza.

On the second day, we spread forest green blankets on the floor of Knox Presbyterian Church.

“Remove your shoes,” MCC staff Joanna Hiebert Bergen and Jon Nofziger instructed us, “and step onto your land.”

I’ve never been comfortable with ‘heart’ exercises, or practices that are meant to provide an emotional experience alongside an intellectual one. The policy talks had brought me to the edge of my seat, and left me wanting more. Yet when Joanna and Jon invited us onto the blanket to begin what is known as the Palestine Land Exercise, my first thought was that someone had misspelled “Jerico” on the label under my toes. I worked hard to repress the need to share that observation.

bginning of Palestine Land Exercise

Palestine Land Exercise | photo by Nadia Garcia

The exercise began with an invitation for participants to step onto the blankets and find a spot somewhere in historic Palestine between Lebanon and Sinai, Jordan and the Mediterranean. As events unfolded – the 1948 War, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the continuing occupation – the blankets were slowly folded up until most participants were crowded together on tiny patches of green in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Of the 30 conference attendees who had begun as symbolic Palestinians in the exercise, only a handful had avoided expulsion as refugees, death, or incarceration.

The chronology of events is interspersed by the stories of historical and contemporary Palestinians that are read out by participants in the exercise. Some cried as they listened to the stories of displacement and struggle. Others, like the three Syrian women who recently came to Canada as refugees, seemed distinctly haunted.

It was meant to be a powerful, emotional experience, and for many it was. Yet I was tired and bloated, with a gnawing ache in my lower back.

My role, I knew, was to participate as fully as I was able, and to keep my mouth shut. The church, like the proverbial village, needs all kinds, and therefore an MCC conference, like a Sunday service, must appeal to many different constituencies. In fact, I think that this recognition of diversity is one of the strengths of MCC more generally; it has made balancing head and heart, hard policy, grassroots advocacy and traditional theology, into a well-practiced art. It is one of the reasons that MCC is so respected in Ottawa, and why our speakers list raised impressed eyebrows among political insiders.

I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the heart’s role in geopolitics recently, especially as I’ve become more aware of my great blessing in growing up in a sleepy Canadian city among an undivided family of almost-middle class standing. I was reminded of this as I watched one of the Syrian participants, Basma, quietly take a friend’s keffiyeh (the black and white head scarf associated with Palestinian nationalism) and wrap it around her own head in a gesture of solidarity. As a PhD student, I’ve spent much of my life in the classroom where debates around the Middle East are abstract and esoteric. Basma reminded me that for some people the Middle East is home.

Despite these real consequences for people from the region, it has recently become fashionable to avoid conversations about the Israel Palestine conflict, to consign the topic to the closet of social faux pas alongside the abortion debate or (until recently) gun control. Many feel that the debate has become so polarizing, the situation so intractable, that no good can come from such discussions.

There is no easy solution to the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Yet that is no reason to assume that we have no responsibility for what is happening right now on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank. The military occupation is illegal under our current international laws, it is unjust, and it is a barrier to shalom. Therefore, it is our responsibility as Christians to engage in non-violent resistance to the power of the sword held over the Palestinian people. There is a way for both Jews and Arab Palestinians to live together in the Holy Land, and Christians must continue to struggle towards that frail but beautiful possibility.

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MCC Ottawa Office 2018 student seminar participants on steps of Parliament Hill | photo by Nadia Garcia

I am proud that MCC is willing to instigate conversations as part of its theological mandate to seek peace and justice around the world. I am proud to see the influence that the small advocacy office has in Ottawa, and to hear the passion and wisdom of my fellow students during the seminar. I am not always a ‘heart’ person, yet there are moments when I am fiercely proud to call myself Mennonite.

For all my doubts, I am glad I stepped onto that green blanket. I am glad that MCC has both the sensitivity to listen carefully, and the courage to speak truth to power. This conference forced me to engage both my heart and my head, and reminded me that throughout Jesus’ ministry he did the same.