An Assembly Line of Injustice: The Israeli Military Court System – Military Court Watch

This piece was originally published by MCC Palestine, August 2017

We arrived at Ofer Prison in the morning of late June. Ofer Prison is accompanied by a nearby interrogation center and military courts; together they function as an assembly line to put young Palestinians living in the West Bank behind bars as quickly as possible. With the help of an organization named Military Court Watch (info below), we were admitted inside to see the proceedings of the military court system in the West Bank.

Upon entering the courts, we first sat with families who were there to see their children’s court appearances. We heard from Mohammed[1] and his wife who told us about how their son had been arrested by the military while he was playing soccer on the school playground in late April. Their village lies close to a bypass road to an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Settlements such as this one are considered illegal under international law (more information here). Their son, named Ibrahim, was accused of throwing stones by this road. Ibrahim has already had 7 court appearances; he is in the 10th grade and he missed his school exams while he was in prison. The parents told us that 6 people from their village had been arrested around the same time as their son, some under the age of 18. “They come to provoke us, to stir up our village,” claims Ibrahim’s father. Now Ibrahim will always have a “security mark,” explains his father, which will make it difficult for the young man to get work permits into Israel and Jerusalem, but will also complicate his travel anywhere in the world.

Ofer Prison, an Israeli military prison in West Bank

A guard tower for Ofer Prison, an Israeli military prison in the West Bank.

We then met with Samar, the mother of a young man named Ahmad, who claimed her son had been in prison for over 7 months. Ahmad had been working at a radio station when the soldiers broke in and arrested him and his friends at 2 in the morning, breaking all of the equipment in the process. Samar explained that the soldiers first went to the family’s home in the middle of the night – she woke up with armed and masked soldiers by her bedside demanding to know where her son was. Samar thinks Ahmad and his friends were arrested for their journalism; the military court calls it something different and charged Ahmad for “incitement.” For such a charge, each family would be fined 6,000 NIS (1,700 USD / 2,200 CAD) and each of the defendants could face 5 years of prison time if convicted according to Samar.

Military Court Watch, which monitors the Israeli military court system, stressed that whether the evidence is flimsy or solid, most cases end in a conviction. Recent official data indicates a conviction rate for children (12-17 years) of 95%, higher for adults. This is designed to put Palestinians behind bars.

In no more than an hour, we shuffled between the various caravans acting as court rooms and heard over a dozen cases. They are, by definition, kangaroo courts. In the first courtroom we entered, two defendants sat side by side, having their unrelated cases heard by the judge virtually at the same time. One of the lawyers asked the military guard what he thought about the case and the judge fell asleep in the middle of giving the verdict. Both of the young men were taken away, shackled by the feet, and replaced by new defendants. The judge remained asleep.

In one of the courtrooms we found Samar again who was watching the court appearance of her son, Ahmad. Three other young men sat beside him as defendants. Ahmad’s court appearance took five minutes with the judge announcing a new court date next month. Ahmad, shackled, was taken out of the court and back to prison. New defendants came to replace him. An assembly line of injustice.

Military Court Watch (MCW) was established in 2013 and is guided by two basic principles. First, all children detained by the Israeli military authorities are entitled to all the rights and protections guaranteed under international law. Secondly, that there can be no legal justification for treating Palestinian and Israeli children differently under Israel’s military and civilian legal systems. In pursuit of these principles, MCW monitors, litigates, advocates and educates in the region and beyond.

You can find out more about Military Court Watch and its work at its website, http://www.militarycourtwatch.org/index.php 

Here are videos of Gerard Horton of Military Court Watch describing how the Israeli military court system works: 

https://youtu.be/cWe0NgZtcKg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIGU9kwHUz4

Surrendering control, improving outcomes: Learning an engineering of accompaniment

By Riley Mulhern, the technical WASH advisor for a Bolivian NGO and Mennonite Central Committee volunteer addressing issues of contamination and water quality in rural indigenous communities in Oruro, Bolivia. This article was originally published in Engineering for Change on July 23, 2017. 

The meeting was held in the most impressive government building in town, in an upper room looking over the main plaza. Several different government researchers in a row stood and began reciting numbers from their slides packed edge to edge with data. The audience, many rural and indigenous community members and leaders, listened attentively, confused.

The numbers were water quality data from a government inspection of the waters of the Bolivian altiplano, a vulnerable watershed known by the acronym TDPS—Titicaca, Desaguadero, Poopó, and Salar de Coipasa. The watershed is endorheic: a closed system without an outlet to the sea, its high plains cupped like a bowl below the peaks of the East and West Cordilleras of the Andes. At an elevation above 12,000 feet, these mountain plains were once fruitful agricultural lands and productive fisheries. But ongoing drought, centuries of mining, and poor water management have left it dusty and barren. Streams of acidic mining waste crisscross the perimeter. The once vast Lake Poopó has been converted to a few inches of muddy water seeping across an expanse of salt. A water crisis with no end in sight.

Many rural communities in the altiplano have organized and denounced large-scale mining activities for the degradation of their water and fields. Community pressures and concerns for future water security in the region thus motivated the TDPS inspection and the event was held to present initial results to the public. Maps and spreadsheets flew across the screen, the presenters announcing pH, conductivity, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen levels in rapid monotone.

A large part of my job, since moving to Bolivia, has been trying to define what exactly my job is. It became clearer during the question and answer session of the TDPS presentation a few months ago.

“We need clearer explanations!” one frustrated man stood and said into the microphone. “What is pH? We don’t understand this.” Almost simultaneously, a coworker from the small environmental justice NGO I work with turned to me and asked, “What do they mean when they say ‘conductivity’?”

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A local, grassroots environmental advocacy group holds an organizational meeting in the Bolivian altiplano. Photo by Riley Mulhern

My wife and I arrived in Bolivia’s cold and dry high plains with an MBA and an Environmental Engineering Master’s, but without a job description. The idea was to surrender the oft-espoused justifications for international development work based on results and predefined metrics in favor of a posture of accompaniment. Our inspiration drew itself from the liberation theology thinking laid out by Latin American priests Oscar Romero and Gustavo Gutierrez. We set out to prioritize basic proximity and relationships with the poor, without an outside plan; to take a back seat in effecting change, to observe and yield our service to local efforts along the way.

Easier said than done. A stance of accompaniment may seem woefully inefficient to many engineers, even frivolous in its lack of direction. There have been times I have felt so myself, seemingly wasting months at a time by all standards of productivity I have learned, trying to discern how to best be of use. Building meaningful relationships of trust through which change can be creatively and collaboratively built is a task of patience anywhere, let alone across enormous cultural gaps. In attempting to ameliorate situations of pressing poverty and acute suffering, the slow work of relationships may at times seem merely ancillary or altogether unimportant.

But that impulse could not be more wrong. Too many foreigners come to Bolivia with too many ideas for projects to help the water crisis. I’ve seen projects and proposals for rainwater harvesting, reverse osmosis, solar distillation and others.  Their work seems urgent, but they leave the essential reality unchanged. The poor don’t just want someone to come drop off a piece of hardware. They want someone who comes as their friend, who asks what they are doing to improve their lives and the lives of their children, and who will walk with them in that work. The campesinos in the TDPS meeting would tell you that they are working to organize and make their voice heard. They’d say that they are not satisfied with the government’s half-hearted inspections and reports. They are moving the agenda of their local leaders for more just water services and environmental controls. As Father Gutierrez writes, “There is no true commitment to solidarity with the poor if one sees them merely as people passively waiting for help.”[i]

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A community installs gutters for a rainwater harvesting project. Photo by Riley Mulhern

The problem remains not in the lack of foreign projects, but in the gaps in local agency seen at the TDPS inspection event. How can these communities become fully engaged and capable owners of their own water resources if “pH” remains coded knowledge belonging solely to the government and foreign engineers? A recently published study looked at 13 communities in an active mining region of the altiplano and found that almost all were characterized by “a perception that they and/or their livestock have suffered ill health due to water contamination.” Yet they had little to no education or training on water issues and no autonomy in decision making despite some level of local social organization.[ii] In this context, rainwater tanks, although not unhelpful, still hang like black, plastic ornaments on the status quo as long as Bolivians are merely manpower for foreign ideas and not owners of the processes of change.

On a recent visit to a remote agricultural cooperative, I was handed a brochure that proudly read: Dueños de nuestro propio desarrollo. Owners of our own development. I was struck by the slogan since it is so rarely so. Too often, the poor lack freedoms even in the processes meant to improve their lives. When engineers and technical experts are expected to design, fix, and solve, to take care of the issue from a distance, not enter into it, it is too easy to monopolize and justify foreign or expert ownership. But the end doesn’t always justify the means in development. Even the smallest locally owned steps of change are better than sweeping efforts that neglect these freedoms. Engineers need to learn to accompany change, not control it. The question is how.

My coworkers and the communities we work with would say that the answer lies in helping people understand what pH and electrical conductivity mean, why dissolved oxygen is important and reported as a percentage, and the risks of fecal coliforms or heavy metals in drinking water. That is, whatever the field—earthquake-resistant building design or the principles of latrine construction, website development or data management, micro-irrigation or urban gardening—the answer should inherently include a transfer of knowledge. Knowledge enables the poor to enter the privileged spaces of decision makers with power in their hands.

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A dust storm rises over the altiplano. Photo by Riley Mulhern

This is more than “teaching a man to fish,” which still smacks of an outside savior parachuting in with a new idea. The Bolivian director of a local environmental advocacy network that we work with put it this way: “We need alternatives: proposals that emerge from the communities themselves. Someone from the outside can come and say, ‘Do this,’ but it will never happen.” Refocusing on knowledge transfer is not a license to define what knowledge needs to be transferred. Rather, what we may call an “engineering of accompaniment,” waits to understand where the gaps in agency are and collaboratively define what knowledge is required.

The longer I simply accompany this water crisis and the efforts to address it, the more I find I am asked to lead training sessions on water quality and treatment for groups of students or organizations. Despite often feeling deeply inadequate to receive these requests, I have come to realize that they reveal the self-defined needs of the people around me. Thus, my job description has slowly come into focus: to help Bolivian men and women tighten their own grip on change.

Those of us who are drawn to engineering as a response to poverty generally want to be doers, not teachers. The emerging field of “engineering for developing communities” attracts more and more eager, concerned engineering students every year. Many of them want to be the ones to design new technologies for the developing world, or build houses, hospitals or water systems. But such attention to the problems of poverty without the involvement of the poor is precisely what lures us into accumulating ownership and control. We must disabuse ourselves of this sense of ownership and reach toward accompaniment if we are to dig in to where change really occurs, where people are owners of their own development and our projects do not simply decorate the underlying injustices.

A good place to start is in the preposition. We should not aspire to engineer anything for anyone in communities confronting poverty. We need to think of our work as “with.” We need to start thinking of development work in terms of education, training, and knowledge transfer through basic relationships with the poor. Alongside literacy in their technical area, engineers ought to go into the field equipped with the skills of effective communication, participatory methods, and critical pedagogy. Our goals and metrics for success should prioritize the fullness of this transfer of knowledge—and thus transfer of power—over and above the completion of individual projects.

As any educator will also tell you, this is not a light or romantic undertaking. The work of education is often a slow, weary, anxious trudge and requires longstanding commitments to individual people. But accompaniment, walking with, is not to parachute in with quick fixes. It is, in the words of Wendell Berry, to “go down and down into the daunting, humbling, almost hopeless local presence of the problem—to face the great problem one small life at a time.”[iii]

Then, once we are down there a while and the problems are no longer faceless, we realize it is never truly hopeless and that work is being done; that there are coals and a bellows.

[i] Gutiérrez, Gustavo. 2013. “The Option for the Poor Arises from Faith in Christ.” In Michael Griffin & Jennie Weiss Block (Eds.), In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez. New York: Orbis Books.

[ii] French, Megan et al. 2017. “Community Exposure and Vulnerability to Water Quality and Availability : A Case Study in the Mining-Affected Pazña Municipality , Lake Poopó Basin , Bolivian Altiplano.” Environmental Management: 1–18. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00267-017-0893-5.

[iii] Berry, Wendell. 1993. “Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse.” Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. New York: Pantheon Books.

 

Climate change adaptation and mitigation: What is MCC’s role?

By Amy Martens, research associate in MCC’s Planning, Learning and Disaster Response department. This piece was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Intersections: MCC theory and practice quarterly.

cropped-new-intersections-header (2)Climate change has already wrought significant adverse impacts on people and the environment, including increasing the risk of climate-related disasters. Communities, governments and non-governmental organizations employ adaptation and mitigation strategies to respond to climate change risks, seeking to limit future negative impacts and to enable communities to cope with adverse effects. What is the responsibility of relief, development and peacebuilding agencies like MCC that work in climate change-affected communities to respond to climate change through adaptation and mitigation?

The intersecting concepts of disaster risk, hazards and vulnerability are key in understanding the broader approaches of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Hazards in this case refer to natural adverse events such as droughts, extreme temperatures, landslides or hurricanes. Vulnerability is a term used to describe the characteristics or circumstances of a community that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard, including exposure to the hazard and ability to cope or adapt to its effects. Vulnerability is influenced by a variety of factors, including gender, age, inequalities in the distribution of resources, access to technology and information, employment patterns and governance structures. Disaster risk is based on the occurrence of hazards and vulnerability to those hazards. Not only is climate change increasing the frequency and severity of many natural hazards, but climate change impacts are increasing vulnerability by diminishing the capacity of communities to cope with these adverse events because of greater unpredictability of climatic events, increased displacement, land degradation and other impacts.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation are two complementary strategies to reduce and manage the risk associated with climate change. Mitigation involves reducing human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit future climate change. Mitigation strategies include switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, improving energy and transportation efficiency and increasing carbon “sinks” through reforestation. Adaptation is the process of adjusting to actual or expected climate change and its effects. Within communities, adaptation means avoiding or diminishing harm from climate impacts or exploiting beneficial opportunities associated with climate change. Adaptation includes a variety of activities to reduce vulnerability, including income and livelihood diversification, soil and water conservation, natural resource management and the provision of social safety nets. In addition, disaster risk reduction is a key strategy for reducing risk through efforts to analyze and manage the factors causing disaster situations, including reducing the exposure to hazards, lessening vulnerability of people and property and improving preparedness for disaster events.

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MCC is primarily involved in climate change adaptation activities by supporting communities currently affected by climate change. Adaptation activities aim to reduce disaster risk by addressing different aspects of vulnerability within communities and building resilience to resist, absorb, accommodate and recover from the effects of climate-related hazards. MCC’s adaptation work includes training for farmers in conservation agriculture, construction of shelter resistant to hazards and providing improved access to safe water.

MCC is also involved in mitigation work, including advocating for government policies that address climate change, encouraging supporters to live simply, expanding efforts to implement sustainability initiatives within MCC operations in Canada and the U.S. and partnering with Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College in the founding of the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions to advance thinking and action within faith communities on mitigation. Internationally, some of MCC’s programming includes mitigation efforts such as reforestation and education on climate change and environmental sustainability.

Climate change is undermining the efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the development sector as they work towards poverty reduction, food security, improved access to clean water and other development goals. Development NGOs are recognizing the importance of adaptation strategies in programming as they experience the impact of climate change on vulnerability and disaster risk. While adaptation is key in reducing risk associated with climate change impacts, it does not address the root cause of climate change. Both mitigation and adaptation are essential to a comprehensive climate risk reduction strategy.

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Considering the importance of limiting future climate change impacts to support sustainable development, what role should NGOs play in mitigation efforts? As a ministry of churches in Canada and the United States, MCC represents congregations in countries that contribute significantly to climate change and is itself a contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. To what extent is MCC responsible for mitigation, both with regards to its internal operations and its constituents located in Canada and the U.S.?

While MCC’s responsibility for climate change adaptation is inherent within its priorities of disaster relief and sustainable community development, MCC continues to explore its role in mitigation and opportunities for greater engagement on climate change matters. Even as MCC undertakes a number of initiatives to green its operations, MCC must discern how to balance an emphasis on internal mitigation efforts with a desire to implement program effectively and allocate resources efficiently. MCC asks itself how it can best partner with other like-minded organizations to engage and mobilize congregations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. As recent conversations convened by the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions suggest, MCC has the opportunity to join other organizations to advocate on policies that address climate change, to mobilize its supporters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to use its international adaptation work as a platform to propel climate action by connecting North American supporters with climate change-affected communities.

MCC’s work is increasingly connected to the impact of climate change on hazards and vulnerability within communities around the world. To be faithful in its mission of relief, development and peacebuilding in the name of Christ, MCC must carefully consider how best to respond to climate change risks, while also assessing its role in adaptation and mitigation efforts.

In the Migrant Journey

The following prayer was written by Saulo Padilla, Director of the Office on Immigration Education for MCC U.S. Saulo came to Canada as a political refugee from Guatemala in the 1980s and is now a U.S. immigrant. He wrote this prayer as he participated in The Migrant Trail, a 75-mile walk along the U.S. /Mexico borderlands, intended to bear witness to those who have died along the trail in search of a better life in the U.S. We offer Saulo’s prayer in light of the tragic deaths of migrants in San Antonio this week.

I walk with my brothers and sisters in desolation.
Are you here God?
Please don’t be far.
I am afraid and my soul is trembling.
You cried in Gethsemane, come cry with me.

Walking on the highway with border patrol.
Many hunt for us and we are accused of breaking the law;
You have been persecuted,
come be our witness,
defend our cause.

Make known the roots of our suffering and the causes of our journey.
Make public that our intentions are in accord to your law.

Intercede for those who walk with us in this path.
Make their rights be known,
and their voices be heard.

Migrant shoes
Guide the feet of those who get lost.
You know the darkness.
Hold our hands.
In the dim night shine your light and direct our path.

Restore the lands of our ancestors.
Bring justice to our people.
Pour rain on their crops,
and give them peace to harvest their fruit.

Anxiety and fear are our companions in our journey;
replace them with peace and hope.

Nurture our spirits while we are far from home.
Be with our loved ones.
Do not let time erase the way back home,
so that we may not live in exile forever.

Crossing into Sesabe, Mexico and having a prayer service at a church there.
The desert is arid and thirst awaits us.
You know the desert.
You’ve been exiled.
Come walk with us,
and bring a fountain of justice into our lives.

Sow seeds of peace and justice in the hearts and minds of those who resist our journey.
Let us be seeds of peace and hope in our new home, this land of our exile. Amen.

Reclaiming walls and fences: finding art and resistance in Palestine and Israel

By Elizabeth Kessler, Donor Life Cycle Coordinator, MCC Canada

This past May I travelled with an MCC learning tour to Palestine and Israel to learn about the ongoing conflict and about MCC’s work with Palestinians and Israelis who are working for peace. I travelled with several other MCC staff members and supporters of our work.

Each day we visited a different place, learning about a different aspect of the context. We learned about the realities of occupation, illegal settlements, uprooted people, destroyed homes, checkpoints, and divide-and-conquer tactics that are used by the Israeli government to assert control. We met Palestinians and Israelis, researchers, activists, businesspeople, tour guides, religious leaders, farmers and even a journalist and a politician–all with different stories and insights to share with us.

But what really stood out to me everywhere were the visual reminders of Palestinian resistance that had been posted or painted on walls.

Palestinian Political Prisoners hunger strike poster

One of the first places we visited was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which sits on top of a cave believed to be the place where Jesus was born. While visiting the church was ostensibly more of a tourist stop, it quickly became clear that tourist stops are not immune to politics. Even before we entered the church, we got caught up in reading these banners that had been posted nearby.

The banners were drawing attention to 1500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails on hunger strike at the time of our visit. The prisoners were demanding an end to the practice of detaining Palestinians without a trial and also calling for other basic rights like the right of a prisoner to have occasional family visits.

It turned out to be only the first of several demonstrations of support for the hunger strike that we would see during our tour.  At the time, the strike had been going on for a month. While the courtyard around the church was mostly calm, the presence of the signs was powerful, as if the people who put them up wanted to remind the tourists that amid the holy sites there are current, serious justice issues here not to be ignored.

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This key is painted on the door of Lajee Centre, an MCC partner in Aida refugee Camp in Bethlehem. Aida camp is home to refugees from a number of different villages that were destroyed by Israel in 1948.

The camp has art painted all over its walls. The key is an important symbol for the refugees, many of whom fled their homes in 1948 believing that they would be able to return shortly. Most of them did not pack much, but locked their doors and took their keys. Almost 70 years later, the refugees have not been able to return, but the keys to their homes have been passed down through the generations.

Palestinians continue to advocate for the right of return. The people we met are realistic that they will likely not be able to return to their villages, but they do believe they have the right to at least be compensated for the loss of their homes and valuable agricultural land. It struck me that the symbolism of the key – which is painted and sculpted in a several places around the camp – is important for helping the children in the camp understand their history.

wall graffiti

I’ve always been fascinated by political graffiti and street art, and I have taken photos of it in many of the places that I’ve travelled. What was unique about Palestine was how much of it there was. It makes sense: graffiti is a small way for Palestinians to assert power over their own fate and their land— a non-violent way of reclaiming the space as their own. It proves that they are not defeated.

This image is from a section of the wall that we visited in Qalandyia, a Palestinian village in the West Bank near Jerusalem. The section of the wall cuts off a road that used to be a main artery. There is graffiti all over the wall, in English and Arabic and a few other languages, much of it calling for a just peace. On the right, the faded words say “This wall will fall”.

“No more fear!” was one of the most powerful messages I saw on the trip. Fear is a major underlying cause of much suffering in the world but particularly in Palestine and Israel. Fear drives Israel’s obsession with security and it justifies everything from tight control of Palestinian movements, to the building of the wall, to violations of the Geneva Conventions. To build peace in Palestine and Israel, we have to deal with fear.

more graffiti

This is a scene a few blocks up the street from the wall in Qalandiya (also written as Kalandia). We were told that the street used to be a busy main artery, but the separation wall has stopped traffic and the local economy. The place is virtually abandoned and extremely quiet considering how close it is to a main highway and Jerusalem.

The Palestinian flag in graffiti, like the one in this photo, were everywhere in the West Bank. Several of the Palestinians (and some Israelis) we met with throughout the tour spoke about the importance of pushing against the narrative that the Palestinians aren’t really there or have no history here–a narrative that is used to justify illegal Israeli settlements. The flag is a reminder that there is a people here with their own culture and history.

balcony

A sign on a balcony in Hebron reads “Caution, this was taken by Israel.” Jewish Israeli settlers have increasingly been taking over parts of this Palestinian city. Military rule has cut off Palestinian access to the market and, like in Qalandiya, had a severe effect on the local economy. Many of the buildings are abandoned.

mural

A mural in Nazareth commemorates the anniversary of the Nakba. “Nakba” means “catastrophe” in Arabic, and it refers to the time when more than 780,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes to make way for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Nazareth is a city in Israel that is primarily inhabited by Palestinians, many of whom are Christian. While these Palestinians have Israeli citizenship (as opposed to Palestinians in the occupied areas who do not), they are denied access to agricultural land and to municipal services provided to Jewish Israelis. They are also cut off from their fellow Palestinians – including family members – who reside in the West Bank and Gaza.

We were told that secular Jewish Israelis often come to Nazareth on holidays, and some had repeatedly complained to the municipal government about this mural, which was painted illegally. The mural had been painted over four times, and re-painted four times.

flowers painted on wall

A wall in a refugee camp in Jerusalem that we visited on the last day of the tour. The refugee camp is messy. There is litter everywhere, and we found tear gas canisters and rubber bullets by the curbside – a sign that the military had made their presence known. But it was busy with people going about their business, and we met friendly people and curious boys on the street.  I think the artist who painted these images must have wanted to beautify the neighborhood and these stencils seem like a solid and lasting way to do that under the circumstances.

Being part of this tour renewed my belief in the importance of MCC’s peacebuilding work and my commitment to pushing the Canadian government to end its complicity in the occupation. MCC has a number of resources about Palestine and Israel which you can access here. You can also support our local partners working for peace and justice by making a donation.

God as advocate

Our MCC Ottawa Office has been engaged in advocacy since it was founded in 1975, but we still occasionally are asked why we are involved in speaking to government as a church-based relief, development and peacebuilding agency.  After all, the question often goes, doesn’t scripture admonish us to simply feed the hungry, clothe the naked or give water to those who thirst?

We as staff have developed a response to this question.  We have many reasons for justifying the work we are mandated to do, not the least of which is the role that advocacy plays in the Bible.  We point out how biblical characters like Moses, Esther, Daniel and John the Baptist spoke to the powers of their time, sometimes with a divine call to do so.  We lift up the words of prophets like Amos and Isaiah who denounced the evil practices of kings. We point to Jesus and how he challenged the religious authorities of his day.

Advocacy for justiceA new book gives us a deeper way of responding to the skeptics who believe that advocacy is beyond the realm of a Christian humanitarian agency.

The book is Advocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures, written by Stephen Offutt and four other U.S. church leaders (one of them, Robb Davis, was executive director of Mennonite Central Committee for a short period of time). The book speaks to evangelicals suspicious of advocacy and seeks to persuade them that advocacy is as important as any other form of Christian ministry, whether evangelism, relief, service or development.

The book accepts – as would our Ottawa Office – that reasons to engage in advocacy include:  1) the fact that partners call for it, 2) that it can address root causes of suffering, and 3) that it can have a much more sweeping and lasting impact than, say, relief distribution. But the authors’ key argument is a theological one – namely, we are advocates because God is an advocate.

God advocates by speaking creation into being and regularly calling that creation to care for the poor and weak, the widows and orphans. God advocates through the “vivid brilliance” of Jesus, whose proclamation of the “kingdom” (a political term indeed!), and whose healing, teaching and sacrificing ministry reconciles the world to Godself.  God advocates through the Holy Spirit who is present with the believers and who empowers them to “bear witness to the life of Jesus applied to all facets of society, whether education, economics, or even politics” (70).  Advocate is a metaphor for God’s very triune nature.

Bev Shipley

L-R: Ted and Katherine Oswald (MCC Reps in Haiti), Member of Parliament Bev Shipley, Clare Maier (former Ottawa Office intern), Rebekah Sears (MCC Ottawa Office policy analyst).

Not only that! The authors argue that for Christians, as “image-bearers” of Christ, advocating to “the powers” is an essential part of being faithful disciples.  They also caution that any all such advocacy must reflect the basic Christian principles of humility, integrity and love for the other.

There is much more to commend this book.  For example, it identifies the important roles of local congregation, denomination, church-based NGOs and para-church organizations in advocacy. It also analyzes key Christian advocacy initiatives and their strengths and weaknesses.  More importantly, it identifies and challenges that which makes many evangelicals skeptical of advocacy: a highly individualistic view of the gospel.

What I found particularly interesting was the chapter that addresses challenges and tensions in faith-based advocacy.  Many of the issues addressed are ones that our office is confronted with regularly, such as, for example, the tension between integrating a faithful response to the advocacy request of our partners with the approval of our donors and supporters. Or, to get more specific,  how do we call for bold action on climate change (because that is our partners’ plea), when some of our donors resist the notion that climate change is human-induced?

For Christians who already embrace the notion of faith-based advocacy, the book will not be necessary. But for evangelicals and others who are still wary of the place of advocacy in the life of faith, it is a major contribution.

And for us in MCC’s Ottawa Office, it gives us new language to communicate why we do what we do. We advocate because God advocates.

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

 

Welcome as a prelude to peace in Colombia

Alix Lozano is a Colombian  Pastor and Theologian and the Co-founder of the Ecumenical
Women’s Group of Peace-Builders (GemPaz). This piece was originally published on the MCC LACA Advocacy blog on June 21, 2017. This reflection is taken from the Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia worship packet.

All people at different stages and different moments of life seek spaces of welcome, healing spaces, spaces of acceptance, inclusion, and transformation. Political violence, delinquency, invisibility, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and poverty are some of the sources of stress, isolation, and trauma present in the realities of the Colombian people.

At this time, Colombia is experiencing a peace process, where the reintegration of ex-combatants in civil society is fiat accompli. The role of spaces, circles, and groups as instruments of the welcoming and transforming love of God is very pertinent, both in times of peace and in times of peace-building. We remember the biblical text of 2 Corinthians 1:4 which says: He consoles us in our suffering that we may console those who suffer, giving them the same comfort that he has give us.

Hospitality is an essential practice and value in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, as a lifestyle and as teaching. Hospitality, understood as unconditional welcome of the most needy, is an act of unconditional love.

In fact, throughout the New Testament, much emphasis is given to the Greek concept of philoxenia, defined as love of the stranger. Philoxenia is more than just tolerating the other, without loving her or him; it is desiring his or her good. Xenos, which means “strange” as well as “stranger,” refers to the foreigner, the immigrant, and the exiled. It can be attributed to any human being who is a stranger, who needs welcoming in a strange land. This word is also the root of the term Xenophobia, which means rejection of the stranger, the foreigner. In diverse parables and teachings of Jesus, one finds reference to the responsibility to welcome others and offer them a home.

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Gathering of Colombian peacebuilders; Photo credit, Anna Vogt

In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus is on the road and is received in a home, the home of his friends. He rests and is served and welcomed. He takes advantage of the friendly atmosphere to teach with love. The women, Martha and Mary, have a special moment with the Teacher which gives us much to reflect on. In that home, Mary and Martha experience conviction and special strength.

Martha and Mary each have a distinctive way of welcoming and showing hospitality to Jesus. Martha does this through her concrete responsibilities as lady of the house, from the starting point of what is “normal,” that is, the norms of hospitality and welcome; she is a symbol of those in society who believe that everything is solved by fulfilling one’s duty. Thus the criteria for judging the behavior of others is simply to determine whether or not they have done their duty.

Mary also fulfills the custom of welcome and hospitality, but she does it in a very different way, with a novel attitude born from her heart. She is attentive to the presence of the other, in this case Jesus, by sitting by his side, listening to him, and offering him a personal relationship; but she does this outside of the social norm, what is legal or cultural. In doing so, Mary chooses “the better way,” breaking with tradition. She acts from what is human, from what is closeness, from what is a posture of listening and seeing the needs of the other, which were also her own needs.

It is important to note that Jesus does not judge Martha, as sometimes is believed, but rather invites her to see, hear, and listen for new ways of relating – a welcome that humanizes, where BEING is more important than DOING.

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Gathering of Colombian peacebuilders; Photo credit, Anna Vogt

The call of the Spirit, the Ruah, is to be welcomed, to give welcome, and to offer peace to people who come from different spaces as a prelude to the path of reconciliation in Colombia, which has taken on this peace process, where government and guerrillas have decided to put an end to the armed conflict.

PRAYER FOR PEACE

God of life,
God of hope,
God of justice,
God of peace,
Our voices today unite in one cry,
A cry born from the depths of the heart
Of a humanity and creation wounded by war
That asks you to accompany our history
And knock down barriers that separate us so
that
Dialogues may come about that take us to
peace.

God of life,
God of hope,
God of justice,
Our hands, our emotions
And all that we are
Unites in one dream of love
To walk with all those
Who suffer in our world and who,
Through processes of
Resistance, create peace.
Come Lord, fill us with your strength and
Carry us in your arms when
Our feet can no longer walk.
Come Lord.

– Inter-faith Dialogue for Peace, Peacebuilders in Prayer Liturgy.

We invite you and your congregation to join in with MCC partner organization, Justapaz, in celebrating Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia this summer. A packet of resource and worship materials is available here.

This post is also available in Spanish