Being salt and light: advocacy with those risking their lives for peace

Adapted from Bonnie Klassen’s presentation to MCC Canada.

Will we be ready? Ready to back our sisters and brothers in Colombia as they lay their lives on the line for peace, justice and reconciliation?

Last Friday – the International Day of Peace – Anabaptist churches across Colombia gathered in public places to celebrate the annual Bread and Peace Campaign. Sharing both bread and their daily commitment to nonviolence, they sang and spoke in public, thus demonstrating the every-day implications of peace-building in contexts of violence and hunger.

This yearly campaign began in 2002 when the United Nations asked the Colombian Mennonite Church to lead a public celebration for the new International Day for Ceasefire and Nonviolence. The Church had already gained recognition for her commitment to nonviolence through campaigns for including conscientious objection to obligatory military service in the 1991 Constitution.

This was a time when the government was pressuring all Colombians to become active collaborators of the State Armed Forces, and those who refused were labeled traitors and guerrilla supporters. All three Anabaptist denominations in Colombia – Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite, and Brethren in Christ – felt significant pressures, and decided to make visible their position for nonviolence by publishing a bold statement in the national newspaper. They declared that

as followers of Christ … we affirm our biblical and historical commitment to walk the path of peace, nonviolence…. We refuse to participate in any armed group, and we refuse to pay so that others do so on our behalf….

They went on to declare that seeking peace with justice involved “conversations and actions with whomever is willing to consider non-violent, negotiated solutions,” thus rejecting the Government’s framing of who is friend and who is traitor. Indeed, they called on “the government, the armed groups and the media to give up their war like attitudes and begin genuine peace talks with real concessions towards the building of a new country…”

This and other public statements have played a fundamental role in protecting the lives of Anabaptist church leaders in Colombia.

Pastor Rutilio

For example, when heavily armed paramilitary groups pressured the Mennonite Brethren churches in Chocó to pay them a “war contribution” from the community rice-processing plant the church administered, church president Rutilio Rivas responded firmly:

“Mennonite churches have been committed to nonviolence and peace-building for centuries.  We will not support any armed groups, not even the State Armed Forces.… We will not support you, even if it costs us our lives.”

Surprised by this boldness, and aware that Mennonites in Colombia have held this position throughout time, the paramilitary commander promised to respect this position.

These church-based advocacy actions and positions arise out of years of prayer and discernment.

In the early 2000s, an increasing number of partners told MCC that advocacy work was a priority for them. As churches became increasingly involved in providing humanitarian assistance and accompaniment to internally displaced people (IDP), leaders began to realise that offering food baskets was not enough. With 5 million IPDs, Colombia desperately needed policies and practice that put an end to the blood-shedding.

Growing rice, not coca

Local churches have also become increasingly involved in community food security projects whose explicit purpose is to help families overcome hunger along with helping communities stop growing illicit crops used for cocaine. Yet these attempts at creating alternatives become almost impossible when the small-scale producers have to compete with highly-subsidized, imported products, or when the land and water they have to cultivate is contaminated by the ever-expanding mining business in Colombia.

Again, their “life projects” hit up against the wall of policies: Free Trade Agreements, the government’s focus on attracting foreign mining companies at all cost, and more. Thus, Mennonite churches find themselves forced to take positions in response to public policy.

Indeed, in 2006 80% of Anabaptist church leaders surveyed asked MCC to support their churches in advocacy work.

Subsequently, MCC organized two National Anabaptist Encounters on Advocacy, with around 50 church leaders from the three denominations participating each time. The participants affirmed three main conclusions:

  1. The church is called to impact society…. Simply affirming God’s Kingship has profound political implications.
  2. The churches’ advocacy comes of out radical obedience to Jesus,… not a political agenda. 
  3. Advocacy is inseparable from the churches’ actions to alleviate human suffering, to develop sustainable communities and to build peace.

Participants also located themselves in the following options for engagement in social-economic-political realities – where they thought the church could and should be involved:

The vast majority of Anabaptist church leaders stood in the outer-most circle, meaning that they believe all four levels of engagement and risk are important.

Last week MCC Colombia’s partners again highlighted the need for advocacy.  Responding to MCC’s strategic plan towards the future, they said very clearly:

“We don’t want a relationship with MCC that only revolves around money.  We want to know that when we take risks in advocating for life, for peace and for dignity, MCC and the Anabaptist churches in the North will back us.  We want your political support.” 

They believe that this kind of theological and political backing will not cost MCC much at all.  However, lack of our support can cost them everything, for they have experienced how the voices of North American churches can make a difference.

In 1997, the Colombia Mennonite Biblical Seminary was being threatened with closure due to its program of Peace studies that allowed many students to declare themselves as conscientious objectors to military service. North American churches sent hundreds of letters to top government authorities. The Seminary remained open.

And then in 2004, Colombian Mennonite church leader and human rights lawyer, Ricardo Esquivia was being threatened with detainment on serious but false charges. Again, the international Christian community responded with a thousand faxes and letters sent to the Colombia government. Then, when country’s Vice President called Ricardo in for a conversation, he greeted Ricardo with a huge stack of letters and the words “Mr. Esquivia, you have A LOT of friends.” Ricardo was not detained or imprisoned.

Colombia is at historical cross-roads right now, with possibilities for new peace dialogues, under the best conditions seen in decades for reaching a peace agreement. At the same time, there are profound obstacles, and there are also significant enemies of the peace process.

The Anabaptist churches in Colombia will lay their lives on the line for peace, justice and reconciliation.  When they ask for MCC’s support – when they ask the Anabaptist churches in Canada and the U.S. to weigh in with their voices – will we be ready?

Are we ready for full partnership?

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”  — Jesus

By Bonnie Klassen, MCC Area Director for Latin America. Adapted from her presentation to MCC Canada’s annual delegate assembly and board meeting.

One thought

  1. Thank-you for posting this remarkable story of the Anabaptist churches in Colombia. I have the privilege of working on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia with Ricardo Esquivia and am consistently challenged to examine how my beliefs can be transformed into actions that support peace here in Colombia. As Mennonites, and as Canadians, there is so much that we can learn from our brothers and sisters in Colombia.

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