Who are the real enemies?

Last month I had the opportunity to accompany Rod and Kathi Suderman, MCC’s Northeast Asia representatives, on program monitoring trips to the Republic of Korea (ROK, also known as South Korea) and the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea).

MCC’s partnerships in both countries are intended to further the prospects for peace on the Korean peninsula. While open hostilities ended with the signing of a cease-fire or armistice agreement in 1953, the ROK and DPRK technically remain at war with each other.

The classic images of this stalemate are often taken from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates troops on either side of the 38th parallel. After visiting an observation post on the southern side of the border, it was clear that the ROK is well-prepared for an attack.

Indeed, a strong military presence was noticeable in the south, whether it was helicopters buzzing overhead in the Seoul suburb of Deokso, or convoys of troop carriers on the streets in the city of Chuncheon. I didn’t encounter any of the 28,000 U.S. troops currently stationed on 15 military bases, although the large monument to the Korean War right across the street from the Korea Anabaptist Centre was hard to miss.

To be sure, these preparations do not compare in societal impact to the “Military First” policy of the DPRK, a policy that directs national resources to the army before other priorities are addressed. However, the ROK also devotes a significant level of resources to its military. Two years of military service is compulsory, and alternative service for conscientious objectors is not an option.

What was even more striking to me was the way that conversations on both sides of the border emphasized the regional nature of the conflict, and seemed to downplay the extent to which there was direct hostility between the two Koreas. For example, in the DPRK, the forces of “imperialism” were consistently named as the greatest threat or danger, both in the past and the present. As one government official put it, “We love peace, and we love our sovereignty.” Furthermore, there seemed to be little fear of a nuclear attack in the ROK. In the words of one church leader, “The nuclear issue is not our issue. It is intended for other targets.”

This is not to minimize the potential for conflict between the north and south. Yet it does offer a reminder that peace—not to mention reunification—will require more than a significant breakthrough between the governments in Seoul and Pyongyang. Given that the strategic interests of global powers such as the United States and China may be well-served by maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula, addressing this conflict will require changes on the part of all the regional actors.

What does this mean for MCC and for Canadians, given that our country is not a global power? Perhaps it is a reminder that isolation breeds misunderstanding in both directions.

After experiencing the lack of contact with the outside world that is the normal state of affairs for people within the DPRK, it is not surprising that their perspectives on the world would be shaped by government propaganda to the extent that they are. Given the lack of direct exposure that Canadians (and South Koreans) have to life in the DPRK, it is also not surprising that our views would be shaped by misunderstandings and, in some cases, manipulations.

While we cannot control the DPRK government’s willingness to engage the outside world, we can continue to take advantage of rare opportunities for people-to-people contact made possible by MCC’s modest program initiatives. This is why current service opportunities such as teaching English or supporting conservation agriculture projects are so important. Perhaps in the long term this may make it possible for MCC to facilitate broader connections.

The risks posed by misunderstandings are also why it is important that the Government of Canada rely on information from those with on-the-ground experience in the DPRK, whether they are United Nations personnel, diplomats from other governments, or Canadian NGOs. Despite our country’s role in the Korean War, and despite our government’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric toward their country in recent years, our hosts in the DPRK insisted that Canada was well-positioned to play a more constructive role.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

Prodigal God and Restorative Justice

By Stephen Siemens, MCC Canada Restorative Justice Coordinator

Understanding parable of “The Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32) in the context of its 1st Century Middle East culture makes it one of the finest examples of restorative justice in the Scriptures.

This week is Restorative Justice Week with the theme: Diverse Needs, Unique Responses. In the parable,   we see just how unique God’s paradigmatic love-in-action is for both law-keepers and law-breakers, even though their needs are very different.

In a culture where nothing was more valuable than upholding one’s honour, for a son to ask his father for his inheritance was unthinkable – synonymous with wishing for his father’s death. The father would have disinherited his son, and local villagers would have treated such a son as if he were “dead to his father and dead to us.”

Yet, in the parable, the father divides his property among his sons, turning upside down the legal customs and allowing himself to be dishonoured.

The older son remains quiet at this point. He would have been expected to do everything he could to save relationship between his father and his brother. By doing nothing, he abdicated his role as mediator and reconciler.

When the younger son had finished his wild living and found himself out of money and starving, he decided to return to his father. Imagine that walk home. He would face shame and scorn from the villagers before he could even begin to plead and grovel for his dad to take him back. But to his surprise, his father runs to him.

A scandalous response to wrongdoing! In the first century older men did not run. But here the father takes his robe in hand and exposes his legs, a vicarious exchange of shame that would prove to be transformative. Patriarchy and honour are dashed to pieces in this incredible act!  The younger son was publicly liberated from his own shame by the ignominious actions of his father!

Moreover the father’s whole-hearted public embrace of his son had an important practical value: it preempted a hostile reaction from the villagers. If the father treated the son with love and welcomed him back into the family, the son was clearly not “dead to me” and the villagers would respect the father’s wishes.

Notice that all of this happened without any proof of genuine repentance from the younger son.

But not all were grateful for his return. The older brother comes home from the field and hears from a servant boy that his younger brother had returned in “hygiaino,” – in “shalom.” A relational pronouncement has been made: “Your brother has returned home, and the reconciliation has already begun!”

But the older brother is angry and refuses to join the party, also unthinkable in that culture. His father has to leave the party to plead with him to come inside, to see things from his perspective.

Now the older brother rips into his father publically by slandering his younger brother, declaring that this son of yours — clearly severing ties to brotherhood — “devoured your life” on prostitutes. He is saying to his father and all within earshot, “Look, he is the rebellious son of Deuteronomy 21. He should be killed, not welcomed back! Why are you coddling him? Where is the justice in this?”

The older brother’s public actions were not far from wishing his father was dead, just like the younger son had at the beginning.

But even to these actions the father responds in an incredible way, mirroring the scandalous embrace of the younger son witnessed earlier. Though the need of each son was quite different, the father’s unique response to each was equally unheard-of!

Let’s now remember why Jesus told this story in the first place. The parable opened with the religious leaders grumbling against Jesus because he was welcoming and eating with tax collectors and sinners, declaring the spiritual unity of those gathered at the same table. Perhaps the religious leaders felt a lot like the older brother in the parable: Outraged that honour was spent, wasted even, on this prodigal, on these tax-collectors and sinners!

Let’s also remember that “prodigal” means “generously wasteful,” or “having spent everything.” Although the younger son blew his inheritance, who really spent everything and who truly incurred the greatest cost? Should this parable not instead be called “The Prodigal Father,” as it was he who lavished his costly love on both his sons?

Even though the actions of both sons amounted to severing their relationship with their father, it was the younger one who recognized the harm he had caused. The older one believed that if he only reminded his father about their culturally correct relationship based on keeping all the rules, surely the father would come to his senses and banish the younger. One seemed to more fully embrace the restorative possibilities than the other.

How often do those of us committed to restorative justice ministries still think we are better than others? How many of us still struggle not to judge and exclude those in prison who have committed heinous crimes? We know that God’s costly grace is for meant all people, but it can be so hard to put this theology into practice.

In addition, this parable challenges the retributive attitudes, policies and practices in our churches and parishes.

The Church Council on Justice and Corrections (MCC is an active member) invites churches to embrace restorative justice and to foster an image of God that is synonymous with restoration. The Parable of the Prodigal Father demonstrates that this can only be achieved when we begin to fathom the full extent of God’s compassion and forgiveness toward ALL God’s sons and daughters.

If we are promoting restorative justice, then our lives must be equally and irresistibly compelling to those with whom we are in dialogue, whether we are sitting next to them in the pew or visiting them in prison.

Adapted and abridged from the author’s feature article in Sage, CCJC’s quarterly publication.

On Poppies and Peace Buttons

I didn’t put on my MCC “To Remember is to Work for Peace” button this morning, my standard adornment the week leading up to Remembrance Day when Canadians en masse begin to display the traditional red poppies on their lapels and pockets.

And it’s not because I’m in Ottawa, heading to the House of Commons with the MCC Ottawa Learning Tour for Anabaptist Editors[1].

(Had I worn it, I would likely have had to remove it upon entering our Parliament building; in recent years, security has prohibited the MCC button because it carries a “political message”!!)

Rather, it’s all about communication.

I’m concerned that others may misunderstand my displacement of the traditional poppy flower as a rejection of sacrifice of the soldiers.

While I certainly reject violence and war as a means of resolving conflict, of seeking a greater good, or even for stopping a raging dictator, I don’t want to minimize the suffering and sacrifice of the soldiers nor the pain their permanent absence left for their loved ones.

I don’t want to reject out of hand the genuine intentions of our society to honour those who gave their lives, ostensibly, for others.

Again, I disagree — strongly, fervently, to the core of my being — with the idea that those sacrifices were “the only way” or “necessary for our freedom,” that there are “just wars.”

However, this isn’t about strategic analysis or a greater good or theological ethics.

Rather, my concern is about what others understand me to be declaring.

What do I communicate with my “To Remember is to Work for Peace” button? I fear that for those who proudly or solemnly wear the poppy, my alternative button is a barrier to communication rather than an invitation.

Something like a political slogan or a bumper sticker where the purpose is an in-your-face declaration, but with no space for dialogue. Something like “Still Support Obama? How Stupid are You?”Or “Abortion: Infant Genocide!”

Everyone knows the bearer’s position, but communication ends there. And I’m not as convinced of the effectiveness of these anonymous declarations as I once was.

I also have come to realize that not all who wear the poppy flower are warmongers. Wearing the poppy has a number of different and not necessarily contradictory meanings, some of which I have less problems with than others.

For example, for over 85 years now, The Royal Canadian Legion has been selling the paper flowers to provide assistance to needy ex-servicemen and their families, to build housing for seniors, and to support programs like meals-on-wheels, drop-in centres, etc. Providing basic needs to folks in need, it seems to me, is not a bad project.

Indeed, in Question Period yesterday there was a heated debate with the Minister of Veteran Affairs on whether the government was doing enough to support veterans’ families, with the Official Opposition declaring that “we should all agree that impoverished veterans deserve a proper burial service equal to the sacrifice they made for this country.”[2]

Moreover, over the past decade, as I’ve become friends with several police officers, I’ve learned that my stereotypes of those who don’t share my radical, faith-based pacifism are exactly that — stereotypes. I’ve come to see that most of us share the same goals — a peace-filled life, society, and world.

Dialoguing about how to move toward that goal is more useful than sloganizing as we try to shout louder than the other side.

So what shall I do tomorrow morning with my “To Remember is to Work for Peace” button? Shall I wear both a poppy and a peace button? What are you wearing this week?

By Tim Schmucker, MCCC Public Engagement Coordinator

[1] Participating: Canadian Mennonite of Mennonite Church Canada, MB Herald of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, EMMC Recorder of the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, The Messenger of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, Courier of Mennonite World Conference, and MennoMedia.

Mennonites and Human Rights: Uncomfortable bedfellows or collaborative cohorts?

Insisting that secular leaders govern justly is not a foreign concept for Mennonites, suggested César García, General Secretary of Mennonite World Conference, in his plenary address[1] to the “Mennonites and Human Rights” conference held at the University of Winnipeg a couple of weeks ago.

Using the language of human rights, however, is indeed quite new.

César García (Mennonite World Conference photo)

César recounted his experience meeting with a U.S. State Department official in Washington to explain the adverse effects of the US military support of Colombia suffered by Anabaptist churches there. At the end of his presentation, the official asked him “which human rights are being violated in the context of your churches?”

An innocuous question. But César couldn’t answer. He didn’t know. His theological training and pastoral experience hadn’t provided any framework for translating Christian concerns and faith into human rights discourse.  Indeed, there was even some suspicion due to “their secular and non-Christian base.”

Paul Heidebrecht[2] along with other presenters at the conference echoed this reality – that Mennonites have not quickly taken up human rights language. Some presenters challenged us to do so more quickly in order to be more faithful and effective, while others were significantly less enthralled and called us to remember that our frame of reference is Christ and the gospel.

The former highlighted the huge advances in human security and safety since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while the latter described human rights as based on western individualism to the detriment of community-focused values, Christian and otherwise.

However, presenters weren’t as far apart as this stark description of positions suggests. Most agreed with a middle ground that saw Mennonite and human rights as complementary or overlapping. Thus, in César words, “we need to identify our shared goals and to work together based on what we have in common.”

Nevertheless, for César, a global Anabaptist response to human rights difficulties within the worldwide Mennonite community should be 1) centred on God, 2) church based, and 3) compassionate.

  • Centred on God because we are “motived by God’s love and Jesus’ focus on the vulnerable in society, the victims of systemic injustice and violence.” Indeed, “our pursuit of justice begins in God’s heart. It is the fruit of our communion and relationship with God.”
  • Church-based because we do resonate with the critique of a human rights framework as being individualistic. César insisted that only religious faith “can provide the moral foundation that human rights requires” because it teaches humans to live in ways that first, “reduce our natural tendency toward egocentrism,” and second, “teach solidarity, non-violence, equality, and justice.”

Indeed, César strongly affirmed “the centrality of the church in God’s strategic plan of social transformation,” suggesting that human rights activists with Anabaptist convictions who “look for justice at the margins of the church are living with a contradiction of terms.”

  • Compassionate because a follower of Jesus, according to César, “cannot be indifferent to those who cry out in pain” and thus “advocacy is the minimum” we must do on behalf of those who suffer. Indeed, César suggests, we cannot do less than what human rights advocates do. We are called to “to walk alongside those who suffer, to stand with them, and to try to stop the cycle of violence as Jesus did.”

According to César, “we may avoid the language of human rights, but we cannot avoid the language of Christ.” He laments the fact that “some Christians expend too much time today arguing against human rights language while millions of people suffer the oppression of governments that do not respect human rights.”

Thus, César calls us to “acts of a global and compassionate multicultural family” that will make a real difference in the lives of suffering people around the world.

César concluded that “human rights are a good tool in order to work toward justice”; it’s a “language that can be heard today.’ Still, he reminds us that “even though justice is very important, it is not our final goal. Our final goal is reconciliation. It is to make up a new people, a new global family through the ministry of reconciliation.”

Conclusion: Reconciliation in a global community as the final goal, and human rights as an excellent tool.

What do you think?

By Tim Schmucker, MCCC Public Engagement Coordinator

[1] César García, “Human Rights, the State and the Global Mennonite Community.”

[2] Paul Heidebrecht, “Looking for the Right Words: Human Rights and MCC’s Advocacy Work.”