How can we be heard?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advocacy is not an optional or secondary calling.

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

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

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

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

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

Is God on our side?

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

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

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

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


Vortrekker Monument, Pretoria, South Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We are in trouble”

This week’s guest writer is Brian Dyck, Refugee Program Coordinator for MCC Manitoba and chairperson of the Sponsorship Holder Agreement Association in Canada.

“We are in trouble.” These were the words of António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as he launched into a summary of the current situation of refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) around the world. He was making his closing address to the Annual Tripartite Consultation on Resettlement June 24-26 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Just the week before on World Refugee day (June 20) a sobering report was issued by the UNHCR saying that there are 50.2 million refugees and IDPs in the world; that’s the highest number since the end of World War II. For more on that you can get the Global Trends for 2013 report at the UNHCR website or see a five minute video about the current state of refugees and IDPs around the world.

While the 50.2 million displaced includes Palestinians refugees under UNWRA, the tables do not take Palestinians who are not under the UNHCR mandate into consideration.  So Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan are not included in the charts.

Major Source Countries of Refugee -- End of 2013

Major Source Countries of Refugees — End of 2013

The number is not the only disturbing aspect of conflict displacement today. Another important aspect of the displacement is that fewer are finding a durable solution to their displacement. Those who have been able to safely return to their home has been declining as more conflicts become protracted and seemingly intractable. Last year, only 414,600 refugees returned to their homes which is the fourth lowest number in 25 years. What makes this number even more of a concern is that about two-thirds of those who returned went to Syria (140,800), the Democratic Republic of Congo (68,400), and Iraq (60,900) — countries that continue to have conflict and displacement.

There seems to be a lot of people entering the “nation of the displaced,” and not just from places that are well known like Syria. Many flee as a result of lower level conflicts that are only a blip on the international page of our newspapers. Few have a chance to immigrate out of this sad and desolate “nation.”  Protracted refugees (those that have been refugees for more than five years) now account for 54% of all refugees, and the average time of displacement for a refugee is closer to 20 years. In refugee camps today there is often a generation of children who know no other life. This is illustrated most clearly in the Daddab refugee camp in Northern Kenya, where there are 10,000 third-generation refugees.

Major refugee-hosting countries -- End of 2013

Major refugee-hosting countries — End of 2013

While these protracted situations are a serious concern, the situation in Syria overshadowed many other discussions as we discussed refugee resettlement in Geneva. The displacement of Syrians is a relatively new situation, but it is a large and growing population in an extremely volatile region. The UNHCR set a resettlement target of 30,000 Syrians for 2014, and they had pledges to meet that goal from various states around the world. Looking ahead, the target for resettling Syrian refugees is 100,000 over the next two years over and above the commitment to refugee resettlement from other situations. While there was a lot of discussion about how to meet this, there was little commitment to solid numbers from the major resettlement states like the United States, Australia and Canada. That may come, but there is fear that the commitment will be disappointing.

There have been some hopeful signs. European states, who in the past have not done a lot of refugee resettlement, are pledging to resettle a lot of Syrian refugees. Germany alone has committed to 20,000 Syrians in a short term asylum program. European states and NGOs are also showing some interest in Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugee Program (PSRP) that MCC in Canada has been a part of since 1979 to increase their capacity to resettle refugees and have the diaspora in their countries involved supporting resettled refugees.

In terms of Canada’s commitment, there has been a lot of discussion in the last few months of the pledge of 1,300 Syrians to be resettled. While much could be said to unpack that number, I think it is more important for us to focus on what Canada’s commitment is for 2015-16. What share of the 100,000 that the UNHCR wants to resettle will Canada commit to?

Generally when the UNHCR puts out an appeal, Canada looks at the number and commits to about ten percent. To date, the Canadian government has said they will take part but has not set a number. For Canada to resettle 10,000 Syrians in the next two years could be a huge undertaking, however with proper planning and support, it can be done.

REfugees in Altona

The Abukhousa family is among 93 Palestinian refugees from the temporary Al Hol refugee camp in Syria near the Iraq border to find safe resettlement in Canada through MCC Canada’s refugee assistance program. (MCC Photo/Joanie Peters).

As chair of the Sponsorship Agreement Holder Association, I have been asked a number of times what Sponsoring Agreement Holders in Canada can be expected to do to resettle Syrian refugees. This is difficult to answer. Sponsoring groups, including many Mennonite churches, have focused on resettlement of other refugees around the world and we would not want to take away from that. However the Syrian situation really needs our attention. We need groups to add Syria to their list of places that we sponsor from. That is beginning to happen, but the take up is slow.

As MCC, we have already been involved in relief efforts in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria where we have had program for many years. It is important for us to continue this. That immediate help to those we can reach in those countries are the most cost effective way that we can help.

It is also time for us to help resettle refugees out of Lebanon and Jordan to show that we are in support of those countries that are hosting so many Syrian refugees, as well as Iraqis and other refugees who were already refugee in large numbers before the Syrian conflict exploded. To do that, we need churches in our constituency in Canada to step forward and commit to financial and time commitment of resettling refugees.

The Canadian government certainly needs to step forward and commit to taking a share of the UNHCR’s goal for the next two years. However, MCC has often been a leader in large resettlement efforts going back to the origins of the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program in 1979. The resettlement program has always been something that relies on our constituent churches to really make things happen. It is my prayer that Mennonite Churches will once again say they will welcome the stranger.