How long do we wait? Advent, advocacy and the message of Habbakuk

Based on the readings of the Narrative Lectionary for the First Sunday of Advent: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:2-4, 3:17-19; Matthew 26:36-38.

As Advent approaches this year, I’ve been spending some time with the prophet Habakkuk, crying out to God about the violence and injustice that fills the news and threaten to overwhelm.

Even when I’m not directly affected, there are times when I find it difficult to live in a world that feels so far removed from all that Advent promises. Where is the hope for South Sudan, the peace for those living in the Middle East, the joy for those living in grinding poverty, or the love for those isolated by physical illness or mental health concerns? With Habakkuk I want to know how long the suffering will continue and why God doesn’t intervene to set things right.

My soul yearns for a world of justice and peace.

CandleFortunately, Habakkuk is not just about complaints and despair. God does respond and as befits this season of Advent, the response is to wait. Habakkuk is given a vision of justice that he is told to make “plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it,” but he’s also told, “the revelation waits for an appointed time.”

Justice will come in God’s time, so for now just wait.

But what does it mean to wait? Are we just to sit and watch? Do we simply accept the established norms of society and the injustices around us? We have a hope for the future, both in Habakkuk’s vision and the coming of Christ, but many are desperate for that future now.  So we continue the cry of “how long?”

While Habakkuk begins with an anguished cry and complaint, he concludes with a prayer, the end of which is a call to faith. “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17-19).

No matter the dire circumstances, rejoice in the Lord. For Habakkuk the answer to “how long” was to have faith in God. Not an easy answer for those suffering injustice.

The last passage of the narrative Lectionary for this first Sunday of Advent is Matthew 26:36-38 in which Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. It feels more like a passage for Lent than Advent, but the theme of waiting appears here, too. There is no mention of rejoicing in these few verses, though. In fact, we are told Jesus is grieved and agitated as he waits to be arrested and to be killed. Yet Jesus chooses to spend this time of waiting in prayer with his disciples close by.

We don’t wait alone. We wait together, sharing our grief, agitation, and frustration with each other and with God.

Growing green sprout in asphaltWaiting is definitely a part of advocacy. There is the wait for problems to be recognized, for people to take action, for policies or regulations to change, or sometimes even for governments to change. Sometimes the waiting may be very long and may involve times of just watching and being a witness.  But eventually the opportunity to speak or act does come. We may need to repeat the message many times before key people hear it, and many times more before anything actually changes. But with faith that God is bringing justice — and prayer to sustain that faith — we know the waiting will eventually end.

Whether we are waiting to celebrate the beginning of something wonderful or waiting for something terrible to end, we’ve been given a vision and a promise that a better world is coming. Habakkuk was told to make that vision public by writing it down for others to see.

Perhaps we are called to share that vision as well, by living obedient lives, by following Christ’s example, and being witnesses and advocates, so that — instead of asking “how long?” — we can ask,“what can we do while we wait?”

Monica Scheifele is program assistant for the Ottawa Office.


From a bunker to a ban: the new push to abolish nuclear weapons

If you’ve never had a chance to wander the eerie, underground halls of the once top-secret Diefenbunker, you should put this on your bucket list.

Built in 1959 during the height of the Cold War, this four-story bomb shelter—located evacuation-distance from downtown Ottawa and made to withstand a 5-megaton blast—was intended to serve as emergency government headquarters for 535 Canadian political and military officials in the event of a nuclear attack.

The bunker, colloquially named after former Prime Minister Diefenbaker, was never used for its intended purpose. Thankfully, it never needed to be.

Walking through the bunker is like being in a time-warp. The iconic blast tunnel leads to 300 rooms filled with vintDiefenbunkerage typewriters and telephones, cryptographic areas, a shower room to wash off nuclear contamination, and a war Cabinet room—all hearkening back to a time when the fear of nuclear catastrophe gripped politicians and citizens alike.

Today, public angst has diminished. School children aren’t receiving lessons on how to “duck and cover” in the event of nuclear war. There is a virtual media blackout on the topic. And the bunker, a fascinating relic of our Cold War past, is now a public museum.

And yet when it comes to nuclear weapons, unfortunately there is still plenty to be worried about.

Though they belong in the dust-bin of history, there are still over 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world’s arsenals—nearly 5,000 of which are launch ready, and almost 2,000 of which are on high-alert status.

A few weeks ago, I attended Rendezvous-Ottawa 2014—a two-day conference on nuclear abolition hosted by various organizations such as the International Coalition to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Project Ploughshares, and Mines Action Canada.

For two, chock-full days, we heard about the impacts of nuclear weapons, exploottawa-clear1ring the inability of any city to respond with effective emergency relief after a detonation, and learning about the long-term and far-reaching devastation to ecosystems and human health (a.k.a. nuclear famine) in the nasty wake of an explosion.

I must admit that by noon on the first day, my spirits were a little dampened.

The humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons—utterly indiscriminate in effect—are catastrophic.

The world is rapidly changing, and the incremental reduction of nuclear weapons is not working. The principle of Mutually Assured Destruction is no longer a viable argument—if, indeed, it ever was—for keeping these (insane) weapons in the world’s arsenals. The possibilities for nuclear Armageddon due to system malfunction, human error, a rogue launch, or weapons-capture by extremist non-state actors mean we continue to walk the razor’s edge.

Yet power politics, state intransigence, the profit-driven military industrial complex, and lack of public awareness create obstacles to getting rid of these weapons once and for all.

So, how do we revive the conversation? Well, there was also good news at this conference.

Disarmament efforts continue in earnest, with the humanitarian imperative becoming the rallying cry for renewed attention. When you leave discussions to technical experts in our state capitals, it is easy to get stuck in the weeds. But when the need to abolish nuclear weapons is framed as a humanitarian issue, we all become experts.

Given that nuclear weapons states are in violation of their commitments under Article VI of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—they are required to eliminate their nuclear weapons, not spend obscene amounts of money modernizing their arsenals!—many civil society groups are pushing for a global ban on the weapon.

And when civil society gets behind something, magic can happen.

Ottawa is the site of the historic landmine ban treaty. When it was negotiated in 1997, civil society groups successfully argued that the humanitarian impacts of landmines far outweighed any military benefit these weapons offered in combat. This same argument helped drive the international ban on cluster bombs roughly ten years later.

Banning these weapons has had significant ripple effects. A robust treaty calling for an unequivocal ban on landmines ultimately helped stigmatize this indiscriminate weapon, leading even non-party states (like the U.S.) to adapt to new norms in military theater.

Can a ban on nuclear weapons do the same?


Courtesy of ICAN

The International Coalition to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) believes it could. They suggest a “ban treaty“—a legally binding instrument to prohibit the use, development, production, stockpiling, and deployment of nucs—could be important even without the participation of the permanent members of the Security Council.

Such a treaty could not, of course, force nuclear weapons states to do anything. But it would lift up a global norm to project into the public and, in doing so, give a boost to other ongoing disarmament efforts (after all, it’s a lot easier to prevent the proliferation of weapons when they are considered illegal!). A ban treaty could stand alongside ongoing efforts to achieve a comprehensive Nuclear Weapons Convention.

Where is Canada in all of this?

Back in 2010, the government unanimously passed a historic motion made by the House and the Senate “to engage in negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention as proposed by the United Nations Secretary-General” and “to deploy a major world-wide Canadian diplomatic initiative in support of preventing nuclear proliferation and increasing the rate of nuclear disarmament.”

Canada has never taken concrete steps to implement this motion. It is not a foreign policy priority. In fact, Canada has been increasingly out of step with international efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Can the humanitarian angle be a catalyst for dusting the cobwebs off of this conversation and generate the momentum we need?

By Jenn Wiebe, Interim Ottawa Office Director

**See the fall special issue of the Ploughshares Monitor on nuclear disarmament for further reading!


Haiti doesn’t need another occupation

For many, the name “Haiti” conjures images of earthquake damage, people struggling to survive, or perhaps personal memories of a service trip to help build houses or bring medical care. Most do not associate it with the words “military occupation.”

But Haitians know better. They remember a tumultuous history as an enslaved colony and infant nation undermined by repeated attempts at recolonization and foreign occupation. In the last century alone, Haiti has experienced three military occupations: the first two by the United States (from 1915-1934 and 1990-1994), and the third and most recent under the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH.

MINUSTAH has been in Haiti since 2004, when it was invited by Haiti’s transitional government to quell violence following a coup against former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Each year the UN Security Council decides whether to renew MINUSTAH’s mandate, and each year it has done so with broad support from the international community, many citing reasons of generalized civil unrest.

Comedus members (left to right).Jean Marc Edouard, Jean Baptiste Ronald, Francois Josue, Luckman Charles, Esaie Simon. MCC produced a six episode Haitian comedy TV series, called Sonjé aimed at educating the public about safer building techniques. The series was designed to entertain and inform Haitians as a public awareness campaign on earthquake resistant building techniques.

This MCC partner group, called Comedus, produced a six episode Haitian comedy TV series, on safer building techniques. The series was designed to entertain and inform Haitians as a public awareness campaign on earthquake resistant building techniques.

Mennonite Central Committee’s civil society partners in Haiti share a different view, saying that MINUSTAH should leave immediately.

Camille Chalmers, director of Haitian Advocacy Platform for Alternative Development, explained that all other UN peacekeeping missions exist because of an armed conflict that results in an enforceable peace treaty. This was not the case for Haiti.

Adds Pierre Esperance, director of the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, “[Haiti is] not at war. We can live without [MINUSTAH].” Others agreed that the UN Stabilization Mission has only served to destabilize Haiti. MINUSTAH troops and associated actors have been implicated or involved with killing innocent persons, sexual abuse, abandoning children, and — most notoriously — importing cholera.

The 2010 cholera epidemic began when MINUSTAH negligently introduced waste water from Nepalese troops infected by cholera in their home country into Haiti’s main water source. The UN officially continues to deny responsibility for the contamination that has claimed the lives of 8,584 people and infected 706,291 others. At a time when earthquake reconstruction funds in Haiti are diminishing, the annual budget for MINUSTAH in 2014-2015 is set at $500 million, an amount that could pay for nearly a quarter of the UN’s fledgling $2.2 billion Cholera Elimination Plan.

Not only is MINUSTAH’s occupation unnecessary, it is an egregious waste. MCC’s partner organizations point out that the presence of machine gun-toting troops and roving armed vehicles runs counter to Haiti’s true needs: the construction of durable and decentralized housing, community-based economic development, and water and sanitation infrastructure improvements. MCC collaborates on these types of projects with Haitian partners, so it naturally leads us to advocate on their behalf. According to the Platform for Human Rights Organizers in Haiti, MCC is the only international organization who completely supports their exact position on MINUSTAH presence—a complete and immediate withdrawal.

Our Anabaptist faith calls us to oppose military intervention around the world and to work toward a peaceful and just resolution in Haiti. As the UN Security Council considers whether to renew MINUSTAH’s mandate again this month, our respective advocacy offices are working towards and praying for such a resolution.

This article was written by Charissa Zehr of MCC’s Washington Office and Vanessa Hershberger of MCC’s United Nations Office, with the assistance of Jenn Wiebe of the Ottawa Office and Ted Oswald of MCC Haiti. Charissa, Vanessa and Jenn travelled to Haiti in July 2014. The article originally appeared in Mennonite World Review on 27 October 2014.

A gentle nonconformity

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:3

For Anabaptists, Remembrance Day is often a day of dilemmas and discomforts. It is a day when our pacifist convictions collide with the mainstream perspective that says killing and dying for one’s country is a noble thing. It is the time of year when many of us feel most out of sync with our society.

In 1989, Bertha Landers, a Mennonite pastor who felt this way approached MCC with an idea for a peace button (more accurately, a peace pin) that could serve as an alternative to the Remembrance Day poppy. Like many Mennonites, Landers was uncomfortable wearing a traditional poppy. She thought a simple button could offer a message of peace.

peace buttons

MCC’s peace button is 25 years old this year.

MCC embraced Landers’ idea and the iconic MCC peace button was born – a round, red button with the MCC logo and the message “To remember is to work for peace.” Twenty-five years later, MCC continues to distribute thousands of buttons each year. Over time the peace button has become a symbol of gentle nonconformity, even as some folks choose to wear the button alongside a poppy.

Nonconformity has traditionally been an important concept in the life of Anabaptist-Mennonites. In the 16th century, the emphasis on nonconformity arose out of biblical teachings on holiness and godly living, obedience to Jesus’ teachings, and a willingness to accept suffering. Romans 12:3 was an important and instructive text. Over the centuries, the application of a commitment to nonconformity resulted in specific guidelines on lifestyle, the use of technology, and dress. Nonconformity also embraced a commitment to Jesus’ way of nonresistance – the refusal to coerce, harm or kill another.

Today, some Anabaptists in Canada continue to practice a visible nonconformity. But many of us have abandoned any sign of visible nonconformity and are indistinguishable from our neighbours. We wear the same kinds of clothes, drive the same kinds of vehicles, and vacation at the same resorts. Sadly, some among us even support the same wars. For a variety of reasons, we hardly stand out.

And yet, perhaps a nonconforming Anabaptist perspective – one that offers alternatives to war and violence – is a gift which Anabaptists have to share. Perhaps a nonconformist commitment to nonviolence and love of enemy is exactly what our society and the wider world need right now.

Dauda Babangida, left, and Abubakar Idris participate in a popular MCC-supported Peace Club in Wase town, Nigeria.

Dauda Babangida, left, and Abubakar Idris participate in a Peace Club in Wase town, Nigeria. MCC supports clubs like this one in many countries.

A nonconformist pacifist perspective is core to the identity of Mennonite Central Committee. This perspective means that at Remembrance Day we will mourn the thousands of Canadian soldiers who have died in service to Canada. We will also mourn all people who have suffered death because of war: over 100 million in the last century. We will remember those who were killed but also those injured, disabled, displaced or traumatized by war. We will work hard to support peacebuilding initiatives around the world that heal trauma, that foster justice, that teach nonviolent conflict resolution, that promote reconciliation, and that prevent war.

Our nonconformist perspective means that we will deeply mourn the deaths of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Office Patrice Vincent, killed violently on Canadian soil during the week of October 20. But we will also mourn the deaths of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the young man who shot Cirillo, and Martin Couture-Rouleau, who rammed his car into Vincent. As reprehensible as their actions were, these men were Canadians, they had families who loved them, they were children of God.

Our nonconformist perspective means that we will condemn all acts of violence, including those perpetrated by the group known as ISIS. But we will also seek to understand the root causes of that violence and call for efforts to address them. We will ask our Prime Minister to reconsider the decision to supply fighter jets for a military mission against ISIS which, without attention to the political, religious and sectarian differences already exacerbated by foreign intervention, will surely fail.

MCC's Peace Sunday Packet for 2014

MCC’s Peace Sunday Packet for 2014

Our nonconformist perspective means that we will regularly remind ourselves of our identity as a ministry of peace churches, committed to Jesus’ way of peace, nonviolence and love of enemy. We will provide resources to help us embody God’s dream for the world – swords turned into ploughshares and a world without war. We will invite others to join us in pursuing that dream. And yes, we will distribute peace buttons.

November 11 is once again upon us. At MCC, we believe that Remembrance Day is an opportunity to offer a gentle nonconformist witness for peace. Remembrance Day is not the time for a noisy condemnation of war – that would be deeply offensive to the many people who have lost loved ones in military service. It is a time for gently saying – there is another way.

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