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.

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