Are you a CO? Am I?

This blog post is inspired by “Let them Stay Week” (a campaign on behalf of U.S. war resisters in Canada) and by the publication of a recent issue of Intersections on conscientious objection. 

In the midst of many stories of violence, 2014 also brought us stories of courageous young people around the world taking a stand against participation in war and armed conflict as conscientious objectors (COs).

jhonatan english 2

Jhonatan Vargas of Colombia was eventually granted conscientious objector status after a major advocacy campaign. Photo credit Justapaz.

In South Korea, Anabaptist Sang-Min Lee was sentenced to 18 months in prison for refusing to perform compulsory military service. In Colombia, Jhonatan Vargas was detained by National Police when his request for conscientious objection was refused by his battalion. In Israel, where military service is compulsory for Jews and Arab Druze men, a group of 140 high school students signed a public letter stating their refusal to serve in the army. Closer to home, U.S. soldiers, who fled to Canada to escape the War in Iraq, now face deportation back to the U.S. with possible imprisonment and a criminal record.

These brave young men and women are deliberately refusing to participate in state-sanctioned violence — sometimes at significant risk to themselves. Many of them have made their courageous choices without a lot of support from their communities.

In my pacifist Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, conscientious objection to war has been an important and central faith conviction. But in Canada, seventy years have passed since conscription has put those convictions to the test. Without the reality of a military draft (which ended in 1945), few of us have had to grapple with the choice we would make if called up for military service.


During the Second World War, Canadian COs performed “alternative service” in forestry, fire-fighting, road construction, mental hospitals, etc. This photo depicts COs at an alternative service camp at Jasper, Alberta. Photo credit

Our friends in the U.S. have not had the luxury of more than a half century without conscription. An official draft existed throughout the Vietnam War. An “unofficial” draft continues for individuals from poor and marginalized communities who join the military because that is the only possibility of getting an education and escaping poverty.

A good friend and former U.S. citizen who chose to be a CO during the Vietnam War, has often said that Canadians need a military draft now and then in order to force Mennonites (and other pacifists) to grapple with their convictions about participation in war. I sometimes wonder if he is right.

I also wonder if we need to reconsider the meaning of conscientious objection, in light of the changing nature of war and how it is fought. For example, Mary Groh, president of Conscience Canada, reminds us that governments need our money more than our bodies to fight their wars nowadays. People like her promote withholding the military portion of one’s income tax, as a way of resisting the conscription of money for war fighting and war preparation. Is this what it means to be a CO today?


Former National Chief Phil Fontaine has called Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people “genocide.”

And what about the other “wars” we participate in. Some First Nations now use the term “genocide” to define the way white settler society nearly annihilated Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island. We 21st century settler-folk may not have been directly responsible for those genocidal actions, but we have certainly benefited from them and have a responsibility to make things right. What does it mean to be a CO in the context of ongoing relationships of injustice between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples?

Additionally, the environmental movement has demonstrated how Western addiction to fossil fuels and excessive consumption is threatening the very earth as we know it. People like American environmentalist and author Bill McKibbon are urging divestment from the oil and gas industry as a way of bringing about drastic reductions in carbon emissions. What does it mean to be a CO in the context of a “war” against planet earth?

What does it mean to be a CO when we are not actually “called up” for military service but when, in countless insidious ways, we are implicated in the violence – both overt and structural – of our world?

Surely, being a CO today must have a positive meaning – that is, it should be demonstrated by people actively working for justice, healing, and reconciliation with their neighbours and with the earth. But perhaps it also still means saying – like the brave COs mentioned above – a clear and emphatic No to participation in practices that harm and destroy and kill.

Are you a CO today? Am I?

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for MCC’s Ottawa Office.

Some thoughts about four walls

This week’s guest writer is Adrienne Wiebe of Edmonton, Alberta. Adrienne is Provincial Thrift Shop Coordinator and Edmonton Liaison for MCC Alberta. She recently completed a three-year assignment as policy analyst with MCC in Mexico.

Walls became an obsession for Edmonton artist Rhonda Harder Epp after she visited the site of the former Berlin Wall in 2010. She painted a series of “meditations on the idea of separation, arbitrariness, and emotional distress — our experience of being separated from our people, our land or our deepest desires.”

Here are some thoughts that come to me when contemplating four of Rhonda’s paintings.

Peace Line 1

Peace Line 1, by Rhonda Harder Epp

Belfast: Do walls create peace? — The “peace lines” were built beginning in 1969 in Northern Ireland cities with the purpose of minimizing inter-communal violence between Catholics (mostly nationalists who self-identify as Irish) and Protestants (mostly unionists who self-identify as British). Is peace built through preventing interaction between people with differences of opinion? Probably in the short-term. But what about the long-term? How do we build trust, understanding, and community if we cannot communicate with each other?

Mexico/US: Fences Separating Families — Probably the longest wall/fence in the world is not an effort to separate people of different religions or political agendas. Rather, it is an attempt to separate rich and poor; to stop the flow of undocumented migrants from Central America and Mexico looking for work in the United States that will enable them to feed, shelter, and educate their families. Mexicans working in the US send $23 billion to their families back home every year. Central Americans send $13 billion to their families each year. For many of my Guatemalan and Mexican friends, loving their families means working to pay for their kids’ basic needs but not seeing them grow up because a wall separates them from their children.

One Sky, by Rhonda Epp Harder

One Sky, by Rhonda Harder Epp

Israel/Palestine: The Green Line – “The 1949 boundary between Israel and the West Bank was drawn on a map with green ink. Cyril Radcliffe, a British official, thus created the first ‘green line,’ which also became the internationally accepted border,” according to Harder Epp. “What is neat and clean on a map is messy and heart-rending for families and communities.” Today the “green line” is in many places a concrete wall that separates people from homes, olive groves, and places of worship. Yet, the fourth in a series of ‘Green Line’ paintings offers a bit of hope – some ladders over the fence. The bird in the painting reminds me of the famous Leonard Cohen lyric: “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir…I have tried, in my way, to be free.” People continue to yearn to be free in a world with walls that separate, control and attempt to shape us.

Green Line Panel 4, by Rhonda Epp Harder

Green Line Panel 4, by Rhonda Harder Epp

The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem – Last year I stood with dozens of women covered in shawls at this wall – a wall that separates but also calls people to prayer. Like the women around me, I stuck a small piece of paper with my prayer into a crack in the wall. A prayer for peace in the part of the world that seems to be in a constant cycle of violence, destruction, and pain.  It seemed cliche to pray for peace, particularly given all we had witnessed in our learning tour in Israel/Palestine. And yet I could not think of any other more specific prayer to leave at this sacred wall. So my little piece of paper is there, with thousands of others, praying for peace and the deconstruction of the walls that divide and separate us as children of God.

Rhonda 4

Petitions 1-5, by Rhonda Harder Epp

“Walls,” an exhibition of paintings by Rhonda Harder Epp, will be held at King’s University in Edmonton January 21-March 11. The exhibition is jointly hosted by King’s University and MCC Alberta. The opening reception takes place on Wednesday, January 21 at 7:30 pm in the Atrium.

Speech. Voice. Words.

This week’s guest writer is Mary Lou Klassen of Kitchener, Ontario who is currently serving as a peace lecturer with MCC in Jos, Nigeria.  Her poem is based on the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary for the Second Sunday of Epiphany: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

Then God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl.
A voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.

The father of one of 200 plus school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants from the community of Chibok, Nigeria, in April 2014.  MCC photo by Dave Klassen

The father of one of 200 plus school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants from the community of Chibok, Nigeria, in April 2014. MCC photo by Dave Klassen

Creative words.
Destructive words.
Loving words.
Words in many languages.
Sacred texts. Christian liturgy.
And millions march in Paris
for Free Speech. Je suis….

Elle n’est plus … She is no longer….
She was just a little girl, maybe 10 years-old
She exploded and she
and twenty others cannot be heard again.
In Monday Market in Maiduguri in Nigeria.

For whom did she speak? What do the Boko Haram want to say?
All we hear are angry shouts and anguished screams…

How do we pray for you, Nigeria? How do we support believers?
– Christians who feel persecuted. Churches burnt, pastors hunted and killed, businesses and houses lost, people scattered, betrayed by neighbours…
– Muslims who feel marginalized. Mosques destroyed. Imams murdered for moderation. Women, children, old people and new converts slaughtered. Politics are western, even if the law is sharia. The world mocks their prophet.

1.5 million people displaced. (What stories suppressed in their souls, unspoken?)

Uttering “Christian” or saying “Muslim” is political. It explains Who I Am.
Belief is not personal faith
It is how I will mark my ballot
for the President of Nigeria
on February 14.
AKA the Day of the Rapture – the End of the World —
For one will WIN and one will LOSE.

And yet …
As in the time of Elijah
A still, small VOICE
Reminds us that there are hundreds, nay thousands, millions
Who have not bowed the knee
To selfishness and fear.
Who refuse to be labelled, and to label themselves.
They seek the peace of the city they now inhabit, even if it is far away from home.

How do we pray for you, Nigeria? How do we support God’s people?

A Christian leader says he has learned to request:
Not that this cup will pass
–Though of course it is wished —
Rather that there will be strength to endure the struggle
To speak the truth to authority
and comfort the distraught.
To surrender to God’s will
and to wait …
for the Day of the Lord.

The following links, while not endorsed by MCC, provide information and analysis of recent events in northeastern Nigeria.
The Atlantic.
The Star.

Bridge-Building in Haiti: Creating Spaces for Dialogue

This week’s guest writers are Katharine and Ted Oswald, policy analyst and advocacy coordinators for MCC in Haiti.

Haiti group

Members of MCC’s advocacy offices met with a number of community organizations in northern Haiti in July of 2014.

In July 2014, after traversing a swift-flowing river and taking a short hike in the midday heat of Haiti’s Central Plateau, our international MCC advocacy team sat with representatives from a tree nursery committee in the rural farming village of Savannawòch. One woman from our team, an advocacy specialist with MCC’s UN office, asked the peasants about the history of their community’s relationship with the Haitian government.

The elected leader of the group responded with a laugh. He then said, “The rain is our government.” In other words, their relationship with the Haitian government is nearly non-existent.

This particular sentiment is not common only to the countryside. In Haiti, civil society groups in Port-au-Prince and across the country approach the government as an enemy or expect little from those in power. We believe that MCC Haiti’s advocacy program must focus on bridge-building and dialogue to help address this rift and create the potential for long-term positive change.

The time for such work is ripe. Five years after the earthquake that destroyed so much of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, people’s exhaustion with their government has peaked once again. On the surface, there have been some improvements in Haiti’s capital city post-earthquake: the rubble has been cleared and 90% of people displaced by the earthquake are no longer living in camps. Yet, a massive housing shortage of 500,000 homes is expected by 2020 and the majority of the 1.4 million displaced persons who have left camps since 2010 are living in substandard housing with little to no sanitation or water infrastructure. In the worst cases, entire camps were forcibly evicted – tents torn to shreds and personal belongings stolen by bandits, sometimes under the supervision of Haitian police. (You can learn more about the housing crisis by watching the video below. You can also read about MCC’s five-year response to the earthquake here.)

As policy analyst and advocacy coordinators for MCC Haiti, we look at the underlying causes for the country’s intractable problems including its housing crisis, identify where changes in national and international policies might foster change, and then ask ourselves how we might organize different actors to effect this change. One of MCC’s approaches to its work of addressing oppression and injustice is bridge-building – “to connect people and ideas across cultural, political and economic divides.” As part of our work, we rely on the hope that God can transform relationships in unlikely ways.

Members of the Mennonite Central Committee/Church World Service Haitian civil society and government delegation visiting the National Security Council on November 25, 2014.

Members of an MCC/Church World Service Haitian civil society and government delegation visiting the U.S. National Security Council on November 25, 2014.

A recent example was a recent housing conference in Washington D.C. hosted by MCC and Church World Service where members of Haitian civil society, academics, international donors, and government officials spoke alongside one another to explore solutions to Haiti’s housing crisis. A gathering with these parties is a rarity. The atmosphere among different participants was tense at times, yet over the next two days of meetings, a new dynamic emerged from these interactions. Beforehand, one panelist wondered aloud how he would engage in dialogue with a member of the Haitian government who “speaks a completely different language than me.” However, at the close of our meetings, he remarked on the benefit of exchanges that focused on what might be accomplished together rather than simply lobbing criticism. All parties agreed that there needed to be formal venues for dialogue between government officials and civil society in Haiti, and we will continue working on this in the new year to come.

As progress post-earthquake remains slow, we continue to hope that the difficult work of building bridges between the government and civil society will lead to real progress for Haiti’s displaced and dispossessed. We hope you might join us in this work of prayer, remembering that God is faithful and that Christian love has the surprising potential to turn enemies into friends.

To receive Haiti advocacy updates, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or sign up for our monthly Media Alerts.