A prayer for Earth Day

In honour of Earth Day, we share this creation prayer from a 2012 worship resource produced by our friends and colleagues at KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.

IMG_20140611_134019ONE: O God of all creation,
Our hearts fill with gratitude and wonder at all you have made.
We bask in the abundance of creation
And are nourished by all that is good in it.
Our thirst is quenched by clean waters;
The rivers and oceans team with life.
Our hunger is satisfied by bountiful harvests;
The orchards and fields burst with food.
We are comforted and loved by friends and family.
We freely create and work and play.

ALL: Every day we are reminded: all life depends on all life.

ONE: Our hearts fill with sorrow and guilt for the destruction we have caused.
We misuse the abundance of creation
And squander the goodness in it.
Our thirst for resources knows no end, the land and waters die by our hands.
Our appetite for power blinds us to the vulnerable and the sacred.
We hurt and oppress each other;
We freely consume and pollute and destroy.

ALL:  Every day we forget: all life depends on all life.

ONE: Our hearts fill with courage and hope for a New Heaven and New Earth.
We heed your call to care for and restore creation,
And are energized by the goodness in it.
Our thirst for justice knows no end;
Our hunger for peace opens us to new ways of being.
We find joy and support in each other;
We freely share and cooperate and grow.

ALL: Every day we learn: all life depends on all life.

ONE: With ancient words we pray as Jesus taught us…

ALL: Amen.Pokerflower

Love of country as dangerous narrative

This week’s guest reflection is written by Dan Leonard, operating principles coordinator for MCC, who visited Ukraine in February of this year. His thoughts reflect his own personal views.

“In the beginning war looks and feels like love,” writes Chris Hedges in his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.

It was not hard to see this love walking the streets in eastern Ukraine when I visited recently. The blue and gold colours of Ukraine’s flag are seen everywhere proclaiming Ukrainian unity in the face of Russian aggression. Plastic grocery bags are printed with the traditional Ukrainian embroidery- something I’m told is increasingly common since the war. As I flipped through the TV stations in my hotel room, channel after channel runs images of the military. As you enter the city of Nikopol, a few hours from Donetsk, the statue of Lenin has not been taken down like it has in other cities throughout Ukraine. Instead Lenin has been dressed in blue and gold.

Mariya, an IDP living in Nikopol, fled from the Donetsk area. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the conflict areas of eastern Ukraine find support through Nikopol New Life. This MCC partner provides holistic assistance to IDPs through emergency food packets, short term housing, document restoration, legal counseling, and psychosocial support. 27 IDPs who have been rehomed by Nikopol into a renovated office building.

Mariya, an IDP living in Nikopol, fled from the Donetsk area. At Nikopol New Life, an MCC partner, she received emergency food, short-term housing, documentation and legal assistance, and psychosocial support. (MCC photo by Dan Leonard)

Zaporizhzhia, a city of less than a million where I stayed, hosts more than 70,000 displaced people (IDPs) as a result of the conflict with Russia. When I visited with various displaced Ukrainian families, I found myself reflecting back a few years to the time I was serving with MCC in Ethiopia, when drought and conflict forced hundreds of thousands of Somali people into Ethiopia. It’s always tempting to make comparisons between countries visited.

My first impression as we visited partners is how different a humanitarian crisis is in Europe than it is in a place like Ethiopia. When a crisis hits Ethiopia, hundreds of international aid agencies already located in the country jump into action. They have local partnerships, relationships with government, and both the human and financial resources to mobilize relatively large and complicated responses in seemingly short (albeit often not short enough) time periods.

Ukraine is not Ethiopia. There are few international aid agencies ready to launch a humanitarian response. The strongest partnerships between global actors are political and military, not humanitarian. Consequently, the response in Ukraine, while garnering significant international attention, is remarkably local. Small agencies and churches, which previously ran small programs with little funds and mostly volunteers, are suddenly responding to a significant humanitarian crisis that far exceeds the resources available to them. And so whereas responding to humanitarian crises in Ethiopia often means a jockeying for space of large humanitarian organizations, the response in Zaporizhzhia is led by groups like the Zaporizhzhia Evangelical Baptist Union and the local government.

My second impression from Ukraine is how similar the things I heard from displaced families in Ukraine was to the families I spoke to in Ethiopia. In both places governments and military personnel project themselves as saviours and liberators to oppressed people. Russia projects itself as liberating Russian-speaking people in Ukraine from the marginalization they face from western Ukraine. Ukraine projects itself as protecting Ukrainians from the aggression of Russia. And yet when I talked to individuals they rarely spoke of either Russia or Ukraine as their protector or liberator. Instead, they spoke of their desire to be in their home, in their own space, making food for their family. They want peace, routine, their jobs, their lives. This same sentiment was true of Somali refugees in Ethiopia who frequently spoke of their desire to cook their own traditional food in their own home.

Yelena Glogovskaya (left), Viktoriya Gergert (right)Volunteer Social Workers at the Zaporozhye Baptist Union's City Aid Centre register incoming IDPs and provide assistance in securing housing, employment, and document restoration. Yelena was displaced by the conflict in Donetsk herself, but found support through this MCC partner and now offers her own gifts back as a volunteer for the City Aid Center. (MCC photo by Dan Leonard)

Yelena Glogovskaya (left) and Viktoriya Gergert (right) are volunteer social workers at the Zaporizhzhia Baptist Union’s City Aid Centre (an MCC partner) where they register incoming IDPs. Yelena was displaced by the conflict in Donetsk herself, and now offers her own gifts as a volunteer. (MCC photo by Dan Leonard)

As I returned to Canada I was even more convinced of the need for Canada to strengthen its support for civil society groups in Ukraine. More so, these civil society groups, particularly those in the church, have a responsibility to critically reflect on the positive as well as potentially dangerous narratives that come with a love of country. Displaced communities have a right to safety that is not contingent on their rejection of or identification with any national or political group.

As theologian Miroslav Volf has written in his book Exclusion and Embrace:

The will to give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any construction of their “justice.” This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good” and “evil.”

To politic or not to politic

This week’s blog is written by Debra Fehr, 4th year Social Work student at the University of Manitoba. Debra attended the Ottawa Office’s annual student seminar in February, and wrote this reflection about it.

How do you get involved with something? How do you become uninvolved?

Sometimes things just happen to send us in a direction. Perhaps a child is born with a disability and we have to get involved to support and advocate for that child. Perhaps we get an inheritance and we get involved with understanding wealth in a new way. Perhaps we get fired from a job or reach a certain age and so we have to get uninvolved. Perhaps we get an offer out of the blue and it takes our involvement in a totally new direction.

Occasionally we make choices to deliberately change direction. How do we decide to get involved or remain uninvolved?

Participants in the Ottawa Office student seminar stop to pray and sing at the eternal flame in front of the Parliament Buildings. This was part of a Witness Walk that concluded the seminar.

Reasons we might not get involved in politics.  Because we are doing fine. Because, over time, the laws have generally worked for me and my family. I don’t have to say anything because the people I know are doing fine with the way things are. If they’re not, perhaps they will just do whatever it takes to get by. Perhaps we put our trust completely in God because God will take care of the lilies of the field, and for us.

Politics doesn’t have clear lines. We often say politicians speak out of both sides of their mouths, meaning that they might say things to you and turn around and speak in a totally different direction about the same topic. To many people of faith, this is seen as two-faced and lying.

These are all good reasons not to get involved in politics.

Reasons we might get involved in politics. Because we are not doing fine. Because there are some serious problems with the laws and my family is not getting what it needs. Maybe if someone says something, if more people know, there might be a chance that things will change. We see a lot of people suffering and we are just tired of the injustice of it all. Perhaps we put our trust completely in God and say my vulnerability needs to be heard by others.

Politics doesn’t have clear lines. Politicians can pick up something that works for Christians just as it might work for athiests.

These are all good reasons to get involved in politics.

I recently attended the MCC Ottawa Office Student Seminar in February, 2015 and the topic was Citizens. Disciples. Advocates. Christian faith and political responsibility. We discussed the separation and intersection of those pieces at great length.

Student seminar participants heard stories from Nigeria, Palestine and Colombia.  These three young men are participants in a program in Nigeria which extends love and support to marginalized youth.

Student seminar participants heard stories from Nigeria, Palestine and Colombia. These three young men are participants in an MCC program in Nigeria which extends love and support to marginalized youth.

Stories Matter. One of the ways that MCC impacts policies at home and in other countries is by sharing stories with politicians in Ottawa. Sharing the story of how people are impacted around the world by various events impacts Canada’s foreign policy, often significantly, and often it just takes one story.

Politicians are people too. Samara Canada, a charity dedicated to be a non-partisan champion of increased civic engagement and a more positive public life, has done exit interviews of politicians from every party and found three things. First,many MPs described their journeys to public life as accidental. Second, most did not see themselves as political insiders. Lastly, there was no one path towards politics – MPs had backgrounds as diverse as law, academics, labour, even religious leadership.

So, it’s an interesting thing. Getting involved or staying uninvolved. Is all of life a little bit accidental? And yet stories matter. Your story matters. My story matters.

My studies in Social Work show me that there is a lot of pain in people’s stories. We’re not that unique, really. We all hurt people. We all get hurt. We all love. Whether its natural disasters, wars or economic downturns, or if it is sunshine, revivals and positive cash flows, we experience these things in connection with others. Much of this is accidental and surprising.

One thing we can do is choose our posture as we walk this road together. Whether we choose “to politic or not to politic,” hopefully we can demonstrate that stories matter. Hopefully, we can choose to act in ways that lessen the pain of others. Hopefully, we can posture ourselves to bear witness to life rather death. May this prayer encourage us:

I Cannot Do This Alone (a prayer by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

O God, early in the morning I cry to you.
Help me to pray
And to concentrate my thoughts on you;
I cannot do this alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;
I am lonely, but you do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;
I am restless, but with you there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,
But you know the way for me….
Restore me to liberty,
And enable me to live now
That I may answer before you and before men.
Lord whatever this day may bring,
Your name be praised.


Pulling the plug on killer robots?

Technology sure moves fast. Google glass…aerial drones…self-driving cars…and now…

Killer robots?

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference put on by the Canadian Red Cross called “‘Killer Robots’—the Future of Weaponry and International Humanitarian Law.” Bringing together experts from academia, the military, legal community, robotics industry, and civil society, for one mind-bending afternoon we explored the ethical, legal, and technical angles of the issue.

So, what is a “killer robot,” anyway?

Killer robots—more officially (albeit less provocatively) known as fully autonomous weapons systems—would be able to select and fire on targets without human intervention.

Although, for the moment, “killer robots” do not exist, high-tech militaries are developing or have deployed precursor weapons that demonstrate the drive towards more autonomy for machines in military theater. Perhaps not surprisingly, the U.S. is a leader in this technological development; but, China, Russia, Germany, South Korea, Israel, and U.K. are also participants.

Back in 2012, Human Rights Watch released the first major publication by an NGOindex3 on the topic. Intriguingly called “Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots,” the report analyzed the nature of existing and potential technology, and articulated compelling arguments for why fully autonomous weapons should be preemptively banned before we sleepwalk into a new—and deeply troubling—reality.

Robotic weapons are often divided into three categories depending on the level of human involvement in their actions. There are:

  • Human-in-the-Loop Weapons: which can select targets and deliver force only by human command;
  • Human-on-the-Loop Weapons: which can select targets and deliver force under the oversight of a human who can override a robot’s action; and
  • Human-out-of-the-Loop Weapons: which are capable of selecting targets and delivering force without any human input or interaction.

As a stark shift in policy, taking humans out-of-the-loop would involve the intentional (and unprecedented!) relinquishment of control—delegating crucial moral decisions around who lives and who dies to machines.

Not surprisingly, this is hotly-contested terrain.

Those in the “for-autonomous-weapons” camp have argued that substituting machines for humans in combat is justified (and preferable) because robots—invulnerable to the perils of the human condition (exhaustion, emotional outbursts, perception bias, etc.)—would outperform soldiers physically, emotionally, and ethically. Ethical standards, proponents argue, could simply be “programmed” into machines.

But is this wishful thinking?

Those in the “against-autonomous-weapons” camp articulate compelling legal, technological, and ethical concerns around why killer robots are a bad idea. Full stop.

  • Legal concerns: Robots could never comply with the complexity of the laws of armed conflict (aka International Humanitarian Law) in chaotic contexts. First, a robot would need to be able to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants; Second, it would need to morally assess every conflict to justify whether a particular use of force is proportional, and; Third, it would need to comprehend military operations in order to decide whether the use of force on a particular occasion is of military necessity;
  • Technological concerns: While people expect robots not to make mistakes, this is not realistic. As one roboticist told us, robots, tested in very controlled environments (entirely unlike any battlefield!) do not have situational awareness or the ability to recognize aggressive postures as even a child can. What about the risks of malfunction? Cyber attacks? Decoys? And who ultimately is liable for mistakes—the military? people in the lab writing code? manufacturers?
  • Ethical concerns: Would having the capability for autonomous weapons lower the threshold for war because the risk to soldiers’ lives is minimized? Do we want to give human life over to computer codes? Or, as one military general put it, is “death by algorithm not the ultimate human indignity”? 

Clearly, these questions are compelling and should stop us in our tracks. But what are civil society groups and other experts doing about these concerns?

Well, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots—an international movement of over 50 civil indexsociety organizations (including MCC partner, Mines Action Canada) in 24 countries—is pushing for a preemptive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.

In other words, they are urging countries to “pull the plug on killer robots” before they move from science fiction to reality. While I enjoyed The Matrix (well, the first movie at least), I’d prefer these remain only on the movie screen.

Calling for a comprehensive treaty and for countries to pass laws and polices that ban autonomous weapons, the Campaign urges states to implement the recommendations made in 2013 by Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. His recommendations include things such as placing national moratoriums on lethal autonomous robots; participating in international fora on the issue; committing to full transparency on weapons development review processes; etc.

Lest we think a preemptive ban on a weapon is impossible, there is a precedent. In the 1990s, blinding lasers were banned prior to their use on the battlefield (through Protocol IV of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons [CCW]).

Important conversations on autonomous robots are starting to creep ahead in multilateral fora like the CCW, and bold steps are being take in the robotics field. Last year, Canadian-based Clearpath Robotics—a Kitchener-Waterloo based company specializing in autonomous control systems—became the first company to pledge not to make killer robots!

Many experts predict that full autonomy for weapons could be achieved in 20 to 30 years, if not sooner. It is urgent that concerned people continue to ask important questions.

Just because technology can be developed, should it be?

By Jenn Wiebe, Interim Ottawa Office Director