D-Day and remembering the witness of conscientious objectors

This week’s guest writer is Ron Janzen, executive director of MCC Manitoba.

One of my clearest recollections of my “Opa” (paternal grandfather) is a story he told me about war. It was gruesome, shocking stuff for a young boy. Opa wanted to make an impact.  He wanted to make sure I understood the horrors of war and would remember them.  Since that was over 45 years ago, I think I can say it worked.

The story was about Opa’s service in the Sanitaetsdienst (hospital or “sanitary” service) in Russia during the final months of World War I. He was one of more than 6,000 Mennonites who, as conscientious objectors, transported wounded soldiers from the war front to hospitals. This was a few years before he would join thousands of other Mennonites fleeing communist Russia to immigrate to Canada. The actual story is his story to tell and it was my privilege to hear it.

Fifty-two individuals, most of them Mennonite conscientious objectors, posing in front of train 206.  Photo credit, Mennonite Heritage, Centre, 365-1.0.   Mennonite Archives Image Database.

Fifty-two individuals, most of them Mennonite conscientious objectors, posing in front of train 206.
Photo credit, Mennonite Heritage, Centre, 365-1.0.
Mennonite Archives Image Database.

Part of the story was also a careful articulation about how Opa came to be in the Sanitätsdienst. It was my first Anabaptist lesson on peace, non-resistance and the concept of alternative service. As I listened to Opa, I had a realization of being part of the tradition of a peace church movement that stretched back centuries and defined “my people.”

Opa was a large serious man whom I often found more intimidating than warm and cuddly. But in the telling of his story, he engaged me like an equal even though I was a young child. This was unusual for him. I felt respect and a desire on his part that I appreciate his experience and the deeply held values that formed it.

Opa was not highly educated and I did not receive from him a theological or biblical framework. However, he did succeed in explaining the significance of the peace position to his personal faith, the church, and the larger Mennonite community. He was also emphatic about explaining the sacrifice that individuals must be ready to make to uphold this position — including alternative service, imprisonment, and even emigration to countries accepting of individual and communal rights to conscientious objection.

During 2014, nation states rallied the public to honor military sacrifices and achievements in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy (D-Day) on June 6, 1944.  As we approach the 71st D-Day anniversary, I’m reminded of Maria Al-Kouhri.  I met her while visiting MCC partners in Beirut, Lebanon last November.

Maria is from Damascus and is currently living out the realities of the Syrian civil war, now entering its fifth year of conflict. She  attended a Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) at Eastern Mennonite University through an MCC sponsorship.  As a result of that experience and training, she is now courageously engaging young adults in her community in the work of dialogue and peacebuilding. She related to me how the SPI experience opened her mind and heart to the possibilities of building bridges across great divides.  She said to me, “War can create great people, but I think that peacebuilding creates even greater people.”  In our Canadian context, where we continually hear a message about the need for a violent and deadly response to the radical extremism of ISIS, I found Maria’s witness particularly courageous.

Peacebuilding has indeed offered many great testimonies over the centuries.  For us in the Anabaptist community, the witness of conscientious objectors and alternative service workers is a testimony we need to recall and honour (remembering that military conscription is also a present day reality for some of our brethren in other parts of the world).

COs in WW2

In World War II in Canada, many conscientious objectors were assigned to build roads. Photo credit: http://www.alternativeservice.ca.

As we come upon another D-Day celebration, it is appropriate for us to reflect also on the sacrifice and courage of those who chose to express their objection to active combat through alternative service. These individuals took the difficult path of standing against the societal value of redemptive violence. In the context of World War I and Nazi fascism, theirs was an unpopular, isolating, misunderstood and dangerous position to take. Yet several thousand individuals, many of them from Mennonite/Anabaptist churches, registered for alternative service.  Many were socially ridiculed, maligned, and called before tribunals to be interrogated about their conscientious objection beliefs.

There are powerful stories and testimonies from these experiences that need to be recalled and passed on.  As Canada marks another D-Day, let us recall the “even greater people” of peace from our Anabaptist community and tell the stories of their nonviolent witness. Perhaps this is a way we can sow the seeds for future generations of peacemakers and so inspire hope for an end to inter-generational cycles of violence and war.

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