My head and heart were very full at the end of the Global Mennonite Peacebuilding Conference and Festival hosted by Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, June 9-12. How could they not be, after three intense days of plenary sessions, workshops, a conversation café, a concert, a drama performance, art exhibits and a rich closing worship service?
Two years in the making, the conference and festival brought together 200 peace practitioners, pastors, theologians, activists, students and others from 20 countries. From Canada to Colombia, from India to Indonesia, from Germany to Nigeria, we gathered to consider what it means to be Mennonite peacebuilders in unique and vastly different contexts.
There was much to celebrate about Mennonite peacebuilding, particularly with respect to the building of bridges across divides of fear and distrust. From Paulus Widjaja of Indonesia we learned how, in the wake of the Asian tsunami and other disasters, local Mennonites worked alongside members of a militant Islamic groups to rebuild homes. In working side by side, they became friends. From Dann Pantoja of the Philippines, we learned how a peacebuilders community has helped to foster reconciliation between separatist Muslims and evangelical Christians. From Christina Asheervadam of India we learned that restorative justice principles have fostered healing within families and within the Mennonite Brethren churches.
The celebration included stories of unique peace initiatives within local, national and international spaces. From Thandiwe Daka of Zambia we learned how peace clubs for children and youth are transforming family and community life in parts of Africa. From Jenny Neme and others from Colombia, we learned of how Anabaptist advocacy for peace has helped to bring about some legal provisions for conscientious objectors and to build momentum for a national ceasefire, after decades of war. And from Fernando Enns of Germany, we learned that Mennonite participation in the World Council of Churches over many decades has helped to nurture a growing commitment to peace and nonviolence within the worldwide Christian church.
Indeed, there was much to celebrate. But the conference was not only about celebration. It also invited us to name and reflect on failures in Mennonite peacebuilding. And there were many.
Kim Penner reminded us that Mennonite peace theology has neglected to adequately address violence against women. Lisa Schirch pointed out that Mennonites have often been quicker to love the offender than the victim of violence. In a facilitated dialogue, Leah Gazan and Steve Heinrichs insisted that Mennonites have only begun to consider what decolonization means in the Canadian context and what reconciliation between Indigenous and Settler people will require. Regina Shands Stolzfus and Tobin Miller Shearer were even more hard-hitting, saying that “white Mennonite peacemaking” is an oxymoron; in their view, white Mennonites rarely dare to consider their privilege of “whiteness” and this failure keeps them from genuine and authentic peacemaking. Numerous voices reminded us that Mennonites are often better at peacebuilding outside of our own churches and communities than within them.
We also heard voices of caution and concern. For example, Alain Epp Weaver issued a caution against what he called “Christian pacifist triumphalism” – the notion that Mennonite peacemaking will always “work” and that we will have an answer for every violent context. At some times, he insisted, “the most faithful response is silence, mourning and lament.” Tom Yoder Neufeld insisted that Mennonite peacebuilders remember that Jesus – the crucified One – is our peace; without that remembrance he said, “Our theology will become an ideology of nonviolence.” And there was the plea from Betty Pries and Ted Koontz that peacemaking is not so much about what we do as who we are – people of peace, with a heart of peace.
There was also the poignant story of KyongJung Kim of South Korea, who spoke of what it means to be a conscientious objector in his country – namely, serving an 18-month prison sentence. Describing his own personal journey to pacifism, Kim insisted that a Mennonite peace church will grow – not through comfort — but through difficulty and adversity.
So what does it mean to be a Mennonite or Anabaptist peacebuilder today? The conversation café produced an abundance of ideas and images which were translated into the “wordle” below. The point was not to arrive at a consensus definition, but rather to engage as many participants as possible in exploring what they see as core to Mennonite peacebuilding. The conversation hinted at the tension between those who see Mennonite peacebuilding as a set of well-honed tools and practices and those who see it primarily as a faith orientation and spiritual identity. It also alluded to the reality that, despite the conference’s deliberate efforts to involve Mennonites from the global south, those from the global north continue to have an undue influence in articulating what Mennonite peacebuilding is all about.
In many ways, the conference was like a vast feast with an amazing array of dishes – each one offering a new flavour on Mennonite peacebuilding. No wonder I felt full to the brim.
By Esther Epp-Tiessen, with Rebekah Sears and Jennifer Wiebe, of the Ottawa Office.