Peace, protest and patriotism: Muted voices from WWI

This week’s guest writer is Zacharie Leclair, administrative assistant for MCC Québec and member of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches Executive Board.  Zacharie holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the Université du Québec à Montréal and is also the author of Charles R. Crane and Wilsonian Progressivism, published in 2017.

At first it seemed ironic to me: I was taking part in a symposium on the history of conscientious objection held at a museum exhibiting artefacts of the First World War. The National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City (Missouri) was indeed hosting a conference called “Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance, and Civil Liberties in World War I.” All sorts of people gathered there: historians, activists, archivists, representatives of various organizations, church laymen, independent researchers and many more. All had a common commitment to peace.

Though the mood was generally cheerful, a general distress seemed to permeate the public, especially those from the United States. After I presented a paper on President Woodrow Wilson’s response to Mennonite conscientious objectors during the First World War, to my surprise people appeared more interested in asking me about my perspective — as a French-speaking Mennonite (Brethren) from Canada — on the current political situation in the U.S.

Zacharie Leclaire
Zacharie Leclair speaking at “Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance, and Civil Liberties in World War I” conference in Kansas City, Missouri, October 2017. Photo: Nan Macy

The social and political climate in the U.S. feels more tense and sharp, more polarized, than ever.  Many Americans wonder why their people seem to become more prone to violence and less united. Armed massive killings are now frequent, as well as protests and even public display of extremism.

frederick-douglass-9278324-1-402
Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895, was a U.S. journalist, orator and leader in the anti-slavery movement. A former slave himself, he became the first African-American to hold a high-ranking position in the U.S. government. Photo: http://www.biography.com.

Lately football star player Colin Kaepernik launched a movement to express African-American discontent with police abuse and injustice by sitting, then kneeling, during the U.S. national anthem. Kaepernick attracted much contempt and criticism from some politicians and this might even have prevented him from securing a new contract as a free agent. Others wanted to see in him a beacon of justice reminiscent of the 19th century great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, reminding that Kaepernik had sponsored a worthy and important cause through peaceful means. Strikingly, this issue polarized the public opinion along traditional racial lines.

Back at my conference, I was questioned as to what extent patriotism was historically a cause of division instead of unity. I offered an audacious answer.

I was born and raised in the province of Québec, a fundamentally nationalistic society.  The social and political life revolves around the deeply felt necessity of preserving and promoting its French heritage, through a lyrical as well as political patriotism, in face of a perpetual risk of cultural dissolution into the larger North American English-speaking world. Yet one can hardly think of a more peaceful, less militaristic, place than Québec. The usual correlation of patriotism and militarism, as a root cause of so many wars and conflicts, does not stand.

To my audience’s surprise, I added that I liked to conceive of protest movements as patriotic deeds. If patriotism means to love one’s country, in my Christian and French-Canadian perspective the command to love your neighbour as yourself should encompass loving one’s own people.

Avowedly Christian himself, Kaepernik publicly stated his support for his own Black people in the U.S. by reminding all in a peaceful and eloquent way the principle of equality contained in the American constitution. Out of love for his own, for his country, even for the constitution, he protested injustice. I concluded by saying that we should consider Kaepernik as a patriot, and protest as signs of solidarity instead of signs of disunity.

As a historian interested in conscientious objection, I believe that if leaders of the past could have conceived of war resisters as democratic heroes rather than as traitors or cowards — if they could have heard their voices instead of muting them — the last century might have avoided all or some of its darkest hours.

Plaque for Hutterite COs (002)
A plaque honouring Hutterite COs who were imprisoned, tortured and died at Fort Leavenworth military prison. Photo: History News Network.

In short, this is not only a plea for the critical study of history, but also a plea in favour of peaceful activism drawn from the love of the people – an activism of which MCC has undoubtedly been one of the most relevant and constant champions for almost a century.

 

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