Taking a stand for peace

by Leona Lortie

On November 11, on Remembrance Day, a tradition since the First World War, we remember Canadian soldiers who were killed fighting in armed conflicts. For many, including Anabaptists, this day also reminds us to reflect on peace and what it means to work for peace through nonviolence. Throughout history, our understanding of peace and the role of the individual has shifted, but peace remains at the core of an Anabaptist identity informing our engagement with each other, the world around us, and with government.

Conscientious objection, the rejection of participation in war and violence, has been a key foundation of Anabaptist churches and faith practices – often what sets Anabaptists apart from others. But being a peace church is so much more. Throughout history, Anabaptist views of peace, especially in Canada and the U.S., have widely shifted from an inward, non-resistant to an outward, proactive way of working for peace for all.

Over the last 300 hundred years, Anabaptists have lobbied for exemptions from military service on the basis of their pacifist faith. From fleeing Europe in the 1600s because of religious persecution, to abstaining from military service during the U.S. civil war in the 1800s, to military exemptions during the First World War, to finally seeing rights of conscientious objection recognized during the Second World War, pacifists have rejected to bear arms.

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: mbhistory.org)

One might think that conscientious objection or military exemptions are a thing of the past. Without military conscription in Canada, we could consider this as a non-issue. However, in addition to challenging obligatory participation in military service, conscientious objection also addresses militarized language in key citizenship guidelines in Canada. In 1999, for example, MCC Ottawa Office staff testified before a House of Commons Committee studying a new citizenship act (Bill C-63) to ask to change the term “defend” to “uphold” in the Oath of Citizenship relating to democratic values. While the committee agreed with the amendments, the bill did not receive royal assent due to a general election being called.[1]

This history of commitment to conscientious objection highlights that when Anabaptist faith practices and way of life are called into question or are threatened, Anabaptists come together and use their collective voice and privilege for a common goal. Additionally, it also tells of generations after generations of pacifists taking a strong stance against war and violence, even when doing so could cost them their lives, not only in Canada, but around the world.

Today, with no military conscription in Canada, how can we use a similar energy and collective voice and privilege to work for peace in different ways? How can we not only work for the absence of war by eliminating our participation in war, but work for peace by actively working for a just peace for all, whether here in Canada, or across the world? Peace is not the absence of war and violence.

As displaced people streamed into Deir Attieh from other parts of Syria and needed food and support, MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank partnered with Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD) to respond through local volunteers and organizations. Here, Rahaf Abdo of FDCD talks with children in Deir Atteih. Photo courtesy of FDCD (2016)

MCC partners around the world work tirelessly through community-based efforts and advocacy to build a just peace by naming, dismantling, and transforming structures and legacies of injustice. This work looks different in every context. Peacebuilding happens through communities addressing the impacts of a changing climate in Zimbabwe, resourcing advocacy efforts of women for better social and economic structures in El Salvador, the work of a local interfaith network responding to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and MCC’s advocacy work in Canada for grassroots and local peacebuilding to address the root causes of forced displacement.

In Canada, we can also work to support peacebuilding and learn about the devastating impacts of systemic racism that prevent people from living a peaceful life with dignity. Often Canada’s judicial system, government and society do not respect or uphold the rights of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC). We all need to work for reconciliation and equality to create lasting change where every child has access to clean drinking water at their home, go to school well-fed, see their parents make a fair and sustainable wage and thrive in a safe and inclusive community. That is what peace looks like.

By working with community organizations like the Young Chippewayan band in Saskatchewan for treaty recognition and repatriation, learning and sharing about Mi’kmaq treaty rights in Nova Scotia, lobbying the Ontario government for a fair living wage, and supporting Canadians all across the country on creating inclusive and welcoming communities for refugees and immigrants, we learn about and participate in the work for peace in Canada.

Harry Lafond (Executive Director of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner), local Mennonite landowner Ray Funk, and Young Chippewayan band hereditary chief George Kingfisher speak to gathered students on the history and significance of opwashamoe chakatinaw / Stoney Knoll, April 2015. (Photo courtesy of Rosthern Junior College).

To what length will we go to work for peace in our communities and around the world? Where are the spaces where we can join those who name, dismantle, and transform structures of injustice by wrestling with the root causes of violence? What does conscientious objection look like today? Are we willing to take a stand for peace, no matter the costs?

Leona Lortie is the Public Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator for the MCC Ottawa Office

Every year, MCC sells peace buttons to share a message of peace on Remembrance Day. The buttons say: “to remember is to work for peace.” Today, let us remember those how have been impacted by war, including all those soldiers and civilians, who have paid the ultimate cost of their lives. But let us not end there. Let us remember our voice and our privilege and commit to working for peace to prevent death and suffering going forward.

Learn more and get involved: To reflect and learn more about peacebuilding see our Peace Sunday Packet or read more of our blogs here. To find out how you can get involved and to access advocacy tools, visit our website here.

[1] William Janzen, Advocating for Peace: Stories from the Ottawa Office of Mennonite Central Committee 1975-2008 (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2019), 120.

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