Use of Force: A Canadian Perspective

by Bill Janzen

In 2020, MCC celebrates 100 years of relief, development and peace and one way we want to mark this anniversary is by sharing articles and stories from the archives. We hope that these glimpses into conversations of the past continue to inform our thinking and work today. Calling for change and for a more peaceful and just world has been foundational to MCC’s work for decades. MCC has published articles about economic justice, domestic violence, land claims, military spending, conscientious objection, peace theology, and many more.

This week, we want to share excerpts from a 2006 issue of MCC’s Peace Office Newsletter on the theme “Humanitarian Crisis, Aid Agencies, the Military.”


Do we need more dialogue on the use of force? Some developments in Canada are suggesting that. One relates to the recent return of two Canadian CPTers (Christian Peacemaker Team members), held hostage in Iraq for nearly four months. (A British CPTer also returned. An American was killed.) The question of whether the CPTers were appropriately thankful to the military forces who had rescued them became the subject of public commentary. Underneath, I felt, was the question of whether peace work, like that done by the CPTers, still allowed for a role for military forces.

Street scene in Pagham, Afghanistan. (MCC photo/Matthew Lester)

Second, in recent months the Canadian media has reported extensively on our military forces in Afghanistan, emphasizing the idealism of our soldiers and their commitment to improving things for the Afghan people. But the reporting has also indicated that our role there is not “traditional-peacekeeping,” where the mere presence of our military helps two sides in a conflict to refrain from fighting. In Afghanistan our soldiers are fighting people who are presumed to be “insurgents” determined to overthrow the government. Canadian soldiers are taking lives.

A third invitation to dialogue relates to the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. Six years ago Canada’s Foreign Affairs minister, Lloyd Axworthy, commissioned an international study on this topic. The aim was to establish the idea that when a government is unable or unwilling to protect its people against egregious violations of basic rights then the international community has a responsibility to do so even if, as a last resort, that requires the use of military force. Canadian churches are now studying this doctrine (as is the World Council of Churches) and most, though cautious, are not closed to the idea.

A street of Hebron in the West Bank, Palestine, in August 2019. (Photo courtesy of Viviane Eyer)

How have we in MCC Canada dealt with the use of force? Speaking only for myself, I would say, not particularly well. Recently I participated in drafting an ecumenical letter which, after criticizing the Canadian government for being too negative on the Palestinian Authority, affirmed Israel’s right to security within the 1967 borders. What did we mean by that? Did we mean that Israel has a right to defend those borders militarily and that, if necessary, Canada’s military should assist? The letter did not say. Similarly, I have supported calls to the Canadian government to take substantially stronger action to protect the people in the Darfur region of the Sudan. Did I mean military action? If not, then what? Addressing these questions is hard.

Can we be clearer? I am reminded of one helpful principle articulated by Ernie Regehr. He argued against military action that, instead of seeking justice, is designed to advance our national interests by, for example, ensuring access to resources such as oil, minerals, or land, or by giving us a certain strategic advantage or prestige. This would rule out most wars. Doing so would also have implications for our standard of living. But does this stance mean that other military action, the kind that seeks justice, is legitimate? Can military action ever contribute to justice? And even if it can, might there not be better ways of promoting justice?

On the surface, Canada’s military activities in Afghanistan appear to be motivated, at least to a degree, by a concern for justice and human rights. And at this point, a number of local people there, as well as some Afghans in Canada, applaud our military forces. But our forces there also represent our contribution to the US-led “war-on terror” which is related to US interest to control large portions of the world’s oil. Resistance to this agenda is likely to increase. Also troubling is that by concentrating our forces on Afghanistan, we have backed away, even more, from UN peacekeeping work in places such as Haiti, the Congo [Democratic Republic of the Congo], and the Sudan [today the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan].

Loreto Primary School teachers (wearing white shirts) take the primary school students through peaceful play activities at the school compound in Rumbek, South Sudan. in 2019. Through the Loreto peace club project, MCC supported the training of teachers in peaceful play. (Loreto Schools photo/Herbert Orwa)

It is often said that traditional peacekeeping has become obsolete because of changed global dynamics. But some kinds of peacekeeping are growing. A professor at Canada’s Royal Military College writes that there are now 68,000 UN peacekeepers worldwide but that a mere 60 of these are Canadian; further, that in its military doctrine, Canada has moved away from peacekeeping and bought into the “three block war” idea, meaning that in three city blocks the military could go from war-fighting to peacekeeping to humanitarian work, and that our troops should be trained for each phase. This doctrine has a certain appeal but most humanitarian agencies have condemned it because it abandons the principles of neutrality and impartiality and makes local people suspicious of all humanitarian work.

We can, thus, critique Canada’s more recent military stance but that still leaves the question of whether we can accept other forms of military action, for example, peacekeeping work. In my opinion, we should not rule that out. I find it noteworthy that the Old Testament prophets, amid all their criticisms of corrupt judges and rulers, do not say that there should not be judges and rulers, only that they should be fair and honest. In the New Testament, government is also seen as having a role; so too in all the Confessions of Faith that Mennonite groups have formulated since the 1520s. The idea of government implies some use of force. Still, our highest authority is Christ who, when he was crucified, rejected the sword even when it would have served the cause of justice for himself.

Where does this leave things? Perhaps with three points. First, we can, and we must, critique military action when it is largely self-serving, as it often is, despite the language in which it may be cloaked. Second, speaking only for myself, I’m not sure that this rules out all military action as, for example, in Sudan’s Darfur region where basic protection is greatly needed. Third, we must continue to allow the Spirit of Christ on the Cross to inspire us in the continued search for non-violent responses.

Bill Janzen was Director of MCC’s Ottawa Office when this article was published


This article was originally published under the title “A Dialogue on the Use of Force: One Canadian’s Perspective.” You can read the full newsletter here>


To learn more about MCC’s advocacy work and to find ways to get involved, visit our website here>.

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