Still believe in peace?

November 20, 2013 | Editorial | Number 23
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

It’s Remembrance Day as I write this. To say that Canadian Mennonites are conflicted on this day is an understatement.

How do we respond in a culture that, even in peacetime, glorifies war as a source of national pride, and our soldiers, fallen and living, as heroic and honourable? As a faith communion, we have always taken literally Jesus’ command not to kill, to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. Our own hall of heroes includes those who suffered in prison and died as part of a counterculture to a deeply embedded nationalism of empire over five centuries.

We have steadfastly marched to the tune of a different drummer.

Oh yes, we have had our lapses, to be sure. Students of our history note the ill-fated 1534 Münster Rebellion, an attempt by radical Anabaptists to establish a communal sectarian government in the German city.

And as reported in his major feature “Let nobody judge them" (Oct. 28, 2013), Ross W. Muir highlighted the fact that as many as 4,500 Canadian Mennonites enlisted in this country’s military forces between 1939 and 1945—the two infamous world wars. There is no hiding the fact that many of these soldiers were not welcomed back into their congregations with open arms, and, in some cases, were shunned.

So today the issue of war and peace is no closer to resolution than it has been for hundreds of years. We are still not at peace about our “peace. ” In Canada, the question has come down to: Do I wear the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) “To remember is to work for peace” button, or the red poppy, an international symbol remembering war veterans and their families. Or both?

No place is this more evident than in the social and conventional media. Here are just a few excerpts:

  • Durrell Bowman, a fellow church member: “The poppy signifies remembering those who have died in military service. However, tens of millions of civilians have also died in times of war. ”
  • Willard Metzger, executive director of Mennonite Church Canada, on his blog: “Discerning how to respond to Remembrance Day is not an easy task. Only with humility and respect can helpful dialogue occur. ”
  • In a look back, The Winnipeg Free Press ran a lengthy feature, “A soldier shunned, ” telling the story of a Mennonite who went to war, only to return to have his fellow church members “cross over to the other side of the street” when returning home and causing a church split in southern Manitoba.
  • Someone posted this telling comment from Harry Patch, the last surviving soldier of the First World War: “I felt then, as I feel now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder. ”
  • Tim Schmucker tells of his fifth-generation forebear resisting the generals in the American Revolutionary War, resulting in his arrest and sentence to die.
  • A page 2 Globe and Mail story told of veterans in Chilliwack, B.C., protesting the government’s poor treatment of veterans, noting grievances of the New Veterans Charter, which, instead of a life-long pension, offers them a lump sum of $276,00, and limits a burial fund to those of very-low income only.
  • “War is hell, ” said one of the U. S.’s most well-known generals, William Tecumseh Sherman, way back in 1879. Have we not learned anything in 134 years?

Yesterday, at church, a table was set on stage “for our enemies, ” while the children were told a moving story about serving “enemy pie. ” MCC Ontario executive director Rick Cober Bauman choked up when telling of an indigenous landowner back in the 1800s who forgave his Mennonite tenant his “crop payment” when the crops failed, because “we are now neighbours. ”

Do we still believe in and practise peace? Strong nationalistic/militaristic winds are giving us rough voyage. Has our middle-class comfort, garnered amid dominant-culture affluence, desensitized us to the counterculture identity that gave us place and passion in one of our core beliefs?

“In the last 15 or 20 years, I have heard only one sermon on peace, ” Bernie Loeppky, a member of Grace Mennonite Church in Winkler, Man., told our correspondent, Evelyn Rempel Petkau, for a feature, “Rethinking peace. ”

Is this why we are so conflicted on Remembrance Day?

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