A modest proposal

January 25, 2024 | Opinion | Volume 28 Issue 2
Will Braun | Editor

The question was how churches in North America could directly communicate their support to Palestinian churches. It came during a December 18 call that Mennonite Central Committee convened with four Palestinian pastors and several dozen North Americans.

Pastor Ashraf Tannous unmuted, then muted again; he hesitated and hedged, eventually responding with uncommon candour.

“Honestly speaking, this would be lovely,” he said of such church-to-church communication, “but again, it’s about feeling . . . we are feeling that everything is only talking, talking, talking. It’s without action.”

He spoke gently.

“I’m sorry,” he continued. “I’m being very honest. It hurts, you know it hurts. It is not enough; it’s not enough just to write. We need the action. . . . I don’t want to say this. I am saying this because we are suffocating.”

Pastor Tannous then spoke about talking to people in Gaza by phone earlier that day. They spoke about houses completely destroyed.

Then he asked those of us on the call: “How can I take this message to the people of Gaza, and say, ‘Listen to this message we got from Canada, they are thinking of us.’”

He spoke about how he also feels inadequate in his ability to respond in meaningful ways, beyond prayer. “I am shy to speak to people of Gaza,” Tannous admitted.

The bottom line was simple: “We need action.”

In 1984, during a landmark address to the Mennonite World Conference in France, Ron Sider said:

What would happen if we in the Christian church developed a new nonviolent peacekeeping force of 100,000 persons ready to move into violent conflicts and stand peacefully between warring parties? . . . [E]veryone assumes that for the sake of peace it is moral and just for soldiers to get killed by the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Do we not have as much courage and faith as soldiers?

Our statements, letters, protests, indignation, strained adjectives pale.

Where there is violence in the world, the church ought to be present, invoking the power of the Beatitudes.

Often, church action in the realm of peace advocacy borrows messaging, tactics and hashtags from secular initiatives. Often, we follow. There is a place for this. But the words of Ashraf Tannous and Ron Sider call us to more.

How can one dare to suggest a course of action in light of Sider’s impossibly bold call? How can one not?

Could Mennonites not send a delegation to the West Bank and Israel? These people—chosen for their capacity for love and willingness to sacrifice—would pray with Pastor Tannous and others for the ability to truly see the humanity of all and the courage to make the sacrifices required to stand up for that humanity. This would be step one. Ideally, they would also meet Israelis directly affected by the Hamas attack.

The group could then lead us to further action.

Bethlehem Bible College, a partner of Mennonite Church Canada, is scheduled to host the “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference in May. If circumstances allow the event to proceed, it might be a good time—subject to local capacity—to offer to show up.

Which churches, schools or organizations would be willing to send someone?

Canadian Mennonite has a staff person eager to report in-person on such a delegation.

Related articles:
A prayer for impossible peace
Jewish perspectives
Understanding absolutist views
Mideast dialogue programs fall short
Mennonite Action: Arrests at peaceful protest

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Armies of nonviolent soldiers willing to suffer and die are difficult to raise, maintain and employ. Are there 100 such persons, let alone 100,000? Also, would the desired effect of using such an army would be substantial and when? Soon, or in ten years? With many questionable aspects, this idea is usually only a beautiful dream, at best. So, what other action might we help bring about in Gaza?

For serious danger and violence, we call for cops with guns, understandably. The main equivalent in Gaza is probably UN peacekeeping. Troops with guns. However, since that isn't ideal, Mennonite churches don't support it or help make it happen. So, there's a strange and enormous contradiction at work. We have many layers of 24-7-365 security, which help us live in peace, but can't seem to get beyond the highest nonviolent ideals when it comes to helping people being slaughtered elsewhere.

In other words, we live via many compromises. Blends of nonviolence and shows of force, or even uses. Balanced, appropriate, feasible solutions. They're peaceful-as-possible, if done right, but also forceful-if-unavoidable. This is how we deal with crime and other problems. Or rather, how non-Mennonites deal with it on our and society's behalf. Thus, our supposed total nonviolence, nonresistance and nonreliance on armed security is mostly nonexistent. That's okay, but we should admit it. And be willing to support and advocate compromise solutions which others desperately need.

I'm hoping for a shift in Mennonitism. Away from dreamy, not-likely-to-happen approaches to war and such, and towards what is actual workable and helpful.

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