The church cannot be silent

From Our Leaders

December 15, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 25
Geraldine Balzer | Mennonite Church Canada
(Pexels photo by Nothing Ahead)

We have entered the days of Advent. It’s usually one of my favourite periods in the church calendar, but this year, the waiting is heavy.

The candle is a tiny flicker in a world of darkness, and Christmas music rings false with its promises of joy and celebration.

Advent hymns, like “Comfort, Comfort, O My People,” recognize this time of waiting, this need for solace in dark times. As we ask “Oh, How Shall I Receive Thee,” I’m confronted with online images of a nativity scene buried in the rubble.

October 7, 2023, was an explosive day that broke open political tensions that have been simmering for decades, if not millennia. We are drawn back into Old Testament narratives of promised land, conquest and retribution and contemporary narratives of restoration and revelation. Sides are drawn and the killing continues; collateral damage takes on new meaning in Israel’s quest to wrest power from Hamas.

And the church is silent...

As moderator of Mennonite Church Canada, I have struggled these last weeks as the lines between personal and corporate voice have been challenged.

Within my work context as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, I have the right to voice my personal opinion—to offer criticism and dissent. Tenure and academic freedom offer protection, but as I watch academics being censored and student groups being defunded, those protec- tions seem less secure.

Political and financial powerbrokers are evident. Corporate lines are held. As the cries for a ceasefire grow louder, the silence of our institutions becomes increasingly obvious.

And the church remains silent...

As moderator of Mennonite Church Canada, I take to heart Will Braun’s assertion that our new structures have placed the dove in a cage. I would contend that a caged bird can sing, but our dove has been silenced. As we wait for the regional churches to reach a consensus, weeks and months pass, and we say nothing.

In a world where children write their names on their bodies so they can be identified in the rubble; where hospitals are bombed and humanitarian aid is denied; and where rubble has become the norm, I can no longer be silent.

If we cannot condemn the violence of Hamas and the ensuing violent oppression of the Palestinians by the state of Israel and raise our voices and influence in calls for peace, we are complicit in the slaughter of innocents.

In times such as these, the church cannot remain silent.

This Advent season, when asked, “Oh, How Shall I Receive Thee,” I need to answer with a breaking heart and a promise to work for peace. I need to weep for the lives lost and make my cries audible in the calls for ceasefire.

Many of us enter this season of Advent as a season of lament, praying for peace, signing petitions, marching in solidarity. But our individual voices need to unite as a collective voice.

Mennonite Church Canada identifies itself as a historic peace church. If that is who we are, and if we confess to serving the Christ child whose birth we celebrate—who came to free the oppressed and welcome the marginalized—we cannot wait for consensus: the structural impediments identified in my letter to the churches and Will Braun’s recent editorial must be rectified.

The moderator or executive minister must have recourse to respond in a timely manner. Our sisters and brothers in Palestine needed to hear us on October 8, not in December.

I will no longer be silent. The church can no longer be silent.

Geraldine Balzer is the moderator of Mennonite Church Canada and a member of Nutana Park Mennonite Church in Saskatoon.

Read more From Our Leaders columns:
False unity vs. true unity
Vignettes from the waiting room
Teach us to pray

(Pexels photo by Nothing Ahead)

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I find the Hamas-Israel war incredibly sad, and I agree that our peace church voice needs to be raised. But concerns for the world's timeliness are troubling. Denominations must show independence that respects our commitment to put Jesus first. Simply not responding until we are ready is a Christian response modelled by Jesus.

The world's timeliness could lead to the wholly undesirable result that our denominational voice is raised into congruence with widely reported particular political stances that are not Jesus focused. It is not Jesus focused to be overly impressed with memorable statements from august groups, particularly if the august groups share the same funders.

Why, in our world of Zoom and similar options, is our denominational peace church unable to process statements against war? A lot of possibilities come to mind. One is that people closer to congregations grasp the lack of a Jesus focus in some statements from groups with long term allegiances elsewhere. The slow response to the war might show that our current structure allows our denomination to be more independently Christ focused. Mennonite Church Canada should keep that organizational feature.

Might MC Canada craft a few quintessentially Christian sentences? Sentences that propose protecting civilians no matter what their allegiances. Plus statements that there are never justifications for promoting genocide or violence of any kind.

A whole lot of groups would dismiss MC Canada. So be it.

It is unfortunate that Geraldine Balzer repeats the refrain, "the church is silent." It's unfortunate, because it's not true.

In various ways, from individual members to pastors to executive ministers, from church mission committees to regional and nationwide Palestine-Israel Networks, from Mennonite Church Canada folks in their roles within MC Canada to their roles in MCC or elsewhere, in letters and at rallies and on social media and more, the church has been speaking out in solidarity with the suffering from October 7 on.

What Geraldine must mean, then, is that certain groups of church leaders have been silent. And this is true. Neither MC Canada's Joint Council nor the Regional Executive Ministers have as a group directly denounced either the horrific violence of Hamas or the horrific violence of Israel in Gaza. Neither Doug Klassen, the Executive Minister of MC Canada, nor Geraldine as Moderator have publicly, formally done so either. And Geraldine, along with Will Braun, are right to question this. We do need to do the work to allow our leaders greater freedom to speak, directly, formally, and publicly, on matters of grave concern, especially as relates to our partners and friends around the world.

Nevertheless, may we remember our Anabaptist ecclesiology. The church is not its leaders. The church is the people of God together, the body of Christ with all its members. Yes, this includes its leaders. But as a priesthood of all believers, the church is not merely its leaders.

And the church has not been silent. Nor is it now, as together we pray and call and work for peace—in Gaza, for Israel and Palestine, in Ukraine, in Sudan, in Myanmar, and around the world.

I appreciate Michael's comments on my reflections. In rereading my article, I noted an editorial change that was made. I had very deliberately capitalized the word Church in order to refer to the denominational entity. I know well tht the church ( a collective of believers) has not been silent.

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