Pacifism and Remembrance Day 2013

Pacifist Fr. Daniel Berrigan being arrested, Wikipedia
Pacifist Fr. Daniel Berrigan being arrested, Wikipedia

A friend and I taught a night course at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality in 2012 about Christian pacifism. Had you asked me when I began if I was a pacifist, likely I would have said no. If you asked me today, I might well say yes. At the least, it has become very difficult to convince me of the wisdom of any military intervention, whether in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq or potentially against Iran. Wars are seldom undertaken for the right reasons and they almost always have consequences far more bloody and destructive than predicted. It is not the war makers but the victims who are left to bury their dead and comfort the homeless, the wounded, the mentally scarred and to clean up the landscapes made dangerous or uninhabitable from land mines, defoliants, or nuclear materials.

Justifying war

Frequently, wars are rationalized in the name of national self-interest, where political leaders think their nation’s needs, real or perceived are all the justification they require to wage war. Then there is the holy war, where one group thinks itself divinely ordained to destroy God’s enemies – as they define them. Of course, everyone thinks that God is on their side.

During the First World War a Roman Catholic cardinal in France published a pamphlet insisting that his country’s war was just. Within a few months, Catholics in Germany answered with a pamphlet of their own saying that it was their war that was just – and a German Catholic cardinal wrote the introduction to this piece.

There is also the Rambo effect, where war and killing are considered essential to how certain men assert their masculinity. How often do we see that in news, documentaries and especially in movies?

History of pacifism

Pacifists oppose war and the taking of human life but beyond that most pacifists are committed to nonviolence in their personal lives as well. That includes an attempt to cultivate tolerance, patience, mercy, and forgiveness. It is a good way to live.

Pacifism the West began with Christianity. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), Christ says that the “peacemakers” are blessed. The early church was pacifist. There are those in today’s churches – and I have heard them – who deny this and who prefer a counter narrative about Christ’s tipping over tables and chasing moneylenders from the temple. I would refer them to a book called A Culture of Peace: God’s Vision for the Church, whose authors say that the word peace occurs 235 times in the New Testament.

Christians were persecuted in those early years because they refused to serve in the Roman army. But in the Edict of Milan in 313 AD Emperor Constantine decreed that Christianity would be tolerated and later, on his deathbed, he converted. By 480 AD you had to be a Christian to serve in the army. You might say that is where the church became a part of the Establishment – a position it occupied for centuries and to a great extent still does today.

Varieties of pacifism

There is not just a one-size-fits-all pacifism, but rather a diverse set of approaches that exist along a spectrum. For example there is what one Anabaptist scholar calls the pacifism of the “virtuous minority” – a group of people who believe that they have been called by God to live peacefully. They live non-resistance, which means that they will not get involved in violent conflict, but they do not necessarily say that the state cannot do so – as long as they are not part of the violence. Some Mennonites, but certainly not all, fit this category.

Brothers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, both Jesuit priests, and Dr. Martin Luther King occupied a more radical end of the pacifist spectrum. The Berrigans, who were arrested many times, poured their own blood on draft files to protest against the American war against Viet Nam.

Beyond Christian pacifism, there is the pacifism of Gandhi or of many Buddhists, to mention just two religiously-based varieties. Many pacifists are secular.  Óscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, is someone whose pacifism is born more out of a political than of a religious conviction. Costa Rica, by the way, decided to abolish its army in 1949 after a disastrous civil war, although the country does have a police force.

Who are the realists?

People who consider themselves realists, and this includes many of our political and military leaders, believe pacifists are fuzzy-headed idealists. They believe it would be dangerous folly if no one was prepared to fight, or at least to support war making. But it is actually those leaders who are lacking in realism. Their promises of wars to end wars have not come to pass and they are entirely unrealistic about what can actually be achieved by conflict.

Pacifism is not the chosen position of the majority but it does remain a respectable minority position, and more so all of the time.


Pulpit and Politics, best stories 2012

I worked for years in newsrooms and each December we would produce what we called Year Enders, which summarized the most significant stories that we had covered in the past 12 months. In that tradition, I have reviewed Pulpit and Politics for the year past and this is a brief summary of what I have found. Continue reading Pulpit and Politics, best stories 2012

CRA hassles Canadian Mennonite magazine

Richard Benner, Canadian Mennonite

The editor of Canadian Mennonite magazine says that he was puzzled, saddened and disheartened to get a letter from the Canada Revenue Agency warning that his publication was being too political and could lose its charitable status as a result. “I took it personally,” writes  editor Richard Benner in the magazine’s November 12 edition.

The letter from a CRA bureaucrat was dated July 23 and it said: “It has come to our attention that recent issues of the organization’s monthly periodical entitled Canadian Mennonite, have contained editorials and/or articles that appear to promote opposition to a political party, or to candidates for public office.” The letter went on to say that, “Registered charities that engage in partisan political activities jeopardize their charitable status and can be subject to revocation.”

Canadian Mennonite is registered as a charity so it can receive funds from Mennonite Church Canada and area churches. It can provide tax receipts to donors.

Offending articles

Benner told CBC News that after receiving the letter he called the CRA and asked for examples of what the agency considered to be offending articles. They cited two editorials and four articles. Continue reading CRA hassles Canadian Mennonite magazine

Does Canada need a Department of Peace?

I was one of the speakers at a public consultation held in Ottawa on November 3 by the Canadian Department of Peace Initiative (CDPI). The group has been advocating for federal government legislation to create a Canadian Department of Peace. The rationale is that the Department of National Defence is devoted to planning and prosecuting war but that we should also have a Department of Peace with a minister at the cabinet table. His or her department would be responsible for providing a peace lens in all federal government activities as well as promoting peace building activities in Canada and abroad. Continue reading Does Canada need a Department of Peace?

Warrior Nation and the War of 1812

Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety

I have just read the first chapter of Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, a new book by Kingston-based author Jamie Swift and Queen’s University historian Ian McKay. It is the story of how the Canadian government and military, assisted by complicit historians, think tanks and some media, are trying to shift public opinion to support a new militarism. “[They] are attempting to establish war as the pith and essence of all Canadian history,” Swift and McKay write. To do that, they have, in the words of the authors, to “conscript Canadian history” – that is, to glorify wars past and present. Continue reading Warrior Nation and the War of 1812

CIDA chops Mennonite Central Committee

Development consultant Ian Smillie, CIDA greases skids for commerce


The Conservative government’s shoe is dropping on some long established foreign aid groups while it privileges others. Mennonite Central Committee Canada reports on its website that the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has turned down MCC’s proposal of $2.9 million for each of the next three years to provide food, water and income generation assistance for people in India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Haiti, Bolivia, Mozambique and Ethiopia. MCC is a long-time partner of CIDA’s in overseas development projects. The organization is highly respected and is scrupulously non-partisan in its approach to governments and development. Continue reading CIDA chops Mennonite Central Committee

CPT and Palestinian “freedom riders”

 Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) have been present since the 1980s in some of the world’s most troubled locations, including Iraq, Colombia, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, as well as on a dozen first Nations in Canada and the United States. Members of CPT teams either stand between opposing sides in conflict or accompany the weak in their encounters with the strong. CPT’s stated goal is to “get in the way,” but it is always done in a non-violent and peacemaking manner.

Recently, CPT personnel accompanied six Palestinian “freedom riders” as they boarded Israeli only buses and were later arrested by Israeli soldiers and police. Their story was covered widely by international press and exposed the segregated transportation system of the occupation.

CPT member Jo Ann Fricke was there and wrote about it in the following excerpt, which is used here by permission of the Christian Peacemaker Teams. Continue reading CPT and Palestinian “freedom riders”

Jason Kenney as St. Francis of Assisi (not)

By Dennis Gruending

St. Francis of Assisi and St. Francis NotFormer Reform Party leader Preston Manning gathered members of the Canadian political and religious right for talk fest in Ottawa recently to strategize about how to win the nation for conservatism. Macleans magazine columnist Paul Wells wrote a piece about it called Hard Right Turn, which is where the Conservatives appear to be headed.  Another piece on the event that caught my eye was one by Lloyd Mackey, a journalist who writes mainly for evangelical Christian publications from his perch in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. I find Mackey’s columns interesting because he has good connections in the Conservative Party and with a segment of Canada’s Christian churches. Mackey was close to Preston Manning and once edited the Reform Party’s publication. He has also written books about Manning and his father Ernest, the late Social Credit premier of Alberta.

Mackey’s report from the Manning Centre hobnob began by invoking St. Francis of Assisi, who early in the 13th century is said to have written one of history’s most famous prayers. “O Divine Master,” he wrote, “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” Mackey picked up on St. Francis’ line about placing the understanding of others above being understood yourself. He then applied this wisdom to a recent controversy enveloping most of Canada’s mainline churches and the Conservative government.

Mackey describes how the topic arose in a conversation at Manning’s networking conference. “The subject, at that particular point,” Mackey wrote, “ was a recent conflict between a faith-based advocacy group and a government agency which had turned down funding for that particular group.” Mackey doesn’t name the group but it is KAIROS, the ecumenical justice and human rights organization, and the unnamed government agency is CIDA, which on November 30 suspended funding for KAIROS projects between 2009 and 2013. Mackey continues, “The speaker quoting St. Francis was trying to make the point that the advocacy group in question was more interested in getting its own viewpoint understood than it was in understanding the viewpoints of the people on the other side of the table.”

Mackey does not identify the speaker in this encounter either, but concludes: “He was putting forward the seemingly preposterous notion that an advocate should seek divine guidance in the quest of understanding an opposing viewpoint. And, if an advocate can get his or her mind around that humility-based concept, it could go a long way toward the accomplishing of goals that come out of reasonable compromise.”

Ah yes, but this does gloss over some other rather important details. CIDA’s removing of KAIROS funding is one thing. But Jason Kenney, the Immigration Minister, was not content to leave things rest there. Speaking at an international conference in Jerusalem on December 16, Kenney accused KAIROS of being anti-Semitic. This, one assumes, makes it rather difficult to turn the other cheek or to forgive someone seventy times seven. Kenney later insisted that he had not actually accused KAIROS of being anti-Semitic. His remarks, however, were recorded in audio and video. Listen to them here and judge for yourself.

KAIROS and its member churches have chosen not to go quietly into the night regarding the blowing up of their partnership with CIDA after 35 years of co-operation in the case of some of member organizations. The KAIROS response, however, has been quite conventional. The organization has asked people in member churches and organizations  — Catholic, United, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches, as well as the Mennonite Central committee and the Quakers – to write or send emails to their local MPs, the Prime Minister, and CIDA minister Bev Oda. Leaders from the KAIROS coalition also held a news conference on Parliament Hill, and member organizations have lobbied dozens of MPs, focusing mainly on the Conservatives. The delegation that met with Transport Minister John Baird included his former Sunday school teacher.

The Mackey article continues: “But my speaker friend who was interpreting St. Francis was exercising a different kind of thinking. Admittedly, advocates — and their sometimes symbiotically-linked cousins, absolutists — would find that difficult, particularly if their work and stances come out of a narcissistic mindset.” This is a rather odd non sequitur, but being called narcissistic is likely far less painful for KAIROS staff and member churches than being called anti-Semitic.

Unfortunately, no one has applied an analysis of Franciscan precepts to Jason Kenney. One fine Franciscan line that comes to mind is: “Lord make me an instrument of your peace.” Mr. Kenney is allegedly a devout Catholic so he should know all about the peace and love advocated by St. Francis. Kenney attended Notre Dame, a Catholic college at Wilcox, Saskatchewan, so he cannot plead ignorance on these matters. 

Kenney has been an MP since 1997. He used his contacts in the Christian right in 2000 to organize on behalf of Stockwell Day for his campaign against Preston Manning for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance party. Day won but suffered a self-inflicted meltdown and Stephen Harper defeated him in  yet another leadership convention in 2002. When the Harper-led Conservatives became the government, Kenney became a trusted attack dog, a kind of Churchill without the wit. Kenney was also given a key responsibility in winning over new Canadians and certain religiously identified groups to support the Conservatives.

Under Stephen Harper, with Kenney running interference, the Conservatives have clearly chosen sides in the Middle East conflict – supporting Israeli no matter what actions it undertakes. There is no subtlety here. Question the policies of the Canadian government and you will be punished. Question the policies of the Israeli government and you are called anti-Semitic.

Canada’s respected Rights and Democracy organization found that out early in 2010. The Conservatives appointed new board members who forced the resignation of the organization’s president Rémy Beauregard at a tense board meeting. Mr. Beauregard died of a heart attack later the same day. Conservative appointees to the board of Rights and Democracy accused the organization of being anti-Israel, a charge similar to that launched by Kenney against KAIROS. The research, if it can be described as such, for both of these charges may have arisen from one source – a right wing Israel-based group called NGO Monitor. In an investigative piece, Macleans’ Paul Wells reports that Gerald Steinberg, an Israeli political scientist, also runs NGO Monitor. Steinberg published an Opinion Editorial in the Jerusalem Post congratulating the Canadian government for its actions against both KAIROS and Rights and Democracy. Wells writes: “Steinberg’s list of organizations he regards as anti-Israel is long. In one publication he decries CIDA aid to what he calls ‘extremist political groups’ opposed to Israel, among which he counts Médecins du Monde, Oxfam, and the Mennonite Central Committee of Canada.”

Whoops! The Mennonite Central Committee? Extremist? I beg your pardon. These attacks are over the top. I am not a Mennonite but my wife is and I have often attended church with her. If there is any organization that exemplifies the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, it is the Mennonite Central Committee. Kenney may well find that he has over-reached by deliberately putting a stick in the eye of Mennonites, Quakers, Catholics and mainline Protestants. I am told the KAIROS protests will continue, with homilies, public meetings, lobbying, musical events, even a photo contest – all done quietly, gently, and firmly, in a Franciscan manner.