In the summer of 2006 I was 14 years old. My father and I travelled with two other men from our church in Dawson Creek, BC to work with Mennonite Disaster Service in Pointe-aux-Chenes, LA, helping residents rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I had never been outside of Canada before; Louisiana bayou country was about as far removed from northern British Columbia as I could imagine. I had grown up in a culture that revolved around community support, where close ties among neighbours were a given. On the Gulf Coast I encountered an insular culture of survival; people kept to themselves, neglecting their homes to put what money they had into vehicles that could get them out of the path of the next year’s storm. It seemed to us that there was next to no support within the community, and the people we were building for were flabbergasted that this crew from far-flung corners of the continent would have come together to help them in this way. That one week serving with MDS taught me the human value of reaching out across cultural and national boundaries to take someone else’s hand in their time of greatest need.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2010. For the space of three months I worked as a counsellor at Camp Sagitawa near Chetwynd, BC. I learned in short order that my duties as a teacher of Bible studies and outdoor activities came second to my role as a mediator for the children. Resolving conflicts among children demands patience. It requires that you hear out all viewpoints and empathise openly with all parties before helping negotiate a solution that they will be amenable to. Handling these conflicts impartially was crucial if both sides were to continue respecting my leadership once things were resolved, and if the peace was going to stick. In the years to come I would have opportunity to mediate between parties with conflicting interests during my stint as President of the Visual Arts Course Union at UBC Okanagan, but the stakes were more mundane: contested reimbursements and disputes about who would pay for what part of a given event, with very little risk of people coming to blows or oppressing one another in the way that children at summer camp are so very capable of. Nevertheless, it remains valuable experience in mediating between my peers as an adult in an administrative capacity.
Which brings me, abruptly, to the present day. I have no experience with nonviolent direct action, but many ideas and convictions about it. In the course of the past year I have been confronted by friends demanding that I be on-board with the “punching Nazis” brand of anti-Fascist resistance, and I have been dismayed to find my insistence upon nonviolent response met with scorn and a denouncement of nonviolence as inaction. I do not accept this. I know that there is a third way to resist such oppression, but I do not know what it is to take the task of resistance upon myself. Such is my position of privilege. As an academic, I often find myself challenged (and rightly so, I believe) by people who see little value in Theory without Praxis. What good, they ask, are ideas that are never applied? How much stronger would these ideas be if they were lived out and tested? It has been heartening, then, to read accounts of the work being done by CPT and others in situations like Charlottesville and to be able to hold that up as an example of nonviolent theory in praxis. I am deeply convicted by the idea that Christians ought to take the business of making Peace as seriously as soldiers take the business of making War. If I am going to claim the vision of Peace in this world as a core part of my faith, then I must be willing to live that vision out as a disciple of Christ. This is the political dimension of Faith. It cannot simply be a set of ideas that I expound, but must be a faith in action with real consequences for which I am accountable.
There are three passages in scripture that I find compelling as I take steps towards this work. The first is from Isaiah 58, an exhortation to God’s people that cuts to the heart of my dissatisfaction with my own knee-deep, Sunday-morning faith: “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:5-7)
The second comes from Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome; it feels like a natural follow-up to Isaiah’s message about lived faith, being written in a similar vein. It also carries a hint of the early Church’s anarchist posture in the face of imperial oppression: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12: 1-2) That is one way in which I will use this delegation experience: as a deliberate step forward along a path of discipleship which requires rejecting the accepted abuses of power in this world in order to be a living sacrifice for Peace. Part of this will be learning to humble myself in walking alongside and learning from people for whom facing conflict and oppression is not a choice but a daily and ever-present reality. After that, the experience will be an educational resource for me. It will deepen and nuance my understanding of the systemic oppression afflicting Palestine, and I will be in a position to bring that understanding into my community to teach them something about the way of Christ that perhaps they have not seen in this light before. For Christ has to be at the centre of all this.
The third verse which I will share in closing is one which stood at the core of Menno Simons’s life of writing and teaching; I have spent some time this year examining the roots of the tradition in which I was brought up, and this stuck for me: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:11)
Yours in Christ,