I’m proud to say that I come from a long line of pacifists. My Mennonite ancestors decided that they would rather seek peace than participate in war and that became a tenement of our faith.
Not only do I have pacifist blood running through my veins, but I have lots of models in my family tree of how to live justly, humbly and with mercy. One of those models is my Uncle Menno, a man who has spent most of his adult life serving people in various African countries. (He currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya with his wife Lydia.)
When I first considered entering the field of international development, I visited my Uncle Menno for wise words of advice. I deeply respect the wisdom he has gained in his lifelong commitment to living out his faith by serving to make the world a more just and peaceful place.
Today, in honour of the International Day of Peace, I’m posting a piece that Uncle Menno wrote.
War – What is it Good For?
by Menno Plett
I’m sitting here enjoying a cup of tea from a mug we received in Zimbabwe many years ago. On the mug is a dove, with the inscription Let There Be Peace. As I work at my computer, I’m listening to the hauntingly beautiful voice of Joan Baez, singing Bob Dylan’s song, With God on our Side.
As I sit here alone, listening to the words of the song, reflecting on the state of the world, our place in it, and more specifically, what we have dedicated our life to, I begin to cry.
Here are the words, written by Dylan in 1963, at the height of the Vietnam War.Oh my name it is nothin’ My age it means less The country I come from Is called the Midwest I’s taught and brought up there The laws to abide And the land that I live in Has God on its side. Oh the history books tell it They tell it so well The cavalries charged The Indians fell The cavalries charged The Indians died Oh the country was young With God on its side. The Spanish-American War had its day And the Civil War too Was soon laid away And the names of the heroes Are us to memorize With guns in their hands And God on their side. Well the First World War, boys It came and it went And The reason for fighting I never did get But I learned to accept it And Accept it with pride For you don’t count the dead When God’s on your side. And Second World War It Came to an end We forgave the Germans And called them our friends Though they murdered six million In the ovens they fried Now The Germans now too Have God on their side. For I’ve learned to hate Russians All through my whole life If another war comes It’s them we must fight To hate them and fear them To run and to hide And accept it all bravely With God on my side. But now we got weapons Of the chemical dust (And) it fire them we’re forced to Then fire them we must One push of the button And a shot the world wide And you never ask questions When God’s on your side. For many dark hours I thought about this That Jesus Christ Was betrayed by a kiss But I can’t think for you You’ll have to decide Whether Judas Iscariot Had God on his side. And now as I’m leavin’ I’m weary as Hell The confusion I’m feelin’ Ain’t no tongue can tell The words fill my head They fall to the floor As God is on our side He’ll stop the next war.
This song holds a lot of meaning for me. The title refers to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in the first century, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”, written in a context of intense persecution, referencing Jesus’ victory through death. This statement has then been reinterpreted through the centuries in the context of war.
So why cry? My emotions well up within me when I think of the futility of war, and the devastation suffered by millions over the years. The song I’m listening to points out the absurdity of rationalizing that God picks sides. We have somehow convinced ourselves that our colour, our ethnicity, our nationality, our religion, our position in life, is in some way more special in God’s eyes than the colour, ethnicity, nationality and religion of others. The same God who created all men in his image cannot recognize these man made distinctions.
We have spent the better part of our life working with people who have suffered from war; working with people who have experienced death, loss and injury; working with people who are picking up the pieces after war.
I think of working alongside people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Wau in South Sudan, Darfur in North Sudan, Rwanda and the DRC. I remember, too, working with First Nations people confined to reservations in Northern Canada, and those locked in cycles of poverty in affluent Canadian cities – a reminder of what we have done to a people who were once hunting and trapping freely in our vast and rich land.
Currently our attention is riveted on the Horn of Africa, which is suffering a terrible drought, made worse in Somalia by ongoing clan fighting, leaving millions with no place to go for safety.
So what is the point of war, really? What good is it? Who gains? For a properly researched response, we would need to look at each war in turn to come up with the answers to those questions. We know that a few gain immensely from war, but the masses lose.
Wars are too often about religion. Christians fighting Muslims. Muslim sects fighting each other. Dare I say Christians attacking and killing ‘fellow’ Christians? My own people were martyred by the thousands in far off Europe, for departing from the strictures and theology of state-sanctioned churches. Our people interpreted scripture in a way that was not accepted by the political and church powers of the day, and this resulted in efforts to exterminate them.
So where does all this leave me as I sit here alone, in Nairobi, crying for a broken world?
Tonight I am anticipating the arrival of our children and their dear one year old daughter (our only and most special granddaughter), and I am determined as ever to continue living a life that promotes peace and not war. In spite of what I have seen, in spite of peoples’ failure to live in peace, I want to live a life that exudes hope. I want my life to reflect my desire to promote life and not death.
I want to continue working with people who are promoting peace, not war. I want to continue working with people who are helping relieve suffering from war. I want to continue assisting people who suffer from others’ aggression.
I want to continue working for a better world, as naïve as that may sound. But why? Well, it is a response to God’s call on my life. It is for the sake of our children and our granddaughter. That is what I have been called to do. That is what we have all been called to do, wherever we are and whatever we are involved with. For the sake of all that is good, for the sake of God who gives us meaning and purpose, for your own sake and the sake of those whose lives you touch, I urge you to work and live for life, not death.