MCC Canada peace programming: a ministry for or to the churches?

Individual articles from the Summer 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog twice per week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.

Peace programming has been an essential element of MCC’s ministry in Canada since the organization was formed in 1963. But an ongoing tension present from the very beginning was whether this ministry was intended as an outward witness or an inward strengthening—whether it was a ministry for and on behalf of the Anabaptist churches in Canada or a ministry to those same churches.

When MCC Canada (MCCC) was formed in the closing days of 1963, one of its mandates was to further the peace mission of the Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren and Brethren in Christ churches who founded the organization. MCC was to act as a united voice for Canadian Anabaptists in matters of national concern, such as “peace witness, alternative service, immigration and other matters” (Epp-Tiessen, 78). The 1965 MCC Canada constitution confirmed “peace witness” as a core area of its responsibility.

This emphasis on peace witness indicates that MCC Canada’s founders envisioned a vibrant outreach program, inviting people beyond the Mennonite community to embrace a vision for nonviolent peacemaking, even while they saw a need for peace education in the MCC member churches. One of the first peace witness projects the new organization undertook was to host a peace booth at Toronto’s annual Canadian National Exhibition. The volunteers who staffed the booth shared literature and engaged passersby in conversations about peacemaking alternatives to war.

As the office addressed government on issues of defence policy, the arms trade and Canadian military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, MCCC heard charges from some constituents that it should not engage in such ‘political’ activity.

Within a short time, it became clear that some of MCC Canada’s constituent churches were not supportive of the organization’s peace witness efforts. A key issue which surfaced this tension was MCC Canada’s support for young men from the United States fleeing to Canada—either to evade the draft or to desert the military—because they refused to be part of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. MCC Canada allocated a small amount of money to meet the immediate needs of some of these thousands of draft “dodgers” and resisters and encouraged Canadian Mennonite churches to offer to support to these young men. Constituency reaction was swift and strong. Letters to MCC, additional letters sent to the editors of Anabaptist periodicals and conference resolutions condemned MCC Canada’s stance. People opposed support for the war resisters because they suspected the young men of being drug-using hippies and not “true” conscientious objectors since many lacked a well-articulated faith-based conviction. MCC Canada made the case that Mennonites’ own historic stance of conscientious objection and resistance to war should lead them to support the resisters, but many constituents did not see it that way. Dan Zehr, director of the MCC Canada Peace and Social Concerns Program, asked why constituents were generous and open in helping people overseas, but were only prepared to help the “right kind of people” at home (Epp-Tiessen, 115).

Therefore, almost from the beginning, MCC Canada staff and volunteers realized they could not assume an Anabaptist constituency that would whole-heartedly embrace peace witness work. In order to do the “external” work of peace witness, they would need to do the “internal” work of strengthening constituents’ commitment to peace. Over the years, MCC Canada invested significant resources in doing just that. MCC Canada’s peace program staff devoted significant time speaking in churches, organizing special events and producing Christian education curricula and other resources with the goal of fortifying member churches in their commitment to biblical peace theology. One of the longest standing projects was a Peace Sunday Packet, developed initially by MCC Ontario in 1987 that then quickly became a national project. The packet was a special worship, reflection and action resource produced for church use in conjunction with Remembrance Day in November.

To remember is to work for peace.

—MCC Remembrance
Day button.

The notion of an MCC Canada ministry to Anabaptist churches was not unique to MCC Canada’s peace program. Programs that worked with Indigenous people, persons with disabilities, victims of domestic violence and other marginalized individuals—many of these programs birthed by the MCC Canada peace program—also found it important to minister to the churches. MCC Canada staff preached and made presentations in churches, created resources for churches and engaged churches in efforts to help Anabaptists in Canada understand and embrace work that was often quite removed from their own lived reality (Epp-Tiessen, 135-36).

Despite these efforts at ministering to the churches, MCC Canada peace witness initiatives continued to rouse the concerns of individuals, congregations and conferences that purportedly held to a peace church tradition. In the early 1980s, for example, the Mennonite Brethren Conference raised concerns about MCC Canada’s work in Indigenous communities and its advocacy on military spending and nuclear disarmament. A task force was established to explore these concerns and respond to them. About the same time, a well-positioned observer noted an “anti-MCC feeling” among conservative Mennonites in southern Manitoba because of its work in “the peace section and native concerns.”

Through the 1980s and 1990s, much of constituency critique was aimed at the peace witness work of the MCC Canada Ottawa Office. As the office addressed government on issues of defence policy, the arms trade and Canadian military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, MCC Canada heard charges from some constituents that it should not engage in such “political” activity. According to J.M. Klassen, long-time executive director of MCCC, the charge of being “political” frequently surfaced when critics disagreed with MCC’s point of view (J.M. Klassen, Jacob’s Journey).

By no means all parts of MCC Canada’s Canadian Anabaptist constituency opposed public peace witness. In 2001, for example, in response to the September 11 attacks in the United States, MCC Canada organized a special cross-country hymn sing for peace as a way of calling Canada to resist joining the U.S. in military engagement against Afghanistan. In Ottawa, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Abbotsford, MCC constituents gathered to pray and to sing publicly for an international order of peace. In 2003, over a thousand people in many countries joined a weekly “women’s fast for peace” as a way of registering their opposition to war on Iraq. Additionally, over 2,000 constituents across Canada signed a joint letter from MCC Canada and denominational leaders to the prime minister with the same intent.

Laura Dyck, from Sterling Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario, wears the MCC peace button at a 2015 walk for reconciliation between settler and Indigenous Canadians based on justice and honoring of treaties. (MCC photo/Alison Ralph)

Nevertheless, by the first part of this century it was becoming more and more difficult to engage Canadian Anabaptists on the issues that formed MCC Canada’s traditional peace mandate: war and armed conflict, conscientious objection to military service, military spending and the arms trade, a peace tax fund and so on. Constituents more happily embraced such growing emphases in MCC on peace as mediation, dialogue, conflict resolution, cross-cultural relationship-building and non-partisan humanitarian assistance. They were less eager to embrace peace witness initiatives that somehow put them at odds with the broader society or government.

In 1989 MCC Ontario produced a simple red button with the message “To remember is to work for peace.” It encouraged people to wear the button around Remembrance Day as an alternative to the poppy worn to commemorate war veterans and as a gentle call to seek non-violent alternatives to war. The button was well received, and over the years thousands were sold and distributed across the country. But as the years passed, the message of the button lost its power. Indeed, a growing group of constituents identified it as “preachy,” “naive” and “offensive to veterans.” A lengthy conversation on Facebook in 2015 surfaced many of these opinions, prompting an in-depth survey within MCC Canada and the provincial MCCs as to whether it was time to lay the button and its slogan to rest.

Around the same time, MCC Canada also quietly ended staffing for a national peace program. The rationale was that the organization hoped to channel further staff time into the work of the Ottawa Office. This was supposedly a temporary measure, but the move became permanent with no discussion. Many of the provincial offices of MCC discontinued their peace programs soon after. To be sure, MCC Canada continued to support peacebuilding initiatives, primarily in its international program, but it had more or less abandoned the task of ministering to the churches, of resourcing Anabaptist congregations in their basic commitments to Anabaptist-Mennonite peace theology.

Why this major shift? Many possible reasons surface. For one thing, MCC Canada peace staff had not been very successful in reaching out to some of the more evangelical or conservative congregations and denominational conferences. With some exceptions, MCC Canada peace staff mostly found themselves preaching to the choir and were ineffective in stemming the gradual erosion of peace theology and practice among Canadian Anabaptists. Some may have asked: why continue an outreach that did not produce the intended results?

Secondly, it had been decades since military conscription had tested the convictions of Mennonites, Mennonite Brethren and Brethren in Christ in Canada about non-participation in war. Consequently, it was increasingly difficult to engage church audiences in exploring the beliefs and practices that might one day be required to authenticate a stance of conscientious objection. Instead—or as a result—MCC Canada peace staff increasingly found themselves focusing on pressing justice issues where there was interest, issues such as care for creation, economic justice and justice in contexts such as South Africa, Colombia and Palestine and Israel. Finally, MCC Canada’s relationship with constituent churches was changing. As time passed, MCC Canada could no longer count on the automatic support of Anabaptist denominations and congregations in Canada. By 2020, some Anabaptist conferences had withdrawn their official membership in MCC Canada. Within this rapidly changing and challenging environment, MCC Canada positioned itself increasingly as a ministry of and for the church rather than as a ministry to the church. MCC Canada thus continued to work for peace by supporting churches and community-based organizations around the world in their efforts for peace, but its peace ministry no longer included sustained work to foster and shore up Anabaptist peace convictions about war, armed conflict and conscientious objection among churches in Canada.

Esther Epp-Tiessen is an historian and author and served as peace program coordinator for MCC Canada from 2000 to 2010.

Epp, Frank H. and Marlene G. Epp. The Progressions of Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section. Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1984.

Epp-Tiessen, Esther. Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History. Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2013.

Klassen, Jacob M. Jacob’s Journey: From Zagradowka to Zion. Self-published. 2001.

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