Peacebuilding as presence: MCC assignments in “enemy” contexts


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. This article consist of five reflections which will be posted separately.

Beginning with the decision by some MCC workers from the United States to remain in Vietnam after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country on March 29, 1973, one form MCC’s peace witness has taken has been a witness of presence within so-called “enemy” contexts. Such peace witness included placing graduate students behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War tasked with connecting to and supporting churches in the Eastern bloc, assigning aid workers to live and work in Iraq before and after the U.S. invasion of the country in 2002, placing more graduate students at an Islamic studies center in Qom, Iran, seconding staff to work with health ministries in Afghanistan and sending agronomists to make extended program support visits to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea). Below are reflections from MCC workers who were involved in such peacebuilding-as-presence initiatives on the joys and challenges they faced.—The editors.


We often think of two U.S.-led wars in Iraq. One began in January 1991 in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, ending just over a month later. The second Iraq war began in March 2003 and ended in December 2011. But it is more accurate to say that it was just one long war. The no-fly zones established over northern and southern Iraq from 1991 to 2003 included multiple air strikes and dozens of cruise missiles bombing Iraqi targets, coupled with a debilitating sanctions campaign and a long legacy of depleted uranium.

I arrived in the middle of this long war. From January 2004 to June 2006, I was the MCC Iraq program manager. My job had two components. First, I was to teach English at Babel College, a Chaldean Catholic college and seminary in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. Second, I was tasked with cultivating relationships with potential MCC partners, whether churches, Islamic organizations or emerging local NGOs. In doing so, I was merely continuing the work that had begun in 1998 with Wanda Kraybill, the first MCCer in Iraq. From 1998 to 2003, Wanda, and later Carmen Pauls and then Edward Miller, were in Iraq as a gesture of solidarity, especially with the churches there. Placing these MCC workers in Iraq was a way of saying: “Not all Westerners share the U.S. government’s position and not all Christians in the U.S. think their citizenship is more important than their baptism.” MCCers worked alongside the Middle East Council of Churches, the Iraqi Red Crescent Society and the Australian branch of CARE to mitigate the effects of the U.S. sanctions and to call attention to the slow violence of depleted uranium munitions, but they did so with limited resources. Importantly, this was a time when there was virtually no Western presence in Iraq. The MCC difference was, first and foremost, simply being there as friend instead of enemy, despite our U.S. citizenship. We took a stand against the sanctions campaign, both as advocates at home in Washington, D.C., and through aid projects on the ground in Iraq.

Placing MCC workers in Iraq was a way of saying, “not all Westerners share the U.S. government’s position and not all Christians in the U.S. think their citizenship is more important that their baptism.”

But after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, all that changed. Specifically, two things shifted dramatically and both made MCC’s position harder to maintain. First, instead of a few western NGOs with limited resources, Iraq was flooded with western NGOs with billions to spend. Instead of being a lone NGO in defiance of the international community’s aggression, MCC was now just one small cog in a giant aid industry. That industry, as I came to see it after I arrived in January 2004, had three distinct factions. The first were what we might call the “occupying NGOs,” indebted to USAID and the U.S. State Department and (some eagerly, some reluctantly) a key part of the U.S. war effort. The second was what I affectionately called the humanitarian fundamentalists. These were primarily European NGOs committed to the principled tradition of humanitarian neutrality that is best represented by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médecins Sans Frontière (MSF). The third were the left-wing activist NGOs who were willing to abandon the neutrality of the second group in pursuit of their anti-war agenda. 

MCC was an odd fit with these three groups. While philosophically, practically and socially most distant from the U.S. NGOs, we couldn’t get away from the fact that most of the MCCers involved were U.S. citizens. We became closest to the humanitarians and the activist NGOs, but for that to happen they had to overcome their wariness of both our citizenship and of our faith commitments. 

The second change was that aid workers were now vulnerable in a way they had not been before 2004. In April of that year, the Iraqi insurgency began taking hostages. A Wikipedia page, “Foreign Hostages in Iraq,” lists over 200 hostages, the vast majority between 2004-2006. At least eight of those were close colleagues of MCC and of those eight, three were killed. It would be convenient if the ones kidnapped were the ones with the closest ties to the U.S. and the invading military coalition. But that wasn’t the case. It was the ICRC compound in Baghdad that was attacked in 2003. In the eyes of the insurgency, we were all enemies. In other words, it became harder to imagine that MCC, or any non-coalition aid agency, was either neutral or on the side of Iraqis. The whole notion of ‘sides’ had gotten scrambled. 

Sister Elham Degaly and Sarah (age 12) in the courtyard of St Anne’s Orphanage. St Anne’s Orphanage was an MCCsupported Global Family project from 2009-2016. Sarah’s last name is not used for security reasons. Iraqi families have been torn apart by poverty and war. Some families have been unable to care for their children. Some children have watched their parents die. The Daughters of Mary of the Chaldean Christian Church provide a loving home for children (mostly girls) with traumatic childhoods. In partnership with the Daughters of Mary, MCC buys textbooks, tutoring resources and other supplies. (MCC photo/Kaitlin Heatwole)

Evacuated to Jordan, the humanitarian fundamentalist and activist NGOs had a standard explanation. “Humanitarian space,” the space in which aid agencies could carry out their mission to the most vulnerable, was only possible when aid agencies maintained their distance from the U.S. coalition power and when the U.S. coalition power respected that distance. Since so many NGOs had effectively become extensions of the occupation, whether willingly or because of USAID arm-twisting, that space no longer existed. In other words, the ICRC hadn’t been bombed because it was an enemy, but because the occupying NGOs had so muddied humanitarian space that it was no longer possible to tell the difference between the humanitarian fundamentalists and the occupation. In the space of just a year, MCC went from being the sole inhabitant of humanitarian space, to one of many organizations claiming humanitarian space, to witnessing the end of that space.

Meanwhile, the suffering of our Iraqi friends and colleagues increased exponentially. Caught between the coalition forces and the growing Iraqi insurgency, tens of thousands of Iraqis died and millions were displaced and remain displaced to this day. Those who remained had their lives disrupted and upended in all the countless ways that war wrecks societies—struggles to obtain food, healthcare, education and employment and lives of constant fear. From my apartment in Jordan in 2005, communicating with Iraqi friends and colleagues by phone and email and learning daily about the deteriorating conditions, we weighed commitments to solidarity with Iraqis alongside the risks. The former won out and MCC agreed to let me return to Baghdad, to an apartment above the flat where members of Christian Peacemaker Teams lived. CPT had never left. But just a week before my return flight, four of those CPTers were kidnapped. One, the only U.S. citizen, Tom Fox, was killed. Fifteen years later, MCC Iraq still does not maintain a presence in Baghdad.

Peter Dula is professor of religion and culture at Eastern Mennonite University. He worked with MCC in Iraq from 2004-2006.

Paticipants at an interfaith workshop in Abeche, Chad, hosted by Ethics, Peace and Justice (EPJ) in 2016, discuss challenges to interfaith collaboration in their communities. MCC partnered with EPJ for over 20 years in peacebuilding initiatives, bringing Muslim, Protestant and Catholic leaders together to foster cooperation and community resilience. (MCC photo/Mark Tymm)

Mennonite Conciliation Service: challenges, successes and learnings


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.

In 1975, the seed for Mennonite Conciliation Service (MCS) was planted. MCC had a well- respected reputation for responding to basic human needs, such as the provision of food and shelter. Yet those carrying out these responses realized more could be done—something was missing. There were needs not being met, and this missing piece impacted the success of the material responses. This need for a Mennonite Conciliation Service (MCS) parallel to Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) was a need for an organization that would address conflicts and crises before they become violent. Such an MCS would also advocate for justice. This ministry would be collaborative with other Anabaptist organizations and with other Christians active in the work of conciliation, mediation and conflict transformation. In this article, I offer my reflections as a former MCS staff person on the challenges MCS faced, the successes it experienced and learnings from the MCS story.

Ron Kraybill, director of Mennonite Conciliation Service (MCS), addresses a conciliation meeting in Salunga, Pennsylvania, in October 1983. MCS developed educational and training materials around conflict resolution skills, including the Conciliation Quarterly. (MCC photo/Nancy Witmer)

I joined MCS in July 1999. Having never lived east of the Mississippi, I experienced culture shock upon moving to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to work for MCC. I had lived in Dallas, Texas, for close to 20 years, working as an insurance claims examiner. In many ways, being an insurance claims examiner stimulated my interest in resolving conflict. During my off-work time, I trained with and volunteered for many years at the Dallas Mediation Center. When I received the call to join MCS, I was on a personal journey to determine how I could make my avocation my vocation. I therefore accepted the offer, moved to Lancaster and took on the position of associate on urban peacemaking. I eventually became MCS’s director and then later co-directed the Office on Justice and Peacebuilding with Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz when MCS merged with the MCC U.S.’s Office on Crime and Justice. I continued in that position until 2011, when I left MCC to pastor (and then later rejoin MCC as executive director for MCC Central States, the position I hold today).

MCS certainly faced challenges throughout its history. The earliest documents outlining the origins of MCS make for fascinating reading. From the beginning, MCS’s creators were mindful of two challenges that would be ongoing concerns for MCS: first, the theological, historical and cultural approaches to conflict among traditional Anabaptist groups and, secondly, racism. In a 1976 study on the possibility and parameters of MCS, William Keeney placed MCS within a history of MCC peace witness: “Mennonites have often expressed their opposition to violence and war by the refusal to participate. We have offered alternative service as a demonstration of our positive contributions to society. Mennonite Conciliation Services would seem to be another positive contribution we could make by minimizing the consequences of evil conflict and violence.” In the beginning of his study, Keeney acknowledged that the realities of violence to and in African-American, Latinx and Indigenous communities related to “discrimination” and being “excluded from the benefits of American Society.” Keeney did not use the same language for people of color I use here (that is my translation to the contemporary vernacular), but Keeney clearly understood that ongoing racism was a primary source of violence. If MCS was to take seriously the mandate to address and respond to conflict and harm before it turns to violence, Keeney recognized, then it must contend with the “social disasters” leading to it.

Mennonite Conciliation Service named, from the beginning, that addressing conflict or harm without acknowledging systemic oppression is hypocritical.

Ron Kraybill’s report to the MCC Peace Section regarding the proposal to establish a Mennonite Conciliation Service was more forthright and explicit about the challenges. Informed by discussions with non-white Mennonites, Kraybill found affirmation for the MCS proposal, yet also heard strong caveats, including from Mennonites of color. These caveats included the following points:

  • People of color must be included in the effort to establish MCS;
  • Emphasis should be placed on mobilizing local resources, rather than on maintaining a “flying squad of intervenors”;
  • MCC needed to ask if Mennonites were ready to take on questions of justice as it sought to establish MCS;
  • Involvement in conflicts should be contemplated only in those situations where Mennonites have “earned the right” to speak;
  • Mennonites have a lot of “in-house” conflicts that need to be addressed;
  • To be credible, MCS would need to develop slowly: MCC would need to be committed to the MCS venture for at least five years before judging it as a success or failure.

I arrived at MCS twenty-three years after these preliminary discussions. During my tenure with MCS, the issues identified at MCS’s inception continued to come up in our internal discussions. We knew that naming, addressing and acknowledging concerns around justice and racism were always at the core of the work as we continued to resource, train, mediate, facilitate and participate in conciliation efforts. As a woman of African descent whose chosen faith expression has been in the Anabaptist tradition, it was important for my credibility and sanity to keep these challenges in the forefront of our work.

Although MCS faced persistent challenges, we also had many poignant successes. For me, to work with people who were called to be peacemakers was a gift. The people who worked for and collaborated with MCS were committed to mediating, educating, practicing and growing. Together, we were committed to work at our internal conflicts just as we worked with others beyond our doors. We acknowledged injustice and advocated for justice. And we knew our limits: we did not think every case or referral could be addressed by MCS. However, we maintained relationships with others to whom we could refer cases. We were constantly challenging our work and the conciliation field to be anti-racist and anti-sexist in our approaches to conflict and harm.

To be credible, Mennonite Conciliation Service would need to develop slowly: MCC would need to be committed to the MCS venture for at least five years before judging it as a success or failure.

The most laudable success MCS experienced was the production of conflict resolution resources—books, training manuals, videos and periodicals—that became widely-used within the conflict resolution, mediation and restorative justice fields. Carolyn Schrock-Shenk, while MCS director, joined Lawrence Ressler in editing Making Peace with Conflict, a seminal book for churches to understand conflict as neither good nor bad, a resource that encouraged Mennonites (and other Christians) to face and learn from conflict. Schrock-Shenk was also responsible for a video, also directed at churches, called Conflict and the Church. MCS published four editions of its Mediation and Facilitation Training Manual, a resource used as a core text in many colleges and universities. The fifth version of the manual (Conflict Transformation and Restorative Justice Manual), produced jointly with the Office of Crime and Justice, was similarly widely used. And, for 23 years, MCS published a periodical called Conciliation Quarterly that highlighted learnings and grappled with challenges from the conflict mediation and restorative justice fields. Although MCS, the Office of Crime and Justice and the Office of Justice and Peacebuilding no longer exist at MCC, their contributions continue to be respected across the conflict transformation and restorative justice fields.

MCS spurred Anabaptist communities in the United States to expand their understandings and theologies of nonviolence and nonresistance. MCS encouraged churches and communities to develop new understandings of and healthier approaches to conflict. MCS named, from the beginning, that addressing conflict or harm without acknowledging systemic oppression is hypocritical. MCS provided a space and opportunity for the non-dominant voices to be heard in venues such as the MCS-produced manual and in Conciliation Quarterly. It has been an honor and blessing to be part of MCS’s legacy: my hope for MCC is that it will find creative ways to extend MCS’s legacy of creatively addressing conflicts in ways that take questions of justice and racism seriously.

Michelle Armster is executive director of MCC Central States.

Amstuz, Lorraine Stutzman and Michelle Armster. Eds. Conflict Transformation and Restorative Justice Manual: Foundations and Skills for Mediation and Facilitation. Fifth edition. Akron, PA: MCC Office on Justice and Peacebuilding, 2008.

Schrock-Shenk, Carolyn. Ed. Mediation and Facilitation Training Manual: Foundations and Skills for Constructive Conflict Transformation. Fourth edition. Akron, PA: Mennonite Conciliation Service, 2000.

MCC advocacy for Indigenous rights in Canada: reflections from history and the present


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.

MCC Canada has a long history of speaking to the Canadian government about militarization and participation in armed activities. Over the years, this advocacy has evolved as relationships with Indigenous nations in Canada have opened the door to new understandings of peace and nonviolence. Yet these new understandings have come with challenges that continue today. MCC advocacy in support of various Indigenous communities of Labrador in protesting against NATO military activities at the end of the Cold War and later against a hydro-electric dam initiative illustrates both challenges and opportunities for MCC’s advocacy in Canada more broadly.

University students from across Canada attending MCC Ottawa Office student seminar February 12-14, 2015, on advocacy and faith gather around Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill as part of a witness walk in Ottawa. (MCC photo/Monica Figueroa)

Since the early 1950s, MCC Canada sought meetings with prime ministers to advocate for the rights of conscientious objection and alternative service. Over time, those petitions began to shift focus, moving from requests for the respect of Mennonite religious beliefs to including asks for government actions to reduce international conflict. Speaking to government about matters of conflict and war gradually became a part of MCC’s relief, development and peacebuilding work. This change, along with a recognition that a listening post in Ottawa would further the work of MCC, led to MCC opening its Ottawa Office in 1975.

Over the ensuing years, MCC advocacy became increasingly linked to MCC’s model of accompaniment and community service. As Esther Epp-Tiessen writes in her history of MCC in Canada, MCC service workers living in communities around the world and witnessing firsthand the harm of military action began to increasingly share about the impacts of Canadian policies and military action. These concerns began to form the basis of MCC’s advocacy communications and shape the way MCC understood its dual responsibilities—to its Anabaptist constituent in Canada and to the communities and partners MCC accompanied.

During the final years of the Cold War, MCC Canada undertook advocacy related to the impact of global militarization in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. MCC have had an ongoing, long-term presence in Labrador, with work in the province stemming back to the 1970s (and with partnership with Innu communities beginning in 1983). In the 1980s, NATO began testing low-level military flights over Innu traditional territory in Labrador, taking off from and landing at the Canadian military base in Goose Bay. More than 8,000 flights took place each year, harming wildlife and disrupting the Innu community’s traditional way of life. As the Cold War progressed, NATO proposed building a larger, more permanent training base in the area. Despite some hesitation from its governing board, MCC Canada began to highlight the concerns of these Innu communities through advocacy, as part of a larger advocacy campaign against Canada’s participation in NATO in general.

If the Innu are not requesting military defence, and if Mennonites from a Christian peace position are saying the same things, how would it be if we would find a way of making a joint statement between the Innu and Mennonites to that effect?

— Menno Wiebe

For several years, the Ottawa Office had consistently voiced concerns around NATO and Canada’s participation in the Cold War arms race in their correspondence to government. Now, the office began to include Innu voices and experiences in their communications to government officials, connecting advocacy against Canadian militarization with Innu concerns about how NATO flight were upending their traditional way of life. Advocacy against NATO began to include requests to also resolve land claims and to look for shared points of connections between Mennonites and Innu communities, including shared understandings of relationships to the state.

In a 1989 letter to MCC Canada program leaders, Menno Wiebe, director of MCC’s Native Concerns program, asked: “If the Innu are not requesting military defence, and if Mennonites from a Christian peace position are saying the same things, how would it be if we would find a way of making a joint statement between the Innu and Mennonites to that effect?” Wiebe highlighted a meeting between Peter Penashue, an Innu community leader, and five liberal members of parliament, in which the Innu stated that they were not asking Canada to defend them. For Wiebe, the Innu assertion of their sovereign right to refuse being defended by NATO and the Canadian military opened potential fruitful connections to Mennonite concerns about militarization.

MCC’s Ottawa Office raised further concerns about the NATO flights over Innu territory through its partnership with Project Ploughshares. These advocacy initiatives encouraged Canadians to send letters and request meetings with government officials to voice concerns about the NATO flights, arguing that “in the name of ‘security,’ such fighter-bomber flight training is imposing insecurity on the Innu peoples.” Other letters seeking to mobilize advocacy efforts referred to the lack of a just relationship between the Government of Canada and the Innu, calling on the Canadian government to re-examine its commitment to the proposed NATO base.

During this time, the Innu invited Rick and Louise Cober Bauman and their children to live in the more rural community of Sheshatshit, in part based on their increased trust of MCC through MCC’s willingness to advocate. Rick recalls sending faxes encouraging advocacy and providing updates from the local Innu resource centre, connecting Mennonites and many other interested supporters not only in Canada but also in the United States, the Netherlands and Germany. The family living room was the site of planning sessions to block fighter jets from taking off by occupying the runway at the military base. MCC was intimately involved in witnessing the devastations of colonization, the struggle for self-determination and the impacts of Cold War politics on those far removed from the causes of conflict.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ending of the Cold War, flights from and construction on the NATO base stopped. Without the push around direct militarization, Ottawa Office advocacy on the Innu issues declined. The Indigenous communities in Labrador, however, continued to face challenges to their right to live on their land. Structural violence, rather than overt military presence, continued. A hydro-electric dam built at Muskrat Falls and completed in 2019 has posed concerns around land and water contamination.

MCC workers sought to discern how to respond to such ongoing colonization, especially as shifts in approaches among Indigenous communities varied. Overall, the Innu did not oppose the dam, as the project approval was a part of their land claims agreement. The Southern Inuit and Northern Inuit communities downstream from the dam, however, engaged in advocacy over their concerns of methylmercury poisoning, with the support from only a very few members of the Innu community.

MCC workers, up until 2019, engaged actively in responding to these shifting concerns and nuances within the region. They built relationships with land defenders in the Inuit communities opposing the hydro project and actively facilitated community organizing processes. Instead of working with Chief and Council, as they had with the Innu, MCC workers connected with strategic individuals. They worked to bring members of the different communities together, along with working behind the scenes to support public statements and actions. MCC workers intentionally tried to keep a lower profile and focused on raising the voices of individual land defenders, rather than the voice of MCC.

The advocacy component of MCC’s local presence was strong, but public Anabaptist support of advocacy against the hydro project was not the same as with advocacy against the NATO flights, despite heavy RCMP presence at the site to arrest and remove protesters. Other grassroots organizations across Canada and the U.S. advocated against the hydro project, but there was very little Anabaptist outcry. The Ottawa Office was unable to offer much support, due to changing MCC priorities in Canada. Without the direct connections to militarization, there was no longer the same tangible draw for Mennonites or peace activists.

Rick Cober Bauman reflects that “mines and dams didn’t have the same impact as women running in front of jets. We may believe we can live without defense, but can we live without nickel or hydro? Things got more complex.” This complexity was seen not only in lack of Canadian Anabaptist support for advocacy against the hydro project, but also in the important nuances MCC workers navigated each day, as they responded to the different concerns and relationships they had built, relationships that included the different perspectives of multiple Indigenous groups, nuances that were easy to overlook when only focusing on a response to overt militarization or communicating a more simple story about MCC’s presence.

Elizabeth (Tshaukuish) Penashue, photographed in 2011, an Innu elder from Sheshatshit, north of Happy Valley Goose Bay, N.L., is deeply concerned about the future of her community and culture which she believes is closely linked to the wellbeing of the environment. Penashue organizes an annual canoe trip to increase awareness of the importance of protecting land and water from pollution and to pass on knowledge of Innu culture, traditional survival skills and food. MCC has a longstanding relationship with Penashue and has provided assistance for this and other initiatives that are in line with MCC’s values of caring for creation and improving relationships between broader Canadian society and Indigenous peoples. (MCC Photo/Nina Linton)

This history is relevant today as the Ottawa Office has been mandated to look for opportunities to engage in MCC advocacy around Indigenous justice, as MCC seeks to come to terms with its historical identity as an organization founded and supported by Canadian Mennonite settlers on Indigenous land. How do we understand and respond to state violence, such as colonization manifested as control over territory, when it isn’t obviously militarized? Can we use the language of state violence and our complicity to engage with constituents, in a way that engages on a national level, including in regions where extractive and mega-projects are major employers of MCC supporters? Additionally, MCC no longer has workers living with and directly supporting Indigenous communities in Canada, making it more difficult for us to “hear” Indigenous voices, including their diversity and nuances, in the ways that have traditionally shaped our advocacy work. How do we understand and portray nuance, without holding those active relationships? Addressing structural and colonial violence in Canada, reflecting on our own participation in that violence and then engaging in advocacy for Indigenous rights in Canada should be vital elements of MCC’s evolving peace advocacy, even as MCC faces multiple challenges in doing so.

Anna Vogt is director of MCC’s Ottawa Office.

Brody, Hugh. The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World. New York: North Point Press, 2002.

Heinrichs, Steve. Ed. From Wrongs to Rights: How Churches Can Engage the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Winnipeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2016.

A steady witness for peace: MCC in Washington, D.C.


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.

In Washington, D.C., in November 1969, a small group of Mennonites stood in the early morning chill to participate in the March on Washington, one of many peace marches held during the Vietnam War. (MCC photo/Burton Buller)

As the year 2002 wore on, U.S. military action against Iraq seemed imminent. J. Daryl Byler, then-director of MCC’s Washington Office, worked with staff of Mennonite Church USA to mobilize church members against the impending war. They set a goal of gathering 5,000 signatures on a letter to President George W. Bush. In two weeks, more than 13,000 Mennonites representing nearly 250 congregations throughout the country, had signed the letter. [Eventually over 17,000 people signed.] Printed out, the signatures were 300 pages long—a six-inch stack of paper that Jim Schrag, Mennonite Church USA’s executive director, held up at a press conference in September 2002 to demonstrate the church’s opposition to the war. Ultimately, these advocacy efforts opposing U.S. military action were unsuccessful and the U.S. military invaded Iraq in March 2003. But it was a key moment in a steady witness for peace over the past five decades by the MCC U.S. Washington Office (originally named the Peace Section-Washington Office).

The time has come when we can no longer maintain faith with the homeless, the hungry, the orphaned and the wounded to whom we minister unless we speak out as clearly as we can against the savage war in which our country is engaged.

— MCC letter to President
Lyndon Johnson, 1966

Even before the office opened in 1968, U.S. Mennonites had been communicating with government officials about conscientious objection concerns, including a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937. Between 1940 and 1967, Mennonite leaders testified 13 times before congressional committees about conscientious objection. Concerns about the rights of conscientious objectors continue today, with the Washington Office helping to convene a gathering of Anabaptist church representatives in June 2019 to respond to recommendations from the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service.

MCC’s work around the globe has also helped Mennonites understand that their advocacy to the government needs to extend beyond the protection of their own rights as conscientious objectors to calling for an end to war and militarism. During the U.S. war in Vietnam, MCC staff heard a clear plea to advocate for an end to U.S. military involvement in the war. MCC leadership conveyed this message in a 1966 letter to President Lyndon Johnson. “The time has come,” they wrote, “when we can no longer maintain faith with the homeless, the hungry, the orphaned and the wounded to whom we minister unless we speak out as clearly as we can against the savage war in which our country is engaged.” MCC opened its Washington, D.C., office for public policy advocacy in 1968. In its early years, MCC vigorously advocated for an end to the Vietnam War. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, this advocacy shifted to urging the U.S. to normalize economic and diplomatic relations with Vietnam and Laos.

Delton Franz, right, and Senator Mark Hatfield (R-Ore) discuss issues they worked on together during their time in Washington at the 25th-anniversary celebration of the MCC Washington Office in 1993. (MCC photo/David Schrock-Shenk)

The Washington Office has also spoken out against U.S. militarism more broadly throughout its history, including the increasingly steep levels of funding for the Pentagon. In 1975, the office’s director, Delton Franz, lamented the Secretary of Defense’s use of Scripture to introduce a military budget that topped $100 billion for the first time. “If the Defense Secretary’s understanding of Scripture is found wanting,” Franz wrote, “perhaps equally serious is the ignorance of all too many of us in the Christian community on the realities of the militarization of our economic and political system. Do we understand the immensity of the military juggernaut that we are being asked to buy into?”

Drawing on the experience of MCC’s partner organizations in situations of conflict around the world, the Washington Office has consistently opposed U.S. arms sales and foreign military assistance. So, for example, in the 1980s, the office arranged meetings between MCC workers in El Salvador and congressional delegations who visited the country, helping members of Congress understand the impact of U.S. involvement in the civil war.

In 2000, Colombian Mennonites issued a plea to U.S. church members, urging them to oppose “Plan Colombia,” the U.S. anti-drug initiative that sent billions of dollars to the Colombian military. “Just as lighter fluid among flames produces more fire,” they wrote, “more arms produce more war.” The Washington Office worked persistently—and successfully, in some cases—to change the voting record of members of Congress on the issue. The voices of MCC’s constituents were critical in bringing about this change.

Karen Ventura was a consultant in the new office for Mennonite Hispanic Immigration Service in Washington, D.C., in 1978. The MCC Washington Office began doing advocacy on immigration in the late 1970s. (MCC photo/Lynn Roth)

An August 2013 action alert from the Washington Office generated more than 5,000 emails to policymakers, urging them to oppose U.S. airstrikes against Syria. Washington Office staff heard from congressional aides that congressional office phones were ringing off their hooks, with the vast majority of callers opposing military action. In the end, this grassroots pressure helped move the U.S. to support a diplomatic resolution to the immediate crisis. More recent work by the office to address U.S. militarism includes calling for a formal end to the Korean War and opposing arms sales to the Nigerian government in its fight against Boko Haram. The office also opposes efforts to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border, calling instead for more humane responses to migrants arriving at that border.

The MCC U.S. Washington Office is certainly not the only organization in Washington, D.C., that advocates for peace and against militarism. But since its founding over fifty years ago, a vision of peace rooted in God’s justice and care for the marginalized has guided the Washington Office’s work. This work has mobilized Anabaptists to engage in public policy advocacy as part of their Christian witness, and has been undergirded by testimonies and calls from churches and peace leaders around the world about the destructive impact of war and militarism and the need for transformative, peaceful approaches to conflict. Over the past five decades, public policy advocacy through MCC’s Washington Office has been an essential element of what it means to work for peace in the name of Christ. May this witness continue as MCC begins its second century.

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach is director of MCC’s Washington Office.

Miller, Keith Graber. Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves: American Mennonites Engage Washington. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee, 1996.

Washington Memo. Available at Published three times a year by the MCC Washington Office.

Nonviolent resistance during the first intifada and beyond


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

The Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement between People (PCR) was established in 1988 during the first intifada to bridge the gap between Palestinians and peoples from all over the world. The iconic form of resistance from the first intifada that most people remember is that of Palestinian youth confronting fully armed Israeli soldiers only with stones. Stone-throwing, however, was not the only form of resistance. Sit-ins, peaceful marches and graffiti-writing were some forms of nonviolent resistance used by Palestinians against Israeli military occupation. In Beit Sahour in the occupied West Bank, where PCR was established, people decided to return their ID cards, issued by the Israeli military occupation authorities, back to the military government, as a protest against the legitimacy of the occupation. The ID cards symbolized Israeli military control over the lives of Palestinians: the people who decided to stop carrying them took on significant risk, as they could be stopped at any time by soldiers demanding that they produce their ID cards as they traveled within the country.

Paul Quiring (left) served as MCC representative in Palestine from 1976-1978. In this photo circa 1978, Quiring observes the distribution of olive tree seedlings to Palestinian farmers in the West Bank. MCC distributed thousands of the seedlings to farm families in the Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron districts of the West Bank starting in 1976. MCC covered around twenty percent of the cost while farmers contributed the rest. MCC agriculturalists took orders for seedlings, exchanged information about tree care methods and did follow up with the farmers. (MCC photo)

Soon after some 500 Palestinians handed their IDs to Beit Sahour’s mayor in order to return them to the Israeli authorities, the latter imposed a strict curfew on the town to prevent more residents from doing the same. Israeli soldiers went from house-to-house to give people back their IDs in the middle of the night. The Israeli military at that time realized the significance of the ID protest and took it very seriously.

Palestinians repurposed the Boston Tea Party slogan, “No taxation without representation,” refusing to pay taxes to an Israeli military government that did not represent us.

Palestinians in Beit Sahour in turn decided to continue creative nonviolent protests against the occupation. One example of such creative nonviolent action was a tax boycott, which came to be referred to by Palestinians as the “white revolution.” Palestinians repurposed the Boston Tea Party slogan, “No taxation without representation,” refusing to pay taxes to an Israeli military government that did not represent us.

Amidst such nonviolent resistance, protest leaders in Beit Sahour looked for ways to help people cope with Israeli military measures taken against Palestinian communities during the intifada. Neighborhood committees were formed to find ways to ease the lives of residents in each neighborhood as those neighborhoods faced collective punishment because of nonviolent resistance. Curfew was one form of collective punishment often used by the Israeli military, with people forbidden from leaving their homes. Curfews became economic sieges the longer they lasted. Thus, when curfews would last for a week or two, markets would be almost empty even when the Israeli military would lift the curfew for a few hours every four or five days. Neighborhood committees therefore assisted residents in planting kitchen gardens in their backyards and raising animals as alternative sources of food. These measures proved successful in supporting the steadfastness (in Arabic, sumud) of the residents and to a large extent made Israel’s collective punishment measures against Palestinians obsolete.

PCR was founded amidst this creative nonviolent resistance, motivated by a desire to reach out to people all over the world to tell them about the Palestinian resistance and to counter the stereotypes that dominate the western media about Palestinians. A group of Palestinians from Beit Sahour had started to meet with a group of Israelis every other Thursday, alternating between Beit Sahour and Jerusalem. Participants in the dialogue group decided to establish two organizations to carry forward the dialogue, one called the Rapprochement Dialogue Center to be registered in Jerusalem, and the other to be called the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement between People (PCR) to be founded in Beit Sahour.

Boys stand outside by the entrance to Mennonite Preparatory School for Boys, Beit Jala, in the West
Bank, in December 1968. MCC opened the preparatory school in 1962, with the goal to provide quality Christian education to Palestinian children. The school received funding through the MCC child sponsorship program. MCC turned over the school to Palestinian Christian leadership in 1978. Since then, it has operated as the Hope Secondary School. (MCC photo)

The Israeli military government, however, refused to issue a registration for PCR, so an alternative was needed. Fortunately, MCC was there. MCC provided an institutional umbrella for PCR to function as one of its projects in the West Bank. MCC not only gave PCR an institutional home, but also supported its dialogue efforts and nonviolent initiatives for many years.

Mennonites have been among the few religious groups that have managed to win the respect of Palestinian society because they have worked with Palestinian civil society as partners.

MCC continued to support PCR’s efforts until PCR managed to fully register as a Palestinian not-for-profit organization. PCR today continues to find ways to bridge the gap between Palestinians and peoples from all over the world. PCR seeks to prepare young people for leadership in Palestinian society, empowering them to serve their communities and become active citizens. An alternative media department operates IMEMC News which provides accurate information for people who are looking for fair media reporting. Finally, PCR promotes alternative tourism through its Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies initiative. Siraj encourages people from all over the world to come to Palestine to live with Palestinians, learning from them directly rather than filtered through other lenses. All these efforts contribute to PCR’s primary goals of achieving a just and peaceful Palestine and promoting harmony and rapprochement within society and between societies. As long as there is occupation, there will be resistance. Our hope at PCR is to succeed in keeping this resistance nonviolent for the sake of future generations.

Mennonites have been among the few religious groups that have managed to win the respect of Palestinian society because they have worked with Palestinian civil society as partners and have not carried a donor mentality that has hidden agendas. Had it not been for MCC, the Palestinian Rapprochement Center might not have come into being. MCC has thus been critical to PCR’s mission of promoting a culture of nonviolence and creating understanding among Palestinians and peoples from all over the globe.

George N. Rishmawi is executive director of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between People.

International Middle East Media Center.

Kaufman-Lacusta, Maxine. Ed. Refusing to Be Enemies: Palestinian and Israeli Nonviolent Resistance to the Israeli Occupation. Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 2011.

Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement between Peoples.

Qumsiyeh, Mazin B. Popular Resistance in Palestine. London: Pluto Press, 2011.

Siraj Center.

Weaver, Sonia. What is Palestine-Israel? Answers to Common Questions. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2017.