Do we have a plan?

by Berry FriesenBerry f

How does Mennonite Church USA, the sponsor of this publication, gather accurate information about what’s happening in the world?

I ask because I don’t know. And because living here within the empire, accurate information is not only hard to find but critically important to the vitality of the peace witness to which God has called us.

Some would doubt the importance of information to our peace witness. The details don’t matter much, they say, because our witness is to the way of Jesus, which is nonviolent no matter how a conflict starts or who keeps it going.

I respect that point of view; in many situations, especially where the participants in the violence have roughly equal power, it keeps us from being distracted from the core of peace work.

But let’s consider an example: conflict along the border between the United States and Mexico. It involves border agents and law enforcement personnel, persons with various motivations attempting unauthorized entry into the U.S., smugglers of people and smugglers of drugs, foot soldiers for organized crime, vigilantes, and advocates for the undocumented. Yes, we recognize the complexity and we seek ways to support those victimized by it all. But because we desire a just peace, we also seek to understand why the conflict seems so intractable.

How do our church leaders acquire that understanding? Do they monitor the websites of Homeland Security and El Paso television stations? Read the Arizona Daily Star? My hunch is that our leaders have private sources of information provided by people living and working along the border.

Let’s consider a second example – the civil war in Syria. It involves a mix of ethnic and religious groups; an autocratic government and heavily armed military; various Syrian rebel groups; Sunni fighters from Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Turkey; arms, training and logistical support from the members of NATO, Israel, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Russia and Iran; and many refugees.

The questions are the same as we posed in the prior example. Where do our leaders go for help in understanding what’s driving the violence? Do they watch the evening news? Read the New York Times? Develop private channels?

This is a significant challenge because we live in an empire that regards control of information as a critical strategic capacity. Many government actions (especially those involving violence) are wrapped in secrecy. Whistle-blowers and leakers are increasingly under threat of prosecution. Thousands work each day to ensure we receive only information supportive of the empire’s goals. If we depend on the empire’s information to understand our world, we reveal a shocking blindness to what we’re up against.

When we probe the Syria example a bit deeper, we find a chasm between what the U.S. government says and what it does. It says it is working to end the fighting. But already in 2011, the U.S. arranged for Libyan arms to be shipped into Syria. During the spring and summer of 2012, it undermined Kofi Annan’s effort to negotiate a cease-fire, reneged on a commitment to support negotiations with the Assad government, and blocked a Russian effort to start negotiations. Since late 2012 and perhaps earlier, it has been training foreign fighters at camps in Jordan and transporting thousands of tons in arms for the rebels, which includes al-Qaeda. All of this has served to prolong and intensify the violence without creating the basis for a decisive conclusion. Thus, notwithstanding its high-sounding rhetoric, the actions of the U.S. have pushed Syria toward the same fate as Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya: failed states, torn asunder by ongoing factional violence, versions of hell on earth.

The problem goes beyond the need for our church’s leaders to understand what is going on and how the church can help. We also must address the increasingly schizophrenic attitudes held by people in the pews of our congregations. As our worldview is shaped primarily by information provided by the empire, our understanding of conflict becomes detached from reality and our talk of peace becomes cliché.

For our commitment to peace to remain vital, our church must help us see the world accurately and honestly. So I ask again: here within the belly of the empire, how does Mennonite Church USA gather and share accurate information about what’s happening in the world? Do we have a plan?

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