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Grassroots movement for peace

   
 
   

May 26, 2008
- Deborah Froese

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — On April 19, 2008, the Mennonite Church Canada General Board approved a Christian Witness Council recommendation for the denomination to become a supporting organization of the Canadian Department of Peace Initiative (CDPI).

As outlined on the campaign website (www.departmentofpeace.ca), the primary mandate of a CDPI would be to rejuvenate and enhance Canada’s traditional peace building role in areas of non-violent conflict resolution, human rights, and social and economic justice. As a central coordinating agency, this department would have the potential to “infuse all departments and agencies of government with an ethic of peace.”

Several board members recognized MC Canada’s endorsement of the campaign as an important response to growing militarization in Canada. Others suggested that MC Canada support might encourage other Canadian churches and individuals to follow. Currently the United Church of Canada and the Canadian Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) also back the movement.

International support for the development of federal departments of peace has been growing at a grassroots level. In response to increasing levels of global insecurity and violence, some 29 countries are involved in the movement including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia and Italy. Saul Arbess, Co-chair of the CDPI indicated that two countries have already created such ministries: Nepal has a Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction and the Solomon Islands has a Ministry of National Unity, Reconciliation and Peace. He anticipates that Costa Rica will declare a Ministry of Justice and Peace this year, an expansion of their current Ministry of Justice.

“To get a national government to think creatively enough to have a Department of Peace is a radical movement,” said Janet Plenert, Executive Secretary of MC Canada Witness and a key player in presenting the recommendation before the MC Canada General Board. “It is clear that there are many places within the government where different peace initiatives could be lodged and discussed, but [these initiatives] are uncoordinated.”

Plenert suggested that the variety of organizations giving sponsorship to the campaign for a Canadian Department of Peace – from Christian and interfaith groups to non-faith groups – is a strong indication of the common desire among Canadians to see the government adopt an ethic of peace.

In Canada the movement is supported by individuals such as former Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axsworthy and Senator Douglas Roche. Sponsoring groups include Mennonite Central Committee Canada, Conscience Canada, the Council of Canadians, The Dali Lama Foundation of Canada, World Council on Religions for Peace, Nonviolent Peaceforce Canada, and YOUCAN, an organization for youth-led non-violent conflict resolution.

Plenert is encouraged by the grassroots nature of the CDPI campaign. “I find it quite inspiring and motivating, because as Mennonites we also talk about the Church being the People. As a grassroots, Anabaptist church, we believe that the Holy Spirit inspires all people and not just the hierarchy.” She acknowledged that although MC Canada’s General Board has given blessing and hearty endorsement to the proposal as a sponsoring organization, grassroots involvement is needed to provide hands and feet for the effort.

On May 12, 2008, Prime Minister Harper unveiled a $30 billion military budget over a 20-year time-line for its Canada First Defence Strategy. This may appear to fly in the face of a possible peace department, but Plenert remains hopeful. As a body of power, the government “will do what they will do, but ultimately they are responsible to the people through our elections. The government will feel pressure when it hears a groundswell of voices they cannot ignore.”

Some may be surprised to find Mennonites involved on a political level, since Mennonite polity supports the separation of church and state. “There will be others who will come back and say that we’ve always been political. So there are different perspectives,” said Plenert. “Is this political or is this not? Because we believe in separation of church and state does not mean we should ignore the state.”

On a national level, MC Canada’s role will be to disseminate information to congregations and individuals, encouraging them to create local chapters to strengthen the campaign and intensify its influence on the government.