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Pacifism in action


July 25, 2008
-Deborah Froese

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — For Neill von Gunten, pacifism is not passive. The co-director of Mennonite Church Canada’s Native Ministry knows from personal experience that standing for peace demands action.

Von Gunten, who grew up in Berne Indiana, first took a stand for peace when he was 18 years of age and chose to enter the conscientious objectors program instead of fighting in the Vietnam war. He was harassed for his choice and called names.

In a sense, he was following in his father’s footsteps. His father was classified militarily as a 1AO; someone who refused to carry a weapon. “That stuck in my mind because he took a stand and he was harassed, just like I was harassed.”

Two years later, von Gunten and his wife Edith – currently the co-director of Native Ministry – moved to a Chicago ghetto to participate in the Mennonite Voluntary Service program. It was there, serving together at Woodlawn Mennonite Church, that the von Guntens became involved with the Martin Luther King civil-rights movement.

Von Gunten, who participated in several peaceful protests with King, speaks highly of the man’s commitment to pacifism. “When he was hit in the head with a rock, he would say ‘we need to love our brothers and sisters because they don’t know what they’re doing’…I often wondered what my own response would be if I were attacked personally.”

He found out during an anti-war demonstration in downtown Chicago.

“I was walking with another fellow carrying a sign that said ‘Peace is the Answer.’ These men jumped us. Neither one of us fought back. I had my glasses smashed. I got punched and then the police rushed in and grabbed the men. But I refused to fight back. That was my response.”

He recalls wondering why the young attackers were so angry with him and toward the cause of peace. “I wondered what kind of background they had and how they were misled.”

During his time in Chicago, Neill saw cars thrown upside down and set on fire. He was the target of rocks and cherry bombs. He remembers riding on a city bus with his black friends as rocks crashed through windows. The bus careened through a red light in a white neighbourhood to avoid a large group of young men threatening to surround and sway the bus until it tipped.

The von Guntens observe that many in the church today, and particularly young adults, have not had the same opportunities to engage in conscientious objection in the way that he did. He worries that the younger generation of Mennonites know the talk, but wonders how many would be able to sustain their words with action if push came to shove.

“I’ve felt the fear and I’ve seen the anger and the hatred that people have in their hearts toward other cultures. And that hurts,” Neill said.

Von Gunten’s commitment to peace and to people seems to be a part of his family heritage. He remembers his grandparents feeding the men who would hang out on the railroad tracks. His grandfather also helped where he could. “It didn’t matter about race or status in society. In that sense, they were good models for me, influencing how I began to look at others.

Von Gunten says that leading by experience is one of the better ways to teach non-violent responses. The other way is to tell stories and talk about it. “What would Jesus do? Would you expect him to go in with guns a-blazing? He was hung on the cross to die and he didn’t fight back. He responded peacefully.”

Even when Jesus was angry, von Gunten points out, he was not violent. “He overturned tables in the temple when he was angry with those who were selling goods there, but he did not harm anyone.

“I have never seen violence resolve a conflict. It only escalates conflict.”

Neill and Edith von Gunten have been active in Aboriginal communities in Manitoba for more than 40 years.