An invitation to dialogue in discomfort

Being a peacemaker and unequivocally advocating for nonviolence while recognising one's privilege is not as straightforward or dogmatic.
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Photo: Loius Bockner

When I was in my early 20s I preached at my home church. I invited the Mennonite Church to put into question our pacifism—the very pillar of the Mennonite identity—and to ask ourselves why and how we practice peace. 

I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. There were quite a few strong reactions from people who were concerned that by questioning our values we were distancing ourselves from and delegitimizing our faith. I don’t blame them, it is not a comfortable place to sit in. Holding yourself and your values up to a mirror is a terrifying exercise because you might have to admit you were wrong, and apologizing may well be one of the hardest things for us humans to do. But by being willing to participate, you might also come out of the exercise with a better understanding and commitment to that very same core value. 

We at CPT are unequivocally nonviolent, this is a guiding principle of our work. We advocate alongside and support our partners in nonviolent resistance, and we are not neutral, we stand with the oppressed. But conflict is messy, propaganda is rampant, and power structures influence the course of violence. So, in our commitment to undoing oppressions, it is imperative that we also hold our position of nonviolence up to the mirror. What defines nonviolence, how do we work nonviolently, and where does the power lie in our nonviolence? 

Violence and nonviolence are not absolutes, there are many shades in between as we come from vastly different experiences and understandings on this journey. I have come to learn from my colleagues and CPT partners living under oppression that nonviolence sometimes comes from a place of privilege. My personal experience of nonviolence comes from growing up in a Mennonite, settler community in Canada. In the last decades it has been easy for this community, myself included, to preach nonviolence—while expecting oppressed groups to follow suit, even when it is not our own community that faces the consequences. Therefore, in times of horrific violence, our position on nonviolence needs to be deconstructed, especially as an organization born from white colonial and imperialist nations. As peacemaking practitioners, we cannot feed the dominant narrative that further justifies violence against the oppressed.

The violence this week has been absolutely devastating and we are experiencing profound grief in the appalling loss of life of Palestinians and Israelis. Our lament is rooted in recognizing our privilege, and in a situation of vast inequality, it would be wrong to draw the false equivalence that the occupied and the occupier are the same. Violence is wrong; and we acknowledge the threads of racism within these responses to violence, responses that deny Palestinians agency and uphold the global structures of white supremacy. 

With this analysis, Palestinian author and human rights attorney Noura Erakat writes, “Fixating on Palestinians as imperfect victims is the absolution of, and complicity with, Israel’s colonial domination.” She goes on to explain the decades of Palestinian nonviolent resistance through the BDS movement, civilian flotillas, legal challenges in national and international courts, and the March of Return. All of these efforts have been silenced, demonized, and smeared. “The message to Palestinians is not that they must resist more peacefully but that they cannot resist Israeli occupation and aggression at all,” she concludes.   

These are not comfortable conversations to have. They gnaw at the basis of our beliefs. We will struggle to come to terms with our privileges and unlearn our innate biases. But this is precisely why I want to invite you here, to sit in the discomfort together.  So tell us, what are you struggling to come to terms with as we speak to the events of this week? What is your response to these horrendous acts of violence—intellectually, emotionally, and physically? How do you hold space for deep grief while reconciling the clashing of narratives and denouncing the imbalances of power?

May we continue to reflect, challenge, and dialogue together on this journey.

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