This past Friday, we paused to remember our country’s involvement in war and the thousands upon thousands who gave their lives for us. It is important for us to remember this story. Our history is what shapes our understanding of the world and guides us in the present. We see this in national identities as well as in faith traditions. We learn what to do and what not to do as we remember the stories of those who went ahead of us.
There are also other stories about war that need to be remembered, and on Saturday, Nov. 12, our community gathered at Sterling Mennonite Fellowship to remember and learn about an important part of our Mennonite peace tradition. We remembered those who chose alternative service instead of going to war.
These conscientious objectors (COs), when conscripted by their country to fight in war, refused because of their Christian faith and their belief that one should not kill another person, even on the battlefield. Instead, they took the opportunity to serve their country in different ways. Some chose physical labour in CO camps. Some were able to work in hospitals and other health facilities. Others were allowed to join regiments as medics with the assurance from the military that they would not have to carry or use a weapon.
Of the 11,000 Canadian COs during WWII, about 7,000 were Mennonite. Those who are still living are nearing the end of life, and so, it was vital for our Mennonite community to gather these stories and preserve them for future generations.
This hope was fulfilled by filmmaker and history lover, Andrew Wall. Working together with Conrad Stoesz and Korey Dyck from the Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives, they set out across Canada to capture the stories of Mennonite COs on film, the last of their generation.
As we gathered in the basement of Sterling last Saturday, we watched the 45 minute documentary entitled The Last Objectors. Some of us were simply curious about what COs were all about. Some of us knew about our Mennonite position on peace and wanted to see how it was lived out in a time of war. Others had family members who were COs, and this film was a part of their own family story.
It was informative, moving and inspiring. It got me thinking about what I would do if I were called to serve my country in the next great war. Although I can’t even imagine what that would be like, I now know that there were people who chose a different way because of their faith. Their story is proof of an alternative to violence.
Andrew, Conrad and Korey were all there that evening to engage us in conversation about the film. That was by far my favourite part. We got to hear about how the film was made and Andrew’s inspiration in making it. We got to tap into Conrad’s mind and knowledge of alternative service. As the archivist for the Mennonite Heritage Centre, he has a well of knowledge that we couldn't dry up that evening. We also got to hear from Korey about the importance of the work the Mennonite Heritage Centre does in keeping our history alive.
As we closed the evening, Conrad shared a story about the importance of preserving and remembering our history. In the aftermath of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that shook the Indian ocean, rescuers found a remote island of 75,000 inhabitants called Simeulue. As they went to see the damage there, they were shocked to find that only 7 people had died. As they talked to the inhabitants, they found out that they had remembered the stories their grandparents told of giant waves that killed thousands of people in 1907. The community kept those stories alive as a warning to the next generation. When the waters around the island receded after the earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004, they knew they had to get to higher ground. Remembering their history saved them.
All Canadians, whether of faith or not, need to know that our history teaches and models different ways of engaging conflict and war. Fighting with violence is not the only option. Although future conflicts require much discernment, discussion and wisdom, we must look back on our history to learn about what worked, what didn’t, and how Christians have interpreted their faithful response when being summoned to war.
The Mennonite Heritage Centre will be hosting more viewings of The Last Objectors documentary along with discussion time after the film. The next viewing will be at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, here in Winnipeg on Nov. 26, 2016, from 2-4pm.
I highly recommend attending a screening of the film because of the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the creators of it. However, if you are not able to, you can watch it online here.