As a Vietnamese Mennonite working for peace, I have found Matt. 26:52 — “Put your sword back into its place” — a significant verse.
Everybody knows war is terrible, and we should work to prevent future conflicts, yet wars keep happening. A war’s lessons are soon forgotten: After the Vietnam War, the United States has been involved in more than 20 large and small international conflicts.
One way to prevent war is to remind people how damaging it is to people on both sides and that there are ways to reach the other side without resorting to the power of the gun.
Recently I accompanied Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office director Doug Hostetter on a speaking tour on the Vietnam War’s legacy. We visited churches and universities in Kansas, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. We spoke about living as Christian pacifists in a war zone, about Agent Orange’s effect and the war legacy that haunts Vietnam 50 years later.
I’ll never forget meeting a veteran in Chicago who recalled his experience:
“I was in a helicopter flying over the countryside when I looked down and saw perfectly round ponds, spread out one next to the other until they reached the horizon. At first I thought they were rice paddies. I said: ‘This is amazing. How do the Vietnamese farmers here do it?’ But a soldier sitting next to me explained: ‘No, you idiot. These are not rice paddies, these are bomb craters filled with rain water. We carpet-bombed this area a few days before.’ After a moment of silence, he continued, ‘If someone came to my country and destroyed it like this, I would be angry with them for a very long time.’ ”
“Collateral damage” is the military term for civilians killed in a blast’s radius. When we use love, compassion and nonviolence to transform conflict, there is no collateral damage. When the “enemy” knows you carry no weapon, it removes fear. People who no longer consider you a threat are more likely to open a door for dialogue.
A peacemaker must create a platform on which trust and friendship can be built. Only by understanding and accepting each other can we have sustainable peace.
Mennonites have used this model of peacemaking for decades. MCC has sent people to work with local partners during wars in Vietnam, Colombia, Iraq, Korea and, most recently, Syria.
As a Vietnamese, I have gotten to know people in U.S. Mennonite communities, just like MCC service workers have come to learn a great deal about the people of Vietnam.
Sometimes we need to be willing to lay ourselves down to be the bridge, even the sacrificial lamb. There is no guarantee you will be safe from harm: Jesus was killed on the cross while reaching out in love. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while trying to lift up the voice of poor people in their struggle for equality. MCC peacemakers in Vietnam dealt with danger in the war zone. In fact, three volunteers from peace churches were killed while working for peace in Vietnam: Daniel Gerber in 1962, Ted Allen Studebaker in 1971 and Rick Thompson in 1973.
Living for peace in times of war is scary, but love and compassion carry no collateral damage. They bring healing and understanding.
Thien Phuoc Quang Tran is a Mennonite World Conference/International Volunteer Exchange Program intern in the MCC United Nations Office. He is a member of the Vietnam Mennonite Church.