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Senator Roméo Dallaire addresses the 2010 World Religions Summit in Winnipeg. Photo by Samantha Rideout

Open to interpretation

Senator Roméo Dallaire advises religious leaders to express their goals more clearly

By Samantha Rideout

In the hungry, squirmy time just before lunch break yesterday, the delegates of the World Religions Summit at the University of Winnipeg heard Jack Suderman of the Mennonite Church of Canada suggest a ninth, unofficial Millennium Development Goal. “Let’s make a commitment to stop justifying violence within our houses of faith,” he said.

I jotted the proposal down in my notebook but gave it no further thought until a Winnipeg Free Press reporter in the media room asked me how United Church people might react to a statement like Suderman’s.

“I’m not sure,” I said, confused. “I didn’t find it to be terribly controversial; I don’t think I’ve ever heard violence promoted during a United Church service. I guess there might be a prayer for the safety of peacekeepers or soldiers from time to time.”

“Soldiers’ safety can depend on killing others,” said the reporter, who had interpreted Suderman’s words as a call for the outright condemnation of all armed missions, regardless of their intent. The Mennonites have a long tradition of pacifism, she explained. Many of the people in their book of martyrs, Martyrs Mirror, died for that principle.

The fact that the Winnipeg Free Press reporter and I had understood Suderman’s words differently made me wonder what other diverging understandings might exist at the summit. It seemed strange that, so far, the delegates had agreed unanimously on nearly everything they discussed. While I knew they were keen to find common ground and work together, I had expected there would be debates on some of the details.

The statement the religious leaders are planning to present to G20 leaders could be interpreted in many different ways, I realized. For example, the section on peace says, “We call on governments to make new and greater investments in building peace through negotiation, mediation, and humanitarian support to peace processes, including the control and reduction of small arms that every year are the cause of over 300,000 deaths globally.” The second part of that sentence is fairly specific, but the first part is full of what keynote speaker Senator Roméo Dallaire called “ambiguous language.”

When Dallaire was a military general, the orders he gave and received were made up of clear, concrete action verbs such as “advance,” “block” or “retreat.” On the other hand, he said, when he became a peacekeeper in 1993, his first mandate was to “establish an atmosphere of security.” He wasn’t sure which concrete actions “establishing an atmosphere” entailed, nor what constituted “an atmosphere of security.” A heavily policed region? An absence of weapons (or certain types of weapons)?

The religious leaders in the room need to establish a clear lexicon of peace and justice, Dallaire said. This statement might itself sound ironically vague, but what Dallaire meant is that when we gather at events like the World Religions Summit, we need to make sure each of us knows what the other is talking about.

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