Oscar was born in Medellín and is a member of the Medellín Network for Conscientious Objection (Tejido por Objecion de Conciencia de Medellín). He is also a leader ofMedellín's Mennonite Peace Church social action group and the secretary of the Medellín Network of Peace Churches, as well as being a nonviolent activist and a restorative justice facilitator at two detention centres in Medellín. Here, he gives us an account of working in Colombia's conscientious objection movement on the grounds of his Mennonite interpretation of Christianity.
For many people, Christianity is synonymous with ecclesiastical hierarchy, the Crusades, economic exploitation, dark alliances with sectors of the far right, and other phenomena of the kind. That branch of the Church which has worked for justice and dignity over the course of centuries, and which has assumed a historic commitment to resisting any kind of oppression, in the name of Jesus, has been rendered invisible. In this branch of the Church however, we have been steadfastly promoting the struggle for the protection of human rights, the environment, all forms of life, and dignity as the most important property of every human being, considering God the primary interested party in this struggle, based on our interpretation of Jesus' summary of the Ten Commandments: 'Love God above all things and your neighbour as yourself'.
This has, however, caused us problems with the more traditional, institutional branches of the Church, though we know that this is part of believing and trying to live according to our beliefs and that Jesus Himself was executed by the religious and political powers of his time.
Since 2006, I have been involved with Justapaz, an initiative of the Mennonite Association for Peace, in trying to build a network of protestant churches and individuals who promote nonviolence, peacebuilding and reconciliation as an alternative to the situation of armed urban conflict in Medellin: conscientious objection forms part of and expresses this nonviolent alternative. In Colombia, men who are found physically and mentally fit are obliged to complete at least 12 months of military service. Justapaz offers accompaniment to those men who choose to become conscientious objectors and campaigns for the recognition of their right to conscientious objection. Although they are not conscripted, women from Medellin’s protestant churches also take part in the struggle for the recognition of conscientious objection to compulsory military service as a fundamental right. They have played a fundamental part in this struggle: they themselves suffer directly from militarism, as an ideology which glorifies masculinity and men whilst denigrating femininity and women. Women also suffer when a man who is close to them is militarised. Diana Correa is one such woman, and she describes the value the military attaches to the life of a young man: ‘burying a son is painful, it moves a whole community, but for the military, young men are just statistics’.
Here, she is referring to the young men who die in combat, but I also think of the young men who have been killed in extrajudicial executions, or those innocent victims whom the military in Colombia takes, executes, and dresses in the uniforms of the so called enemy in order to present themselves as making some kind of gains over the enemy.
Jennifer David, another young woman who is taking part in the churches’ struggle, opposes compulsory military service based on the example of Jesus as a model of nonviolence, but also because she has suffered the direct consequences of her twin brother’s militarisation: the changes wrought in his personality and attitude towards women, having spent time in the military and an illegal gang, killed the connection between them. In her words: ‘my brother joined the military and got involved in paramilitarism and changed his view of women and of life. Now he’s in prison, and I don’t see him as a brother’. She also argues that many women turn to such young men because they feel protected by them and the image of power projected by the military uniform. Women themselves, meanwhile, are considered too weak to participate in military activities, as reflected in the fact that women do not even have the ‘opportunity’ to do military service: they do not have the physical or mental capacity to carry out such ‘men’s work’. Indeed, they do not have the capacity to do evil and thus do not aspire to join armed gangs either: according to this thinking, then, women, can only support those who go armed – in return for their protection.
This is the dominant, militarist view. My own is different: I cannot speak of women as ‘the weaker sex’. This would fail to acknowledge their strength in the face of a myriad examples of it, such as the case of the ‘Orion Children’, who are the children of the soldiers and police officers who took part in Operation Orion, invading and occupying District 13 of Medellin since 2002: the soldiers and police officers who fathered these children then abandoned them completely when they came to be posted elsewhere, leaving the entire burden of caring for them as well as providing for them economically upon the mothers. Nonetheless, these children still dream of becoming soldiers and police officers themselves, or otherwise of entering the subculture of the black market, which has become an alternative in which nobody is discriminated against, as these poor, often mixed race or black children would be in the conventional economy.
On the topic of discrimination, churches are, shamefully, often the most guilty of it, especially when it comes to gender and sexual identity: many conscientious objection and antimilitarist groups ignore the issues of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) community,1 but the churches actively condemn them.
I spoke to Diegeo Acevedo, director of a group called the Community of Brotherhood, who articulated the conscientious objection struggle from an LGBT perspective, or the perspective of the 'maricas', some of whom have reclaimed this derogatory Spanish term for their struggle. He argued that compulsory military service is the ultimate expression of patriarchy, being aligned with norms which emerged after heterosexuality became a compulsory sexuality, homosexuality having existed long before, signifying relationships between equals in terms of affection. In contrast, being a man within the paradigm of compulsory heterosexuality means being potent, an economic provider and protector of the home, which is the ‘natural’ place of woman in this paradigm. Yet this model of masculinity has to be constantly reaffirmed and demonstrated: there is a constant risk of becoming a ‘second rate’ man, unable to live up to the demands of masculinity. For a gay man to whom this model of heterosexual masculinity does not apply however, compulsory military service is a particularly intimidating experience: gay men are often seen as female proxies in the military, with all that this entails.
In my own case, I grew tired many years ago of seeing so many people die and decided to refuse military service and live according to my beliefs and that verse of the Bible in which Jesus tells us that ‘whatever you do for one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me’. Besides which, I don’t believe in symbols such as that of the ‘homeland’: I believe that we have more brothers and sisters beyond our borders than ‘enemies’, which have been specifically invented during this low intensity conflict through which we have been living in Colombia for decades.
I don’t need to carry a gun to be a man, my masculinity is not at risk, I am a man in my own way, as I want to be, but I am tired of seeing how pain, suffering and discrimination is promoted from church pulpits, though our work should be to love without discrimination. I stand with those who stand up to stigma and shame, with the ‘nobodies’ who refuse to be treated as anything other than who they are, and continue to share the good news of the Gospel, that we are not compelled to kill each other on the orders of multinational capital, which profits from wars between peoples who are in fact brothers and sisters.
Translated from Spanish by Elisa Haf and Candela del Mar Nogueroles Marzo
1 WRI have decided to use the acronym LGBT for this handbook, as this is the most widely recognised shorthand for gender and sexual minorities. However, we also acknowledge that there are other gender and sexual minorities, who face similar struggles but are not covered by this acronym. These include intersex, genderqueer, and asexual people, among others.