Thursday, December 4, 2008

Interview with Theo Sitther of the Mennonite Central Committee

Theo Sitther is the Legislative Associate for International Affairs at the Mennonite Central Committee. Mennonite Central Committee is a relief, development, and peace agency of the North American Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches, providing disaster relief around the world alongside their long-term international development programs. He works in monitoring legislation, specifically US foreign policy, in areas of peace making, militarism, economics and trade agreements. He has been a Mennonite since he was thirteen when his family moved to the US from Southern India, and after graduating from Hesston College and Eastern University worked as a lobbyist for the Center on Conscience & War.

When we were assigned an interview with someone who practices non violence in their daily life, I thought it would be interesting to seek out someone from a Mennonite organization. I’ve always thought that the Mennonite notion of a ‘peace church’ was quite beautiful, and have a lot of respect for the way that Mennonites commit their lives to nonviolence, nonviolent resistance and reconciliation, and pacifism. In this interview, I sought to better understand what Theo Sitther’s job entailed on a day to day basis, and ask him his personal views from a Mennonite perspective on the world’s present situation and the future that lies ahead.

Q. What are some of your major projects?

A. One of the main things I work on is Columbia. We specifically work with Mennonite churches there working with conflict transformation and peace building efforts. My role is looking at US policy towards Columbia and the amount of military aid the US gives Columbia and the kind of effect it’s having on the country. But I also work on other issues such as Haiti, primarily looking at food security issues there, but also issues related to Afghanistan, North Korea and Burma as well.

Q. What is a typical day for you?

A. My job is twofold. My work in DC involves policy work, meeting with members of congress, being a part of working groups here and responding to legislation. The other half involves corresponding with our constituency and letting them know what’s happening in Washington related to the work we’re doing.

A typical day would be responding to questions. Actually, right before I came to meet with you here I was in an interfaith working group meeting discussing what the new congress might be doing and how we might respond to different issues that may come up, how we can work with the new president, and how we can best respond to a lame duck Congress.

Q.What does being a Mennonite mean to you?

A. Being a Mennonite for me means fully living out my Christian faith in my daily life, which includes being a peacemaker, working for peace- building directly in a conflict area, working for changes in a policy or working for economic justice and holistic justice for communities to bring about a more peaceful and just world. Essentially it just means doing all that I can to be a positive force for good in the world.

Q. What is the personal motivation for the work that you do?

A. One major motivation is the sense of doing good and thus being able to make a difference in the world. Especially in the face of this financial crisis, US foreign policy is affecting everyone all over the world. We see the negative effects of what the US is doing everyday worldwide. But also, I’m a Christian, and my faith very much motivates me. Being able to respond to God’s calling as a person of faith and doing this work is what a being a Christian is all about for me.

Q. What do you think are the main problems that America faces today?

A. One of the major problems I think we’re facing is America’s excessive militarism- this country spends billions of dollars on its military spending and the amount is monumental compared to other countries. There’s a big gap between this and how much America spends on social programs. One of our biggest critiques is that we spend a lot of money on military defense. Yet you walk out of Union Station and homeless people surround the nation’s capital. We have real problems at home that need to be addressed, because a lot of our own citizens are struggling to get by every day. I do think that the US has the ability to respond to different needs around the world, but I think we need to do it in a more human kind of way. We need to start promoting life rather than death in our policy abroad.

Q. How do you think the concept of non violence fits into American foreign policy?

A. As a person of faith it would be easy for me to argue that there should be no wars, and that we shouldn’t fund our military the way we do now. But violence is currently an inevitable part of our world, and so American foreign policy needs to account for that. But I think I would say that we need to balance that amount of effort that we put into war making with the amount we put into peacemaking. Right now there’s a significant imbalance and this needs to change if America is actually going to promote non violence in any major way abroad. I think that the balance definitely needs to be heavier on the side of peacemaking rather than war mongering.

Q. Do you think there is a relationship between American popular culture and violence?

A. Absolutely. The amount of violence we see in the media definitely de sensitizes our collective conscience. Our brains our numbed by things like video games, for example, and we’re simply no longer affected by images and notions of real violence.

Q. What do you think the average person can do every day to contribute to a more peaceful and non violent world?

A. The first step is to educate yourself about what’s happening in the world. I came into this work because I would read up on different world issues, from war to starvation, economic instability and natural disasters and wanted to do something proactively in my daily life to bring about positive change. People don't know what’s happening beyond the confines of the United States and that’s one major cause of the apathy we see in this country when it comes to world affairs. So educating yourself is probably the first major step.

Q. Once you’ve accumulated information, you have to do something with it. Different people can contribute to the world and the cause of peace in different ways. One way, as US citizens living in a democracy where you can engage with your elected officials, is to actually go out and speak to your members of congress and/or government to make your voices heard. Citizens should do this not just in election year but throughout the year. It’s our duty.


I am sometimes wary of organized religion and their peace making and charitable efforts, and thus while I have always respected the Mennonite doctrine of being a positive force for good in the world, I was unsure of how this aim would manifest itself. After talking to Theo Sitther, I have gained a better understanding of what the Committee does, and was extremely impressed by their global efforts to rectify the injustices of the world in all of their forms- poverty, hunger, violence and warfare to name a few.

With religion as the cause of so much violence today, God’s message to us all is often misconstrued and lost. For me, Theo Sitther’s understanding, and indeed the Mennonite understanding overall, of what God wants from all of us resonates strongly with my own personal beliefs- that it is our most fundamental duty of our time on this earth to work in whatever way we can to bring about ‘a more peaceful and just world’ as Sitther remarks. For the Mennonite Central Committee and my interviewee, this is primarily through advocating for policy changes to create lasting change in under developed communities throughout the world. Despite the fact that I never thought I’d want to be involved with a religious organization such as this, I actually could see myself wanting to be a part of the MCC and the incredible work they do.

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