Undoing privilege: taking peace seriously means admitting that we benefit from violence

It is easy to believe that because we have not had a hand in directly contributing to the abuse of other people that the violence of the world is not part of who we are. We see ourselves as living in a story that only involves the events and actions we have clearly chosen.

But to be people that pursue peace for ourselves and others means that we need to see ourselves as participating, often unknowingly, in systems that destroy the lives of other people.

We cannot work for peace if we do not understand why people, our neighbours, do not have peace.

Part of me wants to say that the great discovery of my adult life, that my beloved Canada systematically oppressed and almost completely destroyed the First Nations of this land, came as a surprise.

Part of me wants to say that I opened a book one day, and poof, I saw the images and read the words that revealed to me an unknown story.

But I can’t say that because it’s not true.

It is true that I have been reading and looking and have learned much as an adult that I did not know before, but through all of my discovery there has been something like a sense of familiarity, that while I am just now coming to see and hear with greater clarity the details of the whole racist and illegal legacy I now live in, I see and hear these things with a feeling, like there have always been hints of this all around me, that all this muck left its stain and that even as a child I knew something was not right.

In the last ten years I have chosen to identify with the Mennonite tradition, to become part of the family, despite not having any historic or ethnic connections.

In many ways I am grateful that this was a choice I made as an adult with some sense of the landscape of Christian faith communities because I feel like I am trying to take my participation in this tradition seriously and perhaps would not have done so had I been more familiar with some of the language of Mennonites around peace and justice.

Maybe I would be more inoculated against the power of some of these things.

So now as I have begun to take seriously the idea that to be peacemaker means that I must look closely at the causes of anti-peace, I have discovered that violence lives much closer to my home than I would like.


It turns out that I do not need to look very far to find a system that violently oppresses people and removes the structures and spaces where peace is able to flourish. I live on unceded land taken from the First Nations that lived here (in BC), taken without compensation or consent.

Taken years before I got here, but taken nonetheless.

If you live in or around Kitchener-Waterloo chances are you do too, as KW sits on land given to the Six Nations Confederacy but was then sold off, taken or given away to settlers without consent of the Six Nations people. And this pattern continues all over Canada.

We are treaty people who have not honoured our agreements, or have just not bothered to make them (all of BC).

We live on land that was taken from people we tortured by sending to residential schools, condemning them to a generational legacy of physical and psychological dysfunction.

So what should we do?

If we want to be people who work for peace, people who make peaceful homes and communities, we need to be prepared that peace is going to cost us something.

It is going to cost us time, energy, (money?) and at a minimum, our comfort.

We have to be willing to spend a lot of time being uncomfortable and hear the pain of people who are suffering.

We don’t really like this part of peacemaking, and it may seem unproductive (there are so many people who need restoration – where does it end?), but there is no way to work for peace without perpetuating systems of domination and colonialism if you do not do the hard work of listening to the story of the people who have been damaged and abused.

We need to stop claiming there is nothing we can do, stop using time as a dubious defence against our moral obligations, and start taking seriously the racist legacy of our country that has given some benefits (us) through violence we don’t want to acknowledge. But if we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable, and we listen to the people who still live with the painful effects of colonialism in Canada, we will have to acknowledge the past for what it is still doing today.


There is violence hidden in all our stories.

This is one of the uncomfortable truths that is necessary to acknowledge in the pursuit of peace.

The story of who we are and how we got here involves violence against people, violence done recently and nearby, as well as long ago or far away, and it is important that we recognize this hidden violence is part of our story. We cannot work to support peace in our world and in our neighbourhoods if we do not recognize the existence of systems and legacies that undermine peace – systems and legacies we participate in and benefit from.

And this is a serious challenge.

It is no small thing to challenge the dominant stories of our culture, the myth of ‘Canada the good’ – a country of fertile fields, snow-capped peaks and welcoming diverse people (who never ever are racist or evil, etc.) It is no small feat to learn how to tell our story anew by listening to those who have been abused and ignored in the creation of our origins.

But how can one get to truthful action that restores relationships through repentance and forgiveness if there is not first a re-making of our identity as people that are complicit in unhealthy forms of conflict resolution, like the theft of land by our government.

The unseen violence in our story is this: we directly benefit from the actions others have taken in exploiting the land and resources of First Nations people.

The unseen violence in our story is this: we directly benefit from the actions others have taken using military force against other nations and people, including civilians.

The unseen violence in our story is this: we directly benefit from the modern slavery created by the exploitation of people in the developing world who produce our cheap consumer products.

The unseen violence in our story is this: we directly benefit from the wanton destruction of the world created by God to be our home.


One of the benefits of bringing our hidden violence to the foreground is that it then becomes possible to talk about our history, and our present, in ways that lead us to addressing systems and forces that produce anti-peace.

For example, by acknowledging that we live, as the comfortable classes of people in North America, off the sweat of people in the developing world – acknowledging that this is a hidden part of our story – we might be able to admit to each other that we like our lifestyle, that we don’t want to give it up, and that even if we wanted to, we don’t know how.

This gives us a place to start to think about what we might have to do to make a more peaceful economic world.

Likewise for the issue of settlement on unceded first nations land. Perhaps some of us think that because there have been treaties or a truth and reconciliation process, there is no longer any need to worry about our relationship as settlers, particularly as Christian settlers, with First Nations people. Honestly admitting this attitude, along with the acknowledgement of our problematic history, creates a starting point for critical dialogue and open conflict (as opposed to hidden resentments and judgments).

As for the distant violence of our nation’s armed forces, perhaps we might also admit, once we acknowledge our complicity in that violence, that we think it maybe does make our country and communities more peaceful, and maybe we do like its distant role in our lives.

And again, being honest about the web of history that has produced our current context and the role armed conflict has played in that creation, means that these feelings can be critically evaluated.

The problem with not bringing these hidden parts of our story to the forefront for examination is that we risk having unhealthy and untrue stories of who we are. We risk having an identity that impairs our ability to perceive the causes of suffering for many people in the world.

It is hard to be a peacemaker when we do not have the capacity to see why our neighbours do not have peace, especially when we may silently contribute to their lack of peace.

The hidden violence of our stories is not all that hidden and most of us are probably aware of these things as threads running through the fabric of our lives.

Why then do we not admit to each other that we know these things are part of who we are?

Why do we not admit that we have mixed feelings about our connection to the violence that contributes to our comforts?

Two of the most important reasons are:

1) We feel guilty about the fact that we know better but still do nothing to change.

2) We don’t know what to do and are scared about our limited ability to fix these things.

These are big problems, but we believe in a big God, and in a God that does not abandon us to our weaknesses.

unnamedDr. Matt Balcarras is a neuroscientist living and working in the Vancouver area. He attempts to be as disruptive as possible to systems and beliefs that perpetuate injustice and eliminate peace. Originally from Fergus, Ontario, and a recent member of Community Mennonite Church in Stouffville, Ontario, Matt and his family are now part of Cedar Park Church in Ladner, BC. Matt has recently authored a forthcoming book entitled “Peacemaking: A community workbook”, and is a new volunteer with COSA, an organization that provides support to newly released sex-offenders attempting to live without reoffending.

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