Quaker Universalist Conversations

Peace Among the Peoples: an ecumenical conference organized by Mennonites

 Tom Paxson, a member of the Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee of Friends General Conference, sent this detailed report which sums up the rich theological discussions about pacifism and nonviolence which took place during this conference. I was especially intrigued by the warning “not to adopt methods of empire, but rather to become termites, eating away at the foundations of empire.” I’d never heard of peace activists compared to termites before! The important message I drew from this report is that when empires are in decline, they focus on what they are against, rather than what they are for. We in the peace movement need to counter this negativity with a positive vision of a world without war—a world rooted in the values of the Gospels and of the other great religions—a world where compassion, economic and social justice, and environmental sustainability prevail, and where the sacredness of each and every living being (including termites) is honored.—Anthony Manousos

Peace Among the Peoples, 28-31 July 2010, an ecumenical conference organized by Mennonites, primarily, was hosted by the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, IN. FGC co-sponsored the conference through the Historic Peace Churches/FOR Consultative Committee, of which Friends General Conference is a member. Seen in part as a follow-up to the January 2009 gathering in Philadelphia, Heeding God’s Call, “Peace Among the Peoples: Overcoming the Spirit, Logic, and Practice of Violence,” drew people from a reported 28 different church traditions. It was designed with two purposes in mind: “to discuss North American perspectives on Christian participation in war” and to contribute to the World Council of Churches’ 2011 International Ecumenical Peace Convocation. Thursday the focus was on theological foundations for peace; Friday, on ecclesiological foundations; and Saturday, ethical foundations. The format included plenary addresses, small group discussions, and working groups planning for future action. Participants ranged from church officials and academicians to activists working at different levels, from local to international.

Plenary speakers included Rita Nakashima Brock and Philip LeMasters on alternative approaches to ‘Christians and war,’ Stanley Hauerwas and Gerard Powers on ‘just war and pacifism in dialogue,’ Guillermo Kerber and Kent Yoder on the World Council of Churches and its Decade to Overcome Violence, and Brian McLaren and Paul Alexander on new views/visions for peacemaking in North America.

The conference opened with the sad news that Friends Peace Teams activist Art Gish had been killed in a tractor accident on his farm in Ohio and the sober warning that empires in decline have a great need for enemies which permit them to replace visions of what they are for with visions of what they are against. Peaceworkers were warned not to adopt methods of empire, but rather to become termites, eating away at the foundations of empire. Mary Jo Leddy suggested that the desire for peace has to be sustained by real experiences of peace in our own lives.

THEOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS: Rita Nakashima Brock offered a vision of regaining the ancient Church’s understanding of the Christian message that paradise is available now: abundant life within the beloved community through the Spirit of the resurrected Christ. She contrasted this message with the post-Carolingian message of deliverance from sin through the death of Jesus Christ and repentance for one’s complicity in that death. The former view was linked to a theology of peace; the latter, to a theology of war. To address the moral injury suffered by soldiers and veterans struggling under the weight of acts committed during war, she argued for the value of acts of ritual penance that would that make their moral suffering public and invite support by their faith communities.

Philip LeMasters presented an (Eastern) Orthodox perspective, harkening back to early church demands to resist participation in war on the grounds that human beings are living icons of Christ and that we are called to participate in the peace of heaven even as we live on earth. He explained that the Eastern Church never developed a just war theory, let alone a Crusading theology, as did the Western Church, nor did it formally embrace pacifism. Instead it held that killing other human beings was morally wrong and that those who did kill others removed themselves from being in communion with Christ and were forbidden to participate in Communion until after a three-year period of penance. While monastics and clergy were never permitted to use violence, the Church accepted that there were occasions when soldiers and police needed to use violence to defend the innocent. The “necessity” was not seen as making the violence just, however, and repentance was still required. In time, he observed, Eastern churches sometimes became so closely associated with the state that war was seen as a defense of Christianity— a confusion of state and church that he lamented. He argued that the Orthodox are called to incarnate peace, not just pray for it.

ECCLESIOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS: JUST WAR AND PACIFISM IN DIALOGUE: Stanley Hauerwas presented a critique of Just War Theory, arguing that Just war theory is customarily defended on the grounds that pacifism is unrealistic but, Hauerwas argued, the assumptions of just war theory are themselves incompatible with realism. If the theory were taken seriously it would be clear that no state, including our own, comes close to satisfying the requirements the Just War Theory imposes. If the US took the theory seriously it would have to restructure the government so that it was equipped and prepared to utilize all practical alternatives to war. In addition, public education would have to change to instill in citizens the virtues required— not least those necessary to support politically the restraint and patience to prepare, train for, and try alternatives to military force. We would have to dismantle “the sacrificial system” whereby soldiers who die in battle are depicted as having “sacrificed their lives” for their county — a sacrifice, it is then held, that must not be in vain. The appeal to validating the sacrifice of soldiers already killed is completely outside the just war theory, Hauerwas argued, but is perhaps the major political narrative Americans use to justify war. “…We live in the worst of all worlds. Realism is used to dismiss pacifism and to underwrite some version of just war. But it is not at all clear that the conditions for the possibility of just war are compatible with realism. At least it is not clear that just war considerations can be constitutive of the decision making processes of governments that must assume that might makes right. Attempts to justify wars begun and fought on realist grounds in the name of just war only serve to hide the reality of war.” He concludes, “Christians do not disavow war because it is often so horrible, but because war, in spite of its horror, or perhaps because it is so horrible, can be so morally compelling. This is why the church does not have an alternative to war, but rather the church is the alternative to war.”

Gerald Powers reflected on the use of Just War Theory by U.S. Catholic Bishops to seek to curb U.S. tendencies toward unilateral military action however disguised by coalitions of choice or otherwise. He noted that Papal envoy Cardinal Pio Laghi presented a message from the Pope to President Bush on Ash Wednesday 2003, saying that war with Iraq was not the answer and that the matter should be handled by the United Nations. “In applying the Church’s contemporary understanding of just war, [Cardinal Laghi] concluded that military intervention would be illegal and immoral, and decried ‘the grave consequences’ of going to war in Iraq: ‘the suffering of the people of Iraq and those involved in the military operation, a further instability in the region and a new gulf between Islam and Christianity.’” But President Bush responded that war was the answer and dismissed the warnings of dire consequences. Gerald Powers reflected on several issues that underlay that exchange. For example, the Pope viewed war as a failure of politics; the President, as an extension of politics. He also noted that Catholic theologians have paid much more attention to nonviolent alternatives to military action in light of “the dramatic and unforeseen success of non-violence in the Philippines, the Soviet bloc, and South Africa.” This greater attention to nonviolence is reflected in the report of the international Catholic-Mennonite Dialogue, “Called Together to Be Peacemakers,” issued in 2003. As for withdrawing from the war in Iraq, Powers argued that the United States took on a heavy moral burden in occupying Iraq, a burden that those who seek a quick exit ignore. He insisted that the military component of this responsibility is just one part.

WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES. Guillermo Kerber and Kent Yoder discussed the World Council of Churches and its Decade to Overcome Violence. Guillermo Kerber, from the WCC’s Geneva office, presented a view of the larger WCC context for the Decade to Overcome Violence, pointing out that war and peace have been concerns since the dawn of the WCC following World War II. He noted that the WCC has been ambivalent, though it declared early on that “war is contrary to the will of God.” It has never been able to unite on an absolute condemnation of war. For example, while it approved the Decade to Overcome Violence in its 1998 Harare Assembly, it also expressed concerns about the Responsibility to Protect vulnerable populations, leaving open the possibility that such protection might require military intervention such as the UN failed to employ in Rwanda, and did employ after a time in the former Yugoslavia. Kerber then reviewed the Decade to Overcome Violence, with its different focus each year. The focus of 2004 was on the United States. He was careful to explain that the Decade to Overcome Violence sought to direct the churches’ attention to the full range of violence, from violence within the family all the way to international warfare, and to facilitate the sharing of information among member churches with respect to the various efforts to address the many dimensions of violence and their interconnection. There is no peace among the people, he noted, without peace in the communities and in the market place, i.e. without established mechanisms of social and economic justice.

Kent Yoder followed up on Guillermo Kerber’s narrative by noting that there is today a common commitment to peacemaking among many Christian traditions and communities, but then turned to identify what has yet to be accomplished. He also wondered whether the churches were shifting their ecumenical energies away from the WCC toward bilateral discussions. Among the positive outcomes of the Decade to Overcome Violence that Yoder identified were the following:

1) The definitions of peacemaking and of violence used by the churches have steadily expanded to be more comprehensive.

2) Many churches have taken more seriously the call to be peace churches.

3) The Decade to Overcome Violence has brought peacemaking to the forefront in the
National Council of Churches and in the WCC all program coordinators devote
significant time and energy preparing for the International Ecumenical Peace
Convocation in 2011, intended to be the culminating event of the Decade.

4) North American Mennonites have become more involved with the World Council of
Churches in spite of not being members. (The German and Dutch Mennonites
have been active members of the WCC from the beginning.)

Friday Morning was devoted to concurrent sessions and small group discussions. The concurrent sessions addressed ten quite different topics, including, among others, chaplaincy, the Eucharist and peacemaking, just policing, nationalism and idolatry, the responsibility to protect, and selective conscientious objection.

Friday afternoon Fundamentalist and Pentecostal Peacemaking Perspectives were presented.
Brian McLaren spoke from his Fundamentalist background about the importance of “framing stories” through which people interpret events. He discussed six such framing stories popular in America that structure people’s understanding of peace and security: domination, revolution, purification, victimization, isolation, and accumulation. These stories, he argued, are often camouflaged in churches through the use of Biblical language. In contrast with these, he submitted, is the story Jesus brought calling us to become protagonists for the common good. See his book, A New Kind of Christianity. To win people over to peacemaking, he held, it will be necessary to unveil the framing stories and to replace them by a story celebrating action for the common good.

Paul Alexander spoke on “What Pentecostals can do for Peace Among the Peoples.” He reported that the Pentecostal Peace Fellowship has been growing steadily and that about ten to twelve percent of U.S. Pentecostals are reported to be pacifist. Considering the large number of Pentecostals, there are many more pacifists in the U.S. who are Pentecostals than pacifists who are Quakers. The Pentecostal Peace Fellowship is linking American Pentecostals with Palestinian Pentecostals. Paul Alexander showed a video of a visit by one group of American Pentecostals to Israel/Palestine, including statements by the Americans after the trip about how their views had changed as a result. Alexander considers this approach the most effective way to counter “Christian Zionism.”

Domestic and International Peacemaking in Perspective.

Jarrod McKenna of the Anabaptist Association of Australia spoke about the “Peace Tree Community” that seeks to live out the Sermon on the Mount, and that draws inspiration from Bonhoefer’s insistence that we need an alternative imagination through which we can envision a peaceful world. The Community collaborates with Orthodox Jews, Gandhians, the military, and all sorts of other people interested in community, social justice and related concerns on issues of shared interest. For example, the Australian military is concerned with global warming and has permitted the “Peace Tree Community” and its partners to plant vines and fig trees, literally, on military bases and to advocate for other “green” measures. Jarrod represented Quakers at the Historic Peace Church meeting in Indonesia, the Asian meeting in the Historic Peace Churches’ series of meetings around the world held in conjunction with the Decade to Overcome Violence.

Lina Gehman Peachey high lighted violence against women, a concern of the WCC for the last two decades. She focused on three areas: sexual violations, particularly in the church and in families of church goers; murder and violence within families; and the physical punishment of children. She identified several areas where theological work needs to be done to address these problems: There is too much talk of suffering and too little of resistance and of standing with those who suffer. She proposed replacing a theology that sees suffering as a requirement for salvation with a theology seeing suffering as of value only if it is a consequence of non-violent resistance to abuse and injustice. Similarly, she suggested that forgiveness and reconciliation need to be considered within a context of truth-telling to perpetrators of injustice, not as a substitute for it. The truth-telling might include a critique of the myth of patriarchal entitlement that takes women for granted, including their use, misuse, and abuse. The theological challenge, she suggested, is to give more attention to systemic (and perhaps structural) sin within families, within communities, and within nations.

Concurrent Working Sessions included two sessions that reviewed drafts of important ecumenical documents related to just peacemaking: “Christian Understanding of War in an age of Terror(ism)” (an NCCC study document) and the “Just Peace Declaration” drafted for next year’s International Ecumenical Peace Convocation of the WCC. One session examined violence against women and its intersection with peace movement theology and thought. Other sessions explored the establishment of a Global Ecumenical Peace Network and a North American Peace Center.

Worship: Each evening there was a worship service open to the public. The first was held at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, the venue for the conference, but other nights the evening worship was held in a different area church each evening, in an effort to engage the community in the Conference. The sermons by Mary Jo Leddy, Itonde Kakoma, Bogdan Bucur, and Andre Gingerich Stoner were integral parts of the ecumenical conference. In addition, each day began with formal prayer in the Seminary’s chapel.

The hope of the organizers was that the efforts of the working sessions would transcend the conference itself. It is too early to tell whether anything will come of the proposals for a Global Ecumenical Peace Network and for a North American Peace Center, though the groups working on these proposals reported preliminary next steps. The sessions reviewing the draft ecumenical documents of the NCC and WCC were led by people involved in the drafting, so the sessions themselves provided feedback directly to representatives of the relevant NCC and WCC drafting committees. In addition, the Conference brought together activists and theologians from a wide variety of Christian traditions, providing a useful occasion for rich sharing of experience, thought, perspective, and encouragement.

Report submitted by Tom Paxson

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