Monday, March 07, 2011

Peace among the Peoples

In late July 2010, I had the privilege of being the Moravian representative to a conference hosted by the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.  The event, titled Peace among the Peoples, was advertised as “An Ecumenical Peace Conference on Overcoming the Spirit, Logic and Practice of Violence.”  It certainly lived up to its billing both as an ecumenical gathering and as a conference focused on the ways of peace.
Nearly two hundred delegates and presenters attended the conference.  While, as might be expected, a substantial number of them were Mennonite, the rest of us came from a wide variety of traditions.  There were members of other historic peace churches, including Quaker and Church of the Brethren.  Representatives of mainline Protestant churches, such as the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Lutheran, United Methodist, and American Baptist were in attendance, as were delegates from more evangelical traditions such as the Assemblies of God, Community of Christ, Missionary Church, and Seventh Day Adventist. 
Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions were represented, as well as international delegates from the United Church of Canada, Mennonite Church Canada, and the Anabaptist Movement in Australia.  Representation from such a wide range of traditions greatly enriched both the discussions and the worship experiences.
While all of the plenary sessions were stimulating and thought provoking, one of the more challenging was the discussion by Stanley Hauerwas, of Duke University, and Gerard F. Powers, of the University of Notre Dame, on “Just War and Pacifism in Dialogue.”  Dr. Hauerwas, presenting the pacifist position, pointed out that Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross ended the need for sacrifice.  Language about sacrifice in war is therefore idolatry.  Citing the Gettysburg Address as an example of such rhetoric, he decried the idea that we have to continue killing people in the name of those who have died in past conflicts. 
Offering a positive viewpoint, he stated that churches don’t have an alternative to war; churches are the alternative to war.  Part of being a peacemaker is to give your enemy hope, and hope is precisely what the Gospel provides.  He also admonished us with the observation that if you are going to be a pacifist, you must be willing to be at least as disciplined as is the military.  A wishy-washy, “feel good” Christianity doesn’t begin to live out Jesus’ teaching.  Peacemaking is hard work.
Continuing the presentation, Dr. Powers noted that the Just War theory is about practical moral discernment and about violence prevention.  Evaluation under Just War theory has to start before conflict begins, with the aim of exhausting every possible means to avert hostilities.  Non-violence has to be the norm, and just war the exception.  In the discussion that followed, the observation was made that if Just War theory were applied strictly, no conflict in which the United States has been involved within the past sixty years could be justified.
During a workshop later in the conference, Rita Nakashima Brock expanded on issues regarding Just War.  She pointed out that U.S. soldiers are carefully instructed in Just War Theory as part of their military training.  But they face severe penalties if they apply what they have been taught to analyze a current conflict, conclude that it does not comply with just war requirements, and then refuse deployment on that basis.  There is no provision in current U.S. law for selective conscientious objection.  The result is imposition of substantial moral injury on precisely those soldiers who take their training most seriously.
Dr. Brock and David Miller reported on the work of the Truth Commission on Conscience in War, which held hearings at Riverside Church, New York City, in March 2010.  Two groups of persons testified during the hearings – soldiers who related their personal experiences of war, and leaders from the fields of medicine, religion, and psychology who served as expert witnesses.  As a result of the work of the Commission, the Veterans Administration is now writing protocols to deal with moral injury experienced by U.S. soldiers.  Brock and Miller noted that the aim of the ongoing work of the Truth Commission is restorative justice, to restore relationships and to create a better society, as opposed to a crime and punishment model.
One other powerful speaker whom I will mention here was Linda Gehman Peachey, from the Mennonite Central Committee.  Her topic was violence against women, which she stated is not just a domestic issue but is a huge problem around the world.  She identified four specific areas where peace theology may contribute to violence against women and children: (1) Emphasis on suffering and the cross can imply that suffering is required for salvation. (2) The understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation can be used to avoid accountability and stop the process of healing.  Repentance must be a part of reconciliation, and the perpetrator must understand that harm was done.  (3) The myth of entitlement asserts that some people have the right, and even the duty, to control others.  This is the dynamic of empire, not of the gospel.  It is also used to justify destruction of the earth.  (4) The understanding of the power of God in terms of control and domination makes God too much like Caesar.
Peachey urged conference attendees to pay close attention to those who have been hurt by individual and systemic violence.  Who is missing from the discussion?  Who is most vulnerable?  How do those missing and most vulnerable hear our message of peace?  We must engage in regular self-evaluation to assure that our peacemaking efforts are not inadvertently harming others.
This post provides just a sample of what proved to be an extremely rich experience.  Peacemaking is an on-going challenge in a world wracked with violence, but it is our calling and our joy.

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