Working for peace and justice is more important than ever today in “a world that has run amok with violence,” keynote speaker the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson told Presbyterians attending the Peace Breakfast, sponsored by Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, at the 220th General Assembly on July 4.

In a rousing speech titled, “Our Choice: Nonviolence or Nonexistence,” Nelson, who is director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Public Witness, urged Presbyterians to seek “not just earthly power but heavenly possibilities” to bring about change.

“We are in a period of time when violence seems to be the response to every situation,” Nelson said. “We’re living in a nation where drone strikes kill innocent people. We’ve found ways to use technology to take people’s lives and we declare it a victory for our nation.”

Nelson listed other examples of violence, including the “economic violence in our nation, where two classes are emerging—one rich and the other poor.” Free trade agreements, because they are not about “fair trade,” have contributed to violence and poverty in developing nations. Nations such as Iran and the United States are in a “race to see who can take out the other.”

At the same time, Nelson said, some are wondering whether prophetic justice has a role in the church any more. He frequently hears church members say that the church should not get too political.

Nelson said his response to such comments is to ask, “Are you really a Presbyterian?”

Reformed Christians from John Calvin onward have recognized the importance of seeking to transform society, Nelson said. The daunting challenges of today’s world should not discourage Presbyterians from working for peace and justice.

“Peace comes with a cost,” Nelson said. “Jesus never said it would be easy.” But when we fall, he added, “there is a God always willing to pick us up.”

A highlight of the breakfast was the presentation of the Peaceseeker Awards for 2011 and 2012. The 2011 award went to the Rev. Victor Makari, a former area coordinator for Presbyterian World Mission, for his advocacy for peace and justice in the Middle East. The 2012 award recipient is the Rev. Alice Winters, who served more than 30 years as a mission worker in Colombia and helped organize a program of accompaniment to support Colombian church members threatened with violence.