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The things that make for peace

Academics, activists reflect on discernment process

February 4, 2013

MONTREAT, N.C.

As part of what one church leader called a “crowd-sourcing process,” 140 educators, students, pastors, activists and theologians gathered at Montreat Conference Center Jan. 18-20 to talk, think and learn about peacemaking.

The gathering was part of a churchwide Peace Discernment process, initiated by the 219th General Assembly (2010) and reaffirmed by the 220th General Assembly (2012).

In this process, presbyteries and congregations are encouraged to read “Encountering the Gospel of Peace Anew: An Invitation to Discernment and Witness,” reflect on a series of discernment questions and then send their feedback to the General Assembly offices in Louisville to help shape the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s peacemaking work in the future.

Before the Presbyterian Church acts on anything, it likes to think and pray hard, said the Rev. Christian Iosso, coordinator of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP).

“This discernment is part of the thinking and praying first,” Iosso said. “In the church, crowd-sourcing is a place for the work of the Spirit in the process.”

 Leaders of the weekend at Montreat made a special effort to include voices from Presbyterian-related colleges, with students, chaplains and professors of peace-related courses present. 

Peacemaking in the 21st century

The weekend opened with a speech by Andrea Bartoli, dean of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. An Italian Catholic scholar, Bartoli spoke about the challenges of peacemaking in the 21st century.

“Nonviolence is not a Gospel word. Jesus doesn’t use that word,” Bartoli said. “Peacemaking comes to us not as a verb but as a noun — a blessing.”

We can see a peacemaker as less of a doer and more as a poet, he said, picking up on the Greek word poesis, used in Matthew 5.

“Peace is not made by us. Peace is not constructed in a factory,” he said. “Peace is given to us as God’s blessing.”

Rather than working to manufacture peace, Bartoli pointed to Jesus’ work of “un-violencing,” drawing out evil in exorcism and through transforming or disarming hostile situations.

Following Bartoli was Charles Amjad-Ali, director of Islamic Studies at Luther Seminary and an ordained presbyter in the Church of Pakistan.

Religion was once seen as an impediment to knowledge and source of violence, Amjad-Ali said. But now, though every faith is experiencing extremism, secular states and ideologies have caused far more violence. People see recent extremism as evidence that religion is harmful and overlook the role of faith in struggles for justice and peace. Amjad-Ali urged a more constructive and theological understanding of Islam in relation to Christianity and Judaism, particularly to see the hopes for liberation in it.

“You can never talk about peace without talking about justice,” he said. “Peace cannot be there in states of oppression.”

Terrorism and war

The next day, participants heard contrasting viewpoints on terrorism and war from Tommy Ross, senior intelligence and defense advisor to Sen. Harry Reid, and Paul Chappell, a veteran and peace leadership director for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

Ross spoke about the complex challenges facing U.S. security, including the growing influence of non-state actors, who commit violence acts independent of a national authority.

“Non-state actors are just one aspect of an increasingly tangled national security front,” he said, adding that environmental stress, health threats and economic struggles are other key challenges.

How can we change the conversation from a security perspective to a moral perspective?

“We must confront the reality of the world as it exists today — with all its flaws — while striving for a better world,” Ross said.

Those two perspectives must be held in constant tension, and we must look at approaches simultaneously.

The United States uses military force too often, but it hasn’t seen proof of the effectiveness of other means. Often, the country is faced with a choice between two evils: it is right to deal with an autocrat in order to bring aid to people in need?

“We are also imperfect actors in a messy and imperfect world,” he said.

Policymakers deal with policy, but people of faith work on another level, striving for the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, Ross said. Christianity calls us to seek to prevent all wars, but we also acknowledge our own sin and the inevitability of conflict.

“The call to peacemaking can never be boiled down to simply opposing war,” he said.

Chappell spoke about how Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi were more effective than any general. Gandhi was in fact a military recruiter and worked as a military medic. Those experiences showed him to never attack your enemy where it’s strongest; instead, attack the weak spots.

Some people have criticized King, saying he should have used violence. But the United States has a powerful military, which would have crushed King and his work.

When people are oppressed, they have the right to use violence. But because they have no military structure, oppressed groups have only two fighting options: guerilla warfare and terrorism. But oppressed groups have a more effective tool: nonviolence.

“Martin Luther King and Gandhi constantly referred to nonviolence as a weapon,” Chappell said.

In a nonviolent struggle, hatred is the enemy. The only way to attack hatred is with a weapon of love — not just any type of love, but “Jesus-type love,” Chappell said.

“That high caliber of love is how to destroy your enemy,” he said.

Oppressors’ weakness is their morality, and every time that morality is targeted, they become less powerful. For example, the violent images of police dogs and water hoses helped the civil rights movement immensely, Chappell said.

There are many metaphors for a nonviolent activist: poet, doctor, artist. But a warrior is also an appropriate metaphor because both occupations come with the expectation that people will try to kill you.

Structural violence and oppression

Later that afternoon, participants heard from Allan Boesak, a well-known theologian, anti-apartheid activist and political leader during South Africa’s transition to majority rule.

In a system of domination in a society, cultural, economic and political elements work together to perpetuate that system, Boesak said. Apartheid was such a system that benefitted all white people. It was a crime against humanity, and in such crimes, both perpetrators and beneficiaries must be held accountable.

Boesak spoke about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was set up to address the injustices of apartheid. The TRC had a few problems, including a lack of understanding that apartheid was a violent assault on black people in every way, Boesak said. Apartheid was a “deliberate system of perpetual violence,” but the TRC model saw apartheid as individual acts rather than a systemic problem.

The TRC also only addressed one form of violence — physical — and only found the perpetrators guilty, not those who benefitted from the violent system.

The old problems of injustice and violence are back, Boesak said, adding that old people can’t give up and young people need to learn how to struggle.

“In a real sense, it never ends,” he said. “You need more than one conference to go out and fight these battles.”

Following Boesak was the Rev. Mary McClintock Fulkerson, professor of theology at Duke University Divinity School, who addressed cultural and structural forms of violence.

Big violent events such as the recent school shooting in Newtown, Conn., get a lot of media attention, but what about other forms of violence such as images of social groups? Fulkerson asked.

In our culture, there is a “subtle, indirect, silent violence that distorts our image of others,” she said. For example, our society equates masculinity with power and control.

With the election of Barack Obama as president, many in the United States say that racial problems are fixed. Whites invoke “colorblindness,” but continue to profit from inherited unequal racial structures. Whites often think they’ve earned the positions they’re in, but they actually have benefitted from their ancestors’ unequal practices.

New directions for peacemaking

Emily Welty, an assistant political science professor at Pace University, spoke about new directions for peacemaking. Welty was especially involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in the fall of 2011 and protests the power banks and corporations have over the democratic process in the United States.

Like other protest movements, Occupy uses rallies, chants, posters and marches to convey its message. But the movement also used art in a new way. This was a strategic move, allowing for better media coverage and making more people want to get involved, Welty said.

Occupy is not just about being against capitalism’s concentration of wealth but is about being in favor of joy, art and community, she said.

Social media also played a huge part in the movement, proving that people will still show up for a cause and that the ability to communicate clearly and quickly is important.

“It’s hard to beat a protest sign designed by someone who knows how to convey a message in 140 characters,” Welty said, referring to Twitter’s character limit.

In such movements, it’s also important to acknowledge one’s own privilege; if not, solidarity is cheap and voyeuristic.  

The ethical framework for nonviolent resistance isn’t new — it came from Jesus, said Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco.

“We don’t have to choose between war and submission to injustice,” he said, adding that more and more people around the world are realizing this.

The most successful path to democratic change is in the power of nonviolence and large-scale civil actions, such as sit-ins or the destruction of government-issued IDs.

“A ruler is only as powerful as his people’s willingness to obey,” Zunes said.

In any liberation struggle, people will be killed, but that number will generally be less than if there were an armed conflict. In an armed struggle, history shows that the formerly oppressed people end up becoming like their oppressors. But dictatorships overthrown by nonviolence are more likely to become democratic, he said.

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