U-C: What I See

Friday, September 01, 2006

On foundational commitments as peacemakers


I’ve spent the summer thinking about my own personal commitments regarding how to be effective in the work of peacemaking. What are the principles that guide my decisions about how to prioritize my time and energy when the task of peacemaking and the opportunities for engagement so often seem overwhelming. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts as I begin in my new role as Executive Director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. Please remember that these are my own musings, and they don’t necessarily represent the consensus of the PPF’s national steering committee. My goal here is not to be definitive about what is or isn’t worthwhile for others, but to get all of us thinking about how we make such decisions ourselves. I would welcome the opportunity to learn about your own commitments. I also recognize that my own beliefs and actions as a peacemaker are a work in process.

I believe that peacemaking is an expression of my faith. I am a peacemaker, first and foremost, because of my formation as a Christian and my commitment to follow Jesus.

Peacemaking is an activity that must be done in community. To me, it seems critical that our efforts strengthen local congregations or other faith communities so that our actions are sustainable over time and provide ongoing support and accountability for one another.

I think peacemaking must be a physical act – it can’t be accomplished in our heads. It is about accompanying those who are experiencing violence and standing together with them as they struggle to survive. It’s about modeling genuine alternatives to war, terrorist acts, and other violent conflict. We must expect our peacemakers to take the same kinds of risks that we expect soldiers to take.

Though I will seek ways to work cooperatively with those of other religious traditions and with non faith-based activists, I will only do so when that cooperation does not violate my fundamental understanding of who God calls me to be, and I will seek always to be clear about my own grounding as a follower of Jesus.

In general, I’m more comfortable with being FOR something in a proactive way than I am in being AGAINST something. For instance, I would prefer to practice hospitality in the desert borderlands - in a way that shows that we have nothing to fear from migrants – rather than focusing on protesting immigration policy that violates our fundamental commitment to welcome the stranger. In fact, I believe that living that proactive witness in an intentionally public way is the best thing we can do to impact public policy.

I do believe, however, that there are times we must protest violence by participating in nonviolent public actions and even risking arrest to call attention to the seriousness of the matter at hand. (More on this soon, as I have made a commitment to risk arrest in a religious protest of the War in Iraq on the 26th of September and I would like to extend a call to Presbyterians to join me in that witness.)

Though I have always thought of myself as a pacifist, I no longer lead with that word when I describe myself. It’s not that I don’t believe in the power of nonviolence to overcome violence. Rather, when a conflict can be described as genocide, I find myself wondering how we can move more quickly to stop the genocide, and my current thinking is that a unified, international police action (not an act of war) is quite likely to be necessary to stop a powerful force from committing that act of genocide. (As you can tell, my thinking on this one is a work in process.)

I’m pretty sure I believe that there is no longer any such thing as a “just war.” I say this primarily because, as the war in Iraq and the recent war between Israel and the Hezbollah have made crystal clear, war is now directed primarily against civilians, and not against soldiers. There are other reasons as well, but this one seems the most compelling to me.

It seems to me that the only way to have integrity as we negotiate the difficult political waters of conflict in the world today is to insist that we will stand against all violence. That means the violence of powerful warmakers and the violence of extremists whose people are being oppressed. It means the violence of military occupation, wherever it may be taking place, and the violence of those who would pick up a gun or strap a bomb to their body in response to their powerlessness. Taking such a stance will allow us to insist that Peacemaking is not a politically partisan activity, though it will almost always have political implications if we are truly witnessing to our faith.

I dream of a day when the PC(USA) might create a new confession about the ways in which we have historically participated in violence, and I dare to dream of a day when we might affirm a commitment to join the Quakers, Brethren and the Mennonites as a “Peace Church.” I doubt such a commitment will take place in the foreseeable future, and I would settle for a strong commitment to insist that we do in fact believe that it is possible to love one’s enemies and to model that belief by actively promoting alternatives to violence – especially the violence of the so-called “War on Terror.” If the church is unwilling to name the impossibility of finding security and peace through the making of war, then who will step forward to do it?

Finally, a word about patriotism and supporting our troops. I am unyielding in my insistence that our first allegiance as Christians is to our God. There is nothing unpatriotic about standing against policies that neither make us more secure nor embody fundamental, Christian commitments to human rights, justice and the safety of civilian noncombatants. Jesus calls us to stand against the pervasive, gut-level assumption in our culture that violence can in some way be redemptive.

At the same time, it is clear to me that faithful Presbyterians - or people of any faith tradition - can come to a different conclusion than I do. I think we would all be wise to adopt a measure of humility about our own understanding of what God desires for the world. It’s such a fine balancing act, isn’t it? How will we live with conviction even as we recognize that we are a work in progress and God is continually shaping and molding us?

In the end, I feel torn. On the one hand, I can embrace and even affirm the Presbyterian assumption of total depravity in the world, for I’ve seen that depravity far too closely as I’ve worked with victims of torture, war, and economic injustice whose oppression can be both overwhelmingly global and devastatingly focused on individuals. On the other hand, I stand with the Quakers in their assumption that there is that of God in everyone. For every evil I’ve seen in the world, I can name a concomitant act of kindness and generosity, and I’m convinced that nothing could be more pragmatically proactive than the assumption that people will do the right thing if given the opportunity to do so. I’m pretty comfortable living with the juxtaposition of those two ideas – total depravity and inherent goodness. Perhaps it’s something akin to being as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.

I welcome your own thoughts on the “it’s-your-turn discussion group. If you’re not already signed up, you can do so from the front page of my blog.

May God be with us as we go as Peacemakers into a troubled world.