Theology and Peace pamphlet 8
Called to Step into the Breach
The Churches’ Role in Overcoming Inter-Religious and Inter-Ethnic Conflict
“You shall be called repairer of the breach, restorer of the streets to dwell in”. This was the motto of the Church and Peace international conference which took place in Elspeet, Netherlands, on April 27-29, 2001. This promise which the prophet addresses to the people of God has one stipulation, however: they will be worthy of this name, this vocation, if they renounce their practice of superficial and egotistical religion which has reduced their faith to acts of piety, fasting and impressive ceremonies of public repentance, and instead practice the justice which God desires; this justice consists of liberating the oppressed and the poor, of sharing one’s bread and shelter with all.
The pamphlet you are holding is an appeal to the churches and individual Christians to own their vocation as God’s people today: the call to practice justice which restores life to devastated neighbor-hoods.
The pamphlet attempts to capture the essence of this international conference held under the banner of the prophet Isaiah’s promise. At the conference the role and responsibility of the churches in the context of inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflict was discussed in depth with insight gained in the Balkans, Northern Ireland and Rwanda as a point of reference. Both speakers and participants shared about their experiences and struggles. The churches and communities in the Church and Peace network were challenged to make a contribution to the Decade to Overcome Violence.
Our hope is that this booklet will lead the reader to reflect on the practice of justice and will encourage others to join the host of “breach repairers” of which our world so sorely is in need today.
Marie-Noëlle von der Recke
Introduction to the Decade to Overcome Violence
Personal remarks on rediscovering Jesus’ call to nonviolence
“I don’t make killing remarks about people who have not tried to kill me. I don’t offer my cheek to be slapped. If someone hits me, I hit him back three times.”
Fashion baron Karl Lagerfeld made this statement recently in an inter-view and reiterated a widely held attitude in Germany and “western” countries. I find striking the three assumptions in his statement:
• A person will not act nasty if he or she is left in peace.
• A person pays back others exactly what he or she is given.
• One even goes a step beyond the old Jewish maxim “an eye for an eye” - which, from a historical perspective, actually was a call to restraint - and responds by hitting back three times as hard.
At a Historic Peace Churches conference in January 1994 in Chicago, I witnessed how Gene Stotzfus, Christian Peacemaker Teams coordinator, introduced the nonviolence of Jesus by attempting to demonstrate with a workshop participant how one would strike another person on the left check with the back of the right hand - a simply ridiculous display!
For me it was if a light had been switched on. And it must have been the same for Jesus’ contemporaries otherwise they would not have included this central political teaching of Jesus in the Gospels: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Matthew 5:38-41 (NRSV)
To quote Walter Wink: “The person who turns the other cheek is saying ‘Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me.’ The poor are the ones who listen to Jesus; they are eaten by hatred of a system that humiliates them by taking away their land and all their possessions down to their last shirt.” (Jesus' Third Way. 1987, Philadelphia: New Society Publishers)
Walter Wink illustrated in an impressive fashion what Jesus’ “third way” looks like and that such a way even exists between cowardly flight and violent fight; between subjection and armed resistance; between passivity and violent revolt; between retreat and direct retaliation; between surren-der and vengeance. It is a way of moral initiative; a way which meets brutal violence with wit, imaginativeness and humor; a way which presents with self-confidence the human dignity of the oppressed and which assaults the conscience of the oppressor or the corrupt system with “the power of truth”, Satyagraha.
In the end this means choosing a willingness to suffer over giving in, and to experience violence rather than to employ violence. But - and this needs to be put into practice in nonviolence literacy training in the recent-ly launched Decade - a strict application of this willingness to suffer must go hand in hand with the teaching of an attitude and aptitude to “intervene in a helpful manner in conflicts, crises and violent disputes” (as some Church and Peace members pledged at the Ecumenical Assembly in 1989 in Basel and the JPIC World Consultation in Seoul in 1990).
I believe that a central challenge for Christians and churches in the next ten years is to develop as widely as possible an attitude of and aptitude in active nonviolence.
About the Decade to Overcome Violence
The Decade to Overcome Violence, initiated for the years 2001-2010 by the World Council of Churches (WCC) at its assembly in Harare in 1998, runs parallel to the United Nations’ “Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World” Decade which came about through the efforts of numerous Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, branches of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and other NGOs.
The WCC resolution has its origins in earlier WCC programs. A continuation of the highly contested WCC Program to Combat Racism in the 1980s, the “Program to Overcome Violence” was established on the basis of the inspiring suggestion of a South African bishop from the WCC Central Committee. The “Peace to the City” Campaign, created by a reference group at a conference in Rio de Janeiro in January 1996, was intended to move this program forward when after several years response to the POV did not fully materialize. A conscious decision was made to limit the Campaign to a two year period culminating in the WCC assembly in Harare in 1998.
In its Decade framework paper from 1999, the World Council of Churches invited the churches to become involved in a wide variety of concerns:
“Throughout the Decade to Overcome Violence, the focus will be on the response and prevention to forms of violence, such as:
• Overcoming violence between nations
• Overcoming violence within nations
• Overcoming violence in local communities
• Overcoming violence within the home and the family
• Overcoming violence within the church
• Overcoming sexual violence
• Overcoming socio-economic violence
• Overcoming violence as a result of economic and political blockades
• Overcoming violence among youth
• Overcoming violence associated with religious and cultural practices
• Overcoming violence within legal systems
• Overcoming violence against creation
• Overcoming violence as a result of racism and ethnic hatred”
(A Basic Framework For The Decade To Overcome Violence - Working document adopted by the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, 26 August - 3 September 1999)
Opportunities offered by the Decade and initial reactions
An impossibly vast and overwhelming undertaking?!? On the day following the Decade’s launch, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the large regional progressive German newspapers, remarked that “the newly launched Decade to Overcome Violence will likely be little more than an edifying preoccupation with itself.”
If we approach the Decade in the manner which I have so often experienced before with other church programs - that the churches form committees and sub-committees and commissions and project groups which make suggestions about how to proceed and produce resource packets and organize conferences and write reports about the results of the commissions - then perhaps the Süddeutsche Zeitung will have been right. (I could quote a corresponding regional church synodal resolution.)
In response to this criticism, WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser remarked in an interview with the Trier diocesan journal Paulinus (22 April 2001): “The expansion of a ‘culture of violence’, which one can observe for some time now, constitutes a central challenge for the ecumenical movement. (...) The commitment made in the context of the conciliar process for justice, peace and integrity of creation to nonviolence in the resolution of conflicts must move into the center of the churches. (...) Therefore it is important to break the silence about violence and its causes, to strengthen resistance to violence through networks of solidarity, to practice nonviolent forms of conflict resolution and to counter a culture of habituation to violence with the practice of dialogue and solidarity.”
Concrete action and imagination are what is needed. I can only refer here to discussion in German circles. Manfred Kock, head of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), has suggested focusing on three of the areas suggested by the WCC:
• Prevention of domestic violence (particularly violence against children and women);
• Preventive measures against racially motivated violence (through education of church members, youth service projects, vigils, telephone hotlines and actions);
• Prevention of violence in inter- and intra-state conflicts (Here he mentioned in particular Kosovo/Yugoslavia and Israel/Palestine).
Kock called for a “culture of nonviolence in Germany” with the words “something has got to change in people’s heads!” The deciding factor in whether or not the Decade will be more than the Church’s preoccupation with itself will be the involvement of grassroots groups over the next few years.
In addition attention must be paid to structural violence which is generally perceived only by its victims. This means, in the spirit of liberation theology, learning to see and act from the viewpoint of the victims - to be on the path towards “peace with justice”.
The Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christliche Kirchen (Association of Christian Churches) - the principle ecumenical body in Germany - has approved the Decade. My organization pax christi will also support the Decade. In a recently formed working group we concluded that the spectrum of pax christi’s work corresponds quite closely with the breadth of the WCC’s proposal.
I would like to share my favorite vision for the churches: “My vision is that in 2010 numerous Christian church congregations will hold nonviolent conflict resolution and peace culture workshops in the same self-evident way that senior circles and youth groups are organized within the church today. (Schalomdiakonat: Erfahrungen und Einsichten zur Gewaltfreiheit)
Regional church activities are encouraging. I also feel the discussion in churchwide youth associations about the new “Orientation for a Peace Ethic” is very promising. The German Catholic Bishops’ document gerech-ter Friede (Just Peace) is timely and suggests a paradigm shift in the mainline churches following the Yugoslavia and Kosovo debacle.
The Decade as a challenge for the peace and mainline churches
A contradiction between the messianic imperative to renounce violence and a sensible acceptance of peace maintained through the use of violence can be found throughout the entire Catholic document gerechter Friede - though there is a clear emphasis on the challenge of the nonviolence of Jesus.
I would like to illustrate with the following points this tension as it concerns the relationship between the peace and mainline churches.
• Through the multilateral commitment in the conciliar process to justice, peace and the integrity of creation, the mainline churches have made great strides towards a model of binding church fellowship, even though they have not been able or willing to completely assume the foundational theology of the Covenant with its all political consequences. Still, nonviolence as a political-religious concept has gradually but self-evidently begun to establish itself in the mainline churches as well.
• Following World War II the role of the Historic Peace Churches was recognized by the mainline churches for the first time. It was then that the historical sins of the mainline churches in their fight against the peace churches “were addressed for probably the first time since the 16th century”. (Warneck/Hohmann, 50 Years of Ecumenical Dialogue and Witness for Peace)
• What remains important and necessary is the Historic Peace Churches’ continuous appeal to the mainline churches to make a decisive new beginning according to the Gospel, a new beginning which could overcome “paralysis of faith” and “proximity to the political powers”. (ibid.) However, this appeal ought not to become a kind of fanatical pressuring or the change of course which has begun within the mainline churches will be unnecessarily delayed. The founding of organizations such as Eirene (in the 1960s) and Oekumenischer Dienst/Shalom Service (in the 1990s) are exemplary signs and stations on this path of change.
• It is very helpful to trace the transition which took place in Church and Peace’s history from a socio-ethical to an ecclesiological orientation, namely from the concept of volunteer services to the concept of a “peace community”; a similar transition needs to be pursued in the mainline churches. Here I am speaking of “community” in the traditional pastoral sense in all its different forms as well as in the modern base community sense.
If one looks at the “peace community” (comunidad de paz) San José de Apartadó in Colombia whose existence is currently under threat, then one can observe both the spiritual and political significance of such peace communities. To become church(es) of peace rather than simply to work as churches for peace - this process has already begun.
Practical steps for the future
In conclusion I would, from my German context, like to point out several signs of hope in the socio-political arena in the past few years. In addition to the WCC and UN Decades and the creation of a European Platform for Civilian Conflict Resolution, I would like to mention that:
• mediation in schools continues to establish itself through peer groups, round tables and “conflict pilots”;
• training in nonviolence and alternative actions in threatening situations continues to grow in popularity - offered by a range of groups from pacifists to the police;
• German and European Union programs for integration, constructive confrontation and right extremists who wish to leave such groups (the Xenos Program is the most recent example) are being implemented;
• asylum seeker protection groups, in particular church initiatives, are developing new forms of social action;
• shalom service and civilian peace service are establishing themselves in the ecumenical/church and state-sponsored sectors, respectively;
• the Bund für Soziale Verteidigung (Alliance for Social Defense) is planning a nonviolent intervention project.
In March 2001 the Bund für Soziale Verteidigung (Alliance for Social Defense) formulated a statement to which peace churches and the peace church wing of the mainline churches should feel a certain commitment as well: “We believe the challenge to the peace movement now is to present a politically active and combative pacifism. Political in the sense of the development of a concept of multifaceted civilian action in response to societal and international conflict and which naturally also incorporates criticism of military-based political policy. Combative in the sense that those who want peace must prepare the way for peace.”
Or to use my own words: “In order to resist becoming bound up in the logic of power and of the military, or to escape such logic, the pacifist position must have a strong and deep prophetic religious foundation. At the same time prophetic religious pacifism needs a realistic political “earthing”. In a nutshell, political pacifism needs religious pacifism in order to be sustainable and religious pacifism needs political pacifism in order to not become irrelevant!” (Schalomdiakonat)
Translation from the German: Terri Miller
Reinhard Voss is general secretary of Pax Christi Germany.
Conflict in the Balkans - Role and Responsibility of the Churches in Eastern and Western Europe
• Stories of peace witness by churches in the Balkans
Interviewer Janko Jekic is co-founder and board member of the Christian humanitarian association Bread of Life and from his residence in Germany is active in organizing relief work with persons returning to Croatia.
Sharing their stories are: Aleksandar Birvis, Baptist pastor, professor at the Theological Faculty in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, and founder of the Yugoslav Association for Religious Freedom; Vesna Liermann, Interreligious Cooperation in Peacebuilding project worker with the Center for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights in Osijek, Croatia; Father Stojadin Pavlovic, Serbian Orthodox priest and member of the board of directors of the Inter-religious Center in Belgrade, Yugoslavia; and Jasmina Tosic, co-director of Bread of Life in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
Janko Jekic: We would like to talk this morning about the work being done on-location, the joys and challenges and how we can work together in the future. Let me begin with a question for Professor Birvis: What is your vision for the role of the church in peacebuilding in the regions of conflict?
Professor Aleksandar Birvis: The theological schools I belong to see the role of the church in three aspects. In Greek we say, “leiturgia”, “di-daskalia” and “diakonia” which mean “worship and prayer”, “teaching” and “service”. We can work for peace within the framework of all three of these aspects. The first words the resurrected Christ said to his church -his followers - were, “peace be with you”, thus working for peace is something which must remain as our task. As far as our prayer life and worship are concerned, we ought to not only include more prayers for peace and give more sermons about peace but also concentrate on all kinds of peace-related topics, from the theoretical to very practical instructions. In the area of teaching, we must revise our pedagogy and the subject matter that we teach. And as far as service is concerned, it is important to observe that our social service agencies and individual volunteers strive to involve each and every person in peacebuilding and peacemaking work in some way.
JJ: I think that all of us, especially our brothers and sisters here at this conference from Western Europe and North America, are very curious about what is currently taking place in the Balkans and how the churches are contributing to peacebuilding. I would like to ask Vesna Liermann to share a concrete example of peace work in which she is involved in Osijek, Croatia, a multiethnic town that was the site of heavy fighting and atrocities during the war.
Vesna Liermann: After the war ended, I was working in a village with a majority Serbian population. Most of the Croats had been expelled; after the war they were slowly returning. There are two churches in the village, Catholic and Orthodox. About two years ago a Catholic priest returned and started work in the village, but there was not very good cooperation between the two churches. The Center for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights tried to take some steps to improve this situation. At first we weren’t sure how to go about this. We had many discussions with the Catholic priest and the Orthodox priest there but we couldn’t bring them into dialogue.
Then we understood we had to work through the people in the churches. So we created a group with members from the Catholic and the Orthodox churches and went door-to-door through the village to find out people’s concrete needs. We discovered two common concerns. The first was the issue of security, feeling safe in a village with two very nationalistic sides. The second problem was the difficult economic situation.
We decided to focus on the second problem - poverty and the poor economic situation. First we took the responses to our questionnaire to a Catholic priest and an Orthodox priest and discussed this with them. Here we noticed the first fruits; the Catholic priest was very moved by what he heard and started working to find ways out of the poor economic situation. Slowly the Orthodox deacon accepted the idea of ecu-menical cooperation, and now, two years later, he is also involved in this work.
For example, in the Catholic church there is a group of believers who visits poor families on a weekly basis to help out and occasionally cook meals. (I feel it is important to stress that this group is objective in their work; the nationality of the families they help is not an issue.) At a certain point the Orthodox deacon got together a group of children and included them in this Catholic group; they visit the poor people together and organize different activities for them. The group sells the people’s handicrafts for them. We have realized that by addressing people’s very basic problems, we could be active as peacemakers in the situation in which they are. Of course the churches are included in this. The results are really amazing! Very slowly we have resolved the so-called nationality question.
JJ: There have been so many reports about the negative side of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s role during the times of war. I would like to ask our brother, Reverend Stojadin, an Orthodox priest from Valjevo, to give us some examples of peacemaking actions by members of his church since such stories do not get coverage in the media.
Father Stojadin: During the last war in the Balkans at the end of the 20th century, the nations of the former Yugoslavia were portrayed as fighting the church to which I belong, the Orthodox Church, yet the Orthodox Church was actually present in all of the areas in conflict. The Orthodox Church was portrayed as a church with hidden motives egging on the warring sides, but it was trying to save its members in Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia. I will share two examples with you that witness to the other side of the story.
During the last war the son of the Imam Redza from Zvornik disappeared somewhere in Bosnia. The most active person in the search for Imam Redza’s son was Srecko Radosavljevic, an Orthodox priest from Prnjavor near Sabac which is close to the Bosnian border. He helped the Muslims in their search for the imam’s son.
A second example is that of Bishop Lavrentije of Sabac and Valjevo, who went to Sarajevo to help set free French, Dutch and Germans who were being held captive there. With the knowledge and the blessing of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavla, he brought these people from Sarajevo to Belgrade and then to the airport in Budapest so they could return home. For the Serbs, in a certain sense those foreign prisoners were people from the other side because they were portrayed as the enemy and not friends of the Serbian people.
JJ: We have just heard from members of the mainline churches in the region; now we would like to speak with someone from the minority Protestant churches, Jasmina Tosic. In her work at Bread of Life, which was founded by a Pentecostal and a Baptist church, she has had contact with thousands and thousands of refugees from different nationalities and areas.
Jasmina Tosic: I would like to speak from the perspective of an individual person and not as the director of Bread of Life. There has been a passionate response against this war by Christians in Yugoslavia and the region I’m from. By his mercy and for his glory God enabled us to respond in a powerful way exactly like the examples in the passage from Isaiah 58. We can’t build until we meet people’s everyday needs. What Christians are doing in the region is something that was not featured in the media during all the years of the war and is still not reported about today. There is a silent voice, of peaceful and quiet people. But this silent, quiet voice is more powerful than anything else. You have heard stories of destruction, but we are witnesses of ways to rebuild and to empower ordinary people to do good and to overcome evil and violence in their hearts. Just as the others who have already shared their experiences, we have various programs - giving food, helping people to find a home, restore their health and find a way forward.
I would like very much to share about this quiet work with Church and Peace and Christians who may be concerned whether the churches responded correctly to this war or did everything they should have to try and prevent it. Two years ago in 1999, I was at the Church and Peace symposium at Bienenberg during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. No one knew what was going to happen next, and we were all very frustrated by feelings of powerlessness. Following the conference there was an incredible response from Christians from all of the countries whose governments were bombing my country. Together with Christians from England, America, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, we responded and continue to respond in a quiet way to do something very important in Yugoslavia. We rebuild people’s lives. I could tell many stories - stories of aid buckets, of programs for shelters, of donating cows, pigs and chickens, and more - of how this influences people’s lives. So the response of churches and Christians in the region is quite significant.
JJ: A final question for Mr. Birvis regarding the future and the task of creating peace. What do you see as the challenges and the opportunities for peacebuilding work by both theologians and lay people in the areas of conflict? What are the specific challenges in this very difficult task of building peace?
Aleksandar Birvis: I would like to refer to the three steps our Methodist brethren have taken not only in the Balkans but in other places as well. The first step is truth-finding because of Jesus’ promise “You will find the Truth and it will set you free.” Our task to find the truth. This is very difficult, because every party has its own version of what happened and its own blindness. We must help people to look beyond themselves and to express truthfully and precisely what happened. Only then are we really prepared for reconciliation.
In the conflicts in the Balkans we always think about reconciliation between Serbs and Croats or between Albanians and Serbs, and so on, but in reality this reconciliation must come first through the religious leaders - through pastors, through imams, through Orthodox and Roman Catholic bishops. They are the people who must take the first steps. Fortunately some - though not all - of these religious leaders have already realized what they must do and are working hard at reconciliation.
The real fruit of this reconciliation work - peace in a specific city or area - follows much later. True peace is not just the absence of war without resolution of the underlying problems as is the case now in the region. I’m thankful that there are some temporary solutions, but our work must have true peace as its consequence, for we are called to be peacebuilders. This is a long and sometimes winding path. We must realize how weak and powerless we are and ask God for strength. We must ask for his enabling grace to work in us, to make us humble enough to accept the situation and the people with whom we come into contact. We must also realize that we all have sinned and be willing to repent of this sin. Only then will our work advance and truly bear fruit.
• Bread of Life with honey - steadfast work for peace
Response by Anthea Bethge
When I was asked if I would formulate a response at this point in the program, I was happy to accept. I thought of my frequent trips to the Balkans and the committed people there whom I visit and listen to. For me this is fascinating; I have learned very, very much from them.
I have brought something with me for my response this morning: a plate. Just a regular plate from the dining hall. This plate is a symbol for the Balkans. It is not smashed or broken as you might expect; it is simply a plate. What is special about this plate is that there is something on it. There is a slice of bread on this plate - dry bread. What I have learned and experienced once again during this conference is the fact that there is bread in the Balkans, bread of life. I mean this in two senses: real bread made from wheat that was harvested, ground and baked. Bread that is needed because people are hungry; their hunger needs to be satisfied. But I also mean the Bread of Life which satisfies the soul, which satisfies those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and peace - the proclamation of good news. This is something I am reminded of each time: there is much Bread of Life in the Balkans.
During the seminar here in Elspeet, we learned - specifically those of us from Northern and Western Europe and countries further away - that the situation in the Balkans is not at all mysterious, simply very complicated. Prof. Birvis reminded us of this fact. This was an important insight because if one views something as mysterious then one is perhaps not close enough to the situation. One doesn’t understand it. If we get close enough we will recognize that though it is a very complicated situation, it is not one that cannot be understood. There are answers to questions such as: Where are the different cities located? What is the ethnic make-up, which majority and minority groups are found there? What have the different groups in these areas experienced over the past 10 years? Which political power separated them? And finally: What is the task, or tasks, of the churches in this complex situation?
The churches’ task is to preserve the holy gift of life - nothing more and nothing less. What we have heard about today are tasks that different churches have done - today, yesterday, many years ago. I want to emphasize the word “different” and that there are many tasks for the churches because we heard at least three examples this morning and in none of these cases could the one church have been replaced with another.
We heard from Father Stojadin how prisoners were set free and how Orthodox priests prepared the way and accompanied captives from Sarajevo via Belgrade and Budapest to their home countries. I think we will be asked one day if we visited those in prison. I don’t know if we will be asked about our understanding of the relationship between Church and State. I think that there are things that need to change in the relationship between the Church and the State, in my own church as well, but to forget the prisoners in the midst of this is certainly not right. It is certainly right to lead prisoners to freedom.
From Vesna’s story we also heard something very special, namely that no problem is so horrible that it cannot also be a starting point for peace. It was truly fascinating how the people in the village in her story sought to identify the problems and then made use of one of these problems - economic miseries - to facilitate meetings and exchange. Naturally the goal was also to address the economic problems, but the people of the village neither sat back and waited for the economy to pick up nor did they ignore the problem saying “we’ll just work at ecumenism right now and forget about the economy”. No, these people tackled the problem of economic misery and transformed the problem into a building block on the path of peace. I have often experienced this in the Balkans. Someone once told me, “My God, all we have here are problems. We have to start with the problems.” This is one perspective. Another perspective is that God is truly the one who can and wants to make something good out of the worst of evils.
We heard three or four or five stories - and even more during the seminar - that were much more than just bread of life. I have brought something else along with me this morning, namely honey. I think that those of us who do not live in the Balkans need to hear many stories that are not only bread but also honey. I have to say that in my head the propaganda was successful. I never went so far as to think that the bombing campaign was correct, justified, good or the only solution or that it made sense, but to take the next step and campaign against the war or seek friendships, to employ love against enmity...this I didn’t do. It took a year before I was able to write a letter to Manfred Kock, the head of my church, to initiate dialogue about what took place. A year. All of the bombs had already been dropped by then. This is why I need stories that make it easier for me to love. And this is why I am deeply grateful for all the stories that are bread of life with honey.
What all the stories had in common was that the people involved did not act out of self interest. None of these groups did the work they did in order to improve their financial situation or for more recognition; instead they did so in order to pass on something to others.
Now I would like to take a look at what remains to be done. Upon what does one build peace, a future, ecumenical contacts? How does one find the way to truth and reconciliation? I have no ready-made solutions, but today I have heard something with which I believe we all can agree and this is the ancient wisdom that Church is three things: prayer and liturgy; preaching; and helping one’s neighbor. I think it is necessary to recognize this, that others do this too.
It’s good for me to hear who is working at finding a way forward - the neighbors in the village Vesna spoke of, the believers active in the groups in the churches there; the Serbian Orthodox monasteries who come under fire from two sides for working together with the Protestant organization Bread of Life. I think we are very familiar with the fact that such work depends on the average church member in the pew and that life in community strengthens one’s ability to resist hostility.
However, I hope that we will go one further step, and it is here that there is much left to be done, namely that we not only recognize the other’s actions but also appreciate and respect them. Not that we simply recognize when we visit another church the fact that other people also pray - perhaps in a different style - but also to God as we do, or that others also preach and proclaim part of the kingdom of God - perhaps in a different way or another language - but that we also hear God’s word there, and recognize that others also serve their neighbors not out of self-interest but in discipleship to Jesus who greets us with the kiss of peace. That is to recognize a fact. For me, to appreciate and respect this means that the churches as institutions, including church leaders, would say, “the way in which you do what you do is good”. Not everyone has to do this in the same manner but simply to appreciate and respect the other’s way of working rather than starting by criticizing what one thinks is wrong about how the other is going about it.
The third step then is to combine efforts in places where we feel that we and others still have much to accomplish. We are not anywhere near to having peace, certainly not in the Balkans.
Something that became important to me during the seminar is that no one promises that we will succeed. I think that a story such as that of the November/December issue of the journal which could only be printed in April due to a lack of paper, this tragically delayed prophecy, is simply a part of our reality. We don’t know what might come about as a result of this. We have no guarantee. When I arrive in Zagreb - always my first stop when coming from Germany - I hear much about failure and unsuccessful efforts or unkind words at the very least and if we think about what our aims can be, we certainly don’t talk about recognition and success but rather something more like steadfast work for peace. Because the alternative is, of course, to do nothing.
I have attempted to express what this steadfast work for peace is in a homage to those who build peace, whose faces are well-known to me.
What are they doing tonight,
those who build peace tomorrow?
waiting for God
because he was already present
because he is present now.
Cooking and baking
good food and good words
to win over the hearts of warriors
trying to stop the wheel of fate
preparing the supper of reconciliation
Crossing the border hesitantly
caught between all sides
wrestling with God
Crying in the darkness
not wanting to get up
a comforting presence
no more fear of being wounded
waiting for God
because he was already present
because he is present now.
(Written during a time of meditation, Advent 2000)
Translation from the German : Terri Miller
Anthea Bethge advises and accompanies church groups and institutions in the development of initiatives to overcome violence. A member of the major Protestant church body in the Rhineland region of Germany, she leads training workshops in nonviolent resolution of conflicts and is active in peacemaking projects in Croatia and Bosnia.
Points of Convergence between Diverse Situations of Inter-religious and Inter-ethnic Conflict
Excerpts from the dialogue forum with Aleksandar Birvis (Yugoslavia), Joe Campbell (Northern Ireland) and Joséphine Ntithinyuzwa (Rwanda)
• Responsibility of the Churches in areas of inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict
The Churches have often been a place - sometimes the only place - of solace, healing, active listening and to express suffering.
Increasingly the Churches are encouraging their members to take part in nonviolent conflict resolution training. This positive development needs to continue.
In order to regain their credibility, the Churches must take responsibility for their part in the conflict and confess compromises made with the government or those in power.
The Churches must play a prophetic role by articulating the needs of all people involved and not just the needs of one party in the conflict.
The Churches must preach “remember and change” rather than “forgive and forget”.
• The Detmold Confession - Christians and reconciliation in Rwanda
I am from Rwanda, married and the mother of three children. My family has been living in Strasbourg for five years. We are members of the Mennonite Church. It is not by chance that we are a part of this church where we knew no one when we came to Strasbourg. After the tragedy that our country had just experienced we were in need of a message of peace and reconciliation. We had heard of the pacifist tradition of the Mennonite Church, and we went to the Mennonite congregation in Strasbourg. We are happy to have made the right decision.
When we arrived in Europe we were grateful to be alive and to be able to live in peace but at the same time we felt guilty of having abandoned our brothers and sisters. We felt that it was not by chance that the Lord allowed us to be here. In order to discuss such things, some Rwandans and European friends of Rwanda formed a group for prayer and reflec-tion about the problems in Rwanda. This was in 1996 in Germany. This meeting gave birth to what was called “The Detmold Confession”.
About The Detmold Confession
The Confession is comprised essentially of three separate confessions: that of the Hutus, that of the Tutsis and that of the Europeans.
The Hutu confession reads in part:
“We, Hutu Christians, present at Detmold, recognise that our group has oppressed the Tutsi in various ways since 1959. We confess the crime of genocide committed by the Hutu group against the Tutsi group. We are ashamed of the horrors and atrocities to which the Hutu have subjected the Tutsi. We humbly demand forgiveness of God and our Tutsi brothers and sisters for all the evil we have inflicted upon them. We commit ourselves to do whatever we can to restore their honor and dignity and to regain our lost humanity in their eyes.”
The Tutsi confession reads in part:
“We, Tutsi Christians, present at Detmold, are happy and feel comforted by the demand of forgiveness made by our Hutu broth-ers and sisters. We likewise demand God and the Hutu to forgive the repression and blind vengeance which members of our group have taken, depassing all claims to legitimate self-defence. We also demand God and our Hutu brothers and sisters forgiveness for certain arrogant and contemptuous attitudes shown to them throughout history in the name of a ridiculous complex of ethnic superiority.”
The European confession reads in part:
“We, western Christians, present at Detmold, confess that since the arrival of the first Europeans in Rwanda, we have seriously contributed to the increase of divisions in the Rwandan people. We regret that our countries have conduced violence by delivering arms to all parties. We demand God and our Rwandan brothers and sisters forgiveness and we want to commit ourselves with Jesus to a path of listening, respect and solidarity.”1
This experience was encouraging and showed that reconciliation was possible but that the Lord needed men and women willing to step into the breach. This is why we distributed widely this confession so that God could make use of it. Obviously reactions to the confession were mixed. We received many words of encouragement but also understandably criticism which came from wounded hearts.
In July and August 1999 the signatories of the Confession came together in Rwanda where they met with Rwandans of diverse background: prisoners, intellectuals, church (Protestant and Catholic) members, associations and the National Commission for Unity and Reconciliation, formed in March of that same year. This meeting in Rwanda served to bring to the forefront the spirit of the Confession which can be sum-marized in three aims:
• to listen to and receive the suffering of the other person as he or she expresses it and to show empathy;
• to openly express one’s own suffering and that of one’s family without resentment;
• to confess “in the breach” - in other words to accept being identified as a member of a certain ethnic group, to own the suffering caused by other members of one’s ethnic group, to ask forgiveness in the name of one’s ethnic group, to demonstrate an attitude which seeks health and dignity for those who were wounded.
The fruits of such a confession “in the breach” are:
• healing of wounds to the soul;
• elimination of prejudice and sweeping judgments;
• restoration of amicable relationships;
• physical reconstruction of the country (“when the heart and mind are healed the rest will follow”2).
The Detmold Confession is an attempt to “step into the breach” before the Eternal and defend one’s land from ruin (Ezekiel 22:30). After this meeting we saw that there is still a long road ahead. We noticed the lack of enthusiasm from certain state and church leaders, but we were en-couraged by the initiatives taken by Christians who were touched by this spirit of healing. I would particularly like to mention here the organization Oeuvre Africaine d’Evangélisation (African Evangelisation Organization) which is doing extraordinary reconciliation work. Two leaders of this ministry, Joseph and Anastase - a Hutu and a Tutsi - were in Europe in September and October 1999 to speak about the miracles of reconciliation that God is doing in Rwanda.
In October 2000 Joseph and Anastase were in Europe once again and meet members of the Rwandan community in Brussels and French Mennonite churches. After this meeting we had the idea of organizing a seminar like those organized by our brothers and sisters in Rwanda. The goal was to bring together opposing Rwandan Christians to give them an opportunity to talk and listen to each other. We were acting on faith since projects of this sort require significant financial resources, and we have only modest means. However, God provided for us, and a seminar bring-ing together 45 participants was held in July 2001. Not everything is resolved; we still need your prayers.
To conclude I would like to say that, given the enormity of what needs to be done, initiatives like ours could seem illusory. But we know that, as He told Gideon, God will tell us to act, strengthened by the knowledge that He who sends us will accomplish the rest.
We are grateful to have found a family. We know that we are not alone and this is an encouragement. We need your support and prayers.
Translation from the French: Terri Miller
1. Confession de Detmold - Signe d’espoir pour le Rwanda. pp. 51-53. Landeskirchenamt der Lippischen Landeskirche, December 1996.
2. From La Confession de Detmold au Rwanda - Compte-Rendu de Rencontres (fait à Kigali le 1er aout 1999)
• What can be done to support Christians and churches struggling with inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict?
Do not criticize the Church because Christ loved the Church
Support Christians and the churches through prayer
Visit Christians in crisis areas, not as a tourist but in a spirit of learning and willingness to become involved
Host exhausted peacemakers and offer resources through times of retreat or further education
Work at conflict resolution training on-location in areas of crisis and in one’s own community
The Prophetic Role of the Church
“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called restorers of the streets to dwell in and repairer of the breach.” (Isaiah 58:12)
Dear members of the church of Jesus Christ, gathered here from across the globe,
It is a unique congregation which is meeting here today - not because it is a congregation made up of members of different churches and com-munities but rather because we want to focus on the prophetic word and to let it guide our actions. We would like so much to repair breaches. Many of those present here know the joy as well as the disappointment which accompany attempts to repair breaches: rebuilding where there are ruins, reconstructing relationships which are broken. And from time to time one senses how a rift also runs right through the middle of oneself.
The chapter in Isaiah we are reading today is an exhortation. You are here today as guests of the Dutch Mennonites, and their specialty is exhorting, giving earnest advice or even warning. Our houses of worship are very modest in style but they are called “Vermaning” - “exhortation”, “admonition”. The question is always who may admonish whom. The prophets heard God’s voice and spoke but they were always called into question or even persecuted by their people. When we read now what the prophet of Israel had to say, do we stand alongside him or do we find ourselves - a more modest position - among those who are listening to him? I would suggest the latter. Others must determine whether our words and actions are prophetic.
Our era closely resembles that of this prophet. There are many ruins, and each person has his or her own memories of destruction. Some of us will return home to face ruins. We have decided to work at repair. This is not always easy since those of us who have experienced destruction carry the ruin in our own hearts. This was also the case for the prophet; his message came at a time of high hopes and expectations: Israel would return from exile, a new exodus out of slavery had been proclaimed. Prophets speaking of judgment were ignored; salvation was thought to be imminent. “Comfort, comfort my people.” “We will no longer rebel. He is our God and we are His people!” But when the people finally left Babylon and returned to the Promised Land, only a small group made the journey. Many stayed behind in Babylon. Those who had not been in exile had had no spiritual leader for 70 years and were without hope or vision.
Our prophet spoke during this time. New rifts were becoming visible, not only structural cracks in build-ings but also the divisions separating the people inhabiting the land. People were faced once again with the challenges of everyday life: build-ing houses, planting crops and running their businesses. Children were being born who needed to be fed. Thus, unity in gratitude to God who had enabled their return - symbolized by the building of the Temple - would just have to wait. It is striking how little the prophet speaks about acts of ritual; it is assumed that each person will pray and fast in remem-brance of the times of need.
The people sought God’s path but complained when He did not look upon them. The prophet responded, “You serve your own interest only on your fast day and make all your men work the harder; you bow your heads like a bulrush! Is this not what I require of you as a fast: to untie the knots of the yoke with which you burden your neighbor, to share your food with the hungry and to clothe the naked. Cease to pervert justice, to point the accusing finger and lay false charges.” Only then does one hear a prophecy of restoration: “Then your light will rise like dawn out of darkness, you will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. If you cry to the Lord, he will say, ‘Here I am.’” One can hear an echo of the book of Job in these verses. What I like the most about this chapter is found in verse 8: “you will grow healthy like a wound newly healed”. Even though he accuses them, the prophet knows his people are wounded.
The rifts spoken of here, the breaches, are certainly meant literally. In Psalms and the book of the exile prophet Ezekiel one can also see what the rifts look like between humans and God, between one person and his or her neighbor. Breaches in the walls, breaches in community life. Even once war and exile have ended and a return to normal life is possible, there is still not an end to violence and alienation. People are needed to stand in the breach, to form the missing wall.
Psalm 106 speaks of this: Moses steps into the breach in order to keep God from destroying His people. And Ezekiel accuses the prophets in the time just before the fall of Jerusalem, “Your prophets, Israel, are like jackals among ruins. They have not gone up into the breach to repair the broken wall round the Israelites!”
Dear friends, who among us cannot recognize the Israelites’ plight, returning from a foreign country, shaken by war and division? And we also know the injustice that needs to be eliminated in order to find God’s path. We expect a new beginning once liberation has taken place, and then everything advances so slowly. Yet the prophet speaks of healing.
But it is not a sort of carefree existence for which we wish from time to time; it is the nearness of God. If we strive to help those who are not able to become free of injustice and need, then He will also hear us when we call. We know about subjugation because we know that “people are like that” sometimes. It is a part of the violence we confront by stepping into the breach. And it is possible that by stepping into the breach we ourselves will experience violence because we have sided with those whom others see as inhuman.
So let our prayer be that we might live in God’s presence so that we can persevere. And that we might remain close to each other so that we do not feel overwhelmed but rather can accept a healing hand. God gives us neighbors, He gives us the community of believers so that we might know Him. Only when we truly see each other will He also see us.
Translation from the German: Terri Miller