FROM THE REGIONS
"In the Face of Violence"
The first part of the meeting was devoted to sharing about the different ways in which the represented groups tried to deal with conflict and practice reconciliation. The mention of prayer, listening to Scripture, celebration of the Eucharist and worship as well as dialogue, mediation and putting into practice the advice in Matthew 18:15 evidenced a variety of paths taken to overcome conflict.
The second part of the meeting was spent reviewing the past nine years (!) during which Doris Reymond was regional co-ordinator and concentrated also on the projects and priorities to be emphasised in the coming years under the leadership of Sylvie Gudin-Poupaert, newly-appointed regional co-ordinator. In addition to regular office tasks (translation work, the French quarterly, organising meetings etc.) she hopes it will be possible to strengthen the network through visits, to initiate contact in evangelical circles (Baptist etc.) and to be more visible in Mennonite circles. The idea proposed at the last General Assembly in Strasbourg of forming a steering committee for each region was re-introduced for discussion, along with the suggestion of possible members of such a committee in the francophone area.
Between these two "internal" Church & Peace meetings, a colloquium, organised by Church and Peace and FOR France, took place on the theme "Reconciliation". The colloquium brought together about 140 participants from across the ecclesiastical spectrum. Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder composed an outline of Christian pacifism according to historical eras and addressed the theme of the ethical radicalism of the cross.
Hervé Ott from Con du Larzac pre-sented an authoritative exegesis of John 8:1-11, pointing out the mediator role Jesus adopted in the dramatic conflict between the woman caught in adultery and the men who sought to condemn her and hoped to trick Jesus by asking for his judgement.
Doris Reymond, drawing upon her thesis on the ethics of reconciliation, shared her discoveries in this area and suggested that rather than defining reconciliation as a return to an ideal situation, a better concept would be a change in the way we perceive the other.
The afternoon discussion was to be guided by a round table format, grouping together Catholic con-tributors (Paul Guiberteau, Christian Mellon and André Talbot, all theologians, and René Coste from Pax Christi) and a Protestant philosophy professor (Olivier Abel).
The round table discussion, as well as the input from the audience, did not develop as one might have hoped. No reference was made to the old debate between ethics of responsibility and ethics of conviction, and John Yoder's reminder that ethics of responsibility look at history from the point of view of those in power while the way Jesus proposed is that of the powerless, unfortunately was not pursued or expanded upon as it deserved to be.
A lively summary of the discussion by the Baptist pastor Louis Schweitzer, former secretary of the French Protestant Federation, pinpointed the weaknesses of the debate by showing that we always feel the need to preserve a consensus that was reached prematurely. This despite the fact that there is a large gap between those for whom the ethical radicalism of the cross is the basis of their lives and
After the round table discussion, those participating in the Church and Peace regional meeting met again in Versailles to evaluate the colloquium and to hear about the deaconesses' community which hosted us during the weekend. The deaconesses joined the regional meeting participants for a closing worship service on Sunday morning.
The meeting was a good opportunity to renew contacts within the network and to add a few small bricks in the road of "dialogue with the churches" on the way to Graz. Many thanks to all who helped to organise this meeting!
To begin work for Church and Peace with a trip to England was both a "treat", as the English say, and a real challenge since the Church and Peace francophone regional meeting took place two days after I returned from England! But what better way to get to know the network than to participate in two regional conferences back-to-back?
Rydal Hall conference
This conference was, of course, also a good time to meet the members and friends in the Church & Peace British Network.
I spent several hours at the Community for Reconciliation in Barnes Close. This community welcomes groups and individuals for retreats and conferences on the subjects of peace, reconciliation, mediation...There is only a small team at the community, but they are supported by an international network of members and friends. I believe Church and Peace could have closer contacts with this community whose activities are not confined to Great Britain. Over tea I was fortunate to meet several persons who expressed interest in Church and Peace, among them an Irish pastor doing reconciliation work in Belfast.
That evening I attended a meeting of the Quaker Peace Action Group. I was impressed by the courage and involvement of the members of this group, the majority of whom are retirees. Some of their activities include the support of conscientious objectors in Spain and protest of a nuclear power plant.
I had a long meeting with Linga Pegler who co-ordinates the Quaker Peace Education Project. This organisation works in the school system, offering training sessions for teachers to learn how to better handle conflict situations. The project also runs peer mediation training for the students. This work is well-developed in the West Midlands region where more than twenty people regularly lead training sessions.
My short visit ended with this meeting, and I have only been able to report a few highlights of the trip. I met with a lot of Quakers. Unlike the francophone region, Quakers are an important element of the British Network. I was impressed by the scope of their peace work and, at the same time, surprised by the lack of Christian or biblical references by some of the groups. Great Britain is rich in Christian communities of all denominations and, in comparison to France, this has enormous potential for peace work...
Now I just need to take a similar trip (longer!) in order to get to know the francophone network!
For this third conference we decided to move closer to our Scottish fellow countrymen - by which I mean fellow-Britishers. We were fortunate to find one of the most beautiful settings in England in the heart of the Lake District and literally a stone's throw from the poet William Wordsworth's home. Rydal Hall belongs to the Anglican diocese of Carlisle and houses a small resident Christian community.
We managed to attract some 40 participants from England, Wales and Scotland - none, alas! from Ireland - and a few from other European countries.
This was an appropriately ecumenical gathering, with Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers and Mennonites coming together to explore this vital theme.
We need to ask ourselves what, in the context of Church and Peace's European activities, a regional conference such as this is trying to achieve. The answer is many-layered.
Our choice of theme this year was dictated by the sombre realities facing all Europeans at the present time. Because of political conflicts, national identity in the minds of many Europeans is inescapably linked to bloodshed. In the light of inter-ethnic hostility in the former Yugoslavia, of nationalist and sectarian violence in Ireland, of separatist violence in Catalonia, the Basque regions, Chechenia...how can Christians even begin to make peace?
This was the questions we and our four speakers tried to address. We counted ourselves lucky to have persuaded four such remarkable people to join us. Between them they brought to the conference wide-ranging experience of conflict, solidly-based convictions and impressive faith.
Alan Pleydell, the opening speaker, called his talk 'a European under-view', developed out of his work for Quaker Peace & Service. Noting the reversion, over the last decade, to sovereignty and statehood in Europe, he stressed the importance of tact in the attitudes we adopt towards those struggling to achieve it. We need to recognise the powerful need for both physical and mental 'territory', for the security and privacy of a home.
He touched on the Bosnian conflict, pointing out how, after such experiences as 'ethnic cleansing', communities need to be separated in order to have time to recover from the inevitable feelings of hostility. If outsiders are insensitive to this, their attempts to help may be fruitless. Alan gave the example of two such volunteers in Sarajevo who tried to demonstrate 'peacemaking' by walking unarmed across a bridge making signs of peace. They were both shoot dead, and their sacrifice was condemned as futile by those they wished to help.
Helen Steven, our guest speaker on Saturday morning, had entitled her presentation "Grasping the thistle" - a witty reference to Scotland's national flower as well as to the uncomfortableness of discussing so thorny a question as national identity.
Helen dismissed the possibility of being only a 'world citizen' as claimed by the English writer Virginia Woolf ("I have no country; my country is the whole world."). She felt herself to be Scottish and within Scotland a Glaswegian, ie from Glasgow.
At home Helen had imbibed from her father, a keen hill-walker, and her step-mother, a Gaelic folk singer, both her nationalism and internationalism and had found no incompatibility between them. In 1972 she had spent two years in Vietnam. In contrast to the accepted view of the war as one against communism, she realised that for the Vietnamese, it had been a successful struggle for national identity.
Similarly she could see the forthcoming election as being fought in Scotland principally over devolution. She pointed out how nations could not escape from their history but deplored the abuse of it by "Hollywood history" and by the tourist industry. It was necessary to remember battles - why painful? why memorable? - for there to be any true reconciliation.
Historically Scotland had always been more European than other UK countries, and this outward-looking characteristic still pertained. The Treaty of Union (between Scotland and England) was a treaty of equal partners, and Scotland was proud of its independent identity and autonomy. Thus when the Gulf War erupted all church leaders in Scotland, unlike their English counterparts, condemned it unequivocally.
Helen touched on the question of cultural identity and its relationship to a national language and to land. In Scotland there is a strong Gaelic revival, but Scots, the Scottish version of English, was being neglected or even deliberately repressed.
The land laws in Scotland had allowed widespread foreign ownership, a result of which one had the anomaly, for example, of ownership by a rich Dubai
This talk prompted many questions and comments, amongst which were some suggestions that national self-consciousness might be getting in the way of Christianity, or might be absorb-
One group, in identifying what they severally understood by identity, found that it led to a discussion of fear (leading to aggression) and guilt.
Another group recognised and approved of cultural identity but was opposed to the "nation state" concept. They found "being English" ambivalent and recognised the dilemma of whether to suppress smaller conflicts in the pursuit of internationalism.
A third group, accepting that every individual has many identities, condemned the "labelling" of people, while recognising that one could not discard national identity. This led to the question whether individuals could or should accept responsibility for their government's acts.
Christians should be "a counter-culture within their society", said another group, citing the successful acquittal of the Plowshares demonstrators after they had deliberately damaged fighter planes destined for sale to Indonesia. Christianity was transnational but did not aim to suppress individual identity.
The members of another group found they could arrive at no sense of being from one nation, each having different roots. They believed to overemphasise the "me" could lead to excluding others. This led them to discuss the harmfulness of the growing "Fortress Europe" concept.
ng too much energy at a time when humanity itself was in a crisis, e.g. through over-population, pollution and the waste of natural resources.
Katalin and Cecilia Simonyi from Hungary provided our final keynote address. These two young women presented a deeply felt and carefully thought-out statement of faith which their audience found totally absorbing as well as very moving.
Kati and Cili are members of a Catholic family whose father is active for the promotion of Church and Peace in Eastern Europe. They belong to the Hungarian "Bokor" ("Bush") base community movement founded by Father Gyórgy Bulanyi and whose pacifist stance has brought them up against the opposition of the nationalistic Roman Catholic hierarchy in Hungary.
They described how Father Bulanyi had originally joined the priesthood with the idea of fighting for his country. But he had come to understand how Jesus' "golden rule" of love of enemies and doing to others as you would like them to do to you--a teaching which made it impossible for Christians to fight--had been devalued in the course of church history. The simplicity and directness of Jesus' message had become distorted. His teaching had not excluded national consciousness but had excluded a national army.
Over the centuries, beginning with Constantine, the concept of a Christian king had developed. In Hungary Stephen III was such a king, encouraging church leaders also to act as military leaders.
The tradition of patriotic support of the rulers persists in the Hungarian Catholic church today. Even after the 2nd Vatican Council, in which conscientious objection to military service was approved, Hungarian conscientious objectors - including Kati and Cili's father Gyula - were given prison sentences. The Catholic bishops had refused to help conscientious objectors; as Gyula's daughters expressed it, "the behaviour of Jesus was considered non-Catholic".
They pointed out that the old idea of "defence of homeland" which still informed the stance of the hierarchy had in any case lost all meaning, as modern weapons took no account of national borders. This was one reason why the BOCS Foundation in Hungary (the official body representing Bokor) had collected signatures in support of the successful World Court Project to make nuclear weapons illegal. Christians had to ask themselves "what was God's plan" in placing humankind, with its unlimited aspirations, on a limited planet.
Kati and Cili then described some of Bokor's positive actions. Under communism one income had been adequate for the support of a family, so Bokor members had undertaken to put aside 10% for Third World aid. This had raised some $60,000 per annum. They had been instrumental in exchanges of family visits between Hungary and Rumania and in smuggling medical supplies into Romania and Vojvodina.
In March 1996 Kati had the opportunity to visit Gujarat, helping in what was called the "People's Plan for the 21st Century" in Pakistan, in connection with Father Cedric Prokosch, a Catholic priest working in India. During the previous year Cili had been the only representative from Eastern Europe at an international peace conference in Kyoto, Japan. The two women ended by drawing people's attention to the hand-painted cards from Bread of Life (a Serbian organisation working with refugees) they were selling in support of a Hungarian-populated village in Serbia.
The openness, burning sincerity and natural eloquence of these two remarkable young Christians - their joint ages hardly reached 40 - impressed us all. We hope to persuade them to come to Britain again, perhaps to talk with groups of people of their own age.