Justice and Nonviolence

1977 Church of the Brethren Statement

Contents


In recent years the relation of the church's position of nonviolence to society's injustices has become an increasingly urgent issue. The need for a clarifying statement was explored in the World Ministries Commission as early as 1974 and a committee was created in February, 1975 to undertake the task. Two full years was required for the development of the descriptive statement... with multiple reviews by the Commission and the General Board.

In February, 1977 the General Board adopted the following paper as its statement on "The Church's Responsibility for Justice and Nonviolence," and voted to recommend the paper to Annual Conference as the statement of the church on this issue.

THE CHURCH'S RESPONSIBILITY FOR JUSTICE AND NONVIOLENCE

He has showed you. . . what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

The Concern

Violence takes many forms: war, crime, oppression, denial of justice, and violation of personhood. The voice of the Church of the Brethren usually has been clear and unequivocal regarding non-participation in war, the most obvious expression of violence in our global community. Often the church has been less clear regarding more subtle expressions of violence, even benefiting from the injustice and violence that others suffer.

Is it not time for us in the church to examine ourselves and our faith and to work forthrightly for liberation, justice, and peace in ways that respect the life and potential of every person and the whole human family?

Is it not time for the church to put its house in order, realizing within itself a closer approximation of justice and nonviolence?

Is it not time for the church (which should be the primary locus of justice and nonviolence) to take a positive stance in support of justice and in opposition to the subtle forms of violence that deny survival for many and quality of life for the majority?

Is it not time for the church to declare itself in support of working non-violently for liberation and justice for persons bound by patterns of colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism, localism, militarism, and other structures of oppression?

Biblical View

The People of Israel understood Jahweh to be a God of both justice (mishpat) and peace (shalom). The original setting of the term mishpat is that of a judge at the gate of an ancient Hebrew town making decisions about grievances.

When a judge could make a decision that brought genuine reconciliation between the parties involved, that decision had the quality of justice (mishpat). The concept therefore represents the goal of the judicial process, but not in the sense of mere retribution or redistribution. Rather mishpat refers to concrete and particular acts of reconciliation. Nor is it the abstract ideas of harmony and balance. It is rather a quality of active and expressive behavior that restores the appropriate rightness or relation between dissident persons or groups.

Stated otherwise mishpat is the fitting and normal behavior of every person within the covenantal community. It relates the established tradition and instruction (torah) to the concrete relationships between persons in day by day situations. To act with justice (mishpat) is to act in such a way that one's place in the community is rightly established and guided, that one's relationships with others are engaged responsibly, that the tradition and instruction are embodied in act, and that alienation and injustice are actively and concretely overcome. This view of justice is to be carefully distinguished from concepts of necessary punishment, balance of power, and legal requirement. Though each of the latter may be taken up in mishpat, they do not in themselves reach the center of its reality.

A closely related concept is that of peace (shalom). In the biblical view shalom was the relationships of solidarity between persons who were rightly established in the covenantal community. Shalom referred both to the quality of the relationships between persons as well as to the free, unfettered, and appropriate life of the soul of each person. The person whose life was guided by mishpat and whose relationships were guided by the traditional instruction was also a person whose soul developed and grew with both an inner and outer blessedness. Shalom therefore refers to the solidarity and vitality of a people whose life is guided by justice as well as the inward blessedness of each person who is so related to the covenantal community. True mishpat (justice) and shalom (peace) can therefore never be separated from one another.

Justice and peace are both profoundly theological concepts. Just as justice cannot properly be reduced to the balance of power, so also peace cannot be reduced to the absence of conflict. Peace is rather the mark of an expressive life that is rightly related to all who are bound together by the covenant. In truth both peace and justice are the gift of God. One acts in reconciling ways toward other persons and groups because God is a God of justice whose ways are wholly just. To act otherwise would be to do violence to the way that God relates to his people. Violence of person against person is therefore fundamental violence against the relationship with God. Justice is the gift of God. We strive to find the right ways of actively and concretely reconciling our differences, but all our acts find their limit in the fact that God alone gives justice.

So also God gives peace. We are called to act in ways that deepen and enlarge the covenant, and in this behavior God has promised to grace our lives and our communities with peace. When justice is violated, then we lose the grace of God's peace with one another and with ourselves. Peace is thus closely related to individual and community expressions of justice, but related in such a way that God has promised peace to those who seek to live within the covenant. Both peace and justice are finally the gift of a just and loving God, and not in any sense our meritorious claim.

In the Exodus, the God of justice acted to liberate Israel from the yoke of Egypt and to establish them in peace. The Exodus is therefore not to be seen primarily as the open rebellion of a people against their captor, but rather as the liberating power that comes from living under a covenant of justice and peace. The torah is a constant reminder of the power of the covenantal community that hopes in God and lives in justice.

The Exodus of Israel from bondage was a miracle of liberation that gives hope to captive peoples yet today. It demonstrates God's desire for people to live in a worldwide community of justice and peace. The Exodus alerts the church of every age to God's power at work to affect social upheaval to bring about justice where there is suffering and oppression, thus awakening hope in the hearts of people everywhere. The liberation of people comes from their covenantal commitment to both justice and peace. In this light the major task of the people of faith is to live the liberated life that comes from actively seeking justice and peace.

The prophets bore witness to the Mosaic covenant in various ways:

You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality: and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of righteousness. Justice and only justice you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. (Deuteronomy 16:19-20)

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees. And the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! (Isaiah 10:1, 2)

Jesus stood exactly in the Hebrew tradition of Hebrew justice and peace. God's will for a reconciling justice marked by the covenantal blessedness of peace is expressed in the New Testament as love, especially agape love. Just as for Israel justice and peace between persons are the gifts of a covenantal relationship with God, so also for Jesus the love of God can never be separated from the love of neighbor. Jesus described his mission on earth in words that refer to Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)

Jesus radically transformed and extended the meaning of mishpat and shalom to include all people, even strangers, foreigners, enemies, despised neighbors (Samaritans), and nonbelievers. In Jesus Christ there are no qualifying limits to God's justice and peace. All the walls are down. The grace and love of God are being extended to everyone. The tradition itself must give way to God's justice (Mark 3:4, Acts 10).

In justice toward the enemy, the nonviolent character of God's love becomes fully evident. Throughout the Old Testament we find indications that adherence to covenantal justice rather than military might is the true source of Israel's hope. In the life and teachings of Jesus the love of God not only stands on the side of the poor and dispossessed, but is also concerned about the well-being of the enemy and the oppressor. "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" was the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 5:44). We are to forgive as God has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32); and we are to be willing to suffer and lay down our lives, if necessary, for the sake of God's reconciling justice (I John 3:16, 2 Corinthians 1:5). We are to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:14-21). The way of armed conflict is not the way of God's kingdom (John 18:36).

The symbolism of the Love Feast carries potential for lifting up the fullness of God's love and justice for all persons, not just the gathered church. In the feet washing and the fellowship at the table we have concrete expressions of reconciliation between persons. The whole celebration makes real to us the reconciling activity of God in Jesus Christ as embodied in those around us. The reconciling acts bring new levels of God's peace among the participants, as well as a hope for peace among all people. Is this not a model of the justice and peace that is destined to reign among those in all times and places who come to the Lord's table?

Some Principles

Our understanding of the biblical view of justice and peace leads us to affirm these principles:

A Complex of Problems

Violence still flourishes after the thousands of years of human history since the time of the prophets of Israel and the life and ministry of Jesus. Military conflict, atrocities, excessive or corrupt exercise of power, withholding of justice, and infringement upon personal dignity are some of the many forms of violence growing out of the ways peoples, nations, and institutions have organized and operated. This section of our paper directs the church's attention to some of the problems of systemic or structural violence—the violence often hidden in the usual and customary institutions and practices.*

Structurally violent institutions magnify inequities, denigrate personal dignity, repress freedom, resist change, abuse power, thwart community, and do other injustices to persons and groups. The harm resulting to people may be unintentional but none the less real. For example, poverty-perpetuating class structure may actually destroy life: one born into poverty or oppression usually has a shorter life expectancy than one born in privileged conditions. For example, the average life expectancy of persons born in the United States is thirty years longer than for equally precious persons in many poorer countries of the world.

Justice Violated

In a world beset with degradation and misery, most members of the Church of the Brethren sit with others at the pinnacle of the global structure of wealth and power. Many middle-class persons in the United States possess and consume far more wealth than their numbers would allow if the resources of the world were shared compassionately among the people of the world. Many Christians, although committed to the lordship of Jesus Christ and solidarity with neighbors, are implicated in structural violence.

One can be unaware of the unfortunate consequence of his or her participation in an institution. An oppressor need not always be malicious for oppression to occur, nor can an oppressor's acts of kindness make an oppressive institution morally acceptable. (A slaveholder's kindness toward a slave, did not make slavery an acceptable institution.)

The abuse of power adds to the complexity of the problem of restoring solidarity. In reality, all power belongs to God (Psalm 62:11. John. 19:10-11). Creation (Jeremiah 10:12), history (Exodus 15:6), salvation (Revelation 19:1)—all attest to the transcendent power of God.

Persons in positions of power and authority often participate in structural violence. Such persons sometimes misuse power in making decisions in government, business, education, labor unions, churches, and families. These decisions enable them to accumulate status, power, or wealth at the expense of other people who are deprived of the economic, psychological, or political necessities for lives of dignity and fulfillment.

It is important that we do not confuse power with violence. Political power dependent on the consent and compliance of the governed, may be diminished or even destroyed when support is withdrawn or withheld. A redistribution of power follows. Other important changes are also effected in such nonviolent struggles: for instance, with the realization of power over one's own life comes a new sense of self-respect and self-confidence.

Those who achieve power by violence are prone to continue exercising coercive power after the struggle is over. Such power can be weakened by nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention. Jesus' life clearly shows that violence is not necessary to the use of power.

Institutions that resist the efforts of people to modify unfair systems of governmental organization, land ownership, and other social arrangements perpetuate injustice. Military repression is used consistently by those who seek political or economic gain; support of such repressive regimes is Pharaoh-like resistance to God's liberating presence in history. Similarly misguided are the training of repressive police and the granting of economic assistance that strengthens certain groups without regard for the interests of the majority of the population.

The persistent endeavors of the competing powers to peddle arms throughout the world strengthen military regimes, escalate international tensions, and encourage the squandering of precious resources by societies suffering from material scarcity. The worldwide supply of arms fosters "localized" conflicts and wars. Violence may become the major consumer of productivity and scientific advance.

Some institutions, for example the intelligence agencies of governments, at times manipulate, coerce, and destroy. The CIA has frequently engaged in clandestine intervention that creates mistrust, alienates people, and subverts the democratic principles in which the United States professes to believe.

By manipulating events in weaker, poorer nations, governments are committing violence; and by resisting or controlling change, they are encouraging reformers to resort to violent means to overturn institutionally imposed injustice. Such manipulation by the big powers perpetuates misery and suffering for millions of people.

Geography and sometimes history determine whether one society is richer than another. The richer, more powerful nations, intentionally or unintentionally, are deriving much of their wealth from the poorer or less powerful. Inequities of wealth tend to produce inequities of power. Also, inequities of power tend to produce inequities of wealth.

Productivity Misappropriated

No existing economic, political, or social institution or system perfectly reflects the ideal. Political and economic structures produce many positive benefits, but in their current practices they often prevent the realization of global community and the unity of the human family. In both capitalist and socialist systems, persons who aim to maximize their wealth and power rather than serve human needs deny the sacredness of life.

Nationalistic economic policies, supported by government, business, labor, and public opinion, sacrifice global responsibility and retard economic development. Such policies prevent broad-based economic opportunities for small producers and adequate levels of life for many consumers. The maze of the world's systems of tariffs, quotas, and national "self-sufficiency'' policies contribute to this imbalance. "Buy American" enjoys periodic popularity in the United States. This attitude overlooks matters of genuine global economic concern.

Because we live in an interdependent world, capital flows across political boundaries are necessary. It is in the interest of all that investment opportunities remain attractive for recipient and donor in those countries without sufficient indigenous capital. Although balanced investment programs should benefit all concerned, some investors obtain unrealistic returns and take away as many resources and as much profit as possible. Skills and technology taken to other lands may be offset by exploitation of resources in those countries.

Dignity Denied

In more than one hundred countries in the world, people are systematically treated unjustly because of their ethnic backgrounds, political views, or religious beliefs.** They are incarcerated without trial, tortured, assassinated, or otherwise denied human rights. The United States position on human rights, which many presume to be favorable, is brought into question not only because of our unwillingness to join other states in an open call for approval of United Nations treaties on human rights, but also because of our intervention to protect military governments overseas and our poor example in guaranteeing the rights of some of our own citizens and resident aliens.

Both domestically and globally, the weak and poor have limited influence over the decisions that affect their lives. Economic oppression as well as political oppression denies basic human rights; the former denies the fight to life and the latter the right to free speech and political and religious activities.

Racism, sexism, and elitism divide the human family; so do some expressions of nationalism and tribalism. They encourage the belief that one's own group is better than another and deserves more wealth, power, prestige, or security than another. No social grouping can implement justice for all human beings if its people take advantages at the expense of other groups.

The struggle for the allegiance of human minds impedes interaction with peoples of other cultures, particularly of other economic and political persuasions. Fear and distrust also are among the factors that keep apart the adherents of the various systems and prevent the contacts that would promote understanding. What challenge do love and the aspiration for a responsible and humane world order place on the church to enable persons from diverse and even opposing political and economic systems to be in touch with one another for the sake of peace and understanding?

For a peace church, the problems of dignity denied are complicated in another way. While not condoning violence, how does the peacemaker express love for those who rely on violent means to bring about a better social order? How love those who violently oppose any change, violent or nonviolent?

The Universe Offended

The world seems headed toward ecological crisis and perhaps disaster. In many instances, the pace and mode of industrialization and technological development appear to exceed the ability to combine the factors of production in ways that preserve and use with equity the resources provided by the Creator. In other instances, there seems to be a trend toward using up resources for a minority of God's children, destroying the beauty of the planet and life-sustaining necessities such as clean air and water.

The critical problem facing the human family is how to implement eco-justice and to focus the consumption of the resources in God's universe upon the service of human needs.

A Word of Hope

The liberating activity of God finds support around the world where persons and nations are looking for new non-violent ways to translate the values of liberation, justice, and peace into operational goals. While violence, tyranny, and dehumanization in many forms are on the increase, there is a growing interest in nonviolent alternatives. All persons of good will can be thankful for such support as they encourage changes in social, political, and economic institutions in order to promote justice and eliminate oppression. The righteous judgement of God empowers our human justice, letting God's will for justice be expressed through us.

Imperatives

We join with the afflicted, the brokenhearted, the captives, the bound (Isaiah 61:1). Thus we live out our response to the love of God in Jesus Christ, participating with him in his ministry of reconciliation and redemption.

Our understanding of the mind of Christ demands of us vigorous non-violent involvement and identification with the poor and the oppressed, all the while acknowledging our limitation and confessing our complicity in the evils addressed. We also recognize that these problems (evils) are massive, complex, and ambiguous and that we lack perfect knowledge. We believe, however, that Christian discipleship demands decision and action to help achieve greater justice and peace in our time.

We must face the risks and vigorously implement the love of God in our political, economic, and social relations. The consequences of our decisions and actions may be as costly as when Jesus was accused of political subversion and was executed. We need faith, moral courage, and love as revealed in Jesus Christ and lived out in the faith community.

Our own faith community cannot escape its responsibility to act for justice, liberation, and peace. It is imperative for us as a church to pursue further biblical and theological reflection and study about the meaning of God's justice for concrete action in our homes, churches, communities, and nation. Brethren ought to assume leadership in their communities to bring concerned persons together from other churches and secular agencies for study, action, and reflection around these concerns. District boards and executives should lift up the vision and develop projects for both district and local programs. Placement of leadership should be influenced by criteria related to the commitment of candidates to justice, liberation, and peace. In order to help generate wider support for needed change in systems we should use all available communications media to expose problems, raise awareness, and suggest transforming action.

Peace with Justice

We place a high priority on changing political structures in order to reverse the present spiral of violence, militarism, and the armaments race. The Church of the Brethren must be decisive in shaping its own programs and calling all Christians and other persons of good will to encourage the United States to:

Economic Justice

Economic institutions should promote the capacity, willingness, and likelihood of peoples to embrace economic equity at the expense of material self-aggrandizement; to substitute for selfish competition, cooperation to meet the needs of one another; to implement justice toward other classes, nationalities, and "enemies" by sharing wealth and power in practical ways; and to build community, nurtured by local roots and encompassing all humanity

We call upon all Christians and other persons of good will to join with the Church of the Brethren to reverse the widening of the gap between rich and poor. In order to conserve energy, food, and other resources needed by the poor, we must reexamine our patterns of consumption. We urge our people to contribute from their material resources, beyond a tithe, for global redistribution of wealth. We encourage one another to dissociate, as far as possible, from, or change the policies of, economic institutions that but- tress elitist systems abroad or seek to take unreasonable profits out of less developed countries.

The Church of the Brethren seeks to shape its own programs and to influence other institutions in order to encourage the United States to:

Human Rights and Liberation

We deplore imprisonment for nonviolent opposition to a government and all forms of repression, torture, censorship, and discrimination based on sex, religion, race, age, economic and cultural strata, or national origin. We find this position consistent with our understanding of the scriptures.

The Church of the Brethren should develop its own programs and influence the policies of other institutions in order to encourage our nation to:

Eco-Justice

We are obligated to accept our responsibility as stewards of God's creation and exercise good stewardship of natural resources to satisfy the basic human needs of persons now living and of those to come.

We call on members of the Church of the Brethren, other Christians, and persons of good will to examine the ways we consume resources and dispose of wastes, making changes as needed in the light of responsible stewardship.

We urge citizens, our church, and government to adopt policies based on the principle that any insufficiency of resources should be borne equally by all persons in all societies.

We urge our government to declare a moratorium on the building of any new nuclear power plants until adequate safeguards have been implemented regarding plant safety, nuclear waste disposal, and security of nuclear materials with weapons potential.

We encourage the government to pool knowledge and funds with other societies to increase research into solar, tidal, geothermal, and wind sources of energy.

We favor policies aimed at using for purposes of international development all proceeds from resources of the oceans and seabeds beyond territorial limits.

Recognizing that environmental protection is a global problem, the costs should be largely borne by those countries with the most ability to pay for such protection.

Closing Statement

The world confronts us with the temptation to use violence in war, to acquiesce and participate in structural violence, and to support violent revolution against structural violence. Although we seek to identify with the oppressed, to these three types of violence we make a uniform response: the Scriptures call us to reject all forms of violence and to undertake nonviolent acts to exercise our commitment to human liberation and justice. We must be vigilant against that which would seduce us to use the very means against which we must struggle. Such a nonviolent response is rooted in the call to radical discipleship; it calls us to take risks and to transform our own lives and human institutions for the sake of God's justice but it does not destroy life or close off the possibility of genuine reconciliation (nurtured in mishpat and shalom) with an oppressor after the oppression is ended.

We cannot retreat from the world. We are to move from where we are to where God's power and purpose have begun to define new possibilities and new necessities. We must become aware of the rampant injustice and subtle hidden violence in today's world, examine our own involvement, and identify non-violently with the oppressed and suffering.

We must develop a theology of living here and now in the spirit of the kingdom. We look toward a future that will be more peaceful, just, and respectful of God's creation. We who are of the body of Christ, an incarnation of God's reconciling and redeeming love in the world; are called to be a channel of God's loving justice. Wherever brokenness among people exists, we are called to participate in God's work of healing; wherever people suffer from oppression, we are to work for God's act of liberation; and wherever people are deprived of basic human needs and opportunities we are called to God's work of humanization. We are called to live the life of God's agape in the world because Christ is our Lord.

Thus says the Lord: 'Let not the wise... glory in... wisdom, let not the mighty... glory in... might, let not the rich... glory in... riches; but let those who glory glory in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the Lord.' (from Jeremiah 9:23, 24)

Clyde R. Shallenberger, Chairman
S. Loren Bowman, General Secretary

Action of 1977 Annual Conference

The recommendation of Standing Committee, that we adopt the paper, was presented by Edith Griffith. The paper was adopted with a number of amendments which are incorporated in the above wording of the paper.

Footnotes

* "Structural Violence" as used in this paper refers to violations of personhood such as malnutrition, oppression of apartheid, or denial of equal opportunity because of one's class, race, age, or sex.

** During 1976, Amnesty International, a London-based nongovernmental organization with 97,000 members in 78 countries, reported violations of human rights in 112 countries. The violations included putting citizens in jail for their beliefs, denying fair trials to those being held, and torturing or illegally executing prisoners. See The New York Times, October 3, 1976, IV, page two.

*** The United Nations General Assembly adopted three important treaties on human rights on December 16, 1966. The first of these, entitled Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, guarantees freedom of religious expression, peaceful assembly, and movement. It prohibits arbitrary arrest, asserts a right to life and to a fair trial, and provides legal protections for minorities. The Optional Protocol of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights gives individuals and groups the right to appeal to the UN Commission on Human Rights when their rights are violated. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights establishes the right to work, education, medical care, and related social and economic benefits. The United States has not yet signed and ratified any of these treaties, despite the passage of more than a decade since they were opened for ratification. The texts of the three instruments are contained in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2200. General Assembly Official Records, Volume 21. Supplement 16 (A/6319) pages 49-53. The texts are also reprinted in American Journal of International Law, Volume 61 (1967), pages 861-890.

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