The four themes of the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation each are receiving a day’s worth of attention, with a morning plenary session and afternoon “innerstandings” seminar sessions.
Peace in the Community
Yesterday, May 19, the convocation considered the theme “Peace in the Community,” with a panel of speakers including Martin Luther King III, director of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
“How do we live out this hope (for peace) in our communities?” asked moderator and United Church of Christ ecumenical staff Karen Thompson, setting up the theme for the day. “And what is the reality we face? …Most of our community formations are often oppressive and discriminatory.” A panel addressed issues of violence against “the weak and the vulnerable” such as children, women, ethnic communities, and Dalits.
In addition to King, plenary presenters included Dalit activist Asha Kowtal working for empowerment of women in India; Muna Mushahwar, Palestinian Christian and promoter of the Kairos Palestine document; Ram Puniyani, a professor, writer, and activist for a secular ethos in India; Tania Mara Vieira Sampaio, professor at the Catholic University of Brasilia; and Deborah Weissman, president of the International Council of Christian and Jews and an activist in both the Israeli peace movement.
The stories told were heartbreaking. Kowtal told story after story of how the caste system perpetrates violence against millions in the Indian subcontinent. The story of a Dalit couple who just recently were attacked by a mob, the woman raped, her husband kidnapped and killed. Hundreds of Dalit women are raped by men of the dominant castes, Kowtal said. Young people are committing suicide rather than live in their situation. Children are mistreated, even in their own schools. Violence against Dalits is “the feature of a culture that is violent in itself,” Kowtal said.
Her request of the world Christian community: “What I want, for today, is for us to think of Dalits as human beings.”
Puniyani spoke of the persecution of minority religious groups in India, saying that politicians are manipulating religious identity to unleash violence against minorities–especially Muslims and Christians–for their own political ends and to hold on to power. He also told of horrors, a missionary family burned alive, a historic mosque destroyed, sparking more violence. The powerful in India have claimed religion as a cover for their struggles to stay in power, he said. He shared his fear that India is facing a similar situation to that of Germany after WWI, when the Nazi party rose to power–marked by a loss of democracy and oppression of weaker sectors of society.
His challenge to Christians: remember the warning from the experience of the church in Nazi Germany, “First they came for….”
Mushahwar spoke of Palestinian women living in a militarized society, where even giving birth may be considered “an act of resistance” against the occupation by Israel. She characterized women’s issues in Israel/Palestine as a kind of Pandora’s box, saying that authorities on all sides are reluctant to deal with the violence and oppression women face–both political and in domestic settings–because “there’s no telling where it might lead.”
Her request of the churches: quit using false interpretations of scripture that justify the state of Israel.
Weissman, speaking from a Jewish point of view, countered with an argument that religion can also be a positive factor promoting peaceful dialogue. She herself is part of an interreligious group trying to develop more positive images of “the other.” But she did ask what it is about religion that allows such extreme violence. It is the “absolute faith” that many hold to that allows for no other truths, she said. Religion, however, can provide community and a sense of identity, which both may engender the taking of responsibility for other people. “We can learn hope from religion,” she said.
Her suggestion to the churches: to have a goal of empowerment of each individual group in society.
King, son of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, reviewed his parents’ work for the dignity and human rights of all. Both his parents, as well as his grandparents, were activists for human rights–his mother working on women’s issues even before she met and married his father. “The ongoing struggle for dignity is an ecumenical challenge,” he said, adding that we all have responsibility for it. He quoted his father’s list of the triple evils to be eradicated: poverty, racism, and militarism. “Our world has not learned that lesson yet,” he said.
His request of the convocation: to think about how we behave to each other and to the environment. “The choice of when to start really living the dream is with each one of us. It’s in our hands.”
Peace with the Earth
Today, May 20, the theme “Peace with the Earth” was the subject for another panel of speakers at the morning plenary. “The creation is groaning. Can we hear it groan?” asked moderator Lesley Anderson, as he introduced the theme. He is a Methodist pastor in Trinidad and Tobago and president of the presidium of the Caribbean Conference of Churches. “A profound change is necessary and this change is possible,” he continued, listing a change of mind and change of lifestyles as part of our care for creation. “This process of change is already happening and Christians are already involved.”
Presenters were Tafue Lusama, general secretary of the Congregational Christian Church of Tuvalu, a south Pacific island atoll nation threatened by rising sea levels; Elias Crisostomo Abramides of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Argentina and a representative to UN meetings on climate change; Kondothra M. George, principal of the Orthodox Theological Faculty in south India; Ernestine Lopez Bac, an indigenous theologian from Guatemala connected with the Guatemala Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church; and Adrian Shaw, a project officer for the Church of Scotland with responsibility for eco-congregations.
A video about the extreme situation facing Tuvalu set the tone for the morning, followed by Lusama’s presentation. Leaders of the atoll nation–12,000 people living on 26 square kilometers of land on eight small and quickly shrinking islands–are looking at evacuation as “Plan B,” still hoping to be able to save their country from being overcome by the Pacific.
“We’d rather struggle to save our country,” Lusama said. He listed the dangers that the people would face if evacuation becomes the last resort: loss of identity, homelessness, refugee status.
Tuvalu’s problems start with rising sea levels caused by climate change, but they don’t stop there. The coral reefs that have helped shelter the islands from the full force of the ocean are being killed by rising ocean temperatures. This means more of the land is eroded away by the waves. During the highest tides, Lusama said the land may disappear completely and it looks like the trees and houses are floating on the water. And changes in weather patterns have meant droughts combined with increasing frequency of cyclones.
The death of the coral is affecting the environment for the fish that have been the main protein source in the island diet. The fish are moving farther out into the ocean, making fishing more difficult and expensive. At the same time, salt water is invading the water table under the islands and ruining traditional gardens that rely on ground water. These failures in agriculture and fishing are increasing poverty and food insecurity.
The root cause of it all, according to Lusama? Climate change “is a consequence of an unjust system,” he said, an economic system that benefits the few and the rich.
His request to the churches: Tuvalu needs help. “We have survived on these small islands for thousands of years (but) the impact of climate change is too big for us.”
Lusama’s question was given an answer when Shaw spoke as the final panelist, presenting concrete and practical ideas for local churches to work to prevent climate change. He began with questions for congregations: Do you know how much energy your church uses? Can you work out a carbon footprint of your church’s energy use?
The Church of Scotland is calling on its congregations to reduce their carbon footprints by 5 percent a year. It’s a difficult technical task, Shaw acknowledged, and one that requires both practical and spiritual work, he said. But congregations are having success, including one “eco-congregation” on the island of Orkney where the pastor drives a car fueled by recycled cooking oil, a wind turbine provides electricity, and an earth source heat pump helps heat the building.
His threefold charge to churches worldwide: be aware of the impact of climate change, take action, and get involved.
— Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren. More reports, interviews, and journals are planned from the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Jamaica, through May 25 as Internet access allows. A photo album is at http://support.brethren.org/site/PhotoAlbumUser?view=UserAlbum&AlbumID=14337. Peace witness staff Jordan Blevins has started blogging from the convocation, go to www.brethren.org. Find webcasts provided by the WCC at www.overcomingviolence.org.