The International Ecumenical Peace Convocation opened the afternoon of May 18 with worship and a first plenary session. Highlights included the attendance of Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding in the plenary–a sign of the importance of this gathering for the local church community–and the keynote address by Paul Oestreicher, an Anglican priest with dual membership in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
Before the official opening of the convocation, the morning began with optional visits and tours to local ministries in the Kingston area that are working to prevent violence and build peace in their communities.
The opening worship service
Worship began in early afternoon, after tour groups returned to the University of the West Indies campus where the meeting is taking place. A procession of church leaders, two choirs, a band and drummers, readings, prayers, litanies, and scripture–all were part of the lively opening service.
But it was not all joyful praise. While a litany of lament was read, a liturgical dancer lifted up a piece of cloth from a basin of water and wrung it out high above her head–the water running like tears down her face and body. The reading reminded the congregation that the people of the earth still suffer from violence, even after a decade of churches working together to overcome it:
“We weep for all those who simply disappear in the world…. All victims of the illegal drug trade…. Those held in detention, those on perilous journeys…. All those who are dying as a consequence of climate chaos…. Those who have been injured in body and mind in wars the world over…. Those who have been tortured or killed because of their faith…. We remember all those who through their faith become peacemakers in our broken world.”
The service celebrated the Decade to Overcome Violence and noted “small steps” of hope and progress. But in reflections on “Living Letters” visits by WCC groups to countries marked by violence, speakers from Argentina and Brazil talked about the human suffering and struggles that have continued or increased in intensity during the past 10 years.
Worship nevertheless concluded with an up-beat rendition of the new IEPC theme song, destined to become a favorite peace anthem of the church: “Glory to God and Peace on Earth” by well known Jamaican musician Grub Cooper. It was announced that Cooper will himself perform the song at a concert scheduled for Friday evening in downtown Kingston.
The first plenary
World Council of Churches general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit welcomed the gathering, before welcoming the Prime Minister to the stage to bring remarks. “I believe God has called us here from many parts of the world,” Tveit said. “The way of peace is also the way of unity,” he continued. “Let us claim this moment…to enter into our time together to imagine what might be possible.”
The Prime Minister in his remarks noted with pleasure that the WCC leadership had held a private meeting with him earlier in the week. “How and where will peace be found? Because it has to be found in something,” he said, reflecting on how he had hoped that the end of the Cold War and globalization would “allow for the emergence of peace throughout the world…. We have been disappointed,” he said.
“I genuinely believe we were all created by one God. How can we share in this sameness…find a set of values that hold us together?” he asked. “In this quest for peace there is a critical role for the church to play…. It cannot be God’s will that his people would be perpetually separated and …in conflict.”
Also among the many people bringing greetings and remarks were Paul Gardner, president of the Jamaican Council of Churches; Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the Russian Orthodox Church, who spoke passionately about Christians suffering persecution in different parts of the world and the responsibility of the worldwide church to support them; Margot Kassmann, a Lutheran theologian and minister from Germany who reviewed the history of the Decade to Overcome Violence; and one of the five youth peace essay contest winners, Chrisida Nithyakalyani, of the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church in India.
Keynote speaker Paul Oestreicher introduced his presentation as “my cry for an end to war.” He is a peace activist who fled to Aotearoa New Zealand with his parents in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution. He has served as chair of the British section of Amnesty International, and as director of the Coventry Cathedral Center for International Reconciliation, and today is a chaplain at Sussex University.
Quoting Jesus’ words from the gospel, “Love one another as I have loved you,” he asked the assembled Christians some hard questions: “Do we want to hear him (Jesus)? Our record suggests that we do not. Most of our theologians, pastors, and assemblies, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, have bowed down ever since the time of the Emperor Constantine…to empire and nation, rather than to the single new humanity into which we are born. We have made a pact with Caesar.”
Listing examples of how the church has blessed violence, from the blessing of German soldiers in World War I to the blessing of the first use of a nuclear weapon against human beings in Hiroshima, he condemned the way the church has allowed itself to be used by political and military powers. And he issued a stern warning that the church, in so doing, is betraying Christ.
“Unless we change,” he warned, “unless the church moves to the margins and becomes the alternative society that unconditionally says no to war…. until we throw this justification of war, this ‘just war’ theology into the dustbin of history, we will have thrown away the one unique ethical contribution that the teaching of Jesus could make both to the survival of humanity and to the triumph of compassion.
“Jesus was not an idealistic dreamer,” he asserted. “He was the ultimate realist. The survival of our planet demands nothing less than the abolition of war.” Such a thing is possible, he said, pointing to the abolition of slavery–which at the time of the abolitionist movement was considered necessary to the economic survival of society. But it will be a tough struggle, he added, tougher than the one that did away with legal, moral and religious justifications of slavery.
Oestreicher’s challenge was clear and unequivocal: it is time for the Christian church to become a movement for just peace. “However, to speak of a more just peace would be nearer the truth,” he clarified. “Such a peace demands a seismic global rethink. Its organization will be as demanding as the organization of war. Every discipline will be involved: law, politics, international relations and economics, sociology, gender studies, personal and social psychology, and last but, for us, not least, theology…. We now know too that this new world will also depend on our will and capacity to cherish and preserve the natural environment of which we are part….
“Yes to life means no to war.”
— 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.