Report from IEPC, Jamaica: Bethany Professor Heralds Prospects for Just Peace Document

Brethren, including professor Scott Holland (at left) gather during a break in the first opening plenary meeting of the Peace Convocation. From left: Scott Holland, Robert C. Johansen, Ruthann Knechel Johansen, Brad Yoder, and Stan Noffsinger. The Brethren group represents the denominational staff, Bethany Seminary, Manchester College, and other educational institutions. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

The concept of “just peace” takes center stage this week at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Kingston, Jamaica. Participants gathered today on the campus of the University of the West Indies, preparing for the convocation proper to begin tomorrow. The event will continue through May 25.

In an interview over dinner in one of the campus cafeterias, Bethany Theological Seminary professor Scott Holland shared his hopes and dreams for the main study document to be discussed at this convocation, an “Ecumenical Call to Just Peace.” He and a number of international ecumenical colleagues served on the main writing committee that drafted the document. The writing group was “truly an international, ecumenical group with representatives from Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas…from a variety of communities,” he said.

An initial just peace document was first worked on in World Council of Churches circles in Geneva, Switzerland, Holland said. Then it was decided that the document should go to a second drafting committee, on which he was called to serve. Finally, after about a year’s worth of work, two face-to-face meetings, and input and feedback from a wide variety of church leaders and theologians, the document was passed on to the WCC’s Central Committee which approved the final draft for discussion at this convocation.

The writing group’s face-to-face meetings were deliberately held in places that have been marked by violent conflict–Colombia and Lebanon–where the writers could engage in direct conversation about the problem of violence.

Why was Holland chosen by the WCC to become involved at such a crucial level in the process? “I’m guessing it’s because I’ve been actively involved in the Decade to Overcome Violence since it was initiated,” he said, adding that Bethany Seminary’s involvement in a series of Historic Peace Church meetings during the decade also helped. “I became known as one who cared about this.”

At this convocation, the study document will be extensively studied and discussed by a wide variety of church representatives from around the world–discussion that may contribute to the next worldwide assembly of the WCC to take place in Korea in 2013.

But Holland’s hopes and dreams for the paper go far beyond that. He hopes the document and its ideas will be picked up widely by church and academic communities, and that its concepts “can carry on beyond this meeting in Kingston.” For example, he plans to teach a new graduate level course on “Just Peace” at Bethany Seminary this fall. In another example, at least one Church of the Brethren congregation is interested in using the document as a basis for a series of Saturday morning services to which the ecumenical community in the area would be invited.

“This isn’t simply a peace church thing,” he emphasized. “Let’s gather ecumenically and talk about it.”

On a deeper theological level, “one of the things we hope it will accomplish is that we offer a paradigm shift” from the concepts of both just war and pacifism, he added. Holland hopes Christians will be called away from a simple debate between just war and pacifism, to imagine moving into just ways to make peace.

He actually is hoping that the convocation will not turn into a theological debate. However, he acknowledged that the paper is controversial. It challenges both the just war doctrine, as making “easy assumptions,” he said, and challenges what he termed “old style pacifism.” “In its most controversial piece, it suggests that just war as it has been conceived and practiced is now obsolete,” he said.

The document also acknowledges international peacekeeping forces like the United Nations as legitimate, in their responsibility to protect vulnerable populations. But the work of international peacekeeping forces like that of the UN are “not to be equated with war,” Holland said. “The possibility of a restrained, thoughtful presence in a conflict zone is radically different” than that of a destructive military engaged in warfare, he contended.

In 1948 at the WCC meeting in Amsterdam, delegates from churches around the world were prepared to declare that war is contrary to the will of God, Holland recalled. “But then they didn’t know what to do with it (that statement)!” he said. Since then, the peace churches like the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers, have been suggesting that there are things the churches would be able do with that statement, Holland said.

Now, at this convocation, “the exciting thing is, it’s no longer just the Historic Peace Churches that are excited about this!” he exclaimed. “It’s the broader ecumenical community!”

— Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford serves as director of news services for the Church of the Brethren. She will continue to post reports from the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Jamaica as Internet access allows. Find a photo album from the convocation at http://support.brethren.org/site/PhotoAlbumUser?view=UserAlbum&AlbumID=14337. For live webcasts from the main sessions, provided by the World Council of Churches communications staff, go to www.overcomingviolence.com .

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