An array of speakers addressed many intersections of Just Peace at the 2015 Presidential Forum at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind., on Oct. 29-31. With a focus on “Rejecting Cruelty, Creating Community, Rediscovering Divinity” the event juxtaposed a variety of ways to address and understand the concept of Just Peace. It was the seventh Presidential Forum held by the seminary and the first hosted by Bethany’s president Jeff Carter.
“I have dreamed of this gathering since the moment I was called to be president of the seminary,” Carter said as he welcomed the congregation to the opening worship service of the main forum event. Bethany Seminary is more than just committed to Just Peace, it is engaged in Just Peace, Carter said, “as an ongoing conversation of faith and faithfulness.”
Over the course of the two-day forum and pre-forum, the history of Just Peace was presented with a theological analysis of the concept and what it means for churches, biblical exegesis addressed Joshua–a text traditionally considered most difficult for peace churches, and added input came from presentations on current “hot” topics including the Syria refugee crisis, mass incarceration that targets Black people in the United States, racism and #BlackLivesMatter, ethical eco-tourism, and other challenges for Christian peacemakers.
Other peace church members presented “break out” sessions on related questions. Concurrent with the forum, Bethany also held an “Engage Visit Day” for prospective students.
Worship helped shape the event
“Peace is not easy, or popular, or even possible,” said Richmond pastor Matt McKimmy in the opening worship service of the pre-forum. “But we cannot ignore what Jesus said about peace.” McKimmy was one of several speakers at the first of the four worship services that were interspersed with speakers’ presentations.
Preaching for the opening worship of the forum was Sharon E. Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She called the gathering–and, implicitly the peace churches–to live “as if” God’s reign of justice and peace proclaimed in Isaiah 61 and re-proclaimed by Jesus in Luke 4 is a reality today, in this world.
“Jesus calls us to live ‘as if’…as if the reign of God is already here, as if justice and peace have already kissed,” she said. “Living ‘as if’ means giving up privilege, releasing comfort…. Can we join that pilgrimage? That’s where Jesus calls us to be.”
In a question and answer time following the service–an opportunity also offered after every major presentation–Watkins fielded questions about inclusion of those on the margins and focused attention on racism, noting “the nature of injustice that is in our society…because of racism…. This demon racism, that will not be completely exorcised.” Asked how she leads her church in addressing such injustices, she called Christians to be in touch with places of brokenness, and to “travel light” by leaving behind lesser concerns that she characterized as weighing churches down in this 21st century.
Watkins told about how the Disciples have tried to maintain a “touchstone” in order to “find our way back when we start to get lost from each other,” reporting that her denomination’s touchstone has been their profession of faith in Jesus Christ. That has enabled them to maintain unity at Christ’s table despite differences. “You come to the table with your differences…realizing it’s Christ’s table. We don’t invite and we can’t exclude. It’s Christ’s table.”
What Just Peace means for Christians and churches
Fernando Enns repeated the call for Christians to be in places of brokenness in his address the next morning. Enns is a German Mennonite theologian and a member of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee. He has been a leader in the Decade to Overcome Violence, and is a leading proponent of Just Peace in ecumenical circles.
He presented the history of Just Peace and the process that brought it to the consideration of the WCC, which has adopted a major document on Just Peace. “Just Peace is embedded as a new model of doing theology and ecumenical [work],” he told the forum.
Simply stated, Just Peace is “a pattern of life that reflects human participation in God’s love for the world,” Enns said, quoting from a WCC document.
He presented a theological framework for understanding Just Peace as a trinitarian approach, based on the work of German Lutheran theologian Dorothee Sölle, who he said has been influential in ecumenical circles in recent decades.
Sölle’s work and theological concepts help place Just Peace in the realm of spirituality, not just peacemaking techniques, Enns said. “To be agents of God’s peace requires putting on the mind that was in Christ Jesus,” he said, referencing Philippians 2:5. This is what is necessary to keep hope alive, for Christians concerned with justice and peace, and also what is necessary for those involved in Just Peace to be in regular and deep communion with God, he added.
Enns presented Sölle’s trinitarian formula as a three-step process for living into Just Peace:
— First, to take the “via positiva” or the way of blessing, celebrating the blessed and life-giving nature of God and the Creation;
— Second, to take the “via negativa” or the pilgrimage of discipleship to Jesus Christ that leads inevitably to the cross, and leads Christians to witness to the gospel of Christ in the midst of brokenness–which Enns characterized as seeking out the places where the Crucifixion is happening today; and
— Third, to take the “via transformativa” of becoming one with Christ through the Holy Spirit, being saved and being healed ourselves, and in the process gaining strength to face and heal violence in the world.
Speakers address hot topics in connection with Just Peace
A number of speakers addressed some of the current “hot topics” for the peace churches. Another of the architects of the WCC’s Just Peace document, Scott Holland, asked whether religion has a role in peace anymore, given the widespread questioning of religion around the world. Holland is Bethany’s Slabaugh Professor of Theology and Culture and director of Peace Studies. Telling a story about an encounter he had with young people in Indonesia, he pointed out that “radical politics and radical religions do not lead to peace in the public sphere.” He emphasized the positive nature of Just Peace, as opposed to the negative ways that religion–Christianity as well as Islam and others–have influenced the world in recent decades, marked by terrorism and radical right-wing religious groups. Just Peace is a positive peace, he said, and means among other things efforts at eco-justice or peace with the earth, as well as economic justice or peace in the marketplace, peace between the nations, and just policing rather than the use of military force.
A review of the world’s refugee crisis was presented by Elizabeth Ferris, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. She reviewed the unprecedented numbers of refugees and displaced people around the world, and the places where movements of populations are occurring. This crisis of displaced people is a clear sign that our global order is breaking down, she said. Factors include the lack of concerted international effort to care for refugees, in particular the Syrian refugees who are making their way into Europe by the thousands every day. Another sign of global break down is the lack of enough trained humanitarian workers to serve in the numerous places that are experiencing population shifts all at the same time. The Syrian crisis has become a focal point, and an indicator of the depth of the concern and the desperation of the refugee population, she told the forum. At the nexus of the Syrian crisis, however, are the besieged communities within Syria, where there is no hope for relief from the outside. These besieged communities are the result of government bombing, where “people have starved to death,” she said. In 10 years, she warned, we will look back in shame on the Syrian crisis, because the international community did not act. She called for Americans to work without ceasing to convince their own government to carry out the measures that are proved to actually aid refugees, such as giving effective humanitarian aid to the countries surrounding Syria, and radically simplifying and shortening the application process for Syrian refugees to come to the United States.
Christina Bucher, Carl W. Zeigler Professor Religion at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College, took on the question of “Pondering Joshua in Search of Just Peace.” The Old Testament book of Joshua with its injunctions to slaughter the enemies of ancient Israel, characterized in the text as divine commands, and the genocide of the Canaanite people that resulted, has been a difficult text for peace churches. Bucher acknowledged that often Christian peacemakers simply ignore Joshua, and offered five possible ways of reading and interpreting it. In the end, she recommended a “reader response approach” that takes the Bible story seriously, yet engages it as a “conversation partner” and allows for dialogue between the text and the reader. This approach encourages attention to details and “fractures” in the Joshua story that may lead to new understandings, she said. “Jesus does not treat his scripture as objects,” she noted. “He engages with the Torah and the prophets and we should treat scripture in the same way.”
The question of ethical tourism, how to travel in a just and peaceful way, was tackled by Ben Brazil of the faculty of Earlham School of Religion. A former journalist and freelance travel writer, he presented the variety of ways that concerned organizations are promoting eco-tourism and ethical tourism, analyzed them, and offered a critique of each. No one answer deals with all the challenges, which include the carbon footprint of air travel, the numerous ethical questions raised by cruise ships that dump waste at sea and pay low wages to their workers, the privilege enjoyed by white North Americans in many of the tourist destinations in the southern hemisphere, among others.
Challenges of the world’s many oppressions, and how to undo them in our personal lives and in our churches, were presented by Carol Rose. She is a former director of Christian Peacemaker Teams who is now serving as co-pastor of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship in Tucson, Ariz. Rose focused on racism as a foremost oppression faced in the United States. Among other questions raised during her presentation, she talked about the way institutional racism has affected the peace churches in many detrimental ways.
Also focusing on racism was James Samuel Logan, National Endowment for the Humanities Endowed Chair in Interdisciplinary Studies at Earlham College, and a Mennonite minister. In a frank and hard-hitting presentation, he read a personal account by a young Black man about the sexual abuse and torture endured during a prison sentence. He then addressed the reasons why Black Lives Matter is so important for the United States today. Logan characterized the mass incarceration that unjustly targets Black people as key for an understanding of race relations. However, key for the peace churches is making connections with the young activists who are leading what he calls the “Everywhere Ferguson” movement, and their “hip hop” generation. He made it clear that the work at undoing racism and collaborating with young Black activists is the make-or-break challenge for the peace churches today–a challenge that has huge moral significance for American Christianity as a whole.
For a photo album of the forum, go to www.bluemelon.com/churchofthebrethren/bethanyseminarypresidentialforum2015