The opening worship revealed the full ambivalence of religion toward violence, as more than 200 persons from different faiths gathered Oct. 4-6 at Central Congregational UCC in Atlanta for a weekend conference called "Religion and Conflict: Cause or Cure?"
The gathering opened with the Islamic Ajan, the lighting of the Shabbat candles, the chanting of the Hindu Aratai, and the choral singing of music by Ennio Moricone from "The Mission." But leaders also read sacred texts that called for the slaughter of enemies and offered prayers that called for peace.
Violence often begins with disputes over economic or political matters between people who happen to be of different religions, said the Rev. Margot Kaessmann in her keynote address, but added, "religious convictions often inflame and escalate these situations." Kaessmann, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hanover, Germany, is widely regarded as the "mother" of the World Council of Churches' initiative, The Decade to Overcome Violence.
Reflecting on the story of "disarmament" in the Garden of Gethsemane, Kaessmann said she agrees with President George Bush that "Iraq must disarm," but added that the Good News of Jesus Christ demands that "the whole world must disarm." In Gethsemane, Jesus broke the cycle of violence when he said, "Put the sword back in its place." No violence can be supported by the church, she said. The contemporary "romanticism" of violence is a sin against the cross. "The future belongs to the non-violent," she affirmed, "or we have no future."
Other global leaders
Three other global leaders for peace joined Kaessmann. A. Rashied Omar, the Imam of a Capetown, South Africa, Masjid, had worked with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the anti-Apartheid struggle before becoming coordinator of the "Project on Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding"of The Joan B.Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame. Tom Blue Wolf, the Muscogee-Creek founder of EarthKeepers and the Urban Tribal Peace Initiative, shared a "First Nations" earth-centered understanding of peace and conflict resolution. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a "Tikkun Olam" ("Healer of the World") founded and directs The Shalom Center in Philadelphia and works for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as ecological shalom.
During the conference, the Statement of UCC leaders opposing U.S. war against Iraq won the support of the participants. Many expressed their belief that promoting an inclusive community is only possible if we develop a new way of relating to each other. Building trust is crucial. Many youth participants said that the movement for peace could bring new life to the church.
Workshops also were a large part of the gathering, by such groups as the Carter Center, Centers for Disease Control, Emory University's Conflict Studies Program, Men Stopping Violence, Interfaith Children's Movement, Buddhist Peace Fellowship and DeKalb County law enforcement, among others.
Soul searching needed
The Rev. Gilbert Friend-Jones, senior minister of Central UCC, spoke about the need for the world's religious communities to engage in the deepest soul searching.
"We can not simply disclaim violence as a distortion of otherwise genuinely religious impulses," he said. "We must identify the pathology of violence for what it is, and purge those things in our respective traditions that contribute to the world's stockpile of hatred."
Finally, a Native American flute called the assembled into the circle of those who work for peace. The Rev. Adei Greenpastures, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor of Tsalagi (Cherokee) heritage, concluded with a tearful voice, "In this time of torment, let Muslim bless Jew. Let Hindu bless Muslim. Let Jew bless Christian. Let us bless each other. Let us bless each other, and each other's faith. Let our blessings manifest our one human family."
The conference was organized by Central Congregational, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, and the Dean of Chapel and Religious Life at Emory University.
Isaac Baroi, a veteran journalist from Asia, sought religious-political asylum from the U.S. government. He and his family are now members of Central Congregational UCC in Atlanta.