A ‘Just Peace’ future: Part 2

Following the recently concluded World Council of Churches’ International Ecumenical Peace Convocation held in Kingston, Jamaica, United Church News asked Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite to reflect on the history, progress and potential future of the Just Peace movement. In 1986, Thistlethwaite edited the book, “A Just Peace Church,” which challenged the United Church of Christ and its ecumenical partners to adopt the Just Peace paradigm as a core theological grounding. In this three-part series, Thistlethwaite will first recount the activities of the Just Peace movement over the last 25 years and then position the paradigm in a post 9/11 world.

“Courage in the struggle for justice and peace” is one of the powerful affirmations in the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith. It is central to the identity of our church. It is one of our most ardent prayers and richest blessings. To be part of the United Church of Christ is to be part of the struggle for justice and peace.

In June of 1985 the Fifteenth General Synod, meeting in Ames, Iowa, took two important actions to strengthen this identity. They declared justice and peace to be two of the priorities of the church for the next four years. And they passed a Pronouncement “Affirming the United Church of Christ to be a Just Peace Church.”

The first draft of what became the “Just Peace” document was published in October 1984 and circulated widely throughout the church. Many people and groups reacted to this draft, sending in hundreds of pages in response. The first draft and the response to it became the basis for the Pronouncement and the Proposal for Action, which were sent to the Fifteenth General Synod. The debate and the action of that synod have, in turn, provided a basis for the book, A Just Peace Church.

In declaring itself to be a “Just Peace Church” the United Church of Christ took made several important declarations: The church as church made a specifically biblical and theological affirmation: it affirmed that making peace and doing justice are the task of Christians given to them by God in the shalom vision. This United Church of Christ document further developed a new theological language or theological paradigm of peace theology, moving beyond the three historic paradigms: pacifism, just war, and crusade.

In the years following the adoption of the Just Peace pronouncement, many churches throughout the United Church of Christ declared themselves “Just Peace Churches” and engaged in a wide variety of activities to widen and deepen that concept. Unfortunately, the United Church of Christ did not continue to participate in the nearly quarter of a century of ecumenical, and now interfaith work, that has followed that has developed the concept of Just Peace into an established paradigm for considering peace and war. It is my ardent hope that is about to change.

Terrorism and Just Peace

September 11, 2001 produced a blizzard of reflection in the United States along a wide spectrum from national self-recrimination through national self-justification and even ideologies of victimhood for the U.S. A volume called Strike Terror No More: Theology, Ethics and the New War, edited by Jon L. Berquist, tried to gather the thoughts of the theological community. From apocalyptic to pastoral care, from just war to just peace 38 colleagues weighed in with their thoughts. I contributed the just peace perspective, “New Wars, Old Wineskins,” outlining how several principles of Just Peacemaking were particularly apt for the post-9/11 world. I wrote in conclusion: “There is nothing new under the sun,” says the prophet, and in many ways that is true. But this war on terrorism is new in the sense that we have not seen this scale of terror before in human history. A threshold has been crossed, and we will not be able to go back to the norms of conventional wars. Christian moral thinking on war and peace must respond. The tenets of just war theory no longer apply in terrorism.” It is no longer the case that ‘we do not know the things that make for peace,’ we do. And shame on us if we do not employ them.

But I spoke in that chapter as a Christian, specifically as a Christian, and completely eschewed any implication that I was speaking for more than one part of the spectrum of theological and biblical interpretation in Christianity. I believe I now know two things post 9/11 (at least). One is that we cannot go it alone either politically or religiously. But we also know that it is arrogant and dangerous to assume what others in other faiths think. Theological reflection on Just Peace, therefore, must become an interfaith reflection.

Newer Directions in Just Peace: Interfaith Work

In May of 2005 a group of religious leaders and scholars, primarily Christians and Muslims, was convened at the Pocantico Conference Center of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund by
The Islamic Society of North America, the Managing the Atom Project of the Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Churches’ Center for Theology and Public Policy to discuss what their traditions had to contribute to the question of the nuclear weapons danger at this time in history. The consultation produced a consensus statement called “We Affirm Our Belief in the One God: A Statement Regarding Muslim-Christian Perspectives on the Nuclear Weapons Danger” which religious leaders of all faiths have been to endorse subsequent to the meeting. To date 1529 religious leaders have signed.

The document ends with an affirmation of our consensus: “We therefore believe that the common position held by both of our traditions, expressed as the sanctity of human life, leads us inexorably to say that the only real security for the world and the most responsible position for people of faith in our two traditions is to call upon the United States and other countries of the world to, gradually and in a verifiable manner, finally eliminate these weapons from the face of the earth.”

Interfaith Work on Just Peace Has Continued
It was clear to all the participants in the Pocantico conference that further interfaith work was needed, and that our group must be expanded to include all the Abrahamic faiths, Jewish, Muslim and Christian. As planning began to go forward with an “Abrahamic” approach to JustPeacemaking, a particularly salient discussion focused on the issue of scriptural interpretation and use. As the Jewish and Muslim participants, in particular, pointed out, “We are text-based faiths; we need to base our peacemaking practices on our scriptures.” Each of us has searched our Scriptures for guidance in our peacemaking practices. We believe the revelation of God in our Scriptures calls us to these specific practices.

With grant support from the United States Institute of Peace, we convened a conference at Stoney Point, New York, in 2007. In the days leading up to the meeting, one participant suggested that contributors write a preparatory paper from each faith with three main points. The first point should identify problem passages in our own traditions—passages that had been used historically to turn people against peace and for war. So we each began by acknowledging our own responsibility for some of the hostilities and killings that have happened. This was a breakthrough method, as it allowed each faith group to hear the other groups talking about how their own sacred texts had been used to support violence. It was a remarkable method for using scripture in relationship to interfaith peace work. We were then able to work together to explore the religious ground for alternatives to war. That work became the document published in October 2008 by the United States Institute of Peace as Abrahamic Alternatives to War: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives on Justpeacemaking, edited by Susan Thistlethwaite and Glen Stassen.

Following that successful endeavor, a small group began to plan for a book length work on Interfaith Justpeacemaking. Through a generous grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a leadership team representing all three faiths began meeting. They invited the participants in the earlier projects and additional scholars and religious leaders were invited to contribute to the endeavor. The structure of the book was laid out to include an introduction, conclusion and ten chapters, each addressing a particular Just Peace practice, with a Jewish, Christian and Muslim author for each chapter. After much preparatory work, the thirty project participants came together for the Just Peacemaking Conference in late January 2010. The goals of this three-day conference included community building among participants, the development of clear and mutually agreeable writing guidelines for the completion of the book chapters, and small group collaboration among the three authors of each chapter. In addition to accomplishing these goals, a number of valuable insights emerged from the work done at the conference that were included in the various chapters, and in the introduction and conclusion. The book is finished and the manuscript is at the publishers, Palgrave Macmillan. It will be available in early winter, 2011, under the title: Interfaith JustPeacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War, edited by Susan Thistlethwaite.

Conclusion: Just Peace is Now Acknowledged as a Fourth Paradigm Beyond Just War, Pacifism and Crusade

President Obama broke with traditional Just War thinking in his 2009 Nobel Prize Acceptance speech. The President said that the “old architecture” of thinking about war and peace is “buckling.” What is required now, argued the President, is to “think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of just peace.” The President went on to name all ten Just Peace practice norms in that significant address.

There are now four paradigms under which religious bodies consider the religious response to peace and war, Pacifism, Crusade, Just War and Just Peace. The twenty-first century has seen unprecedented challenges to the human community in peace making and indeed, in war making. Terrorism is a significant challenge to the just peacemaking community, but so is hunger and disease, the many human rights violations at home and abroad including racism, sexism, and violence against women, unjust economic systems, weapons proliferation, and totalitarian political systems. The list is long. We in the United Church of Christ must find ways to respond that continue the practice norms concept: what works, on the ground, to transform such structures of violence and injustice into Just Peace?

Part one of this series was published June 6, 2011.

The Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ since 1974 and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. She is also Professor of Theology at the UCC’s Chicago Theological Seminary and its former president from 1998 and 2008.

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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