Cover Image
close this bookOvercoming Violence: WCC Statements and Actions 1994-2000 (WCC, 2000, 130 p.)
close this folderAddresses of the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr. Konrad Raiser
View the documentPeace on Earth: New Visions and New Praxis - Consultation on Non-Violent Approaches to Conflict Resolution, Corrymeela, Northern Ireland, 2 June 1994
View the document1997 Christmas Message By Rev. Dr. Konrad Raiser, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches
View the documentExcerpt of the 1999 Report of the General Secretary to the WCC Central Committee, Geneva, Switzerland, 26 August-3 September 1999
View the document2000 Christmas Message By Rev. Dr. Konrad Raiser, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches

Excerpt of the 1999 Report of the General Secretary to the WCC Central Committee, Geneva, Switzerland, 26 August-3 September 1999

II. Looking Ahead

Beyond evaluating the Harare Assembly, it is the main task of this first meeting of the Central Committee to consider the post-assembly agenda. The assembly itself did provide the essential framework, especially through the reports of the Programme Guidelines Committee and the two Policy Reference Committees. Unfortunately, the pressure of time did not allow the assembly in its final plenary sessions to discuss the recommendations in greater detail and to discern the implications both for the WCC itself and for the wider ecumenical movement. This is particularly true for the report of the Programme Guidelines Committee. Over these past months, the whole staff, the Executive Committee and finally a core group of the future Programme Committee have engaged in an intensive process of interpretation, discernment and planning. Out of this process, a comprehensive framework of proposals has emerged which will be presented to you for an initial discussion in plenary on Monday, in order to enable the various committees to prepare recommendations for action.

I shall refrain from entering into the details of this important task and will rather focus on one recommendation which was introduced into the text of the Programme Guidelines report from the floor at the end of the assembly, i.e. the proposal to proclaim the period 2001-2010 an “Ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence”. In accepting this recommendation, the assembly has not only placed the reflections of the Programme Guidelines Committee on non-violence and reconciliation in a concrete framework of action, but has brought into sharper focus its message to the churches and to the world on the eve of the 21st century. The commitment to overcome violence and build a culture of peace may indeed be the prophetic witness which the churches have to render at a time when the struggles for power and resources, identity or sheer survival in a globalized world seem to result in a generalized culture of violence. The proposed Decade is more than yet another major social and political programme of the WCC. Violence in the homes and on the streets, between ethnic and religious groups, within and between nations and societies, is the most powerful force destroying human community life. Overcoming violence, therefore, is an urgent task to be addressed by those who are committed to building and reconstructing inclusive and sustainable, just and reconciled communities. This is an essential part of what it means to be the church in the 21st century. The proposed Decade, therefore, goes to the very heart of our vocation as a fellowship of churches.

The proposal for a Decade to Overcome Violence did not come as a surprise. It had been discussed in Padare sessions and hearings at the assembly and been considered in the Programme Guidelines Committee. That it was not included in the Programme Guidelines report was due to the general rule followed by the committee not to present specific programmatic recommendations, believing that these should be left to the Central Committee. However, the assembly, in accepting the recommendation, wanted to give a signal. The Programme Guidelines Committee already said: “There is a need to bring together the work on gender and racism, human rights and transformation of conflict in ways that engage the churches in initiatives for reconciliation that build on repentance, truth, justice, reparation and forgiveness.” It is now up to the Central Committee to spell out the directions which, in the words of the Programme Guidelines Committee, indicate that “the Council should work strategically with the churches on these issues to create a culture of non-violence, linking and interacting with other international partners and organizations and examining and developing appropriate approaches to conflict transformation and just peace-making in a new globalized context”.

In this effort, we can build on the experience of the preceding Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women as well as on the lessons learned during the JPIC process. More immediately, the new Decade follows on the Programme to Overcome Violence, initiated at the Central Committee in Johannesburg in 1994, and carried out in part through the Peace to the City Campaign which culminated at the Harare Assembly. A dynamic and growing network of ecumenical partners engaged in local initiatives to overcome violence has already been established; it will be a vital resource for shaping the Decade. In addition, the United Nations have proclaimed the same period from 2001-2010 as a “Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World”. This offers welcome links to parallel initiatives on the level of governments and the wider civil society. However, it will be decisive for the WCC to find ways of involving its member churches in this process directly and from the start. The Decade must not be presented as a WCC programme directed from Geneva, but should become a common effort of the churches and the wider ecumenical movement who, in their respective contexts, accept the commitment to work towards overcoming violence. While the Decade will be launched only in January 2001, the time until then should be used for preparing the ground. To this effect, a message and a letter of invitation to the member churches has been prepared, together with a proposal for the basic framework of the Decade. These will be discussed in the Programme Committee for your consideration and appropriate action towards the end of this meeting.

The concern for violence and non-violence is not new to the ecumenical movement. Indeed, it was central to the conflict surrounding the Programme to Combat Racism in the 1970s. In 1968, the Uppsala Assembly responded to Martin Luther King’s non-violent struggle for social change by initiating a study process on “Violence and Nonviolence in the Struggle for Social Justice”. The report on this study was received by the Central Committee in 1973. It confirmed the basic ethical dilemma which has accompanied the wider ecumenical discussion on war and peace since the Oxford Conference in 1937. However, under the growing threat of nuclear destruction, the ecumenical discussion led to the conviction that not only had the “spirit, logic and practice of nuclear deterrence” to be rejected, but that the very institution of war had to be overcome and delegitimized for the sake of human survival in a globalizing world. This has implications for the issues of violence and non-violence, and the Seoul World Convocation on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation formulated a commitment “to practise nonviolence in all our personal relationships, to work for the banning of war as a legally recognized means of resolving conflicts, and to press governments for the establishment of an international legal order of peace-making”. The commitment was underlined and strengthened in an act of covenant “for a culture of active non-violence which is life-promoting and is not a withdrawal from situations of violence and oppression, but is a way to work for justice and liberation”. While the Canberra Assembly, in its controversial discussion of the Gulf War resolution, hesitated to reaffirm this conviction, the Central Committee in Johannesburg in 1994 responded strongly to the appeal of Bishop Stanley Mogoba to launch a WCC programme to “combat violence”, given that the Programme to Combat Racism had been vindicated in its struggle against the system of apartheid. This appeal, therefore, is the immediate origin for the present discussion on violence and non-violence.

These past five years since the meeting at Johannesburg have subjected the ecumenical commitment to peaceful resolution of conflict to a severe test. In April 1994, the world was shocked by the genocide in Rwanda, the beginning of a long-drawn conflict in the entire region of the Great Lakes in Central Africa. In September 1994, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina entered into its most brutal phase, marked especially by the practice of “ethnic cleansing”. While the UN peace mission in Somalia had to be terminated at the end of 1994 before reaching its objectives, the call for a “humanitarian intervention” in the Balkan war became stronger, also from within the ecumenical community. It was in this situation that the Central Committee in 1995 adopted a message on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in which it acknowledged “a widening gap between differing Christian attitudes to war and peace, the use of sanctions, and whether violence can be justified as a last resort in pursuit of peace” (Minutes 1995, 50). A year later, the Central Committee received with appreciation a “Note on the Contemporary Role of the Church in International Affairs” which reviewed the painful ecumenical debate and asked: “What alternatives has the church to offer to violence as a response to conflict? What can the church do to lower or eradicate the incidence of violence in society? How can the churches and Christians strengthen their capacity to remain in dialogue on deeply divisive social and political issues?” (Minutes 1996, 176). In response, the document pointed to the recent attempt to develop “criteria for determining the applicability and effectiveness of sanctions” (cf. Minutes 1995, 265ff., especially 272f.) and to the launching of the Programme to Overcome Violence. But questions still remain: “Have we been effective in moving from declaration and affirmation to action? Have we spoken in such a way that what we say can be heard by and make a difference to the churches? Have we helped to make the universal Christian witness meaningful and potent in a needy and confused world?” (176) All of these challenges came into even sharper focus as a consequence of the Kosovo conflict and the military intervention by NATO. The intervention clearly violated international law, but was officially justified as necessary to defend the human rights of the Kosovo Albanian population who had become the target of the policy of “ethnic cleansing” by the Serbian authorities.

In trying to find a common response to these intractable conflicts and to remain faithful to the ecumenical commitment to peaceful resolution of conflict, we have often been reminded of the words of the Prophet Jeremiah: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). In fact, one of the basic affirmations of the ecumenical movement since the earliest times has been the conviction that a durable peace can only be built on the basis of justice. The Vancouver Assembly in 1983, in its statement on “Peace and Justice”, said: “Peace is not just the absence of war. Peace cannot be built on foundations of injustice. Peace requires a new international order based on justice for and within all the nations, and respect for the God-given humanity and dignity of every person. Peace is, as the Prophet Isaiah has taught us, the effect of righteousness”, and it added: “The ecumenical approach to peace and justice is based on the belief that without justice for all everywhere we shall never have peace anywhere” (Vancouver Report, 132). However, it is precisely this conviction which has been put to the test in these recent conflicts. Is not a “humanitarian intervention” in the defence of human rights an act of justice? And, on the other hand: are there not ever more situations where an end of violent confrontation is the essential condition for any attempt to build a more just order? How can ecumenical solidarity with the victims of injustice and violence be practised if the distinction between victims and perpetrators becomes blurred; when the former perpetrators become victims themselves? And how can the work of reconciliation begin if both sides understand themselves as victims of injustice? The document from the Central Committee in 1996 quoted earlier says: “After decades of dealing with what seemed to be clear-cut issues of right and wrong, the churches have been confronted with new moral and ethical dilemmas. What do we do when there is no ‘just’ solution, when the ‘legitimate’ claims for justice by several parties to a conflict deny justice to the other? What moral criteria do we apply when to judge the one and absolve the other is itself an act of injustice?” (181)

As the same document reminds us, we are still deeply conditioned by thinking in the categories of the Cold War based on the clear identification of an enemy and the confrontation of absolute good and evil. The confrontational logic of war, i.e. the tendency to solve a problem or conflict by establishing the dominance of one position over the other, has shaped relationships in the political, social and even cultural field more deeply than we are ready or able as yet to acknowledge. It has, in particular, produced an understanding of conflicts of power in terms of a zero sum game in which gaining power by one side necessarily means that the other side loses. The expectation and the fear that “the winner takes all” is one of the hidden reasons for the interminable conflicts in Africa. The Decade to Overcome Violence must find ways of addressing and exposing the “spirit, logic and practice of war” and must open the space for learning and teaching the art of peacemaking. The transformation of violence into peaceful conflict resolution has to begin by questioning the deeply rooted cultural inclination to think in opposites; we must raise awareness of the dimensions of reciprocity and mutuality instead. Violence cannot be overcome by imposing superior power and enforcing obedience and submission, since violence is itself an expression of the war logic of power. The effort to build a culture of peace, therefore, has to be rooted in an understanding of power as a resource for the life of the community which increases as it is being shared. Peaceful resolution of conflict is possible only as the win-lose matrix is being transformed into a dynamic where both sides emerge as having won.

This has implications also for our understanding of justice. Much of the ecumenical discussion has been shaped by a punitive and forensic concept of justice aimed at establishing right and wrong at the expense of promoting justice in the sense of healing and restoring the life of the community. Too often the appeal to justice and the law has been used as a political instrument to punish those perceived to be the enemies instead of promoting justice as the cooperative effort to resolve a conflict or to heal the wounds of history. Once more I quote from the Central Committee document of 1996 which underlines that our experience since Canberra “shows that the law alone is insufficient to bring lasting justice or durable peace... Jesus came to fulfil the law, but at the same time to free us from bondage to an absolutist system of law based on retribution. His message of forgiveness has shown itself anew to be not just a requirement of the faith, but a political necessity, if we are ever to overcome ancient enmities, our tendency to pursue justice on our own terms and at any price, and our penchant to resort to violence in the name of peace and justice. The ecumenical movement has repeatedly affirmed that there can be no peace without justice. We have learned that there are times when there can be no justice if there is not some peace” (182).

It was my intention with these reflections to place our discussion about the proposed Ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence into the wider context of ecumenical efforts. As a new Central Committee, I felt that you should be made aware of the struggles of your predecessors during the years between the Canberra and Harare Assemblies to formulate a Christian witness in the complexities of a globalized world and to respond to the dilemmas posed by the series of contemporary conflicts. The Harare Assembly has shown that the confrontations and conflicts, which are likely to increase as we move into the 21st century, are present in the midst of our ecumenical fellowship. We cannot treat the challenge of violence only as a problem in the world around us. We must acknowledge that our theological traditions and the structures of power within our own communities have helped shape the world’s attitudes, and therefore they themselves may be part of the problem which we are trying to address. It is one of the painful insights of the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women that violence against women, for example, is a reality in many of our churches, which is often justified with theological or cultural arguments. The Decade to Overcome Violence will, therefore, oblige us to enter into a self-critical assessment of those theological, ecclesiological or cultural traditions which tend to justify violence in the name of defending order and enforcing obedience. We have arrived at a decisive moment in the long and controversial ecumenical debate on violence and non-violence, war and peace, justice and reconciliation. It is my hope and prayer that, as an ecumenical community, we will be able, through this Decade, to render a faithful witness to the one who is our peace and who has broken down the dividing wall of hostility. For “he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:17ff.). That is central to our vocation and a strong reason for the hope that is within us.