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close this bookOvercoming Violence: WCC Statements and Actions 1994-2000 (WCC, 2000, 130 p.)
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View the documentOvercoming the Spirit, Logic and Practice of War - Background Document Prepared for the WCC Central Committee, Johannesburg, South Africa, 20-28 January 1994
View the documentRecommendations of the WCC Central Committee, Johannesburg, South Africa, 20-28 January 1994
View the documentProgramme to Overcome Violence: Assumptions and Principles - Adopted by the Board of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, Kitwe, Zambia, 25-30 June 1994

Overcoming the Spirit, Logic and Practice of War - Background Document Prepared for the WCC Central Committee, Johannesburg, South Africa, 20-28 January 1994


The Central Committee, at its last meeting (Geneva 1992), upon recommendation of the Unit III Committee, agreed

a) that active non-violent action be affirmed as a clear emphasis in programmes and projects related to conflict resolution;

b) that Unit III, in cooperation with Unit I, through a study and reflection process, should clarify to what extent the fellowship (koinonia) of the World Council is called into question when churches fail to categorically condemn any systematic violation of human rights that takes place in their country.

This decision, reached following a Central Committee debate on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, restated one of the oldest concerns of the ecumenical movement, one which has been formulated in different ways according to changing historical contexts.

The most often quoted version, is the affirmation by the First Assembly (Amsterdam 1948), which held that

War as a method of settling disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The part which war plays in our present international life is a sin against God and a degradation of man.

A decade earlier, the Oxford Conference on Church, Community and State (1937) had said, on the eve of the Second World War

If war breaks out, then pre-eminently the Church must manifestly be the Church, still united as the one Body of Christ, though the nations wherein it is planted fight each other, consciously offering the same prayers that God’s name be hallowed, His Kingdom come, and His Will be done, in both, or all, the warring nations.

In this period which gave birth to the WCC, the Church was seen as not only trans-confessional, but also supranational, transcending barriers of nationality and race. Ecumenical historian Nils Ehrenstraid this posed the question,

...does this fellowship in the Una Sancta, professed as an object of faith and experienced as a fact, have any bearing on the shaping of international relations? Or do international Church relationships and international political affairs move on two disparate and never intersecting planes? As usual, the problem became acute when it moved on to the level of a practical challenge. All the Churches believed in peace and fervently expressed their desire for it; but what could or should the Churches do about it?

The question of peace, including the churches’ responsibility to seek to prevent war, to minister impartially to victims of war, and to serve as agents of mediation and reconciliation during times of war, has social witness and doctrinal, possibly even ecclesiological, dimensions.

The tradition of a just war.1 Already at Amsterdam serious doubts were expressed about the applicability of the just war criteria which still today are used as a guide by churches of several traditions. The report to the First Assembly of the section on “The Church and the International Disorder” said that the discovery of atomic and other new weapons, and the new employment of air forces had changed radically the character of war.

1 Just war criteria are divided into those by which it is determined that it is just to resort to war (jus ad bellum):

1. there must be a just cause;

2. the aims of the war must follow a just intent, i.e. the pursuit of a just peace;

3. war must be a last resort;

4. war can be made only by legitimate authority, i.e. a sovereign government or competent international body;

5. there must be a reasonable prospect of success;

and those applicable to decisions taken in midst of war (jus in bello):

6. war must honor the principle of discrimination, requiring noncombattant or civilian immunity, and avoiding massacres, atrocities, looting or wanton violence;

7. violence applied in war must be restrained by the principle of proportionality.

In these circumstances the tradition of a just war, requiring a just cause and the use of just means, is now challenged... (The) inescapable question arises - Can war now be an act of justice?

In 1948, no agreement was possible on how to answer this question. The most the Assembly could do was to restate the opposing positions as they had been outlined at Oxford:

1) There are those who hold that, even though entering a war may be a Christian’s duty in particular circumstances, modern warfare, with its mass destruction, can never be an act of justice.

2) In the absence of impartial supranational institutions, there are those who hold that military action is the ultimate sanction of the rule of law, and that citizens must be distinctly taught that it is their duty to defend the law by force if necessary.

3) Others, again, refuse military service of all kinds, convinced that an absolute witness against war and for peace is for them the will of God, and they desire that the Church should speak to the same effect.

The Assembly went on to describe the dilemma in terms which apply to the debate as much today as it did at the founding of the WCC:

We must frankly acknowledge our deep sense of perplexity in the face of these conflicting opinions, and urge upon all Christians the duty of wrestling continuously with the difficulties they raise and of praying humbly for God’s guidance. We believe there is a special call to theologians to consider the theological problems involved. In the meantime, the churches must continue to hold within their full fellowship all who sincerely profess such viewpoints as those set out above and are prepared to submit themselves to the will of God in the light of such guidance as may be vouchsafed to them.

As the Oxford Conference said when it was confronted with such opposing views on war and peace on the threshold of WWII:

[The Church]... cannot rest in permanent acquiescence in the continuance of these differences but should do all that is possible to promote the study of the problem by peoples of different views meeting together to learn from one another as they seek to understand the purpose of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Non-violence as a preferred option for churches. The modern-day ecumenical movement has roots deep in the church peace union movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though that movement was comprised of a fairly broad spectrum of Protestant churches, the theological option for pacifism, non-violence, and/or active non-violent action for justice has been advocated most consistently and persistently by the “Historic Peace Churches” (Quakers, Brethren, or Mennonites) of the Anabaptist tradition.

These churches took serious the Oxford call for dialogue and study of the issues. They invited the WCC and non-pacifist member churches to a series of discussions between 1955 and 1957 to explore and reduce differences in theological perspectives within the ecumenical fellowship on issues related to peace/war and violence/non-violence. These “Puidoux” conferences (named after the site of the first meeting) had considerable impact, and led the Third Assembly (New Delhi 1961) to direct the Division of Studies to sponsor a consultation on the biblical and theological bases of the peace witness.

No such consultation was ever organized. But the Fourth Assembly (Uppsala 1968) did not drop the matter, and in its “Martin Luther King, Jr. resolution,” it directed the “Central Committee to explore means by which the World Council could promote studies on non-violent methods of achieving social change.”

This resolution was implemented, partly in response to the WCC consultation which led to the formation of the Programme to Combat Racism, which recommended that

... all else failing, the Church and the churches [should] support resistance movements, including revolutions, which are aimed at the elimination of political or economic tyranny which makes racism possible. (Notting Hill Consultation, 1969)

A consultation on “Violence and Non-Violence in Social Change” was organized by the Department of Church and Society in Cardiff, Wales, in 1972, to “delineate the issues... and to clarify the concepts of ‘violence’ and ‘non-violence’.” It explored further the tensions among the positions. Its report, “Violence, Non-Violence and the struggle for Social Justice,” was commended to the churches for study by the Central Committee (1973).

The Fifth Assembly (Nairobi 1975) adopted a Programme Guideline on

The need to exercise a ministry of peace and reconciliation and to explore further the significance of non-violent action for social change and the struggle against militarism.

The Central Committee (Jamaica 1979) encouraged

further exploration and continuing implementation of the report on “Violence and Non-Violence and the Struggle for Social Justice”, paying serious attention to the rights of conscientious objectors and the need to promote peaceful resolution of conflicts.

The Commission of the Churches on International Affairs convened a small consultation later that year (Chamb 1979) on peaceful resolution of conflict with representatives of the Historic Peace Churches, scholars and activists seeking viable alternatives to military-dominated systems of national defense. The Executive and Central Committees (1980) called on member churches “to initiate and encourage innovative measures for peaceful resolutions of conflicts.” And the following year, CCIA organized a follow-up meeting in Northern Ireland, seeking to integrate the conclusions of the Cyprus Consultation on Political Ethics in this area of concern.

Ecumenical thinking moved more and more in the direction of the need for justice as a means of avoiding and resolving conflicts, to eliminate the root causes of war to be found in “economic injustice, oppression and exploitation and... restrictions of human rights.” (Central Committee, Dresden 1981) A Consultation on Disarmament organized by CCIA (Glion 1978) called for the Cold War to be replaced by a “warm peace.”

Peace and status confessionis. Especially among churches of the Lutheran confession, the notion of status confessionis began to be applied more and more in the context of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. White South African churches were expelled from both the Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches for the “theological heresy” of giving the blessing of the Church to the sin of apartheid.

When the pace of the arms race escalated dramatically in the early 1980’s and church-based peace movements in Europe and North America grew correspondingly, some churches in the Lutheran tradition began to regard opposition to the nuclear arms race as a question of status confessionis.

The Sixth Assembly (Vancouver 1983) reiterated the Nairobi Assembly’s call to the churches to

emphasize their willingness to live without the protection of armaments,

and endorsed the conclusions drawn by the panel at the WCC International Public Hearings on Nuclear Weapons and Disarmament (Amsterdam 1981), which said that

We believe that the time has come when the churches must unequivocally declare that the production and deployment as well as the use of nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity and that such activities must be condemned on ethical and theological grounds.

The Sixth Assembly went on to affirm, in its Statement on Peace and Justice,

... that Christians should give witness to their unwillingness to participate in any conflict involving weapons of mass destruction or indiscriminate effect.

This line of thinking, too, lay behind the Vancouver Assembly’s programme priority which instructed the WCC

To engage the churches in a conciliar process of mutual commitment (covenant) to justice, peace and the integrity of all creation [as] a priority for World Council programmes.

This idea was picked up by groups related to the West German Kirchentag in 1985, where German physicist, Carl Friedrich von Weizser, issued a widely-supported call to convene a new ecumenical Council, following on the great councils of the early Church, devoted to peace as an essential Christian theological responsibility of the time. Nothing less, he argued, would carry sufficient moral weight to turn around the nuclear arms race in time to avert an almost certain global nuclear holocaust.

Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. The World Convocation on JPIC (Seoul 1990) did not go as far as many of its supporters hoped it would in bringing the idea of such a great Council closer to realization. But its own affirmations were significant. Affirming “the full meaning of God’s peace,” participants said

We are called to seek every possible means of establishing justice, achieving peace and solving conflicts by active non-violence.

The Convocation also

[resisted] doctrines and systems of security based on the use of, and deterrence by, all weapons of mass destruction, and military invasions, interventions and occupations; [as well as] doctrines of national security which are aimed at the control and suppression of the people in order to protect the privileges of the few.;

[and made a commitment] to practice non-violence 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 peacemaking.

It spoke of the need to demilitarize international relations and to promote non-violent forms of defense.

Significantly, for the present discussion, it picked up and endorsed the call issued earlier by the Federation of Protestant Churches in the German Democratic Republic “to reject the spirit, logic and practice of deterrence based on weapons of mass destruction.”

Finally, it called for the development of a culture of active non-violence which is life-producing and is not a withdrawal from situations of violence and oppression but is a way to work for justice and liberation.

Rethinking issues related to war and peace after the Cold War. By the time of the Seventh Assembly (Canberra 1991), the Cold War had been declared finished. Hot wars, however, continued. Among the first signals of the dangers inherent in new entente between the former superpowers was the massive deployment of military force, under UN Security Council auspices, in the Gulf War.

Debate on this issue at the Assembly once again revealed deep divisions among the churches, between those who justified the USA-led intervention in the Gulf and its attacks on Iraq by application of the just war criteria, and those who asked, with their counterparts in the First Assembly, “Can war now be an act of justice?”

A background document, “Resurgent Racism, Ethnicity, and Nationality Conflicts,” provided to the last Central Committee meeting raised questions about conflicts which exploded following the disintegration of the former socialist states of Eastern and Central Europe. It offered these reflections for further discussion:

Seldom in modern history, even in the midst of world war, has humanity had to confront such a complex, intertwined set of issues at once virtually all around the globe. It is not surprising, therefore, that no clear definitions of either the problems or of possible solutions are at hand, or that our own grasp of applicable moral, ethical and theological categories is inadequate.

... Many churches have been caught in this tension. In some cases, they have for centuries been the guardians of their nations’ languages, cultures, and identities, galvanizers of the peoples’ will to survive and to prevail in times of crisis. [Others have] been the solid rock upon which the oppressed, the colonized and the enslaved have stood in trying times...

Can such churches, caught in the terrible trials of their peoples, where survival itself is at stake, continue to serve their people’s spiritual needs, minister to their doubts and fears, console their losses, and offer hope, and at the same time give full expression to the universal love of God expressed in the sacrifice of the Son for all nations?

It was partly in response to this question that the WCC was formed. Yet each generation of church leaders has had to reformulate its answer. How do we go about finding the faithful answer in our time? How do we heal the wounds being inflicted in our own fellowship in this tumultuous age?

Current Ecumenical Response

The action taken by the Central Committee in 1992, recalled at the beginning of this paper, called for active non-violent action to be affirmed as a clear emphasis in programmes and projects related to conflict resolution.

Programme activities planned. The Working Group on International Affairs subsequently recommended, and the Executive Group of the Unit III Commission agreed, that staff develop programmes in the three following areas during 1994:

1. The development of a data-base of church-based and church-related peace groups.

The purpose of this listing is to provide churches and groups with an easily accessible listing of groups pursuing active non-violent approaches to conflict resolution in their own situations who are ready to share their own experiences and/or to provide training and other help.

Many have responded to the request for information sent to all member churches and church-related groups identified thus far, and the data base is now available for consultation. It will be enlarged, published and updated as further information is received.

Another organization based near the Ecumenical Center in Geneva, the Liaison Centre for Ecumenical Services for JPIC, is stressing the vital importance of Christian voluntary service for justice, peace and creation - to be seen as a complementary contribution. The first step is the development of an informational directory of existing church-related voluntary agencies. The Centre hopes to become an information-sharing and coordinating body for such services.

2. The convening of a consultation on non-violent approaches to conflict resolution.

A planning group of experts in this field was brought together last August and has designed a consultation to be held in June 1994 in Northern Ireland. Approximately fifty persons from a wide variety of regions and conflict situations will be invited to share experiences and analyses, and to help develop more well-elaborated guidelines on non-violent approaches to conflict resolution.

3. The organization of a pilot training session in the techniques of non-violent conflict resolution.

The same planning group designed a training session which will bring together practitioners of non-violent conflict resolution for sharing of methodologies developed in different regional and social contexts, to strengthen networks, and to support a continuing process of training patterned to needs of church-related groups.

This event is being planned in cooperation with the Ecumenical Institute, and will be held at Bossey, in Switzerland, in August 1994.

Future work on issues related to peace, non-violence and koinonia.

The Central Committee further decided

that Unit III, in cooperation with Unit I, through a study and reflection process, should clarify to what extent the fellowship (koinonia) of the World Council is called into question when churches fail to categorically condemn any systematic violation of human rights that takes place in their country.

Neither unit has been able to give full attention to this matter as yet, given its possible complexities and potentially major ramifications for the WCC.

The suggestion that a member church may call into question its membership in the fellowship of churches if it were to fail to condemn “categorically... any systematic violation of human rights that takes place in their country” could open the “Basis” of the WCC to debate. Presently, all churches are eligible for membership “which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

According to the WCC “Rules,” the sole condition placed on member churches is that each “must recognize the essential interdependence of the churches, particularly those of the same confession, and must practise constructive ecumenical relations with other churches within its country or region.”

As this background paper has sought to demonstrate, the WCC has often approached the idea of status confessionis with respect to issues in the area of war/peace and violence/non-violence, but has always stepped back from placing any such conditions for membership. The presenters of this motion were conscious of at least some of these implications, framing it in a way as to link it with the current discussion on koinonia.

Thus far, the WCC, as a multi-confessional body, has stood firmly by the principle that the Council is a place where churches consciously expose themselves to mutual challenge, correction and accountability. Clear speaking, for example on the issue of combatting racism, has on a few occasions led churches to withdraw from the fellowship. Never, has a church been excluded by the fellowship itself.

Changes in the world may make possible, but in any case require, a new address to the questions raised from 1937 and earlier. There is need to seek greater clarity. The ecumenical fellowship has been strained more than once in recent times when churches lost sight of the “supranational” character of the Una Sancta, of the universality of the Gospel, and of the commandment to love one’s enemy and one’s neighbor as oneself.

Clearly, there is a need to confront and overcome the “spirit, logic and practice of war” and to develop new theological approaches, consonant with the teachings of Christ, which start not with war and move to peace, but with the need for justice. This may indeed be a time when the churches, together, should face the challenge to give up any theological or moral justification of the use of military power, whether in war or as a part of security systems based on the notion of military deterrence, and to become a koinonia dedicated to the pursuit of a just peace.