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close this bookOvercoming Violence: WCC Statements and Actions 1994-2000 (WCC, 2000, 130 p.)
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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

Peace on Earth: New Visions and New Praxis - Consultation on Non-Violent Approaches to Conflict Resolution, Corrymeela, Northern Ireland, 2 June 1994

As we gather here in Corrymeela to reflect and exchange experiences about non-violent approaches to conflict resolution, responding in part to the decision of the WCC Central Committee in Johannesburg to initiate an ecumenical programme to overcome violence, three of the most abhorrent and violent conflicts in this generation are still going on in Angola, in Bosnia and in Rwanda. While we may strongly feel the need for new visions and a new praxis to build peace on earth, responding to the biblical promise, we are more aware than ever before of the culture of violence which surrounds us and holds us as prisoners, and of the weakness and failures of our efforts to act as peace-makers. The response to the unimaginable human tragedies caused by the current conflicts and the need to assist the victims absorbs all our physical and emotional energies and seems to leave little room for the patient work of broadening the acceptance for non-violent approaches to conflict resolution. When the Secretary General of the United Nations presented his “agenda for peace”, he distinguished the three tasks of peace-keeping, peace-making and peace-building. The evident powerlessness and weakness of the United Nations as an instrument for peace-keeping has shifted attention to the classical approach of peace-making through military intervention, allegedly for humanitarian purposes. Little or no attention is being given to the more long-term task of peace-building and its specific requirements.

When we will discuss during these days non-violent approaches to conflict resolution and strategies for overcoming violence, we should be conscious of the fact that we are tackling an agenda which, in spite of its broad biblical legitimation and its long ecumenical tradition, is less readily accepted today than it was five years ago when the Cold War began to end. Surely, the situation of confrontation between the two power blocs which was stabilized by the system of nuclear deterrence has disappeared, but its dissolution did not lead to the establishment of a new international order of peace and justice, but to the eruption of more and more civil conflicts which are fought in total disregard of the most elementary norms of humanitarian law. All the insights and convictions gained in years of ecumenical struggle for peace with justice seem to leave us helpless in the face of the very violence which is manifested in these conflicts. We have to start afresh in our analysis, including a critical assessment of our praxis. As Christians, we cannot but hold fast to the hope that God will be faithful to His promise of shalom. It is this sense of eschatological realism rather than our moral and ethical convictions about peace and non-violence which will keep us from self-righteousness or despair.

I. Our Common Legacy

The ecumenical movement has been committed from the beginning to the task of peace-building. We need to recall again and again the early impulses of the Church Peace Union, the contribution of Christians to the Second Hague Peace Conference (1907) and the creation both of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and the World Alliance for International Friendship through the Churches. The most important expression of this early commitment was the movement for Life and Work inspired by Archbishop Nathan Sblom. It was in a joint resolution of the World Alliance and Life and Work responding to the Briand-Kellogg Pact of 1928 that the decisive elements for the ecumenical witness for peace and non-violent conflict resolution were formulated. The so-called Eisenach-Avignon Resolution of 1928/29 condemned war as an institution for the resolution of conflict as irreconcilable with the spirit and the way of Jesus Christ and his church. It demanded urgently that all international conflicts and disputes which could not be resolved by normal diplomatic ways be submitted to a mandatory process of conciliation, e.g. through the International Court of Justice. It called upon the churches to declare unambiguously that they neither support nor participate in any war which had not been preceded by such a procedure for conciliation or mediation.

This resolution was formulated like the affirmations of the JPIC Assemblies in 1989/90 at a time when there was hope that war as an institution could be overcome and outlawed. But shortly afterwards in both instances the international climate changed radically. The thirty years following the Eisenach-Avignon Resolution have been characterized by growing confrontation which eventually erupted in the Second World War. The First Assembly of the WCC at Amsterdam 1948 could only repeat the convictions already expressed by the Oxford Conference in 1937 that war was against the will of God and should be condemned as a sign of the power of sin in this world. But Christian realism demanded to reckon with the manifestation of human evil and sin and, therefore, the assembly, just like the Oxford Conference, could only acknowledge that there were three opposing positions of conscience regarding the question of war and peace. These positions were:

1. the attitude of classical pacifism which refuses any participation in war and which opts for active peace service in the place of military force;

2. the position of the classical ethics of the state which holds that the state as a divinely instituted order of preservation must be ready to use force in order to defend justice and can oblige Christians to take up weapons to defend their country;

3. the position based on a rigorous application of the just war doctrine, concluding that modern warfare fought with weapons of mass destruction can never be an act of justice. This rediscovery of the critical function of the just war doctrine can be considered as the most important contribution of the early ecumenical conferences to an ecumenical peace ethics.

The Amsterdam Assembly took place on the eve of the beginning of the Cold War and thus the following years were characterized by continuous ecumenical attempts to promote the cause of disarmament and a limitation of the arms race. More important, however, was the fact that it was during these years that the inseparable relationship of peace and justice was rediscovered. Peace is more than the absence of war. The threats to peace do not only arise from military power but from hunger, oppression and injustice. The sentence from the development encyclical of Pope Paul VI “Populorum Progressio” (1967): “Development is the new name for peace”, is a good summary of this new insight. This was linked with an increasingly critical assessment of all purely military systems of security, especially the doctrine of “national security”. While these insights were clearly shaped by the conditions of global confrontation during the Cold War period, their basic impact should not be lost. The declaration of the Vancouver Assembly on “Peace and Justice” remains the authoritative summary of the critical insights and convictions gained during this period.

The ecumenical conviction that “without justice for all everywhere we shall never have peace anywhere” was tested most severely in the context of the Programme to Combat Racism and its support for liberation movements which used military means for overcoming the injustice of racism. It was this challenge which prompted the most serious reflection so far in the World Council of Churches about “violence and nonviolence in the struggle for social justice” which eventually led to a restatement of the three classical positions regarding war and violence, calling upon each position to examine its convictions mutually. Behind these positions we discover different attitudes regarding the relationship between the Christian community and the public powers. These hidden assumptions of a Christian political ethic need to be examined more explicitly if we are to overcome the deadlock in which the ecumenical movement has found itself caught regarding the issues of war and peace, violence and non-violence.

II. The New Configuration after the End of the Cold War

The changes in the world after 1989 have profound implications for our articulation of peace and our praxis of peace-building. The sequence of events need not be reviewed in detail, but some elements should be underlined. Over against a euro-centric view of the fundamental changes which have taken place, it must be kept in mind very clearly that the year 1989-90 seems to constitute one of those epochal years with world-wide implications. The significant events, therefore, do not only constitute the collapse of the systems of state socialism in Eastern Europe, but also the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa, which has meanwhile been sealed, the new constellation in Central America, but equally the suppression of the democracy movement in the People’s Republic of China. The changes in Europe have found their significant expression in the “Charter for a New Europe” which was adopted at the CSCE summit meeting in Paris in November 1990. This was accompanied by the initiation by the first-ever process of genuine disarmament which went far beyond the traditional agreements about arms control. In many other parts of the world, these changes found expression in determined moves towards democratization, and globally the changed role of the United Nations is the visible fruit of the initiation of a new phase of international relations. The end of the Cold War meant an end of the situation of bipolar confrontation which had characterized not only the European and North Atlantic political scene for several decades, but which had been the framework for international politics as a whole. The question of an international order of peace is no longer the object only of theoretical discussion, but has moved into the centre of international politics.

However, the Gulf War, following only shortly after the epochal changes, revealed clearly that the move from confrontation to cooperation is neither automatic nor without ambiguity. The debate about the Gulf War declaration at the Seventh Assembly of the WCC in Canberra demonstrated that the churches are not yet in a position to give a coherent answer to the question of how international conflicts can and should be resolved in ways which promote peace with justice. This dilemma has been exacerbated by the most recent violent conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and in several African countries. The resurgence of nationalism, the experience of genocidal violence and of ethnic cleansing and the inability of the United Nations to live up to its role of a peacekeeping instrument, have created a situation of uncertainty and confusion. There is no clarity either politically or ethically about the definition of the problems and consequently about appropriate solutions. What is most disconcerting is the fact that in many of these conflicts national identity, ethnicity and religious loyalty have begun to form an explosive mix which seems to make the problems almost insoluble. While it is true that only few of the post-Cold War conflicts are being fought principally for religious reasons, it is equally true that religious loyalties have been instrumentalized and manipulated for political ends and the respective religious communities, whether Christian, Muslim or otherwise, have largely been unable to defend themselves against this perversion of their true integrity. This fact certainly underlines that religious communities, the Christian churches included, are as much part of the problem as they might be able to contribute to its solution.

The rapid change of the international climate in the years following 1989 reminds one of a similar change sixty years ago. The high expectation of the late 1920s symbolized by the Briand-Kellogg Pact and the corresponding ecumenical Eisenach-Avignon Declaration, were disillusioned with the emergence of fascism, Stalinism and national socialism. The world economic crisis of 1929, initiated the change of events which finally led to the Second World War. While historical analogies should be treated with caution, the fragility of the international order at the present moment calls for an even more determined Christian witness in the service of peace with justice.

Ecumenically, the years 1989-90 saw the culmination of the process for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. While the subsequent events have largely overshadowed the insights and convictions formulated in the course of this process, the ecumenical movement cannot go back behind the broad consensus reached during these years with the full participation of the Roman Catholic Church. Four basic convictions can be highlighted which should continue to serve as guidelines for our present reflection.

1. War is no longer a legitimate means of inter-state politics. Modern wars which are conducted with weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction have to be rejected and outlawed as a crime against humanity, using the ethical criteria of the just war doctrine.

2. Justice and peace are inseparably related. Peace is not only the absence of war and the security of people is constantly threatened by conditions of structural injustice. Maintaining and building peace is a process which needs to be supported by the constant effort to broaden the reign of justice and the respect of human rights. The classical doctrine of the just war which aimed at the prevention or limitation of war has to be replaced today by the concept of a just peace. War can no longer be an act of justice.

3. Security is not only a military problem referring to the maintenance of order and the integrity of the state. What is at stake is the possibility of human life in security. Such security can only be maintained in cooperative ways as common security. Cooperative systems of security on a regional basis must, therefore, be considered as a decisive element in a new international order of peace.

4. The long-term witness of the historic peace churches for nonviolence receives new relevance in the present situation. It formulates the most basic challenge to the prevailing culture of violence and is, therefore, no longer a respectable but idealistic and apolitical position, but points towards the need to develop a new form of political reason which we have to learn if humanity is to survive.

These convictions which appeared to be supported by a broad consensus only four or five years ago, suddenly seemed to be out of place in a situation where increasingly war is again accepted as a normal and legitimate means of politics. Aggression, it is argued, can only be stopped by force and the churches are again expected to support the use of military force for the defence of the international order and basic humanitarian principles, or should at least refrain from open criticism. The doctrine of the just war is again being used to offer legitimation for “humanitarian intervention”, and old enemy images which seemed to be overcome reappear in a new disguise. The decisive question is whether we respond to the uncertainties and turbulences of the present situation on the basis of the patterns of reaction formed during decades of confrontation, or whether we can understand the present situation as a phase of transition and reorientation. For the first time since sixty years, the establishment of a new international order of peace supported by new visions and a new praxis has become possible, but at the same time has become an urgent necessity.

III. The Contribution of the Churches to the Task of Peace-Building

Christians and the churches live by the promise of a new heaven and a new earth in which justice prevails. The Old Testament concept of shalom embraces the dimensions of peace, justice and of the integrity of creation. The biblical injunction to the followers of Christ to be peacemakers and agents of reconciliation acquires new urgency in a situation of the breaking down of communities and the spread of a culture of violence. The World Convocation on JPIC in Seoul 1990 called for the development of a culture of active non-violence which is life-producing and is not a withdrawal from situations of violence or oppression, but is a way to work for justice and liberation. The convocation also made a commitment “to practise non-violence in all our personal relationships, to work for the banning of war as a legally recognized means of resolving conflict, to press governments for the establishment of an international legal order of peace-making”. As a background paper on “Overcoming the Spirit, Logic and Practice of War” presented at the Central Committee of the WCC in Johannesburg, January 1994, said: “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 for 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.”

Many of the conflicts in today’s world arise from situations of injustice, e.g. the ever-growing gap between rich and poor (both within and between states), the struggle for power, resurgent racism and xenophobia, violence against women and children, the careless use of the world’s resources, the proliferation of the arms trade, while millions are dying of malnutrition and disease. Many conflicts also spring from old disputes which had been repressed during the period of global confrontation, i.e. tensions between ethnic, national, religious, linguistic and racial groups. In many of these situations, the attempt to resolve the conflict by the resort to violence is an indication that even the most basic form of communication and listening to one another has broken down. Many of the present conflicts would not have taken the outrageously violent forms had it not been for the abundant availability of increasingly sophisticated and expensive weaponry and the indoctrination of the military by the ideology of national security.

Obviously, peace-making is a complex task and the contribution of Christians and churches should be approached with modest claims. Compared to the situation sixty years ago, the churches worldwide have only limited power in influencing political decision-making. The historic churches, in particular of Protestant and Orthodox traditions, find themselves caught in the dilemma of divided loyalty to their people and country and to the worldwide body of Christ. I would like to point to three forms in which the churches can contribute to the task of peace-building: supporting a fundamental change of consciousness, building networks of relationships and encouraging specific initiatives in the service of peace and non-violent resolution of conflict.

a) Supporting a change of consciousness. Is it a manifestation of idealistic and Utopian thinking to aim at overcoming the institution of war? It is still regarded as a sign of realism to assume that military conflicts between states are historically unavoidable. The maximum that could be achieved through ethical and legal norms was to tame and limit war, i.e. to define the limits within which wars could be considered as a legitimate continuation of politics with other means. This traditional attitude to war has its historical analogy in the institution of the feud as a means for resolving conflict between clans, families or individuals in earlier societies. At the end of the Middle Ages, the Christian churches have made a decisive contribution to the establishment of a generalized order of peace which helped to overcome the institution of the feud. It was replaced by a legal order under the protection of the state and the acceptance of the monopoly of the use of force on the part of the state.

We have reached the point today where the same step needs to be taken with regard to conflicts between states. The classical ethical and legal norms have become obsolete in an era of weapons of mass destruction. The military approach to the resolution of conflict must be replaced by an international legal order which protects the integrity and the rights of peoples and states effectively, thus removing the need to use military force for the defence of sovereignty. This perspective may sound Utopian, but it has become a matter of human survival. In order to achieve this, a fundamental change of political and moral consciousness is required which will need time. It is here that the churches can make an indispensable contribution.

Their potentially important role becomes evident when we see that all states which engage in actions of war seek a moral or religious legitimation of their action. Wars have always been a border-line situation in terms of ethical judgment and, therefore, the responsible leaders are eager to obtain religious legitimation and react sensitively wherever this is being withheld. However, if it is the aim to work towards the delegitimation of the institution of war, the churches have to begin with a serious reflection about the conditions of a just peace instead of continuing to specify the relative justice of wars.

The Charter of the United Nations includes a number of specific measures for peace-keeping which, however, have seldom been applied so far. This is true in particular for the International Court of Justice whose judgments have often met with benign neglect by those states accused of violating the principles of international law. The establishment of an international tribunal to prosecute the crimes committed during the war in the former Yugoslavia could constitute an important step in the effort to overcome the spread of generalized impunity for the perpetrators of massive violations of human rights. In any case, one of the essential aims in this new approach to a peaceful resolution of conflict must be the re-establishment and the deepening of the respect for the basic norms of international humanitarian law. This is a question of the foundations of our civic and public culture and here the churches can make a significant contribution.

The case of the Gulf War, but also the experience of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, have revealed the limitations of the power of the United Nations and have inspired a series of proposals for a reform of the system of the United Nations and of its charter. One specific area which calls for fresh consideration is the use of economic sanctions and other forms of embargo to exercise pressure on the parties in conflict with a view to reaching a settlement or at least limiting the conflict. While in the case of the apartheid regime in South Africa the sanctions policy has received increasing support and appears to have contributed to the final breakdown of the system, many questions are being asked regarding the application of sanctions in the case of Serbia or Haiti. In both cases, the application of the sanctions has had the unintended effect of strengthening the position of the ruling powers and thus prolonging the conflict. The Central Committee of the WCC at its meeting in Johannesburg has accepted the recommendation to study the policy of sanctions and their application as part of the instrumentalities for a non-military solution of international conflicts. A specific instance is the use of arms embargoes and the development of international control mechanisms for the arms trade. In all of these cases, the churches can make significant contributions in encouraging public discussion about such proposals and thus broadening their political acceptability.

b) Building networks of relationships. Important as it might be that the churches engage in public advocacy for proposals and policies in the interest of a non-military resolution of international conflicts, it must always be kept in mind that the churches and ecumenical organizations are not in the first instance public institutions but communities of human persons. What matters are the experiences of people in conflicts and their active participation in the building of a new civic culture within and between societies. More and more violent conflicts emerge from rivalries of power between small elites which take entire populations as hostages. In this situation, it becomes all the more important that the churches and ecumenical organizations concentrate on the strengthening of the elementary ties within communities or on the recreation of the social fabric where it has been disrupted. Rebuilding community and overcoming deeply rooted enemy images has become one of the priority needs in many societies requiring the cooperation of all agents of civil society. Many cultures, in particular those of traditional societies, transmit an important wisdom about ways of non-violent resolution of conflict and about resisting the eruption and imposition of violence from without. Recent examples of peace research and praxis in several contexts show that these traditional networks of social relationships can be mobilized in the interest of peace-making and conflict resolution.

A related aspect is the establishment of early warning systems in the interest of conflict prevention. The early recognition and the timely prevention of conflicts requires new and different ways of collecting and passing on information, i.e. an information system which picks up the signals from the every-day reality of the lives of people. Churches and their ecumenical organizations have an advantage here over governments and intergovernmental institutions because they are rooted in the smallest social units in all parts of the world. Provided they develop the necessary sensitivities, they should be in a position to discern the emergence of conflicts before they manifest themselves openly. Thus they could contribute to the early recognition of conflicts within and between states and prepare the way for preventive measures.

One of the principal reasons for social and international conflicts between states and ethnic groups is the distorted perception of the counterpart of their intentions and their interests. The Gulf War and the conflict in the former Yugoslavia have provided very disquieting examples of the extent to which propaganda and deliberate disinformation are being used today as a weapon against the respective enemy. Against this background, the affirmation of the World Convocation in Seoul deserves to be underlined, i.e. “that truth is at the foundation of a community of free people”. An international order of just peace can only be sustained if all parties have unrestricted access to the means of information and at the same time are able to freely present and interpret their own situation. The churches can, therefore, make a contribution to peace-building if they become determined advocates of the truth and of unrestricted communication. In particular, they can act as transmitters and mediators of truthful information between conflict parties. They can uncover propaganda and disinformation and thus prepare the ground for a possible solution.

It has already been pointed out that in more and more cases religion becomes an important factor in the dynamic of conflicts. In particular in Eastern Europe, but also in other parts of the world, the public role of religion as one of the sources of collective identity has emerged with new force. Over against the tendency to instrumentalize and manipulate religion for political purposes, all religious communities and in particular the churches must accept the responsibility to resist the danger of a genuine religious conflict with all its irrational connotations. Since the beginning of the century, the ecumenical movement has tried to manifest the worldwide Christian fellowship as a network of mutual commitment which transcends national, ethnic, cultural and language boundaries. Today this effort needs to be extended to the relationship between the world religions. All religions acknowledge the basic commandment of love of neighbour. Religious conflicts are a violation of this basic commandment, whatever their cause. Churches and Christians must, therefore, be prepared to attack the crusading mentality at its root and to promote a global ethics of peace and non-violence. The work of the World Conference on Religion and Peace and the declaration of the recent World Parliament of Religions in Chicago should be considered as significant efforts which, however, need to be translated and appropriated in the day-to-day relationships of different religious communities living in the same place.

c) Initiatives in the service of peace and a non-violent resolution of conflict. One of the specific recommendations emerging in the JPIC process has been the establishment of ecumenical services for peace, justice and reconciliation. These proposals have been inspired by the experience of the historic peace churches and many similar initiatives without a specific religious background. There is today enough evidence arising from the many activities of international reconciliation which shows that not only internal but also international conflicts can be diffused or even solved through the various forms of public monitoring, early information and competent mediation. In the Christian context, this is a new form of public diakonia which calls for official recognition also by the larger churches. If one considers the resources and the energies invested in the education and preparation of young men for the task of fighting in wars, then it becomes obvious that the social competence in the non-violent resolution of conflicts is gravely underdeveloped. The experiences with the deployment of UN peace-keeping forces in recent years can serve as an example for the fact that soldiers with normal military training are not sufficiently prepared to act as peacemakers and will not necessarily be recognized in this role by the population in conflict areas. As long as no reordering of the political priorities has taken place, the churches should take initiatives to prepare and train people for the task of conflict monitoring, mediation and conciliation. The experiences of the peace brigades in Central America, of the peace committees in Nicaragua or of the Ecumenical Monitoring Programme in South Africa should serve as an incentive and encouragement.

Important as such initiatives aiming at the minimization or the resolution of conflicts at an early stage are, in the majority of cases the churches and Christian communities find themselves caught in the dynamics of violent conflicts. The experiences of recent years point to one important form of the Christian ministry of reconciliation, i.e. the service to people who are emotionally and psychologically traumatized by war, violence and torture. The centres assisting women in the former Yugoslavia who have been victims of rape, the Trauma Centre in Cape Town, and similar initiatives for children who have been exposed to atrocities often in their immediate family, show the urgent need of spiritual, pastoral and psychological support for the victims of war and violence. These wounds often take far longer to heal than the physical wounds, but it is in these efforts of healing that the seeds of future reconciliation are being laid.

To promote reconciliation remains the ongoing task even after the hostilities in conflict situations have ceased. Reconciliation presupposes the readiness to move from open and often violent confrontation to dialogue. This transition is the most critical phase in the process of peace-making. Many examples of recent years have shown that the churches can make a significant contribution in preparing the way for a constructive communication between the parties in conflict. In the transition phase in Central and Eastern Europe, the model of the “round table” has developed in order to bring all political and civic groups together to consider the future of the society. In many instances, church representatives have been called upon to moderate such round tables. In several African countries, efforts at reconciliation have revived traditional forms of consensus formation and the role of the elders in extended families or tribes for the resolution of conflict. These examples stand for the effort to transform the confrontational resolution of conflict in terms of victory and defeat in the direction of cooperative processes which guarantee equal participation for all actual and potential parties in the conflict. The churches have the old tradition of conciliar resolution of conflict which provides a wealth of experience which should be applied in the social and political arena.

Any active and authentic contribution by churches to the task of building peace, justice and reconciliation pre-supposes their readiness to admit their own failure, responsibility and guilt in order to break out of the vicious circle of enmity and prejudice. This is all the more important in view of the tendency to fall back into the old patterns of matching up historical injustice and to misuse the churches for the legitimation of ethnic and national power claims. Fortunately, there are examples where the churches have played a leading role in moving towards a culture of peace, especially in South Africa, but often enough the churches, especially where they are closely linked to and identified with nations’ aspirations, have been part of the problem. How best can we continually affirm that our first allegiance is to Jesus Christ and to all God’s people, refusing the nationalism which so frequently breeds xenophobia, racism and discrimination of many kinds? Those who have been victims can themselves become oppressors.

The call to be reconciled is a call to all of us. Here in Northern Ireland, as in so many parts of the world represented at this gathering, we know that it is an immensely difficult task. Jesus’ words still challenge us, but with the challenge is the promise: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27).

1997 Christmas Message By Rev. Dr. Konrad Raiser, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches

Once again, at Christmas we hear the message of the angels who sing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to all in whom he delights” (Luke 2:14). This was and is the announcement that a new era, the reign of the Prince of Peace, has begun.

We hear the message. It responds to our deepest longings but we still wait for its fulfilment. Who can count those who were killed during this year in wars and military confrontation, those who were massacred as defenceless victims of terrorism? More than ever the world seems to be held captive to the unending cycle of fighting and killing, of victory and revenge, of merciless competition for power, and of a culture of violence in which only the winner counts.

And yet, the reign of the Prince of Peace has begun. It does not make the headlines. It escapes the focus of TV cameras. It does not conform to the law that the winner takes all and can impose the terms of peace. The new era of peace which began with the birth of Jesus continues today among the little ones, those who are forgotten, excluded and lost. These are those whom God loves and in whom he delights. For, as Mary the mother of Jesus said, “(God) has lifted up the lowly and has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:52f.).

Is this real, or is it wishful thinking? We may indeed need new eyes to discover the ways in which God’s reign of peace shows itself in our time. And there are examples, like parables, pointing to this different reality.

In August this year, the World Council of Churches launched a “Peace to the City” campaign as the initial focus of its Programme to Overcome Violence. The campaign is designed to make visible the efforts of those often unknown groups of women and men who dare to be peacemakers in the midst of a culture of violence. They live among us in our troubled cities, like Belfast and Boston, Rio and Colombo, Suva in Fiji, Durban and Kingston. They live and work among street children and urban gangs. They seek to mediate between ethnic groups, and protect minorities. They monitor police actions and help to improve run-down neighbourhoods.

Through their lives and actions, they help a culture of peace to emerge. These people of peace are signs that the reign of the Prince of Peace has begun. It is real. In this, today’s peacemakers echo the Christmas message of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to all in whom he delights.””

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.

2000 Christmas Message By Rev. Dr. Konrad Raiser, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches

It has been a centuries-old unwritten rule that at Christmas a cease-fire be observed in all situations of military conflict. Will this be the case this year as well? What do those warlords who force young people - and often enough children - to fight their dirty wars know and care about this rule? From Sierra Leone to Indonesia, from Israel and Palestine to Sri Lanka, from Colombia to Chechnya, our world seems to be engulfed in a deadly cycle of war, violence and destruction. A real culture of violence has taken root and is spreading, in open contempt of all the rules of humanitarian law. It manifests itself not only in armed conflict. Violence has become omnipresent in the streets, in subways, in schools and sports stadiums, in families and homes. Its victims are most often those who are different: members of ethnic, racial or religious minorities; refugees; people with disabilities; or simply the poor and marginalized.

Can this dynamic be stopped? In many places, people have begun to stand up and to form alliances resisting the culture of violence. Through its “Programme to Overcome Violence”, the World Council of Churches has tried since 1994 to support such initiatives and give them greater visibility. Now at the beginning of the year 2001, the WCC will reinforce its efforts and launch a “Decade to Overcome Violence”. This Decade is rooted in the conviction that Christians and their churches are called “to provide to the world a clear witness to peace, to reconciliation and nonviolence grounded in justice”. It is the objective of the Decade to open the space where an alternative culture of peace and reconciliation can grow.

Building a culture of peace and non-violence is an urgent demand, not only for political reasons. Churches are called to articulate the protest of the gospel against the cult of force and greed, against unbridled competition and impunity where fundamental human rights are being violated. The culture of violence is the result of a perversion of basic values; it manifests the inability to sustain relationships. Overcoming violence therefore has to begin in the hearts and minds of people. A culture of peace cannot be imposed from above. It grows where space is provided for learning how to resolve conflicts peacefully, to sustain difficult relationships, to encounter the stranger without anxiety.

Each year at Christmas, we hear the message of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those whom he favours” (Luke 2:14). We celebrate the birth of the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), the one who reconciled us to God and with each other and thus proclaimed peace (Eph. 2:17) and a new relationship between those who had been separated by alienation and hostility.

As we celebrate Christmas this year, let us consider what we can contribute to overcoming violence and building a culture of peace. Living in a situation where violence has become omnipresent, those who have heard and accepted the gospel of the peace of Christ are entrusted with the message of reconciliation. They are made ambassadors for Christ and called into a ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20).

This, then, is our mission today as Christians: wherever the walls of hostility are being broken down, wherever communal conflict is being resolved peacefully, wherever women and children are being saved from becoming victims of violence, the peace of Christ is being proclaimed to the glory of God.