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Historic Peace Churches offer a unique voice for nonviolence



by Walt Wiltschek (*)


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Marilyn Stahl has noticed recently that people have a growing interest in her church. "People hear I'm Mennonite, and they say, 'I wish our church was a peace church'," said Stahl, who has come to the 9th Assembly of the WCC from the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University in the United States.


The Historic Peace Churches are small compared to most of the World Council of Churches' 348 member churches. But this group - the Mennonites, Brethren and Friends (Quakers) - believes it has a unique voice with particular relevance for this time in the Council's work. The churches have a long pacifist tradition, based on Jesus' commandment of nonviolence, accepting this as a key element of Christian identity.


"Our gift to the ecumenical dialogue is to be a resource for those people who are thinking about [peace issues]," Stahl said.


The WCC sensed the need for that resource when it launched the Decade to Overcome Violence five years ago with an emphasis on networking and encouraging peace efforts worldwide. The WCC central committee asked the Historic Peace Churches to give special attention to the Decade, and to provide leadership by speaking out of their experiences. Six churches from the three faith traditions are WCC members.


"It's a culture we're grown up in," said Stan Noffsinger, general secretary of the US Church of the Brethren. "We have an understanding of Christ talking about heaping love on our enemies. We understand the theology of peacemaking not just in response to violence or war; it's a transformative way of life that looks at all of life through a very different lens."


Those groups quickly sensed a need to coordinate their efforts, so a Historic Peace Church conference was organized in Bienenberg, Switzerland, in 2001. A book, "Seeking Cultures of Peace," arose from that meeting. Seeking to broaden the discussion, the churches held their next conference in Kenya in 2004, bringing in voices from Africa. Plans for a third conference, in Asia in 2007, focusing on interfaith conflict, are under way, and a future Latin America conference is being considered.


The Kenyan conference has already borne fruit. Filibus Gwama, an Assembly delegate from the Ekklesiyar Yan'uwa à Nigeria (Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), said his denomination began a peace education programme following the conference. Last January, a coordinator was called to oversee the network. "The church is working hard to see that there is peace," Gwama said.


That was one of many stories highlighted during a mutirão workshop at the Assembly, covering various Historic Peace Church contributions to the DOV. Tom Paxson, from the Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee of the Friends General Conference in the United States, recounted another effort: funding a WCC staff position for peace work.


The initiative was finally approved in 1996. Sara Speicher was the first to serve in the role, with what was then the Programme to Overcome Violence. Funded initially by the Mennonite Central Committee and European Mennonites, it came at a time when the WCC was facing financial difficulties and cutbacks.


"The sustainability of the Programme to Overcome Violence and the Decade to Overcome Violence was very much due to the Historic Peace Churches' engagement," said Rev Hansuli Gerber, coordinator of the DOV since 2002. "Otherwise, I don't know how it could possibly have happened."


Gerber said such practical service is at the heart of what the Historic Peace Churches represent. "It's not just talking, it's not just a matter of what we think," he said. "It's what we do."


Dr Fernando Enns, a German Mennonite originally from Brazil, brought the motion to make overcoming violence a more central part of the WCC's work at the Harare Assembly in 1998. Delegates adopted the motion, and the DOV was formally launched with ceremonies in Germany in 2001.


At the mutirão workshop at this year's Assembly, Enns said the need for that emphasis hasn't diminished. "All over the world, churches are facing the challenge of violence. The question is always before us: How do we respond?"


He said it is easy for Christians to say, "We're fed up with turning the other cheek because they'll slap us again." But, as Historic Peace Churches, "we stick to the conviction that nonviolence is essential to Christian identity".


Representatives of the Historic Peace Churches met during the Assembly to speak from that conviction to public issues being studied in Porto Alegre. Of particular concern were pending statements on terrorism and on when the use of force is appropriate for humanitarian intervention. Unlike churches that espouse the "just war theory", the peace church tradition says any use of violence is inappropriate for Christians.


Noffsinger acknowledged that it can be hard for the voice of the Historic Peace Church to be heard, particularly in the current US environment. "We've tried to speak out, but the drums of war are pretty loud," Noffsinger said. "On one hand, it's disheartening that Christ's voice isn't being heard, but on the other hand it's encouraging: We must be relentless in our search for peace."


They hope others continue to show interest in and join that effort, too. While only three faith traditions are known as Historic Peace Churches, representatives at the Assembly said that any denomination - including theirs - can be a living peace church for the world today.


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(*) Walt Wiltschek is editor of Messenger, the denominational magazine of the Church of the Brethren. An ordained minister, he lives in St. Charles, Ill., in the United States.


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