Peace Among the Peoples’ is Subject for Fourth Plenary Panel


“We are invited as Christians to see working for peace at every level of society as an act of discipleship,” said Lesley Anderson as he opened the fourth plenary panel discussion of the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) on the theme, “Peace among the Peoples.”

“The question is, how?”

Panel moderator Kjell Magne Bondevik, a former prime minister of Norway and president of the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights, pressed for discussion of a number of political issues that arise when Christians undertake peacemaking: security concerns, the concept of a “responsibility to protect,” the ways war affects vulnerable noncombatants like women and children and the elderly more than others, nuclear weapons.

The day’s panel included Christiane Agboton-Johnson, deputy director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, Switzerland; Archbishop Avak Asadourian of the Armenian Orthodox Church of Baghdad and general secretary of the Council of Christian Church Leaders in Iraq; Lisa Schirch, a Mennonite and professor of peace building at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, who has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan; and Patricia Lewis, deputy director and scientist-in-residence at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Jesus did not talk about security, Schirch pointed out, adding that the language of the church is much more about justice and peace than security. When governments talk about a need for national security, the best the church can do is talk about the safety of the people, she recommended. “God gives us a security strategy when he tells us to love our enemies and do good to those who hurt you.”

In Iraq, Schirch heard the saying that security does not land in a helicopter, but grows from the ground up. However countries like the United States have a “fantasy about fire power,” she said. “That fantasy ends in a nightmare that is the suffering of civilians on the ground.”

What about governments’ responsibility to protect citizens? asked Bondevik. Agboton-Johnson responded that armed violence leaves leftovers, as she put it, referring to the ways women continue to suffer from war even long after the conflict is officially over. Speaking in French, she turned the discussion to issues that affect women in particular, including the need to involved women in processes of rebuilding and reconciliation following conflicts, the need to call women to step into roles of leadership, and to look at the proliferation of small arms around the world.

American women have played a large role in the recent progress on nuclear weapons control via negotiations on the START II treaty, Lewis said. The US delegation included a large percentage of women for the first time, she pointed out. She also said that women can play a role in preventing violence by serving as a kind of “early warning system” to alert the world when their communities become at risk. “If you don’t ask the women, you don’t know what’s happening,” she said.

Would we have less wars and conflicts if more women were in decision making positions? asked Bondevik. Schirch was quick to answer both no, and yes. There is nothing inherently biological that turns women toward peacemaking, but also it would make a difference if more women were in decision making circles. She asserted that it may happen when women work together with other women. It is in the way women are socialized to be in relationship, she said.

Bondevik’s question for the archbishop asked if there is a connection between salvation and peace in a place like Iraq.

“We are in a bad situation, more than can be realized,” Asadourian responded. He has been archbishop in Baghdad since 1979, experiencing three wars and an embargo of his country. “We have lost more than 1.5 million Iraqis,” he said, adding, “I don’t want to differentiate Christians from Iraqis…. Where we talk about peace for Iraq we talk about peace for all Iraqis.

“Our Lord is a Lord of salvation,” and has come to bring peace, he said. Actually, it is more than peace, it is equality, he amended. All people created in the image of God are equal. “If we are equal under God…then through equality we are saved by a saving God.”

The 14 Christian denominations in Iraq just recently, in 2009, came together for the first time to create a council of Christian church leaders, he reported. It is a sign of the Spirit, he said. The group works on dialogue with Muslims. Even though they have been targeted by militant Islam, many Muslims want the Christians to stay in Iraq, Asadourian said. The well intentioned Muslims are actually in the majority, and appreciate the role of the Christian leaders in facilitating conversation even between Muslim groups.

The session also included greetings by video from a Hibakusha, a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima. Setsuko Thurlow. Just 13 years old when the bomb was dropped in 1945, she escaped from the rubble of her collapsed school, only to see the debris catch fire and know that most of her classmates were burned to death. She told of her memories of that awful day, which she spent trying to find water for the injured and dying. The effects of the blast heat and radiation are still killing people today, she said.

The hibakusha have become convinced “that no human being should ever have to repeat our experience of the inhumanity, illegality, immorality, and cruelty of nuclear warfare.”

In response, Bondevik asked Lewis what must be done to ensure that the 21st century is not worse than the 20th. She pointed to a fundamental inequality in the universe, that it takes so much more energy and time to create than to destroy. “So much effort and love to create beauty, so little time to destroy it.”

We have God-given wisdom that may counteract our human impulse to destroy, she added. The big factor is our attitude toward change. When change happens, “we keep assuming the worst,” she said.

When it came time for a lively question and answer period at the end of the plenary, her point was made. In response to a skeptical questioner, she had to repeat her assertions that nuclear disarmament is doable and that the situation with regard to nuclear weapons is actually improving. Signs of progress include a drastic reduction in the numbers of such weapons held by the two big powers–United States and Russia, a new nuclear weapons free zone in Africa, an upcoming conference to discuss a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East, and a dawning realization by the military itself that nuclear weapons really do not have military usefulness.

But she called for more, as several others have during this convocation. Just as many are working to abolish nuclear weapons, she pushed the question further: “Why can’t we abolish war?”

Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of News Services, is reporting from the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) in Jamaica this week. Find a blog from the event, posted by peace witness staff Jordan Blevins, at the Brethren Blog at www.brethren.org . Find webcasts provided by the World Council of Churches at www.overcomingviolence.org