The International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Jamaica symbolises the emergence of a remarkable consensus among Christian churches on issues of war, peace and justice. Yet the task facing the ecumenical movement in the 21st century is now to work for a consensus on justice and peace that transcends cultural and religious boundaries.
The International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Jamaica marks not only the culmination of the Decade to Overcome Violence, launched by the World Council of Churches in 2001, but symbolises the transformation in ecumenical understandings of war, peace and justice that has taken place since the foundation of the WCC in 1948.
When delegates gathered that year in Amsterdam for the first assembly of the WCC, they said, “War is contrary to the will of God”. Yet, as Uruguayan theologian Guillermo Kerber notes in a recent issue of the Ecumenical Review (http://bit.ly/l2235K), delegates could not find a common answer to the question, “Can war now be an act of justice?” Twenty years later, in 1968, there was no consensus at the Uppsala assembly to advocate “nuclear pacifism”. Instead the gathering confined itself to setting out the issues – important though they were – raised by the “the concentration of nuclear weapons in the hands of a few nations”.
In the run up to the WCC’s Vancouver assembly in 1983, the issue of peace threatened to tear the ecumenical community apart. A burgeoning peace movement in Europe and North America wanted the gathering to denounce the nuclear rearmament of the United States and the Soviet Union. Churches in the global South saw in this appeal for peace an attempt by the affluent North to avoid unresolved issues of injustice, poverty and racism; elevating the potential deaths of millions through a nuclear cataclysm above the millions already dying in the South because of the global structures of injustice.
Out of this clash, however, came the ecumenical statement on “peace and justice” that provides the foundations for the IEPC taking place in Kingston today. “Peace is not just the absence of war,” it stated. “Peace cannot be built on foundations of injustice.” At the same time, the Vancouver assembly gave birth to the Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, as an urgent call for authentic witness by churches on these issues of life and death.
Yet in 1991, the WCC’s assembly in Canberra – meeting during the first Gulf war – rejected an appeal by Konrad Raiser, later to become WCC General Secretary, to refuse “any moral or theological justification of the use of military power … and to become public advocates of a just peace”.
Twenty years on, this is almost exactly the language now used in the “Ecumenical Call to Just Peace” presented to the IEPC in Jamaica (http://bit.ly/kk703o). The global shifts that followed the end of the East/West confrontation mean that responding to a call to be peacemakers is not seen as avoiding the demands of justice, but as addressing the injustice that prevents lasting peace. As such, the peace convocation in Jamaica may itself be an expression of that authentic witness on justice, peace and concern for creation for which the Vancouver assembly appealed almost 30 years ago. Such a consensus marks a major milestone within the ecumenical movement.
At the same time, this milestone is itself a reminder of the immense task that lies ahead. The 20th century was often described as the 'ecumenical century', when churches separated for centuries came together to make common cause. The 21st century now demands cooperation and common action that transcends religious and cultural barriers. Religion is seen as a major factor in world affairs, but often perceived as stoking violence and discord, hindering rather than promoting peaceful cohesion in society.
It is no longer enough to forge and to promote a consensus on justice and peace within Christian churches. Nor can issues of interfaith dialogue and cooperation be matters only for a few specialists, important as such expertise is. Neither is it question of simply seeking areas of common ground on which members of various faiths can already agree. Taking seriously the search for 'just peace' in the 21st century means promoting authentic dialogue, one that may be marked as much by debate and disagreement as was the emergence of the ecumenical convergence seen now in Jamaica. In this process, alongside others, the World Council of Churches has a major role to play.
© Stephen Brown, an Ekklesia associate, is a Geneva-based journalist and the editor of a special issue of The Ecumenical Review to mark the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation. He is also the author of From Disaffection to Dissent: The Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation as a precursor of the peaceful revolution in the GDR, published in German in 2010 by the Verlag Otto Lembeck, Frankfurt/Main.
With additional thanks and acknowledgments to EPNN
European Protestant News Network EPNN
International Ecumenical Peace Convocation IEPC, Kingston/Jamaica, 17-25 May 2011
www.overcomingviolence.org, Twitter #IEPC