Re-articulating the Vision: What is a Peace Church?

General Context:

The Church and Peace gathering at Osijek is a symbolic reminder of a fundamental reality, that is, the transformation of the global context, moving from a Cold War era to an era of globalisation. We no longer live in a world in which "two blocks" confronted each other, the context in which Church and Peace was born. In the new world of globalization, a dominant power appears capable of imposing its political and economical will, while at the same time its popular culture and language can be found just about everywhere.

The former Soviet Union was also based on a vision of uniformity. The history of humanity has demonstrated that any attempt of imperialism produces the reinforcement of cultural and/or ethnic "identities", which in turn produces new wars i.e. the Balkans, Chechnia, Rwanda, Congo, Iraq, wars in which ethnic conflicts are mingled with religion. It is no longer a question of communism verses capitalism because global capitalism has won (for the moment). However, this victory is already producing new reactions of rejection.

The vision for Church and Peace will be taking shape in this new context. I would like to suggest several basic Biblical and theological concepts which could contribute to renewed reflection and action for peace.

Biblical Images to Guide This Vision:

It is too easily forgotten that the most important Christian convictions are all linked to peace: reconciliation, love, forgiveness, redemption. It would not be overstated to affirm that peace is central to God's project.

For God was pleased to have all of his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross…(Colossians 1:19-20)

How does one move from this universal vision of peace in Christ, which could be justifiably delineated as a theological abstraction, to the reality of our world? How does this vision visibly take shape within history and life so as not to remain on a theological plane disassociated from what is happening in the world? Two Biblical narratives can be of help to contextualize and give concrete expression to a peace theology.

A Biblical look at globalisation: the Tower of Babel

One could, plausibly, consider the account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) as the first human effort of globalisation. Indeed, it is question of an attempt to create an urban civilisation (building a city) whose technology would allow humans to reach heaven, God's domain (the tower); a world in which everyone speaks the same language.

At the same time, we also observe God's refusal to accept this imperialistic venture. God does not remain indifferent ("the Lord came down to see the city and the tower…"). God establishes limits ("So the Lord scattered them from their all over the earth"). An effort to construct a world of uniformity results in scattering, separation, conflict, different languages, ("…confuse their language so they will not understand each other") The effort to impose unity results in rupture. In what other terms could one describe the break up of the Soviet Union or ex-Yugoslavia? How can the negative reactions to the extension of American power and culture be, otherwise, understood?

The story of the Tower of Babel provides a fundamental account of history and human experience while, at the same time, setting the context for understanding the Biblical principal of redemption.

The Biblical response: Redemption

What is God's response to the Tower of Babel? One thing is clear; the scattering as described in chapter 11 is not the story's final word. God is not satisfied with it. His response is one of "benediction", one of "reconciliation" of the scattered and separated families. The call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) is the beginning of God's project.

Abraham and Sarah no longer base their lives on their own projects, but, rather, establish their identity by listening to God's Word and entering into God's Project. They must "leave", that is to abandon everything which, in most cases, provides the basis of human identity, self, family, home, country. In other words, they are called to relativize that which is so often a source of conflict between groups and peoples. Their identity is built otherwise, that is by entering into a project that they do not totally understand; one that is not of their own initiative.

Because salvation is not individualistic, Abraham and Sarah will be the source of a people. For a socio-political problem (Babel), God offers a socio-political solution (a new people). This people will be a benediction for the families separated as a result of Babel. Human history it to be built on a promise, and not on realities manifested by conflict and separation and realized on the desire for power and imposition.

The New Testament sees the realisation of the promise in Genesis 12 in Christ and the formation of a new community.

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:27-29)

God's project for peace is called forth to take shape, to become visible in the new community which is the Church. Unfortunately in the course of history, the Church has often forgotten this fundamental reality. Its identity has all too often been tied to the boundaries of race, country and empire. The Church has repeatedly returned to the logic of Babel. The "neither Jew nor Greek" has too often become "exclusively European, German, French, American or white". Instead of the Church being a factor of peace, it has become a factor of discord, war and hate, an institution confined to the celebration of rites and preaching sermons.

Therefore, an important element of the Church and Peace vision of Church should be to clearly formulate an ecclesiology of peace, to return to the Biblical vision of the Church as a community of peace and reconciliation, a community where the dividing walls of hostility are broken down and there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, man nor woman. The Church is a concrete space of peace, a visible space in which God's project takes shape and becomes visible in history.

Church and Peace: from vision to reality

The word "Church" often evokes connotations of "rites", "obscurantism", "hierarchy", and "large empty buildings". Lately, however, churches have been engaged in actions for peace and against violence. The Catholic Church's actions furthering peace, and its opposition to the first war in the Gulf, and the Iraq war comes to mind here, as well as, the World Council of Churches "Decade to Overcome Violence", and the numerous churches, American included, who opposed the war in Iraq. The present context favours reflection and commitment with respect to questions regarding war and peace, violence and non-violence. Church and Peace should/must be present in this context. Following are a few leads in this direction.


I. Let the Church be the Church (local)

The Church exists, for the most part, all over the world. Fortunately for us, this is already a reality. Each Church, each parish, each local community is called to become a "broken wall" reality; a place where peace, the "neither Jew nor Greek" becomes visible.

Often-times, we do not see the link between convictions, Christian liturgy and peace. We have difficulty connecting Sunday to the rest of the week. Theology, worship and sacraments are one thing, peace and non-violence another. However, every Sunday all over the world, Churches are preaching and celebrating the "Good News" of "peace", of "forgiveness", of "repentance", of "reconciliation", of "unity", of the kingdom of God.

What if already existing churches, those to which we belong and criticize, would increasingly become signs of peace, communities of life and hope, and concrete signs of the Gospel of reconciliation?

Each of us has the possibility to participate in a local Christian community. This is where we should have our first occasion to witness Christian convictions take shape, i.e. the love of God, the love of neighbour, of our brothers and sisters, of our enemy. This is where we learn to forgive, to call ourselves into question, to test our own convictions about peace.

Every local church, is called to cross the bridge between rites, preaching, sacraments, and "real life". In my own experience, I have seen to what extent the "neither Jew nor Greek" can motivate local church life when different groups and races are present. Many urban churches in Europe are filled with diverse nationalities and races. This reality allows any local parish to become a laboratory of anti-racism, to become a crossroads of sharing between numerous countries and cultures. The importance of this opportunity should not be underestimated.

An important task of Church and Peace members should be to take this Gospel of peace into local parishes/communities, to partner with pastors and catechists, to conduct our worship services in ways which allow the Gospel to shape our everyday lives, and to make our "sermons" and "rites" discourses and gestures of peace, fraternity, forgiveness and reconciliation. Many have never considered the link between our "rites", our "convictions" and peace. Christian convictions have frequently been dismissed as being "spiritual", "invisible", something for the "future", not for life today, not for peace in the here and now. They have not been seen as opportunities to foster forgiveness, new ways for different groups and races to live together, or for loving the enemy. This net work of local churches exists already and, therefore, does not need to be created. Could not the members of Church and Peace be this salt in the midst of these local churches.


II. Let the Church Be The Church (catholic)

It is important to make a transition from the local level to another level. The composition of the Church and Peace members attests to this possibility and encourages us to forge ahead. It is urgent to rediscover the notion, and, especially, the reality of a "catholic" Church.

In the first centuries of our era and in the midst of the Roman Empire, existed a network of churches composed of men and women, slaves and masters, Jews and Greeks. This network proclaimed "Jesus as Lord", which meant that "Cesar" was not Lord. This network created new forms and practices of solidarity. The theologians of this pre-Constantinian network taught that no one could kill another human being regardless of the circumstances.

Eventually, the Church became imperial, powerful and hierarchical. There were then divisions due to culture, language and theology. Later in their history, these divided churches waged war with each other and mutually condemned each other. The social reality lived out in churches today no longer reflect the vision of "catholic", "universal". This reality has frequently become a factor of conflict and division, or, at best, one of indifference.

Putting the pieces back together among Christians, that is to say, the ecumenical movement is essentially a work of peace and reconciliation. For this reason, the ecumenical character of Church and Peace seems so fundamental. New occasions for dialogue and witness in the area of ecumenism are opening up before for us, i.e. the vision of the Osijek seminary, the Decade to Overcome Violence of the WCC, the recent mobilisation against the war in Iraq.

I dream of churches everywhere in Europe and the world becoming "churches of peace" attached to the vision of "the broken down wall of hostility", applying this to socio-political walls and the dividing walls between communities, races and nations.

I dream of American churches claiming, "There are Christians in Iraq. We cannot kill our brothers and sisters in Christ." I dream of churches realizing that Jesus calls us to love our enemies whether they are white, black, Serbian, Croatian, Hutus, Tutsi, Muslim, or atheist. I dream of churches daring to publicly declare that all humans are created in God's image, therefore, we cannot and will not kill.

I dream of a church in the midst of the present globalisation empire that is truly "catholic", capable of constructing an identity based Christ and not national or economic criteria. This international Church could reflect a new "global" face. Networks of a different kind of solidarity could be established and become a factor against war and misery.

Our grass roots ecumenism is significant. It is a unique witness. Are we capable of bringing this experience into the global Church at various levels; to be truly present on the ecumenical scene?


III. The Church should offer society models and intervene where possible.


The very fact that "broken wall" communities exist is decisive, for it offers different social and economical models to the surrounding world. We must not underestimate the importance of this function. If there are hospitals, schools and social programs today, it is due, in large part, to Christians in Europe who, for centuries, cared for the sick, understood the importance of intellectual live, and helped the poor. Certain behaviour and structures put into place serve as role models which are later adopted by the world outside of the church. The church's social "laboratory" role should not be neglected. The deliberate and perseverant action of social groups motivated by strong convictions probably contributes as much, if not more, to social change than any spectacular action, media intervention or imposed initiatives from above. Peace work must be lodged in a framework of patient endurance.

For example, the path to democracy had its ups and downs and does not always advance as rapidly as we would hope. Nevertheless, most Europeans five hundred years ago would have probably said that no form of government other than monarchy seemed desirable or even possible. However, little by little, democracy progressed. We would, certainly, agree that an election is socially and politically better than a civil war. In much the same way, we try to move toward a world where decisions are taken multi-laterally.

We must also be inventive and creative, seeking ways of being present outside of the church in society, proposing acts and deeds based on our fundamental convictions. The peace of Christ that we seek to live in our communities pushes us out into the world with ideas, acts and practices. This necessitates learning how to translate our convictions and values into other languages and value systems.

Final remarks: Retain Hope and Maintain Our Vision through Prayer and Celebration/Worship

It is not easy to be a peace church. In order to become one and remain so necessitates a solid theology and a spiritual life that is firmly rooted in Christ.

Within this theological heritage which must be cultivated, it is important to remember eschatology. Hope in Christ is central. Through his life, death and resurrection, the forces of evil and death have been conquered. In this, we find meaning and the driving force of history. Our hope is that we are pressing on towards this reality; the reality of the reconciliation of all things, the reality of this benediction for all the nations. "But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness." (2 Peter 3:13)

It should also be underlined, however, that we are not yet there. This victory is already procured, but not yet totally fulfilled in history. We are waiting in expectation for a reality that is ahead of us. However, as we wait, we project this hope, this new reality into the present. Our wait is active, not passive.

If too much accent is placed on the "already" of the kingdom of God, it is quite conceivable to ignore the reality of evil which is still present in the world, and in ourselves. By placing too much accent on the "already", we could be tempted to act in place of God, to take shortcuts, or to be naive in complicated situations. Too much accent on the "already" could put us in an awkward position or throw us into confusion when war comes and we were not able to stop it.

On the other hand, by placing too much accent on the "not yet", we could simply accept reality as it appears to be, or become cynical. We live in this tension of the "already" and the "not yet". It guides our steps. In order to take this path, we need patience, gentleness, perseverance and courage.

The tension between the "already" and the "not yet" helps us to cultivate another way of looking at the world and history. It helps us to read life differently, to look for signs of God's presence in unsuspecting places. The temptation for "active pacifists" to look at the world using criteria based on "the great" and "the powerful" remains. Part of our task, founded on Gospel hope, is to cultivate this other world view.

This view, continually grounded in Christ, affirms that the driving forces of history are not nations and leaders, the powerful and the rich, but those who follow Jesus in their daily lives, including the weak and the forgotten of our world. This incites us to read and tell the history of peoples and of our own lives in a different manner.

What we do today or tomorrow often depends on the way the past was shared with us… In order to open up a new future, we must re-read the past. History needs to be "taken away" from those who only recount dynasties and battles. We have primarily learned only about the violent side of history. If we would happen to look at the past in a new way, in the light of the Lordship of Christ, isn't it possible that we would see something else? What would happen if stories were told about ordinary people instead of "the great"; if civilisations were judged not by the success of their armies but rather by the way they treat the poor and strangers or the way they cultivate the land?

It makes less difference in history which laws have been written, which coup d'état has taken place, which new anti-missile system of defense is put into place, or the name of the new prime minister than a gradual accumulation of small, unnoticed acts and deeds such as: parents raising their children, children who learn at school, craftsmen/workers/employees who do their jobs well, doctors who conscientiously take good care of their patients, good drivers, police who hold their fire, people who know how to love and forgive, conflicts that are faced and resolved behind the scenes….

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. (Mark 4:26-27)

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough. (Matthew 13:33)

Because of our hope founded in Christ, we can cultivate a new worldview in our local communities, in a Church which is truly catholic, in her presence in society and the world. Learn how to maintain this vision (even) when newspapers ceaselessly talk about wars, money and the powerful. It is, especially, in moments like these that we need to continue to worship, to pray, to firmly root our lives in Christ, and invite the Spirit to dwell in us in order to renew and shape our intelligence and our acts. "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace" in our prayers, in our lives, in the way we look at the world and others.

Dr. Neal Blough