Pre-Assembly Event Opening Statement

It is a joy to be with you for this pre-assembly event on peacemaking in today’s world - although, in my judgment, such an event should not be pre-assembly. Peacemaking should be front and center whenever Disciples of Christ assemble! Let me put it another way: This church shouldn’t have a peace fellowship; it should be a peace fellowship! "The beatitudes of Christ," wrote Alexander Campbell, "are not pronounced on heroes or conquerors, but on ‘peacemakers’ on whom is conferred the highest rank and title in the universe: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.’"

My task, at this point in our time together, is a modest one: to set the stage for the outstanding speakers who are to follow. As I read it, the theme for this event - "Jesus calls us to pursue what makes for peace" - has at least four implications. I don’t know if these were in the minds of the event organizers, but they are what I see in the theme.

1. This theme invites us to be proactive, to pursue what makes for peace. It is not enough, Dr. King once said, to hate war; we must also "love peace and sacrifice for it." It is not enough to react to the threat of war; we must be proactive in our efforts to change those conditions that contribute to conflict. As I tell students, working for peace in Iraq in 2003, while important, was too late. Our most effective peacemaking will come if we envision what will make for peace in 2010 or 2020 - and pursue it now. Seen in this light, the decision to use armed force, while perhaps a necessary last resort, usually represents the failure of governments - and churches - to work for peace.

This kind of thinking, by the way, is often called "just peacemaking." Our partner denomination, the notorious United Church of Christ, has declared itself to be a "just peace church." That wouldn’t be a bad identity for Disciples to consider.

2. This theme invites us to see peacemaking as a divine calling, not simply a political strategy: Jesus calls us to pursue what makes for peace. Having said that, I must tell you that I think "Jesus calls us" can be a dangerous theme for an assembly since every misguided zealot in the history of the church probably thought they were responding to the call of Jesus! Our contemporary world seems filled with people - from bin Laden to Bush - who hear a divine call to violence. I don’t mean to suggest that we stop using such language; but we do need to use it carefully - to be clear about why our efforts to pursue peace are consistent with the gospel. That, I take it, is part of our purpose for these hours together.

3. This theme invites us to recognize that we have a responsibility, as church, to be peacemakers. The theme isn’t "Jesus calls them to pursue what makes for peace," as if peacemaking were the responsibility only of the government or the military or special interest groups in the church. But the theme also isn’t "Jesus calls me to pursue what makes for peace." No, Jesus calls us. Each of us stands responsible before the claim of our Lord, but it is not a calling we can undertake alone.

4. This theme invites us to be practical. As I suggested a moment ago, theological reflection on war and peace is vital for the church, lest we confuse our prejudices with Christ’s call. But such reflection means little without a commitment to act. Jesus calls us to pursue what makes for peace. This is an invitation to action, and I hope we get very specific in our challenges to one another in the day ahead.

I see two other implications in the way this event has been planned. For one thing, the schedule for today and tomorrow reminds us that peacemaking is far too great a task for any one church or, even, for the churches of any one nation. It demands ecumenical collaboration among global partners. If the image of the body of Christ means anything, then the struggle for reconciliation and healing in West Africa is our struggle. If words like "solidarity" mean anything, then ministries aimed at promoting peace and unity on the Korean peninsula are of vital concern to us. If we are, indeed, an ecumenical people, then we will feel as our own the pain of sisters and brothers in Palestine and Israel. The way we hear the call of Jesus to pursue what makes for peace includes the voices of colleagues from other parts of the global church.

There is, however, another implication in holding such an event now, and that is the special responsibility U.S. Christians bear to pursue what makes for peace in a country so apparently intent on making war. In a nation preoccupied with unilateral defense, I hope we will emphasize security through interdependence. In a nation where language if pre-emptive strikes and collateral casualties masks the human cost of violence, I hope we will emphasize the infinite worth of every human life in the eyes of God. In a nation that (to borrow from Ezekiel) imagines that it produces its own Nile, I hope we will emphasize the need to walk humbly before our God and with our neighbors.

The rhetoric of our current administration presents a portrait of innocence and invincibility (a righteous empire that goes about doing good), coupled with a dualism (they are evil while we are good) that I regard as hazardous to the health of this planet. Two sentences from the wonderfully wise theologian, Joseph Sittler, come immediately to mind: "To postulate a dichotomy that sees evil as primarily the character of the other is the sly and fateful way our self-deception operates. Evil is never more quietly powerful than in the assumption that it resides elsewhere."

Of course, Sittler’s words also apply to us. It won’t do simply to point fingers at the President. Yes, we want peace; but most of us also want things that make for conflict - including a standard of living that relegates others to poverty and access to minerals and fuels no matter where they are located. These hours together must also be a time for examining ourselves.

It is, indeed, a joy to be with you - pursuers of peace! My God bless our time with one another that we may hear afresh Christ’s call to peacemaking - and act accordingly.

 


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