Last weekend, Christian leaders and lay persons from all walks of life and just about every denominational body came together for the Peace Among the Peoples conference hosted by the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. The conference brought together scholars, activists, and pastors to overcome the spirit, logic, and practice of violence.
The gathering was convened in order to reflect ecumenically upon positive experiences shared by North American churches' efforts in peace-building, peacekeeping, and prevention of violence. In 1999, the World Council of Churches declared the first decade of the new millennium to be one to overcome violence.
This Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV) became a framework that churches across the world could follow to build upon local successes and initiatives. The National Council of Churches of Christ became a major supporter, the conference being structured as a North American precursor to the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation next May in Kingston, Jamaica. The convocation is to be the culmination of the DOV.
In Elkhart, we came together across ideological boundaries to further our common desire to advance peace and restrain war. Plenary speakers represented a wide array of theological backgrounds, from pacifist to "just warrior," from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal/Charismatic. Moderated discussions and personal conversations were both enriching and challenging. Organizers went out of their way to include content that challenged the prevailing expectation that violence concerns primarily the exercise of martial force in war, including topics on sexual violence, Eucharistic peacemaking, and nationalism -- to name a few.
Part of the purpose for the conference was to help craft the agenda of the convocation next May, so organizers were keen to hear from participants those areas that claimed primary attention. One of the areas that I heard articulated in Elkhart was the prevalence of sexual violence within the peace movement itself. This theme flowed from an Anabaptist conversation following the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit. Some of the participants in that gathering had compiled a pamphlet on experiences (of both men and women) of sexual violence in the church, especially within peacemaking circles. Just as we address the violence of the world, so too must we acknowledge that our own house must be put in order.
The other area that emerged was the relative absence of those with firsthand experience of war. In the interest of full disclosure, I was one of only two people there with military experience, and found myself raising my voice to call attention to this oversight, so this comes with a bit of tension I suppose (as it may present the image that I am self-advocating, which is exactly how it felt then and continues to feel now). It seemed to me that if we are to restrain war, it is imperative that we proactively engage those who are most able to effect positive change in the conduct of war -- folks serving in the militaries of the world. This thought was common enough that by the final listening session, several groups expressed their desire to have our work shaped more by the experiences of service members and veterans (without me having to self-advocate).
Unfortunately, my experience was limited by a lack of sleep caused by a cold I contracted shortly before arriving. There were many other areas that deserve attention that I was unable to express here. The conference was packed full over more than three days, and that kind of intensity will sap anyone's strength. Many of the plenaries were taped and may be available later for public consumption (I highly recommend the second plenary, with Stanley Hauerwas and Gerard Powers, the Just War/Pacifist discussion). I was excited to have been a part of this conversation, and even more so to have been invited to present on selective conscientious objection, a subject I will report on later. This conference was a unique opportunity to hear from a diverse group of people unified by the Church's call to make peace by restraining war. With the grace of God, that call will be echoed and magnified next year as we close out the (tragically and ironically named) Decade to Overcome Violence.
Logan Laituri is an Army veteran with combatant service in Iraq during OIF II and experience with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Israel and the West Bank. He blogs sporadically and is a co-founder of Centurion's Guild.