New Starting Points in Ecumenical Peace Dialogue-Three Perspectives: An Introduction

By Mellen, Elizabeth Hanson | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer-Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

New Starting Points in Ecumenical Peace Dialogue-Three Perspectives: An Introduction


Mellen, Elizabeth Hanson, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


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In the ecumenical world it is a new historical moment for dialogue among the churches in the matter of peace. For many years discussion between the Historic Peace Churches and other churches (and often between Christian individuals) was structured around the question of the compatibility or complementarity of inherited "positions" or traditions--Christian pacifist understandings and just-war ethics. It was assumed that church reconciliation would involve getting that question resolved. Little progress was made. When pacifist understanding was dismissed as laudable but not possible, there was not even discussion.

The very exigencies of our present situation in a violent world bring us to a new place. These, along with the greater awareness of the myriad and interwoven forms that violence takes (crude and less crude; military and structural; public, personal, and environmental), have had their effect upon those gathered in the dialogical fellowship of the ecumenical movement. Out of common concerns as church people, from love of God and of each other, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, many Christians now find themselves drawn into common hope and prayer for peace and efforts to overcome violence. It would seem that we have with greater seriousness--more poignantly and existentially, more gratefully perhaps--appropriated the gospel conviction that conciliar churches could already affirm together at the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1948: "Peace is the Will of God."

As a result, in ecumenical circles, energy for pursuing the earlier debate in the old way has dissipated. The old debate no longer compels interest. It is not that ethicists, both Christian and otherwise, have ceased to draw upon just-war theory; the many and varied discussions with very particular compelling focus following September 11, 2001, strongly attest otherwise. (1) General Christian reflection--ethical, biblical, and theological, on peace and peacemaking, conflict and resistance, war and violence--continues as well. However, in ecumenical circles there is a new and common focus: a compelling need to find our way in the world. The discussion is taken up as theological reflection and exchange rather than debate or dismissal. Common faith now seeks common understanding.

The three essays that follow, on the topic of "New Starting Points in Ecumenical Peace Dialogue," were written by members of Historic Peace Churches--a Quaker, a Mennonite, and a member of the Church of the Brethren--for the annual meeting of the North American Academy of Ecumenists in September, 1999, held at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. The authors in their various ways acknowledge as the context for their writing the changed environment that we have noted. Each of their essays, considered individually, is an effective entry point into Christian peace theologizing. Together, in ways truly diverse and complementary (the essays being so different in style and content), they provide a deeply informative, complex point of entry into a developed stream of Christian thinking that is well worth learning to navigate.

The essay by Ann Riggs focuses on the fundamental role that an understanding of the transformative power of God's in-breaking reign--and its invitation to participation--plays in Quaker peace thought. It would be more accurate to say that she expressively evokes and draws us into that understanding. Her words brought to this writer's mind the work of Catholic ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill. In Love Your Enemies (2) Cahill has shown that Christian pacifist and just-war theory--both present in the heritage of Christian thought--are of a disparate character, their anatomies quite different. Cahill observed that just-war theory is grounded in "the practice of just and ordered political life," that it is "also characteristically theory-oriented toward defining and refining criteria by analysis and argument," that its thinking is "theoretical and rule-making. …

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