At face value, Community of Christ’s claim to be dedicated to the pursuit of peace must be deemed a failure.
As far as I can tell, the sum total of our contribution to peace on earth is an annual Peace Colloquy, a Peace Prize, a Peace and Justice website, the Children’s Peace Pavilion, a Peace Committee and a few million dollars contributed to Outreach International, World Accord, the World Hunger Fund and the Save Darfur Coalition.
This might seem like a lot to some, but it is actually no more than any other mainline denomination. It certainly does not match up to the work of the historic peace churches like the Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers. The word ‘peace’ in our logo does not make us a peace church.
How many major international peace negotiations have we supported or facilitated as an institution? Some may say this is setting the bar too high, but the Quakers (a similar sized denomination) were instrumental in providing a back channel in Northern Ireland. The Community of Sant Egido (a Catholic group) was one of the main players in ending the conflict in Mozambique.
How many church employees are working on the ground to end the world’s most deadly armed conflicts? Sure, there are a few members working with NGOs, the diplomatic services or the military, but none of these are working on behalf of the church.
Where is our fearless advocacy on behalf of the poor and oppressed of the world? We’ve given a little money to Bread for the World and have a couple interns working for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. But we have no established or effective way of mobilizing people for advocacy, unlike the Quakers, Mennonites, Presbyterians or Catholics.
Policy Is What Policy Does
We must pause here and dig a little deeper. In my first year of graduate school, a professor of mine, named David Keen, warned the class to be careful about prematurely judging a policy as a failure. He instructed us to ask what functions and unstated objectives might be disguised by a policy’s rhetoric. A policy might say it is intended to reduce poverty but instead just lines the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats. According to its stated objectives, the policy would seem a failure, but for the bureaucrats who got rich, it was a resounding success. In less academic language, policy isn’t just what is said, but what is done – ‘by their fruits you shall know them.’
Let us look, for example, at the Temple in Independence. It was “dedicated to the pursuit of peace.” However, it is not used to host peace negotiations. It is not a busy command center for managing peace activists, citizen diplomats or human rights observers. There are no ‘peace scholars-in-residence.’ There is no think-tank based there producing reports providing a faith-based perspective on conflict. Rather, much of the space, most of the time, is used for offices and conference rooms. To draw on Professor Keen’s instruction, I would have to say the Temple is “dedicated to the pursuit of church management and administration.”
Therefore, if I am to succumb to the temptation of cynicism, the current policy of the church is not to become a peace church, but rather:
1. To appease peace activists by trumpeting the discourse of peace and doing the bare minimum to keep them in the church,
2. To avoid doing anything that could appear too political,
3. To avoid taking any major risks, in terms of people, money or reputation, and thus
4. To have very little engagement with any major conflicts in the world.
If we take this as descriptive of the policy of the church as an institution, it appears to have largely succeeded in its mission.
What Would We See If the Community of Christ Was Serious about Peace?
If the church was really serious about peace, I would expect to see at least some of the following ‘fruits’:
1. A commitment to non-violence and non-participation in the military or armed factions.
2. Widespread participation in peace groups at the local congregational level.
3. Peace and Justice Offices at the United Nations and in Washington DC to keep informed about national and international peace issues, educate members and influence policy.
4. A substantial engagement with national peacebuilding efforts in conflicted countries where the church has a significant presence, such as Haiti, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
5. Posting of WorldService Corps volunteers to conflict and post-conflict zones, where they would engage in peacebuilding activities, accompany vulnerable people, be human rights observers and support local peace activists. This could be done in partnership with other organizations like Mennonite Central Committee, the American Friends Service Committee, Christian Peacemaker Teams and Peace Brigades International.
6. A public offer to the UN and US State Department to use the Temple and Auditorium complex for hosting peace negotiations between warring factions.
7. The creation of a peace studies major at Graceland University (currently they only have a minor) and the provision of peace studies scholarships.
8. A program sponsoring prominent ‘Peace Scholars-in-Residence’ at the Temple who hold public seminars, write articles and speak to church leaders about ways to build peace in their jurisdictions.
9. Dedicated efforts to get involved with the ecumenical and inter-faith movement, at the local, national and international levels.
10. Particular attention to peacebuilding in the ‘Holy Land’ of the Middle East — an important calling for all members of the three Abrahamic religions.
What Prevents the Community of Christ from Becoming a Peace Church?
What prevents us from going down the path that our peace rhetoric suggests? I think there are three key underlying reasons:
Firstly, I am not convinced that the majority of the Community of Christ membership is particularly interested in becoming a peace church. There seems to be a great deal of inertia and resistance to moving in this direction. I am actually inclined to agree with the conservative voices in the church that the peace agenda of the Community of Christ is rooted more in the political and ideological convictions of the major leaders, rather than the tradition and beliefs of most members. Naturally, I would like to be proven wrong about this, but am not very hopeful.
Secondly, the institution seems to have a debilitating fear of getting involved in anything that appears too political. An example of this is how much focus is placed on children’s peacemaking (such as the Peace Pavilion and the Children’s Peacemakers Clubs). This is obviously not a bad thing in itself. But I fear we focus on this because we perceive children’s peacemaking as an apolitical thing that no one can really disagree with. Too much emphasis on children’s peacemaking infantilizes and depoliticizes peace, distracting attention from the fact that it is adults that are causing most major conflicts. If we are serious about peacemaking, we cannot shy away from the fact that peace is inherently political, because conflict is political (for more on this, click here to read another recent article of mine).
Finally, there is an entrenched institutional fear of taking major risks, whether financial or human. The church seems especially myopic about money. We are utterly paralyzed by our fear of losing tithing-payers. We are tied down by commitments to maintain two enormous buildings in Independence and are losing sight of our calling to be voices crying out in the wilderness. If the top church leaders are really concerned about peace why aren’t they travelling to Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Sudan and Israel/Palestine and seeing what we can do to help? In the early 1960s when the church was expanding rapidly outside the US, President W. Wallace Smith embarked on a world tour, to learn more about overseas missions and highlight their importance. Why can’t our current leaders do something similar, but with visiting countries of conflict?
At present, the Community of Christ is not a peace church. It is a church that likes to talk about peace, dedicate things to peace, even ‘proclaim peace’, but do very little to bring it about. I believe the Community of Christ is at a crossroads and faces two options. The first, probably most comfortable one, is just to continue as we are, in a slow process of ‘managed decline’, never really committing to anything controversial and subsequently remaining rather dull and boring. We won’t attract many new people, but conversely there will be no risk of a mass exodus either. (To read more about my thoughts on the church’s ‘managed decline’, click here) If we decide to go down this path, it might be worth dropping the claim to be dedicated to the pursuit of peace — it would be the honest thing to do.
The alternative is to take a leap of faith and truly commit to following the call the ‘share Christ’s peace’, engaging in efforts to bring about non-violent resolutions to the world’s conflicts. Yes, there is a chance that we would look bad if a peace agreement negotiated in the Temple collapsed or was considered unjust. Yes, there is a chance that a WorldService Corps volunteer assigned to Israel/Palestine could get injured or killed. Yes, there is a chance that by funding peacebulding in Pakistan, money could end up in the hands of militants. Yes, these possibilities are scary. But they are the risks that must be taken if we want to be serious about making a significant difference in the world.
One cannot have it both ways — a serious commitment to peace comes with great risk. Jesus did not consult risk assessment specialists or his synagogue’s balance sheet before riding into Jerusalem, driving out the money-changers and facing the cross. The church must risk the possibility of ‘losing its life’ — both figuratively, institutionally and literally — if it wants to claim it can save the world.
The church must realize that one cannot create world peace from a small, sleepy town in the Midwest. To have any real impact, the church must have a noticeable and active presence in the very places where major conflict occurs — Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, the Balkans.