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Religion and Peace-Building Hope From a Historic Conference

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Given the vast influence of the Catholic Church across the world, the conference is a sign of great hope, If it can inspire people of other faiths to likewise speak out against the misuse of their own religions in fomenting conflicts.

By A Staff Writer

Manipulation of religion to seek to justify war has a long history. Even today, a great many wars that the world is wracked with are being waged in the name of religion. In this context, the role of religion as an instrument of peace-building and non-violent conflict-transformation assumes particular importance. A heartening development in this regard was a historic gathering of 80 leading Catholic peace leaders from 20 different countries recently at the Vatican, who issued a call for an end to the so-called ‘just war theory’ and for a recommitment to the nonviolence of Jesus.
“There has literally never been a gathering like this before in the history of the Vatican,” writes noted Catholic priest, scholar and peace-activist, John Dear, in a report on the three-day meeting, which was sponsored by the Vatican’s Office of Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International, the official global Catholic peace movement. Cardinal Turkson, head of the Pontifical Office, opened the conference by reading a letter from Pope Francis to the participants. The Cardinal participated in the conference, and approved the closing statement, which was then presented to the Pope.
At the meeting, the Catholic Church, that largest body of Christians in the world, was for the first time ever discussing abandoning the ‘just war theory’ that Christian groups have, through many centuries, invoked in order to seek to justify war, and officially returning to Jesus’ way of nonviolence to resolve conflict. The conference thus raised hopes that, under Pope Francis, the Catholic Church would encourage, as well as other religious groups, including non-Christians, to work towards peace and nonviolence.

Creative and Active Non-Violence
The official statement from the conference, submitted to Pope Francis on April 13, 2016 and titled ‘An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence’, begins with the assertion that “As Christians committed to a more just and peaceful world we are called to take a clear stand for creative and active nonviolence and against all forms of violence.” It notes that “we live in a time of tremendous suffering, widespread trauma and fear linked to militarization, economic injustice, climate change, and a myriad of other specific forms of violence.” In this context, it says, those who stand in the Christian tradition are “called to recognize the centrality of active nonviolence to the vision and message of Jesus” and to what it calls their “long-term vocation of healing and reconciling both people and the planet.”

Celebrating the work of courageous people working in a non-violent way for peace-building and conflict-resolution in different parts of the world, the statement notes that recent academic research has confirmed that nonviolent resistance strategies are twice as effective as violent ones. “The time has come”, it adds, for the Catholic Church to be “a living witness and to invest far greater human and financial resources in promoting a spirituality and practice of active nonviolence and in forming and training our Catholic communities in effective nonviolent practices”, in this following Jesus as inspiration and model.
The statement harkens to Jesus’ own life as exemplifying the virtue of non-violence. “In his own times, rife with structural violence,” it says, “Jesus proclaimed a new, nonviolent order rooted in the unconditional love of God. Jesus called his disciples to love their enemies (Matthew 5: 44), which includes respecting the image of God in all persons; to offer no violent resistance to one who does evil (Matthew 5: 39); to become peacemakers; to forgive and repent; and to be abundantly merciful (Matthew 5-7). Jesus embodied nonviolence by actively resisting systemic dehumanization, as when he defied the Sabbath laws to heal the man with the withered hand (Mark 3: 1-6); when he confronted the powerful at the Temple and purified it (John 2: 13-22); when he peacefully but determinedly challenged the men accusing a woman of adultery (John 8: 1-11).” “Neither passive nor weak,” the statement says, “Jesus’ nonviolence was the power of love in action.” Jesus, it explains, “calls us to develop the virtue of nonviolent peacemaking.”

Loving the Enemy
Accordingly, the statement goes on, there is “need a new framework that is consistent with Gospel nonviolence.” It notes with approval that a different path is clearly unfolding in recent Catholic social teaching, citing, for instance, Pope John XXIII as saying that war is not a suitable way to restore rights, Pope John Paul II’s statement that “war belongs to the tragic past, to history”, Pope Benedict XVI’s comment that “loving the enemy is the nucleus of the Christian revolution” and Pope Francis’ announcement that “the true strength of the Christian is the power of truth and love, which leads to the renunciation of all violence,” his insistence that “Faith and violence are incompatible” and his urging for the “abolition of war.”
The signatories to the statement propose that the Catholic Church develop and consider shifting to what it calls “a Just Peace approach based on Gospel nonviolence”, an approach that offers “a vision and an ethic to build peace as well as to prevent, defuse, and to heal the damage of violent conflict.” The statement concludes with an appeal to the Catholic Church to continue developing Catholic social teaching on nonviolence and calling on Pope Francis to share with the world an encyclical on nonviolence and Just Peace. It calls for integrating what it calls “Gospel nonviolence” explicitly into the life and work of the Catholic Church through its various institutions, promoting nonviolent practices and strategies, and initiating a “global conversation on nonviolence within the Church, with people of other faiths, and with the larger world” in order “to respond to the monumental crises of our time with the vision and strategies of nonviolence and Just Peace”. It appeals to the Church· to no longer use or teach “just war theory”, to continue advocating for the abolition of war and nuclear weapons and to “challenge unjust world powers and to support and defend those nonviolent activists whose work for peace and justice put their lives at risk.”
Given the vast influence of the Catholic Church across the world, this conference is a sign of great hope in the context of wars in which appeals to religion continue to play a major role. If it can inspire people of other faiths to likewise speak out against the misuse of their own religions in fomenting conflicts and to work to promote peace based on their faith commitment, the conference would have played a very significant role in seeking to bring peace to our shared home””the world.