27 May 2012

Jesus: A Sunna of Peace (3)

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Concluding this three-part series, I remind you of my purpose: “in the spirit of religious dialog, I am proposing Muslims join Christians in a new reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount” in order to highlight practical peacemaking strategies. Our main finding was that Jesus proposed (and led by example) “transforming initiatives” – bold actions stemming from a forgiving heart that surprised opponents into considering reconciliation and even friendship.

We often referred to the writing of leading Christian ethicist, Glen Stassen, and in particular his groundbreaking work, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (1992). Besides his innovative and insightful focus on the Sermon on the Mount, Stassen also outlined “The Seven Steps of Just Peacemaking.” Partly through his leadership in the 1980s International Freeze Campaign (to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons), Stassen’s seven steps quickly became the “ten practices” that have now gained international recognition (see the 2nd edition of his edited work, with the contribution of thirty other academics and peace activists: Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War.

I will briefly summarize the ten practices; then offer a bare-bones summary of how they were successfully applied for the sake of dramatically reducing the nuclear arsenals of both the US and the Soviet Union in the 1980s; and finally, I’ll highlight just a few initiatives on the Israeli-Palestinian front.


Ten Practices for Abolishing War

In the following list (see Stassen’s homepage on this), notice the three headings under which the ten practices fall: “peacemaking initiatives,” justice,” and “love and community.” Think about our previous discussion about how Jesus consistently drew on the “Servant passages” of the prophet Isaiah and how justice was mentioned 16 times and peace 14 times. Add to this his incessant call to love even enemies and work at strengthening human solidarity, as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, for example.

Here are the ten practices with a very short commentary:



1. Support nonviolent direct action.

Nonviolent Direct Action has been gaining dramatically worldwide, ending dictatorships in Iran in 1979, the Philippines in 1986, the nonviolent revolutions in Poland, East Germany, and Central Europe, human rights advocacy in Latin America, South Africa; more recently, the Arab Spring.

2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat.

3. Use cooperative conflict resolution.

4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness.



5. Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.

6. Foster just and sustainable economic development.



7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.

8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights.

9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.

10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations.

On this last point Stassen writes,

“The existence of a growing worldwide people's movement constitutes one more historical force that makes just peacemaking theory possible. They learn peacemaking practices and press governments to employ these practices; governments should protect such associations in law, and give them accurate information.”


These principles of just peacemaking are on one level compatible with both just war theory and pacifism; it also challenges each one in practice. Here is Stassen’s evaluation,


“Each practice is recent in its widespread use, and is causing significant change. Together they exert strong influence, decreasing wars. Each is empirically happening and being effective in abolishing some wars. Each faces significant obstacles and blocking forces that are named in the chapters. We contend that just peacemaking practices are ethically obligatory for persons, groups, and governments to strengthen them and help overcome the blocking forces.”


Stassen offered a thought-provoking commentary on President Obama’s 2009 speech in Oslo (“What the Media missed in Obama’s Nobel Prize Address”). Though Obama mentioned “just war” three times, more importantly he spelled out all of the ten just peacemaking practices. Writing at that time, he seemed optimistic: “Missing his emphasis on the ten practices of just peacemaking makes us miss his intention, and makes us miss the new paradigm for the ethics of peace and war that gives us new hope.”

Still, he cautiously ended with this: “Let us pray, realistically, that he doesn’t end up remembered as the Afghan War President.” Obama’s record on that issue, with the increase of troops in 2010 and the expansion of drone-initiated assassinations, is doubtful at best. It speaks more of realpolitik and of reelection calculus.

That said, his emphasis on the need to negotiate directly with Teheran, thereby sidelining the prevailing hawkish discourse in Congress, is spot-on. Along these lines, Congressman Dennis Kucinich boldly outlines a just peacemaking strategy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and bellicose rhetoric toward Israel in particular.


“How Just Peacemaking Got Rid of the Missiles in Europe”

This is the title of Chapter 5 in Stassen’s 1992 Just Peacemaking book. An apt case study, here are its main lines. But first, consider the bleak Cold War reality of 1981:

“The United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a buildup of dangerous medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Afghanistan was being invaded and oppressed. The Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT) II Treaty was not being submitted for ratification. President Reagan was opposing the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign and attacking the Soviet Union as the evil empire. The Soviet Union was blaming the United States for the nuclear buildup. Prospects for arms control were bleaker than they had been for years. We felt powerless, defeated, despairing. European distrust of the United States was growing visibly, focused especially by the rejection of SALT II, the buildup of medium-range Euromissiles, new Cold War rhetoric, and a statement made by President Reagan that nuclear war in Europe was fightable. The long friendship built up by cooperation and sacrifice in World War II and the Marshall Plan was (sic) painfully crumbling” (p. 114-115).

Over the next few years dramatic steps were taken on all sides, starting with the peace movement in Europe – unsurprisingly powerful in Germany, as the Germans in particular were ground-zero for a potential nuclear war. Due to strong popular opposition to the Euromissiles on the domestic front, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (Social Democratic Party) proposed a “mutual zero solution” at his party’s congress in 1981. This was the idea that Randall Fosberg had presented two years earlier at a conference in Louisville, KY, giving birth to the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. Stassen was in attendance.

Increasingly, the Freeze Strategy Committee, on which Stassen served for three years, came to realize that pushing for zero new US deployments and opposing the Soviet medium-range missiles was in the interest of both parties. A mutual freeze could then lead to actual reductions in each party’s arsenal. This made sense not only because these weapons were so costly but also because Pershing II and cruise missiles could destroy the Soviet heartland. And even if the US refrained from using them, so many false warnings had already occurred in the Soviet defense system that the likelihood of a catastrophe was extremely high.

During the school year 1981-1982 Stassen was on sabbatical in Germany, during which time he was the Freeze Campaign’s International Task Force representative to the European peace movement. While attending the annual meeting of the Christian Council on Approaches to Defense and Disarmament, he met General Wolf Graf von Baudissin, former commander of the NATO Defense College and founder/leader of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy. He was also connected to several influential politicians in the West German government.

Stassen asked to meet with him, which he accepted. Realizing the momentous implication of this meeting, Stassen first devoted himself to prayer. “But who was I to be suggesting a transforming initiative by the West German government?” he mused.

Amazingly, Stassen’s plea fell on willing ears. General van Baudissin, who was hearing this scheme for the first time, answered that if the Germans and the Dutch proposed the Freeze idea NATO might accept. Then within weeks, in October 1981, Bonn, West Germany’s capital, witnessed the largest peace demonstration in its history, with several others following. In the next few days, over a million Germans marched for peace and for an end to the deployment of medium-range missiles, whether by the US or the Soviet Union.

On October 21, 1981, at the NATO meeting “the German and Dutch ministers initiated the zero solution proposal: NATO would agree to zero US deployments if the Soviet Union would reduce their medium-range missiles to zero” (p. 122). All agreed, except the US. But then, realizing that popular opinion had shifted dramatically, President Reagan announced on November 18, 1981 that he would support the zero solution.

To make a long story short, after much political wrangling between Congress and the White House and at least nine dramatic independent initiatives put forward by the new Soviet premier Gorbachev in 1987, the zero solution became reality.

What in the end broke the vicious cycle of nuclear buildup? Stassen cites three new factors: “the strategy of independent initiatives, the pressure of the people, and Gorbachev’s perception of the needs and opportunities of his situation” (p. 133). Notice too the heavy irony of it all:


“The Reagan Administration, which worked to undermine the Freeze Campaign, was led to its greatest foreign policy success by the very Freeze Campaign it had opposed. And the Freeze Campaign, which had been so maligned by President Reagan, was given its greatest success because President Reagan agreed that the solution should be simple and readily communicated to the people. Both were thinking the key is the grass roots, the people. God works in mysterious ways, God’s wonders to perform. Thanks be to God. Thanks also to the people” (133-4).


Israeli-Palestinian just peacemaking

I will no doubt write more on this topic later, so just a few comments for now … Perhaps the oldest transformative initiative since the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel was the founding of the peace village, Neve Shalom (Hebrew), or Wahat al-Salam (Arabic), “Oasis of Peace." Just off the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway is the Trappist abbey of Latrun, known for its spirituality, hospitality, and wine (maybe not in that order!).

In 1970, a Dominican brother, Bruno Hussar, obtained about one hundred acres of land from the Latrun abbey in order to start the village of peace so close to his heart. Born in Egypt from a Jewish family, Hussar was no stranger to the contradictions, humiliation, and conflict that comes from being part of a minority, branded as the “other” by the mainstream. He was dreaming of a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians could live together in mutual respect and peace. In a book that tells his story, he writes that such people “would find in this diversity a source of personal enrichment.”

And enrichment they did find … today there’s a waiting list of 500 families! Though new land is cleared for houses and agriculture every year, growth will have to stay limited. Yet the dream of having our children learn about their faith and the faith of their neighbors in elementary school and sharing religious holidays can be realized in many other settings as well.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about much more than just religion. Still, neighbors in this Oasis of Peace can sit under a Jewish Sukah during the Feast of Tabernacles or partake in a Ramadan fast-breaking meal, and the conversation, while still heated at times, can be very productive. After all, the conflict at heart is about two national groups learning to live together in dignity, justice and peace. Bruno Hussar’s transforming initiative is helping people on both sides (and beyond) visualize what it might take to get there.

Very briefly, let me end with two other initiatives. The first one I wrote about at length in my last chapter of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text – the Christians Peacemaker Teams, who just celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2011. I had the privilege of visiting the team in Hebron several times while doing research in that city in 1999. They do amazing work in the footsteps of Jesus by coming alongside existing peace and human rights groups in areas of conflict. They only come by invitation. They now have active projects in Columbia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Hebron and the village of At-Tuwani, the US-Mexican border, and among First-Nation peoples in both the US and Canada. Take a look at their introduction video.

The photo above pictures some of the participants of the 7th Bili’in Conference held in Hebron in April 2012 knocked to the ground by Israeli soldiers. A nonviolent grassroots Palestinian movement, these yearly conferences are led by the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee and the Bil’in Popular Committee against the Wall and Settlements. Bili’in is a Palestinian village that, like many others near the 1967 “Green Line,” has suffered immensely as a result of the Israeli separation wall. Yet more than any other villages, it has been the site for concerted, consistent and extremely courageous protests against the wall and Israeli occupation in general.

The highlight of the first day of the conference in Bili'in was an address by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; the second day was spent in the old city of Hebron, and the third in East Jerusalem. EU member of parliament Louisa Morgantini was in attendance for the three days, as were many internationals from various NGOs.

A group from the conference had decided to eat at the Ibrahimi School, one of the oldest schools in the West Bank (see a video shot by the students in 2011), no doubt out of solidarity. CPTers have famously accompanied children to school to protect them from the attacks of local Israeli settlers. But coming out after lunch, as the group walked back on the Palestinian side of the street (Palestinians are not allowed to walk on the much wider Israeli side), they were violently beaten by Israeli soldiers. Just to say, nonviolent protest in the West Bank is not for the fainthearted!

Second, I want to recommend to you a 2010 documentary that powerfully fleshes out Jesus’ sunna of peace. I have commented it in more detail in a blog about Bethlehem posted elsewhere. Its title is Little Town of Bethlehem and it weaves the stories of three peace activists now working together – an Israeli Jew, a Palestinian Muslim from a Bethlehem refugee camp and a Palestinian Christian, whose father founded the Bethlehem Bible College where I taught for three years. The film’s official launch in 2011 was coordinated with an international campaign for nonviolence.

So my final word is this. Jesus as prophet, or simply as a sage who taught by word and deed how to love enemies and make peace, can inspire and guide people of all faiths today. Naturally, as a Christian, I believe he’s much more than that. But as I have argued in these three blogs, nonviolent direct action was famously developed by Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others – and it can be traced back to the “transforming initiatives” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. That’s a great place to start. Other faiths have their own resources for peace, as does Islam in particular – the subject of a coming blog.