2005 Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference

A shorter version of this essay was published in Peacemeal, December 2005 (PDF).

In June, I attended the 2005 Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. The conference, entitled “Transforming Fear into Love,” was designed to equip participants with the tools to speak truth to power, and offer ideas on how to build communities for the common good. This is the text of my report to the Swarthmore Presbyterian Church peacemaking committee and the Philadelphia Presbytery peacemaking committee, who together funded my trip.

In addition to my past experiences in peacemaking, including a variety of groups and organizations in the Philadelphia area, I also recently completed a thesis at Swarthmore College for a peace and conflict studies major. The thesis, which dealt with the emerging field of third-party nonviolent intervention, was the topic of one of the workshops at the conference, and one of the things that initially attracted me to this event. Additionally, my present work with the Genocide Intervention Fund, an organization working to support African Union peacekeepers in Darfur, Sudan, gave me a real-world context in which to place much of what I learned at the conference.

This is not a point-by-point accounting of what occurred at the conference, but rather my own impressions of it and the interactions that were most important to me. Many of the lectures, sermons and worship services are available in full online at the Presbyterian Peacemaking website.

Day One: Blessing

Rick Ufford-Chase, the moderator of PCUSA — as well as a reservist with the Christian Peacemaker Teams, a group I studied in my thesis — spoke in the plenary about the admonition in I John 4:8, “God is love.”

“We are a people whose world, whose country, has lied to us,” Rick said, “in which we are told that as a people of privilege and affluence, we can benefit from the global economy without any responsibility to the global community.” Rick argued that this belief was rooted in “a problem with fear,” the paradox of how the most powerful people in the world can be so afraid.

Church, in the face of overwhelming crisis, must step into the brink. “Church must be church,” he said — that is, sanctuary. Most of us, seeing a person drowning in a lake, would not heed a “no trespassing” sign, he argued. Yet we have allowed legalistic guidelines and aphorisms to get in the way of humanity.

For the Church, he argued, the mandate of God as love requires that we continually expand the “circle of inclusion.” In essence, he said, we will be “building trust through vulnerability.” Using his understanding of the Sanctuary Movement as a touchstone, Rick noted the difference between civil disobedience and civil initiative. The former consists of breaking the law (and civil obedience lets the government break the law, he quipped) while the latter maintains and extends the rule of law. “Nonviolent protection of basic rights is never illegal,” Rick said, “though it might break some statutes.”

Resisting evil directly, he argued, gives power to that evil — what the Church can do instead is to create alternatives.

The reflection group that I chose, peacemaking through antiracism, came up with several methods by which our culture constructs fear around race. There is a “fear of small numbers” implying conspiracy or elite control, and a fear of a danger of infection of tradition, despite the mainstream’s powerful force. In response, we can act to expand the circle of inclusion. Similarly, in response to the fear of loss — of privilege, community and tradition — we can work to create abundance for all, rather than claiming a piece of a finite amount that others might steal. Kitty Ufford-Chase, Rick’s wife and coincidentally part of my reflection group, said that in her mind, “one of the pillars that holds up empire is fear; every time we move through and beyond that fear, it’s a step in deconstructing that empire.”

Day Two: From Fear into Community

In a workshop with Harry Pickens, the music leader at the conference, he offered the following poem, “A sleep of prisoners,” by Christopher Frye, as a way to frame our work in transforming fear.

The human heart can go the lengths of God
Cold and dark we may be...
But this is no winter now.
The frozen misery of centuries cracks, begins to thaw.
The thunder is the thunder of the flows, the thaw, the flood, the upstart spring.
Thank God our time is now.
When wrong comes up to face us everywhere, never to leave us.
The longest stride of soul folk ever took.
Affairs are now soul-sized, the enterprise is exploration into God.
But what are you waiting for?
It takes so many thousand years to wake.
But will you wake? For pity’s sake.

Harry said there was a societal myth around creating change, that a single, extraordinary person was required to make any lasting alterations to society. As an example he offered Rosa Parks who, he said, is often believed to have simply refused, one day, to go along with racist segregation any longer. In fact, he said, Rosa Parks had been through months of training in nonviolent civil disobedience, and was supported by a network of hundreds of people who had similar training and were ready to take her place if her actions failed. This, Harry said, is the “1 percent versus 99 percent myth,” that only 1 percent of people can make a difference, because they are the visible ones, when in reality it is the 99 percent of people who are supporting them along the way.

Day Three: From Fear into Truth

On the third day, I helped give a presentation on the Darfur crisis based on my experiences with the Genocide Intervention Fund. More than 400,000 people have been killed in the Sudan, a genocide which shows no signs of slowing. The international community, moreover, has been slow to respond, even after the U.S. Congress, secretary of state and President Bush all declared the killings to be genocide. The Genocide Intervention Fund works to raise money directly for the African Union peacekeepers in Darfur, willing to protect civilian lives but currently underfunded, and advocates for additional funding through the legislature.

Day Four: From Fear into Humility

The nonviolent action workshop that occurred on the fourth day dealt with many of the issues I addressed in my thesis. Nonviolent social movements have successfully overthrown authoritarian regimes on every continent, in every type of society, in every decade in the twentieth century. Yet time and again “nonviolence” is seen as impractical or unsuccessful, and the decision is made to use violent force and torture, wars and political assassination. Nonviolence is not the same as passivity, however, and it has been deployed on a tactical level with great success by citizens at all levels of society. This workshop helped channel my experience and studies around nonviolent action into ideas for the future.

Day Five: From Fear into Hope

The final day of the conference brought an amazing sermon by Lisa Larges, regional partnership coordinator of “That All May Freely Serve,” working for the ordination of qualified gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender candidates as elders, deacons and ministers. Lisa spoke some hard truths about both the Presbyterian Church and the conflicts in which we find ourselves:

Presbyterians were once the mainstay on the mainline, back when the mainline meant something, with all of its assumptions of class status, all of its attendant perquisites of access to power and decision-making, all of its privileged assertions of normative American identity. … Surely there have always been families and communities of color who trace their Presbyterian heritage four or five generations back, and there have always been poor and working class urban and rural Presbyterian congregations; but the stereotype of the Presbyterian, grown out of that kernel of truth, is of someone well-meaning, good-natured, mannered, entitled, and white.

For Lisa, the purpose of the Church was similar to Rick’s instruction to “be the church” — that God is concerned with issues of spirituality and community, not bricks and mortar.

As to the fate of the Presbyterian Church, its rise and decline, God is, in the most redemptive way possible, indifferent. God’s preoccupations, the witness of Scripture makes clear, lie elsewhere. There is a preferential option for the oppressed — it’s poured out through the whole of the liberating narrative that is the Word of God — and that Holy fire burns on both beyond and within our little struggle for survival. The terrifying and awesome word to the white liberal elite and alike to the new regime in all of its imperialist arrogance is: it’s not about you. … We, the white liberal elite want desperately to believe that God loves everyone evenly. The notion that God would exchange nations for the beleaguered band of exiles, or the Presbyterian Church for a few queers is more than a little disturbing. Certainly, it isn’t nice, and nice matters to us, and it may not even be fair — but it is the prerogative of the Sovereign God to choose for the oppressed, against the oppressor.

In the end, Lisa said, if our peacemaking work is to come to anything, “We must make ourselves serious students of the complex workings of power and privilege and the toxic affects their perpetual and systematic misuse has had in our lives.”