Formation for Peace In an Age of Conflict

Brother Gros gave these remarks at the Fuller Conference on Just Peacemaking in 2011. They have been edited for this publication. This article appeared in Emmanuel magazine, May/June 2013 (Vol 119 Issue 3).

When I taught high school religion, I would begin my course on Christian social responsibility with a film on the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, to form my students in an understanding of the conflict, not only at the heart of the 20th century history in a particular culture and nation, but more especially the conflict at the heart of the human person, the inherent sinfulness of all of us—perpetrators and the silently complicit alike.

If we are to form for a life of peacemaking, it is essential to focus on the very nature of the human person and our capacity for violence and redemption; on the core of the gospel as a graced call to responsibility and human community; and on the eschatological hope and imperative of building bridges and signs of the kingdom, on the journey to that future which only the Holy Spirit can give.

In this essay I will focus three themes for our discussion: 1) the Christian vocation, 2) the nature of the church as a community of dialogue, and 3) the strategic approach to prophetic witness.

I. The Christian Vocational Call to Peacemaking

In the post-modern world, where we have moved beyond the Constantinian vision of a society that claimed to embody and enforce Christian values, all of our churches are, in effect, free churches—functionally voluntary, intentional associations in which members are drawn to the gospel by the free grace of God in Jesus Christ, without legal or cultural coercion. This, of course, does not mean that we have no responsibilities as Christians to advocate for values we consider grounded in the common good for civil society, and for laws that reflect our particular vision of peace, justice, and respect for creation. We do not expect society to impose our values for religious reasons.

However, we have come to expect that political and legal elements in society will use religious rhetoric instrumentally to further cultural ends that may, indeed, not represent the consensus of religious persons, or the biblical truths about society that some will read in God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, (whether derived from Scripture or from an interpretation of natural law). We may have come to separate religion from social controls, but religion is never separated from society and its policy debates. As Christians, it is important to continue to approach political rhetoric, even religious political rhetoric with a healthy hermeneutics of suspicion.

We may have come to separate religion from social controls, but religion is never separated from society and its policy debates.

In fact, we have to form our people to see their vocation to discipleship in Christ in personal and ecclesiological terms. Convictions about their faith and about Christians’ obligations in society can no longer presume on a cultural Christianity or the supports of secular power. This was a hard-won conviction in our church, when the Declaration on Religious Freedom was promulgated by Vatican II in 1965. It still remains a challenge to be received in the life, faith, education, and social witness of our Catholic people in places like Latin America. There is still a tendency of some leadership in our church, and others, to slip back into an attitude of “aggrieved entitlement” to influence and respect, which was not the experience of Jesus, nor will it be for the church’s often solitary witness in a pluralistic society.

This commitment to human dignity and religious freedom is a conviction that has yet to be received in some sectors of the US community, as the current debates about Islam in our pluralistic society, or the ecclesial and rhetorical legitimation of certain partisan political positions, continue to demonstrate. No party or policy can be identified with the Christian gospel. Yet, at the same time, the Christian vocation to peacemaking calls for engagement in the messy process of politics and policy judgment.

The vocation to Christian discipleship, and its call to peacemaking, is a voluntary conviction to which each must be formed to respond, personally with decision, content, and conversion. However, this does not mean we must all become Anabaptists. Indeed, a strong sacramental sense of church, the solidarity of the human family, and God’s gracious call preceding any response on our part, is important for building a community of reconciliation and witness, to God’s will for the peace of the world. This sacramental and ecclesiological conviction is an essential counterpoint to the personal responsibility which is entailed in church membership.

Again, our church is beginning a sacramental renewal that should entail refocusing on an adult, conscious, and faith-filled participation in the role of the community as sign, witness, and sacrament of unity and peace for a world torn by conflict. The core ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council made peacemaking essential to the church’s identity. In the council’s profession that the church is “the sacrament of union with God and of the unity of humankind” and in its commitment that ‘the promotion of unity’ is one of the primary ways in which the church serves the world.”

The process of Christian Initiation for Adults becomes a formation paradigm for training all to a sacramental world view that contrasts to the culture of conflict, exploitation and inequality, which is the sinful human experience. To become Christian/Catholic is to become responsible for the peace of the human community and to a sacramental vision of all creation, that sees it as diaphanous to the glory of God.

As the draft for the World Council of Churches 2011 Conference puts it:

At its most fundamental level, the church is a sacrament. That sacramental character is centered in its being a sacrament of the Trinity: the Creator’s sending the Word and the Spirit into the world, and God’s reconciling the world through Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit. This fundamental fact is represented and re-presented in the liturgy, especially the celebration of the Eucharist. The liturgy is an act of memory of what God has already done for us in Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection. It is also the window on the eschatological hope of the bringing together of all things in Christ that has been promised to us. This ritual act—where sin is confessed and forgiven, where God’s Word is once again heard, where praise of God recalls God’s great works, where the needs and the suffering of the present are commended to God, and where the Great Thanksgiving is enacted and shared in the banquet of Christ’s presence in our midst—this ritual action draws us back into the Trinitarian life itself, that Life which is the beginning and end of true peace.

In the Divine Liturgy as celebrated by the Orthodox churches, peace is named (“the peace from on high,” “peace for the whole world”) and extended to one another again and again. The sharing or passing of the peace is a common ritual feature in many of the churches. And the injunction to go forth from the Eucharist in the peace of God is a mandate to carry God’s peace into the world. So the eucharistic benediction of the Syrian Orthodox Church says: “Go in peace, our brethren and our beloved ones, as we commend you to the grace and mercy of the Holy and glorious Trinity, with the provisions and blessings which you have received from the altar of the Lord.” This carrying forth of God’s peace into the world is what Orthodox theologians have called “the liturgy after the liturgy” and Roman Catholic theologians “the liturgy of the world.” Such expressions remind us that the liturgy and the world are not separate entities. They are both enfolded in God’s design for creation.

The liturgy, then, is the source and font of peace . . . .

That the church is a sacrament of God’s peace is the source of its being able to be a prophetic sign and instrument of God’s peace in the world.

Formation for a vocation to a critical gospel witness to the way the world ought to be, in its eschatological call to human solidarity in peace and justice, and responsibility for creation and society; cannot, in our view, be reduced to a merely voluntarist, congregational ecclesiology.

For the Christian, the justification we talk about as a gift, is intimately related to the justice for which we hunger and thirst in the fourth beatitude.

It is grace that enables our voluntary good works; grace that gives the incarnational solidarity of the church as sacrament and prophetic sign of that peaceful community to which the world itself is called in the fullness of the kingdom; and God’s grace that calls us to the penultimate, imperfect peace we build on earth by our non-violent action amid the conflicts of human sinfulness. For the Christian, the justification we talk about as a gift, is intimately related to the justice for which we hunger and thirst in the fourth beatitude (Mt 5:6).

There are scholars who attribute the vitality of 20th century Christianity to the voluntary principle within, especially, American ecclesiology. While I can agree on the great contribution of Christian volunteerism, I have lived among Southern Evangelicals long enough to understand that the international solidarity of the church catholic, with its interdependent accountability, is an important counterpoint to a cultural captivity that congregational and voluntarist ecclesiologies can enable. Reconciliation among Christians is a calling and a sign of the reconciliation among peoples and with creation, that is our gospel calling.

The vocation to a global vision of the unity of the church and its call to peacemaking may be offensive to many who feel that the compromise of such solidarity is too high a price to pay for the purity of witness seen as the gospel command. These voices would oppose intentional, often pacifist, community to catholic universality and ecumenical unity. I have appreciated John Howard Yoder’s challenge to his own community to see its witness as a prophetic, public call to the whole human family, and not the elite, ethnic preserve of the silent in the land. John D. Rempel argues for “a non-separatist but non-conformed” church, following Menno Simons and especially Pilgram Marpeck. Certainly the strategies of the Just Peacemaking movement have charted ways of overcoming this sectarian tendency with integrity.

We need to form Christians to see the vocation to nonviolent peacemaking as the responsibility of all, at all times, even if some among us have a special vocation to carry that witness in a special way, whether it be particular ecclesial traditions, religious orders, issue oriented coalitions, or movements that challenge all of us to the centrality of peacemaking. I am not called to live in a Catholic Worker house, but I try to serve on the food line once or twice a year so as not to lose the vision of my more radical confreres.

The debates in our church at the highest levels during the 1980s as to whether, in this age, we needed to move away from Augustine’s just war perspective, were productive for those who followed them. Pope John Paul and his then advisor Joseph Ratzinger moved away from this proposal, as the world was faced with the humanitarian, peacekeeping imperatives of Somalia and the Balkans. However, part of this discussion has led Catholic leadership to move away from support of the death penalty in contemporary society. Certainly, the ecumenical initiatives of Stassen and others to provide concrete practices that transcend our theological differences are of fundamental importance, while the more theological debates continue.

In the age of terrorism, nuclear capability and global technological interdependence, peace-making demands more sophisticated models than the just war or pacifism, especially when nations with a significant number of Christians can legitimate wars of unilateral intervention, which clearly violate all of the prescriptions traditionally held by Christian peace teaching on the just war. However, this demand for more sophisticated visions of just-peace making are not causes for paralysis and despair, but rather spurs to creativity in our Christian hope and discernment of what the fidelity calls for as we discern God’s will for the church in new signs for our times.

Yes, formation needs to focus on:

• the vocation of the individual Christian as personally called to peacemaking;

• the vocation of the church to visible unity and visible witness to the mission of peace building in service to the kingdom, and public prophetic witness to justice and sensitivity to creation; which are integral to the biblical understanding of peace, and

• the vocation of specialized movements and individual communities within the church to providing the strategies, and to holding us accountable to the reconciling ministry and mission to which we are all called.

II. Dialogue as a Privileged tool in the Formation for Peace

The church is dialogical by nature—as the community that witnesses to God’s dialogue with the human family in divine revelation; the community that brings its own members into dialogue about their heritage and calling; dialogue about their responsibilities to one another, society and creation; and the community that dialogues about how best to proclaim the gospel, including the gospel of reconciliation, peace and solidarity. Concretely, our task is to build into the life of our churches experiences of dialogue, peace building, and analysis of and response to the conflicts we experience in our world, and experiences of prayer for and with our perceived enemies.

a) For my students, I always begin by putting them into dialogue with their own tradition and its resources before inviting them into ecumenical dialogue with the longer and wider reality of the church. Religious illiteracy is a major problem for all US Christians. For example, as president-elect of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, I generated dialogue on the African American Pentecostal tradition centered on the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and its Memphis heritage.

We had to remind even our COGIC students of their peacebuilding heritage, and help them to witness to others around them. Founding Bishop C. H. Mason was jailed for, among other things, his pacifism during the First World War. He continued that witness during the second, while encouraging his members to buy war bonds, because of the justness of the cause against so great an evil as Nazism!

At our March convention, 2011, we had a COGIC speaker, Dr. David A. Hall, witness to the challenges of their Pentecostal eschatological millenarian rapture confession, and its deleterious effects on peace in the Middle East, when utilized to support certain military and political options in Palestinian and Israeli relations. Dialogue with the best of our peace-keeping histories and our sad failures, equip us to build a more effective future, and understand one another’s’ resources for building a just peace witness for our society.

Experiences of dialogue, with one’s own tradition, with one’s own history and with the wider histories of the human family; can enable the growth toward that zeal for peace, healing and reconciliation that are at the heart of the Christian calling.

b) I find pilgrimage among the biblical spiritual disciplines that nourish my own formation and enrich my understanding of the faith and its fruitfulness in the lives of our forbearers. In Memphis, the Lorraine Motel Civil Rights museum, Mason Temple, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his last Mountain Top address recalling the prophetic heritage of Christianity, Bishop Mason’s jail cell/shrine in Lexington, MS, and the historic churches of all traditions that supported the 1968 sanitation strikers; all are places that nourish the nonviolent legacy enshrined there. Bringing visiting colleagues through these pilgrim sites is a means of enriching the dialogue of peace and justice for us together.

c) In 2010, with Reformed colleagues from Grand Rapids, we made the journey to the now famous 300-year-old Oberammergau Passion Play. Recounting its evolution from a traditional, anti-semitic rendering of the medieval drama to a depiction that emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples, and the guilt of the whole human family for the tragic death that becomes our redemption, and dramatizing a clear internal division among the Jewish leadership; all demonstrate how the violence of the Shoah has pressed this small German community to reassess the violence that has been generated over the centuries by particular erroneous interpretations of the Christian narrative. Study of this process itself is a significant contribution to understanding the culture of violence and its reform.

On my journey to Bavaria, places like Dresden, Prague, and Cracow were among our stops. Reflection on the destruction and rebuilding of Dresden, its anti-Jewish iconography, and the Krstallnacht which was initiated there; reflection on the modern Communist era churches of Poland including Nowa Huta with its chapel to Maximilian Kolbe and its stunning Way of the Cross set amid the devastation of Nazi and Communist eras, the Cracow ghetto—and nearby Auschwitz; and reflection on the tragic Christian 30 years’ war and murder of Jan Hus, so vividly commemorated in Prague, were part of the formation for the final experience at Oberammergau.

While the play itself is a fiction, like Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ or The Da Vinci Code, it demonstrated yet again how our view of the gospel evolves in the Christian imagination, and can be fuel for violence when the story is used to stigmatize and exclude the other; or as a resource for reconciliation, outreach, and proclamation of the love which is the core message of Our Lord’s death and resurrection.

d) I worked a bit with the Mennonite Benedictine dialogue, Bridgefolk. I would love some day to provide a dialogue/retreat for this group in urban DC on the National Mall. The retreat would allow for an open air dialogue with the great monuments: Viet Nam, Korean, and World War II, possibly with films recalling the history of these violent wars. The Viet Nam and Korean are veterans’ memorials, not celebrations of the wars, and carry quite a different character, representing quite a different America than the World War II memorial. A stark wall is the Viet Nam shrine, and poignant aluminum solders evoke the tragedy of the Korean conflict; while the traditional majesty of victory, characterizes the memory of the second World War. Of course, it would be ideal to include a contemplative day among the memorials at Hiroshima in Japan.

I would like to provide focused questions to stimulate reflection and journal writing which would ask the sculpture ensembles about the mood of the country as it: a) legitimated the wars, b) remembered the experience, and c) healed the post-war wounds in the 1) American society-psyche, 2) the global human community, and 3) the economic, political, and ecological heritage of the globe. More reflection questions might ask how we can heal the memories, avoid the pitfalls and hold out to our people a more peace-building future. Such a retreat could include a brief morning introduction, possibly with some readings, a day of silent wandering and contemplation, and an afternoon discussion; noting whether Mennonite and Catholic pieties brought different, conflicting or complimentary interpretations, prayer perspectives, and hopes to the contemplative day.

I do not know that such a retreat would help us discern what God was doing in our past and calling us to in our future, but it would give us the opportunity to dialogue with the history that is our burden, and the challenge which is our gospel hope. It could enliven our imaginations to help us transcend, without avoiding, our heritage and ponder how artists and society have attempted to contribute to our healing.

If we are to be prophets of the church’s peace witness, we are called to develop formation and action strategies that are realistic and that work, and not content ourselves with being “right,” righteous, and perceived as prophetic.

Experiences of dialogue, with one’s own tradition, with one’s own history and with the wider histories of the human family; can enable the growth toward that zeal for peace, healing, and reconciliation that are at the heart of the Christian calling. Direct experiences of conflict, conflict resolution, and service in the world are essential elements in the formation for peace that Christians so desperately need.

Formal dialogues provide opportunities to experience the other, for learning techniques for peace formation from expert colleagues, for working out formal strategies for peace making, and Christian formation in the skills of reconciliation. Such are like those among the Peace churches and the rest of our traditions, like those of Reformed, Catholic, and Lutheran bodies with the Mennonites—including the recent public apology from the Lutheran World Federation for its anti-Anabaptist confession and persecution; working together on practices of non-violent living and devotion; and like the Benedictine–Mennonite US Bridgefolks dialogues, or the Puidoux conferences between the historic peace churches and the classical Protestant and Catholic churches.

The World Council of Churches’ Decade to Overcome Violence is a process that has produced some important discussion. The results of these encounters have the potential for bringing grassroots groups together in prayer, support, study, and action.

III. The Prophetic is in the Strategic

At the Franciscan School where I had the good fortune to teach in 2010, I gave the homily on the feast of the medieval Dominican Saint, Catherine of Siena. A great favorite of mine, she has a fascinating story: she was an urban mystic who lived in her family home in prayer and service in the community rather than in a convent, which would have been cloistered from the world in her 14th century Italy. She lived in difficult times for the church, with the popes living away in Avignon, France. She characterized the church and its leadership as afflicted with leprosy, so dire was her analysis of the corruption.

However, she was also a shrewd and pious lady. While there is much to tell about her story, she is known for her diplomatic skills in convincing the pope to return from Avignon to Rome, to begin the task of cleaning up the mess of the era, and restoring piety, order, and discipline to the church. In this she was successful. As one of my Franciscan historian colleagues noted: “What Catherine wanted, Catherine got!”

The points of my homily were: 1) the importance of a deep spirituality for those active in the world, 2) the compatibility of a political, diplomatic, activist ministry with the contemplative life, and 3) most especially, a strategic approach to prophecy.

For Catherine, her concern was not to demonstrate the weakness of the papal court, the lax discipline of the church, or the irresponsibilities of papal leadership. She knew all of this and could easily demonstrate it, if called upon to do so. She could have preached against corruption. What she wanted, however, was change, and change that would affect the good, and reform in the best way she knew how. That meant restoring focused leadership and credible discipline through the institutional instruments available at the time: a papacy located in Rome and carrying out its task of insuring the proclamation of the gospel and the reform of Christian life in the church.

If we are to be prophets of the church’s peace witness, we are called to develop formation and action strategies that are realistic and that work, and not content ourselves with being “right,” righteous, and perceived as prophetic. Some of the best prophetic voices are those that go unheard, but get bridges built, violence diminished, and communities mobilized to live nonviolent lifestyles in service of human reconciliation.

1) We need to be as wise as serpents and as prudent as doves in our service to the gospel call to peacemaking and to forming our church communities in steps that will influence society toward a more nonviolent approach in international and personal relationships. Sometimes, it is careful research, and even journalistic excellence that will make for a clearer and more effective witness.

2) Sometimes social movements become romanticized and develop a rhetoric that oversteps the bounds of the possible, displaying a temptation to Pelagian kingdom building. It is important to energize the newly converted, by a vision of a just and peaceful world, that provides an imaginative concreteness to our Christian hope for society. However, this enthusiasm for a penultimate utopia, needs always to be subordinated to the graced character of the future which will be given by God’s inbreaking alone, and not built by our good works.

Such a zealous, but modest expectation, in service of Christian hope and charity, is a necessary, realistic, and strategic spirituality that continues to serve our vocation as peacebuilders, in the face of all of the reversals that will inevitably be our experience in Christ’s service. Some expressions of liberation theology are overly optimistic and undercut the spiritual commitment to the future kingdom that can only be expected in God’s transcendence of time and human works. We continue to work as if everything depended on us, and pray knowing that everything depends on God.

The gospel of peace building requires nothing less than the best formative skills we can bring to it.

3) The Latin American consciousness-raising methodology, grounded in Aquinas’ understanding of prudence, can serve us well in our peacemaking formation: observe, judge and act.

• Observation sometimes means scientific social and political analysis, or investigative journalistic probing, but always a careful realistic discernment of the demands of the times and resources for response.

• Judging always means drawing on the sources of Scripture and the Christian heritage for making decisions in service of the church’s peace mission. The concrete work on looking again at the texts in the Abrahamic traditions that have traditionally been used to legitimate violence, injustice and exploitation of God’s creation, are important initiatives for us in providing the biblical judgments that will make peacemaking action possible in our traditions.

• Action means laying out a strategic plan for taking steps that will effectively lead to a goal that will bring us more peace, in as realistic and practical steps as are possible. In this the practical practices give form to our vision and analysis.

The gospel of peace building requires nothing less than the best formative skills we can bring to it. Christian prayer requires nothing less than an incarnational view of the concrete realities of what God is calling for: in relationships among people, communities, nations, and the created universe.

While important reconciling theological dialogues continue, it is imperative—as the just-peacemaking process invites us—for Christians and, indeed, all persons of good will, to find concrete strategies for changing our hearts, our communities and our world here and now.

Indeed, it was wise for the Mennonite/Vatican dialogue to focus on the healing of memories and common peace witness, rather than on church-dividing ecclesiological questions. Likewise, for the Bridgefolk to focus on peacemaking strategies, liturgy, and sacraments, rather than tackle the major theological divisions of these traditions. We have a hurting world to serve and reconcile here and now, as we continue our calling to reconcile the Christian churches.

My appreciation of the just-peacemaking process is its commitment to organize and translate the rich research necessary to deal with the technical military, political, economic, legal, and theological issues that are changing in our world each day, into categories and conclusions that are available to those of us outside this arcane ethical world, in such a way that they can inform our prayer, pastoral, and pedagogical life.

It is much like the contributions of the theologians who dialogue with quantum physics and molecular biology that feed my teaching of Christian evolution or the sacraments, or ethical specialists, who help unravel the conundrums of Christian responsibility in the health care, immigration, and economic reform debates for us. These professional ethicists provide prudential options on the complex decisions for ballot box and pulpit in the field of global and local peace-making and economic justice. These are rich resources on which we depend for nourishing our faith and action in an ever more complex world.

For all of these contributions to our formation and that of our people we can only be most grateful.

Finally, we reflect on how we provide for a day of the Lord, aside from the distractions of the week and the proximate imperatives of our culture. We take this occasion for a renewed reassessment of our vocation as Christian peacemakers, our formation to become a church of dialogue, and our prophetic calling to develop realistic strategies for building a just-peace. These are all gifts of grace and not merely good works of our own doing. Our formation needs to provide resources for reinvigorating our vocation; for strengthening our zeal for and skills in dialogue, and for being attentive to wise and realistic strategies for changing the situation in the world in which we live.

We walk in a path that has been trod before us, toward a goal which we are given in Christian hope:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (Heb 12:1-3).


About Jeffrey Gros, FSC

Brother Jeffrey served 10 years as director of Faith and Order for the National Council of Churches and then 14 years as associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He was Distinguished Professor of Ecumenical and Historical Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary. He is president of the Society for Pentecostal Studies and serves as dean for the Catholic Institute for Ecumenical Leadership, a program for diocesan ecumenical officers.