Some thoughts on the Programme to Overcome Violence
and the Peace to the City Campaign
by Konrad Raiser, WCC General Secretary
The World Council of Churches was forged in the fires of the two world wars which shaped the twentieth century. For nearly fifty years now, the ecumenical movement has been engaged in efforts to avoid war, minister to its victims, and to reconstruct societies destroyed by war.
The experience of war has shaped societies' and the churches' attitudes to the use of violence. A particular feature of the two world wars was the scientific use of war propaganda on all sides which tended to glorify battles and the men who fought them. Often, the name of God was invoked to provide spiritual sanction for the war effort. For the ecumenical movement, however, war was not something to be celebrated, even in victory. Wars were not seen as acts of God, but rather a manifestation of human sin. In 1948, the First WCC Assembly in Amsterdam said:
War as a method of settling disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The part which war plays in our present international life is a sin against God and a degradation of man.
As many feared, then, wars did not cease. They continued and proliferated, shifting from Europe to the Third World where proxy wars between the great power blocs of the Cold War claimed a toll in human life far greater than in the previous "world wars."
In this respect, ours has been a grim century. Of course, war and armed violence are nothing new. Ancient and modern historians alike have traced the path of humankind following the milestones of wars. There is something new, however, about the nature of war and violence in our century. The use of violence has imbedded itself in the global culture. Generations have lived under the cloud of the nuclear threat. The streets of the major cities of the world have themselves become battlefields. The communications revolution has brought warfare and other forms of violence into our living rooms, blurring the line between horror and "entertainment." Children in many societies are introduced to the world of technology through interactive computer games modeled on war and extreme physical violence.
The late twentieth century is marked by a spreading "culture of violence." Safe havens are rapidly disappearing. The flames of violence have leapt over the walls built by the rich to protect them from the poor. The home itself is no longer safe for millions of battered and abused women and children. People are bound together across political and social barriers more by fear and their common experience of violence than by their mutual hopes and aspirations. Victims call increasingly for revenge, and retribution in kind.
At the WCC Amsterdam Assembly, Christians from nations emerging from war against one another took another approach. Rather than condemning one another, they confessed their complicity and collective failure to condemn war as an acceptable answer to conflict.
Christians have not yet, however, been able to agree, as one chapter of this booklet shows, to reject armed violence altogether. The debate between absolute pacifists and adherents of the "Just War" principles remains alive. Yet while doctrinal differences stemming from different national and confessional histories continue to divide the churches, many Christians see that they cannot remain silent in the face of the global spiral of violence, growing resignation and despair. For them, to be the Church today is to redeem conflict, which is a given in human social relations, by transforming it through active non-violence.
In response to these voices, the Central Committee of the WCC, meeting in Johannesburg in January 1994, established a Programme to Overcome Violence, with the purpose of challenging and transforming the global culture of violence in the direction of a culture of just peace.
This Programme has grown from a few lines on the pages of committee minutes into what is proving to be a vital force of resistance to the idea that violence is an inevitable dimension of the human condition.
Two decades ago Christians and their churches took a lead in building a popular movement against nuclear weapons which brought millions into the streets of the cities. Broad citizens coalitions were formed, linking churches and their members with others seeking to halt the nuclear arms race. Creative thinking was stimulated on alternatives to the "doctrine of nuclear deterrence," and new concepts of common security were elaborated. That hope-giving and empowering movement showed that when people join hands and put faith into action, change for the better can happen.
The early results of the Peace to the City campaign described show that a new peoples' movement is emerging. It is not yet a movement of the churches, though many Christians are providing leadership. We are convinced that the World Council of Churches and the wider ecumenical fellowship can and must nurture and help build it.
This update on the Programme to Overcome Violence constitutes an invitation to Christians and churches to be bridge-builders and coalition-makers, to engage in new theological reflection, to elaborate the basis for a new global culture of peace and justice, and above all to act in faith.
The Peace to the City campaign is one way Christians around the world can prepare for participation in the 1998 Jubilee Assembly of the World Council of Churches. It is a way for you to participate in a process of social transformation, and to join with others to shape a culture of peace for the new century.