A plea to Mennonite leadersby Ronald J. Sider
It is time for top Mennonite leaders to take a dramatic new step and issue a daring new call for a vast expansion of Christian Peacemaker Teams. With only modest resources and less institutional support, CPT’s activities—and a host of other successful nonviolent campaigns in the last few decades—have demonstrated that nonviolence frequently prevents bloodshed and promotes justice. It is time for the Christian church—for the first time ever in our history—to invest large resources to test the possibilities of large-scale nonviolent campaigns.
I believe the top leaders of our Mennonite bodies (along with the leaders of other historic peace churches) should lead the way. The first step is to expand dramatically the work of CPT. And the second step is to issue an invitation to the leadership of all Christian denominations to join in a massive exploration of the possibilities of promoting peace and justice through nonviolent direct action.
It is important to recall the context for this proposal.
The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history. In Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (Yale, 2000), Jonathan Glover estimates that 86 million people died in wars fought from 1900 to 1989. That means 2,500 people every day, 100 people every hour, for 89 years. In addition to those killed in war, genocide and mass murder by governments killed approximately 120 million people just in the 20th century—perhaps more than 80 million alone in the two Communist countries of China and the Soviet Union, according to R. J. Rummel’s Statistics of Democide (Rutgers, 1997).
It is ironic, then, that the violent 20th century also produced numerous, stunningly successful examples of nonviolent victories over injustice and oppression.
The best-known examples are probably Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. King’s nonviolent marchers changed American history. Gandhi’s nonviolent campaign defeated the British Empire and won India’s independence. In contrast to Algeria’s violent independence campaign, in which one of every 10 Algerians died, only one in 400,000 Indians died in India’s nonviolent struggle.
One of the most amazing components of Gandhi’s campaign was a huge nonviolent “army” (over 50,000 eventually) of Muslim Pathans in the northwestern section of India. These are the same people we now know as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Pakistan border. Even when the British humiliated them and slaughtered hundreds of them, they remained faithful to Gandhi’s nonviolent vision.
In Poland, Solidarity’s nonviolent campaign successfully defied and helped defeat the Soviet empire. In the Philippines, a million peaceful demonstrators overthrew the brutal dictatorship of President Marcos. The list of successful 20th-century nonviolent campaigns is long.
Considering these successes, one wonders what might happen if the Christian world became really serious about exploring the full possibilities of applying nonviolent methods of seeking peace in unjust, violent situations around the world. All Christians claim to believe Jesus when he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). But we have not made much use of one of the demonstrably successful ways to make peace.
For about 20 years now, a tiny handful of daring folk in a few Christian Peacemaker Teams (made famous by the kidnapping of four team members in Iraq in late 2005) have been working to apply the nonviolent techniques of Gandhi and King in conflict situations around the world. At Hebron in the West Bank, a few Jewish settlers live in the midst of the overwhelmingly Palestinian city of Hebron. Taunts, anger, violence and death are frequent on all sides. For 10 years, CPTers have lived in Hebron, seeking nonviolently to befriend both sides, accompanying those threatened by violence, sitting in houses threatened with illegal demolition and promoting understanding and peace. CPT teams have also intervened in Canada to defend the rights of Native Canadians. They are also seeking to protect and support the just demands of oppressed peasants in Latin America.
One need not agree with all of CPT’s political and theological ideas to conclude that now is the time first for the Mennonite leadership and then for the entire Christian community to ask, Could we vastly expand CPT’s use of nonviolent approaches to peacemaking?
“Just war” Christians (the vast majority of all Christians since the fourth century) have always claimed that war must be a last resort; before anyone is to go to war, we must have tried all reasonable nonviolent alternatives. But how can contemporary just war Christians claim they have tried all reasonable nonviolent alternatives in the face of two hard facts:
(1) even without much preparation, nonviolent approaches have worked again and again;
(2) we have never trained thousands of CPT-like teams that could explore the possibilities of nonviolence in a serious, sustained way. In order to engage in an honest, large-scale test of nonviolence, just war Christians do not have to believe that nonviolence will always prevent war. All they must do is implement their own rule that war must be a last resort.
Pacifists have long claimed they have an alternative to war. But that claim remains empty unless we are willing to risk death, as soldiers do, to stop injustice and bring peace.
The theological commitments of both just war and pacifist Christians demand that they invest serious time and resources in sustained nonviolent peacemaking.
Think of what might have happened before Bosnia or Kosovo exploded in carnage if the Archbishop of Canterbury, top Catholic Cardinals (or even the Pope) and leading Orthodox leaders had invited Muslim leaders to join them in leading a few thousand praying, peaceful Christian and Muslim followers into those dangerous places to demand peace. A prominent Palestinian Christian has said there ought to be 1,000 CPT teams spread all over the West Bank.
I know from personal experience that this kind of nonviolent intervention feels—and often is—dangerous. In the mid-1980s, the United States was secretly funding thousands of guerrillas (called the Contras) who were killing hundreds of Nicaraguan civilians in their attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government. I opposed the Marxist, repressive tendencies of the Sandinista government but also rejected U.S. funding of the Contras. So in early 1985, I joined a team from Witness for Peace that visited a Nicaraguan town under attack by the Contras. As we wound our way down the side of the mountain toward the town, we knew a thousand guerrillas in the surrounding hills had their binoculars (and perhaps their guns) on us. I was scared but believed God had called me to that moment. We arrived safely, and the townsfolk told us they slept peacefully that night, believing the Contras would not attack while a team of praying American Christians were there.
Spring 2004. Newly-trained Christian Peacemaker group. Creative Commons Attribution-Christian Peacemaker Teams.
If top global Christian leaders (hopefully joined by Jews, Muslims and others) led 1,000 trained, praying, nonviolent peacemakers into the West Bank, the eyes of the world would be on them. Hundreds of millions would be praying for peace and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians. Massive media coverage would pressure both sides to negotiate. The same would happen if Archbishop Tutu led a few thousand praying African Christians (joined by people from other continents) into Zimbabwe to demand that President Mugabe permit fair elections.
So what should we do? Obviously we need to expand CPT a hundredfold, then a thousandfold. How can we do that?
Let’s be candid. The top leadership of the Mennonite church seriously explored the idea of CPT-type activity after the Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg in 1984. They wrestled with the question, Is this kind of nonviolent but activist peacemaking faithful to our Anabaptist understanding? The leaders arrived at a clear answer: yes. But then the leadership of the Mennonite church stepped back and left the implementation of the concept to a small group of peace activists who were largely at the margins of the Mennonite world.
But a few daring folk did it. They launched one, then another small team. And it worked. They demonstrated that even small groups of courageous peacemakers can insert themselves into violent situations and promote peace and justice. My hat is off with appreciation to these few, courageous folk. That is not to say that I agree with all their political and theological judgments. But they dared to do it and prove that it works.
Now is the time for a massive expansion of CPT. The leadership of our major Mennonite institutions should join to call the Mennonite community to expand CPT from a handful of teams to hundreds of teams in the next few years. That would mean calling hundreds of people in our congregations to volunteer for CPT and urging our Mennonite institutions and congregations to fund this expansion. It would mean prominent Mennonite leaders joining CPT’s board.
It would also mean changes in CPT. It would need to welcome a significant number of prominent church leaders into the heart of their decision-making process. They would need to be willing to change CPT’s internal culture and practices to make it more friendly to the center of the Mennonite church. (For example, CPT’s official policy is that it takes no stand on homosexual practice. But in practice, some of its actions demonstrate a clear pro-gay stand. That would have to change.)
I have no doubt that the global Mennonite community has the willing volunteers and the economic resources to train and deploy several hundred CPT teams by the year 2010—if the Mennonite leadership will issue the call and lead the way. But that is only the first step.
After a couple years of dramatic expansion of CPT by Mennonites and the other historic peace churches already engaged in CPT, the historic peace church leaders should issue a call to the leadership of the entire Christian world: “For the first time in two millennia of Christian history, we invite you to join us in exploring the possibilities of using large numbers of CPT-type teams to reduce bloodshed and promote justice.” For this call, we need not demand that just-war Christians become pacifists. We need only ask that they implement their own theory that war must be a last resort. Maybe we could resolve many dangerous conflicts through activist nonviolence if the Christian community (working with people of other faiths as well) had 10,000 Gandhi-type peacemakers ready to intervene in violent, unjust situations.
If Christians—both just-war Christians and pacifists—mean what they have been saying for centuries about war and peace, then we have no choice. Nonviolence has worked. It’s time to invest tens of millions of dollars in serious training and deployment. We cannot know ahead of time what will happen. But we already know that unless we do this, our Christian rhetoric about war—both pacifist and just war—will be both hypocritical and dishonest.
It’s time to live what we preach.
Ronald J. Sider is professor of theology and culture at Palmer Seminary, Wynnewood, Pa.
Photos from CPT.
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Ronald J. Sider is professor of theology and culture at Palmer Seminary, Wynnewood, Pa.