Overcoming violence: an ecumenical Christian task - Speech by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia

at an international conference on "Violence and Christian spirituality"

sponsored by the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
in cooperation with the WCC and the Boston Theological Institute

27 October 2005

It is with joy and gratitude that I greet you all as we begin our international conference on Violence and Christian Spirituality - a theme that consists of two highly challenging and relevant issues for our day. I greet you with joy because this conference is one of the privileged moments when we meet as companions on a common journey, even though we come from several different traditions, perspectives and disciplines. We come as leaders, scholars, teachers and pastors, to reflect together on a challenge that is beyond any one person's capacity and wisdom.

We are here as brothers and sisters in Christ, from different Christian traditions and experiences, and we are here because we are committed to the challenge which the Decade to Overcome Violence poses to us as individuals and as church communities. This challenge and commitment is a Christian one emanating from the gospel, and it is an ecumenical one, in the deepest sense of the word ecumenical.
My gratitude extends to Holy Cross Seminary and the Boston Theological Institute for hosting this significant and timely conference. You are offering us an opportunity to take an informed look at the spiritual dimensions of the challenge to overcome violence. You have invited eminent and internationally known scholars to help us grapple with these complex, intriguing and, quite honestly, humbling issues. You have brought together people from various Christian traditions, and this is an especially significant event because it brings forth the Orthodox expertise and presence in the framework of the Decade to Overcome Violence - a perspective which we all very much need and treasure.

I would like to express special thanks to Father Emmanuel Clapsis for his crucial role in making this conference a reality, as a part of and follow-up to the annual focus of the DOV on the USA, under the theme "The Power and Promise of Peace". Father Clapsis is a member of the DOV Reference Group, and in this capacity he has provided for us this special opportunity.

The promise and power of peace vs. the reality of violence

As the theme of the annual focus for 2004 indicates, peace does have power and peace is a promise. Some have suggested that the motto of "Overcoming Violence" may be a mistaken assessment of the Christian calling in face of the startling violence in our world. None of us will pretend that we will eradicate violence and establish world peace within a decade. The desire and aspiration to overcome the spirit and logic of violence in a Christian and ecumenical spirit, however, is rooted in the gift and promise made to his disciples by Christ himself: "My peace I give you", and "Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be called children of God". As Christians we believe in the power of the peace given by Christ and revealed through his resurrection by God's creator spirit. This is a peace we are given by Christ and that is the peace we proclaim - no less than that. Christ gives peace differently from the way the world gives peace. And this peace is in stark contrast to the reality of our world. We do recognize the need for true peace not only in the world, but also in our churches and communities. The global reality is one of increasingly indiscriminate violence, a violence that has gotten out of control. It has been clear in times past where the demarcation lines were between legitimate and illegitimate violence. This seems to be no longer the case, from the international arena - as the UN security council's sessions over the last couple of years have demonstrated, to the national level - where ethnic or civic groups reserve the right to fight against what they identify as state terrorism, to the neighborhoods - where youth, vigilante groups or gangs claim the right to protect themselves against any threat, individual or official.

Violence has many faces: personal, inter-personal, and collective, and it comes in many forms: physical, psychological, sexual or in the guise of negligence and deprivation. According to the World Health Organization, which has set up a very helpful typology of violence in its World Report on Health and Violence, physical violence kills over 4000 people each day. Most of these victims are not the victims of collective violence such as war or terrorism, but they are victims of violence much closer to home: suicide and interpersonal violence. Let us be aware that today as we meet here, tens of thousands die of hunger. And no one knows how many children, women and men are being injured physically, emotionally or mentally through violence. The WHO report makes it clear that it is not simply political conflict, war or terror that threaten the lives of people everywhere. The threat of violence is at home, in the neighborhood - for a growing number of people, in the daily circumstances of their lives.

Now the world is responding to this situation with growing concern and determination. The UN-Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World is addressing violence in many different ways and has generated significant alliances and measures to prevent violence and educate for peace. The World Health Assembly has declared violence prevention to be a public health priority, thus requesting all member states to establish violence prevention programs within their health ministries. In this context the churches united in the World Council of Churches have, from the beginning of the discussions concerning such a decade, taken action to respond to the challenge of violence by declaring the years 2001 through 2010 a Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV) and have made it a priority of our common witness.

As I have already indicated, the goal is not so much to eradicate violence, as it is to overcome the spirit, the logic and the practice of violence by actively seeking reconciliation and peace. This is an eminently ecumenical task, and it is ecumenical in the widest sense of the word, because preventing violence cannot be accomplished by any one particular group and its program, or by any specific movement. Preventing and overcoming violence must be done collaboratively by churches together and jointly in cooperation with governmental and civic institutions and peoples' grassroots initiatives.

Christians must join these efforts in their own right, as followers of Christ and as sisters and brothers, in spite of their differences and divisions. They join the struggle as partners and members of civil society, and as close friends and allies with one another - as sisters and brothers indeed. Just as violence does not recognize any differences between countries, ethnicities and cultures, violence does not recognize differences between Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox or Pentecostal. Violence is our common plague, and non-violent love, peace, justice and reconciliation are our common calling.

As we set out together to meet the challenge before us, several issues must be considered if we want to remain both realistic and hopeful.

A globalized context (geo-political)

Globalization is a reality on every level, not just economic. Terrorism appears to be globally networked, as is the war on terrorism. The effects of that global war affect people in their activities and dignity almost everywhere. The phenomenon of domestic violence is increasing in African homes as well as in European, Asian or American homes. The proliferation of small arms spans the globe, just as Coca-Cola and McDonald's do. We must therefore take globalization and its derivatives into consideration as we plan our common actions towards proclaiming the good news of peace.

A complex and changing ecumenical movement

The ecumenical movement has always been diverse and colorful. Today, the center of gravity of the world church is in the process of shifting from the northern hemisphere to the global South. At the same time, the growing charismatic and Pent ecostal movements are loosely or not at all connected to denominational or ecumenical bodies. Amid such forces, interacting and working coherently as Christians in any given place is very difficult and requires wisdom, flexibility and good stewardship. Denominational boundaries are blurred, and loyalty to one's own tradition is often in question. The credibility and integrity of the church as a spiritual movement is at stake when its leaders are accused of abuse, proselytism and strife. Attempting to exercise control over the panoply of changes within the ecumenical movement is like trying to change a tyre while one's car is racing down the street. Similarly, working together to overcome violence amid such rapid changes within and outside the churches is stretching us to our limits. Leadership in such an hour requires faith and courage.

Interfaith dialogue and cooperation is significant and imperative

One of the priorities of the World Council of Churches is to promote and engage in inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. But we are by no means the only ones who recognize this urgent imperative at the beginning of the 21st century. Everywhere, on regional and local levels, churches and religious people of all walks of faith recognize the imperative of interfaith action in response to the pressing needs and concerns of the societies in which they live. More and more people see inter-faith action as an integral part of the ecumenical task. The vision of many today is that God's oikoumene includes not just Christians, but people of all living faiths.

Inter-religious dialogue is today more than ever before accepted within the oikoumene as a necessary way of relating to the other. We have become increasingly aware that no religion is an island. In the area of dialogue with people of other faiths, there have been significant developments among Christians, in a change from the past when such dialogue was regarded at best as an academic exercise at the margin, and at worst as an example of liberal syncretistic theology lacking in Christian commitment and zeal.

There are many expectations that dialogue can be an instrument in conflict resolution. In a world where many conflicts seem to be framed by religious language or have religious overtones, dialogue is called upon to assist in resolving ongoing conflict s. But this may be to expect too much of dialogue. Dialogue is not and can never serve as an ambulance in a sudden crisis or conflict. It is more like a prophylactic medicine, which when often and regularly used will sustain health even in difficult situations. Contacts and precious relations between people of different faiths built quietly by patient dialogue during peacetime may in times of conflict prevent religion from being used as a weapon. At times of communal tension or at the peak of a crisis, contacts across the communal divide may prove to be the most precious tool in the construction of peace.

We need to scrutinize the role of religion and violence - how religion is used or allows itself to be used to fuel conflict. Religion speaks for some of the deepest feelings and sensitivities of individuals and communities; it carries profound historical memories and often appeals to undiscerning loyalties. We must identify where religions are part of the problem, because they are often just that, and much less frequently are seen as part of the solution. The doctrines of redemptive violence, the theories of just war and holy war, and the legacies of the crusades and colonization have their roots in difficult religious assumptions, and in the marginalization of the other. Major strands in Judaism, Christianity and Islam claim in different ways an exclusive relationship to God. This is a problem, for it is accompanied by a conviction of being superior to the other. All this makes the call for inter-religious dialogue both relevant and imperative.

Quest for spirituality

Although institutionalized religion appears to have lost a lot of credibility and enthusiasm and in fact is under attack in our world today, people long for spirituality, fulfillment and meaning. Recent polls document this and the Catholic World Youth Meeting last August in Cologne has demonstrated it. As churches and as an ecumenical movement we must face our own and the world's hunger for spiritual nourishment, guidance and fulfillment. Unless the church responds to this fundamental need, it will not be taken seriously in whatever it may say or do. The title of our conference suggests that there is a close connection, perhaps a vital connection between spirituality and overcoming violence. While it is easy to see why for Christians addressing one of the world's major ills is a spiritual task, it is more difficult to actually live up to that task. We are easily drifting into activism, individual or collective, and our organizational structures lend themselves to that. I believe that prayer and contemplation together form the foremost discipline for overcoming violence. The joint exercise of that spiritual discipline is an ongoing challenge for our fellowship. But we want to be sure we are making space for this exercise to inspire and shape our individual and joint actions. In the words of an ecumenical hymn, "Let work and worship be one."

Now within this area of spirituality, it is clear to us that the Orthodox traditions have much to offer. Some people are pointing out that the Decade to Overcome Violence has not sufficiently addressing the issue of environment, the earth and ecology. Violence is being done not only to people, but to nature. I would challenge our Orthodox brothers and sisters to help the ecumenical movement take into consideration the dimension of the earth and nature more consistently. Our spirituality is robbed of a crucial dimension if it does not include our being part of creation as well as co-creators and in intimate relationship with the earth and all that fills it. The violence of natural disasters that threatens an increasing number of people and destroys uncounted livelihoods every year is at least partly a consequence of the violence done to nature by humankind. This aspect of the DOV needs strengthening, and I would suggest that a significant contribution can come from Orthodox faith and practice. The Orthodox spirituality expressed in prayers offered for the protection of the environment may serve to nourish other churches. For example, listen to this prayer from the service that the Orthodox Church celebrates on the Day of Creation, September the first in the liturgical calendar, the beginning of the Orthodox Church year: "We pray that this holy church and this city and every city and land, will be kept safe against violence and pestilence, famine and earthquake, flood and fire, against the sword and enemy invasion, civil strife and sudden death; that our good and loving God will be merciful and gracious and open to our entreaties, to turn back all violence and evil aroused against us, deliver us from His impending righteous chestisement and be merciful to us."


We Christians of diverse traditions may not be able to come to an easy agreement on many things regarding creed or polity. But we can join hands in overcoming violence, as Jesus has overcome violence, by affirming dignity, refusing to judge, doing justice and loving mercy. Let not our differences get in the way of this Christian ecumenical task which is our mission to the world in Christ's name.

The different Christian traditions clearly have different contributions to bring to this mission, and all are needed, all are significant. The historic peace churches have a long experience in addressing issues of injustice and violence from a perspective of Christian discipleship, both personal and as communities. Both the Protestant and Catholic traditions bring a highly valuable experience of working with civic and governmental institutions, while upholding the gift of grace and the challenge to be engaged. Then there is the deeply rooted and long -standing vision in Orthodox faith and life for a spirituality of holistic peace, integrating creation, human life and the Trinity, working together for salvation and reconciliation.

These are but sketchy allusions to the treasures of our traditions, all of which are needed as we face the challenge of overcoming the spirit and the logic of violence, as we build up peace, proclaim justice and foster reconciliation. May Christ's spirit be in us and among us as we engage together in this ecumenical task.