Peace Theology and Foundations for Ecumenical Dialogue

Lauree Hersch Meyer

Editor’s Introduction: In 1999, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches invited WCC member churches and others who share their concerns to participate in a decade of work to overcome violence in our world. Giving shape and direction to the commitment of the eighth Assembly of the WCC (1998) to begin this work, the Central Committee noted: “There are a number of positive and encouraging examples for congregations and churches around the world. We recognize the steady witness of monastic traditions and the historic peace churches, and we want to receive anew their contribution through the Decade”(WCC Central Committee, “Minutes of the Fiftieth Meeting, Geneva, Switzerland, 26 August-3 September 1999,” 188).

In order to respond to the request of the Central Committee of the WCC for an offering of our best to the work of the Decade, it was clear that Friends, Mennonites, and Brethren would need first to consult with one another and deepen our own dialogue. Our three communities have much that draws us together, but also much that is divergent in history, in theological and doctrinal expression, and in community self-understanding. Between 25 and 29 June 2001, interested members of the Brethren, Quaker and Mennonite communities and a few friends met at the Mennonite theological seminary at Bienenberg, Switzerland, and in Geneva at the offices of the World Council of Churches.

Sixteen of the papers given at Bienenberg, an Epistle sent from the gathering and a study-document, “Just Peacemaking,” prepared there have been collected in Peace in a Globalized World: Perspectives from the Historic Peace Churches, forthcoming from Telford, PA and Geneva: Pandora Press US and World Council of Churches. There the reader will also find bibliographic information on papers presented at the conference and published elsewhere. The taped transcript of the discussions that followed each presentation at the meeting is now housed in the Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Office, in Akron, Pennsylvania.

Quaker Theology published Gene Hillman’s paper “Quakers and The Lamb’s War: A Hermeneutic for Confronting Evil” (#7, Vol 4 (2002): pp. 146-161). In 2001, we published two pieces by Ann Riggs that addressed the Decade to Overcome Violence A Report on the North American Launch of the World Council of Churches’ Decade to Overcome Violence. Vol. 3 (2001) pp. 7-24: and Stillness: Surrounding, Sustaining, Strengthening Vol.3 (2001) pp. 142-158. Lauree Hersch Meyer’s paper “Foundations for Ecumenical Dialogue, Building on Our History” is the first we have published that is connected directly with the work of the Decade to Overcome Violence and from one of our partner historic peace church communities, the Church of the Brethren.



Peace Theology has a place in all Christian as well as other religious and political thought. Concerns with how to deal with hostility, dissent and struggle are part of human life, and Christian life is no exception. But there exist two important distinctions regarding how Christians deal with concerns for peacemaking.

One is the difference between having feelings and acting on them, whether peacefully or violently. The second is whether peacemaking is viewed from within (how to live and act peacefully) or from without (how to “contain” violence). Christianity’s earliest memories (even apart from Jesus’ life and actions) is filled with stories of nonviolent responses and efforts at peacemaking. One is the record of Peter and Paul, unable to do mission work together, who none-the-less both did mission work. Apparently the church (and presumably they) affirmed both “ways,” although Peter’s and Paul’s ways were so different that they could not minister together.

What leads Christians to translate/incarnate feelings of violence into violent actions? How and when do Christians “justify” such transference? Students of Christian history recall Harnack’s struggle to trace the Church’s enmeshment in war to its place in the Roman empire from the time of Constantine when Church members began to be understood and understand themselves as Roman citizens, that is, persons expected to be obedient and loyal to Rome. Christian theologies about peacemaking amid conflict usually make reference to Augustine’s effort to establish guidelines identifying when, to save people in his town from death from others’ military violence, he came to identify counter-violence as “justified.”

Questions about the source of feelings and actions of hostility and violence are important but call for another path than this paper follows. Even so, those questions are central to concerns and contexts of peacemaking. This is so both because Christian believers and theologians, like all persons concerned about and committed to peacemaking, find it difficult to observe and respond with love to (our own or others’) harsh feelings in response to difficult, painful or challenging situations. We, as they are inclined to react to pain. We feel a need to protect our identity and seek security. Confessing that “perfect love casts out fear,” Christians’ real fear and love- imperfection is manifest as we converse better about peacemaking than we live our confessions.

The following reflections on the foundations for an ecumenical dialogue on peace theology arise in the context of these questions and observations. The question of peace-making and peace theology is complex. Several approaches and theologies are familiar in the Christian legacy. The following are four “Historical Peace Church” theologies, theological dynamics found by no means only among “Historical Peace” churches or theologians.

1. A “confessional” theology that focuses on embodying the theology proclaimed. Here believers intend to manifest through visible actions their confessed faith. Emphasis is placed on what speakers intend and commit themselves to, leading these peace-makers to relinquish “power over” others. Christian Peacemaker Teams illustrate this kind of peace theology in action.

2. A second peace theology consists of conversations about how theologians believe peace “should be” established. Blueprints of how society “should” function are discussed and may lead to actions aimed at bringing society into correspondence with the ideals, values, and practices identified in the blueprint. Protest and advocacy actions pressing official leaders to legislate social change are one form of this approach.

3. A third kind of peace theology addresses in-house dissent. Traditionally peace church believers have grappled with how to respond faithfully and rightly when their members transgressed the community’s confessional boundaries. Religious peacemakers did and do excommunicate, disfellowship or shun such members. (Political groups are more apt to bring legal action or imprison such members.) 4. A fourth peace theology – perhaps more nearly a theological peace ethics? – identifies how “others,” namely those outside one’s identity group, are to be engaged when they are believed to offend or threaten the group’s well-being.

Peace theological confessions, ideals and theories are all easier to write than to live. That is true of all confessions, as daily life teaches us. “Peace” in the home does not rule out dissent and noise unpleasant to various of its members. Saying we believe in and are committed to peace does not in itself predict what incarnate actions will constitute others’ experience of our peace theology. Alpha adult (s) normally assume responsibility for (and have the most power to) foster a spirit of peace in a home. Yet adult peacemakers tend to use physical, economic, psychological or spiritual punishment in efforts to seek to reestablish that peace (control?) when they feel tired or are short-tempered. Yet again, these are often the same persons who seek to nurture and build a sense of self-esteem and competence for each family member, basing all family relations less on obedience to their power than on mutual honesty, compassion and trust.

People and groups usually believe what they experience. Experience of dialogue partners’ embodied peace theology is more apt to be seriously engaged than is well-reasoned but “dis-incarnate” theological confession. Broad theoretical and rhetorical agreement exists in Christian religious and Western political history about the desirability of peace. We find far less agreement as to what peace looks like and what means may be rightly used in seeking to establish peace. Familiar religious, political, economic and cultural wars illustrate how people(s) generally hold “their own” to different standards than “others,” (Bertolt Brecht noted that thieves and robbers require peace and justice, or at least the rule of law, among themselves), freely using very different actions toward others than toward their own members.

“Their own.” Our own. Who are “our own” among Christians, among those in ecumenical dialogue around peace theology?

In our spiritual depth, we seek peace within the fullness of inner- and interpersonal dynamics. Christians look at God through Jesus Christ, embracing as siblings those who know Christ as Lord. Christians also confess that God created, loves and redeems all creatures and creation, presenting us with a universal, even cosmic, the context for our theological reflection. The oikumene, the fulness of human (not only Christian) community, was the initial Christian context for theological inquiry. While the context of our ecumenical conversations on peacemaking is global, our conversational focus is particular. Aware that a full ecumenical conversation on peacemaking would call us to engage with people of “other” or “no” faith, these conversations inquire into the Christian ecumenical foundations for a theology of peacemaking.

Christians experience in denominational and ecumenical dialogue that agreement is more difficult as participants move from interpreting their historical legacy (“Faith and Order” discussion) to considering an embodied theology (“Life and Work” involvement) on matters of mutual consideration. This will surely be true for theological dialogue concerning peacemaking. As noted in the Peter and Paul illustration, peacemakers’ desire to experience and live in peace meets experiential conflict at the historical and confessional boundaries of established traditions. To illustrate, after World War II, M. R. Zigler [of the Church of the Brethren] proposed that the WCC confess that Christians would never again kill other Christians, their blood brothers and sisters in Christ. While Zigler’s proposal was met with little positive response, his question may contain the most profound aspect of a theology of peace-making.

Hints of what spirit/Spirit informs us, who exercises power and authority, are experienced by those on the receiving end as the terms of peace and limits of acceptable dissent are identified. Boundaries of what is identified as acceptable illumine both our identity as actors (what we hold ourselves to) and our view of recipients of our actions’ identity (what we expect of “them”). Distrust, dissent and hostility flourish when actors’ spoken rhetoric is betrayed or undermined by their actions. The internalized identity of persons and groups concerned with peacemaking indwells some boundaries and limits. Believers’ identity, in turn, informs their theology of peacemaking.

Zigler’s question was and is difficult because it presses us to probe beyond our belief or action into our deepest identity, e.g. into what spirit or Spirit moves us as we exert “our” power, authority, dominion, knowledge. Words, as actions, incarnate in a communal social fabric whose spirit or Spirit informs our peacemaking theology. The boundaries and values by which we distinguish “us” from “them” bear witness to that spirit or Spirit we expect to guard and maintain our identity.

Dialogue calls for a willingness to be “we”: to disclose our vulnerability so that connection with others may re-place the distance of self-protective, “objective” description. The god or God whose spirit or Spirit we call on and engage to support our identity and maintain our boundaries in this way embodies our understanding of that power, that god or God to whom we turn in times of stress. This turning gives direction and strength but does not remove danger or anguish – as witnessed by Jesus “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” – words spoken as he stayed the course that led to physical torture and death.

A Christian exercise of power is “Christological” in the sense that believers, like Jesus, enjoy and are challenged by two “natures.” On one hand, our mundane or fully human identity is so real that, were we to become citizens of another country or convert to another faith, we to some degree retain what we internalized from our early experiences. Simultaneously our transcendent or fully divine identity is energized by whose we are, by the spirit or Spirit incarnate and embodied in our action.

We all exercise power and authority in varying degrees in different situations (in family, among friends or strangers, as a peer or official in community or politics or nation or economics). In all we say and do, we communicate our theology. This is particularly true of the scope we love and embrace or reject and [seek to] control in God’s name. Our behavior more than our theology illumines for our companions the nature of the God whose we are.

A theology of peacemaking arises informative experience. Each church’s formative experiences helped shape its understandings, theology and traditions of peacemaking. Christians learn their church’s theology of peacemaking; they also experience how peace is sought in their family, among friends, in local and institutional church life, in their nation or culture. Particular Christians thus internalize their understanding of what peace requires and how it is to be sought in deeply personal and diverse ways. None of us readily relinquishes our legacy.

For example, it is difficult for the Church of the Brethren to relinquish our confession that “all war, and all participation therein, is sin.” It is surely equally difficult for magisterial and reformation traditions to relinquish the just war theory. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that it seems difficult for all Christians to embrace “other” Chris-tian traditions as part of our own legacy. Yet the just war tradition is a forbear of all churches, historic peace churches included. And the “historic peace church” tradition is a child and member of the Church. All Christian traditions exist in a world with experiences that deeply differ from those that historically formed that tradition or communion.

Contextually speaking (the “fully human” dimension of our two natures), leaders in all traditions recognize that no historical claim has “absolute” validity (for any absolute, believers “know,” can but be idolatry, a mistaken god). So it was that after the atomic bomb was used by the United States in World War II, magisterial and reformation Christians began to ask whether any use of such weapons could be named “just.” More recently, after hundreds of Latin Americans were “disappeared,” historic peace churches began asking whether the only faithful response to hostilities is nonviolence.

Yet Christians bear witness in action and confession to God’s redeeming presence among us (the “fully divine” dimension of our two natures) by embodying, incarnating our faith. Incarnating our confession of faith witnesses to God’s abiding, eternal divine Mystery indwelling with goodness and enlivening with meaning our (and each) age and place. We find it difficult to discern God’s Spirit amid change or in unfamiliar, irritating, painful or loss-filled situations. Our “fully human” nature tends to mistrust or reject what is unfamiliar; our “fully divine” nature recalls our storied scriptural legacy proclaiming God’s “alien” presence that surprises, even dismays, believers. Confessing that God is everywhere present and at work, however, provides less concrete assurance and specific guidance amid difficulty and unfamiliar change than we readily follow. Theologians and believers alike are prone to “fear God” less than we fear rejection by our companions.

The distance between confessions that guide us and clarity about God’s real presence with and for humankind in various particular places, ages and moments, has challenged believers and theologians alike as far back as we can trace our history. The injunction against “idols” and “images” bears witness to the concern not to mistake beloved forms and appearances for what is divine. It is idolatrous to speak and act as if we “know the mind” of the transcendent God, and idolatry is no less real when the idol is a value so trusted (for example, pro-life or pro-choice) that believers measure their and others’ faith and action by it. A value or ideal referred to as universal truth reduces God’s transcendent mystery to norms we can predict, control and manage.

Faithful Christian peacemakers through the ages have thought theologically and embodied their faith from very different starting points, presuppositions, boundaries, and expectations. Our differing Christian communal identities are akin to those of family siblings. Thus our fully divine confession bears witness that we are one in Christ – that, indeed, we are one with God’s whole created, beloved cosmos. At the same time, our fully human differences are real and important “dividing walls of hostility” to embodying our common identity in and as God’s real presence in Jesus’ risen body, the Church.

Foundations for an Ecumenical Theology of Peacemaking

Christian theology, long identified as “faith seeking understanding” is an incarnate, Christological reality. Taught theology is often presented and/or heard as a [culturally clothed] declaration of universally normative truth; by contrast, lived theology grapples to understand how the divine is present in reality and experience in tension with internalized teachings. Specific churches are called to grapple with the real and diverse social, contextual, historical and economic contexts of their faith formation, tradition, and current experiences.

Referring to theology as faith “seeking understanding” indicates theologians’ efforts to express faith in (and at times, painfully, reduce faith to) cognitive terms. Yet the faith that seeks understanding is grounded in experience. Personal, even communal, experience may contrast sharply with taught theology – with declarations of faith learned in church or family. As active practice, faith is part of daily human activities and experiences, guiding behavior and eliciting questions about what one’s communal authorities taught. (In this regard, H. R. Niebuhr asked “Who are the unbelievers and what do they believe?”)

Theological dissent and divergence may, then, reflect contemporary context and experience or be rooted in divergent theological teachings – themselves rooted in historical contrasting contextual experiences. “Faith” as a phenomenon is common to all persons and groups, and such experiential “faith” that guides human belief and practice illumines the community’s or persons’ convictions about reality. Believers often feel theological dissonance and conflict between their learned and lived faith.

Ecumenical theological dialogue about peacemaking consists largely of words; shared experience of the other’s lived-faith- in-context is limited. Theology as a cognitive effort to clearly and coherently articulate faith is then necessarily asymmetrical, removed from its daily embodied experience. Dialogue (in contrast to debate) about a theology of peacemaking, therefore, invites participants to know and honor both one another’s historical and contemporary experiential and their cognitively articulated faith. In dialogue, speakers seek to illumine their faith and practice so hearers may understand what informs and guides them, whether they agree with or dissent from the speaker’s faith and theological understanding. Correspondingly, hearers in dialogue seek to understand in what experiential fabric speakers’ confessions of faith make sense, particularly when convictions, practices and values diverge.

Christian theologians have long recognized and affirmed differences of practice grounded in contextual presuppositions. Our diverse heritages and legacies indicate that theologians would do well to live and work together as a preparation for, or at least in the process of, ecumenical dialogues on peacemaking – perhaps in the way as, after World War II, ecumenical “work-camps” brought together people from various faiths and contexts so that experiential engagement might break down the walls of hostility that national loyalty had helped establish. As God became human in Jesus and communicated across religious, national and philosophical boundaries, Christians would do well to root our communication in shared life and work in each other’s context – becoming “incarnate” in the socio-cultural legacy and reality of one another.

In as much as learned theology is [already present] faith seeking [reasonable, cognitive, communicable] understanding, [learned] theology necessarily reflects the particular incarnational legacy of specific formative identity communities. A more global theology of peacemaking would arise from a broader incarnational experience as the basis for ecumenical peacemaking dialogue. The divine power able to break down socio-cultural “dividing walls of hostility” between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female as “all are one in Christ Jesus” enables persons “in Christ” to disregard the prescriptions of their formative religious, social and gender boundaries in matters of living their faith.

In later generations, believers were moved to objectively identify boundaries of “the Christian” faith and practice to which initially believers were drawn by subjective conviction. As time passed and Christianity spread, leaders in different places consulted and argued about “true” faith and practice. Boundaries of Christian faith were increasingly identified by (and with) objective confessions and/ or rules of faith and practice. Believers’ Christian and political (fully human and fully divine) identities are deeply entwined. Jesus died a Jew; Paul used his Roman citizenship as well as his Jewish religious legacy and Greek philosophical training. Faith legacies are simultaneously essential to identify and easily confused with dogmatism.

Christian theologians in the twenty-first century are in one sense in a place similar to that of the first century; we are surrounded by and exposed to diverse, vital and culturally diverse “incarnations” of the Christian faith (as well as by many other faiths with which we co-exist). It is difficult to stand with Paul and disregard various dividing walls of hostility: to speak and live the confession that there is “neither Orthodox nor Baptist, Western nor Southern nor Eastern, homosexual nor heterosexual, male nor female.” Our common faith is understood and expressed in ways various of us find not only uncommon but unacceptable. Yet we live and consciously gather in splendid, if confusing, incarnations of faith. In such a context, the question before theologians considering an ecumenical theology of peacemaking is “What foundations support a shared theology of peacemaking amid our differently embodied confessions of faith and practice?”

In the foregoing context, I offer the following observations and confessions regarding the foundations for an ecumenical theology of peacemaking. I hope they may provide a platform or starting point for an ecumenical dialogue on the theology of peacemaking.

Confessional Guidelines on Foundations for an Ecumenical Theology of Peacemaking

1 – Peace theologies all make sense to the speaker/confessor in their context and from their point of view. Hearers and dialogue partners, therefore, receive their dialogue partners’ and speakers’ confessions in a spirit committed to engage one another as faithful believers.

2 – Contributions to an ecumenical theological dialogue on peacemaking are both framed and received as theological confessions. These confessions are grounded in and illumine the historical and contemporary experiences, and identify the boundaries, of the speakers’ faith. Speakers are committed both to illumine their faith for the others’ understanding, and to embody their faith experientially, enabling dialogue partners to experience the theology incarnately as a basis for understanding it rhetorically.

3 – Dialogue contributions are neither presented, nor expected to be received, as normative expectations upon dialogue partners. Correspondingly, dialogue partners’ confessions are heard and explored to understand their significance as the speakers’ confessed normative guidelines of faith and practice.

4 – Dialogue partners understand themselves as participating in a “covenant circle” wherein all are committed to speak and hear as believers whose most fundamental bond is to their common Divine Creator. Other commitments, including deep commitments to their communions’ identity or personal convictions, are secondary. Secondary convictions are recognized as subject to [theirs and others’ flawed] human understanding, since “fully human” understandings about the Divine are necessarily reflected on with the aid of contextually shaped and changing experiences and perspectives.

5 – Confessing the same One God (whom we differently understand and worship) as Divine creator, dialogue partners considering a theology of peacemaking view and engage one another as siblings – sisters and brothers in Christ. Partaking of the same Divine creative energy, each chooses how and to what end to employ their “dominion,” the energy, power, and authority entrusted to us. Confessing a common Divine creator, we also confess our feelings of irritation, fear, hate, anger, hostility toward our divinely-given siblings. These strong, negative and often understandable emotions are ours. We are committed to not confuse our fully human feelings with our fully divine commitment to embody the love of the One God who is maker, sustainer, and redeemer of all.

6 – A theology of peacemaking is different from a theological ethics of justice. A theology of peacemaking illumines the inner spirit or Spirit guiding a confessor’s external actions; a theological ethics of justice inquires into the external guidelines necessary for achieving peace and justice. Both may be grounded in believers’ confessional understanding of God’s grace and compassion. When peace theologies address a theological ethics of justice, they agonize over how their commitment to embody peace and justice in human community expresses their being and acting “in God’s image.”


However many “historical peace church” and other peace theologies and theological dynamics there are, I believe the foundations of an ecumenical dialogue on peace theology lie in an affirmation of dialogue partners as peers, companion brothers and sisters whose human differences and divisions are appropriately disregarded “in Christ.” In Christ, dialogue partners are fundamentally in covenant with one another. Our dogmatic, systematic, process and philosophical theologies are vital parts of our legacy and basic for formation. Yet these taught theologies are secondary when grappling with lived faith. History blesses us by illumining the fully human experiential – contextual – sociological – incarnational confession and analysis of each believer.

History, never mere “bare-bones facts,” discloses the particular identity and relational, covenantal perspective of believers’ witness to the fully divine by and toward which they live. One way Christians converse with one another and people of other faiths theologically about peacemaking is to be more deeply subject to the Prince of Peace than [even] to our legacies and learned traditions. Accepting the Divine commitment to renew (not dominate) all creation challenges us. Even imagining what changes in our behavior and our responses to others’ words and behavior may elicit sharp fear of loss of our cherished values, companions.

The foundations of an ecumenical dialogue on peace theology include but are not assured by clear, coherent and consistent thought, important as they are. I believe the foundations of an ecumenical dialogue on peace theology lies in a spirit like Jesus: a Spirit so deeply bonded to and identified with God’s mysterious, compassionate presence. A Spirit like that of the fully human Jesus who would transgress even revered religious traditions to follow where God’s Spirit led him. Like Peter and Paul who could not do mission work together, Christians who fail to agree to a single theology may, in their many and diverse specific contexts, witness to and be lifted up by God’s Holy Spirit alive in Jesus’ risen body, the Church.


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