A Report on the North American Launch of the World Council of Churches’ Decade to Overcome Violence

By Ann K. Riggs.

April 23 to 25, 2001, I was one of those representing Friends at the launch of the Decade to Overcome Violence of the World Council of Churches (2001-2010). We met at the Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, Tennessee, a retreat and education center associated with the United Methodist Church. The lovely setting, with its peaceful garden, dormitories, dining halls and chapel used in former days as a college campus for/ Methodist missionaries, offered a gentle location for an encounter together with the tasks of ecumenical engagement with violence and the need to move past violence to something more, something better in our world.

I hope here to offer an accounting and a vision of our experience that will convey to Friends not present the Decade’s beginning and some reflection on the challenges of seeing Friends’ peace-making and the overcoming of violence within an ecumenical framework. In order to approach this task I will present an introduction to the World Council of Churches and the Decade to Overcome Violence; a brief description of the Nashville launch of the Decade in North America; and a reflection on images, themes and concerns to carry forward from this initial event of the Decade.

The World Council of Churches and The Decade to Overcome Violence

In a few sentences the webpage of the World Council describes the council as a set of relationships based in God’s love and committed to community and service:

The World Council of Churches (WCC) is an international fellowship of Christian churches, built upon the foundation of encounter, dialogue and collaboration. The WCC was formed to serve and advance the ecumenical movement – the quest for restoring the unity of the church – by encouraging in its members a comm

on commitment to follow the gospel. The prayer of the churches which belong to the WCC is for the renewal and faithful response of the people of God in witness and service to the world.

the pilgrimage towards unity
Churches which have caught the vision of unity and joined the WCC acknowledge a “common calling” to walk together, encouraged by the words of Jesus, who prayed for the visible unity of the church, in order “that the world may believe”. On that ancient promise, and in that urgent hope, the WCC has served as a witness to reconciliation among churches for more than 50 years.

what does it mean to be ecumenical?
The word “ecumenical” is derived from the Greek term oikoumene, which may be translated as “the whole inhabited world”. It is in seeing this world as God’s that we see ourselves as one. It is in seeing all the world’s people as made in God’s image that we are called to protect the welfare of every one.

serving God’s rich kingdom
The churches that make up the WCC live in remarkably different social conditions. Their members speak an array of languages. Their distinctive histories produce different styles of worship and forms of organization and governance. It is this diversity that makes the WCC an exciting and challenging forum. Historic tensions and differences sometimes persist – and new difficulties occasionally come to the surface – yet the fundamental commitment remains to build community among the churches.1

Friends General Conference, Friends United Meeting and Canadian Yearly Meeting are each member communities of the WCC. 2 For the period “from Harare to [the city of the next Assembly],” as the classic WCC phrase goes, FGC has asked Alex Kern and the author to take a particular responsibility for the relationship between FGC and the work of the Council. Eden Grace, one of the FUM delegates to the Harare Assembly (1998), is a member of the Central Committee of the WCC and of the board of directors of the US Conference of the World Council of Churches. Ute Caspers of Germany Yearly Meeting attends the meetings of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches on behalf of Friends World Committee for Consultation.

At the close of the Assembly of the World Council in Harare, Zimbabwe, “the Assembly called the churches, ecumenical organizations and all people of goodwill, to work together to overcome violence through peace and justice.”3 Participants are encouraged by the Decade to work in their own contexts to address issues of violence and to work together for peace, justice and reconciliation in interpersonal relationships, in community life and at the levels of regional, international and global conflict:

“Violence” is not only physical. “Violence” is also emotional, intellectual, structural. Throughout the Decade to Overcome Violence, the focus will be on the response and prevention to forms of violence, such as:

Overcoming violence between nations
Overcoming violence within nations
Overcoming violence in local communities
Overcoming violence within the home and the family
Overcoming violence within the church
Overcoming sexual violence
Overcoming socio-economic violence
Overcoming violence as a result of economic and political blockades
Overcoming violence among youth
Overcoming violence associated with religious and cultural practices
Overcoming violence within legal systems
Overcoming violence against creation
Overcoming violence as a result of racism and ethnic hatred. 4

The 1999 Message of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches quoted Psalm 34:14: “Seek peace and pursue it” and framed their initial thoughts on the Decade in terms of the need to build a culture of peace. Among others Friends are called upon to offer our experience and insight to the larger WCC community:

There are a number of positive and encouraging examples from congregations and churches around the world. We recognize the steady witness of monastic traditions and of the “historic peace churches”, and we want to receive anew their contribution through the Decade. There are congregations and churches that have become centers of reflection and training for active nonviolence in their own context. They show the kind of courage, skills and creativity that is necessary for active nonviolence and nonviolent resistance. They are sensitive to the destruction of nature and concentrate on the situation of the most vulnerable groups. Part of the contribution to building a culture of peace involves listening to the stories of those who are the primary victims of violence, including people who are poor, women, youth and children, people with disabilities, and Indigenous Peoples. 5

It is anticipated that the Decade will proceed through several phases, with the next Assembly falling about midway through the Decade and allowing an opportunity for the lessons and challenges of the first years to be shared and reflected upon together. Numerous possible approaches and methodologies for Decade activities are envisioned:

A. Study processes

Continuing and expanding the theological reflections on violence and nonviolence, from the perspectives of the dignity and human rights of human beings and of the community; an ongoing and accessible Biblical study process (contextual, cross-contextual, cross-cultural); study and analysis of the work of truth and reconciliation commissions. Engaging the churches and regional networks in reflection on violence and peace-building in the midst of structural challenges such as racism, globalization, violence against women, violence among youth, violence against children, etc.

B. Campaigns

Providing practical support and solidarity to churches and groups in their efforts to mobilize campaigns on specified issues with defined goals to prevent, transform and overcome violence in their own contexts. Encouraging churches and organizations to network for specific international campaigns.

C. Education

Collecting, compiling, and sharing peace education curriculum for children, youth, and adults, by building on existing models, particularly from the Christian perspective, networking educators and resource people, as well as theological institutions, who are engaged in conflict resolution, transformation, and mediation. Challenging present educational systems and media which perpetuate competition, aggressive individualism and violence, especially among children.

D. Worship and Spirituality

Sharing resources and practices for worship and prayer across traditions and cultures in order to focus on our common efforts of peace-making and reconciliation. The concept of metanoia is particularly important as the churches take responsibility for their part in violent actions from the past and in the present. Metanoia encompasses confession, repentance, renewal, and celebration of faith and is therefore a foundation of a culture of peace.

E. Telling the Story – Decade “Open Space”

Sharing stories of violence, initiatives to overcome violence, and sustaining cultures of peace, churches, communities, groups, and individuals will create ‘open space’ through the World Wide Web, print, video, events and personal exchanges. These stories will connect people and efforts, provide support and solidarity, share resources and ideas, and provide constant input into the process and focus of the Decade, particularly for the second stage, 2006-2010. 6

To understand the Decade one must realize that it is not best described as a program coming from the WCC offices in Geneva out to the member communities, but as an intentional linking, sharing and growing together of the member communities and others who share a concern for peace, justice and reconciliation.

Friends have much to contribute and, of course, much to learn as well. Friends can keep apprized of the view of the Decade from Geneva by consulting the DOV Newsletter. 7 Friends may also be interested in the WCC’s Peace to the Cities Network 8 and the support the WCC gives to international programs on microdisarmament 9 and to the International Campaign Against the Practice of Torture. 10

Nashville Launch of the Decade in North America

The mandate of the United States office of the World Council of Churches, located in New York, is “to develop and strengthen relationships with and among churches and ecumenical organizations in the US; to facilitate and encourage participation in the ongoing programs of the WCC; and to interpret and promote the work of the WCC in the USA.” 11 The US Conference Board of Directors and the New York office staff make available an annual meeting for North Americans connected with and interested in the work of the Council. Representatives of WCC member churches and of partner churches and organizations attend.

This year’s Conference meeting was the Nashville launch of the Decade in North America. The meeting’s theme “Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace” served to ground the Decade in worship and spirituality, one of the methodologies recommended for the Decade. During the days of the meeting, those present shared resources and practices for worship, prayer and spirituality across traditions and cultures. We focused on our common goals and hopes for peace-making and reconciliation and we shared our varying approaches to understanding and living out the common goals.

The concept of metanoia, that is repentance and internal transformation – or as Friends might put it, “being searched by the Light”- was particularly important as we considered together our own responsibility in violent actions, both personal and structural, from the past and in the present. Our worship together sought to encompass confession, repentance, renewal, and a celebration of faith and faithfulness and thus to establish a foundation within ourselves and among ourselves for the building of a culture of peace together.

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