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Mission and violence: an ambivalent relationship

Liturgical symbols of violence, brought to the altar by young people from various regions

By Juan Michel

Moving away from cool images of violence conveyed by culture, participants at the world mission conference in Athens took a hard look at the ambivalent relationship between mission and violence. No easy answers though.

"Violence is not cool, there is nothing glamorous in violence" said Tinyiko Maluleke, a Presbyterian missiologist from South Africa, addressing a plenary session of the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism on Thursday, 12 May. "We have to oppose the current trend in our culture which portrays violence as fashionable and sexy," he added.

Maluleke's concern was with young people in particular. And it was young participants who opened the session with a procession of symbols representing the omnipresence of violence: spreading alongside economic globalization or through the growing prevalence of arms, through damaging the environment or hurting women.

What does violence have to do with churches? A lot, according to Viola Raheb, a Lutheran theologian from Palestine. "We can't close our eyes to the violence that people suffer 24 hours a day, day after day," she affirmed. Describing the situation of the occupied Palestinian territories, "It's not enough that the churches name the causes of violence, but they have actively to address them with a nonviolent approach," she said.

A deeply-rooted ambivalence

Devoted to the complex issue of the ambivalent relationship between mission and violence, the plenary session was also intended as a mid-term celebration of the Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches seeking Reconciliation and Peace (2001-2010).

A short video-clip shown at the beginning of the session included the moment when a young German delegate to the Harare assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1998 made the initial proposal for such a Decade. Seven years later, Fernando Enns, a Mennonite pastor, stood again in front of a WCC gathering and affirmed anew the need for churches to commit themselves to the goal of overcoming violence in the midst of "a truly violent world".

"This is also a time of honest confession," he said. "At times, our churches have been tempted by power and they have justified injustice and violence theologically. We have been misled in our respective traditions, when the mission of the church has contributed to the violence in the world."

For some, like Alix Lozano, a Mennonite pastor from Colombia, this is true to the extent that mission and violence are words that are almost interchangeable. "For us in Colombia [...] violence (or the sword) has been a constant companion to mission (or the cross)," Lozano affirmed in a testimony that had to be read in her absence since she was denied a visa to attend the conference.

The acquaintance between Christian witness and violence is complex because it can be traced to the very roots of the faith. "We have to take a critical look even at biblical texts that speak of violence and portray an image of God that has been used to legitimate it, and therefore challenges us," said Raheb.

The importance of initiatives like the Decade is that by calling on them to "relinquish any theological justification of violence," it challenges churches to "wrestle with the biblical texts and not to pretend that they are not there," Maluleke said.

Fear and passion

Why would Christians succumb to the temptation of violence? The answer, according to Janet Plenert, a Mennonite pastor from Canada who also took part in the plenary, is fear. "Fear is the main and deepest motivation to be involved in violence. It is fear that makes us listen to the voices of self-preservation, race superiority, national security."

Fear works differently in different contexts. "In Palestine, fear is a psychological weapon," Raheb said. "I can tell you I haven't overcome fear and I don't think I ever will, but I've learned to accept that it will be always there."

As well as fear, other issues remained open as the plenary came to an end. The session was not actually intended to respond to all the questions. Ambiguity will remain. But in order to live with it, passion is needed. "The Decade to Overcome Violence calls the churches to feel again, to become passionate about the issue of violence," Maluleke told the gathering.

He reminded participants that this passion is rooted in the fact that "God's image is to be seen where humanity is most under attack". As Lozano's written testimony had stated before: "The mission of God can be lived out in a context of violence" when Christians align themselves with "the intention of God, who always takes the side of the poor, the needy, the persecuted, the marginalized".

As lighted candles were brought to the stage by the same young people who first carried the symbols of violence, the gathering put the issue before God in prayer, and sang the theme of the conference: "Come, Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile". [803 words]

(*) Juan Michel, WCC media relations officer, is a member of the Evangelical Church of the River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina.