Thursday, June 9, 2011

Peace Churches: Historic, Living, or Dead?

Many conversations at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) planted seeds in my mind and in my heart. I found myself often saying “that’s really interesting, I need to think about it for a while.” Often only days later the conversations wove together and those seeds bore fruit.

One such occasion was a conversation with Stan Noffsinger, the general secretary of the Church of the Brethren, USA. I had met Stan last July, through mutual friends, at the Peace among the People’s conference and again in November at the NCC-USA meeting in New Orleans.

At the IEPC, we sat down to talk one evening while he was preparing to deliver a report the next morning on the activities of the Historic Peace Churches (Mennonites, Quakers, Brethren) during the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV)

Stan remarked (not in exact words, but from my memory), “I’ve been working on this theory that the Historic Peace Churches need to give up their title as the ‘Historic’ peace churches and join with other faith communities as the ‘Living Peace Churches.’”

“Would we then lose our particularity? Would we lose our special status among other faith traditions that would otherwise disregard us?” I asked.

Stan thought for a moment and replied, “No, the Historic Peace Churches have experiences, resources, and wisdom that places us in the middle, in the leadership of this new concept of Living Peace Church. Our particularity remains in our history, that can’t be forgotten, but we are really doing ourselves a disservice if we continue to exclude others.”

“Hmm…” I told Stan, “I’ll have to think about it for a while.”

And in fact Stan did stand up in the IEPC and challenge all of us with such a theory. What would it mean for the Historic Peace Churches to let go our title and join others in the creation of a Living Peace Church? What would it mean? How would it look?

His challenge has stayed with me throughout the IEPC especially as I met and befriended leaders and peace builders from a variety of Christian traditions: Lutheran, Methodist, Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist… the list continues. The more people I met and the more ideas I heard the more I was convinced that a Living Peace Church is not only necessary but the building blocks are already a reality. ‘All we need to do’ is come together in conversations and work together.

In my recently completed thesis, I talk in one chapter about different parts of inter-religious dialogue. I break the process down into three parts: experiencing the other, sharing sacred scripture study or theological exploration, and living as a community in everyday life.

The IEPC was a chance to meet the other. I discovered vibrant passionate people with whom I hope to work with in the future. I also discovered a split in focus among the participants. Even within the Historic Peace Church meetings there were people incredibly concerned with documents that the World Council of Churches (WCC) was developing and there were people passionately concerned with bringing these conversations of Just Peace to the streets.

I have to say that I’m in the later group and my youthful enthusiasm for public theology at the expense of perhaps some unwise comments about the dryness of documentation delivered me some critiques from the older members of the conference. However, in reflection of this experience and in weaving it with my thesis; I find that both the documentarians and the practical theologians are needed. We need the people writing the documents, developing the theology, and conversing on the academic level. We also need the people engaging others in dialogue, challenging the streets, uncovering the poets and keeping this Living Peace Church alive!

And so, one of the fruits of this thread, this Living Peace Church thread, is an idea to develop a multi-fold project that both develops theological dialogue on the academic level and theological dialogue on the streets. I’ll let you know how things unfold; as faith moves into action of the Living Peace Church, we as the Historic Peace Churches can’t be left behind.


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and activist reflection. I write just to say that there is, out there/here, a vision for uniting the experience of the historic peace churches with the hopes of the poets and seekers in (and beyond) every church. It is called Every Church A Peace Church. Here is a web page on the vision of ECAPC.
    ECAPC has been around for 10 years, kind of in limbo the last couple of years but ready to move into a new phase with people like you (the website, for example, has too many broken links and needs work). Have a look and send me an email if you're interested. Or phone me, after June 15--I'll be traveling. John Stoner, Akron PA or 717 859-3388.

  2. We need living peace churches whether or not they are HPC.

    In many cases, HPC are only historically peace churches. A friend of mine who usually goes to the COB Annual Conference says that any peace proposals face stiff opposition, and at a COB church he used to be a member of they didn't do peace stuff because of the military folks in the congregation.

    Someone once wrote me about visiting an Evangelical Friends Church, and the service started with an armed forces color guard marching in! That's probably quite uncommon, but from what I've heard from various sources there are a large number of Friends churches with no active peace witness and significant parts of the membership who don't agree with the peace testimony.

    I know less about the Mennonites. My impression is that things are overall better than among Brethren and Friends, but there are churches which are pretty quiet about peace.

    Meanwhile, there are many non-HPC churches with an active peace witness.

    I think the future of the peace witness within the Christian community lies more with non-HPC churches than HPC churches. I am particularly struck with the predominance of Catholics in radical peace witness in the U.S., along with the pope's frequent strong references to gospel nonviolence.

  3. All churches are historical peace churches. Some are deeper in denial that others.

  4. I've grown quite disenchanted with the "historic peace churches" label, which I believe was some historian's invention, and has very little relation to the actual communal lives of those specific denominations.

    Each of them is quite a different denominational animal; and add in their splinter sub-groups (Mennonites have the most, I think, followed by Quakers) and you have a widely diverse, not to say divergent spectrum of groups among which it is very difficult to build cooperative, never mind common statements or efforts.

    I don't mind that these churches are different -- I don't think Jesus wanted all his communities of followers to be the same. But in light of it, the practice of lumping them together under this HPC label in my view is more trouble than it's worth: it helps to sow the seeds of frustration and even conflict, not to mention huge amounts of spinning wheels going nowhere.

    So talk and work with whoever you can, and get on with it. Skip the labels.