Category: Alumni Spotlight
Although three years have passed since the January 6th insurrection at our nation’s Capitol, the threat of political violence remains and appears to be on the increase as we move toward the 2024 presidential elections. 83% of Americans are worried about political violence, and with good cause. Since 2016, threats of political violence have increased considerably, and members of Congress are spending significantly more for personal security measures. Of great concern is that political violence appears to be working to influence congressional decisions. It is reported that some decided to vote against impeachment of the former president on the basis of concerns for their personal safety or that of their families. Whereas threats toward election workers were practically unheard of in the past, now election administrators, mayors, judges, and even school board members are also receiving them. In frequency and lethality, most of these are emerging from the far-right side of the political spectrum, but there are also some coming from the left. All of this is very concerning, because it deeply undermines democracy and the capacity to live in peace with each other. But what can be done?
One of our alumni Wilson Gathungu faced a somewhat similar dilemma in his home country of Kenya a number of years ago. Politicians were drawing on ethnic differences and historical grievances to arouse anger in order to gain political power, and people were getting killed. While a seminary student, Wilson researched what could be done about the election violence occurring each election cycle. He returned home to Kenya and started the Peace, Reconciliation, and Rehabilitation Initiative (PRARI). Using the model he learned from Dan and Sharon Buttry, Wilson brought together leaders from the various ethnic/political communities to engage in conflict transformation trainings. In the process, they formed relationships with each other across their differences with the common goal of building sustainable peace for their communities. His efforts and those of many other similar groups seem to have been effective, as election violence was negligible in the last election despite considerable political tension leading up to it. Yet, sustaining this requires ongoing peacebuilding work.
This December while we were busy getting ready for Christmas, Wilson was spending his time preparing to host and lead another peace training. The Buttry Center and International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches, USA together provided the funding for this December peacebuilding event. Hearing about Wilson’s ministry can perhaps help us better understand what peacebuilding may involve in our own contexts. Below are slightly edited and shortened excerpts from a report that Wilson sent us.
As we draw near to the close of 2023, we at PRARI have every reason to thank God for granting us opportunity to pursue the things that make for peace in a world full of turmoil and strife.
Our mission is and has been simple and clear: transforming the world into a better place where people from all backgrounds can coexist together in peace and harmony as if they were sharing the cool breeze of Eden. Such an enormous task calls for resilience, courage, and determination. It also calls for integrity and diligence between all stakeholders and partners.
Our partnership with American Baptist International Ministries began at a very crucial period of the 2022 election year. The political temperature was very high as the government was split in the middle between the president and his deputy. The tension in the country required a concerted effort from all sectors of civil society to cool down the tension that could have thrown the country into turmoil and strife. Through a donation from International Ministries, PRARI was able to organize the Molo leaders’ breakfast meeting that brought more than forty community leaders and pastors together to strategize for a peaceful general election in the region which has been a violence hotspot in all general elections in Kenya. PRARI also held community-based peace forums one month prior to the general elections. PRARI then organized a peace rally in Molo stadium that brought residents and their leaders together just one week before the general elections date. The residents signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and vowed to keep peace before and after the elections.
International Ministries and the Buttry Center then both responded to our proposal to train the Molo Central Peace Forum and cosponsored a seminar that was held on December 4-8, 2023. The Molo Central peace seminar had twenty-four participants. Among the participants were an area chief, a police constable, a local ten-household chairman, and a peace commissioner. All others were community leaders and peace activists from the Molo Central ward.
The seminar kicked off at Shalom Parlour with a high note of pursuing peace and justice on Monday. After introductions, we opened the seminar with the beatitudes and devoted our time on our peacemakers’ identity as God’s own children. In my exposition, I focused on the responsibilities and characteristics of God’s children. From the book of Genesis, we found that the first job description of Adam and Eve was that of being caretakers of Eden where the whole creation would coexist in peace and harmony among themselves under God’s reign. Mr. Chacha, the peace commissioner, welcomed the participants and urged peace agents to wage peace and pursue justice like Nelson Mandela.
We started the training with brainstorming in which participants defined conflict in their own context. In this elicitive exercise, participants were able to highlight and dissect conflict in their own language and from their social and cultural contexts. When all causes of conflict were pinned on the wall, they had one thing in common: all were negative and destructive. At the top of the causes of conflict were tribalism, corruption, competition of natural resources such as land and water, unfair distribution of government revenues, and historical injustices.
Poverty and unemployment were also cited as major causes of conflict. We looked at how to overcome these challenges by expanding the cake and by identifying the needs of each community. We concluded that a constructive dialogue between communities can be used to unite them and use their diversity as their strength rather than their weakness.
In our bid to solve conflicts as peacemakers, we faced the dilemma of resisting the oppressor without using violence or harm. We drew a lot of insight from Jesus’s teaching about turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and giving the outer tunic along with the shirt in order to shame the oppressor and to expose the evils in an oppressing system. When evil is exposed in a peaceful demonstration, this action can lead to the repealing of oppressive laws to the benefit of all citizens.
We also used the story of the Gibeonites’ conflict with Israel (2 Samuel 21) to learn how we can overcome historical injustices. The cycle of violence cannot be overcome by an ‘eye for an eye’ or by any kind of revenge or retribution. The cycle of historical injustices is broken through repentance and by correcting the mistakes through a truth and reconciliation dialogue or commission. Many participants vouched for Rizpah’s resilience and courage in her nonviolent intervention.
We closed the seminar by planting trees of peace at the chief’s camp. The worst conflict that human beings must prevent is global warming and climate change. Going green for our beautiful planet is paramount. Kenya has a strategic plan to plant 15 billion trees in ten years. To achieve this goal, everyone should plant thirty trees per year. Unless we are at peace with our environmental habitation, we cannot even imagine or think about solving any other kind of conflict.
Wilson’s perseverance in peacebuilding within his county is an encouragement to us. While actual political violence, or threats of it, need to be handled by law enforcement, there may be ways that we can help to lower the political temperature during this time of heightened political tension. What might we do as congregations and people of faith to bring people of divergent perspectives together? How might we help them share their experiences, increase their understanding of each other, transform their relationships, and find mutually satisfying and nonviolent solutions to the needs and issues over which there is conflict? This is the hard work of peacebuilding.
Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D.
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita
Central Seminary, Shawnee, KS
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.