By Ruth Rosell, Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Recently my husband Terry and I, along with our son Nehemiah, were in Myanmar, teaching the class “Transforming Society and Conflict in Ministry” for the joint Central Seminary/Myanmar Institute of Theology Doctor of Ministry program. Those taking this class included pastors, denominational leaders, and Bible school and seminary professors from many different ethnic communities. Having participated in the Training for Conflict Transformation Trainers offered by Dan and Sharon Buttry at Central Seminary last August through the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence, we decided to utilize some of those experiential learning activities.
One activity involved having groups of learners work together to draw their ideal villages. With little effort, they sketched lovely villages with homes for all, green spaces and gardens, school and health clinic, a church in the middle, trees and water, means of employment, a few community vehicles for transportation, and rooftop solar panels for energy, all within a picturesque environment of tree-covered hills. These depictions of flourishing communities expressed their visions of peace. For peace is far more than the absence of conflict or war. It involves flourishing communities in which people can experience wellbeing, where there is respect and justice for all, needs are met, and there is harmony with the earth. This accords well with the visions of peace we find in the prophetic literature, especially Isaiah. And Jesus embraced these into his teaching about God’s reign on earth, a central priority in his life.
But then came the second part of this experiential learning activity in which we presented challenges to their peaceful communities in the form of international corporations bent on the development of resources, not for the good of the community but rather for their own accumulation of wealth. Cultural values of hospitality and respectfulness made it hard for these learners to protect their communities from exploitation. Perhaps too, this exercise was too similar to what the ethnic communities have been actually experiencing at the hands of corporations backed by military power.
In reality, some ethnic communities have come to the point of defending their rights and homelands by violence through the forming of militias. Some church leaders in these communities have been sympathetic. And one cannot judge too harshly oppressed people for using violence in their attempt to overthrow the violence of injustice. And yet, as we learned together, this is neither the way of Jesus nor the most effective way to respond.
One of our textbooks was entitled Why Civil Resistance Works by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. This book summarizes their research on over 100 years of resistance movements. They found that nonviolent resistance is almost twice as likely to succeed as violence, and the aftermath for society is far better. This accords well with Jesus’ teaching of nonviolent resistance to injustice, oppression, and violence, as found in the Sermon on the Mount. This is powerfully presented in another textbook entitledJesus and Nonviolence: The Third Way by Walter Wink.
During one of our opening worship times, Terry contrasted the nonviolent way of Jesus with the way of Peter, who chose to wield a sword in the Garden. Terry ended with us singing together the simple song, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” At the close of the course, he again invited the class to join in singing this song. With earnestness, eyes closed in commitment and prayer, they raised their voices, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” They did so, understanding Jesus’ call to actively resist injustice nonviolently and to build flourishing communities of peace. May we also, in our own country and communities, hear this call.