Peace conference: Where is the church's voice?

"If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes." Luke 19:41

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Feb. 6, 2008 | LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS)
NOTE: Photographs, audio, video and related stories available at http://umns.umc.org.

Seasoned peacemakers, social justice advocates and seminary students spent three days at a peace conference grappling with the question: "How can The United Methodist Church find its voice in a world of violence?"

The Rev. Peter Storey, a renowned peace advocate and the former Methodist bishop of South Africa, set the tone for the three-day gathering as he welcomed 400 participants to "the conference of impossible things."

Storey began the opening session of the 2008 Lake Junaluska Peace Conference by asking participants to think about what God they serve. If your God is the God of Jesus, he said, any response to violence must be examined through the cross.

"Why our silence? Why no clear, bold challenge? Why is the way that leads to peace still apparently hidden from our sight when we hang crosses all over the place?"

The event featured panel discussions, workshops and worship services that focused on the peace of Jesus Christ. Other speakers included the Rev. Richard Hays and Bishop Ken Carder, professors at Duke Divinity School; Jan Love, dean of the Candler School of Theology; Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society; and Celeste Zappala, a Gold Star Mother who lost a son in the Iraq conflict.

A grassroots group of peace advocates headed by 95-year-old Rev. Wright Spears started dreaming of an annual peace conference to examine why the church is too often silent in a world of violence. The group is planning for 10 more years of peace conferences and already has started working on next year's schedule, Spears said.

"Peace must come in this world," Spears said. "The alternative is unthinkable ... annihilation, death for all creation." Spears, former president of Columbia College and a retired United Methodist pastor, sat on the front row of every session of the conference.

"We are all God's children; we ought to have no enemies in this world," he said.

Blessed are the peacemakers

Hays said followers of Jesus are called to put away their swords. From Matthew to Revelation, he said, the New Testament is a consistent witness against violence.

"In a world torn by violence, the distinctive vocation of Jesus followers is to renounce violence and to seek where there is strife to make peace," said Hays. "No other issue is more urgent for our time, but on hardly any other issue has the church so massively failed to embody the promise of the Gospel."

Using scriptures from Luke, Romans, Matthew, Hebrews, Revelation, Ephesians and 2 Corinthians, Hays laid a biblical foundation for peacemaking. "Peacemaking is not merely an option or political preference; it is a matter that stands at the heart of the Gospel," he said.

In her address, Love asked participants, "What would it mean for us as Christians to leave our guns literally and figuratively at the gate?

"Our willingness to wage war with and perpetrate violence against each other is a shameful counter-witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ," she said. "It is a horrific betrayal of the Gospel of grace, peace and mercy we claim as the body of Christ."

Greatest challenges

"We are concerned about the silence of the church on major issues confronting the world," said Carder. "The church has a long history of silence ... and of whispering when it should have shouted and sometimes shouting when it should have whispered."


Moderating a panel discussion at the end of the conference, Carder asked Storey, Love and Winkler to sum up the significant challenges facing The United Methodist Church in the United States.

Storey suggested every United Methodist congregation take a two-year sabbatical from "programs" and instead engage in Bible study, enter into deep Christian conferencing, pray deeply and humbly, and share together around four issues: the flag and altar, wealth and poverty, violence and nonviolence, and inclusion and exclusion.

"The flag has to come out of the sanctuary--not because we aren't patriotic but because that is God's house and that is Caesar's flag. ... We are confusing the two very badly and wrapping our theology in red, white and blue," said Storey.

Violence and nonviolence are profound issues for the United States--"one of the most violent societies in the world," he said. "More people have been killed in riots in this country than all the wars you have fought."

Love said United Methodists need to remember to love God with "all our minds."

"I challenge my students at Candler not to have mindless church, mindless liturgies, mindless meetings," she said. "Our church is not doing a very good job of supporting the education of our pastors and laity."

"One of our biggest challenges in the years ahead is to face up to the fear and panic over membership loss," Winkler said. "We cannot let ourselves get consumed by that. If we think the bottom line is more bottoms in the pews, then we will miss the point. We need to understand what is really going on in the world and get ourselves on God's side."

State Sen. Joe Sam Queen of North Carolina attended all three days of the conference because "there is no question in my mind that peace and justice are the most important issues of our time." Queen, a member of First United Methodist Church, Waynesville, N.C., said he was excited about the grassroots gathering of lay and clergy and young people from seminaries.

"We need to find our voice. We have been stunned by 9/11," said Queen. "Our churches, our communities and our politicians need to find our voice because the future is not a war on terror; it is the reign of peace."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.