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The Theology of Peacemaking

Sharon Welch, Bill Schulz

General Assembly 2007 Event 4020

A large crowd gathered to hear The Reverend William Schulz and Professor Sharon Welch discuss the theology of peacemaking. The crowd was so large that many people were required to leave the room due to safety regulations.

Meg Riley, Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association Washington Office for Advocacy, introduced Schulz. She said that Schulz is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, the former Executive Director of Amnesty International, and former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

"I want to talk with you about the issue of violence and war from the perspective of one who was deeply exposed to both for twelve years as the executive director of Amnesty International," Schulz said. As a result of his experiences, he said he had a "wintry view of life."

Schulz continued "I was exposed on a daily basis to the most sordid and gratuitous violence" in his work with Amnesty International. He gave some graphic examples of the violence that human beings can do to one another. "You will have a hard time convincing me that humans are but a little lower than the angels" he said. He believes that cruelty is "an adaptive reaction from the Paleozoic era." Because violence is an inherent part of human beings, in his view, he feels that human societies must create structures and norms to keep "baser impulses in check."

He talked about "legislative morality" as a prime way to affect morality. Schulz gave the example of seat belt laws. Eventually, now that seat belt laws have become widely accepted, those who don't use seat belts are thought of as "bad citizens."

However, national leaders will use violence "because they can get away with it," Schulz said. A promising development in the modern world is that national leaders can no longer act with total impunity. Although international jurisprudence has a long way to go, and although the United States has been a major stumbling block in its establishment, nevertheless, international jurisprudence has come farther than Schulz had ever expected. Eventually, he believes that world norms "will preclude mass atrocities."

Schulz then addressed whether or not the Unitarian Universalist Association should vote for resolutions that reject all violence. More broadly, Schulz asked what the role of religious institutions should be. Do religions hold up impossible ideals of pacifism and non-violence, speaking truth to power even when that is unrealistic? Or should religions "get their hands dirty" by working on policy-making? Schulz believes the second option is the one Unitarian Universalists should follow. He also believes that Unitarians and Universalists in history have typically pursued the second option.

As an example of how force could be used to promote peace, Schulz claimed that military enforcement of a no-fly zone over Darfur could have stopped the genocide now going on. Unfortunately, said Schulz, the United States ' involvement in Iraq has over-extended the U.S. military capability and weakened the country's moral authority, thus preventing effective involvement in Darfur.

In summary, Schulz believes that it is not always possible to achieve a just peace using only non-violence. He also said this can be done without having an adversary to oppose. "Wickedness need not be opposed by the creation of artificial enemies," he said. "Part of government's job is to make it as easy as possible for people to be their best selves, not their ugly and degraded selves," he continued. "And part of religion's job is to help us understand what those best selves look like."

Sharon Welch, currently chair of religious studies at the University of Missouri, and Provost of Meadville Lombard Theological School beginning in September, responded to Schulz, saying she was energized by his talk. "I know there are alternatives to war, not just in theory but in fact," she said. She believes it is possible to use power truthfully to try to create "at least a modicum of justice and peace."

She pointed out that in today's world, it's not just a choice between war on the one hand, and complete pacifism on the other. A third way is now possible, consisting of joint efforts to stop war and genocide. "If war is truly the last resort," she asked, "then what is the first, second, or fifth resort?" Welch called for "a move down from a culture of reaction to a culture of prevention." She advocated for "preventative defense" and "peace-building," including implementing non-violent alternatives to war, such as the International Criminal Court. Welch agreed with Schulz that "effective peacekeeping requires the judicious use of force, and said that she sees widespread agreement on this point, even among peace activists.

Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Pat Emery.