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The Theology of Peacemaking

Charlie Clements, Sharon D. Welch, and William F. Schulz standing in front of the attendees for their workshop.
Charlie Clements, Sharon Welch, Bill Schulz

General Assembly 2008 Event 3033

Speakers: Dr. Michael Hogue, Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, Dr. Sharon D. Welch, and Dr. Charlie Clements. Sponsored by Meadville Lombard Theological School.

"Should the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) reject the use of any and all kinds of violence and war?" This is the question raised by the 2006-2010 UUA Congregational Study Action Issue (CSAI). Those who wish to study this question would do well to watch the video of this program (see event 3033 on Video Coverage) to understand three well-informed perspectives on peacemaking.

Dr. Michael Hogue of Meadville Lombard Theological School introduced the speakers. Bill Schulz was UUA president from 1985 to 1993, executive director of Amnesty International USA from 1994 to 2006, and is presently a Fellow of several prestigious institutions and a prolific author. Dr. Sharon Welch is provost and professor of religion and society at Meadville Lombard Theological School and author of many books and articles. Dr. Charlie Clements is the president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and author of the award-winning documentary and book, Witness to War.

Bill Schulz delivered a stirring address that must be watched to be appreciated fully. He described how for 12 years with Amnesty International he was deeply exposed to the most sordid and gratuitous violence. These experiences convinced him that cruelty, especially in males, is grounded in an adaptive reaction from the Paleolithic era when the blood and pain of the hunt became associated with power and success. “Left unchecked,” Schulz argued, "humans are vicious." So society must create structures and norms that discourage our basic impulses. Sometimes, these require the judicious use of force.

It is often said that "you can't legislate morality." Schulz disagrees. For example, inter-racial marriage was enabled by legislation and gradually became accepted. He believes the same will eventually happen with same-gender marriage. "Why do we use seatbelts?" he asked. The culture changed, laws were changed to make it mandatory, and it gradually became a habit. Eventually it was accepted as the norm.

There are tensions within many societies. These result in violence if people can escape their deeds with impunity. However, international law has now evolved so "impunity is no longer inevitable." With widespread acceptance of the International Criminal Court, "we are farther down this path than I had any reason to hope for when I took up my work with Amnesty International in 1994," Schulz declared. Universal jurisdiction applies where the person's state has accepted the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, which is not the case with the United States.

"Should the UUA reject the use of any and all kinds of violence and war?" Schulz asked. "There are two reasons why this makes me nervous," he said. The first reason: we cannot tell the most miserably oppressed people they must simply endure their suffering indefinitely.

He told a powerfully moving story of a young woman in a refugee camp. He graphically described the smell of desperation in refugee camps, desperation rooted in utter squalor and degradation. Amid the dreadful conditions of a refugee camp in southern Darfur, he saw a young woman wearing a simple piece of jewelry made of turquoise-colored glass, and he asked through a translator: "What is this?" "It is me!" she replied. At first he thought the translator had misunderstood. "Do you mean 'It is mine?'" he asked. "No, it is me!" And gradually he understood. What she meant was: this is how I know who I am; this is how I retain a tiny shred of humanity.

In more civilized countries such as Serbia, a nonviolent protest displaced Slobodan Milosovic, but Zimbabwe today is not Serbia. Who are we, seated comfortably at the UUA General Assembly, to tell the oppressed people of the world that they must do no more than suffer in silence?

The second reason the CSAI resolution makes Schulz wary is that he feels the arrogance and hubris of the United States make it difficult for us to provide moral leadership; our moral authority has been severely compromised.

"I will forever be haunted by the genocide in Rwanda," Schulz declared. "Sometimes we cannot secure a just peace through nonviolence." Canadian General Dallaire estimated 1,500 United Nations troops could have prevented the subsequent Rwandan massacre; that is all it would have taken to save a million people.

In conclusion, Schulz answered "no" to the CSAI question. "But we must do all we can to limit violence," he insisted. All people need security and dignity. We must make it as easy as possible for people to be good, but on rare occasions it will require us to dirty our hands to slay the worst monsters. Sometimes, only dirty hands can truly embrace the innocent.

"These are serious times and we have crucial work to do," Dr Sharon Welch told us. Some will find Bill Schulz's message difficult to accept, she said, but we should be aware of paradigm shifts in nonviolence and just war. Now, our options are greater. Early intervention and the judicious use of force may be needed to prevent a large-scale war.

"Sometimes, force may be necessary," she told us, "but it is never sufficient." A United Nations peace service may require preventive defense, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding.

Has the United States has become the fool of force and the fool of history? Moralism combined with hubris has resulted in resentment, resistance, and rebellion. Sometimes such use of military force betrays our weakness; sometimes it is a feudal attempt to coerce when we cannot persuade.

Welch presented three conundrums. First, does acceptance of the judicious use of force mean that criticisms of violence and its grave cost to both perpetrators and victims are irrelevant or valid? Not at all, she declared.

Second, while there is widespread support for multinational intervention, there is equally widespread dissatisfaction with the legitimacy, morality, and even the efficacy of traditional military intervention.

And third, many conservatives suspect we underestimate the depravity and resolve of those perceived as enemies, and overestimate the virtue and confidence of peace activists and peacekeepers.

As an illustration, she told a story of a man, outraged by injustice, who stands in the town square and demands justice. At first, the crowd listens, then the people dwindle away until finally he stands alone. "Why do you persist when you are not changing anyone?" the man is asked. "At first, I spoke to change others," he replies. "Now, I speak so others will not change me." However, our failure to change others might be of our own making, Welch argued.

In his response, Charlie Clements agreed with both Bill Schulz and Sharon Welch. Clements described his experiences in El Salvador after he was discharged from the Air Force during the Vietnam War in 1971. "I was a Quaker at the time," he told those gathered, "and I did not bear arms in El Salvador. Nor did I judge those around me who did."

"Could the Nazis have been defeated by nonviolence?" Clements asked. He described the Rosenstrasse protest against the Nazis in 1943. Ultimately the police backed down and the protest was successful.

Nonviolent protest has been successful in relatively civilized societies. Gandhi was successful against the British and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was successful in the United States. But this is not the case in every nation and every society.

Each speaker provided much to think about. They urged those present to engage in the collaborative interrogation that is at the heart of the CSAI.

Reported by Mike McNaughton; edited by Dana Dwinell-Yardley.