“Building Peace from the ground up” was the theme of our recent Church and Peace Britain and Ireland regional conference on 13 March 2021 co-organised with the Fellowship of Reconciliation UK. Thinking about a world which seems to be overwhelmed by hatred manifesting itself both in physical forms and through hate speech, we felt blessed in having a range of inspiring speakers who shared their experience and wisdom with us in keynote addresses and in workshops. Those present came from the USA (one of the speakers, joining us at 6 a.m. local time) and ranged across Europe from Dublin to Moscow, from Berlin to Tirana via Switzerland and Hungary. A Pakistani Christian also joined us, meaning that for him the conference finished at 10 pm. What a rich mixture of people and topics we had!
Church and Peace chair, Antje Heider-Rottwilm, reminded us that since the first regional conference in 2014 we had always looked at peace in the broadest sense – not just militarism, but also climate change, racism, and political developments. She highlighted the link between blasphemy and hate speech, which occurs in all religions when people are tempted to defame and devalue others who don’t share their faith.
In the first keynote address by Quaker Lisa Cumming, we were reminded that the Quaker thinker and academic Adam Curle had pointed out that we need to transform unpeaceful relationships into peaceful ones, but also to transform the conditions we live in so that they are unfavourable to violence. This second challenge is particularly important in today’s world, and in a series of workshops we went on to look at how we might begin to do this, for example by tackling hate speech online, by striving to move from non-racist to anti-racist, by learning from the experience of those who have worked with others at grass-roots level to bring people and communities together. Our afternoon keynote speaker, Rev Dr Sharon Prentis also reminded us that we need to hear the deep lament rising from our contemplative life, and to have a compelling vision of an incarnational way of living which impacts others around us.
An innovation for this conference was an “Open Space” workshop, where concerns of individual participants could be shared. In this session, we heard about the struggles of the Christian community in Pakistan, which seem totally intractable and where any response we can give can seem inadequate. Those who heard the testimony of our Pakistani brother vowed to offer what support they can, including the important promise to offer up prayers.
We were challenged on many levels. Transforming the relationsships and conditions we live in so that they are unfavourable to violence seems a very high mountain to climb and we know our shortfalls.The inspiring and encouraging words of our speakers and workshop leaders will remain with us for some time. As the American Quaker Bayard Rustin said (possibly referring to the same injunction in the Jewish book of ethics Pirkei Avot): “God does not require us to achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue. What he requires of us is that we not stop trying.”
Report by Barbara Forbes, Board member of Church and Peace