The annual diocesan Justice & Peace Assembly took place at The St Philip Howard Centre in Crawley on Saturday 27 January. The theme this year centred on safety in our homes and in our communities with speakers from a range of charities and organisations including Restored, Lifecentre and Pax Christi. Canon Rob Esdaile opened the event with a talk entitled ‘Peace in Our Relationships and Communities – Theological Considerations’. You can read an extract from Canon Rob’s talk below, to read the talk in full, click the button at the bottom of this article.
True Peace in Relationships and Communities: Christian theology and action
What has our Christian faith got to say about peace in our relationships and communities? And are we part of the solution (as the Church normally assumes) or part of the problem?
Peace is not the absence of fighting. Peace is not the cowed existence of those who are controlled, gas-lighted or robbed of their ability to think for themselves. Peace is not the imposition of a constant threat of violence or the sapping of a community’s will to resist. A peace without any uproar is not biblical peace, because true peace is a fruit both of justice and of the action of the Spirit, who blows where She will. Peace has to be a positive condition. It is about restored relationships, mutual respect, making room for the other and their dreams; about a trust that each person and each culture has not only an intrinsic God-given value but also a unique contribution to make, a gift to share for the good of all. Peace is the enabling of that sharing.
The Children of Abraham have a great story to tell when it comes to peace, especially peace in personal relationships. It’s there in Genesis 1. Male and female we were created, in the image and likeness of God, made for mutuality, endowed with complementarity. The second Genesis creation myth describes the uniqueness of our being, in the admixture of earth and air, flesh and spirit together, and names the erotic relationship, too: Eve is taken from the side of Adam to satisfy a need which can never be satisfied by mere objects.
But there’s a darker side to the history of human intimacy, expressed in Genesis 3: the eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil has various destructive effects. The couple firstly discover shame, the realisation that nakedness is problematic. Then they resort to mutual accusation and finally their relationships both to the natural world and to each other are poisoned. If we want to create a world at peace, we really need to take seriously the flawed and conflictual nature of our being.
Are we Christians part of the solution or part of the problem when it comes to issues of domestic violence and social order? We certainly talk a good talk. We hold up a shining ideal of what marriage should be and how families should be and how societies should be, and yet for most of its history the Church has tolerated slavery, denied female autonomy and had a strong urge to cover up sexual abuse in order to protect the institution’s ‘good name’. Apart from being profoundly grateful to those who have fought to uncover the hypocrisy in this, we should also ask how the wonderful vision of human flourishing which is present in the Scriptures could become so poisoned: Sin and fallen-ness again.
We would do well to spend time with the woman at the well in Samaria in Jn 4: Jesus is probably the first person in her entire life to treat her as an equal, to engage with her opinions, and then to give her ‘living water’, something to satisfy her search for a sense of self and a sense of worth. She goes home that night as an apostle: “‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (Jn 4.29) She is un-shamed, un-condemned, given her life back.
That is the task of the ‘Field Hospital Church’ of which Pope Francis speaks so movingly: to listen to people’s hearts and to dress their wounds and then to mission them to live from the place of forgiveness. The experience of mercy requires of us that we confess our woundedness in order then to educate ourselves to eschew power-play and the abuse of authority over each other. And the Christian community needs to unpack the tools our Tradition has given us to bring about this transformation. God’s love is profoundly realistic, recognising our limitation and working to build something beautiful out of our brokenness. “For [as St Paul discovered at his own conversion] it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
When we turn from the domestic to the political and the international, we find some of the same features – a brilliant set of resources, a noble discourse, and almost universal failure to live up to it. We have in our Tradition the elaboration of ‘Just War’ theory – a way of reasoning which, while it may have limited violence at times has proved singularly unable to protect non-combatants, let alone actually to prevent wars. War is always a failure of the human spirit, a betrayal of hope, an obstacle to the right relationship that the peace of Christ invites us to pursue. It always leads to fresh injustices and new hatreds.
Perhaps, as with the case of personal relationships the healthy response for the Church is, firstly, to recognise and name the sinful nature of our reality – and our own implication in that fault; in other words, the path of confession and metanoia (conversion). Secondly, we need to seek alternatives to the resigned acceptance of violence as an inevitability in human affairs. We have to create oases of reconciliation, examples of other ways of resolving conflict, projects that make the possibility of peace tangible and the search for peace urgent. We are bidden to seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness (Mt 6.33). Loving our neighbours is what we are about.
Meanwhile, “Say "No" to peace if what they mean by peace is the quiet misery of hunger, the frozen stillness of fear, the silence of broken spirits, the unborn hopes of the oppressed.”