Women in the Abrahamic religions as peace-makers
Location: Fatima Conference, House of Lords
It is a very great privilege to have been invited to contribute to this conference on this crucial theme. My experience through the St Ethelburga Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in the City of London involving representatives of all those who in their different ways look back to Abraham as their ancestor in faith suggests that we can be natural allies in the search for a peace which goes beyond the absence of conflict and points to that wholeness which is God’s will for the world he loves.
Pursue peace with everyone and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12, 14)
On Saturday I was in St Martin in the Fields with Muslim friends fortified by the assurance of prayers from Jewish friends celebrating Sabbat. We were inaugurating one hundred days of Olympic truce by preparing ourselves to be more daring peace makers.
“One person with peace in their hearts is able to convert the countryside for miles around” – so St Seraphim of Sarov.
It is however a common experience to discover there are many angry people in the peace business.
The ancient Olympic Games were like Wembley Stadium and Westminster Abbey rolled into one.
The sacred truce (or ekecheiria – the holding of hands) was believed to be policed by the god Zeus himself and protected travellers to the sacred territory of Elis for seven day period before and after the games.
The terms were somewhat limited and the ancient Greeks were notably pugnacious. The Greek word eirene, was not primarily about a relationship between people, or a matter of the heart, but rather an interlude in the state of war which was presumed to be normal. This gives eirene more the feel of a state of truce.
The Latin pax echoes this too, and seems to suggest a secondary state of affairs comprising a pact or agreement established for a time amidst the normal struggle between competing interests and the Arabic term Suhl is similar I think.
The Hebrew word shalom and salaam in Arabic suggest something very different. Here, the core sense is about “wholeness” and “completeness” and the noun derives from the verb shalem which can mean “to complete” or “to finish” or “to make an end of”. This springs from a view of the world and human society as originally one of completeness, wholeness and unity. In the Biblical perspective the Judaeo-Christian understanding of peace embraces not merely the absence of violence but the presence of one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Galatians V: 22 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love joy peace.”
The Holy Spirit converts an absence of violence into a love of wellbeing and a taste for life which is not incompatible with risk taking and competitive sport – the agon; the contest to which St Paul refers. As well as delivering us from the spiritual flatlands the peace which comes with the Holy Spirit should not be confused with carpet slippers at the end of the day. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings all created things to their proper ends and perfects the world. So the Holy Spirit fills us with an urgent desire for peace and human flourishing.
In the Biblical vision there is a sense of peace as pertaining to the beginning (Eden) as well as the end of time in history’s consummation. This implies that human nature in its truest form is peaceable and fulfilled in peace. War is not mankind’s natural state but rather comes from a corruption of our human nature. Lastly, it is to be noted that the Hebrew concept of humanity as embodied leads to peace being conceived as involving material abundance (but not excess).
Children of Abraham are well placed to make a contribution in a time of painful adjustment when the narrative of a return to growth and pre financial crisis normality is not plausible. Our ability to lead valuable lives has been undermined by the idea that having more things is the road to happiness and this has numbed our understanding of what the good life is. Ancient wisdom has much to teach us.
But speaking as a Christian, it is important to stress something that flows from our understanding of Christ himself – and I say this with care mindful of our present context, but it is important for our better mutual understanding.
First, there is our belief that the ultimate consummation of the Kingdom of God in the Eschaton (the end of history) is made possible by the presence of God from the beginning of history. But beyond this there is the unique aspect captured in the remarkable New Testament phrase “he is our peace” (Eph. 2,14). This phrase looks to the new human community that Christ was bringing into being in union with himself. This new community was conceived as a model community of peace bringing together previously alienated communities (Jews and Gentiles).
Thus the New Testament reflects both a deep awareness of what divides people and a realization of the costliness of reconciliation and peace, for what it demands is precisely the difficult thing of unity or at-one-ment. This in itself requires that a price is paid (a sacrifice) which is ultimately, for Christians, achieved uniquely through Christ. But that willingness to pay the price of peace was not simply found in Christ and left at that, rather it is found still in the reconciled (and reconciling) community which is thus called to continue that work of achieving at-one-ment.
It is no accident therefore, that the great litany of the blessed in the Sermon on the Mount comes to its climax with “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5,9) who shall inherit the Kingdom of God. And God is of course the ultimate author of all such peace (which brings us back where we started) for it is God who freely gives that (grace) which enables our strivings (to live a more authentically human life in wholeness and integrity) to come to actualization.
The virtue of this grand theological vision is the psychological and spiritual fortitude and robustness it can give us, in a world that is otherwise replete with difficulty and tribulation.
With all this in mind I turn to the witness of women of peace. I am tasked to present the witness of Christian women but among my most vivid experiences is an evening at St Ethelburga’s when a Jewish mother spoke of her agony after the death of her son, a school boy killed by a suicide bomber and a Palestinian mother described the suffering which followed her son’s murder by a sniper. Long ago the prophet denounced talk about peace, peace where there is no peace but the witness of those women who had achieved a costly reconciliation through their suffering was transformative for all those who listened to them.
If we look at the list of women who have won the Nobel Peace Prize it is striking just how many of that amazing group were moved to do what they did by faith:
1905: Bertha Sophie von Suttner (Austria) – the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize was an early pacifist and something of a “free thinker” but also very much the product of her national Catholic heritage and it is quite possible that it was at her suggestion that her good friend Alfred Nobel established the prize itself
In 1931: Jane Addams (US) – the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize was a Presbyterian profoundly influenced by her Christian beliefs in her work for peace and care for immigrant families as was Emily Greene Balch (US 1946) –who worked with Jane Addams. She was a Unitarian and had strong Quaker sympathies.
Then in Northern Ireland in the 70?s the two founders of the Peace Movement there (awarded the Peace prize in 1976): Betty Williams (Britain) and Mairead Corrigan (Northern Ireland) were moved by a strong Christian faith with a complex hinterland: Betty Williams had a Protestant Father, Catholic mother and a Jewish grandfather.
But it is in the words of three of the most recent recipients that we find perhaps the clearest expression of the vital role of faith:
1992: Rigoberta Menchu (Guatemala) was born in Chimel, a village of indigenous people in the Quichïï??ï??ï???© province in the northwest highlands of Guatemala. In an interview she described how her indigenous people identified with the sufferings of Christ in times of hardship, “with Christ crucified, Christ attacked with stones, Christ dragged along the ground. One felt the pain of that Christ, and identified with it.” It was this which in the end enabled them to persevere in the hope and faith that their world could still be transformed.
2004: Wangari Maathai (from Kenya) Founder of Green Belt Movement which promotes protection of natural resources and forests in particular stated that:
“The Book of Genesis came to mean much more to me than just a book on how God created. It helped me understand that the creation is how God has made it possible for us to live on this planet, that we need to be very grateful for what he gave us, and we need to take care if it.”
Then only last year we had a trio of religious women given the Nobel Peace Prize: including the 24th President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who is a committed Methodist as well as Tawakkol Karman a muslim woman from the Yeman who has been notable as a leader in the uprising there and Leymah Gbowee a Lutheran from Liberia who was awarded the prize for uniting Christian and Muslim women against her country’s warlords. As she told students in 2009:
‘I didn’t get there by myself… or anything I did as an individual, but it was by the grace and mercy of God…. He has held my hands. In the most difficult of times, he has been there. They have this song, “Order my steps in your ways, dear Lord,” and every day as I wake up, that is my prayer, because there’s no way that anyone can take this journey as a peace-builder, as an agent of change in your community, without having a sense of faith…. As I continue this journey in this life, I remind myself: All that I am, all that I hope to be, is because of God’
These extraordinary women are but a few of the multitude that daily make our world a better place and it is important to remind ourselves –in a world that does not always want to hear it– that it is their religious perspective that has impelled them forward in the context of hope — hope for a world transformed and hope for a world redeemed when all shall live in peace
And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, And their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war any more
(Isaiah, 2, 2-4)