In the summer of 1984, Ron Sider warned the Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg, France, that the following decades could be the bloodiest the world had seen. He also warned Mennonites and other pacifists against a pacifism that condoned war if pacifists didn't have to fight. If Jesus taught a nonviolent approach to reconciliation, he said, pacifists ought to show the world what that was likeeven if it meant dying "by the thousands."
After the rescue of three Christian Peacemaker Teams workers from their kidnappers, Sider talked to Christianity Today about his original vision for CPT.
Ron Sider is president and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action and professor of theology and culture at Palmer Theological Seminary.
You said that Mennonites and another historic pacifist churches suffered from an "isolationist pacifism." What did you mean by that?
We withdraw into our own communities and basically let the world go to hell in a handbasket rather than say that we think Jesus has taught us some things about peacemaking that we want to share with the world. I was urging the second route. My ancestors go back to the 16th century Swiss Alps. I have a deep appreciation for why we withdrew. We were getting killed by the thousands.
But that has led to a tendency to withdraw rather than say Jesus is Lord of all, and we want to invite everybody to follow him.
So you proposed a peacemaking force. What did you hope they would do?
I basically said if we Mennonites think we have an alternative in peacemaking, then we'd better put ourselves on the line. We'd better go into the midst of difficult, dangerous situations and try to stand between warring parties and understand both sides and try to help them hear each other. The Mennonite church engaged in a very careful, two-year process of discernment. The question was, does this kind of activist, confrontational engagement fit with our understanding of what Jesus taught? And the answer was yes. The Christian Peacemaker Teams was launched.
I had hoped that the center of the Mennonite church and other bodies, those that are historically pacifist, would become engaged, and in relatively short time, we would have hundreds and hundreds of people engaged in different places. That didn't happen. What happened was the center of the church said, "Yes, this is right," and basically let the peace activists go and do it.
If I were doing it, I would make prayer and Bible study more central, but overall I would say they do incredible work. I think the stuff in the West Bank and Hebron, for example, is an ideal illustration of what is possible. Probably because of that work, many of the radical Muslim groups spoke up for the three [CPT captives in Iraq] who were still alive.
When the four CPTers in Iraq were first captured, some people harshly said that they deserved whatever came to them, even death. In your 1984 speech, you said that CPT volunteers would have to be willing to die by the thousands, that if people were willing to die in war, pacifists should be willing to die for peace.
It seems to me Jesus taught against killing. Since I believe he is true God and true man, I can't say he was wrong. I have to try to live what I believe he taught us to do.
But in terms of the just-war tradition, World War II is a success. And 20 million or so people got killed. The death of some people in a peacemaking effort certainly doesn't mean that effort is not successful. I'm so sorry for Tom Fox's death and the Fox's family's grief, but it seems to me that the people in CPT should not see this as defeat but simply as the cost of being faithful to the mission of peacemaking the world desperately needs.
CPT in Iraq has been criticized for speaking out only against American violence and ignoring the violence perpetrated by radical Muslims in the country. Is that a fair criticism?
I have not followed with care all the statements that have been made by CPT or the CPT people in Iraq. So I don't really have much of a judgment.
However, the vast majority of Christian leaders said that on just war grounds, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was wrong. The Pope said it; the Catholic bishops said it; mainline Protestants said it. The National Association of Evangelicals was silent and didn't say it was right or wrong. The only people who supported it were some evangelical leaders. The vast majority of Christian insight on the war was that it was premature, it was wrong, it didn't fit just-war criteria.
Any group of people, finite as we are, is sometimes going to get things wrong. So if CPT didn't get the balance right, I consider that far less significant than what they are trying to do, which is to say there is another way to work at peace and justice in the world.
It seems to me that not just from the pacifist side but from the just-war side what CPT is trying to do should draw in thousands and thousands and thousands of Christians across the Christian perspective. As I argued to my Mennonite brothers and sisters in Strasbourg, if we're serious about finding an alternative to just war, then we'd better start living it out, which is what CPT is trying to do.
The other side is that just war criteria say very clearly that war must be a last resort. In the 20th century, we have seen massively successful nonviolent campaigns. It's not just that Martin Luther King non-violently changed American history, or that Gandhi defeated the British Empire. Solidarity defeated the Soviet empire. The Manila campaign in the Philippines defeated Marcos, one of the most brutal dictators. The list goes on and on. Nonviolence can be amazingly successful even in the face of pretty vicious dictators. We have only begun to explore the possibilities.
Since the just-war criteria require that war be a last resort, those who subscribe to just-war theory should put millions and millions of dollars and thousands and thousands of people into the campaigns of nonviolence like CPT to see how much we can do that way. My appeal is both to just-war people and to pacifists to massively expand what CPT is doing.
You probably know Jonathan Kuttab he is an evangelical Palestinian, born in Bethlehem, and has been working for justice for the Palestinians in nonviolent ways for a couple decades now. He says if we have 1,000 CPTers working throughout the West Bank, it would make an enormous difference. We all know that one of the most difficult issues and one of the biggest causes of problems in the Middle East is the inability to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian dispute. It seems to me CPT is precisely the tool that would be most successful.
All pacifists and just-war people in the next year should put a thousand CPT kinds of people all through the West Bank to say to the Israelis and Palestinians, "You have to stop killing each other. There has to be two states here that are fair and just."
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Recent news coverage of the Christian Peacemaker Teams includes:
Freed Iraq hostage Kember back at local church | Christian peace campaigner Norman Kember went to a service of thanksgiving at his local church in London on Sunday, attending for the first time since he was freed from kidnappers in Iraq earlier in the week. (Reuters, March 26)
Briton thanks soldiers who rescued him | Freed British hostage Norman Kember returned home Saturday after four months in captivity in Iraq and thanked the soldiers who saved him and two other peace activists. (Associated Press, March 25)
Loney and Sooden start trip home | Freed Canadian hostages Jim Loney and Harmeet Sooden headed to Baghdad airport on Saturday to begin their journey home from Iraq, a colleague said. "They have left for the airport," Maxine Nash of Christian Peacemaker Teams told Reuters. (Reuters, March 25)
Freed Iraq hostage returning to Britain | Former hostage Norman Kember flew out of Baghdad on a British transport plane, the Christian Peacemaker Teams activist group said Friday. (Associated Press, March 24)
Christianity Today's coverage of CPT includes:
Standing for Peace on the Eve of War | Christian group seeks nonviolent solution in Iraq. (March 12, 2003)
Risking Life for Peace | Caught between rebels, paramilitaries, and crop-dusters, peacemaking Christians put their lives on the line in violent Colombia. (September 7, 2001)
Hebron's Peacemakers Find No Shalom in Olive Branches | Christian Peacemaker Teams, a social-justice group working overseas, is testing the boundaries of nonviolent intervention in its mission to Hebron, one of the Mideast's most troubled cities. (September 16, 1996)
CT Classic: Ron Sider's Unsettling Crusade | Why does this man irritate so many people? (March 13, 2000)