AT 28: From Arms Maker to Peacemaker, Christian peacemakers in areas of violent conflict

by David Cockburn
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 28, Autumn 2001.

I’m going out to join the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) based in Hebron, from 15 September to 1 October, to help encourage people committed to build peace by peaceful means. After 20 years designing weapon systems and giving military capability to governments to use violence, I went to college for an MA in Peace Studies, studied the Middle East, religion and conflict, and in my dissertation looked at how churches in Nicaragua and South Africa responded to potential revolution. Sadly, for much of the time most churches were part of the problem rather than part of the solution. During this time I came to believe that the way of Jesus is not the way of violence, but rather a way of suffering love, of loving God, loving neighbours, and even loving enemies.

Earlier this year I spent a month in Chicago being trained by CPT, the first European to do so, and after a considerable period of discernment decided to sign up as a ‘reservist’. That commits me for three years, spending a minimum of two weeks per year with one of the teams in a conflict site, raising over £1,500 a year, and explaining to people our mission and practice.

CPT started following a call by Ron Sider in 1984 for Christians to take their peacemaking as seriously as soldiers, who are prepared to kill and die for their belief in their ways of dealing with enemies. His call was for Christians to love their neighbours and enemies, and if necessary put their lives on the line nonviolently to prevent, reduce or transform conflict, being active rather than passively nonresistant. Coincidentally since then, Christians and churches have played significant roles in nonviolent transformations in the Philippines, South Africa, and the fall of the Berlin wall, where it seems to me that in each case prayer opened windows of opportunity for those who had prepared themselves to act. The relative peacefulness of those transitions, compared to others such as Yugoslavia, may be a result of prayer and commitment to nonviolent actions.

That’s a vision I embrace, and sense is the way for me. Violence causes huge fear and a legacy of hatred; nonviolence can bring change without the fear and hatred, and helps people to live together after conflict.

CPT is currently working in Hebron, West Bank (since June 95), Colombia, Chiapas Mexico, and on First Nation issues in the USA and Canada. CPT goes only where it is invited, where it believes it can do some good, where it can resource a team, where at least one party is committed to nonviolence, and where governments of CPT members’ countries are part of the problem. Being located in conflict zones, we do not give development aid, or do evangelism, as these are better done by others, and could prejudice our ability to win the trust of conflicting parties.

Commitment to reconciliation

In the West Bank, our aim is to strengthen and encourage those – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Israelis – who are committed to nonviolent means to bring peace; violence is a major part of the problem. The major divide that we and other peace groups identify is not between Jews and Palestinians, but between those committed to violence as a means to deal with enemies, and those committed to reconciliation and thus peaceful means to peace. There are of course many in the middle between these ways. Surprising though it may seem, Palestinian ‘terrorists’, some Jewish ‘settlers’, and the Israeli government and forces believe the same thing – that the more pain, the more hurt, the more violence and the more fear that you inflict on the other side, the more the other side will be reasonable and see your point of view and agree to what you want. We believe that’s madness, and does not build a future. As has been said, ‘An eye for an eye leaves both blinded.’

Though the conflict is at one level very complex, at another level it comes down to the almost universal question: ‘How do two or more peoples with some history in, or affinity for, a bit of land find ways of living together with justice and equality?’ For without justice and equality there will be no long-term peace, and if they can’t live together then the alternatives are apartheid, voluntary separation or ethnic cleansing; none of those lead towards peace.

So, I go to encourage people to remain nonviolent, as many are. CPT is working alongside Jews, Muslims and Christians. Some of the work will be human rights monitoring; some may include involvement in protests or vigils; I may spend time in Beit Jala or other areas under threat of reoccupation – being there as an international can help to reduce the level of violence, and local people feel safer if internationals are there. However, I am also very aware that I am entering what is almost a war zone. An official international monitoring force might be very effective, but both Israeli and US governments have vetoed this. Having internationals there to record what happens and get the information out to media, churches and governments can influence both sides to curtail violence, as trusted observers are more believed than media reporters.

So I’d ask for your prayers, and those of your church. For safety for myself and the team, but much more that peace – with justice and equality – would come, and that those committed to violence would show restraint. For Christians to love God, their neighbours, and their enemies, even in these difficult situations. That injury and loss of life would be minimised. That anti-Semitism would be eradicated. That ‘Jerusalem would find peace’, and that Jewish and Palestinian Christians would find the same unity that Greek and Jewish Christians did in the early church. I really believe that prayer opens windows of opportunity, so that those who are prepared can then make a real difference.

David Cockburn, whose story is featured in Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland, recently wrote to the editor and other members of the Anabaptist Network with news of a forthcoming trip to the Middle East. David is a reservist with Christian Peacemaker Teams, a faith-based organisation that supports violence reduction efforts around the world. CPT has roots in the Mennonite Church, the Church of the Brethren and the Society of Friends, and includes members from Protestant and Catholic traditions. Contact CPT at P.O. Box 6508 Chicago, IL 60680 USA; Tel: (001) 312-455-1199; Fax: (001) 312-432-1213; E-mail: ; website: http://www.cpt.org