More than 220 Episcopalians from various dioceses around the country, including 34 bishops, came together at a major event, “Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace,” in Oklahoma City, OK, April 9 – 11. The goal of this gathering was for the church to address the epidemic of violence by renewing our commitment to the Gospel call to make peace in a world of violence. The conference focused on advocacy, education, liturgy and pastoral care as four key avenues through which the Church can address the culture of violence within and outside the Church. There was no shortage of inspiration for enlivening the peace-making mission of the Church at this conference.
At the opening session on April 9, Eugene Sutton, Bishop of Maryland, traced roots of the “mythology of violence” to “the unchecked human need for control that arises out of fear of a chaotic and unsafe world.” He reminded us that “the agenda of God is not to control but to love.” Sutton pointed out we have known for a long time that there is another way. “The Christian gospel has proclaimed for thousands of years that there is a cure but we have lost confidence in our day that that ancient solution will work,” he said. The gospel cure for violence is love, Sutton said, reminding people of Jesus’s commandment to love one’s enemies, bless those who curse you and pray for those who abuse you. “Soul power” and not worldly power, he concluded, is the only way to bring lasting peace.
On the morning of April 10, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby addressed the group, holding out no illusion that putting an ending to preventable violence will be an easy matter. According to Welby, “the gospel of peace is reclaimed by loving those who love violence and hatred” and that a church committed to peacemaking “looks like those who join their enemies on their knees.” He said that it must be acknowledged that human beings are inclined towards violence. He said, “Violence is intrinsic to being human, and I have to say in particular to being human and male, or human and powerful, over against minorities of all kinds,” he said. “Moreover it is addictive, violence is addictive, and we become hardened to it.” But, the archbishop said, there is hope for redemption because God “is committed to acting in response to wrongdoing” and is a God who not only judges but also saves, “giving of God’s own self to make an opportunity for rescue”.
Over the following two days, participants attended a variety of presentations, panel discussions, and workshops on the topics of gun violence, bullying, intimate partner violence, hate crimes and elder abuse and ways that the Gospel offered insights for dealing with these problems. The variety and depth of these offerings provided an unusually rich opportunity for transformative sharing among participants with diverse backgrounds and points of view. The real life stories that were told demonstrated time and again that awareness, respect, meaningful dialogue, bridge building, being in relationship, and compassionate caring were the most effective tools for peace-making.
During her reflection at morning worship on April 11, Rev. Katie Adams-Shepherd, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, Connecticut, said, “It’s a very important part of the healing process for every person touched by violence and violent death that we come together from all corners of live and faith, belief and perspectives seeking a way, multiple ways to live as co-missioners with God.” She said that following the shooting, her community has become more engaged with other worldwide communities that have suffered violent deaths from a variety of causes. Parents who lost children at Sandy Hook, as well as young people in the surrounding area, have become some of the most effective lobbyists for ending preventable gun violence.
Later that day, during a visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, Melissa McLawhorn Houston, who survived the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City shared her story. She did so by taking the group through her thought process as the day unfolded and during the months that followed making her experience a particularly intimate one, allowing for rare insights. Though she has come a long way, her inner healing continues. “One of the biggest ingredients that we see in terrorists is a lack of hope,” Houston told them during their visit to the museum. “If you don’t have your own sense of hopefulness for your own life, that’s where a lot of that starts from.” Ultimately she had to choose her response to the attack and she has chosen to respond as a “hopeful witness.” Her message to other victims of violence is “it really sucks where you are right now but you will eventually move on. You won’t get over it; you’ll be different, you’ll be changed but, you will continue to have a life.”
At the close of the conference on April 11, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached at a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. “Countering violence requires custody of the heart,” she said. “Violence begins in the heart, especially in hearts that have been wounded and scarred by the violence of others, and then react and respond aggressively, in overly defended ways. Violence begins in the heart that cannot countenance vulnerability – rooted in fear that its own vitality will be extinguished. The ultimate counterforce to fear is perfect love, the ability to share life to the full, with radical vulnerability, in the face of those who would destroy it. The undefended Jesus shows us the way. He does not go about with armies or weapons, he does not protest the words of his captors, he does not defend himself or attack others with violent words or actions, and it is ultimately his ability to set his life-force and spirit free, fully free, that deprives the evil around him of any ultimate power.”
The conference is over now, leaving the question whether this clearly Spirit-filled gathering will indeed make a difference. In other words, will it translate into action? All who attended have already answered with a resounding, “Yes!”, by placing sticky notes on a wooden cross as an offering to God of the actions they were inspired to take as a result of the conference. During their final meal together they also talked in small groups about their next steps in fulfilling their intentions. The sacredness of what happened at this conference has forever changed those who attended. May the Spirit of what began in Oklahoma City continue to spill forth into the hearts of all who hunger for the reign of God’s peace.
–Patricia Terry, a member of St. Cross Church, Hermosa Beach, was one of several representatives of the Diocese of Los Angeles who attended the “Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace” conference, along with Bishop Mary D. Glasspool; the Rev. Gary Commins, rector of St. Luke’s Church, Long Beach; Andrea Briggs, member of All Saints’ Church, Riverside; and the Rev. Dina Ferguson, priest-in-charge of St. Michael the Archangel Church, El Segundo, who led a workshop on Biblical stories of peace at the conference.