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ECUMENICAL WITNESS FOR PEACE, JUSTICE & SUSTAINABILITY

Paper Offered To The Millennium Peace Summit
August 28-31, 2000, United Nations


Rev. Dr. Robert Edgar, General Secretary,
National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

Introduction 

In November, 1999, the General Assembly of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., an ecumenical body involving 35 Protestant and Orthodox denominations in the U.S. with a total membership of 52 million members with 140,000 congregations, adopted a policy statement entitled, Pillars of Peace for the 21st Century.  This same gathering elected me to become the General Secretary of the NCC, following my former service as President of the Claremont School of Theology, as a six-term Representative in the U.S. Congress, and prior to that as a United Methodist parish pastor and campus minister. So I inherited a sound “platform report” to work with in my ecumenical leadership role.

Pillars of Peace for the 21st Century offers a new vision of a world of peace rooted in justice. It articulates basic principles to guide governments, peoples and civil society groups including religious communions. At this Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, I am especially pleased to note that the NCC policy statement’s preamble affirms that “The world is the responsibility of each of our communities,” and that “to work for justice and peace for all is to affirm God’s promise of the fullness of life.” The Preamble concludes with these words: “The NCCCUSA reaffirms its support for the United Nations and calls upon the United States government to fully support the United Nations in fulfillment of its charter and in its highest calling to work for peace and justice for all the world’s people.”

Mature Christian faith fosters a vision of intentional community that seeks “the well-being of all people and all creation.” This ecumenical worldview is based on belief in: 1) the transcending sovereign love of God for all creation and the incarnation of that love in the public ministry of Jesus Christ who announced such good news to the oppressed, 2) the unity of creation and the equality of all races and peoples, 3) the dignity of humans as children of God, and 4) the church’s mission to do justice, defend creation and make peace, in response to God’s action in natural and human history.

The following chart shows the faith-based values that inform each pillar of peace:

PILLARS OF PEACE

FAITH-BASED VALUES

1.      International framework for political collaboration and accountability

Responsible participation in civil life

2.      International economic accountability

Economic well-being & social health for all

3.      Effective international legal system

Oneness and mutuality of the human family

4.      Liberation and empowerment

Doing justice, loving neighbors near and far

5.      Peace and conflict resolution

Universal peace and reconciliation

6.   Human dignity and rights Inherent value of human life in God's image

7.      Preservation of the Environment

Care for creation and conservation of natural resources

The Seven Pillars of Peace (italicized text below)

1. Political Accountability. Peace rooted in justice requires increased political collaboration and accountability within the United Nations system, among regional bodies, governments, local authorities, peoples’ organizations, and global economic structures to seek the common good and equality for all.

This first pillar affirms, as do the opening words of the UN Charter, that the United Nations and regional multinational bodies are organized expressions of the hope that people throughout the world will live together, sharing responsibility, in one public household. The first six pillars offer a revised version of language first formulated by the churches working in ecumenical partnership over half a century ago in the midst of the Second World War. Their statement of basic requirements for international peace with justice was influential in bringing about founding of the United Nations itself.

The challenge remains, however, to find legal, political, and moral means to hold countries and their leaders accountable to international norms and standards developed in the UN process. This has become more difficult in the time of cultural upheaval and economic globalization when many transnational corporations have assets and budgets larger than those of many states, and there are few regulations to limit exploitation.

            An important role of the churches is to provide an early warning system to alert other NGOs, quicken the conscience of the powerful, and inspire service to the needs of disregarded groups and places. Working with other civil society groups that share common values, the global religious network that involves the ecumenical churches is positioned to advocate a preferential option for people whose voices and struggles may not otherwise be heard. We in the NCC provide disaster relief and assistance for sustainable development through our ecumenical mechanism, Church World Service and Witness, which is now active in more than 80 countries. 

2. Economic Accountability. Peace rooted in justice requires increased moral, ethical and legal accountability at all levels from governments, financial institutions, multilateral organizations, transnational corporations and all other economic actors to seek a just, participatory and sustainable economic order for the welfare and well-being of all people and creation.

            To this audience I need not recite the dismal story of accumulated global debt, lack of meaningful debt relief, and the massively harsh results of structural adjustment programs imposed by lending institutions. In Jubilee 2000, the NCC and church groups around the world have joined in a call for debt forgiveness for developing countries. Churches can also join forces with workers and like-minded organizations support fair labor practices and trade standards throughout the world. Meanwhile, through the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility in the U.S., we exercise our power as consumers and stockholders to confront and have dialogue with transnational corporations regarding ways to look beyond their own profits to larger social and environmental values.

            Through our Mobilization to Overcome Poverty in the first decade of this new millennium, the NCC is working for international economic equity, and here in the U.S. we are challenging not only the churches but particularly agencies of federal and state governments, and also employers, to meet their responsibilities to the families of the working poor and unemployable adults, from whom public assistance and most health benefits have been withdrawn in an era of “welfare reform.”

3. Legal Accountability. Peace rooted in justice requires a comprehensive international legal system, capable of change as conditions require, in order to prevent and resolve conflicts, to protect rights, to hold accountable those who disturb peace and violate international law, and to provide fair and effective review and enforcement mechanisms.

            The NGO community, including churches, urged support for the International Criminal Court (ICC) Treaty adopted by the Rome Conference in July 1998 that makes possible effective prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity. While it went into effect upon being signed by 60 nations, strong forces in the U.S. Senate continue to oppose it. So ecumenical Christians must speak up for concrete ways to implement the third pillar or peace.

            The religious community has also been an active participant in the human rights struggle in regions of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and in countries such as Haiti have played an important role in lifting up the voices of persons of faith persecuted in their own countries.

4. Liberation and Empowerment. Peace rooted in justice requires the participation of vulnerable and marginalized groups, seeking to promote justice and peace, in those mechanisms capable of redressing the causes and consequences of injustice and oppression.

Faith communities must work to eliminate root causes of poverty, vulnerability and discrimination in their societies. This involves moving beyond service programs that meet immediate needs to work with the poor and vulnerable to change the conditions that keep them marginalized. Vulnerable and marginalized groups that especially need to gain effective voice or power with whom the NCC stands in solidarity include:

        indigenous communities whose lands are occupied and whose cultures are being destroyed,

        refugees and displaced persons forced to flee because of political and economic crises in their countries,

        women who are denied equal rights and participation in community life or politics, and are quite vulnerable to economic impoverishment,

        children and young people, over 200 million of whom are chronically undernourished and at risk from such conditions as unsafe water,

        poor people who are excluded from the economic, social, and cultural life of the community,

        older persons in rapidly changing societies who are uncertain that their families can provide for them,

        minority religious communities facing a hostile or nationalist religious majority.

U. N.-sponsored Forums and Conferences that illumined the needs of the vulnerable such as the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, and the 1995 World Summit on Social Development, in Copenhagen, have involved ecumenical Christians who subsequently guided the churches to undertake appropriate community action programs.

5. Peace and Conflict Resolution. Peace rooted in justice requires the nurturing of a culture of peace in homes, communities, religious institutions, nations and across the world; the use of non-violent means of resolving conflict; appropriate systems of common security; and the end of the unrestrained production, sale and use of weapons worldwide.

            In an age of higher military spending for weapons that feed deadly civil as well as international wars that mostly displace, wound or kill noncombatants, and create urgent needs for large international relief and reconstruction efforts, religious communities play important peacemaking roles. The churches continue to be advocates for reduction and nonproliferation of both nuclear and convention weapons, teachers of conflict resolution techniques that are applicable in many local communities, leaders in Reconciliation Commissions following warfare and repression, and pioneers in crossing lines of hostility between countries, such as the outmoded impasse between the U.S. and Cuba.

Now the international community needs to look directly at the role of religious conflict in destabilizing communities and nations. Everywhere there are important stories of courageous action by faith communities to cross the lines of hostility to make peace. E.g., the NCC led the way to rebuild burned churches in predominantly Black communities of the U.S. and has been active in reconciliation efforts between South and North Korea, between Israel and the Palestinians, and elsewhere. The World Council of Churches is engaged with interreligious conflict in many other places.

6. Human Dignity and Rights. Peace rooted in justice requires respect for the inherent dignity of all persons and the recognition, protection and implementation of the principles of the International Bill of Human Rights, so that communities and individuals may claim and enjoy their universal, indivisible and inalienable rights.

            The pillars of peace pick up themes of, and are thoroughly consistent with, the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the follow-up Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the companion Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The churches, along with international human rights organizations and other concerned NGOs continue to educate the public about human rights, call on governments to respect and enforce the human rights of all their citizens, and push the United Nations to monitor implementation of human rights covenants in every member country.

7. Preservation of the Environment. Peace rooted in justice requires a commitment to the long-term sustainability of the means of life, and profound reorientation of economic systems and individual lifestyles to support ecological justice for human communities in harmony with the whole of creation.

            The 1992 (UNCED) Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro adopted Agenda 21, an ambitious plan of action dealing with many aspects of environmental responsibility including agreements to protect wetlands and deserts, reduce air and water pollution, develop appropriate energy and agricultural technologies, manage toxic chemicals and hazardous waste, and reduce disease and malnutrition. The Summit produced the Convention on Climate Change, which addressed the threat of global warming.

            The Eco-Justice Working Group of the NCC is giving priority to involving churches in policy advocacy and grass roots action to reduce green house gas emissions.

The ecumenical “ecojustice” posture links ecological integrity and social justice, since we will not have one without the other. As part of the National Religious Partnership on the Environment, the NCC has worked for more than a decade to provide important ecumenical leadership for environmental justice.

            The NCC also welcomes the completion of The Earth Charter, a new comprehensive statement of the spiritual vision and values for sustainable living. The Charter presents an integrated sets of four ethical principles focused in turn on:

The Charter’s Principles pick up human rights and peacemaking principles within a fresh focus on what it takes to build a sustainable earth community.

Conclusion

            We live in a world quite different from the world we were born into, a world where God calls us to make a difference by standing up for peace and justice, standing up for care of the Earth, for being advocates for the vulnerable, and for quality of life.

            When I was first elected (in 1974) to the U.S. House of Representatives and was asked if I believed in the separation of church and state, I responded, “Yes, but not the separation of people of faith and institutions of government.” God is asking us to step forward to speak truth to power and to respond to the oppressed, not to be silent or to sit by. In his book published after his murder, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote words that have been written on my mind and heart and that help me understand the urgency of our work at this important time in history:

            We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today…In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time…The tide in the affairs of humanity does not remain at the flood. It ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage. But time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, Too Late.

Let us be on time in caring for people and the Earth, serving peace rooted in justice.

Note: This paper is based on “ The Pillars of Peace for the 21st Century” Study Guide, by Patricia Rumer, Published and distributed by the National Council of Churches office of International Justice and Human Rights, 1999, Room 670, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115  Listing of additional resources are contained in this publication.