By Charles deGravelles
They step off the bus and into blinding sunshine and a wind famous for sweeping down the plain. Skirts, hair, and name badges flutter as eyes squint up at the black marble gates of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. The former site of Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is one of a number of American place names — such as Sandy Hook, Aurora, Columbine, and Cabrini Green — that have become synonymous with senseless violence. The planners of “Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace: An Episcopal gathering to challenge the epidemic of violence” chose this city as a place to gather, pray, worship, listen, and learn: here, in 1995, homegrown terrorists with a homemade bomb blew up the Murrah Building, killing 168 people and injuring 680.
The conference drew 220 people from around the country to hear talks and panel discussions, attend workshops, and engage in discussion from a variety of perspectives about one of the most diverse and intractable of human problems and what the Christian gospel offers in response. Among those present were 34 bishops, including Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
The host bishop, the Rt. Rev. Ed Konieczny of the Diocese of Oklahoma, opened the gathering by sharing the story of his own intimate experience of violence: in Konieczny’s nearly 20 years as a police officer in southern California, his partner was shot and killed, and he Konieczny was involved in a gun battle that ended in the death of a suspect. Konieczny acknowledged his own experience and ideas were one point on a wide spectrum of often passionately held views, but he condemned the prevailing attitude that no resolution is possible and that no solutions are within reach.
“My hope,” Koniesczny said, “is that this conference might be a model, an example to others of how differing voices, with often very opposite passions, can come together with honesty, charity, and grace for a common purpose.” Echoing the Baptismal Covenant, Koniesczny said, “Each and every one of us has the power to make a difference. We do it by proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ. We do it by seeking and serving Christ in all people, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We do it by striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.”
Declaring that “This conference has the sense of birth, of an impulse of the Spirit of God,” Archbishop Welby discussed his experiences of international peacemaking in Africa and the Middle East. “I have been involved in mediation and reconciliation work now for over a decade. During that time I have stood by mass graves, most recently in January in the South Sudan, where the bodies of murdered and raped clergy and lay leaders from the Cathedral at Bor lay at the feet of Caroline and myself. I have left countries hurriedly when someone saw violence as the best way of dealing with the threat of peace, and I have variously rejoiced and despaired at the vast number of failures and the very occasional success in challenging cultures of violence.
“We have to have a worked through and thoughtful theological anthropology, an understanding of the nature of the human being, if we are to challenge violence effectively,” Welby said. “Christianity is not pessimistic, but it is very real about the proclivity of human beings to extreme violence, and the better we get at violence the more we use it. That is one of the most horrifying lessons of the 20th century.”
Citing as a model the reconciliation and restoration efforts of Coventry Cathedral and Frauenkirche in Dresden after each was destroyed by bombing in World War II, Welby said, “Reconciliation and an end to violence, or the transformation of violent conflict into non-violent conflict … is something that can only be achieved by sacrifice and by a prophetic stand. There are no shortcuts and no cheap options. We are talking at this point about change in the heart of the human being, and neither technology nor law will alter that.”
The Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton, Bishop of Maryland and one of the planners of the conference, recalled the peace movements of the 20th century, including Gandhi’s independence movement, the American Civil Rights movement and the Solidarity movement in Poland, and the “soul force” that guided them, as inspirations for today. “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. For according to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cure for violence is love.”
Sutton quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., to emphasize the expediency of Christian peacemaking: “Jesus has become the practical realist. … Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, the command [to love others] is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.”
A wide range of practical applications of Christian charity within the Episcopal Church was evident in panels and workshops. Among the presenters were Matthew Ellis, CEO of Episcopal Health Ministries, who described how this network of 2,500 nurses confront intimate-partner violence and elder abuse and minister to returning veterans. Vincent DeMarco of Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence argued for the efficacy of fingerprint licensing of gun owners. The Rev. Kathleen Adams-Shepherd, rector of Trinity Church in Newtown, Connecticut, described expanding works of mercy to victims across the globe that resulted from the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.
After a sobering tour of the memorial and museum, conferees walked two blocks through a bright, gusty evening to St. Paul’s Cathedral, itself damaged in the 1995 blast. Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori preached from the Gospel of Matthew: “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
The Presiding Bishop reminded the congregation that both violence and peace begin in the heart. She remembered nuns in a Roman Catholic school who trained her in “custody of the eyes” — not seeing what distracts and distances us from God and seeing the poor and suffering we are called to serve. Those who follow Jesus must develop and sustain a “custody of the heart,” a vulnerability and openness to the suffering in the world around us in which Christ’s love may grow and galvanize us to actions that will manifest his peace.
Image by Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service