Colombians ask: “Peace? What peace?”

Lilia Solano, a human rights defender who was one of the organisers of Peace, What Peace?

In recent days, I participated in a zoom-based conference with the Peace Commission of Colombia’s Senate. Since a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the largest guerrilla army, the FARC, was signed in 2016, implementation has not gone well.

By the end of 2020, at least 238 former fighters had been murdered—victims of targeted assassinations.

Meanwhile, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented more than 400 slayings of human rights defenders since 2016, of which 108 happened in 2019 and 53 in 2020. Human rights defenders include community, small-farmer, women, LGBTI, Indigenous, and Afro-Colombian leaders as well as activists for the rights of victims and their families.

My own presentation followed those of some of my friends and heroes: 

  • Former Senator Piedad Córdoba, who led efforts to free people who had been captured by the FARC in years before the peace accords
  • The Portuguese activist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who said that “what has prevailed until now is neoliberal peace” that only opens space for transnational corporations. What has to change are the conditions that led young people to join the guerrillas.
  • From ecumenical colleagues came the reminder that the struggle for peace with justice must be global. Rudelmar Bueno de Faria of the ACT Alliance noted the role of religion in the conflict in Colombia, warning that history will not forgive those who have “played with the peace processes.”

In my remarks, I went a bit further regarding the questionable role of religious organizations in the search for peace.

I was at the marvellous ecumenical seminary in Matanzas, Cuba, in October 2016, when news came that a referendum to approve Colombia’s peace agreement had failed. It was quickly understood that fundamentalist Christians had intervened in the public debate, and rallied their bases to vote no by arguing that the peace agreement promoted “gender ideology” and would destroy the family. In reality, the FARC rebel army had acknowledged its crimes against women and LGBTI people, and apologized. Both sides pledged to do better on gender justice and the rights of LGBTI people.

For me, having worked with faith-based organisations in Colombia and their allies abroad since 1993, the vote result and the reality that some Christians worked against peace, was a disappointment. I had seen people like Lilia Solano (pictured above), a Mennonite who works among human rights NGOs and in Colombia’s legislative branch, and Fr. Javier Giraldo, the Jesuit human rights defender and founder of the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, risk their lives for peace. I thought of friends who are leaders of the Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Mennonite Churches and Roman Catholic religious communities who would share my disappointment, together with people in organisations like the DiPaz inter-church peace coalition, the Mesa Ecuménica por la Paz, and the popular educators and trainers of community journalists at CEPALC.

Their persistent witness guided me when I spoke the next morning to people who were gathered at the seminary to celebrate its 70th anniversary and to consider the future of ecumenical theological education in Latin America and the Caribbean, I said it seemed to me that the voices of moderate or progressive Christians were marginalised or discounted in a climate of fear generated by the shrill voices of the Christian right and their political backers. That day in Cuba, I said:

“A good theological education, offers ways to read the bible, to interpret scripture, to understand the limits church authority in civil society. In a good theological school, one learns to use the Bible to interpret the Bible, to use the texts that we have of the teachings of Jesus about the love of God and of neighbour so as to understand other parts of the bible. Without good theological education—and, by extension, good Christian education within the churches—the public square is surrendered to the most retrograde and hate-filled voices of Christian fundamentalism, empty of love and forgiveness.”

My remarks Thursday, March 18, to the Colombian Senate’s peace conference took up similar themes.

“This increase of inequality and violence contrasts with the experience of churches and social movements that uphold fullness of life and defend the dignity of women and LGBTI people. They create spaces for mutual listening, weaving networks and planting seeds of peace and justice as they raise their voices for a world of greater solidarity.

“Those of us who are too often the objects—and victims—of hate speech need your voices, you artisans of peace, and of religious leaders who promote an understanding of Christianity that is inclusive and respectful of diversity, who promote contextual and liberation theologies, who can join dialogue over differences and are reflections of the reality in which we live: who speak, in the end, of the love that should exist among all of us

“In place of fear and prejudice, let us build alliances of solidarity across all borders.”

One boat, one storm? Some youthful inspirations for mutual support

News reports last week said that levels of hunger in Central America have almost quadrupled in the past four years, a consequence of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 and years of extreme climate events. 

That news set me to thinking about that comforting notion that the pandemic has somehow placed us all in the same boat—and then as well to the reactions to it: we may be in the same storm, but we’re in different boats. 

I first encountered the metaphor of a lifeboat to represent all of humanity when I was very young, perhaps 12 years old. My parents thought it was important that we hear a presentation by Dr. Robert McClure, the renowned medical missionary who was serving as Moderator of The United Church of Canada (1968-71). He was best known for his years of service in China in the decades before the triumph of the revolution in 1949, but he served after that in many parts of the world. 

The auditorium of Kelowna’s First United Church was full, and we sat near the back. My memory is that Dr. McClure used the technology of the time, an overhead projector, and that one of the images was a simple line drawing of people in a boat. Most of them were at one end of the boat, and the boat looked like it was about to capsize. On the other hand, it may be that his words enabled me to make in my mind a drawing of the boat that he described. His point was about global distribution of resources. Some of us have too much; others nothing at all. It is one boat one planet: your stuff won’t save you.

Not quite a decade later, I met Dr. McClure again. We were both at the United Church’s Naramata Centre at the end of April 1978. 

And, surprise, I found my notes of the event. He was in Naramata to speak at a United Church men’s conference; I was there with a very ecumenical group of about 40 youth that was attached to the Kamloops Okanagan Presbytery, and with which I stayed connected over several years during breaks from my studies in Ottawa. I had not remembered this, but my notes say that our resource person for the weekend was Gary Paterson, then the minister of the United Church congregation in Winfield, BC; decades later he too would be a Moderator. And it was Gary who introduced Dr. McClure to our group in a Saturday afternoon gathering in the upper room of a building called The Loft.

He began by “taking us” in a Concorde super-sonic jet, six-and-a-half-hours from London to Singapore. “Our world isn’t shrinking. It’s shrunk, and will continue to do so.” He spoke for about 35 minutes, and concluded: “Canada is your blessing. Now: what will you do with it?”

In between, he told us of his life in Toronto, where he lived on the 19th floor of an apartment building. He told us of the rules designed for safe living: you are not to talk to your neighbours; walk only in well-lit areas, etc. 

Then he spoke of the river people of Sarawak (a Malaysian state on north coast of northern Borneo). “They live in long houses, like an apartment building turned on its side.” The long houses were divided into small apartments, side-by-side, each family having a part that was its own. “They’ve been there for 3,000 years,” he said. “They adopted this system of mutual support.” The apartments were joined together by a long, covered verandah over the river. “Neighbours are close and friends are forever.”

He offered an example. “My hospital was near the river mouth. A woman came down—a week-long journey in each direction—for a hysterectomy. I asked her, ‘Where are your children? How could you leave your children?’ ‘Oh, but doctor,’ she said, ‘we’re long-house people. The neighbours will care for them while I’m gone. Next month when my neighbour comes down, I’ll care for her children. We’re long-house people.’”

That’s mutual support. “When you’re invited to a wedding in Borneo, it’s a commitment for you too. You pledge to see that Joe and Sally will stay together, and when problems arise, you go see Joe and tell him to get his act together, and you can bet Sally will be told something by the women. One marriage in a thousand breaks down. That’s mutual support.”

He talked about the role of youth in other countries that he had visited. Read 42 years later, some of his examples of youthful collaboration seem debateable—Singapore in the years when Lee Kuan Yew exercised firm control—but the point was that governments should trust youth with more responsibility for positive social change, and that youth should take advantage of the responsibility they have now.

Twice, then, I was inspired by McClure to think of issues in their global dimensions. In subsequent years, I learned more about him and about China and about the role of Canadian missionaries there. 

Dr. McClure is sometimes held in tension with the life and witness of Canadian supporters of the Chinese Revolution, including Rev. James Endicott, a United Church missionary, and Dr. Norman Bethune (son of a Presbyterian minister) who died in 1939 while serving as a battlefield surgeon with one of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary armies. 

While I tend to the Endicott and Bethune sides of those political and theological reflections, I also celebrate McClure’s choice to live most of his life among the impoverished and marginalized peoples of the Earth, and his challenge to the rest of us to use our blessings to care for each other and the planet.

As I was putting together these notes about my memories of Dr. McClure, I was invited by a friend to see actors in a Zoom reading of a new play, China 1938, by Diane Forrest held March 8. Forrest is a writer and editor long involved in Alumnae Theatre’s new play development group and is also co-author with McClure of a 1988 volume, Vintage McClure. The play tells the story of the single encounter between McClure and Bethune in China in 1938, and is told from the perspective of the one woman who knows what happened: McClure’s widow, Amy. This play is also an inspiration, and I hope that (after the pandemic), it gets a full stage treatment.

Churches, development and the crisis in the multilateral system

Oct. 21, 2018

Panel on human rights, faith and sustainable development

This year marked the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In their final declaration, the religious leaders who attended the recent G20 Interfaith Forum in Buenos Aires noted the religious “inspiration and moral teachings of the religions” in the Declaration, and they re-affirmed their commitment to defend human rights. They also expressed concern for the course of globalization that has produced new forms of slavery, and rejected all forms of human trafficking.

The global partnership program of The United Church of Canada supports the work of CREAS, a centre that provides training and support to faith-based organizations (FBOs) across Latin America and the Caribbean. Like other ecumenical initiatives that we support—from the World Council of Churches to KAIROS—CREAS engages with political and economic systems to open space for discussion of ethical values.

During the G20 Interfaith Forum panel on religious liberty, Elena López Ruf (at left, in photo above), the religion and development program manager at CREAS, said her organization works with others on sustainable development goals (SDGs) to bring perspectives that reflect moral and ethical values to that common agenda. These, she said, are centred on the human person and, as the SDGs proclaim, are to ensure that “no one is left behind.”

In a subsequent panel on human rights, faith and sustainable development, Elena and two colleagues from the Argentina office of the UN Development Program described how they work together and with others to achieve SDG 17 (“partnerships for the goals”). This is a process to work among FBOs to exert influence on implementation of all the goals. FBOs bring an ethical dimension to the SDGs, and recognition of the role of religious organizations in development. Such recognition is now greater than before, Elena said. “Development is not just economic; it is integral and multi-dimensional, including religion,” she added.

During the period after World War II, as the concept and structures of international development were being created, global leaders may have thought religion would simply disappear as education improved and secularism took hold. In a sense, the UNDP work with CREAS in Argentina is a kind of pilot project of how UNDP can work with FBOs in ways that measure results of proposals, actions and projects. Marcos Lópes of the Christian Aid office in Brazil said this is “not just green-washing,” but is rather “promoting a new future.” Elena noted some historic elements—some as recent as Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudate Si’ (May 2015). The encyclical speaks of integral development, though not explicitly of the SDGs that were launched a few months later.

This discourse about religion and development reflects what I heard a year ago in Geneva at an ecumenical gathering on diakonia and sustainable development. And I think it’s good that FBOs press governments harder on ethical dimensions of development—including human trafficking, impacts of climate change, mass migration, gross inequality, and gender justice.

Multilateral systems of development, human rights, under threat

But I worry sometimes that the cost of access to such tables is dilution of the justice messages. The times we live in require prophetic voices.

Together with the human rights declaration, the notion of international development was born in the late 1940s as nations re-ordered their relationships in the wake of the two disastrous world wars. They created new institutions to shape political and economic relations, and to bring the global “south” (or “third world,” we used to say) into this new order.

In June, when Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland received an award as diplomat of the year, she talked about a “rules-based” international order that was under threat from what she called “authoritarianism.”

We may differ about which rules—trade rules, for example, are made for corporations, not for people’s well-being or the environment. The authoritarians she mentioned most often were leaders of Russia and (incorrectly, I believe) Venezuela. But I think she was also levelling criticism at the right-wing populists who are taking over in the United States, Philippines, Turkey, Colombia—and more locally, in Ontario and now Quebec. In Brazil, perhaps the worst of them all may win power in an election at the end of October.

“The truth is that authoritarianism is on the march—and it is time for liberal democracy to fight back,” said Freeland.

Part of the problem is that liberals (and social democrats) seem to forget the struggle to win rights from the old land-owning elites, even while it’s the spiritual heirs of the old elites who are winning power today.

A few days after the G20 forum, during a round-table meeting of CREAS with its global partners, a panel tried to address the issues of this “epoch-changing” time. We celebrated proposals to address issues and systems. It’s not that we’re doing nothing. But we need to “cut the distances not only between our projects and communities and partners, but also between countries and communities and religions.”

In our times, we all face the same perils. We must continue to build alliances North and South for, in the words of Pope Francis, the benefit of “the poor and the Earth, our common home.”