By Institute of Mennonite Studies staff
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — On Tuesday, March 10, 2020 (before in-person gatherings were limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic), theology and peacebuilding faculty from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, and Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, as well as other invited guests and students, gathered on the AMBS campus for a Theology and Peacebuilding Consultation.
The consultation brought together peace theologians and peacebuilding scholars from different Anabaptist institutions for a daylong conversation about the state of their respective fields and to brainstorm together how they might cooperate in an interdisciplinary way toward developing a theologically robust theory and practice of peacebuilding.
In the morning sessions, six scholars presented their proposals, with each presentation followed by an invited respondent and time for feedback from the group. In the afternoon sessions, invited guests led open-ended discussions about how to move forward in light of what was presented in the morning sessions.
After a welcome by Beverly Lapp, Ed.D., vice president and academic dean at AMBS, Rachel Miller Jacobs, D.Min., associate professor of congregational formation at AMBS, began the first morning panel, on peace theology, by presenting a paper titled “At-one-ing ordinary harm,” in which she drew attention to the role of forgiveness and reconciliation in response to ordinary, nonmoral harms in contrast to the typical focus in theology and peacebuilding on how to respond to extraordinary moral harms. Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, M.A.T.S., Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism coordinator at AMBS, offered an appreciative response in which she noted how Jacobs’ analysis can helpfully deescalate conversations about racism and other unacknowledged biases.
Malinda Elizabeth Berry, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and ethics at AMBS, then presented “‘Let Us Make Them in Our Image’: Gender and the Methodological Considerations of Shalom Political Theology,” in which she asked the question, “How do I draw men as readers into women-centered theological work that’s intended for every-body?” Maxwell Kennel, Ph.D. student in religious studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, responded by highlighting the ways Berry’s work helpfully resists “disassociation” between one’s life and scholarship.
To conclude the peace theology panel, Andrew Suderman, Ph.D., assistant professor in theology, peace and mission at EMU, presented “Re-Claiming Our Power: Assuming Political Agency in the Quest for Peace,” drawing on his work as a Mennonite Church Canada Witness Worker in South Africa, where he and his wife, Karen, helped coordinate the Anabaptist Network in South Africa. In response, Jamie Pitts, Ph.D., associate professor of Anabaptist studies at AMBS, pressed Suderman to develop his account of power and politics further so as to better account for the ways in which the aims of church and state have often overlapped, despite the avowed “division of labor” between church and state that Suderman attributed to the legacy of Constantinianism.
Timothy Seidel, Ph.D., who teaches politics, development and peacebuilding in the Department of Applied Social Sciences and the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU, kicked off the second morning panel, on peacebuilding, with his paper “Exploring Religion and the Post-Secular in the Borderlands of Theology and Peacebuilding.” Seidel expressed misgivings about the secular bias in North American and European-centric models of peacebuilding and asked what possibilities have been closed off because of this bias. He argued for breaking down the binary between the religious and the secular in order to better listen to the voices and experiences of marginalized communities. Respondent Sheherazade Jafari, Ph.D., director of the Point of View International Research and Retreat Center at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, affirmed Seidel’s post-secular, decolonial line of thought as it applies to religion and peacebuilding theory and practice.
Johonna Turner, Ph.D., assistant professor of restorative justice and peacebuilding at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU, then presented “Womanist Peacebuilding Ethics: In the Time of #Black Lives Matter and #MeToo Movements.” Turner called attention to what she called “holistic anti-violence organizing” as a contemporary tradition of peacebuilding. She offered a post-colonial, womanist, anti-violence theology, with which she found resonance in the Anabaptist foci of community, nonviolence and radical discipleship. By focusing on black women’s experiences of self-determination, self-agency and storytelling, Turner offered what she called a “radical, Anabaptist womanist” theology. Respondent Melody Pannell, M.S.W., M.Div., independent scholar, social work practitioner, and founder of Destiny’s Daughters, described Turner’s approach to peacebuilding as a process of weaving or braiding a number of strands of hair together. She noted that the process might look messy, but the end result comes together beautifully.
In the final presentation of the morning, Janna Hunter-Bowman, Ph.D., assistant professor of peace studies and Christian social ethics at AMBS, presented “Witnessing Peace: Becoming Agents Under Duress in Colombia,” in which she drew on her experiences with communities in Colombia to offer an account of constructive agency under duress. Her account juxtaposed what she called messianic “now time” with gradual time, both of which inform the other in the process of creating what John Paul Lederach calls “just peace.” In response, Peter Dula, Ph.D., associate professor of religion and culture at EMU, commended Hunter-Bowman for allowing the voices and experiences of Colombian communities to speak into and challenge peacebuilding theories rather than imposing the theories onto the experiences of the people.
In the first afternoon session, Gerald Schlabach, Ph.D. (M.A.T.S. 1990), professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, reflected on the voices that were still missing in the discussion. While he commended the presenters for centering marginalized voices, he raised the question of whether marginalized voices were being selectively appropriated and asked whether there were other voices that might challenge some of the perspectives of the presenters further. In addition to voices from the majority world, Schlabach mentioned traditional Amish communities as another resource for peacebuilding.
Nekeisha Alayna Alexis discussed the need to expand theologies of peacebuilding to include the wellbeing of non-human animals and creation more holistically. She also challenged presenters to consider how their own eating practices might align with their peace theology.
To close the consultation, David C. Cramer, Ph.D., managing editor of the Institute of Mennonite Studies and sessional faculty in theology and ethics at AMBS, offered concluding remarks, in which he synthesized the presentations into what he called an “ordinary, organic theology of anti-violence peacebuilding.”
Participants and attendees were energized by the lively discussions throughout the day. One peace studies professor in attendance said that this was the kind of discussion he had been waiting on for decades. AMBS and Goshen College students in attendance were likewise enthused by the exchange of ideas among their professors. Participants left optimistic about the possibilities of ongoing collaboration between peace theologians and peacebuilding scholars at AMBS, EMU and beyond. By the end of the day, there was discussion about planning a subsequent consultation to continue the momentum.
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