Did we find Peace in Assisi?

Peace is hard to come by. Ask John Kerry and his Russian equivalent Sergei Lavrov in their intermittent successes at finding a Syrian cease-fire.

In the 20th century 231 million died in wars and conflicts.  Even so Stewart Pinker (Harvard) said five years ago, “we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence,” followed by Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, one year later, that today our world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.” Pinker makes his assertion based on the percentage of killings to world population, Dempsey on actual numbers killed.

If you are a mother or father in Aleppo scrounging for food or pulling your child out from under rubble, cut and crying or dead, what do Pinker and Dempsey mean to you?

Who can or will bring peace? Is it possible? Or are we doomed to just limiting what destroys peace? Or softening its blows? Mitigating its causes? Providing safe zones so combatants can bash each other’s brains out?

Assisi in Italy, a picture-perfect town on a hill, awash in autumn shadows, warm and subtly lit by a glowing sun showing off the surrounding valley and churches of all kinds, was a reminder of its favorite son, Saint Francis of Assisi.

Surely he is an iconic figure of peace. His story is a good reminder of why his memory matters and why we look to his life and words for spiritual counsel in this intractable issue. A matter made worse by those who we think can do something and then don’t.

Coming from a wealthy home, in early days Francis was a wild sort of guy. Jailed for ransom, he was released and in time, hearing a clear call for service, abandoned his privilege and gave his life for the poor. A story tells of his attempt to bring about peace during the fifth crusade with the Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt. His effort to convert the Sultan didn’t work, but, as the story goes, he proposed they set a fire and a Christian and Muslim enter. If the Christian survived, the Sultan would convert. The Sultan did not agree.

In Assisi this September many people of various faiths met at Assisi 30, Thirst for Peace. It was called by the Community of Sant’Egidio, [you can read of them in an earlier Dispatch] a lay movement located in Rome, known for its active community on prayer and Bible study, work among disabled and poor and especially, their interventions on peace. They brokered an end to the civil war in Mozambique in the early1990s and were part of the most recent peace accord in the Central African Republic.

Thirty years ago John Paul II brought together Christians and other faiths to reflect on peace. This week, Pope Francis, reinforcing his image as a do-something pope, was the key speaker. On the closing day, Christians held their own service. The concluding event later that day was a series of speeches but no intermingling of prayers.

How do we find peace?

Peace, a reason for the existence of countless NGOs, finds its pinnacle at the UN and its multi agencies. We wonder, “How are we doing on peace?” By peace, I’m asking at the most violent level. For us all, a lack of peace strikes us in ourselves, our families and communities. That matters, but for today, we wonder about how we might achieve peace in Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, and hot spots of warfare bubbling up around the world.

Ask the question and answers will swing the gamut: from raw cynicism over the UN and its associates to smarmy and self-congratulatory speechmakers, stating the obvious party line.

Travelling in places of dispute I’ve seen UN peacekeepers ridiculed for their inability to affect a truce or keep warring factions apart. One just needs to mention Rwanda in that sentence. Yet I’ve climbed the hills of Lesbos Greece, following refugees who just arrived by rubber dingy across the Aegean Sea, watching as UN peacekeepers wearing their Blue berets, gently led them to safety.

Debate will swirl about as to its value, benefits and ideological framework of the UN. That for another time. In this Dispatch my mind is crowded with those at Assisi. As Lily and I wend our way back over the Atlantic, I wonder, what is the value of Christian leaders devoting time and resources to global peace? Without painting with too broad a brush, apart from Mennonites, my Evangelical tribe has talked little about this and given even less time and effort towards it. Much like other aspects of our public engagement, our focus has been on eternal well-being, a focus on peace in the inner life now and in eternity. Our trust in global groups to bring about peace is minimal and confidence that Main Line Protestants and Roman Catholics can carry the can on this is minimal too.

Why is that so? First we see peacemaking as a geo/political activity, requiring forces equipped to protect the vulnerable. In other words, the ability to protect requires such massive and empowering forces that only governments with authority or capacity are a match for it. Notch this up a peg and the multi-global networks such as NATO take this level of peacemaking out of the hands of individuals, churches and communities.

Second, we fundamentally understand that conflict, war, and genocide, are expressions of evil. It isn’t the “bad guy,” “good guy” routine. It’s more radical, yes more fundamental in its essence. It pictures the macro system of our creation. Cain killed Able out of a pervasive spirit of evil we might call jealousy. But its origin is the spirit of evil. We create our lists of psychological derangements and make equivalence of evil. We draft sociological categories so we can better see sources of conflict. Much of this is helpful in getting a lay of the land. But it never eclipses the presence and activity of evil: read again the story of Job. Peter called the devil “a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  

Seeing pain and destruction strangle peace by the throat, we support the military to do what they are created to do. But if we cast this discussion within a framework of good battling evil, what then should be our response?

A Thirst for Peace
This brings us back to Thirst for Peace in Assisi. Unmistakably run as a Roman Catholic event, under Sant’Egidio, their wideness in invitation includes a variety of religions and their speakers. “Interfaith dialogue” is the ubiquitous line. Trusting the process of dialogue is their methodological master. There were frequent references to “love” as essential in all religions. Materialism, the arms industry, all were castigated. Japanese Buddhists invoked the memory of the Atomic bomb and their own victimization. Disagreements were many on who should support whom in Syria. A mother gave her moving testimony in fleeing Syria. Pastor Harutium Selimian from Aleppo told what it was like to live there. There was no shortage of solidarity. We were all against war. We all want peace. We stood shoulder to shoulder against civil strife and outside aggression. Speeches were many. Good stuff too. We may have been well served if St Francis’ example of humility and prayer had become the model around which we conversed as a precursor to the Spirit engaging us. There is always the danger that religious communities in such events cast the problem as being that of “others.”

Please don’t get me wrong. Words matter. They set the tone. They craft the framing of expectations. They declare without equivocation what is not acceptable. Peace is also an issue for us all. The Japanese know better than most what it means to have their own atomized. 

Here is where I land. Given God’s creation is material and spiritual, what is seen and unseen, the battle ground of good and evil finds its zones within local political, social, ethnic and economic disputes. They become kindling that evil torches into blazing infernos.

We may not – at least now, and I speak of my Christian community – spend resources and time to link with others religions and Christian communities to work on peace. What we do know and profess is the biblical call to prayer, an exercise in which we seem to feel we have some proficiency. Prayer is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal of defence.

Within the many prayer groups in the Evangelical world, targeting prayer on peace would be a welcomed initiative. Let’s pray for specifics. Find a person, pastor, politician, doctor, mother, father, and teenager by name. Pray about something that comes to mind: they would be protected; they would get work; they could attend school. Take five minutes a day to pray for that one, a prayer of intercession. Press in on God. He can take it. Indeed, he welcomes it.

A final caveat: time is coming when we will need to accept our responsibility to effect global and regional peace initiatives. Being twenty five percent of the Christian population, we can’t ignore our role much longer. I know the objections and many of those I understand. But that doesn’t allow us to drop the mantel of our anointing.

Peace requires people strong in faith, bold in asking, praying to our Father, exercising our rights as his children, defending those who don’t understand the underlying realities or too exhausted to pray for themselves. This meeting in Assisi was a helpful step in commanding our attention that each of us has a role in speaking about and being used by God to introduce and enact peace.

Peace doesn’t come in sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya.


Brian C. Stiller, Global Ambassador
World Evangelical Alliance
September, 2016

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