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Archbishop Speaks at Medact Conference

Tuesday 5th September 2017

The Archbishop of York today gave an address at the Medact Conference at the University of York on the title 'Preventing War and Violence – the democratic and civic challenges of peacebuilding'. The address follows in full.

It is good to take part in this conference on building security and peace, and to see these issues framed here as health priorities. Wellbeing and human flourishing.  

The union of peace and health gives us hope for our global future, whereas, there is a lethalbond between war and sickness. This is seen nowhere more clearly than in the conflict in Yemen, where tribal war has escalated into a proxy war between more powerful antagonists.

Devastating cholera and famine have resulted with little hope of a resolution in either health or peace.

I stand before you as someone who has first-hand experience of violent conflict, and have seen its roots and causes as well as its results. I am also here as a Christian focus of unity in the Church of England, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion and part of the church of Jesus Christ in all the world.

This means what I can contribute is informed by what I know of the experience of Anglican sisters and brothers in, amongst other places, South Sudan and Sudan, the Middle East, and in South Korea. Sadly the stakes today are very high. 

Peace and Health. These are two fundamental elements of my trust in God. So I want to consider the role of religion – and specifically the Christian Religion – in peace-building today. And how trust in God can bring together the personal and the global in ways that support health and make peace.

Consider a poor Middle Eastern country, where local communities are suffering from a brutal foreign occupation, and where oppression and injustice flourish under a hated puppet head of state. 

Into this situation comes a new leader bringing good news - help for the poor, healing for the sick and freedom for the oppressed. Jesus Christ was promising change.  But this wasn’t a call to arms which many had hoped for.  His agenda was all about healing - bringing physical, mental and spiritual health to a struggling people. 

War and fighting are destructive of health, and throughout his teaching Jesus emphasises the need for justice, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation and love – even of enemies.  Indeed, the manifesto he sets out in the Beatitudes, illustrates his priorities of peace, mercy, gentleness, humility and goodness as the only way to ensure wholeness of life.

And then take the Apostle Paul, who may be regarded as the “Pioneer” of the world-wide Church.   He battled against the narrow religious understanding of his contemporaries (Jewish and Christian alike), and against the intolerant paganism in the world outside, in order to bring the good news of God in Jesus Christ to Gentiles. Even under persecution he proclaimed that the most excellent way was through ‘Faith , Hope and Love – and the greatest of these is Love’ (1 Corinthians 13:3). These are the gifts which bring health.  A number of studies have shown that having an affirmative religious faith has a positive effect on health; and of course, the benefits of hope and love are enriching both for individuals and for communities.

These are the founding elements of the Church of Jesus Christ and the base from where we act.  Anything else is party spirit, tribalism.

I believe, therefore, that the Christian Religion, properly conceived, is a religion of love and peace and this is a focus which Christians share with members of many other religions – Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs - and Muslims, who often remind us that “Islam” means peace.

Now, I am not naïve. I know that religion has often been treated as a motive for conflict. Religious differences can exacerbate tensions and conflicts between peoples, and this leads secularists to argue that the best way to peace is to marginalise religion.  But those who condemn religious ideals as inherently conflictual, fight no less intensely for their version of fundamental truth. Most of us are familiar with the image of the intolerant liberal.

Where religious belief, or indeed any ideology or world-view falls down – is when the dogma becomes no more than a tribal totem.   So many conflicts – past as well as present – arise from tribal hostilities, and bids for tribal supremacy. What sometimes appear to be religious battles may be essentially clashes of tribal allegiances dressed up in religious clothing.

One thing we know from peacemakers in different world contexts is that there is a moment of enlightenment when protagonists accept that their opponents hold their views with the same seriousness, commitment and passion as they hold theirs. It is encouraging to all sides when we see religions working together to pursue the common good and to seek reconciliation where there is conflict. 

The World Council of Churches is tireless in its efforts to develop ecumenical and inter-faith programmes for peace, providing help for religious leaders in combatting violence; social justice programmes for young people; support for churches in places of conflict

While sometimes churches have been shamefully silent in the face of oppression and injustice, far more often they have been at the forefront of peace action, prophetic resistance and schemes for reconciliation and healing.  Trust in God should be evaluated by its contribution to human flourishing rather than for its failures. 

Let me mention a few of the innumerable examples of interventions where Christian Churches have promoted health and sustained peace-building.

In Gaza, the Anglican Church’s Ahli Arab Hospital provides a haven of peace in the middle of one of the world’s most troubled places. Though daily life is affected by restrictions of movement, electricity, medicines, food, fuel, and personnel, the hospital continues to deliver some of the finest medical care available in the region, with free clinics for preventative medical care and free medical help and food for the surrounding communities. This Hospital stands out as a place of sanctuary and a beacon of peace, health and hope for the whole community whatever their religion.

In Jordan, The Holy Land Institute for the Deaf – a network of the Arab Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East – is an “early responder”, assisting refugees with disabilities and their families since the formation of the Zaatari Refugee Camp in 2012.

And outside the camp, the local church in Jordan is providing all the assistance it can to refugees, both Syrian and Iraqi, living in the community.

The only Deaf School in Cairo, Egypt, is provided by the Anglican Church led by Bishop Mouneer Anis.  The large majority of the children in the school are Muslims.

Since 2014, the Latin Patriarch’s Our Lady of Peace Center has provided housing and shelter for Iraqi families who have fled from ISIS. Working in partnership with other agencies, the Centre provides a range of medical services, including counselling for children traumatised by war.

Churches are also agents of peace and reconciliation in countries scarred by conflict 

·       In Korea, they are bringing together families and communities in a fractured society.

·       In the Solomon Islands, the work of the Melanesian Brothers is bringing together groups torn by ethnic divisions.

·       In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Churches are helping to support and protect victims of gender-based violence.

 

Let us consider some significant factors of Religious involvement in peace-building:

1.       Values – Those involved in these initiatives are motivated, by the calling of their faith, to offer love, compassion and support for their communities.

2.       Access - Religious leaders have unrivalled access to communities, even in the most remote parts of conflict afflicted countries.

3.       Trust – Shared beliefs, understanding and experience, create trust within communities, enabling churches to be quick and effective in responding to humanitarian disaster. Christian Aid has been active in Afghanistan for decades – especially in Herat – and is still there!

4.       Permanence – NGOs come and go, and Government programmes are subject to the vagaries of funding. But the Church has a permanence that garners the trust and the respect of the community. We share people’s lives in good times as well as bad. Present, with them and known by them as neighbours before, during and after, times of trouble.   As I have said, Christian Aid in Afghanistan has served that country for almost 40 years.

5.       Knowledge of communities - Church and religious leaders have a deep knowledge and love of the communities in which they live and serve. They have a unique perspective on the development needs of their communities.

 

Clear Values. Access. Trust. Permanence. Knowledge of communites. 

These qualities underline how important it is that NGOs and Governments, including our own, think more creatively about working with Churches and communities of faith to deliver emergency aid and assistance in conflict, and post-conflict, situations. 

It shows how important it is to strengthen the faith literacy among humanitarian and governmental staff. Sadly, many relief and development staff do not realise the potential in the role of religious organisations and communities, particularly at field level. Opportunities are being missed, and the capacity of churches remains largely uncharted and untapped. 

Agencies and their staff need to be conversant with the growing literature on how to engage with Faith Based Organisations, so that they can draw on the inbuilt advantages and community-understanding of these bodies.  This is ecumenism across the cultures for the benefit of all.  I therefore make a plea for greater mutual understanding and respect between secular and religious-based organisations in the areas of peace and health.  

What we are all working towards are healthy communities. How would I characterise healthy communities?  

They are Communities:

·       which bring together the energies and commitment of many people to work together for the common good – including the hard and often thankless work of peacebuilding and sustaining peace.

·       where the basic means of existence are available to all.

·       where children are nurtured and the elderly and sick are cared for.

·       where hope is alive and not crushed by the abuse of power.

Healthy communities do not just happen. They grow from deep shared roots, embedded in time and place.  That is one reason why the displacement of people as a result of conflict is so hugely harmful to human wellbeing. 

Healthy communities need shared stories of hope, shared values and shared traditions. That is how children learn what is good. That is how all of us learn how to serve the common good. 

And I want to suggest today that a very good reason to take religious belief and action very seriously is not simply that it motivates people to seek for justice and peace – although it does. 

It is not simply that religion teaches people to support the weak and vulnerable – although it does. 

It is because religious belief and action offers the shared stories and traditions of hope and love which help people make sense of their world and to thrive in communities.

Communities which do not just serve their own, but which embody a vision for the flourishing of the world and all the people in it; communities motivated by a deep belief in a loving God, working practically for peace and seeking the health of all.

The National Council of Churches in South Korea is such a community. Two weeks ago they wrote to President Moon Jae-in, expressing their hope to see a peaceful reunification of South and North Korea. Since then tensions have only increased. They wrote, “To make matters worse, President Trump has declared that ‘North Korea would face fire and fury, one never witnessed by the world. Military tension is at its height in the Korean peninsula and there is fear of war spreading among the people. The lives of the people in South Korea should not be threatened by the provocative acts of the US and North Korea. The road to peace is a difficult one........We cannot start sincere dialogues when we place blame for the opponent’s extreme actions or when we insist on various pre-conditions for dialogue.”

May the voice of religion in building healthy, peaceful, communities and nations, be heard, embraced and encouraged.

Medact is a charity and non-profit organisation formed of health professionals advocating for peace and security, the environment, human rights and economic justice.

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