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Ecumenical Advocacy Days plenary looks at making the Bible’s prophetic vision meaningful in today’s world

Longtime peace and international development advocates bring wealth of experience to a panel discussion

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Rohit Tandon via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — It fell to a pair of longtime advocates for peace, economic security and Creation care to lay a foundation for turning swords into plowshares during Tuesday’s opening plenary of the Ecumenical Advocacy Days gathering.

Those two were Marie Dennis, former co-president of Pax Christi International and the 2022 Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace, and Dr. Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. The Rev. Michael Neuroth, who chairs EAD’s Executive Committee and is acting director of the United Church of Christ’s Washington, D.C., office, moderated the 90-minute discussion.

The Rev. Michael Neuroth

Noting that the vision in Micah 4:4 is one of people sitting “under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid,” Neuroth asked Dennis and Marshal how the calls for peace and economic security are related.

Pope Francis weaves themes of peace, justice and the preservation of Creation in his writings, Dennis noted. “Economic injustice is itself a form of violence,” Dennis said.

“We are faced with fragile states, collapsed states, states mired in conflict,” including Sudan, Ukraine and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Marshall said. “Unless we can address issues of hope and development that go beyond humanitarian relief and talk of peace, investing in people and allowing them to envisage a better life for themselves and their children, it’s hard to imagine people putting down their weapons … Turning swords into plowshares challenges us to the kind of courage and sacrifice people see in conflict and turn those into a search for peace.”

“I have been struck by the very important stories of nonviolent action in Ukraine and Sudan the last few days,” Dennis said. “It’s a huge challenge to break through our love of violence and violent stories … That reliance as a source of power and status is extremely dangerous.”

Dr. Katherine Marshall

When political and civil service leaders “fail to honor their call to service,” it’s “a cause of deep anger that leads people to despair, which is linked to violence,” Marshall said. “Another issue that has been a wake-up call has been caring for the most marginal, the children who suffer. We need to link that to a hope for broader society, the people in the middle. The call needs to be broadened to a vision that’s inclusive, which brings everyone along and offers hope.”

“Despite signs to the contrary, I believe we are moving toward [Micah’s] vision,” Dennis said. “It is a powerful vision that draws us instinctively.” A few years ago, when Dennis began speaking out more for nonviolence, “the results were skeptical. We are simply not finding that anymore. People are so tired of violence and injustice that the vision offered by Micah is more and more appealing, and we’re looking for ways to implement it. I’m really hopeful.”

“I love Madeleine Albright’s phrase, ‘I’m an optimist who worries a lot,’” said Marshall, who then touched on two themes: the progress made so far and the joy of diversity. “Truly we can end poverty and enjoy lives of peace. That couldn’t have been imagined at the end of World War II.” On diversity — and here Marshall mentioned food, music, the arts, culture and “the stories of so many” — Marshall said it’s “not everyone sitting around the fireside. It’s the possibility of joy and constant learning and savoring what the world has given us. Once they’re more evenly shared, they can be the inspiration for putting aside the swords.”

Marshall pointed out that 84% of the world’s population has some kind of religious affiliation. “This is deeply embedded. Lived religion is too little recognized in many places,” Marshall said. “It goes alongside their gender, ethnicity, economic status, geographic location — so many factors that make up the human condition.” When it comes to passing laws and enacting policy, “how do we ensure our leaders don’t ignore this religious side? Ignoring this important part of the human condition leaves us without a major tool we have to bring about the kind of world we’re looking for.”

Marie Dennis

According to Dennis, people of faith ought to engage in policy advocacy because “they engage without self-interest.”

“There are hundreds of lobbyists who represent a particular interest, but people of faith come at this task … for the common good,” Dennis said, “for the good of people who are often excluded.”

That’s “joyful and fulfilling, but it’s really hard work,” Dennis said. “I count in every corner of the world friends who really do fill me with hope. We do this work because it’s a meaningful and joyful way to spend our lives. That’s a great thing to experience.”

One of the biggest challenges “is to help everyone engage in the task of creating a more just and peaceful world, recognizing they and their loved ones will benefit,” Dennis said. “Some amount of division and pushback may be happening because we are beginning to actually look at the root causes and that’s making people anxious. We have a long way to go to address the depth of racism. A tiny step is that we all now recognize it is systemic and it’s not all about personal prejudice.”

“Those of us with white skin who have been part of a dominant group,” Dennis said, “need to do a lot of respectful listening. There is a lot of deep wisdom from people of many experiences and traditions.”

After three years of a worldwide pandemic, “we are not all in the same boat. Some are clutching at driftwood,” Marshall said. “But we are all facing the same storm. The common storm is a more apt metaphor for what we have lived through and what we have to take stock of.”

“There are so many stories of hope and renewal” that are emerging from Covid, Marshall said. “But without a sense of urgency, we will lack momentum and the possibility of benefitting and moving forward.”

‘I was struck by how deeply that community believed those words were written for them. By claiming their right to return to their own land, they were reclaiming Scripture to be real in their lives.’ — Marie Dennis

Many years ago, Dennis said she had “the great gift” of accompanying a community in El Salvador going back to their land after living in a camp for displaced people. After “a long, hard, risky journey where they were repeatedly stopped by the military,” the 500 or so people stopped as close to their village as they could to unload their trucks and “set up life again.”

“They had a time of prayer together. They read Scripture about the promise that someday they would plant trees and harvest the fruit for themselves and for others,” Dennis said. “I was struck by how deeply that community believed those words were written for them. By claiming their right to return to their own land, they were reclaiming Scripture to be real in their lives.”

“I think we need to believe that too,” Dennis said, the “words of Micah and other prophets, some modern-day prophets, who talk about everyone being under their own vines with no war and no hunger. I believe those promises are for us. We need to participate in making them real in our time so that people have to wait no longer.”

Ecumenical Advocacy Days continues Wednesday and Thursday. Learn more or register here.

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