Leadership Conference of Women Religious

Like us on Facebook

Presidential Address by Constance Phelps, SCL

No Longer By-Standers: Creating Peace in Violent Times
Some Reflections on Peace by Constance Phelps, SCL


Good morning.
We come together; together we speak, together we share with you.  We hope we model the collaboration we seek as our two conferences meet jointly in this 2004 Assembly. 

Years ago, I had the opportunity to do research in West Africa.  While there I learned a cardinal point in the understanding of the African view of persons: 

“Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group 
And whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual.
The individual can only say I am because we are; and since we are therefore, I am.”  (John Mbiti)

I think I can apply that cardinal point here.  As individuals Ron and I come before you bringing our whole groups with us.  Since, we see from where we stand, each of us stands before you imbued with our personal family background, gender, ethnicity, education, culture, experiences, and ministry.  And quiet as it has been kept; Ron and I are somewhat different.  Therefore, we see from different perspectives, we see from where we stand.  So, as we share with you, and you share with one another, we hope we will all come to understand more fully, more deeply the theme of our Assembly. 


(Ron Witherup SS Speaks)

Section I – Peace:  what it is; what it is not; what blocks it

 As the Assembly theme indicates, there are two basic concepts:  violence and peace.  I want to spend some time with peace, peacemaking, peacebuilding.  This we need to do this prior to considering “creating peace?”

 As Ron has demonstrated, in order to discuss any concept, we need to define it, or at least describe it. Peace is a word that has a myriad of meanings and nuances.  I offer just some.  Obviously you may add others that indicate your understanding of the word, the concept, and your experience of the reality of peace. 


Peace:  (run the PowerPoint of synonyms)
accordaccordanceaffinityagapeagreementamityarmisticeawful silencebonds of harmony,breathing spellcalmcalmnesscease-fire,  communionconsonancecontemplationconvenience,cooperationdeathlike silencedemilitarized zonefrictionlessness,  golden silenceharmoniousness,harmonyhushimperturbabilityinaudibilitynirvananoiselessnessonenessorder

 What would it take to live in a “peace culture?  Elise Boulding says a “peace culture is a culture that promotes peaceableness.  Such a culture would include lifeways and patterns of belief, values, and behavior that promote peaceful relationships, and peacebuilding, and accompanying institutional arrangements the promote well-being, equality, stewardship and equitable sharing of the Earth’s resources.  It represents security for humankind without the need to resort to violence.  In other words, peaceableness is an action-concept, involving a constant shaping and reshaping of understanding, situations and behaviors in a constantly changing world, to sustain individual and collective well being.”  (Elise Boulding, “What is a Peace culture?”  Breakthrough News Global Education Associates, January – April 1999)

 I question however, do we live in a world that prevents us from achieving whatever state the words describing peace convey?  What in our culture blocks peace and peacemaking? Let me share some images from our current reality that illustrates divisiveness, violence, tension that are adverse to peaceableness.  

 First Image:  On a highway in Muscogee County, Georgia, four black men are pulled over by sheriff’s deputies, have guns pointed directly in their faces, and are then thrown to the ground.   The men are unarmed; there are no drugs on their person or in their car. But before the ordeal ends, a 39 year old Kenneth Walker is dead from two gunshots to the head. 

No, this isn’t 50-year-old history; it is two month old history.   According to the sheriff, Mr. Walker was shot after failing to follow a direct command from the deputy to show both of his hands.  The deputy felt his life was threatened and therefore he fired two bullets into Mr. Walker’s forehead.  The Sheriff’s Department has since admitted that a grave mistake was made – that they were acting on an informant’s tip that four heavily-armed drug traffickers were driving a similar vehicle.  The deputy involved in the shooting has been placed on administrative leave with pay.

 Second Image:   a list of polarities that are in tension with each other in our Church and perhaps in some of our own religious communities.  Among those identified by Ronald Rolheiser, OMI are the tension between:

- the liberal and the conservative
- the theological and the devotional
- the liturgical and the pastoral
- Word and Eucharist
- social justice and private morality
- prophecy and diocesan structures
- ecumenism and denominational commitment
- community and individual charism
- aesthetics and simplicity of life
 (Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, “Setting Our Ecclesial Gauges”

 Third Image:   Crises in our world: 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and the deep frustration over the stalled peace process, continued violence and the construction of the West Bank barrier.

Iraq – Will the fighting and terrorist attacks cease?  Will Iraqis come together in the spirit of national unity and reconciliation, through a process of open dialogue and consensus-building to lay down a secure foundation for the new Iraq.

Sudan -another instance of ethnic cleansing as we see the catastrophic humanitarian and human rights situation in Darfur.  The crisis is expected to last through 2005 and well into 2006

 These images, these issues are just a part of what makes us the social reality in which we live.  They illustrate the absence of peace, the absence of loving and just relationships.  They illustrate how we deal with difference. They illustrate a culture, a world rife with divisiveness, violent images, polarities, tensions, diversity. Images such as these are a barometer of just how peaceable society is.

The possibilities of the transformation of our current war-and violence-prone international system into an interconnected world of peaceful problem-solvers who use technology to nurture the planet rather than stress it, are real – perhaps greater than we think.


We remember Martin Luther King, Jr. Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Dalai Lama, Cesar Chavez, Desmond Tutu, and Thich Nhat Hanh as people whose lives modeled peaceableness.  From them, and other visionaries and practitioners we learned that good, effective peacemaking is a balance of head and heart. Authentic, effective peacemaking requires us to engage head and heart with real people in real, often in heartrending and difficult, situations.  It is not about forcing others to accept our position.  It does, however, include accepting differences while finding points of agreement.

 Building peace is a very intense process that requires a lot of patience, humility and stamina. However, it is not an easy process for any process of conversion and social transformation requires conscious choices and persistence by many in all cultures and societies.  But it is a very rewarding process.

 I invite you now to reflect on some questions at the heart of our presentation.   

Questions for table conversations I:  (Power Point)

How would you define or describe violence?  In what way(s) have you participated in or been affected by violence?

How would you define or describe peace?  In what way(s) have you participated in or been affected by peace/peacemaking?
(8 minutes) – Begin:  Peace is Flowing Like a River


(Ron Witherup SS speaks)

Section II – Religion’s impact on peace/peacemaking/peacebuilding

 Religious organizations make important and significant contributions to international peacemaking. Their styles of such peacemaking are dependent on the theology and tradition of the religious bodies involved.  Christian and nonChristian religious traditions have statements that flow from their religious tenets or scriptures embracing peace, peacemaking, peacebuilding.

 The Mennonites say:   “We choose to be peacemakers because we believe it to be the faithful response to our decision to follow Jesus.  We have decided to reject the option of violence believing that peace is not only possible, but often practical.  We choose love.  We choose life.”  (Mennonite Church Peace and Justice Committee)

 Some Buddhists believe they can clear themselves of definition and restore awareness and appreciation by sincerely sending a blessing into the world.  Each time the bell is rung, all who hear it receive the blessing:  “May you be free of pain and sorrow and find peace and enlightenment.”

 Thich Nhat Hanh from his monastery founded to train people in Buddhist spirituality and nonviolence, tells us.  “In each of us, there is a certain amount of peace and certain amount of non-peace, a certain amount of violence and a certain amount of nonviolence.  We must work on ourselves. If we work for peace out of anger, we will not succeed.  Peace is not an end; it can never come about through non-peaceful means.  To create a peaceful society, we have to transform the anger and defuse the bombs that are in us . . . Most important,” he says, “is to be peace so that when a situation presents itself, we will not create more suffering.”  (Thich Nhat Hanh Love in Action:  Writing on Nonviolent Social Change, 1993)

Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) advocates nonviolence and trains others in the methodologies of nonviolence because of their religiously based pacifist conviction.  Organizations like United Religions Initiatives and World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) give priority to promoting reconciliation among religious groups that are in conflict.  I could go on. 
The point is:   religion has its impact on peace, peacemaking, peacebuilding.

 The Catholic Church has its official Catholic vision of peace flowing from our church documents consisting of human rights, development, solidarity, and world order.  This is the vision that guides the peace work of the pope, the Vatican, episcopal conferences, and individual bishops.  I might add that until recently, it placed less emphasis on conflict resolution and transformation.  

 In addition, each conference and most member congregation in this room has some form of Peace and Justice Committee.  These groups set the direction of our congregational work of peace/justice flowing from the Gospel as well as our own congregational charisms.  Many of us belong to NETWORK, Pax Christi and other Catholic based organizations dedicated to peace and peacebuilding. We support groups such as Catholic Relief Services who assess a project’s impact on justice and peace as one important indicator of the project’s value.  Groups like Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay organization based in Rome with a U.S. branch, have made dramatic interventions to promote peace in Mozambique, Burundi, Congo, Algeria, Kosovo, and elsewhere.  Its peacemaking style is deeply rooted in Catholic tradition and theology.
The Catholic Church, both in the United States and worldwide, has an impressive record of peacemaking initiatives and accomplishments.


That said, we still must sit with the questions concerning our call as Christians to respond to the violence in our world and thus bring a message that peace is attainable, bring a message of hope.

 And while I speak of bringing a message of hope, I am aware that formal, structured religion, in both its progressive and reactionary forms, has entered into and shaped almost every major crisis in our world.  On the progressive side, there are movements toward the radical alliance with the poor and the oppressed.  On the reactionary side, there is narrowness and righteousness in every religious tradition. 

 So concerning peacebuilding and nonviolence, religion can be viewed as both a problem, where its structures of dominance have oppressed, and a solution where its vision of liberation and equality has generated documents and powerful movements for social, political and economic change.  

 Peace is not a new theme in Christian theology.  The gospel itself is a message of peace.  It is good news to all people in every situation and in every place where there is suffering from internal and external violence.  While, it is not a new theme, it is indeed ever new as we recognize the sacred duty that is ours to create peace in a dynamic and volatile climate.  

 Ron introduces questions.

 Questions for table conversations II:  (Power Point)
What do you think is the relationship between religion and violence?
What is the relationship between religion and peace/peacemaking
(8 minutes)  Peace is Flowing Like a River

 Ron speaks

 Section III – Role of Religious

 “What God does first and best is to trust us with our moment in history. God trusts us to do what must be done for the sake of God’s whole community.” Many of us are familiar with this quote by Walter Bruggemann.  It captures both the reality of the present moment; and it offers an invitation to us as individuals, congregations, and conferences to open ourselves to be touched, shaped and transformed by God’s active love and grace. 

 We are in this world, at this moment with all its complexities, fragmentations and divisions.  We know violence has it roots in every heart.  I must recognize it in myself.  I and my family experienced and participated in the movement for racial equality.  I’ve felt fear, agitation, coldness, alienation. I’ve come face to face with violence in many forms.  With modeling of my parents and grandparents coupled with deep faith I learned, here in my heart, that it wasn’t about me personally and that I could turn fear into courageous trust, agitation and confusion into stillness, isolation into a sense of belonging, alienation into love.    

 In the beginning of this presentation, I quoted a Haitian proverb: we see from where we stand.  Wheredo we stand as religious?  I must say, I was struck by our Assembly’s theme:   No longer Bystanders. It is not that we, as religious, are no longer by-standers, I question whether we have ever been by- standers.  Rather I see us as those who stand by. Those whose entire lives are vowed “to love and serve one another and our neighbor whoever that may be and whatever the need according to our resources.” (SCL Constitution)  We are the ones who stand with, support, up hold, reach out, stand by.  We are diverse, with many charisms, several cultures, but one heart, sent to be a living presence of tenderness and mercy of God in our wounded world.

 We know that violence crushes the human spirit and erodes the health and well- being of both the victim and the perpetrator.  The tragic events of September 11 will serve as a permanent reminder of the horrors of violence and the need to find new ways to resolve conflicts and differences. 

 So what do we do?  How do we, as religious, stand in the midst of this reality of pain and violence without trying to fix it?   Isn’t that what we do in the U.S. – try to fix it? 

 Well, as companions on the journey, we can continue to walk with people, we stand by their sides.  We can provide safe places for people to tell the truth.  We stand in support of and work for restorative justice – provide ways to restore and establish relationships.  As religious, we are called to stand in the breach, holding another’s pain – holding it without taking it personally, without defending.

 Perhaps we need to continue our own education.  Maybe we need to broaden our definition of peace and nonviolence.  While some of us work with “anti-war coalitions, we are not the same as they.  We are not just against particular wars, but all wars and not just the ones fought with bullets between nation states.  We stand in opposition to the everyday wars of people oppressing other people through economics, trafficking, abuse, sexism, racism, ageism, and a myriad of other isms.  When we speak out about environmental damage, we stand for peace.  When we talk about lifestyle choices we stand for peaceful relationships.  When we advocate for minimum wage and for stopping sweatshops, we stand with those who are systemically oppressed. 

 We stand in continued support of the faith based NGOs.  Many of our congregations or federations have NGOs at the UN.  They are increasingly active and effective in international peacebuilding.   From their perspective peacebuilding entails not only helping to stop violence, but also transforming relationships in order to contribute to a more peaceful future.  These groups take seriously the peacebuilding mandates of their religious faiths.  As one NGO noted, “As people of faith, we have to be pursuers of peace.” 

 I might add, however, that a few well crafted statements; some protests in Washington D.C. will not stop our wars or build peace.  We must stand as advocates for peace planning with the same diligence and attention that has been given to planning for violence and the conflict of war.  We need to be contagious about peace.

 But, what is it that we, as religious offer?  What do we bring to the effort of peacemaking, peacebuilding that is different, unique, from any other group or trained specialist?   Spirituality – a spirituality that is vital, whole, meaningful.  I believe people are longing for spirituality and expecting it from us.  Religious communities have always responded to social and spiritual need. Today’s need in this world of violent tensions cries for spiritual creativity. 


In addition to providing a supportive and listening ear, spiritual companionship, we could:

- offer courses or seminars in Peacemaking and Spirituality in our sponsored institutions
- Offer retreats – I am aware of the Hope and Healing Retreats that
  Robert Schreiter CPPS and Joseph Nassel CPPS offer
- stand by to become the truth tellers that name what is eroding the community.
- respond with love, compassion, forgiveness, and blessing in the midst of hatred, bitterness, 
  untruths, betrayal

As leaders, we know the ability to lead emerges from the strength and sustenance of those around us. It persists and deepens as we learn to use life’s wounds to discover our own spiritual centers.  From there we achieve the inner peace and bedrock confidence the enables us to inspirit and inspire others. And that we must do – inspire and inspirit the members of our congregations so that they go and do likewise.  In that way, we truly are able to stand by, support, be there for others. 

 Finally, I suggest that in the face of escalating violence, let us escalate peace, let us escalate love.


 Invite the tables to reflect on the final question

Questions for table conversations III: (Power Point) 
How can religious women and men respond appropriately to violence and how can we best create and promote peace in a world of violence? 

(8 min)   Love Is Flowing Like a River


We recognize that we have not provided answers to the complex question of how religious must maneuver in our violent world.

Yet we hope that we have by our process sparked some of the directions that must be explored to arrive at a more satisfying response to the escalating violence in our world.

Together we believe that we must support one another in our endeavor to escalate peace but also challenge one another never to lose hope in the face of adversity.

Most of all, we acknowledge that we alone do not build peace.  God provides it.  It is free gift that comes with God’s reign.

It is the deep shalom that God promised from the beginning when we were created freely from God’s won self and were intended to mirror that shalom, male and female, that are equally created in God’s image.

Ron:  May your reign come, O God, and bring with it the peace that our hearts seek.

Constance:  Please join us in the Litany from the Frontiers of Charity; the refrain appears on the screen.

Litany from the Frontiers of Charity

In a world fragmented and divided,
May love find a way to bring harmony and unity.

May love find a way through us.

In a world of economic extremes,
May love find a way to level injustice.

May love find a way through us.

In a world where some consume more than all need,
May love find a way to awaken consciousness.

May love find a way through us.

In a world of spiritual poverty and material surfeit
May love find a way to open hearts to the  “enough” of God.

May love find a way through us.

In a world of small thinking and selfishness
May love find a way to live with global intent

May love find a way through us.

In a world of suffering humanity and dwindling natural systems,
May love find a way to bring the fullness of life to all.

May love find a way through us.

 In a world of growing wakefulness across boundaries,
May love find a way to connect energies and efforts

May love find a way through us.

In a world of increasingly complete geo-political and socio-economic webs
May love find a way to create simple and  just solutions.

May love find a way through us.

In a world where global dilemmas seem overwhelming,
May love find a way to begin taking one step at a time.

May love find a way through us.



Greeting of Peace