A Brief History of Christian Peacemaker Teams
One of the most dynamic and creative organizations working for peace in the world is Christian Peacemaker Teams which works out of deep commitment to gospel nonviolence. CPT works for peace by “getting in the way” of those who would make war. They train teams of volunteers in the techniques of nonviolent direct action and the methods of conflict resolution (or conflict transformation) and send these teams into situations of conflict–wars, civil wars, armed buildups, undeclared wars, violent oppressions of workers, etc. The teams then attempt various ways of disrupting the conflict and working toward a just peace: sometimes physically imposing their bodies between armed belligerants, sometimes documenting violence and/or human rights abuses and publicizing them to the world, sometime trying to create space for dialogue, sometime accompanying indigenous human rights workers as “nonviolent bodyguards.”
Although it has become a broader, ecumenical Christian movement, CPT is rooted in the witness of the Historic Peace Churches (Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, Church of the Brethren). In 1984, at a meeting of the Mennonite World Conference, Mennonite theologian Ronald J. Sider challenged participants to give new life to the historic peace witness of Mennonites by being as committed to nonviolent peacemaking as members of the world’s militaries are to the violent defense of their respective countries. Sider’s challenge fell on receptive ears. A series of conversations started among Mennonites (especially in North America) about ways in which “nonviolent armies” and “nonviolent reservists” could be employed. By 1986, a retreat of 100 persons put out a call among Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren for the creation of Christian Peacemaker Teams–volunteers supported by churches, trained in nonviolent forms of conflict intervention, who would go to areas of conflict at bold risk of their lives. In 1988, Gene Stolzfus was hired as the first staff person. By 1992, CPT had sent teams into Iraq, the West Bank of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Haiti. Later delegations went to the Chiapas region of Mexico, Bosnia, Winnipeg, MB (negotiating between First Nations and the Canadian government), Colombia and elsewhere.
In the middle of the second U.S.-led war with Iraq, CPT gained far more visibility when a delegation was captured by Iraqi insurgents and held for several weeks. One member was executed. The rest were freed by U.S. military action. While peacemakers saw this action by CPT as heroic and many were attracted to such serious peacemaking, the rightwing media in both the U.S. and U.K. denounced CPT as naive tools of terrorists whose presence did more harm than good. There were even calls for the U.S. govt. to investigate CPT for possible terrorist links and to put members’ names on “no fly lists.” CPT was not intimidated and continued its nonviolent peacemaking efforts in Iraq. (Note: The Bush admin. was particularly hostile to CPT because of two things–first, Bush’s own claims to being a “Christian president” who was supposedly invading Iraq on God’s orders. Second, CPT had earlier been the first to document and publish the U.S. torture of prisoners at the notorious Abu-Ghraib prison. The passing of the Bush era, however, has hardly led to an embrace of CPT’s convictions or methods by the Obama administration. Far from it.)
Initially, CPT was sponsored only by the 2 largest Mennonite denominations in the U.S. (now both merged into Mennonite Church, USA) and the Church of the Brethren. But CPT sponsors now include (to date): The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, The Congregation of St. Basil (Basilians, a Roman Catholic priestly order), Friends United Meeting (Quakers), On Earth Peace (the major peacemaking program of the Church of the Brethren), The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Every Church a Peace Church, Mennonite Church, Canada, The Peace and Justice Support Network (of Mennonite Church, USA), and Peace and Justice Ministries (of Mennonite Church, Canada). CPT, which is expanding its regional offices in Mexico, Canada, and the UK, invites other Christian groups to sponsor this growing ecumenical peace witness.
Current CPT delegations include nonviolent peacemaking efforts in Iraq, Palestine, Coluombia, the U.S.-Mexico border, the African Great Lakes region (based in Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, but also including work in Uganda), and support for aboriginal justice in the U.S. (groups working for Native American rights) and Canada (groups supporting the rights of First Nations). Additional sponsors, funding, and volunteers could allow for other delegations. (Among the places which have asked for CPT type nonviolent intervention are Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Costa Rica, South Sudan.)
The specific Christian identity of CPT (even in its name) has both strengths and weaknesses: On the plus side, it operates out of a clear Christological center and supported by a specific spirituality. This gives its peacemaking efforts depth and its members unity. However, in areas where “Christianity” is identified with either Western (especially U.S.) military imperialism or with coercive missionary efforts or both, such preconceptions can get in the way of CPT’s peace efforts–as seen in its capture by Iraqi military dissidents in 2005.
The challenge remains: What would happen if Christians developed the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking as armies devote to war?