Rev. Dr Jeffrey Carter, Church of the Brethren, is president of Bethany Theological Seminary. His reflections below were drawn from an interview after the confessional meeting with historic peace churches and the Moravians that occurred during the recent World Council of Churches (WCC) central committee meeting. Carter is a member of the central committee.
What do you feel the historic peace churches can contribute to a meeting like this?
Dr Carter: Clearly it is our theological starting point in seeking first an imitation of Jesus and then how that works in the world through the expression of our witness, which is praxis-oriented. And so to begin with that witness and to focus on reconciliation and peace—which is at the heart of the WCC—but for that to be the beginning point. The historic peace churches offer an organic voice that comes from not only our theology but also our lives together.
As president of the Church of the Brethren’s theological seminary, have you seen any changes in interest in peace theology?
Dr Carter: At the seminary the focus on training pastors for congregational ministry has always been a priority. Over the last decade, we’ve expanded our academic programmes. What we’ve found is that more ecumenical students are interested in programmes outside of the master of divinity, and so through these new programmes, they also not only find specialities like theopoetics—a matching of the arts and theology—but they find our peace theology, which is at the root of who we are. Ecumenical students enter focusing on one passion or maybe one perspective discover our peace theology, and it expands not only their view of the world but also their passion and interest. In some ways, we become a witness for our theology in the ecumenical movement through the education we offer, and we’re growing. From 20% ecumenical students five years ago, today we are 50% ecumenical students and our Brethren student numbers have stayed the same. We’ve seen this expansion not just because of new programmes but also, I think, because of this praxis-oriented theology which is not just in the head but in the heart and the life we live. Folks are drawn to it.
When it comes to situations of conflict and war, such as the war in Ukraine, one could say a peace witness is more important than ever—and yet also we could say the peace witness has failed. What is the message that we need to bring as Christians, as peace churches, in tragic and real situations such as this?
Dr Carter: The motto of Bethany seminary is “so that the world flourishes” and a recent critique of that, which was very fair is, “what happens if the world doesn’t flourish?” Because we live in a world that is very broken, yet God loves. So the critique is, “flourishing” may not be in the immediacy. People expect peace to happen now, or for there to be a direct correlation between an action and the conclusion, that because you do this then peace happens. We know peace is a process. In the “Ecumenical Call for a Just Peace,” what I found most valuable in that document is that it’s a systemic understanding of peacemaking. We need to be working at multiple levels at the same time, in multiple directions, knowing that there will be glimpses of peace as we are in this pilgrimage, to use that language. In the end, the eschatological reality is that peace will be found in the peaceable Kingdom but that we see it in glimpses through our work and faithfulness. In the current situation right now in Ukraine, we’ve been called to account that there have been failures prior to our call for peace today. We can’t go back and fix that—so then how do we emphasize the guiding light of reconciliation and peace, the guiding light of dialogue and accompaniment, the guiding light of maintaining basic human needs as we are in the midst of this war? How do we maintain those guiding lights and put those at the fore and say, in the midst of armed conflict, and these atrocities of war, we will continue to work at these higher values as we call for an end to armed conflict, maybe smaller pieces, but the smaller pieces then work at a sustainable peace. Another key piece that came out of this morning’s conversations on the war in the Ukraine is the question: “Are we listening to each other?” And I think that’s another part of our tradition. It’s the dialogue—Matthew 18—to be in conversation, to seek reconciliation. It’s not to censure, it’s not to divide, it’s not to separate – it’s always to reconcile which is always our peace theology, but it’s not immediate.
What is your hope for your church’s ecumenical witness going forward?
Dr Carter: Personally, I’ve had a heart for ecumenism—it’s just part of my very nature and DNA. I would love for the Church of the Brethren to invest more in our ecumenical relationships. I think when you’re under stress as an institution, you turn inward. In the Church of the Brethren, there is at the core – theologically, culturally, politically, however you want to frame it, a centre that seeks unity above all else, and that middle piece is for me the most hopeful. I would love for the Church of the Brethren, as we move through our denominational division, to really focus on the things that make for unity and on how we rediscover our theology and value its witness not just to the world but with and for the world, and that we are a needed partner on the national and world stage. I know that when you are stressed institutionally, your first response is not external, it is internal. But I would love for the church as we move through this time to be able to find the courage and the energy and the resources to do both—to take care of the house as we look to the world.