In many corners of the globe, the church as a cultural and spiritual reality brings people together to love and respect the Lord. Many people, however, believe that the only valid societal role for the church is to preach the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ. But in Africa in general, and in the Great Lakes region in particular, the church’s mandate goes much farther than this spiritual proclamation, to include active commitment to foster peace in societies divided by violent conflict.
In places where people are torn apart by conflict or where people are divided by diverse interests, the church often remains one of the very few institutions still capable of unifying people, of connecting them, and of bringing them together to speak the same language, the language of peace. To be sure, the church is scarred by divisions among denominations and too often the church reflects rather than overcomes divisions within the
broader society. Yet at its best the church reminds people to forget the factors that divide them, since within the church we are reminded that we are in the presence of the One who created all, God Almighty.
In this article I explore the following questions: “Why does the church have this capacity to unify people and then bring them to forget that which divides them? What accounts for this capacity the church possesses of being able to work effectively for peace?” In trying to answer these questions, I attempt to show that in the Congolese context the church is capable of going farther and doing more to promote peace when compared to other actors.
The church constitutes a respected power in the Great Lakes region of Africa, a region in which the majority of the population is Christian. The church’s social status thus poises it to engage in the work of building unity and social cohesion. The church’s ability to unify people across political divides is clearly evident in the case of the Great Lakes region. Diplomatic relations among countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda have been torn apart because of invasions and rebellions. For example, over the past several years political conflicts and mutual recriminations between the leaders of the DRC and Rwanda have jeopardized good relations between the populations of these two countries.
While tensions have flared among the countries of the Great Lakes region, sometimes erupting into violent conflict, the leaders of churches in the region have played a large role in laying the groundwork for the re-establishment of peace and peaceful cohabitation among the peoples of the region. Several ecumenical Christian organizations in the Great Lakes have assisted these efforts for peace, including the Great Lakes Ecumenical forum (GLEF), the Great Lakes Initiative (GLI), the Fellowship of Christian Councils of the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa (FECCLAHA) and the All Africa Council of Churches (AACC). These organizations frequently bring together church leaders from across political divides, despite the lack of understanding among their different governments, with the purpose of learning from one another and of searching together for peaceful ways to change how political leaders view the world and to help them speak the language of peace.
Matthew 5:9 tells us: “Happy are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Scripture passages like this one have helped the divided populations of the Great Lakes to no longer consider themselves as primarily or exclusively citizens of different states, with their identities tied up in the conflicts among those states, but instead to view themselves as men and women created in the image of God, persons having the same identity, namely, that of children of God.
What is it about the church that allows it to bring people together in this way, engaging in the uncertain field of peacebuilding, when the states they come from are in open war? As already noted above, church members compose a great majority of the population of the concerned Great Lakes countries. Persons in positions of authority and influence in the church, then, possess a power that regional political leaders cannot ignore. The political authorities of the Great Lakes are, in fact, forced to rely on the church if they want to keep their political power. When a crisis situation strikes a country, that country’s population often looks to the church for guidance. The word of the church in these situations, in my experience, is heeded by an overwhelming majority of the faithful, with many following the church’s guidance over their own political leanings, thus demonstrating the unifying power the church possesses.
The church receives this enviable power from the high regard in which it is held by the community and from the number of people who consider the church to be their last remedy, especially in moments of crisis and difficulty. The moral strength of the church comes from the word of God and the good news that the church preaches, but in moments of conflict the church’s moral power can be transformed into a benevolent political influence as well. Thus, at its best the church is considered neutral, a space where people can come to put down their burdens, even their political burdens, within a structure that brings people together.
The neutrality of the church is justified, not only by the behavior of its leaders, but above all by its prophetic mission, namely, the sharing of Christ’s gospel with the goal of transforming humanity. In their role as influential regional figures, church leaders distinguish themselves by their engagement for peace and the peaceful resolution of conflicts, to the point where even politicians must listen to them when the country goes through difficult times. At their best, church leaders work by the power of the Holy Spirit and fight for the well-being of the population in general. At this time in the Great Lakes region many church bodies are responding to the devastations wrought by human rights violations, among them sexual violence as an instrument of war. For example, the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC), through its Program for Peace and Reconciliation (PPR), is actively involved in the cause of peacebuilding. As part of the PPR, the ECC operates a biblically-based outreach program to disarm combatants in eastern Congo. This initiative has led to the voluntary disarmament and repatriation of more than 21,000 Rwandan refugees and 1,600 excombatants as part of efforts to promote peace in eastern Congo and in the Great Lakes region as a whole.The PPR shows the power of the church to intervene in a non-polarizing way in situations of intense conflict. Given the splits and divisions that characterize the African Great Lakes region, the unifying power of the church is needed more now than ever before.
Serge Lungele is Program Officer and Logistician for the Program for Peace and Reconciliation of the Church of Christ in Congo, an MCC partner organization that facilitates the voluntary repatriation of Rwandan refugees and combatants in the eastern DRC.
For more, check out the Summer issue of Intersections on Conflict, Reconciliation and Partnership in Africa’s Great Lakes Region.