By Jefferson Knight and Zehyu Wuduorgar*
GBARNGA CITY, Liberia (UMNS) — The church must find its prophetic voice in addressing the issue of violence, a United Methodist pastor and scholar told participants in a seminar that also focused on forgiveness and reconciliation.
The church, by and large, is silent in the wake of the global escalation in violence and human rights abuse, said the Rev. Yatta Young, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology at United Methodist University.
“The church has lost its prophetic voice,” she said. She challenged the church to become proactive in advocating against violence and human rights violations.
Young was a Bible study leader at the Christmas Institute seminar Dec. 15-18 in Gbarnga City in rural Liberia. The seminar, focusing on “Global Domestic Violence,” was facilitated by a three-person team from the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, in collaboration with the human rights department of the Liberia Annual (regional) Conference.
The main objective was to train participants who would in turn train others on increasing awareness of what violence entails and how it can be prevented or reduced to bring about forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration and healing.
The 35 trainees included United Methodists from several districts of the conference, including superintendents, heads of departments and institutions of learning. Participants also came from other churches, as well as the public sector and Phebe Hospital, a Lutheran Medical Center.
The conference’s human rights department was established in 1994, at the height of the Liberian Civil War, said Jefferson Knight, director. The atrocities and human rights abuses led The United Methodist Church to speak out and provide advocacy and assistance programs.
Knight said violence against women, girls and babies was increasing in Liberia, and the problem was compounded by the reluctance or refusal of some law enforcement officers to bring perpetrators to justice.
Gender-based violence is “a huge problem in Liberia,” according to the World Health Organization. In a November 2012 report, the WHO said that rape represented 68 percent of all gender-related violence reported to the government during the first seven months of 2011, and that during a four-year period, an average of 55 percent of survivors who reported rape were less than 15 years old.
Dr. Morris Y. Harris with Phebe Hospital shared several ways to respond to gender-based violence:
- Understand the root causes, including war or civil crisis, substance abuse, rituals, culture, beliefs and value systems — for example, valuing a male child over the female children in a family.
- Build awareness of family-based and community-based violence.
- Promote civic education through workshops and seminars.
- Eliminate the culture of impunity.
Agents for change
The Board of Church and Society team was led by the Rev. Neal Christie, assistant general secretary, and included the Rev. Clayton Childers, organizer for Image No Malaria and conference relations, and the Rev. Ande Emmanuel, the board’s West Africa organizer for community engagement.
Emmanuel began the lecture series by asking the participants questions such as: Who are you? Where are you coming from? What type of change do you want to see happen in the church and society? He noted that social inequalities are a “major problem in Africa.”
Childers described the theology of healing and wholeness in relation to conflict and violence. He discussed the root causes of conflict and how to move from negative to positive conflict. He noted that Nicodemus, a learned man from the Jewish religious leadership, went to seek knowledge from Jesus, the son of a carpenter — a step that showed he was struggling with an internal conflict and needed spiritual healing. By acknowledging that Jesus was a teacher sent from God, Nicodemus assured himself that he would overcome the conflict he faced.
Christie spoke on ways to deal with conflict and violence, and he lectured on how violence hurts both perpetrators and victims. He used the biblical reconciliation story of Jacob and his brother, Esau, to illustrate how conflict can be resolved. He described virtues and strategies Jacob used to resolve the conflict:
- Preparation to walk away from the conflict
- Preparation of gifts to appease his brother
- Prayer for God’s intervention
- Precautionary measures to ensure the safety of his family and the families of his servants
The Rev. Eric M. Allison, instructor of the Gbarnga School of Theology, United Methodist University, lectured on Jesus’ teaching concerning conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15-17. He asked whether genuine reconciliation has been achieved in post-conflict Liberia. Answering his own question, he said, “No,” because Liberians have not involved God in the process. This, he said, was a challenge for the church and participants at the seminar.
“We must become agents of change for true reconciliation in Liberia,” he emphasized.
Christie discussed the role of grace in working through conflict, and he emphasized the need for agape love, which entails showing love even if it is not in one’s interest. He also shared points for addressing violence with both batterers as well as those who have been battered.
Regarding batterers, Christie said:
- They have the potential for change
- They can help themselves to change
- They must begin to ask for help to change
- Repentance is a source for change
The church can help bring about change for people who have been battered by:
- Providing confidentiality
- Practicing empathetic listening
- Asking questions
- Paraphrasing what the person says in order to show understanding
- Providing affirmation
On the last day of the seminar, Young led a Bible study on Matthew 5:18-48 regarding retaliation and love for enemies. She referred to retaliation as “the old way, the Moses way of eye-for an-eye.” She said Jesus’ entreaty to “love your enemies” was the best way to avoid and resolve conflict.
“Love, as Christians, is not a matter of choice,” she said. “It’s an obligation according to Scriptures.”*Knight is director of the Human Rights Department and Wuduorgar is communications director of the Liberia Annual Conference. News media contact: Tafadzwa Mudambanuki, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org