A Theological Beginning became a vision for Transformed Community
Grounded in the thought of René Girard, Theology & Peace has, since its inception, sought a theology and praxis which reveals and transforms the structures of and the rationales for systemic scapegoating as they function in American society, most notably in the form of militarism, exclusionary politics and economics, and the ongoing legacies of slavery and racism. Girard’s understanding of human rivalry, conflict, and scapegoating allows for an astonishing new reading of the Christian Gospels with profound implications for a world gripped by these forms of structural violence. Articulating this theology for over a decade now, Theology & Peace, decided in 2013 to focus our conference on the history and structure of racism, entitling it “Lynching, Scapegoating & Actual Innocence.” We did not know at that time, that thereafter tackling racism would remain our primary focus, leading more recently to a sustained relationship with American Baptist College (ABC) in Nashville, Tennessee, a historically Black college at the center of the Civil Rights Movement. Invited by ABC’s president, Dr. Forrest Harris, into a Beloved Community inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision, we hope to establish a permanent presence in Nashville, bringing together White church and Black church, activists on the ground in Nashville, with theologians, pastors, and lay people from across the country to prepare a new generation tackling and transforming the systemic nature of racism in their own communities and nationally.
The Need for Theological Focus
Founded in 1990, the Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R), the professional academic organization connected to René Girard’s work, has a broad purpose—to explore and develop what it calls the mimetic model in its explanation of the relationship of violence and religion in the genesis of culture, and it explicitly invites scholars from diverse academic fields. COV&R has had a singular and invaluable role in maintaining the intellectual network and community engaged in research and application of mimetic theory. Its aims are broad enough to encompass theological reflection, but far too broad to provide the focus which theology requires if it is to find organic growth and development out of Girard’s work. A number of people connected to COV&R began to sense the need for a clear theological focus and an alternative body which might provide it.
The Crisis in Contemporary Theology
At the same time, it is increasingly apparent that there is an underlying crisis in theology itself. The circumstances in North America since 9/11 have given rise to political and cultural rivalries, which threaten to engulf our society in an “escalation to extremes,” a growing contagion of antagonism at every level of American life, a crisis Girard warned against. This situation presents both a need and opportunity for an anthropologically based conversation about theology, one that sees God at work in the depth of the human condition for the sake of human transformation. While much of contemporary theology continues to grapple with violent atonement doctrines and exclusionary church polities, as well as declining attendance, Theology & Peace finds its vitality in the nonviolent Sermon on the Mount, Martin Luther King Jr.‘s vision of a Beloved Community, and Desmond Tutu’s Ubuntu Theology, which like Girard, understands that all human beings, all life, is irreducibly interconnected. A Girardian-based theology applies equally to Catholic and Protestant traditions, because it transcends many of the polemical issues of the Reformation on both sides, being deeply rooted in scripture and radically sacramental. Likewise, by countering Christian exceptionalism, Theology & Peace is committed to exploring its applications for building interfaith community.
The Growing Relevance of Mimetic Theory
The pressing theological relevance of mimetic theory has already been demonstrated by the development and popularity, over the last few decades, of a number websites and theologians. One site, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, brings Girardian-based scripture interpretation to a wider public, including especially church professionals by offering a weekly commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary, with links to a range of texts and secondary theological writing working with Girard’s thought. Another site, The Raven Foundation, one of our sponsors, offers Girardian commentaries on politics and pop culture. While James Alison, a Catholic theologian, priest and author, who also advocates on behalf of gays in the church, continues to articulate Girard’s insights for a wider audience.
The Need for a Conversation
Recognizing the need for a community of thought and discourse committed to regular sustained discussion, Theology & Peace began by inviting individual theologians and practitioners with a Girardian perspective certainly represent sustained reflection, and they are an essential resource, but significant growth takes place only through an intentional conversation which continues to evolve (both intellectually and spiritually) and can progressively draw in new participants. What was needed was a theological guild or society working out of mimetic anthropology.
Tom Nicoll, an Episcopal Priest in Larchmont, New York, and Tony Bartlett, professor of theology at Bexley Hall, the then Episcopal seminary in Rochester, first broached the idea in the summer of 2006. James Williams, professor of New Testament at Syracuse University and one of the founding figures of COV&R, and Michael Hardin, director of Preaching Peace, also joined the project. They invited a selected group to “a first theological conversation” under the name of “Theologia Pacis.” It took place in January 2007 at the Mennonite Central Committee in Akron, Pennsylvania and was noteworthy for the participation of members of the peace churches. Subsequently a steering committee, comprised of Tom and Tony (Episcopal), with Dorothy Whiston, Rev. Mary McKinney (UCC), and Jonathan Sauder (Mennonite) took on the direction of the new organization and began decisively to shape its purpose and spirit. The name “Theology and Peace” was chosen, a successful conference under this name was organized in May of 2008 at Bon Secours in Maryland, a foundational membership group was formed, the organization was incorporated in the state of New York, and application for tax-exempt status got underway. After the Maryland conference Jonathan left the board and new members joined: Tony Ciccariello (Episcopal), Rev. Lisa Hadler (UCC), Rev. Shannon Mullen (Lutheran), Adam Ericksen (The Raven Foundation), and Michael Hardin (Preaching Peace). Our second conference, held in Chicago in 2009, featured James Alison, Andrew Marr, and Tony Bartlett.
The Turn to Racism and a New Call
Early on the board decided that the annual conference would have three areas of focus: theology, liturgy, and activism. When in 2011 & 2012 Theology & Peace hosted its conference in Baltimore, members of the board networked with activists and faith communities in Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood, most significantly, Newborn Community (now Intersection of Change). Newborn leaders, Wendall Holmes, who later joined our board, Elder CW Harris, a protégé of Gordon Cosby at Church of the Savior, and Patty Prasada-rao, have been regular contributors to our conference.
In 2013, when Theology & Peace changed location to UNC Chapel Hill in Raleigh, North Carolina, we made a decisive turn to address the systemic and sacrificial nature of racism. That conference, “Lynching, Scapegoating & Actual Innocence” featured Black theologians, Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, and Dr. Julia Robinson, who now serves on our board. We invited local activists, Christine Mumma of the Actual Innocence Project, and Vince Bantu from the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). The conference coincided with the first weeks of Moral Mondays, which started on the steps of the Raleigh state capital to protest the New Jim Crow. The organizers of those protests joined us in the evenings for prayers of support. From there on, we began to realize that Theology & Peace had been called to a larger purpose. In 2014 we returned to Raleigh to again focus on racism. “Barriers to Compassion” featured Dr. Angela Sims, Professor of Ethics and Black Church Studies, who has written extensively on lynching.
In 2015 we went to Chicago to address racial violence and unjust economics. “Compassionate Economics: Can It Go Viral?” featured Brian McLaren and our fist presention on mass incarceration made by Andrew McKenna. 2016 was another breakthrough year with “People and Policing: Compassion for our Violence,” which featured, among others, Neill Franklin, a retired Maryland police officer and leader in criminal justice reform, and Preston Shipp, who now serves as our board president. Preston shared his conversion story. As the state appellate prosecutor, who denied Cyntoia Brown’s appeal, and who upon meeting her as his student in a prison degree program, came to realize his part in a cruel, racist system. Since then, Preston has worked tirelessly for prison reform and for Cyntoia’s release.
The Invitation to Beloved Community
Upon joining our board, Preston invited Theology & Peace to Nashville, where he is active in a vibrant community of activists focused on racial justice, mass incarceration, justice reform, including advocacy for the formerly incarcerated, victims of sex trafficking, and children at risk for falling prey to the cradle to prison pipeline. It was a pivotal moment, which led to the recognition that Theology & Peace is called to a yet another level of activsim…