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Michael Gowen

Colombia - The price of peace

We Christians have so much to offer people in a post-conflict situation.

FEATURES AUTHOR Michael Gowen 29 DECEMBER 2015 11:20 h GMT+1
Negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC have been going on for 3 years / AFP

I recently returned from a 3-week trip to Colombia, a country which I have a deep affection for and have visited many times. While I was there I participated in a number of meetings where I presented to church leaders the opportunities for the Colombian churches to become involved in the post-conflict situation, if and when it comes into being.

For negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC, the main guerrilla group in the country, have been going on for 3 years in Havana, Cuba; and President Santos appears to be under some pressure from US President Obama to come to an agreement in 2016.

Nobody is under any illusions that the signature of a peace agreement between the government and FARC is a panacea that will bring a complete end to decades of conflict in Colombia.

A number of the FARC Fronts have indicated that they will not demobilise (however, will they maintain their resolve when the time comes?); the smaller guerrilla group, ELN, is not involved in the negotiations; then there are the numerous armed criminal gangs; and the Colombian army, who will have to adapt to a situation where its role will be considerably diminished.

The cynic might claim that nothing substantial will change with the signature of a peace agreement; so why bother? But Christians are called to be bringers of hope, not of cynicism.

There will undoubtedly be a multitude of problems after the agreement is signed; but unless somebody somewhere is willing to take a risk to move peace forward, Colombia will continue to be caught up in the cycle of violence for many decades more.

So, this is a turning point for Colombia; and an opportunity not to be missed by the churches. For they have many advantages in the post-conflict situation: a country-wide network, stretching into even the most remote areas; leaders who are trusted by their members; a good reputation in their communities; a clear mission from Jesus to reach out into situations of need; and integrity held as a high value – very important when dealing with finances to fund post-conflict projects.

If the churches wait until the peace agreement has been signed, it is already too late to start preparing. Now is the time! Carpe diem!

However, before the Colombian churches become involved in the post-conflict situation, there are some serious issues which they need to grapple with – and this applies also to any of you who are living in conflict or post-conflict situations.

One of the most difficult ones is this: in any peace process those who gain tend to be the men of violence – this is their 'reward' for renouncing violence – and those who lose out tend to be the victims. For if those perpetrating violence are given no concessions, they continue with their violence and there is no peace process; but the victims generally have little political power.

Take the example of Northern Ireland: for many years the IRA conducted a campaign of violence both in the province and on the mainland of the United Kingdom. Now the IRA has renounced violence, a peace agreement is being implemented, and the whole of the UK is benefitting.

So too is the IRA, who are now part in the government of the province, whereas the families and friends of many of the victims of the violence are still looking for answers as to how and why their loved ones disappeared or were killed.

How can we as Christians reconcile this with our God’s hatred of violence and concern for the weakest in society? How can the sufferings of the victims and their families be properly honoured, and that they receive the answers which will enable them to bring closure to their mourning? How can we ensure that their voices are heard in the corridors of power?

This is not the only difficult issue: there is the thorny question of justice. We Christians serve a God who is perfect justice, and so we are passionate about seeing justice done on earth. However, if all acts of violence from the past are to be judged and no amnesties given as part of a peace agreement, then there is no incentive for the armed groups to enter into the peace process, and their violence will continue.

Some crimes are, indeed, so horrendous that they must be subjected to judicial process. But where does one draw the line? Are we as Christians ready to accept that certain crimes will go unpunished (whether by the army or the armed groups), leaving the perpetrators to the ultimate justice of God?

We also need to grapple with the question of how much detail needs to be known about past events. 180,000 civilians have lost their lives in the Colombian conflict, and over 50,000 families are still looking for the whereabouts of their loved ones who have disappeared.

It is right that those who have lost loved ones should receive the information which they need to bring closure to their mourning. But do they need to know all the gory details of torture and death? This can have a negative effect, anchoring people in the past and stopping them from moving forward.

We Christians have so much to offer people in a post-conflict situation: in relation to the past, we can model forgiveness – God has forgiven us, so we are able to forgive those who have hurt us, and so we can help others on the difficult path of forgiveness. In relation to the present, we can model reconciliation: Christ is in the process of reconciling all things to himself, things on earth and things in heaven (Colossians 1:20), and he has given us both the ministry and the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).

In relation to the future, we can offer hope – a commodity that is in short supply in this present world – for we know that history is not moving forward aimlessly and that one day Jesus Christ will come back and put everything right on this earth.

Faced with these moral and ethical dilemmas, it is much more comfortable for us as Christians to avoid them and to stay on the moral high ground, telling people from afar what they should or should not do. But at Christmastime we remember that this was not what the path which Jesus took.

It would have been much more comfortable for him to stay in heaven and shout down instructions to tell us on earth how to live our lives. But he did not. He was incarnated as a human being, was born, lived and died with us, sharing our joys, our sorrows and our pain. And he has given us this example, so that we will follow in his steps.

In case we should need any more encouragement to become involved in the post-conflict situation, let us hear these simple words from the mouth of Jesus: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God! (Matthew 5:9).




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