UTRECHT – The Christian peace initiative Kerk en Vrede (“Church and Peace”) turns 90 years old, although without the renown of the past. Janneke Stegeman has been appointed to bring the message of nonviolence with new vigor to the limelight. “I find it very strange that the pacifist tradition in the church is not stronger.”
The Christian peace initiative Kerk en Vrede is the oldest existing peace organisation in the Netherlands. The organisation was founded in 1924 by a number of anti-war ministers. In the first years the membership grew rapidly, to about 9,000 in 1934. Fifty years later, in the struggle against nuclear weapons, the organisation that preaches pacifism still enjoyed popularity. But by 2014, the voice of Kerk en Vrede has fallen silent.
The organisation runs largely on (aging) volunteers. But Janneke Stegeman is not willing to throw down the towel. Recently, the theologian (33) was appointed as project coordinator. In January, she obtained her PhD at the VU University Amsterdam with a research on religion and conflict. Secretary Jan Anne Bos hopes that under her leadership the organisation may keep the churches alert and critical, and be involved in debates about war and peace more often.
Is there life still in Kerk en Vrede?
“Yeah sure. It is true that especially older volunteers are involved, but they are capable people, and the elderly are, naturally, just young people who have lived longer. The position was vacant for some time, so the volunteers had to keep things running. I’m going to try to bring our message back to the limelight of the churches through our projects.”
What appeals to you about this position?
“For my PhD research, I lived for a time in Jerusalem. There, the nonviolent resistance of the Palestinians made a big impression on me. Then I also got to know Kerk en Vrede, and I had a lot of sympathy for their message of nonviolence. It is a powerful stance. Many people, even in the church, think pacifism is for the fainthearted, but it’s the most powerful and creative way of resistance.”
How is it that pacifism does not live in the church?
“I find that very strange. For me as a Christian, this is very fundamental. Believers should contribute to peace and nonviolence. But I think many people have the sense that, through violence, at least you’re doing something, and therefore it’s preferable to nonviolence. Alternative ways of resistance are more complex and therefore are also given less attention. We want to show that we do not deny conflict -conflict is a given, the question is how you deal with it- but we want to find creative ways of nonviolent resistance. I got to know a Palestinian woman who wanted to cross a checkpoint one day. She didn’t have the right papers, so they wouldn’t allow her through. But she thought to go, instead of on foot or by car -the usual way there-, by bike. That surprised the soldiers, who let her through in their confusion. She broke the normal pattern of power and powerlessness.”
Regarding the conflicts in the Middle East, is it not right to intervene?
“The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is just pointing out that violence doesn’t work. Violence only calls new violence; this has become quite clear. Actually, pacifism has never been tried at large-scale yet.”