With the inauguration of Colombia’s first leftist president in August, supporters of the reforms he has promised see a light of hope for one of the world’s most violent countries.
President Gustavo Petro has vowed to vastly expand social programs and raise taxes on the nation’s wealthiest families. He promises to work for “total peace.” But what does “total peace” mean in a violent context?
For centuries, Colombia has experienced armed conflict, which has stunted the country’s progress and created one of the region’s largest gaps between rich and poor. According to the United Nations, in 2022 alone more than 78,000 Colombians have been displaced by war. Each year thousands, including human rights leaders, are assassinated or “disappeared.”
The Colombian Mennonite Church has a history of working for peace by supporting and pastoring displaced families and former combatants, hosting peace forums and participating in peace talks and peaceful protests.
Anabaptist World asked Colombian Mennonite leaders César Moya, Peter Stucky and Martha Alfonso about the changes and prospects for peace.
How can the church walk with the new government toward “total peace”?
Moya: The churches have been invited to participate in the new government through what the president has called the “interreligious sector” and the “ecumenical group for peace.” The new government considers it important that we are open to dialogue with other religious expressions, because “total peace” will not be achieved if we do not accept each other.
The Colombian Mennonite Church will be able to participate as long as it is willing to work together with other expressions of faith, Christian and nonchristian. The new government recognizes the Mennonite credentials as a builder of peace. This is evident in the call made by some Mennonites to the High Commissioner of Peace to support the building of total peace at the headquarters of the Mennonite church — to which government officials responded positively. In several of Colombia’s five regions, the government has called Mennonite congregations to be part of peacebuilding efforts.
Stucky: For total peace to happen, it is necessary that all armed groups meet. Total peace also has to do with poverty, the environment and hunger. Everything is related, and the lack of peace keeps us in a violent cycle. We need to change the mindset of the Colombian people. In the Bible, Jesus tells Zacchaeus that in order to follow him, Zacchaeus should share his wealth. If there is no forgiveness or reconciliation, we will continue to make war upon ourselves.
Alfonso: Although classical Anabaptism separates church and state, in Colombia today the national government has a possibility to make progress toward what we all have been waiting for: peaceful change for social justice. The Mennonite church should walk with the government in its search for total peace. This is peace that includes those not included before: guerrillas, drug cartels and other armed groups. The church should facilitate dialogue. Reconciliation is important. We have a role in civil society. The church can teach its members and others, and even the mass media, what it means to work for social justice.
What is the church’s role in building peace?
Alfonso: The church can contribute to dialogue with the military forces. Regarding human rights, the military can comprehend from our church perspective that there should be respect for each other. The church must dialogue with the government to eliminate mandatory military service and allow conscientious objection.
Stucky: We have to seek restorative, not retributive, justice. Church leaders need education in the social sciences and politics. The church has advocated for conscientious objection. It is fundamental that the church maintains its nonviolent posture. This means we have to tolerate each other, have dialogue and incorporate a theology that is active in working for the poor. The church must maintain its independence toward the state.
Moya: The role of the church is to be humble and walk with others. We have a pacifist legacy and recognition, especially through the ministry of [the Anabaptist peace organization] Justapaz. The church’s role in peacebuilding will continue: to proclaim the peacemaking gospel, faithfully following Jesus Christ. Through ecumenical dialogue for peace, the church contributes to the promotion of human rights, supporting victims of violence, giving workshops on nonviolence and conflict resolution, training leaders who are instruments of reconciliation.
What are the challenges that the change of the presidency creates for the church and country?
Moya: From what we perceive now, military spending will not be a priority. There are changes in the way of perceiving the role of the police and the militia, which should help to build peace. This is evidenced in the profiles of the new leaders of these institutions.
Another challenge is for citizens to learn to pay our taxes to support social investment. There is resistance from big business and the rich — who, according to the tax-reform proposal, should pay the most. The challenge is also to reach peace agreements with armed groups, paramilitary groups and drug traffickers.
The church has to learn to walk with those who think differently. A dominant conservative evangelical sector in government has supported members of Congress who endorse militarist, neoliberal and homophobic policies. Churches must get used to having a political role: to work for the poor, the abandoned, those excluded by systems of domination.
Alfonso: I think an important debate is coming between the state and the churches. It is possible there will be a debate about taxes for churches. The Mennonite church has to express its opinion about this, because there are megachurches that have become wealthy but have not had to pay taxes.There needs to be a talk about why megachurches should contribute to social programs.
Another debate is about civil liberties. Many fundamentalist churches will question the new progressive government’s focus on inclusion. The Mennonite church was built on defending civil liberties, human rights, women’s rights, youth rights, conscientious objection. I hope that this will be a growth period for the Mennonite church and its position within society and that through faith we can walk with a transformational government that will strive for peace.