Faith imperative for Justice and Peace action

23rd July 2013 - by Ellen Teague

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A workshop on global warming given by a Columban Father, an Eritrean Coffee Ceremony hosted by Sheffield’s Eritrean community, and liturgy with the theme of ‘Justice in Worship’ were among the varied activities at last weekend’s annual National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN) Conference in Derbyshire.


It attracted around 300 Justice and Peace activists from 20 dioceses of England and Wales, plus representatives of Catholic agencies and religious orders, who gathered for a networking weekend focusing on integrating faith with action for justice and peace.

Columban missionaries were there in force: Columban Fathers Peter Hughes, Tom O’Reilly, Ray Collier and Pat O’Beirne; lay missionaries Mauricio Silva and Nathalie Marytsch; and Columban lay workers including Ellen Teague, David Madden and Stephen Awre. All helped in the running of the weekend, and with running a Columban stall and workshops. Fr Peter Hughes, who sits on the Executive of NJPN, celebrated an early morning mass on the Sunday and presided over the concluding liturgy.

It was the 35th annual conference organised by the National Justice and Peace Network for England and Wales, and this year in conjunction with Hallam Justice & Peace Commission. The theme was ‘Breaking Open the Word – a call to faith in action’. Chair John Battle – a former MP and Minister of State active in Leeds Justice and Peace Commission – suggested that, “people truly responding to the Gospels can change the world”. The theme invited those taking part to get back to the scriptural roots of work for peace and social justice and to be more creative in communicating this message through word, scripture, art, literature as well as traditional forms of campaigning. John Battle said that we live in a time of ‘austerity of vision’ and that we need new tools to help us challenge the economic austerity within our society. We must do this as a serious faith commitment seven days a week, linking in to our weekend worship.

Keynote speaker was Megan McKenna, who underlined in four presentations the centrality of Justice, Compassion and Mercy to the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus. “Do we truly hunger and thirst for justice?” asked the theologian from the United States who is an Ambassador of Peace for Pax Christi International. During one talk, focusing on the mission statement of Jesus about bringing ‘good news to the poor’, Megan invited participants to call out what ‘good news to the poor’ might mean; they responded with “food”, “water”, “shelter”, “the possibility of change”. She felt that many Christians have “spiritualised Jesus” and lost his radical call for justice, which, she felt, is quite distinct from charitable outreach.

Practical ideas for promoting justice and peace came in 16 different workshops. Columban Father Peter Hughes focused on ‘Global warming and rising sea levels’, pointing out that Britain and other countries are likely to be affected by climate change in the coming decades. He pointed to church organisations, such as Operation Noah and Christian Ecology Link which are pushing for decarbonisation of church communities. The student movement, People and Planet, recently launched a campaign to push UK universities to reduce their carbon footprints. Ellen Teague ran a workshop on ‘Using the Media’ and urged J&P activists to make links with their local newspapers and radio, plus get into using social media.

Alison Gelder, Director of Housing Justice, focused on ‘Austerity Britain – what is happening and what can we do about it?’. She highlighted the negative impact of recent benefit changes and helped participants plan practical action back in their dioceses and parishes to support vulnerable groups, such as disabled people facing benefit cuts.
Pat Gaffney, General Secretary of Pax Christi, focused on how we can draw on scriptural and contemporary models of security that do not depend on war and violence. She showed the new Pax Christi DVD, ‘Give peace a budget’ which suggested new ways of spending the current annual military expenditure of $1.7 trillion. Other workshops included: CAFOD Hungry for Change; Progressio – Women and fragile states; Racism and ‘A Gospel-based approach to welcoming refugees’, run by the Jesuit Refugee Service. An Eritrean Coffee Ceremony on the lawn was very popular on the sunny Saturday afternoon, as was an early morning Tai Chi session at the same location early that morning.

Congratulations were sent over a telephone link to peace pilgrims who had arrived in Central London after a two-month trek from Iona to hand in a petition against Britain’s Trident nuclear missile programme. The petition asked the Government to stop plans to renew Trident – a cost of up to £100 billion – and spend the money on education, the NHS and social welfare. The conference cheered as loudly as it could to support the walkers in London.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican, sent greetings to the conference, calling on participants “to enrich the world with their own testimony of a faith that collaboratively and fruitfully promotes the true common good as well as the respect for the dignity of every human person”. It was read out by Anne Peacey, NJPN Chair and member of Hallam Justice and Peace. The main conference mass was celebrated by Fr Shaun Smith, Chair of Hallam Justice and Peace.,