Gospel nonviolence in action: Case study from Columbia

The Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado. Image by FORUSA, Creative Commons licence CC BY

The Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado. Image by FORUSA, Creative Commons licence CC BY

What does Gospel nonviolence look like in action? The Fellowship of Reconciliation held a joint conference with the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship looking at this, and included a talk from the Revd David Mumford. Over a series of 14 blogs, some short and some longer, he outlines the different themes and topics covered in his presentation. 

What kind of action stands a chance of succeeding both in the short term and building towards a permanent peace in the long term? Initiatives taken by people in Columbia show one way forward. Uraba is in north west Colombia. By 1996 violence between the military and paramilitary on the one hand and the guerrillas on the other had forced over 17,000 residents to flee to the towns. Both sides had demanded information and food, medicine and accommodation from the inhabitants and enforced these demands with torture and violence. Whole villages fled, seeking refuge elsewhere, while cattle farmers, supporters of and supported by the paramilitaries, were poised to take over the land this vacated. On 27 March 1997 a number of people from San Jose de Apartado, supported by the Catholic diocese of Apartado, joined 29 surrounding villages in a declaration of peace and neutrality. Conscientiously objecting to the war and demanding their rights as civilians not to be involved in a conflict, the community denounced the use of arms within their territories and committed to a variety of principles in the process (including cooperative communal work, prohibition of alcohol, the non-use of illicit drugs, the no-entry of armed actors, non-use of weapons and the refusal to provide information to armed actors).

Each of the peace settlements made a commitment to active neutrality and this was reinforced by daily community meetings and trainings in how to respond to various possible scenarios. Crucial was the presence of international observers (initially through Pax Christi and Peace Brigades International and since 2001 strongly support by the Fellowship of Reconciliation) and developmental assistance from Oxfam.

Nonviolence did not immediately solve everything. The bishop of the diocese was assassinated in 2002. The support of the Catholic church has been crucial and many have found that a commitment to active neutrality has deepened their own spirituality and insights into their faith. Even so more than 200 members of the villages have been killed since the initial declaration of active neutrality.

The fighting did not completely stop. But the armed factions left the peace villages relatively untouched.

Now there is a formal peace process between the government and FARC, the main guerrilla organisation in Colombia. But the villages are threatened by the armed gangs of drug runners moving in when the guerrillas move out.

Nonetheless after more than 20 years, their commitment to renouncing arms within their communities and working for a sustainable peace has not been overcome.