In the mid-1980s, members of the historic peace churches (Church of the Brethren, Mennonite, and Friends/Quakers) were seeking new ways to express their faith. “Low-intensity” wars had broken out in many places including Central America, and the U. S. government usually sided with the elite groups and oppressive systems in these conflicts. Also emerging in that period was a consciousness that by using the creative energy of organized nonviolence, ordinary people could stand in front of the weapons and encourage less violent ways for change to happen.
Then, in 1984, Ron Sider challenged the Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg, France with these words:
Over the past 450 years of martyrdom, immigration and missionary proclamation, the God of shalom has been preparing us Anabaptists for a late twentieth-century rendezvous with history. The next twenty years will be the most dangerous—and perhaps the most vicious and violent—in human history. If we are ready to embrace the cross, God’s reconciling people will profoundly impact the course of world history . . . This could be our finest hour. Never has the world needed our message more. Never has it been more open. Now is the time to risk everything for our belief that Jesus is the way to peace. If we still believe it, now is the time to live what we have spoken.
“We must take up our cross and follow Jesus to Golgotha. We must be prepared to die by the thousands. Those who believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die. Proudly, courageously, they gave their lives. Again and again, they sacrificed bright futures to the tragic illusion that one more righteous crusade would bring peace in their time, and they laid down their lives by the millions.
“Unless we . . . are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic vigorous new exploits for peace and justice, we should sadly confess that we never really meant what we said, and we dare never whisper another word about pacifism to our sisters and brothers in those desperate lands filled with injustice. Unless we are ready to die developing new nonviolent attempts to reduce conflict, we should confess that we never really meant that the cross was an alternative to the sword . . .
Sider’s call spoke directly to this cultural moment in the historic peace churches, and contributed to vigorous conversations in churches across North America. In 1986, these discussions culminated in a late fall gathering of 100 persons at the suburban Chicago retreat center owned by the Society of the Divine Word in Techny. From this gathering, a call went out for the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). Representative denominations appointed a steering committee to hammer out basic directions, and invited Gene Stoltzfus to begin work as the first staff person in 1988.
By 1992, CPT had put together a series of delegations to Haiti, Iraq, and the West Bank, but members of the organization still felt the need for a trained full-time corps of members to work in crisis regions. The Steering Committee thus set a goal to develop a "Christian Peacemaker Corps" of twelve full-time persons who would receive stipends comparable to those provided by other voluntary service organizations, supported by a much larger number of reservists who would donate their time and resources. By the end of 1998, when the organization finally reached the goal of a twelve-person Christian Peacemaker Corps, CPT had developed and staffed violence-reduction projects in: Haiti; Washington, DC; Richmond, VA; Hebron, West Bank; Bosnia; and Chiapas, Mexico.
Word spread about CPT’s work in creative nonviolence. Groups in urban areas of North America, Native peoples, and numerous third or fourth world churches contacted CPT to explore the possibility of setting up their own regional CPT groups of workers trained in violence reduction. During a full timers’ retreat in 2000, CPT full-timers and key constituents agreed that CPT should work toward the development of local groups of trained reservists. This became the basis for CPT's regional groups.
The participants at the 2000 retreat originally hoped that the regional groups would help CPT deploy larger teams to crisis regions. However, the CPT experience has demonstrated that small teams of four to six people trained in the skills of documentation, observation, nonviolent intervention, and various ministries of presence can make a striking difference in explosive situations. In the current day, regional groups instead serve as networks of support for members of CPT's Peacemaker Corps, as well as engaging in activism and advocacy within their home communities.
Initially sponsored by the two largest North American Mennonite denominations and the Church of the Brethren, CPT has since developed a wider collection of sponsors. Most of CPT’s support comes from church members, congregations, and Friends meetings. As CPT broadens to accommodate a more diverse, multi-faith membership, CPT continues to transform.