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Film review: The Man Who Built Peace: The Frank Buchman story

07 June 2018

Stephen Brown sees a new documentary about Frank Buchman

initiatives of change archive

Frank Buchman, international player

Frank Buchman, international player

A ONE-HOUR documentary, The Man Who Built Peace: The Frank Buchman story, extols the virtues of the founder of Moral Re-Armament (MRA). The film’s UK launch in Kensington is being followed by screenings around the country. It is part of a crowdfunding campaign for the organisation, which is now called Initiatives of Change and operates in 65 countries. It seeks to inspire, equip, and connect people to play their part in building a better society.

Buchman (1878-1961) was raised in Philadelphia and ordained in the Lutheran Church. The film relates his early experiences of running a boys’ hostel until he resigned when board members cut the boys’ food rations. A spiritual experience at the 1908 Keswick Convention informed the rest of his work, from teaching in a seminary to being Secretary to Pennsylvania YMCA.

Returning to England, he founded the Oxford Group, which later became MRA. Buchman prescribed four biblically based values for his movement: honesty, unselfishness, love, and purity of heart, as practical tests for motives and daily actions. Setting up large house groups, he encouraged people to spend time in silence, meditating on the needs of the world.

Buchman had remarkable success, transcending religious and national barriers in his quest to replace a warring world with one of justice and peace. He was in touch with many influential people (Mahatma Gandhi, Hitler, etc.), being in the right place at the right time to encourage interfaith relationships, racial harmony, and economic justice. He coincided in San Francisco with the United Nations conference, where he spoke individually to leading players responsible for drafting its charter.

Buchman’s headquarters at Caux, Switzerland, became the meeting-place for post-war reconciliation between France and Germany, leading to the inception of the European Coal and Steel Community.

The Man Who Built Peace then goes on through news footage, MRA’s own promotional films, and various adherents’ testimonies, to describe the movement’s expansion primarily into Asia. A highlight is when a delegation of Japanese representatives, including the President of its parliament, visit Manila in the Philippines to ask forgiveness for the atrocities their country perpetrated there during the Second World War.

Buchman believed that there was enough in the world for everybody’s need, but not for everybody’s greed. If everybody cared enough and shared enough, everybody would have enough.

It would have been useful if the film had offered us some element of critique. The Man Who Built Peace is little more than a panegyric, perhaps unsurprising given that it is directed by Imad Karam, head of Initiatives of Change International. The Holy Office questioned MRA’s dilution of faiths and simplistic message. Luminaries such as Bishop Hensley Henson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Reinhold Niebuhr had severe criticisms of its methods, secretive finances, and naïve belief that the world changes if enough individuals start behaving better.

As Émile Durkheim demonstrated, social change cannot be explained in terms of psychological behaviour. On the other hand, MRA did have its external admirers, and Buchman was right that you could build a new world only out of people. That’s where you start.

The DVD is available at shop.iofc.org.

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