I’ve had the chance to speak with author and international peace activist John Paul Lederach about his book, “Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians.” The book, updated from an earlier edition with a new introduction from Bill and Lynne Hybels and contemporary stories, is a powerful guide on how to seek and realize peace among us on both local and global scales.
Having traveled the world brokering peace agreements between governments and rebel groups, and having risked his own lives and that of his family for the sake of reconciliation, Lederach speaks prophetically to difficult issues facing us today in a way that few can.
From Gaza to Iraq and even Ferguson, Missouri, we want to know: what do we do now? Thankfully John Paul Lederach offers us both the hope and the tools to begin achieving reconciliation, wherever we are. Read our discussion below about his book, which is capturing the attention and imaginations of leaders everywhere.
What was the original impetus or inspiration behind writing this book?
When I first wrote Journey Toward Reconciliation in the late 1990s it followed several books that were more oriented toward the professional academic side of the conflict and peace studies field. Journey provided an opportunity to explore the roots of what I would call faith inspired peacebuilding. Among other things it brought together a number of articles and talks I had given in Church settings that identified key understandings that undergirded much of my work and it felt important to create the bridge between the professional and the religious value base. In those early years I provided leadership to Mennonite Conciliation Services where quite often we were engaged in facilitating dialogue in the midst of congregational conflicts so this book also included reflection about the place of difference and conflict within the church community and approaches for handling conflict more constructively as a natural and significant part of Christian community experience and outreach.
Why do you think it is experiencing a resurgence in interest now, in particular?
The book always seemed to have a solid outreach into church circles, primarily within my own Mennonite tradition and certainly was picked up by a range of academic and religious practitioners who were interested in the broader theme of reconciliation. Over the years reconciliation became a topic of greater interest within the mainstream diplomatic and political world. However, in the past few years I think a number of significant evangelical leaders, Bill and Lynne Hybels in particular came across this writing as they sought faithful response to very difficult social and religious conflicts where their work had taken them, to places like Congo or the Middle East. They found a connection, the bridge if you will, between the real world challenges and long journey of faithful engagement seeking healing in our wider human community. Peace was not just an announcement made at Christmas or a remote ideal, they began to see a level of practicality and urgency that the Christian message had to embrace and embody.
You note in your book, “Reconcile,” that actively working for peace sometimes – or even often times – evokes a violent response from others. Why is peace such a threat to some?
I have found few people who are opposed outright to peace. Most everyone will argue they are in favor of peace. In settings of deep conflict however they can be hyper-sensitive to quick solutions from outside, judgment of their experience, or perception of manipulation. Conflict always comes with vibrant perceptions about right and wrong, experiences of suffering, and seeking for understanding of what has happened and is happening to me or us. Good intentions and talking people out of their perceptions does not work. Peacebuilding and the even deeper hope for restored and healthy relationships requires patience, a lot of deep listening, and forms of accompaniment. That is not always easy across the lines of division and there are not shortcuts. Too often people in conflict have experienced the good intentions taking the short cut – and they can react strongly.
Of course it is also true, especially in settings of open violence and war, that there are people who benefit from the conflict continuing — arms sales for example are a global challenge as these industries and networks make a huge profit. It is not uncommon that efforts to create peace and end violence will be at cross purposes with vested economic and political interests.
You talk in the book about how you read John 3:16 differently after having members of your family threatened while doing peace work in Costa Rica. What do you see differently now in that verse?
In my early years of faith the verse primarily was used as a formula for salvation. When we lived through circumstances where we faced the challenge and choice that work for peace literally brought forward threats to kidnap and lose our daughter we faced something found in the verse that remains too often hidden — a parent gave a child for the restoration of and reconciliation with an enemy. This was the part that jumped out – it speaks to the quality of love for an enemy as the core marker of God’s example then emulated in Jesus. This quality of love embodies the nature of discipleship.
Have there ever been times when you’ve lost hope in realizing peace? What did you do?
Peacebuilding provides moments of soaring fulfillment and moments of deep disappointment. I think it is a lot like faith. Faith is not control. It is choosing to live on according to a vision of relationships, community and creation as if they were possible even when all the signs around us suggest they are not. When you live like this it has a certain risk, you learn to take one step and one day at a time. Hope is love lived. Even in deep disappointment you don’t stop the heartbeat of love. It’s what created and still sustains the world, the very breath of the divine in and around us. And love requires patience and humility, reaching out, noticing the small gifts and the presence of life around you. If hope were a package we could buy in a supermarket it would no longer be worth the journey.
So what to do when disappointment hits? Remember you are child of God, loved and nurtured. Just think of the breath of air you are taking right now, it is a gift. Remember the world does not rotate around you or depend on whether you were successful. Don’t serious yourself to death. Be kind to yourself. Find a park, find some children and remember how to play. Smile. Take a walk in the woods. Watch a flower in the sun for half an hour and think about unrequited beauty. Need I go on?
You’ve traveled all over the world for decades as a peace negotiator. What can I, as an everyday citizen in the United States, do for peace?
Start with things close at home and close at hand. Don’t miss opportunities when they emerge – like a Sunday School argument. Notice how you listen and how you express things you feel deeply. Give yourself the gift of a meeting once a week or month with someone who is not like you, does not see the world the way you see it, and with whom probably disagree. — a lifetime gift of being in relationship with the “other”. We now live in a world where the world lives with us. Our backyards are filled with the richness of diverse humanity. I think the most significant thing we can do as U.S. citizens would be to live the fundamental principles of e pluribus unum on a daily, respectful basis starting in our schools, neighborhoods and communities. It will take you back over and again to the core values of lived faith — patience, humility, respect, care and love — we need citizenry with compassion.
Bill and Lynne Hybels are vocal supporters of your work, and particularly, of this book. What drew them to it, and how has your relationship with them developed since then?
I understood it emerged in large part when they, perhaps Lynne in particular, began to face really tough issues of conflict and violence in places they were working. They looked for something faithful and practical – in essence peacebuilding as both an act of faith and a meaningful form of engagement in people’s everyday needs and lives. I think they found something of that in this book. We have corresponded and I am looking forward to further engagement.
You suggest that peacemaking can be an act of worship. What do you mean?
Worship at essence creates the space to re-experience the presence of God in our lives. When I have been with people who after years and much loss, sometimes ultimate loss in violence, find a way to acknowledge each other and somehow locate the spark of humanity within each other, even within their perceived enemy, that space has a resonant sacred quality. When we touch our deepest humanity we touch that of God within us.
If you had one dream for the impact this book would have, what would it be?
That it provokes reflection and meaningful conversation that leads to taking a risk, maybe a small step, toward building better, more healthy relationships in and through the many conflicts life affords us.