This is a book review. It’s unusual because it’s a book review I wasn’t asked to do and of a book that wasn’t really aimed at me as a secular humanist: Reconcile. Reconcile is a book by famed Mennonite Christian peace scholar and professor John Paul Lederach. It explores a biblical perspective on conflict transformation and reconciliation and as a secular humanist who is a conflict worker and wants to be a peacebuilder, I decided to check it out myself because this is a fairly popular title and an influential one for peacebuilders of various backgrounds and beliefs. I want to read theistic peacebuilding perspectives and learn from peacebuilders who are theistic and whose theism influenced their perspectives on conflict transformation and the long process of building the conditions needed to transform conflicts in a positive way. If you’d like to read Reconcile click here to go to Amazon and purchase a copy yourself!
Stories and journeys:
There is a lot written of stories and journeys throughout Reconcile. Professor Lederach doesn’t just talk about Christian peacemaking in the abstract, he brings his ideas and his insights to life with flowing language that makes readers feel like they are traveling alongside him and experiencing what he has experienced. He isn’t content to sit down and tell you a sermon even if he does share a verse or two as he discusses his own insights and shares his thoughts on the intersection of Christianity and peacebuilding.
His storytelling is purposeful, he doesn’t want his book to feel like a novel or a biography but rather he uses storytelling to solidify the things he says between the stories. When he takes you out of the story he’s telling, you know he’s going to share something with you that he wants you to know and the purpose of the stories before and after each lesson is to contextualize the lesson in question and provide readers with easier ways to relate to the lessons he helps them learn.
Reconcile and the reconciliatory arts:
Part of the book is devoted to an interesting concept I’ve heard described but never directly named: reconciliatory arts. These are qualities that someone has that enables them to be a skilled reconciler. The book’s focus on them relate to Jesus specifically and say that Jesus was a possessor of these qualities or at least three of them that are explored within the text. The first of these arts is the ability to be aware of the innate humanity of others, in the parlance of Prof. Lederach this is Jesus’s ability to see the divine spark innate in every human being. This is a valuable trait that every peacekeeper and peacebuilder who wants to better the world must develop and never take for granted. It’s crucially important to remember each person’s innate humanity and the story that Professor Lederach tells to help illustrate it is wise because it isn’t a story where he’s the hero. He tells of a humiliating moment he experienced that I won’t go into in this review and he tells of a time when someone saw his humanity and helped him, rather than let himself be the hero of this story so that he could readers could through him experience the pain of being present but invisible to the masses aside from one person who not only detects you but actively helps you. It’s a moving story and will hopefully humble readers as much as it must have humbled Professor Lederach to write and share something so humiliating.
The second art in the book is that of self-care and self-reflection. This is at its essence within the context and purpose of the tex the idea that it is necessary to care for oneself to be maximally present and capable of the radical compassion that is needed to be an effective reconciler. This self-care can take on a variety of forms that will differ from person to person but for many will involve an activity that can be done alone. One of the most fascinating ideas in this section is the concept that one’s inner voice is just as valuable as external critique and recognition. This is probably a critically important thing for people to realize, but it’s so unintuitive to me that I feel like I’ll need time to reflect on it before I can properly absorb it.
The final reconciliatory art that is explored at length in the book is the basic principle of equality not in the abstract but in the real world in motion and in action. This is the next step beyond recognizing that other people are your fellow human beings and thus are equals and it manifests itself by not only acknowledging the innate humanity of someone else but also engaging with them and spending time with them humbly as friends and as partners.
What reconciliation isn’t in Reconcile:
This is something everyone who learns about reconciliation at any amount of real depth and intensity will quickly learn but reconciliation isn’t amnesia or an idle sense of “forgiveness”. Reconciliation both in Reconcile and in the world is an intense process by which past fallouts are remembered, acknowledged, learned from, and if possible and at best amended. This is often a painful process and involves acknowledging what has been lost, what has been destroyed, and in many cases what will never come back. The best and strongest attempts at reconciliation don’t often come from logical arguments but rather a vision of the future that feels utopian and is filled with a desire to push beyond what is likely and realistic. Reconciliation is not an easy path but whether you’re looking at it from a Christian point of view or that of a secular humanist whose ethics are grounded in peace and in the sharing of experiences both painful and joyous it’s a path that is worth the effort it takes.
Reconcile and the Church, Christian Peacekeeping:
Some of what makes Reconcile unique is that it focuses on an aspect of peacebuilding that is rarely seen outside of Christian texts: the Church. There is a logical reason why the Church as a place of conflict and as a place of healing and reconciliation isn’t often examined outside of Christian texts, many conflicts in churches or as it relates to Christian relationships won’t be addressed in some measure by non-Christians but it’s worth recognizing the reality of the importance of the Church in American society and by American society I am including Latin-America as well. Conflicts that started inside of churches don’t cease when Christians leave the boundaries of the church. Recognizing this reality is important because it’s possible that a secular peacekeeper, peacebuilder, or peacemaker might happen to stumble across or get swept up in a conflict between Christians that started in the church and thus recognizing biblical guidelines for authentic and scriptural methods of reconciliation and conflict transformation is a smart way to respond to frayed and damaged relationships that could be positively helped by using biblical approaches.
There is also a fantastic look at an event in the Bible that isn’t often explored in secular spaces even when those secular spaces look directly at Christianity, the so-called Council of Jerusalem. This neat event is a conflict that occurred in the aftermath of the Crucifixion and Resurrection and is about whether or not male followers of Jesus had to be circumcised to gain entry into Heaven and about the roles uncircumcised male believers could play in the larger church community. In Reconcile this is explored at length and this is used to explore general steps that need to be taken to resolve large-scale conflicts. It’s worth reading if you ask me and I enjoyed reading it and wanted to bring it to the attention of anyone who was thinking of buying the book.
Secular takeaways from Reconcile and questions from a secular humanist for Christian reconcilers:
First, let me say that I skipped over a lot of the book in this review. I focused on the things that I felt mattered most to me and would have the biggest impacts on my readers rather than exploring this book at length. I wanted to focus on what a secular conflict worker and reconciler could get from this book. And there’s more than enough here to justify buying this book provided you approach it from a point of view that there is validity in Christian approaches to peacebuilding and an honest desire to learn about theistic views of conflict and peace work.
What is there for a secular humanist to take away from a book aimed at theistic peacebuilders? What could a secular humanist learn from the deeply religious language and frameworks that informed Prof. Lederach’s text?
First I gained significant new amounts of knowledge related to what the Bible says about peacebuilding and reconciliation. That was my intention from the start because I wanted to gain an understanding of theistic approaches to reconciliation and peacebuilding so in terms of my personal purpose in purchasing a copy of this book I am already satisfied with my decision and on that basis, I’d recommend other’s purchase this book as well.
I also wanted to learn how a Christian who does peace work and conflict work relates their faith to their field. This book was excellent for that purpose and I cannot recommend it strongly enough. This book isn’t about conversion and at times Prof. Lederach goes out of his way to speak against simplistic visions of peace that exclude people who aren’t Christian, which is a problem that some Christian literature has but typically that problem appears in the texts of biographies of missionaries written in a hagiographic style for the purpose of lionizing them rather than honestly examining their lives. Prof. Lederach’s faith has informed his peace work but that hasn’t made his work exclusionary or problematic, it’s just helped him have a clear mind and heart that moves towards peace in all things which if you ask me is one of the best things religion can do for people and it’s a shame it doesn’t always appear to do that.
I deeply enjoyed this book and I would recommend it strongly for anyone who wants to learn about Christian peacebuilding and reconciliation.
This book gave me a strong foundation which I will use to approach peacebuilding in Christian communities and with Christians and it’s for that reason that I have questions for Prof. Lederach and any other Christians who might be interested in answering them. Some of these questions are informed by a recent encounter I had with a theist, a polytheist, who was angry with me because I wanted to establish bonds between polytheists and atheists for the sake of mutual defense and to learn from each other in safe and open environments. This person accused me of being selfish in my reasoning and of not understanding polytheism, the second part of which is fair but at the same time I wanted to learn about polytheism from polytheists so I feel like while it’s an accurate complaint it wasn’t really made in good faith. That being said, that encounter lent me valuable perspective and encouraged me to learn more about perceptions of theists towards secular people trying to engage with them in different and experimental ways. It showed me that to some such actions without approaching them first could look selfish or shallow and I want to avoid that in the future which is why I say we dive into the questions!
And in the context of the questions consider the word “secular” not to mean government empowered but to be synonymous with “humanistic” or otherwise “irreligious”.
How can secular peace workers build trust not only from individual Christians but from the Church or Churches as institutions?
How can secular peace workers learn from Church authorities and vice-versa?
How can secular peace workers respectfully make use of Christian approaches to peacebuilding and peacemaking?
Do you think churches in your area, wherever that happens to be for you, would be receptive to having conversations with secular peace workers and actively teaching each other?
Do you have any questions for me? Or for Prof. Lederach? Leave them in the comments down below! Oh and if you have any recommendations for books on peace work, reconciliation, and more for me to read please share them with me!