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FALL, 1999: Volume 4 Issue 3

Book Review…

God’s Mission of Reconciliation by Val Liveoak 

Journey to Reconciliation, John Paul Lederach, Herald Press, Scottsdale PA, 1999, 206 pages. 

John Paul Lederach is a Mennonite student and teacher of conflict transformation, whose work and program at Eastern Mennonite University is as respected among Anabaptists as the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) is among Quakers. Of the four Lederach books I’ve seen, this is the most accessible (two are more academic in nature, and one is a training manual in Spanish.) In it he draws on his lengthly experience as a peacemaker and reflects on stories of the Bible to develop a theology of conflict and of peace that is of specific relevance to his own Anabaptist church, but speaks my (Quaker) mind as well. He urges Peace Churches (which often don’t deal very well with conflict and disagreement) to go beyond teaching conflict resolution techniques to finding holy ground—God’s presence—in the very experience of conflict and through it, carry out God’s mission—reconciliation. 

Lederach interprets conflict as a natural part of God’s creation: God created diversity, and gave humans freedom to act on their diverse beliefs. In the person of Jesus, God’s mission of reconciliation was very clearly revealed, but as early as the accounts of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25-33, the sacredness of journeying toward reconciliation was depicted. “When we fight all night in the darkness of our soul and fear, we struggle with God. When we turn to seek the face of our enemy, we look into the face of God.” Lederach stresses that reconciliation is both a journey and a destination, and his personal accounts show some of the steps he’s taken. 

When his family was threatened in Nicaragua, and he was nearly killed by an angry mob, he learned how hate grows in the heart of the victim of violence and why the Psalmist at times calls for God to annihilate his enemies. When Lederach saw a Honduran officer lovingly embrace his crippled child, he saw a man he’d presumed to be an evildoer as a father like himself. “Inside these experiences with real enemies, I also heard…the voice of God’s search for reconciliation as a call to love those who do us harm.” 

Acknowledging that the values of Peace, Truth, Mercy and Justice sometimes seem to be in conflict, but that all are necessary to carrying out God’s work, Lederach recounts the struggles of Salvadorans and South Africans to understand the truth of what happened in their countries. He has also worked with Cambodians and Nicaraguans who cannot yet face the past, but can work together for the sake of present survival or for the future of their children. He realizes, “[I]n real life, building international conciliation and peace is an enormously complex task.” To facilitate it, he calls for a polychronic approach to reconciliation—a multitude of simultaneous activities, a systemic rather than a linear perspective on people, relationships, activities and context. “With a systemic view, we see people and relationships within a context, a social fabric that is dynamic, interdependent, and evolving. We do not place primary focus on pinpointing the cause, as if that sets in motion a linear reaction. We try to understand the overall system and how change in any one aspect will change all the others.”  

Shifting his view from international conflicts, he reflects upon the conflicts he’s found within his own Mennonite church. Tongue-in-cheek, he suggests that the unspoken Ten Commandments include “always be nice,” “don’t talk to people who disagree with you,” “if things go wrong, blame the pastor” and “save your anger for the annual budget meeting.” Even in Peace Churches, he believes, conflict is seen as sin, and there’s a fear of naming it (and shunning of those who do bring it up). Instead, he offers Biblical models. 

First, God’s “creation commitments” show us how to treat others: 1) We are created in God’s image (“There is that of God in everyone.”) This means we must respect everyone. 2) God created diversity, so we should value and include it. 3) God gives us freedom therefore humans must have a choice and a voice in decisions that affect them. These things make conflict inevitable and natural, and guide our responses to it. According to Lederach, sin enters when we act like God, assuming God’s superiority, or oppress, refuse to listen, discount and exclude, hold back feelings, avoid, hate, or project blame.

Second, Lederach examines Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 18. In verses 15-20 Jesus outlines steps that involve negotiation, mediation, and involving the church as an institution in the resolution process. Then if these fail, Jesus said to treat your adversary as a Gentile or tax collector. How did Jesus treat these outcasts? He sought them out and developed a relationship with them—he ate with them. Summing up the process, “We must find the capacity to define ourselves and share what we see and feel. We need to create space for interaction with those who see and feel differently and promote accountability as the engagement of Truth. We must maintain relationship even when we deeply disagree.” 

Finally he looks at Paul’s teaching and conflicts in the early church (Acts 15). The problem of conflict was recognized and defined and a common understanding of its nature was sought. Placing a high value on participation and ownership of the substance and process, a forum where there could be discernment and creativity was created. The different gifts of members of the community were valued and used. Then there were threshing sessions and brainstorming of solutions—and the solution was implemented, not just discussed. 

Throughout the process, Lederach stresses the importance of listening which is, as he points out, a spiritual discipline since it means risking being changed, shaped and molded by God and/or by the other. Many Quakers will agree with him that moments of silence are important parts of the process. He cites several types of listening: active listening techniques (paraphrasing what we understand) are expanded toward connecting on a spiritual level; listening prayerfully—with discipline and attentive awareness; and seeking God through what Elise Boulding calls prophetic listening—listening to others in such a way that it helps them get in touch with what God is telling them. “Listening is about the process of relationship, engaging Truth and finding God.”

The 23rd Psalm shows us how God prepares, sustains, and supports us through the Valley of the Shadow, and leads us to sit down at the table with our enemies. When we’re disillusioned or impatient with the process, faith in God’s commitment to us inspires us to Hope. Lederach says, “I confess that in the journey toward reconciliation, disillusionment is the greatest challenge I face…Disillusionment will either lead us toward despair or into a tenaciously rooted hope.” 

Lederach closes with a plea for us to keep hoping and dreaming. When looking at the present and especially the future, it is important to have a dual vision—that of the realist who sees what is and how it may further develop and the dreamer who changes the future to realize the dream through faith (Heb. 11). “It takes courage and tenacity to dream in times like these. We are faced with a world of broken people, a world of violence and war, inequality and injustice, a world of famine and poverty. We are not blocked or restrained by a lack of resources for responding to these problems. We are shackled by a lack of imagination and dreaming that things can be otherwise, by a lack of commitment to live by those dreams with the conviction that they are possible…May God grant us the innocence to dream and the wisdom, courage and sustenance to take up the journey.” 

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