catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 14 :: 2004.09.10 — 2004.09.23


All peace is one

The challenge and opportunity of reconciliation

As the cold war ended, a new kind of conflict, defined by ethnicity, nationality, and religion, came to the fore. Think of Rwanda, Kosovo, South Africa, Indonesia, Northern Ireland, and a host of others. When violence ends, there are no boundaries to retreat across. Enemies, even combatants, must live alongside one another. In these circumstances, peace requires reconciliation. Reconciliation opens up new peacemaking opportunities for ordinary Christians and Christian communities.

During the cold war, the kind of peace that had to do with personal relationships seemed disconnected from the kind of peace that involved negotiating treaties and reducing armaments. In the new situation, all peace is one?the attitudes and practices needed to live in peace in a family, a church, a dorm floor, a town, are recognisably the same skills required to bring peace to Northern Ireland. Each situation has special needs and complexities of course, but all involve a shared set of skills for living in human community.

While experts remain necessary, the new situation makes everyone a potential peacemaker. How we live as families, what we teach in Sunday school and how well we teach it?it all matters, it is all training for peace. All peace is one.

In the cold war situation, the distance between biblical teaching on peace and the practices and positions necessary to make practical peace could seem great. With reconciliation now to the fore, however, gospel precepts sometimes take on astonishingly direct significance. Reconciliation entails such basic biblical themes as forgiveness, repentance, justice, and truth, even trust, love, and hope. All are relevant to relationships between individuals and to relationships, including political relationships, between groups. All peace is one.

Excellent resources are available for anyone wishing to pursue contemporary issues of peace and reconciliation in greater depth. I comment here on a few recent books of particular value.

Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties

by Perry Bush
Those interested in the Mennonite tradition would do well to start with Perry Bush?s Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). That Mennonites shifted during the twentieth century from a quiet, largely passive approach to peace to a more active, outward-looking approach will surprise few. No one, however, has explored these changes among Old Mennonites and General Conference Mennonites with as much care and sophistication as Bush has done. The immediate and great benefit of Bush?s book is to help us understand where we are as a church in relationship to peace issues and how we got there.

The sixty years covered by Bush, 1914-1973 were dominated by four wars. In each, conscription forced American Mennonites to consider, in the most immediate and existential way, the demands of the state, the demands of the Kingdom of God, and the tension between them. Having immersed himself in these issues, Bush concludes that ?the pressing and inescapable challenge for modern pacifists entails coming to grips with the modern warfare state.?

Not so, I propose. ?Coming to grips with the modern warfare state? may have been the main challenge for pacifists in the years he studied, but it won?t do today. Such a focus will let us down in several ways. First, this conception of peace priorities makes the state the actor and the church the re-actor?that gives the state too much initiative and power. Second, outside of wartime, focussing on ?coming to grips with the modern warfare state? involves a certain thinness of response, largely letter-writing and other forms of lobbying, in what is required of Christians.

Third, given Mennonites? enduring legacy of two-kingdom theology, framing the work of peace in terms of responding to the state will never engage Mennonites uniformly or deeply. Bush has done excellent work in helping us see the tensions and limitations of two-kingdom theology, and how radically we altered in the 1900s. But something about Schleitheim?s rich and suggestive formulation, that ?the sword is ordained of God outside the perfection of Christ,? seems irreducibly necessary. ?The Lordship of Christ,? says Bush, suggesting ?a single moral law? for all humanity rather than separate moralities for Christians and for the world, was the formula under which twentieth-century Mennonites explored the possibility of witnessing to the state. But without Schleitheim as an interpretive key, ?The Lordship of Christ? will end up as exclusively a future hope, or a Constantinian imposition on an unwilling world, or a current reality visible only to the eyes of faith.

Schleitheim allows us to see that there are indeed two kingdoms, which relate differently to the lordship of Christ and therefore to the call for peace. The pacifism of Christians is not in the first instance a political calculation, it is the effect of a passionate, radical, to-the-limit faith in Jesus and his way. Here Jesus is definitely and directly Lord. The peace commitment of a state is a prudential calculation concerning the interests of the state. Is Jesus Lord here? Yes, but in unacknowledged and indirect ways.

These are two different realms, and any Christian thinking about peace who does not acknowledge them will be defective. Does the church have anything to say to the state? Undoubtedly. Will the state be able to hear that message without the church translating it out of the language of faith and into the language of the state, with all the loss, limitation, and ambiguity that translation entails? Unlikely.

Theologian Walter Wink spoke recently at the University of Notre Dame on Christian-rooted nonviolent resistance. A substantial audience, sympathetic but questioning, pressed him in the direction such conversations typically go: But will it work? Can nonviolence be effective? In fact nonviolent tactics and strategies are far more effective than usually allowed, violence is far less effective than frequently imagined, and no one better than Wink to make the case. But finally Wink said what must always be said. No, nonviolence is not a risk-free political strategy that will always deliver the right or the desired outcomes. Ultimately nonviolence is a faith-based risk, taken with the understanding that some people may die in the implementation. And I say, two kingdoms to the rescue once again.

I believe, finally, that Bush is simply wrong in identifying ?coming to grips with the modern warfare state? as ?the pressing and inescapable challenge for modern pacifists.? Today the great challenge for peacemakers is ethnic, national, and religious conflict?where the modern warfare state may not figure at all and is never the main issue?and the consequent need for reconciliation.

I return again to the opportunities offered by the reconciliation motif, which the Mennonite church ought to be seizing. Reconciliation is a recognisable peace challenge at every level of human interaction from interpersonal to international. As such it provides many opportunities for active engagement, as individuals and as congregations. Furthermore, these are the kind of engagements that should be accessible to a broader range of Mennonites than will ever be involved in witnessing to the state. Bush shows us that in the last century, we depended, at least in part and rather perversely, on war and the draft to force us to clarify our peace witness. Reconciliation offers the opportunity to strengthen and broaden Mennonite commitment to peace even when our state is not at war.

From the Ground Up ed. By Cynthia Sampson and John Paul Lederach
A natural complement to Bush is From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to International Peacebuilding (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), edited by Cynthia Sampson and John Paul Lederach. The first part of the book is conventional enough: a historical overview and then eleven international case studies or memoirs. The most distinctive feature of the book, however, is four analytical chapters by non-Mennonites. The verdicts are almost too positive to be good for us, but the exercise provides a unique, fascinating, and valuable opportunity to see ourselves through the eyes of others.

The most intriguing, in my judgment, is Rabbi Marc Gopin?s chapter on ?The Religious Component of Mennonite Peacemaking and Its Global Implications.? I think many Mennonites will share my fascination with Gopin?s chapter, if only for the unique perspective?has any Jew, let alone an Orthodox rabbi, ever reflected on any aspect of Mennonite life with anything like this care?

Marc understands deeply that the Mennonite peacemakers he admires are not remarkable individuals, they are the ordinary children of ordinary Mennonite communities who have had exceptional opportunities in unusual circumstances. So the health of Mennonite peace work depends on the health of Mennonite communities—how they worship, what they teach, how they live together, how they relate to the world. Since the virtues that sustain Mennonite peace work are most obviously those of a largely separatist tradition and community, the rapid acculturation of the past few generations seem to bode no good in this regard.

In fact, having been sensitized to acculturation issues as a teenager, I have ever since been gloomily confident that my generation of Mennonites (I?m forty-six) would be the one to squander the Mennonite inheritance on our brilliant careers and tawdry consumption. Recently, however, I am inclined to venture, tentatively but with growing wonder, that we have not done as I feared, that we have done some good with what we have been given, and, most remarkable of all, we may even be passing it on. We have been better parents, evangelists, and community-builders than I could have imagined.

But nothing can be taken for granted. While allowing myself to assess the Mennonite church as relatively healthy, this still seems more a miracle of God?s grace than the fruit of any well-considered, deliberate actions on our part. Perhaps I should want no more, but in the interests of doing our part, how to keep acculturation fruitful seems a theme worthy of some careful work. We seem to be creating or discovering what our communities require and therefore our peace witness requires, a way of being in the world but not of it, of being both separate and engaged. What do we need to sustain this?

Between Eden and Armageddon by Rabbi Marc Gopin
Gopin is also the author of Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence, and Peacemaking (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). Religion causes the eyes, and minds, of many secular peacemakers to glaze over, and incomprehension sets in. From this perspective, solutions to the problem of religious violence are likely to involve combinations of restraints on the groups in question and appeals to universal human rights or standards. The first, however, is likely to make the group feel persecuted, while the second will be received as an effort to impose on or assimilate the group. Both will cause the group to take a still more defensive, embattled stance.

Gopin takes a radically different approach. ?All groups of all religions,? he writes, ?are capable of moving in directions of extraordinary courage in terms of peacemaking but also are capable of shocking failure.? The implication, which he pursues with great sensitivity and sophistication, is that peacemakers should not look to universal standards, but to the particular resources for peace within the group in question. It is a simple but profound insight with far-reaching implications. And since all peace is one in situations where reconciliation is the goal, these implications extend to small and local conflicts as well as major ones. Confronted with conflicting parties, it does little good to tell them what they ought to believe or to wish that they believed otherwise. You start with the resources already available to them in their basic belief system.

The Journey Toward Reconciliation by John Paul Lederach
John Paul Lederach is probably the most important and best-known Mennonite peacemaker working today. A good, simply-written introduction to his work is The Journey Toward Reconciliation (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1999). Moving from conflicts in churches to the aftermath of genocide in Cambodia and applying related principles in every case, few books better illustrate my contention that where reconciliation is the goal, all peace is one.

What motivates and sustains Christian peacemakers? Lederach clearly works in the light of a lively hope, innocent enough to risk naivet?. His concluding section on ?Believing and Dreaming? startled me and made me think. Among his dreams are many I can embrace, others that I hold back from. Perhaps the chief among the latter is this: ?I believe justice, peace, and reconciliation are possible. I believe they will happen.? I don?t quite believe this. Instead, I believe that better versions than we have now of justice, peace, and reconciliation are possible. I believe they can happen. But I do not expect what I can unreservedly call justice, peace, and reconciliation within the bounds of human history, short of God?s direct intervention to establish the kingdom.

Those who take Lederach?s approach risk aiming so high that failure to see their hopes fulfilled will lead to disillusionment, or cause them to overlook the good that is possible in their avid pursuit of the best, which may prove impossible. My approach risks aiming too low and therefore failing to achieve the fuller measure of peace that might be possible. This difference may be simply a matter of personal orientation. The two approaches might each be useful in different places, in different times, for different purposes. But perhaps Lederach is simply right. His approach reminds me of what Soren Kierkegaard described as ?the knight of Christian faith,? i.e., the authentic believer: he is like the poor man who comes home from church every Sunday expecting a fine meal of roast beef and is never disappointed when it is only potatoes.

Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf
Leaving the best wine for last, I come to Miroslav Volf?s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996). Volf is a Croatian Pentecostal writing out of the tension between the horrific injustices done to his land by the Serbs and the deep conviction that ?we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ.? The result is the finest analysis of the dynamics, requirements, and implications of reconciliation that I have encountered.

Because I want to call this a must-read book, I need to provide some reading instructions. Volf frames much of this book as a conversation with key modern and postmodern thinkers, which may intimidate some readers. My suggestion: go slow, read in parts rather than straight through, and skip over the more overtly philosophical bits until you settle again on something of interest and concern. You might, for example, use the index, and especially the extensive index of scriptures cited, to find sections of interest. I recommend starting with the introduction and the chapter on exclusion, to establish the context out of which Volf writes and the need for reconciliation. Then start skipping through the text. Short sections on the prodigal son and on Pentecost, for example, are almost worth the price of admission. Stick with this book, and your reward will be great. Because in matters of reconciliation all peace is one, Volf will provide insight into all human relationships in this broken world.

The preceding article originally appeared in the December 6, 2000 issue of Christian Living. Joseph Liechty is currently a professor of peace studies at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana after having worked on the issue of sectarianism in Northern Ireland for over 20 years.

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