Peacemaking Perspectives from a Peace-breaking Missionary

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I am supposed to write with sagacity about peacemaking. Now, before I make a complete fool of myself, let me offer up a confession or two. First, I may know a thing or two about peacemaking, but I know it principally because I am skilled (I would say qualified) at peace-­breaking. As far as I can tell, the only really good reasons for me writing this piece is that I have had my share of interpersonal conflict and Jesus loves me (he broke down the wall of hostility between us and started producing peace in me). To be really honest about it, however, I am not alone in this confession. If we had a peace-­breaking police lineup down at the station, you would have to include at least a couple of missionaries. We may be commissioned as ambassadors of peace, but we all too often resemble the horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Well, at any rate, what exactly do we mean by peacemaking? At the risk of being too obvious, I would like to start in two obvious places, the Bible and a dictionary. The first thing to say is that peace is a word sprinkled throughout the Bible. I count 376 times in my ESV Study Bible. It, whether we refer to the Old Testament shalom” or New Testament ‘eirini’, is fundamentally a corporate, relational term. Shalom is a covenantal word that connotes the completeness and wholeness that is restored by the creator and redeemer God to his fallen, fractured creation. It is something that should characterize our relationships as a people, not just persons, to God and one another. Beyond that, it even has a dimension that indicates the kind of lives we should live in harmony with all of creation. It is a rich word, with lots of depth, like my wife’s chocolate mousse. It is also an imitative word, because it seeks to inculcate in us the same sort of love with one another that the members of the Trinity share.(1) It is oriented inward, outward but principally upward. In other words, it integrates us to God through the reconciling work of his Son and to each other in every way to every possible degree (Jn 20:21ff; Ro 5:1; Eph 2:14; Col 3:14-­15). You can see why I am often better at peace-­breaking than peacemaking. It is something that has to come from God (Jn 14:27). I am better at bringing the fall with me. Nevertheless, I (and you too) are called to be peacemakers (even if you are in ministry).

We get off on the wrong foot when we lose track of this understanding of peace. It may be that in the journey from Hebrew through Greek into Latin and then English (or whatever) we lose part of the plot or substitute wrong elements in place of the right ones. Consider the difference between shalom and pax, the Latin equivalent and the root of our word peace. Pax, like lots of other Latin words has a legal feel to it. It is rooted in the idea of a treaty agreement or compact between two parties. It is therefore a behavioral agreement that is intended to produce concord and tranquility. You can be sure that you have pax when no one shows disrespect or offends openly. It is all about how we look and behave. It is not about who or what we are. See the problem? Shalom, the biblical standard is far deeper, more profound and far, far more difficult to achieve. You need God for shalom but you don’t need God to just keep up appearances. The thing of it is that you really have to have shalom. Missionaries trying to kill each other, on the way to fulfilling their high calling in Christ, need shalom. They do not need half-­measures or makeovers. An old boss used to say: “You can put a wrist watch on a hog, but it is still a hog.” To make the point more politely, God calls us to be transformed into the image of Christ through the sanctifying work of the Spirit in our lives. Reconciliation is our principal calling in Christ and conflict is a God-­given means to produce it.

You heard me. Conflict can be the greatest tool of gospel transformation that God uses in our life. It is not something to be avoided. I would go further. If you avoid it at all cost, you are thinking about you, not others or God. You have decided that peace means the absence of outward violence and that is just fine with you-­forget God and all of that shalom stuff. Mark Lauterbach, in a brilliant book addressing discipline in the local church, describes how church members and staff generally relate in their work and lives. They “co-­â€exist as marbles in a jar, touching each others’ lives only peripherally.”(2) Does that describe churches and mission teams? All too often, I think it does. Ken Sande, in his wonderful useful The Peacemaker in a chart called “The slippery slope”, distinguishes between godly options for dealing with conflict, escape responses (peace-faking) and attack responses (peace-breaking).(3) In other words, the presence of conflict is not the problem, nor is its outward acknowledgement. The problem is whether we approach it in a godly or ungodly manner. We either end up thinking about ourselves and running away or thinking about ourselves and duking it out. We can go one step further. When we find that it is ungodly, what do we do? The Bible describes conflict resolution and transformation as a process. We all get it wrong. The question is whether we learn and reenter the relationships having learned our lessons.

Carolyn Schrock-­Shenk has a useful guide for diagnosing whether a conflict is going to produce good or bad changes in us.(4) It is constructive when people: change; interact to learn rather than protect; are not defined by the conflict; focus on their relationships; exhibit empathy; and have egalitarian, cooperative relations with those with whom they conflict. Conflict is destructive, on the other hand, when people: are rigid and inflexible; interact in order to protect themselves and punish others; are defined by the conflict; demonstrate fear, anger, and insecurity; employ fight or flight patterns; look to their own self-­interests; use demeaning verbal and non-­verbal communications; and approach each other in competitive and destructive ways in order to dominate. I think it is time for you and I to reflect for a moment on this. As far as I am concerned, I have a pretty spotty report card. How is yours?

Since we are on the subject, let me flesh out how to do it wrong and then we can take a look at more biblical approaches. As a prelude, let me advise: stick to biblical approaches. There are all sorts of books in the business community on how to deal with conflict, negotiation etc. some of them have useful things to say, but none of them are premised on the right grounds. One such offering defines the reader as a negotiator and then states that the purpose of negotiation getting what you want from others. In another place, the same book states that its techniques show us how to get what we are entitled to and “still be decent.” Are we negotiators? Well, we do negotiate, but “negotiator” does not principally define who I am or how I should live. Start with the Bible and then use other biblically oriented sources before you ever attempt to employ other approaches. Neither you nor I are wise enough to get away with it.

J.P. Lederach has produced tremendously good, gospel-saturated books on peacemaking, reconciliation and transformation.(5) He has also experienced it from the front lines, not the rear as a member of UN peacekeeping missions. He gives great advice on how to do things wrong and do them right. Here is his advice on how to create an enemy in three easy steps:

1. Separate yourself from another

2. See yourself as superior

3. Dehumanize the other

Hmmm. I guess I passed that test. I have done all three. He also has ten unspoken commandments for mishandling conflicts in the Mennonite Church, his denomination. Here are a few of them:

1. Always be nice. Niceness is the essence of Christianity.
2. Don’t listen during a confrontation. Prepare a defense while they are still speaking.
3. Don’t speak with those with whom you disagree.
4. Never show your emotion in public.
5. Be rational, disengaged and silent
6. Conflict is a sign of sin, and if you must do it, pray that you win, God convicts and converts your enemies.

How about that? What Lederach is doing is showing just how dysfunctional and distant from the Bible our tried and tested social methods really are. They drive us away from community and far from shalom. Shalom comes only through genuine reconciliation; something that far exceeds diplomatic agreements or truces. Lederach sees reconciliation as “A journey toward a place where truth, mercy, justice and peace meet.” When they meet, they create hope, the agent that produces lasting transformation in all of us. That, my friends is biblical. This peacemaking is, to quote Alfred Poirier: “How we keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” It is more than skin deep. It deals with our insides and outsides. It is not
primarily a tactic or methodology. If anything, peacemaking produces an ecology; an ordering of relationships in such a way that conflicts produce positive changes in all parties so that everyone looks more like Christ. If my own painful experience is any indication, we need to take a long, hard look at how we deal with one another.

 

Footnotes:

1 See Alfred Poirier, The Peacemaking Pastor (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).
2 Mark Lauterbach, The Transforming Community: The Practice of the Gospel in
Church Discipline (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2003).
3 Ken Sande, The Peacemaker Revised and Updated (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).
4 Carolyn Shrock-­Shenk, Making Peace With Conflict (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press,
1999.).
5 See J.P. Lederach, The Journey Toward Reconciliation (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1999) and The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 2003).

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About Author

Basil is a minister in the Presbyterian Church of America, a former moderator of the International Presbyterian Church, a European-based denomination started by Dr Francis Scheffer, and assisted in the creation of the Presbyterian Church of Bangladesh. A former church planter, he has pastored two churches and served cross-culturally for much of the last 30 years.

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