I. INTRODUCTORY THOUGHTS ABOUT MY RECENT STUDIES AT EMU & THE SUMMER INSTITUTE OF PEACEBUILDING
…..or should I entitle my reflections, “The Peacemaking Pastorate?” How about “Pastoring AS Peacemaking?” The fact that I am still struggling to define how it is that peacemaking and pastoring relate could mean that I am still a mental captive of the segregation in our culture of church and gospel from justice and peacemaking. The scarcity of American pastors and church leaders at this summer’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI), part of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) at Eastern Mennonite University could be a symptom of this segregation. I’m glad to say, though, that churches from other countries stepped up and sent more pastors per capita, even churches from some of the world’s poorest countries.
Or could it mean that the two worlds of church and peacemaking are so big and so deep that it will take a lifetime in either pair of shoes to explore the territory? One then finds that there are always some differences between that which pastors regularly do, and that which civil society agents, like conflict mediators and victim/offender reconciliation workers, do, at least on a regular basis. Pastors don’t normally start sermons by asking the congregation, “So, what did you just hear the other person saying?” Maybe sometimes they should. And conflict mediators don’t normally ask their clients to open their hymnals or their Bibles to a certain passage. But that might not hurt, either.
After all, pastors preach, teach and counsel from “the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6: 15) in a “ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:18) And conflict, peace and reconciliation are spiritual matters, not just procedural nor technical ones. Things happen when hearts begin to melt, adversaries begin to reflect and repent, and broken relationships begin to mend, that make your eyes tear up, that puts a lump in your throat and a shiver down your spine, so that you want to “take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground” (Exodus 3: 5).
A peacemaking pastorate, or whatever we want to call it, accepts conflict, anxiety and tension as part of even the best relationships and the healthiest of growth. Conflict may even be a sign of growth. It amounts to wearing new lenses that reveal the commonalities, conflicts and other connections under the tip of the iceberg that is our shared life. Its about learning to see each difference of belief and every clash of interests, personalities and desires not as a dead end to a relationship but as a doorway to a deeper relationship, even, as an invitation to spiritual and relational growth.
This new set of lenses also helps one see and avoid the pitfalls and shortcuts to a positive conflict transformation, such as avoidance or denial. On the other end of the scale of self-defeating responses are physical or emotional violence, blaming, shaming and sometimes even bargaining. Raising our fists, our weapons or our voices in rage, for control, effectively slams the door on personal growth.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to learn to see is the difference between mere analysis and manipulation of conflict, and the compassionate wisdom of a vulnerable engagement. The latter is what Jesus did among us. Its the difference between being a mere technician and a true friend. The first can come and go; the subject does not touch him or her deeply, nor will it change him. But the Christ-like peacemaker (pastor or not), whatever his or her role in a conflict, sees in every conflict that same invitation: to grow and to be changed, along with the conflicted parties and their relationship.
But you wouldn’t know that from much of what passes for pastoral training or coaching, in many pastor-oriented books, seminars and magazines. Over the last few decades we have had dangled before us the executive, managerial leadership models of mega-corporation CEO’s. They were worth hearing because of how much their companies, their stock and their compensation grew. So, leadership was evaluated mostly by objectives, achievements and rewards.
There’s always something to learn from that world (or from anyone, for that matter). But to keep the analogy going, pastoral and congregational growth have too often been measured mostly by budgets, facilities, programs and attendance.
What about growth in personhood, spiritual giftedness, wisdom, virtue and love? My new peacebuilding lenses, as fuzzy as the view still is, are leading me to see that what CJP and SPI call ‘peacebuilding” is largely what the Bible calls “wisdom”.
“Whoever would love life and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech.
They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (I Peter 3:10; Psalm 34: 10-12)
And all these years I thought “wisdom” was mostly about “how to win friends and influence others” and not embarrass myself too much in public. Just as the Apostle Peter and King David saw the deep unity of wisdom with peacemaking, social justice, personal virtue, and a living, saving faith, so must we, beginning with us pastors.
These are some of the thoughts that recapture the glowing, “take-off-your-shoes” holy space experience of my three weeks at EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute. I was already enriched and humbled on the morning of Day 1, standing in line to register with students from all around the world, even from different religions and some claiming no religions at all. I made friends with Iranian Shiite Muslim seminary students and teachers, Sudanese, Nigerian, Irish and Ethiopian pastors, civil society workers from Guatemala, Brazil, Myanmar, and more than I can recount here.
I am aware that this diversity of students and teachers brings EMU and the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding some criticism, as though the universality of SPI’s participants means that EMU has gone all universalistic on us. I would argue instead that CJP’s generosity, hospitality and global engagement amount to a valuable and powerful Christian witness.
What CJP and SPI offer is not a diversion from, nor a substitute for, the gospel of Jesus Christ, but an open and alluring doorway to it. The evangelist must scratch where people itch. When it comes to war, conflict and reconciliation, “itch” is too mild a word for the world’s trauma and terror. That people from all over the planet, even from the worlds of Islam, Hinduism and secularism, are beating a path to EMU indicates that reasons and resources for making peace apart from the influence of Jesus and the kingdom of God are few, feeble and far between.
And yet so many of these same people will also attest that they have experienced the church as a barrier to peace and a contributor to their troubles. And not just the secularists nor the Muslims, with their memories of the Crusades and of “Christian” colonialism. A Protestant pastor from Northern Ireland told me, “This stuff is changing my life! But after I preach this back home for a year, then what kind of a job do you think I can find?” Renewal, like judgment, begins with the household of God (I Peter 4: 17).
II. MY CLASSES
The one big exception to the puzzling separation of the church and the peacemaking world was the first class I took: Faith-based Peacemaking. Not only were half the students pastors (two of us from the U.S.), but so was the teacher, Roy Haines. We covered the peacemaking resources of Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions, from our scriptures as well as our histories and traditions.
My primary take-home lesson from that class is that in the Bible, as well as in real life, major spiritual breakthroughs in the salvation history of God are usually accompanied by major breakthroughs in broken relationships, or by restorations of right relationships. Consider Jacob and Esau, or Joseph and his brothers. And when people fight the healing, reconciling work of God, then God still breaks in to work for true peace. Consider the Exodus, the Exile and the Gospel.
So read the Bible and look at the world with the overlapping lenses of reconciliation between God and people, and between people and people. One without the other amounts to tunnel vision.
How to integrate and bring about the symbiosis of peace on earth and with heaven was more the focus of my second class, The Philosophy and Praxis of Forgiveness and Reconciliation, taught by Dr. Hizkias Asefa. We often use words like reconciliation, forgiveness, mediation and peacemaking interchangeably (I likely have already, in this report). But Dr. Asefa helped us differentiate all these terms on a scale of intensity and engagement, with the weakest kind of peacemaking being the pseudo-peace imposed by terror and superior power, at one end of the spectrum. The strongest and most enduring kind of peacemaking, on the other end of the spectrum, is reconciliation, an ongoing relationship of former or potential adversaries committed to improving their relationship and to each other’s well-being. Hollywood movies like to present reconciliation as a total breakthrough that happens instantly, at the end of the movie. But in real life, reconciliation is hard and lifelong work. But everything else is harder, more painful and and more costly.
Dr. Asefa’s vision of peacemaking and reconciliation brought out the essential unity of peace on all levels between heaven and our divided human hearts, including peacemaking with Creation. Like in a game of Jenga, if we remove one kind of peace, say, with our spouses or our neighbors or the environment, other kinds of peace will eventually collapse, too. When working at one level of peace, say, with an estranged sibling, don’t be surprised if you also have to work at peace with God, yourself or another person. Dr. King was right, “We are enmeshed in a web of mutual destiny, so that what effects one person affects another.”
III. NEXT STEPS
So, what will be different for me and the pastorate as I assimilate more of my SPI experience? Wisdom tells me not to be too quick to answer. Hopefully, I will be different, for having a more perceptive and patient view of conflict, and of all the underlying connections between us on the level of self, family, church, community, country, world, and with God. All these relationships and conflicts, and their movements toward reconciliation, are connected. Hopefully I will be different, for having learned more about my own tendencies, strengths and weaknesses, my vision and my blindspots around relationships and reconciliation. Hopefully I will come into every conflict and community with the awareness, as Paul puts it, that “I am the chief of sinners” (I Timothy 1:15), and that I must take personal responsibility for my part in every conflicted system, good and bad, rather than by trying only to fix others.
Already I have experienced something of this synergy and symbiosis of reconciliation among all relationships through my visits with family this summer. My extended family is no more conflicted than most, and probably no less. Like most people, I have tended to focus outwardly, on other people’s problems, that they need to fix. But this summer I have tried to be responsible for what I alone can do and am responsible for, by giving honor where honor is due, and by admitting to and asking forgiveness for some things I have done in the past, like neglect and withdrawal.
Never has the sunshine poured through the clouds to the accompaniment of angels singing as a result, as in some Hollywood movie ending. But I do feel gratitude and a greater freedom and connection in those relationships that spills into other areas of my life. I’m sure I heard this in seminary but must have forgotten it: that I can do no better by my church family than what I do by my human family.
Hopefully, I will be different, in that the mere whiff of conflict neither shames nor frightens me, but invites me and others to growth. Hopefully, others will sense something of my growth and change and will want to change and grow in similar ways.
Southside Minneapolis is looking for peacemakers. Our neighbors have every right to expect them to come from the ranks of the church. I, however, do not feel the call to run after all the needs and invitations that could come our way. Nor does my pastoral job description envision that.
No, the pastor cannot always be the go-to-fix-it person for all conflict in a congregation, because the pastor is part of the congregational system. Sometimes, he or she is even the cause of conflict, sometimes for no fault of anyone, sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes even because of his or her gifts, strengths, skills and knowledge, and not just because of his or her inevitable weaknesses. So its no sign of anyone’s failure when differences arise and a congregation and a pastor must call for outside help to improve or restore relationships. They should get medals for bravery and wisdom. The church both has and needs the ministry of reconciliation.
But I am called, by both the Bible and our job description, to attend to the church’s growth (personally and corporately), beginning with my own. Reconciliation is what unblocks our own path to growth. Maybe my growth in peacemaking wisdom will encourage the growth of more peacemakers among us. If its part of my self, my soul and my pastoral toolkit, then it will become part of the congregational culture.
At least expect to hear more in my preaching and teaching about reconciliation, communication and relationships, not from the viewpoint of an expert, but from that of a fellow struggler. Perhaps we can have Christian Education classes on relationships, conflict, peacemaking and nonviolent communication. Or we could sponsor, by ourselves or with other churches, seminars from resource people at EMU or the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. And if God permits there to be a service and learning community here along the lines of Mennonite Voluntary Service or Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience some day, maybe it can include someone engaged in peacemaking, helping connect us to the community in a winsome witness for Christ, in response to a crying need. Literally.
By Pastor Mathew Swora
Emmanuel Mennonite Church