Friday, September 23, 2011

Conflict Transformation Style Assessment

Personality profile tests are tricky for me. Not necessarily because they require limiting labels (as if human beings can, or should, escape limitations), but because they deal out de-contextualized situations and prefabricated options. The profile did prove useful, but as I took it I wanted to know what subject was being discussed in the group, who my fellow groups members were, where we were having the discussion, etc. The context would greatly determine my role within it and my response to it.

Even so, I find it interesting that my adjudicated style, Affiliating/Perfecting, is considered the activist style, something with which I resonate. I am committed to the grassroots and middle-range sectors of peacebuilding, to place and to people, and this style seems appropriate for these commitments. In our corner enclave of similarly-profiled classmates, we discussed common themes of our (past and future) work: strong values, willingness to question authority, cooperation, passion, engagement, loyalty, etc. Unfortunately, perverted manifestations of these convictions can breed elitism and even hatefulness, arrogantly dividing the world into good guys and bad guys with little room for nuance or critical questions. There is a fine line between confronting dehumanization and dehumanizing those you confront. That fine line, however, is a tightrope that must be walked: sides must be taken, because neutrality votes for the oppressor. But activists must stand firm on unsettled ground, because we can never be smugly certain, as if we are sole recipients of the Revelation of Absolute Truth. Ironically, this ambiguity embraces convicted action, but action seasoned with interrogatory ethics: asking questions of the systems and structures of the world while simultaneously asking the same questions of ourselves, exposing our own contingencies and construction. Such an ethics, so needed in every conflict transformation style, would be radical in the etymological sense of the word: routing out the roots of our socioeconomic and political injustices and retrieving the roots of our sustaining and subversive stories. In this radicalism, the synthesis of loving our neighbors and loving our enemies is vital.

As classmates in other groups shared their styles and experiences, distinctive lines blurred like a gradual shading of color into color, each style contributing to a mosaic of peacebuilders. Instead of differences dominated by hierarchy and distrust, a diversity of gifts emerged characterized by the collaboration of organizers, facilitators, analyzers, reconcilers, and activists. Indeed, I saw myself in several other styles, since my work has required harmonizing, directing, and certainly analyzing. But the energy for my commitment to marginalized and dispossessed people and places has come more from an “affiliating/perfecting” spirit, from an activist bent, which has grown from deep roots in my life.

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, one of the poorest areas of the United States, where my father was a family doctor working with a community healthcare center, clinic, and hospital dedicated to the uninsured. My family has also crafted a close connection to Israel and Palestine over the past forty years. Like many American Christians, my family championed Israel despite knowing little about the Palestinian perspective, even though we had Palestinian friends for as long as we had Israeli friends. Over the last ten years, however, my family’s perspective on the conflict has progressively shifted (perhaps due in part to an interrogatory ethic) from one of steadfast support of Israel to an intimate connection with the plight of the Palestinians. I have worked as a journalist in Ramallah with the Palestine Monitor, a web-based news source committed to “exposing life under occupation.” I traveled throughout the West Bank, writing several articles about the village of Ni’lin, whose olive groves and roads were (and are) fractured due to the construction of the separation wall. I witnessed and engaged with villagers, as well as Israeli and international activists, nonviolently protesting the confiscation and devastation of their land. And I watched and felt the effects as police and military repeatedly responded with teargas, rubber-coated bullets, and live fire. I served as a writer and editor with Musalaha (“reconciliation” in Arabic), which is committed to uniting Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians. I was given a list of Israelis and Palestinians to interview and then incarnate my skeletal notes as stories about encounters with the other and events of reconciliation, which was published as a book in December. I also worked with the Al-Basma Center, a creative and restorative place for people with developmental disabilities. Through activities like olivewood carving, recycled card-making, weaving, making fuel from sawdust, a greenhouse, drama, speech therapy, and hygiene classes, the students are taught practical and artistic skills and the belief that they are vital members and contributors to their community. The marginalized of the marginalized are welcomed as fully human.

These experiences, and my placement in the style assessment, highlight the necessity of praxis. Reflective practitioners understand the relatedness of conflict transformation styles, a relationship that advocates addressing root causes of violence, tending the connected branches of the peacemaking tree, and testing the soil of conflict and the inequitable distribution of power and privilege (Enns & Myers, 2009, p. 44). Unfortunately, activists sometimes lack the attentive patience and hospitable openness this requires. The subsequent danger of this style is burnout, the edge of which I have seen myself in only a short amount of time. This danger seems attributable to a wide variety of reasons, but I think certainly to a lack of familiarity with (or even respect for) the other branches of the tree, such as analyzing and preserving, accommodating and harmonizing. Also, in my experience activists often lack community. A group of individuals committed to the same goal or having the same conversation does not constitute community: they share nothing but ideas, which can be fleeting. Healthy activists and movements seem to be grounded in a sustaining community with shared space, time, resources, memories, values, and practices. Jean Vanier suggests that “To struggle for a cause it is best for people to be rooted in a community where they are learning reconciliation, acceptance of difference and of their own darkness, and how to celebrate . . . A community that does not celebrate is in danger of becoming just a group of people that get things done” (2010, p. 169, 97). Activists are so preoccupied with the future that they forget response-ability to the present moment. We need prophetic communities that microcosmically cultivate a restorative culture and imagine what the alternative future looks like right now.

Similarly, activists can also emphasize ends too much. I might very easily burn out if I thought results were the most important thing, that my work will definitely achieve all my goals, that I can ‘save the world’ and ‘feed the hungry’ and ‘create world peace.’ To think on that scale, I would be forced to conjure up grand abstract schemes that might look eerily similar to those with grand abstract schemes to ‘take over the world.’ Both operate by massive top-level implementation which ironically necessitates destructively reductionist thinking. Clearly, ends can never be ignored, especially for those in the belly of the beast. And the end goal of nonviolent direct action is negotiation and, if possible, reconciliation. Means and ends must be as commensurate as possible. But idealism about achieving those ends will only sow seeds for cynicism, a common trait amongst activists I know (myself included). Idealism leads to abstraction which leads to failure which leads to burnout. Activists may need deeper and more concrete reasons than absolute assurance and quick realization of ends, which may or may not come. In the end, there may be no such thing as peace. In the end, there is only peacemaking.


Enns, E. and Myers, C. (2009). Ambassadors of Reconciliation Volume II: Diverse Christian
Practices of Restorative Justice and Peacemaking. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Vanier, J., & Whitney-Brown, C. (ed.). (2010). Jean Vanier: Essential writings. Maryknoll:
Orbis Books.

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