Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A House Divided: Reflection on Lederach's Building Peace

I know someone who has hoped to make a career out of working in occupied Palestine. During a discussion about the imminent Palestinian bid for statehood, he quipped that, if the request succeeded, he might be out of a job before he even gets started. He probably meant it sardonically, but the implication seemed to be that a Palestinian state would solve everything, as if abject poverty, community disintegration, Muslim-Christian hostility, political infighting, ecological destruction, and IDF-mimicking police forces would just suddenly vanish in the wake of a salvific state. In the end, there may be no such thing as peace. In the end, there is only peacemaking.

John Paul Lederach knows that peacebuilding must delve much deeper than statist perspectives (1997, p. xvi). I appreciated his acknowledgment of the symptomatic residue of structural and systemic diseases (ibid, p. 57). While the actual surface of conflict must be addressed (and, at times, must be addressed in the very moment in which the encounter summons us to respond), the root causes that grew into what we see must also be tended to; further still, the soil around the roots might need a little testing as well. Deformed roots will continue to sprout if we ignore infected soil. Imbalances of power and privilege make for uneven ground.

I was treading on familiar ground when Lederach discussed reconciliation (ibid, p. 23-35). I served as a writer and editor with an organization called Musalaha, which means “reconciliation” in Arabic. Musalaha is committed to creating space for reconciliation (ibid, p. 29) between Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians, hoping to then build bridges to the distant shores of mainstream society. Even so, Musalaha struggles to fully test the soil of conflict. While they do occasionally discuss historical harms and trauma, mercy and forgiveness are given a much bigger plot of land than truth and justice. Musalaha attempts to walk a string-thin line. They are in an extremely volatile situation as an NGO predominantly funded by Evangelical Christians, many of whom still ardently support Israel. The director (a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship) says he has “an itch for justice” and is ready for Musalaha to speak more boldly. However, if they cry justice for their beloved country too loudly, many Israelis won’t come to conferences and retreats. But if Musalaha continues a more neutral stance on political issues, Palestinians will consider their silence as normalizing the occupation and they may not come much longer either. There will be no peace without reconciliation through justice, which, as Cornel West reminds us, “is what love looks like in public” (Dillon, 2008).

A friend of Lederach’s once exclaimed that truth, mercy, justice, and peace meet in a place called reconciliation (1997, p. 29). This spring, I worked with some of my closest friends in Mozambique at a resource center and organic farm called Malo Ga Kujilana (MGK), which in Chiyao means “place of reconciliation.” More literally, the name translates as “the place of coming together,” etymologically referring to the reparation of a marriage after separation. This actual place incarnates the reconciliation of people with their neighbors and of neighbors with the earth. MGK partners with local villages to nurture imagination and wholeness through sustainable agriculture, non-monetary micro-loans, nutrition programs, sanitation initiatives, storytelling, and living life well together. This concreteness seems absent in some peacebuilding discussions and programs. Lederach is right to emphasize partiality and advocacy (ibid, p. 50) because relationship is the alpha and omega of conflict and peace (ibid, p. 26) and must therefore have a specific locus (ibid, p. 29). In the effort to be socially relevant, peacebuilding may have lost some of that prophetic voice. Often, it seems, peacebuilders want to address root causes but don’t want to put down roots. I am not extremely sympathetic to conflict junkies: transience breeds abstraction, around which the danger of global thinking revolves. Those with grand abstract schemes to ‘save the world’ don’t always think that differently from those with grand abstract schemes to ‘take over the world.’ Both must operate on reductionist assumptions and the myth of the White Man’s Burden. Indeed, the most successful global thinkers have been imperial governments and multinational corporations (Berry, 1993, p. 19). This is in no way a call for withdrawal; on the contrary, isolation can be just as dangerous and justice necessitates imaginative conversation and respectful generosity for the plurality of the world’s local places (ibid, p. 50). No place is wholly free while another is enslaved, no place wholly healed while another is diseased. However, I do have questions as to whether massive ‘global solutions’ to ‘global problems’ will be any less destructive than the problems which they seek to solve. Contrary to popular belief, I think size does matter.

I am not haunted and convicted by the land between the river and the sea because of the “Israel-Palestine conflict,” which is such an overwhelmingly abstract concept. We certainly need our helpful heuristic devices, but they often morph into meta-narratives that gloss over, or erase, complexities and particularities. So I do not go because of “the Conflict.” I am convicted because of names, faces, stories, and places. And, increasingly, I am convicted of names, faces, stories, and places in my own homeland. Americans sometimes travel far away from home to realize that their neighbors are suffering too. I think it may be easier for Americans to romantically care about the effects of global inequity (starving kids on the other side of the world) than to care about the affects of that inequity (‘free’ economic forces and systems based on what Dr. King called the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism). Those questions are too hard to ask because the answers expose our complicity in those causes. We can’t just withdraw and pretend like systems and structures don’t need to be changed.

I think critiques of the withdrawal of the ‘quiet in the land’ have been valid, but I worry that for the sake of validity peacebuilders have sacrificed vitality. Lederach hints at the need for an image or vision of the future toward which we are building (ibid, p. 76-7), but in my mind this deserves much more attention. We need communities that microcosmically cultivate a restorative culture, prophetically imagining what the alternative future looks like right now. These visions must be practiced in a rooted community, like MGK, the Amish, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam, a Gandhian ashram, Buddhist sanghas, or Christian monastic movements (old and new). I think we should advocate for a kind of withdrawal: defection from oppressive systems and practices in order to inhabit something better. All addicts need rehabilitation, and rehabilitation requires limitations, accountability, and commitment. But I must constantly recognize that my ability to defect is in many ways due to my privilege within the very system from which I am withdrawing, which therefore means I must also work to carve out alternatives for others and help dismantle unjust structures.

Because of this, I am admittedly biased toward the grassroots and middle-range sectors (Lederach, 1997, p. 39). I do think policies need to be changed, but I think most changes in policies have been the result of community organizing and movements by the most disenfranchised, whether it be civil rights, unemployment benefits, health and safety standards, food and drug regulations, fair housing statutes, etc (Myers, 1994, p. 218). Gandhi didn’t achieve relevancy by moving to the capitol and attempting to reform the Metonyms on their terms. He had an influential voice with the Powers that Be, but he also lived out his future vision in the present in the marginal places of the world. Proximity matters: where I live, who I live there with, and how I live there define my relationship to the world. Aside from water and shit, not much of anything ever trickles down (Lederach, 1997, p. 45), especially ‘reagonomically’: the pipes always seem to get clogged, or just re-routed. The top-level seems like a vacuum into which good-hearted people can get sucked because they believe they can change something that has such overpowering centripetal force. This is what empire does: colonize the good intentions of the noble who desire to force the flow in a centrifugal direction. I am honestly cynical that this works, because the top-level can colonize people who didn’t work in that sector (and therefore weren’t even on the payroll). Martin Luther King is a sentimental bobble-head on a broken record player: “I have a dream! I have a dream! I have a dream!” Thank goodness! We never have to hear what that dream actually entailed, especially the dreams he had and planned to proclaim right before he got shot in the head. Jesus of Nazareth is muzzled as the meek and mild Savior and the privatized poster child for the empire that executed him as a political dissident. We piously say that if we had lived in the time of our ancestors we would never have killed the prophets. Instead, we would just automate them by replaying decontextualized (and depoliticized) sound bites and giving them annual national holidays. Can David ever defeat Goliath on the giant’s terms?

Lederach relates the excellent societal metaphor of a House (ibid, pp. xv, 37). He notes opposing theories about how to approach this House (ibid, p. 37), but he seems to think that all levels and approaches have legitimacy (ibid, p. 60). Surely they are interrelated, but are they equally legitimate? This is an honest question, not a loaded one, one that constantly disturbs my settled answers. I am not suggesting that we can ignore the power of the top-level and how it relates to the middle-range and grassroots sectors. After all, the top-level can build a wall through my olive groves whether I acknowledge it or not. He may indeed be right, but I think there is a difference between acknowledging its existence and accepting it. The blueprints of our House called for liberty and justice for all, but the actual foundation was built on white supremacy, patriarchy, and oligarchy (Myers, 1994, p. 203). This House in which we live was built more by enslaved Africans than by free Europeans, and we evicted the previous inhabitants whose House (or should I say, Houses), while more structurally simple, was far more sound and secure (perhaps because it was simple). The opposing theories mentioned by Lederach seem to me to lie at the heart of the matter. One approach believes social injustices are a personal and policy problem: the House needs some slight adjustments and some redecorating, but it’s structurally fine. The other approach thinks that these injustices stem from the very history and formations of economic and political structures themselves: the House cannot simply be repainted, but might be in need of extensive renovation.

Because a House divided against itself cannot stand.


Berry, W. (1993). Sex, economy, freedom, and community: Eight essays. New York City:
Pantheon Books

Dillon, J. (Producer, Screenwriter/Director). (2008). Call+Response [Motion Picture]. United States: Fair Trade Pictures.

Lederach, J. (1997). Building peace: Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace

Myers. C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world christians. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

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