Developing the Reflexes of Peacemakers
Growing up in a Mennonite church family, I often saw a picture – a seventeenth-century engraving of a man, on the edge of cracking ice, reaching down to save another man who had fallen through and was in danger of drowning. As a child, I didn’t understand much about the story. I knew it had taken place long ago in Holland – there was a windmill in the background – and I knew the rescuer’s name, Dirk Willems. But I didn’t know what religious persecution was, or that the man whose life was being saved would be forced to arrest Dirk, leading to his burning for heresy; I didn’t think about the unfairness of the situation, or why God hadn’t protected the life of his servant. I didn’t ask whether Dirk did the right thing; should he have run away so he could survive, even if it meant his pursuer drowning? Above all, I didn’t ask why Dirk did it. Why did he, instead of running to safety, turn back?
Since then I have heard, and told, Dirk’s story many times – it, and the engraving by Jan Luyken, have become a kind of Anabaptist icon. And the question of “why” has become ever more powerful in my mind. Why did Dirk turn back? It wasn’t that he spent much time thinking about what he should do. People who drown in icy waters don’t sink slowly; they go down fast. So when Dirk heard his pursuer’s cry, he didn’t have time to calculate outcomes or weigh ethical options. He had to react. Dirk’s response was absolutely reflexive. And so my question has become: what shaped Dirk’s reflexes? How did he develop the reflexes and habits that enabled him to respond to his enemy’s need?
Reflexes are important. We all, like Dirk, have reflexes – spontaneous responses under pressure. Conventionally these are fight and flight. But Dirk responded differently, in a surprising and question-posing way. Dirk’s reflexes had been trained, probably by two things. One was his decision to follow Jesus. As an Anabaptist Christian he had pondered Jesus’ life and teachings. He knew that he, as a follower of Jesus, was called to love his enemies. He may have prayed that when under pressure he would do what Jesus had taught. The other thing shaping Dirk’s reflexes was the life of his Christian community. Reflexes like Dirk’s are possible in individuals, but they are shaped in a group of people among whom habits are formed and norms become normal. I suspect Dirk responded as he did because he came from a particular kind of church, in which loving the enemy was an expression of loving the Lord who had taught Dirk to love his enemies.
Reflecting on Dirk’s life and death can help us become a peace church. For, at the deepest level, the kind of church we are – a peace church or another kind of church – is the product of our reflexes. Our reflexes, like our values and our deep convictions, are shaped by the people with whom we share at the deepest level and with whom we have the deepest ties.
Who shapes you? Who trains your reflexes? Your church? Your family and friends? Or commercials on TV, films, soaps? If it is your church, does your church shape you to demonstrate – in your individual reflexes as in your common life – the teachings and way of Jesus to the world?
The Church as a Culture of Peace
The church is called to be a culture shaped by the God we worship and the story we tell. We are not called to be against culture; our life and witness will inevitably take cultural form. But we have an exciting destiny – to become not a moral majority but a prophetic minority. Christians cannot dominate the world any more. In a multicultural situation in which no culture can force others to do things in its way, we have the opportunity to develop a distinctive cultural identity – growing out of our life in fellowship with Jesus Christ; the opportunity to develop distinctive practices in keeping with his teachings and way.
We can become a “contrast society”.1 Whether Catholic or Baptist, Anglican or New Church, we can become “nonconformists”, who are not conformed to other cultural options because we seek to be conformed to Jesus Christ. We can develop new reflexes; we can find new things to be possible or worth working on. It’s this kind of church, worshipping this kind of Lord, that enables the term “peace church” to make sense.
For the church to make a contribution to the healing of the world, we must allow God to change us, its members. God longs for us to be a people who believe that the Gospel is true, and hence who are becoming a people of peace and forgiveness. God invites us, in Christ, to accept his peace and to learn how to be peacemakers. Richard Chartres, Anglican bishop of London, writes: “At the top of the agenda of every human society is going to be the question of how we relate, how we live peacefully together, and the church as a school of relating…is very well placed to make a contribution.”2
We won’t do this by avoiding conflict. We will do it by developing, as Dirk did, reflexes that enable us to deal with conflict positively and hopefully. Through Christ God has made peace with us; and he wants to equip us to make peace with each other – and through this to become peacemakers in the world. The church has nothing to offer to the world other than what it has learned to live in its own “domestic” life.
But how does this happen? How can we become such a “school of relating?” How can we become apprentices who are learning the craft of peacemaking? How can we become a prophetic minority whose reflexes are enemy-loving and peacemaking? How can we become a peace church?
The Disciplines of Peacemaking
Jesus, in Matthew 18:15-20, gives us a clue: we cannot make peace in the world until we have learned to make peace within the church.3 The passage deals with a situation in which “another member of the church sins against you”, and establishes a procedure for dealing with this. Jesus assumes there will be problems in the church. In verse 15, Jesus gives instructions about what to do “if a brother/sister sins”. He does not indicate that this is surprising. People sin. Indeed, sins in relationships happen when people share their lives on more than a superficial level. In the church people sin; sometimes they sin against us. Of course, we also sin against others – in Matthew 5:23 Jesus reminds us that our brother/sister may “have something against us”. There will always be sin and conflicts in the church. The question is: how do we handle them?
Jesus’ instruction is not to make peace but to make conflict. Don’t avoid the conflict, Jesus says; face into it. Don’t talk to someone else, but go directly to the person to point out the fault privately. Don’t gossip. Jesus admonishes his disciples to confrontation – but confrontation of a particular kind. Jesus-style confrontation is marked by good speaking and good listening. Three times he emphasises that the other person listens. Jesus invites his disciples to engage in a process of give and take. When this process begins, we don’t know what will happen. By speaking we may discover a new clarity in our view of the situation; as the other listens she may find a new understanding of herself – and may repent. But we may also discover that the other person has a truth, perspective or pain that transforms our understanding. We may even discover that we have sinned against her, and thus that we need to repent.
If this one-on-one conversation doesn’t lead to right relationships, a process ensues. At every stage, Jesus emphasises listening. We are to take one or two others along, to confirm what is said by listening well, with the goal that the other party will “listen”. If they refuse, then we are to “tell it to the church”. But if the offender “refuses to listen” even to the church? Then the offender is to be to us “as a Gentile and a tax collector”. Jesus is clear that listening is a core value of the community; so that by not listening, the brother or sister has shown that they are outside the community. They do not honour its core values; they will not allow their reflexes to be shaped by its reflexes. So, says Jesus, treat them as outsiders; treat them as well as Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors (with love and hope); but recognise that they are not participants in the new culture of the Messianic community.
Jesus is present in this peacemaking through confrontations: “there am I among them” (v 20). Jesus has promised to be present when his disciples are practising the art of loving confrontation, when we are developing the skill of good listening. So when we are about to speak directly to someone whom we have offended, or who has offended us, we can pray: “Jesus, you promised to be among us; please be with us now as we differ and seek your way.”
This is teaching for forgiven sinners. It is not for a pure church, but for a church of people whom God has forgiven. Immediately after this passage in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus reminds Peter that the members of his community are to forgive without limit – seventy times seven (18:21-22). Jesus is telling his disciples: when you go into conflict, go as forgiven people to other forgiven people. You are all debtors; your peacemaking is rooted in grace! So go with humility – but go, because truth in relationships is what the church is all about.
Jesus’ teaching about conflict and peacemaking in the church is basic to being a peace church. He does not promise that this will always lead to “success”. Sometimes a direct approach to someone who has offended us will lead to healing self-disclosures and a wonderful repair of relationships. At other times people may refuse to “listen”, or we ourselves may abort the process. There are situations in which a power imbalance can make a direct approach difficult. But note that Jesus has constructed a process (“take one or two others along with you”) which seems designed to deal with power imbalance. It was clearly immensely important to Jesus that his disciples would not be deflected from practising the craft of peacemaking, so that their communities would be cultures of peace in a world of war.
Conflict Is Normal
How revolutionary Jesus was being! He didn’t sweep conflict under the carpet; he was clear that conflict is normal. Jesus’ own peacemaking activities led him into conflict (“I have not come to bring peace but division” [Luke 12:51]). And his disciples after the resurrection also had conflict. The composition of their groups led to problems and conflict; it was bound to, for God was drawing together astonishingly different people – people who didn’t belong together – to be members of communities of peace. And, in any event, new religious movements such as the early church always have conflict. It seems a rule that where people are serious about life and issues, differences are inevitable. Conflict was present in the Christian movement from the outset. But the biblical accounts make it clear that this conflict was often important and useful.
A sample of this is Acts 6:1-7, a story of conflict in the Jerusalem church between the “Hebrews” and the “Hellenists”. The church’s system of feeding people was not working, and the weakest people in the community – widows among the immigrants (Hellenists) – were being neglected. This led to conflict, and a fascinating process ensued. The leaders called the community together, reminded them of their holistic vision (feeding people as well as proclaiming the word), and established an interactive decision-making process in which people were full participants. The result was heartening: they chose men from the weaker community to help with the distribution, so everyone got fed and the word continued to be proclaimed. Here it is clear that friction between differing groups can be productive. God’s Spirit works, not just through prophetic words, but through good process. Conflict can be good. And a warning: where conflict is not acknowledged, where people fear conflict or think it is wrong, things will get very unhealthy. The results will be thoroughly unpleasant: anger, depression, explosions, broken relationships, people damaged and alienated from the church…
Our Society Has Trouble with Conflict
We have trouble receiving Jesus’ teaching and putting it into practice. We live in an environment that is not conducive to good conflict or peacemaking – a world of polarisation, of adversarial thinking and acting, of winners and losers. The House of Commons has a classic confrontational format, people facing each other across a void and heckling each other. Law courts are as confrontational as Parliament. And churches unfortunately function much like the rest of society.
Our Churches Can Learn to Handle Conflict Well
The culture of our churches is notorious for poor conflict. Non-Christians, insofar as they know of us, often make fun of us for strife and hypocrisy. But it doesn’t need to be so. Our churches can become Christian cultures, in which conflict is handled well and is an aspect of peacemaking. The basic skills for handling conflict well are not difficult to understand; but it takes time to learn to practise them well – and this is an ongoing challenge. Learning to be peacemakers will be a task for our churches until the end of time. To work at this our churches need visionary leaders who will teach Jesus’ way of peacemaking conflict to all church members. I think of one church – Oxford Road Church in Mexborough, South Yorkshire – where this has happened. In this church there has been severe conflict. But in recent years there has been extensive, practical teaching about how Jesus’ Matthew 18 process can be put to work. On the wall of the church are posters reminding members what is involved in peacemaking. One begins: “THE STEPS TO TAKE. One to one. Tell no one else. If this fails, take someone else…” This is not a perfect church. Perfect churches don’t exist. It is rather a church which is using Jesus’ means of dealing with the inevitable imperfections and is finding unity in its life and witness.
Most congregations need not less conflict but more. They need to recognise that the absence of apparent conflict is not the same thing as peace. God hates false peace. The prophets regularly denounced places of worship that proclaimed “shalom, shalom” where there was no shalom (e.g. Ezekiel 13:10). When Jesus went to church (the temple) he disturbed the peace – he upset tables and exposed injustice – in the cause of true peace (Mark 11:15-18). God longs for the peace of right relationships, rooted in justice and an expression of truth.
Four Attitudes of Peacemakers
We can be transformed as God teaches us the attitudes and skills that enable us to make peace by having good conflict.
- Humility: we expect to hear something of value from the other, who like us is a sinner, but is loved, forgiven and equipped with insight and vision. God’s truth is bigger than we have yet seen, and we cannot see it without the other.
- Commitment to the “safety” of others: we observe that people function best when they feel safe in expressing their views without being made fun of. If someone adopts a position that we dislike, we will not call them “liberal”, “fundamentalist” or “dinosaur”. We will try not to wound people even when they are our enemies, because we believe God’s business is building friendship out of enmity.
- Acceptance of conflict: we learn that conflict is a part of life, in the church and outside it. It indicates that people have real concerns, that they feel passionately about things, and that power issues are involved.
- Hope: we believe God is at work making peace, especially in situations of conflict; we believe the Holy Spirit is at work, and that all kinds of creativity can break loose – if we pray trustingly and vulnerably open ourselves to the Spirit’s work.
Four Skills of Peacemakers
• Truthful Speech: peacemakers are called to learn to communicate truthfully but lovingly, passionately but humbly. This is more than a matter of words. Ephesians 4:15 urges its readers to “aletheuein in love”. This is often translated to “speak the truth in love”, but its meaning is broader; it means to “truth in love”, to communicate truth with the total loving person, with our body language, facial expressions, actions, decisions as well as our words. Truthful communication will involve being confrontational
when necessary; being vulnerable with one another, expressing our needs, worries and longings; and encouraging one another. As we learn to “truth in love”, we will grow up into Christlikeness; and our churches will become cultures in which good communication is taught and modelled.
• Expectant Listening: peacemakers are called to learn to listen well. People in conflict care passionately about things, and they want to be heard. So we will develop the skill of really paying attention to what the other is saying. We will want to make sure we understand the other person, that we enter into the thought world and experience of the other. And as we listen, we will want to convey to the other person that we are listening – by our body language, by eye contact, by our reluctance to interrupt. In his book, Exclusion and Embrace, Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, whose family and friends have suffered in the Yugoslav wars, writes: “We enlarge our thinking by letting the voices and perspectives of others, especially those with whom we may be in conflict, resonate within ourselves, by allowing them to help us see them, as well as ourselves, from their perspective, and if needed, readjust our perspectives as we take into account their perspective.”4
• Alertness to Community: peacemakers learn in community about the complex interweavings of human experience. Peacemakers are aware of the importance of differing generations. These are people, like Dirk Willems, whose reflexes have been sanctified by their friendship with the Prince of Peace. They have so much to teach simply by what they are. Their wise sayings and stories are also important. Peace churches must provide set-tings for elders to mentor “youngers”. Younger Christians, on the other hand, will have much to contribute to their elders – excitement, a lively memory of what it was like not to be a Christian, a willingness to question and test. It is through this intergenerational sharing that the wisdom, skills and attitudes of peacemaking are taught. Furthermore, peacemakers must not forget that justice and peace are interrelated, that the shalom of a community will depend on its willingness to face economic questions. From Acts 6 and 1 Corinthians 11 onwards, church leaders have recognised that it strains fellowship and distorts peace when some Christians are wealthy and others are struggling. Some churches sensitive to economic need are committed to experimenting with radical measures to lessen inequality and to meet need. Where these things do not happen, it is probable that relationships will be ultimately superficial and that economics will undermine the peace of the church.
• Good Process: peacemakers contend that a peace church is one which makes decisions in a way that is truthful, just and corporate. I believe that the church meeting – a Baptist and Quaker institution which it has been fashionable to belittle – can be central to the development of a peace church. Of course, church meetings are often scenes for point-making, power plays, and displays of parliamentary prowess. But the distortions are the product of the church being too much like the world – its failure to develop its own distinctive culture. It can be otherwise, when Christians learn to realise “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) as they make decisions together. Leaders must believe that the Holy Spirit, who works among the people as well as the leaders, may produce something wiser than they could have anticipated. And when people know that their views matter, they respond with a quality of enthusiasm and ownership that can be breathtaking.
On the Journey: Becoming a Peace Church
It’s not clear what it will mean for a church to decide to become a peace church. The changes required will be numerous: new attitudes and reflexes that enable a constructive handling of differences; good listening; truthing in love; expecting God to bring insight through the other’s experience; believing that the Holy Spirit is at work to bring about the Jesus way of peace on earth – now. There is no master plan for learning these things. Each church will learn things in its own order, in its own time. But any church that sets out to learn them will be on a journey. Woe to the church that arrives! It will not be a peace church. But in greeting the Messiah, Zechariah was surely right. God’s mercy was at work “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, [and] to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). And this way will transform not only the church’s “domestic” life; it will transform its “foreign relations” – its life and witness in the world. To this I shall turn in my third article.
Alan Kreider is director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. He travels widely to speak on topics of discipleship, worship, mission and peacemaking. He and his wife Eleanor were the resource persons for the November 1998 Anabaptist Network conference on peacemaking.
1 Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community: The Social Dimension of Christian Faith (London: SPCK, 1985), 122.
2 Quoted in The Independent, 6 September 1995.
3 My treatment of Matthew 18.15-20 owes much to Stanley Hauerwas, “Peacemaking: The Virture of the Church,” in his Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World, and Living Between (Durham, NC: The Labyrinth Press, 1988), 89-97; and John H. Yoder, “Practising the Rule of Christ,” in Nancey Murphy, Brad J. Kallenberg, and Mark Thiessen Nation (eds.), Virtues and Practices in the Christian Tradition: Christian Ethics after MacIntyre (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), 132-160.
4 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 9.