Small Change Publishing
Review by J Janzen
What is the subject?
This workbook aims to encourage everyday Christians to be peacemakers around boardroom and kitchen tables, on the playground and at the Parent-Teacher Advisory Committee, in the pew, and at the poll booth.
More specifically, this book is designed to spark community conversations that help us to recognize how we participate – often unknowingly – in systems that destroy the lives of other people. If we can recognize and acknowledge our part in maintaining a status quo that causes the suffering of others, the book suggests, then we might be moved to change our lifestyles so that we all might experience a more robust peace.
Who is the author?
Matt Balcarras is professor of psychology and associate dean of arts at St. Stephen’s University, New Brunswick. While living in B.C., he participated in Cedar Park Church (MB), Delta, B.C.
What makes this an important book at this time?
First, resources created by Canadian Mennonite Brethren are increasingly scarce. Even more rare is a resource created by an average-sized local church. Grassroots wisdom of this sort is a treasure indeed!
Second, most writing on peacemaking tends to focus on forgiveness, church conflict, or pacifism (not going to war). This book is specifically designed for discussions in community about the everyday challenges of peacemaking. In other words, this workbook deals with an earthy “spirituality of peacemaking.”
Third, in a North American setting that is increasingly fragmented and polarized, and in a Canadian MB community that is theologically fractured, we are in desperate need for more peaceable communities willing to do the hard work of patient listening, gentle truth telling, sacrificial serving, and responsible forgiving.
This book provides helpful tools toward those ends.
Comment on the book’s perspective in light of the MB Confession of Faith?
This workbook is very much in harmony with the MB Confession of Faith. In fact, this workbook will help reader-participants actually live out these articles of faith.
For example, the workbook echoes Article 12: Society and State: “[Christians] cooperate with others in society to defend the weak, care for the poor, and promote justice, righteousness, and truth” and resist “pressures which threaten to compromise Christian integrity.”
Just as helpful, this workbook helps reader-participants avoid a potential misreading of Article 13: Love and Nonresistance.
Peacemaking, as described in the MB Confession, can leave one to think that if one does not go to war, one is a peacemaker. This workbook provides many concrete ways in which, as Article 13 states, Christian peacemakers can alleviate suffering, reduce strife, and promote justice as ways of demonstrating Christ’s love.
In short, not only is this workbook in harmony with the MB Confession of Faith, it’s a helpful companion.
Chapter One: a) conflict is normal: “An interaction of human difference and human need”; b) conflict can contribute to relational harmony because “it provides opportunities…to re-evaluate who we are and what we want”; and c) conflict arises from “our very nature as imperfect people.”
Chapter Two: violence is often hidden in our stories.
For example, many Mennonites got their start in Canada as farmers who were given land expropriated from First Nations peoples. By beginning to tell the truth about hidden violence, we open ourselves up to something new and transformative.
Chapter Three challenges reader-participants to evaluate why we don’t want to get involved. The hard peacemaking work of listening and relationship building costs time and energy – and personal comfort. But, the price of remaining silent is far greater.
Chapter Four examines biblical stories that give us pictures of alternative ways to live. Reader-participants are encouraged to let the biblical stories shape our imaginations so that we might create peaceable communities.
Building on the previous section, Chapter Five encourages reader-participants to pursue “peace-making as place-making.”
More specifically, build communities with rhythms and practices that (re)shape desires. These include baptism, Sabbath-keeping, frugality, a willingness to be available and vulnerable (contra Western cultural values of independence and privacy), and cooperative sharing. Communities that offer this sort of refuge to friends, neighbours and strangers are “visible witnesses”; they show people that there are alternative ways to live.
The final section’s concluding thought is brief, simple and hopeful: start small in your home.
“We simply begin believing that God is already at work in our world and in our lives to bring the peace of his kingdom. When we start trying to make peace, we are merely joining in with what is already begun.”
Where the book fails
One significant shortcoming with this workbook is the tendency to have a negative view of force. On more than one occasion, force is equated with violence.
This is problematic because there are different types of force, all of which can be exercised in either violent or nonviolent ways.
The danger inherent in conflating violence and force is that people can be led to believe that if one uses force of any kind, they fail as peacemakers, and even betray Jesus. This can leave people to think that nonresistance (i.e. passivity) is the only option, which can, in fact, contribute to and perpetuate the very thing this book seeks to dismantle: doing nothing to change systems of injustice.
Other relevant info
This workbook emerges out of a series of Bible studies, reflections and conversations that took place at Cedar Park MB Church in Delta, B.C., during Lent 2016.
The six sections move participants from internal to external evaluation, from individual reflection to communal action.
Each section includes an essay that provides a starting point for analysis and dialogue, along with discussion questions and online videos and resources that will help to spark imagination and assist in equipping church groups in their peacemaking efforts.
A warning is in order.
This workbook will make you uncomfortable. Reader-participants will have to grapple with the ways in which their lifestyles perpetuate injustice.
This book is also persistent in calling reader-participants to go the extra mile of thinking creatively, living sacrificially, and working collaboratively so that reader-participants will become more risky when it comes to living generously and loving wholeheartedly for the sake of others and the sake of Christ’s kingdom.
Even more importantly, this workbook will repeatedly draw you into relationships with others, because – as the book acknowledges – we cannot be people of peace on our own; to push back against all the systems and entrenched powers that oppose us will require that we purse peace in community.
That hopeful vision is worth the sometimes-painful-effort of spending time with this workbook.
Who should read it?
Pastors should use this resource to shape a series of sermons on peacemaking.
Worship leaders should use this resource to shape times of confession and lament.
Sunday School teachers should use this resource to foster deeper reflection and provide training on how church members might be contributors to God’s shalom project.
Mission committees should use this material to train short- and long-term workers who serve locally (i.e. at food banks, MCC thrift stores, Youth For Christ, etc.) and internationally.
Small groups should use this resource to imagine how they might work together to change their lifestyles so that their collective activity might make a more substantive difference than one person on his or her own.
“We are very good at limiting our obligations to other people because we dislike the discomfort that comes from abandoning the status quo.”
“Having an attitude of…humility means admitting that perhaps some of the beliefs we cherish the most and bring us great comfort could actually be destructive and poisonous.”
“When we ask ourselves how we should respond to the injustice we see in the world, we only consider responses that fit within the leftover spaces of our lives, the tiny little bit of room we leave for Jesus stuff amidst all the other things we do.”
is pastoral elder at Highland Community Church, Abbotsford, B.C. His master’s thesis, “A Complicated Peace: The Problem of Passivism in Canadian Anabaptist-Mennonite Peacemaking”, explored ways in which various perspectives on violence, force, pacifism, nonresistance, and love have undermined Canadian Mennonites’ efforts at peacemaking.
Updated Dec. 9, 2019: typos corrected.