Disagreement as recipe for peace

Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians
John Paul Lederach
Herald Press

Some church attenders once asked peace worker John Paul Lederach when the Mennonites and their academics would stop fussing so much about peace issues and get on with the gospel. Lederach’s answer? “Reconciliation is the gospel.”

The son of a Mennonite pastor, Lederach is professor of international peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. While serving on conciliation teams in more than 25 countries, Lederach has been involved in an array of high-stakes situations, from church splits to armed conflict.


is the gospel.

Reconcile explores the spiritual foundations that undergird his work as a peacebuilding professional and academic. The book has been updated and re-released since its first publication in 1999 with a foreword from Bill Hybels.

Lederach opens with a nightmarish story from his time serving in Nicaragua in 1987. A friend called him during the night to inform him that there was a plan to take Lederach’s three-year-old daughter. In that moment, he realized the risk and cost of reconciliation work: as one member of the conflict put it, “Now you are one of us.”

In this light, God’s sacrifice expressed in John 3:16 cannot be read as a cheap formula for salvation, but the costly basis of reconciliation. The gospel – the good news – is that God is working to restore relationship with people, and between people.

Throughout the book, Lederach shares this sort of personal and compelling anecdote alongside concise biblical exegesis, adding practical frameworks for both ordinary and extreme conflict resolution.

For example, while on a conciliation team in Nicaragua teaching leaders and pastors of the Managua community, Lederach split participants into four groups. Giving each group one concept – truth, mercy, justice and peace – he asked to them treat their concept as a person, and ask what that person would be most concerned about in the midst of conflict. The result? Justice feared that mercy would bring a shallow peace. Peace was afraid truth might destroy it.

As they represented each virtue, it became clear that without each element present, reconciliation is flippant, one-sided and incomplete.

Lederach also shows that conflict is not evil in itself. When navigated well, conflict can be healthy. God has set all the conditions that make conflict inevitable: the creation narrative in Genesis tells how God separated light from darkness, created diversity and gave humanity creative freedom.

“Built into God’s original plan before the fall,” he writes, “humankind was conceived in such a way that made differences and conflict normal and inevitable.”

“If you want fewer
divisive and church-
splitting conflicts,
encourage more
everyday disagreements.”

Ironically, when people try to avoid this regular, healthy sort of conflict by avoiding confrontation – even in an attempt to protect relationship – conflict eventually explodes. However, if people acknowledge conflict and difference and move toward it early and regularly, they may find that relationships can handle even the most difficult of differences.

“If you want fewer divisive and church-splitting conflicts,” Lederach suggests his colleague Ron Kraybill’s advice: “encourage more everyday disagreements.”

The project is accessible, neat and concise, with just over 130 pages of text and another 60 pages of resources. Herald Press also offers a downloadable study guide. Readers who have practised or studied peace and conflict transformation may not be introduced to radically new concepts in Reconcile, yet it may be hard to find a clearer articulation of the basics. At times, the paradigms feel a bit simplistic, but the list of further reading directs the unsatisfied reader to more in-depth resources.

In our context, the church is often accused of being irrelevant. If we agree with Lederach’s thesis that reconciliation is the gospel, this claim makes much less sense. Who isn’t sick of the incessant violence and conflict we see in the media and experience in our interpersonal lives, homes and churches? Reconcile helps us imagine something holy and new. May God work in the church toward this purpose.

—David Thiessen is a member of the MB Mission Central Canada staff team in Winnipeg and a graduate of Canadian Mennonite University.

3 Comments on “Disagreement as recipe for peace

  1. “Disagreement…” is a symptom of many deficiencies. Some of those are lack of trust, a true change of heart and conversion, communication, honest and encouraging dialogue . I can’t disagree more with this theme.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I suppose disagreement can be symptomatic of deficiencies – if there’s no shared vision, a spirit of rebellion, or some of the other problems you mentioned. In other cases, disagreements are probably not worth investing in. “Pick you battles,” as they say.

    Yet I think Lederach’s point is that even when our hearts are in the right place and there IS communication and dialogue, people are still different from one another. God created a diversity of cultures, personalities, and gifts. Disagreement can be a reminder that we, on our own, don’t have all the right answers, are not perfect, and need others. Healthy disagreement can and ought to move us toward honest and encouraging dialogue.

    I regularly disagree with my family or my co-workers. This usually leads me to an opportunity to grow in humility and learn something, and hopefully contribute something to the group, too.

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