By Christopher John, SSF
Reconciliation of those at enmity is surely the most important need of the world today.
Reconciliation doesn’t mean overcoming conflict. Conflict is a normal part of life — neither good nor bad in itself. But conflict which goes bad is destructive. It drives the wedge of division between people and leads us to be separated by issues or beliefs.
The undoing of this separation is reconciliation. And even better, if we find ways of learning to live with difference, then this separation need never occur in the first place.
Reconciliation is one of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s three priorities, and he challenges the church to be a “community of reconcilers.” This priority has led to the Reconciling Leaders Network and its “difference course,” structured round three key habits: (1) Be Curious, (2) Be Present, and (3) Reimagine.
I’ve been reflecting on some similar ideas, arranged a bit differently, in the work of John Paul Lederach. He’s an American peacemaker and academic in the field of peace and conflict studies. He is also a Mennonite — a member of one of the historic peace churches.
Lederach’s writing is very accessible to the interested layperson. I’d recommend his Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians (Herald Press, 2014). But the ideas I’m reflecting on here are from another of his books, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (OUP 2005).
Transcending violence is forged by the capacity to generate, mobilize, and build the moral imagination. The kind of imagination to which I refer is mobilized when four disciplines and capacities are held together and practiced by those who find their way to rise above violence. Stated simply, the moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence. (p. 5)
When I first read these disciplines or capacities I was struck by how Franciscan they sounded. I could see something of them in Francis of Assisi and what we could call a Franciscan approach.
- The capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies
It’s easy to see Francis here, for example when he approached the wolf which was terrorizing the inhabitants of Gubbio and helped make a peace agreement between wolf and village. He started with the awareness of being in that web of relationships. These relationships are not just person to person but also between people and the needs and fears and hopes that drive the conflict. The people of Gubbio feared the wolf for how it attacked them. The wolf feared the people because of their sticks and stones. But there was also a relationship of need. The people needed to be able to go out to their fields and farms. The wolf needed food. And there was also a dimension of hope. Both sides hoped to live in peace and without the sense of dis-ease that comes when relationships are not right.
- The ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity
Lederach describes paradoxical curiosity as having “a foot in what is and a foot beyond what exists.”
Such complexity calls for avoiding dualistic polarity. Dualistic means seeing things as exclusively one or the other. Politicians often reduce complex situations to a simple division between “friend or enemy.” Such dualism is the opposite of what Lederach is talking about.
There are hints of this in Francis, such as his mission to the Fifth Crusade in Damietta, Egypt. He met both sultan and the crusaders. He tried to persuade the Christians not to fight — or at least not to attack at a particular time — since it would result in great loss of life. There is something of a paradoxical curiosity in someone who loves peace to go into the midst of those preparing for the slaughter of violent battle. Francis tried unsuccessfully to persuade those intent on fighting, and sadly, many were killed in the ensuing battle.
(3) The fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act
Creation draws on imagination, on poetry, on vision, and brings forth something new, a solution beyond what immediately seems possible.
We can see this in Francis — for example, in sending the brothers to sing a song to the bishop and mayor of Assisi, who were locked in mutual exclusion. Or in his response to the brothers in the hermitage above Borgo San Sepolcro, split over how to respond to the robbers in the woods around them: Francis asked them to go out to the robbers and serve them a series of lavish picnics, leading them to convert from their bad ways and thus uniting the brothers who had been divided.
(4) The acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far-too-familiar landscape of violence
Violence can be so familiar it becomes comfortable. If it’s all we’ve known, then it’s hard to step into the unknown of a peaceful world. It is risky. There can be physical threats and bullying. And perhaps the biggest risk is simply that of stepping into the unknown.
Francis appears fearless. Or at least that’s how the writers portray him, facing the sultan, or the wolf, or encouraging the brothers in dealing with the robbers. We don’t know how it will end. But Francis steps out boldly into that unknown.
As we enter 2022, and especially as we prepare for the Lambeth Conference, I encourage you to apply these disciplines or capacities of moral imagination to the conflict or differences you find. Let’s work for a world united by difference, rather than divided by it. A world in which conflict drives us to overcome that which separates, and inspires us to live as people of peace.
Brother Christopher John is a member of the Society of St Francis, the Franciscan order in the Anglican Communion. He is a New Zealander, now resident in Australia and currently serves as the international leader for his Order. He has a PhD in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Otago, New Zealand.