John Paul Lederach, "The Meeting Place"

Draft in Progress, Chapter 8, Journey Towards Reconciliation, forthcoming from Harald Press, Spring 1998.

Printed with permission from John Paul Lederach -- Copyright 1997 by John Paul Lederach


During the latter half of the 1980's much of my work was concentrated on supporting the Conciliation team efforts for peace in Nicaragua. I worked closely with leaders from the Moravian and Baptist churches who had been appointed as mediators between the East Coast resistance and the Sandinista government. In an earlier chapter, I recounted some of the difficulties I faced. I also found that this period of work was a period of intense learning from brothers, sisters and experiences we shared. While I perhaps had more academic training in conflict resolution my colleagues had waded for many years in the deeper waters of life, relationships, and building peace in war-torn Central America. I was given many gifts through the experiences, but the most important was a new set of lenses. For fleeting moments I was able to see things around me in new ways. Through their eyes I saw beyond conflict resolution to reconciliation.

I saw reconciliation through the way they approached their lives and faced challenges in those years. They did not see their primary task as that of resolving particular issues or applying a certain model of negotiation to the proceedings of talks. They consistently and foremost envisioned themselves as people embedded in a set of relationships, in most instances, lifelong relationships between friends who were now enemies. What they sought first was be honest in their calling of faith and to seek what was needed in these relationships. They could in one minute be engaged in a pastoral supportive role and in the next take an exhortative prophetic stance. They held the hands of the enemies and prayed with them, they arranged plane flights, planned meals. They even looked after a sick child, relative of one of the negotiators. In the best of Latin American tradition, they were more akin to the oldest sibling taking care of a family squabble than a professional mediator negotiating a deal. Reconciliation was restoring and healing the web of relationship that had been torn.

In the course of our travels together Conciliation team members were called on to initiate and moderate many of the meetings. All of the formal negotiations in Managua started with a prayer and the reading of a biblical text. Each of the many village meetings along the riverways of the East Coast of Nicaragua began with the same. In most of those meetings Rev. Andy Shogreen, then the head of the Moravian Provincial Board, or Dr. Gustavo Parajon a Baptist pastor and head of an ecumenical relief and development organization known as CEPAD, would read the entire Psalm 85.

In this poetic verse the Psalmist beseeches the Lord, requesting restoration and mercy. It has the context of a people who have been exiled and are seeking to return to their land and to the favor of the Lord. It brings forward the plea for peace, righteousness and well-being. In verse 10 four voices are invoked, creating a rich image. I heard this Psalm read time and again in Spanish with words that were different than the English translations, though similar to the King James imagery. In the literal translation, which captured my mind's eye, the Psalmist says:

Truth and Mercy have met together

Justice and Peace have kissed.

In these two short lines there are four important concepts and two powerful paradoxes. The concepts kept running through my mind as I watched the peace process unfold in its fits and starts. I noticed for the first time that the Psalmist seemed to treat the concepts as if they were alive. I could hear their voices in the war in Nicaragua. In fact, I could hear their voices in any conflict. Truth, Mercy, Justice and Peace were no longer ideas. They became people. And they could talk.

I started to invoke this community of four people into my training workshops on conflict resolution. I first tried a little experiment with community leaders and pastors who were working in the local Peace Commissions in Nicaragua. These inspirational peacemakers, at considerable risk to their own lives, were involved in local-level conciliation work, bringing together the sides to the war in the villages. They were unsung heroes rebuilding their communities in the untold stories of peace.

In the workshop, I divided them into four small groups respectively designated as Truth, Mercy, Justice and Peace. I asked each group to treat the concept as a person and to ask this question. What is Truth (or Mercy, Justice, Peace) most concerned with in the midst of a conflict? Each group would then choose a person from their group to play the part of their character. I subsequently interviewed each of those people in front of the participants. They were asked to stay in first person as the character. I addressed them, "Sister Truth, or Brother Mercy..." They would respond. "I am Justice, and I am concerned that..." We then opened a discussion and a little mediation session between the four people. Over the years I have repeated the exercise in many different people and contexts. It varies each time with the unique and seemingly endless insights that emerge from people's experiences and concerns. As a way to understand this more fully I have written a little play, a liturgy of sorts, that follows here.

 

The Meeting


Greatly distressed in the midst of a nasty conflict, I kept hearing the names of Truth, Mercy, Justice and Peace invoked time and again. When the arguments and blows had gone round and round I made a proposal. "What if," I asked the people in this awful fight, "What if we invited our four friends to join us and asked them to openly discuss their views about conflict?"

Locked in their righteous stances as they were, the people looked at me a bit stunned with such a ludicrous idea, but I proceeded without paying much attention. "I have seen them come and go in other fights. I could ask them to try to clear up a few things."

Nobody objected, so I brought Truth, Mercy, Justice and Peace into room and sat them down in front of the contentious crowd. I addressed the four. "We want to know what concerns you each have in the midst of conflict. Would it be possible to hear your views?"

Truth stood and spoke first. "I am Truth," she said. "I am like light cast so that all may see. At times of conflict I am concerned with bringing forward, out into the open, what really happened. Not with the watered down version. Not with a partial recounting. My handmaidens are transparency, honesty, and clarity. I am set apart from my three colleagues here," Truth gestured toward Mercy, Justice and Peace, "because they need me first and foremost. Without me they cannot go forward. When I am found, I set people free."

"Sister Truth," I interjected hesitantly, not wanting to question her integrity, "You know I have been around a lot of conflict in my life and there is one thing that I am always curious about. When I talk to one side, like these people over here, they say that you are with them. When I talk to the others, like our friends over there, they claim you are on their side. Yet in the middle of all this pain, you seem to come and go. Is there only one Truth?"

"There is only one Truth, but I can be experienced in many different ways. I reside within each person yet nobody owns me."

"If discovering you is so crucial," I asked Sister Truth, "why are you so hard to find?"

She thought for a while, then said. "I can only appear where the search is genuine and authentic. I come forward only when each person shares with others what they know of me and each respects the others voice. Where I am strutted before others, like a hand puppet on a child's stage, I am abused, shattered and disappear."

"Of these three friends," I pointed to the three colleagues seated around her, "Whom do you fear the most?"

Without hesitation she pointed to Mercy. "I fear him," she said quietly. "In his haste to heal he covers my light and clouds my clarity. He forgets," she concluded, "that forgiveness is our child, not his."

I then turned to Mercy. "I am sure you have things to say. What concerns you?"

Mercy rose slowly and spoke, "I am Mercy." He seemed to begin with a plea, as though he knew that he, among them all, was under tight scrutiny. "And I am the new beginning. I am concerned with people and their relationships. Acceptance, compassion and support stand with me. I know the frailty of the human condition. Who among them is perfect?" he turned to Truth and continued with his eyes on her. "She knows that her light can bring clarity but too often it blinds and burns. What freedom is there without life and relationship? Forgiveness is indeed our child, but not when people are arrogantly clubbed to humiliation and agony with their imperfections and weaknesses. Our child was birthed to provide for the healing."

"But Brother Mercy," I could not resist the immediacy of the question. "In your rush to accept, support, and move ahead do you not abort the child?"

"I do not cover Truth's light," he reacted quickly. "You must understand. I am Mercy. I am built of steadfast love that undergirds life itself. It is my purpose in life to bring forward the eternal grace of new beginnings."

"And whom do you fear most?" I asked.

Mercy turned and faced Justice. "My brother Justice," he said in a clear voice. "In his haste to change and make things right, he forgets that his roots lie in real people and relationships."

"So Brother Justice," I said, "what do you have to say?"

"I am Justice," he said as he rose to his feet. His strong voice accompanied by a deep smile. "And Mercy is correct, I am concerned about making things right. I consider myself a person who looks beyond the surface and the issues about which people seem to fight. What lies at the root of most conflicts are inequality , greed, and wrongdoing. I stand with Truth who sheds her light on the paths of wrongdoing. My task is to make sure that something is done to restore the damage that has been wreaked, particularly on the victims and the downtrodden. We must restore the relationship, but never at the expense of acknowledging and rectifying what broke the relationship in the first place."

"But Brother Justice," I just had to find out, "everybody in this room feels they have been wronged. And most are willing to justify their actions, even violent action, on the basis of doing your bidding. Is this not true?"

"It is indeed," he responded. "And most do not understand." He paused as he thought for a minute. "You see, I am most concerned about accountability. Too often we think that any and everything is acceptable. True and committed relationships are those characterized by honest accounting and steadfast love. Love without accountability is nothing but words. Love with accountability is changed behavior and action. This is the real meaning restoration. My purpose is to bring action and accountability to the words."

"Then whom do you fear?" I inquired.

"My children," he chuckled with the irony of experienced years. "I fear that my children, Mercy and Peace, see themselves as parents," his voice carried a hint of gentle provocation, "when, in fact, they are the fruit of my labor."

Peace burst into an irrepressible smile. Before I could speak she stepped forward. "I am Peace, and I agree with all three," she began. "I am the child to whom they give birth, the mother who labors to give them life, and the spouse who accompanies them on the way. I hold the community together, with the encouragement of security, respect and well- being."

Truth and Justice began to protest. "That is precisely the problem," Truth said in a frustrated voice. "You see yourself as greater and bigger than the rest."

"It is this arrogance," Justice's finger pointed toward Peace. "You do not place yourself where you belong. You follow us. You do not precede us."

"This is true my dear Brother and Sister," Peace responded. "I am more fully expressed through and after you both. But it is also true that without me there is no space for Truth to be heard," she said as she turned toward Justice. "And without me there is no respite from the viscious cycle of accusation, bitterness, and bloodshed. You, yourself Justice cannot be fully embodied without my presence. I am before and after. There is no way to reach me except that I am the way."

Silence fell for a moment. "And whom do you fear?" I ask.

"Not who, but what and when," Peace said. "I fear manipulation. I fear the manipulation of people who use Sister Truth for their purposes. Some ignore her, some use her as a whip, some claim to own her. I fear the times when for the sake of Brother Mercy, Brother Justice is sacrificed. I fear the blind manipulation that for the ideal of Brother Justice some will sacrifice life itself. When manipulation such as these take place, I am violated and rendered a meaningless empty shell."

I turned my attention and addressed all four. "How would it ever be possible for you to meet together? What would you need from each other?"

Truth looked first at Mercy. "You must slow down. Give me space to emerge. Our child cannot be born without the slow development in the womb of the Mother."

He nodded, then added. "Shine bright dear sister, but please take care not to blind and burn. Remember that each person is a child of God, that each is weak and needs support to grow."

Justice came in straight-away. "I have been partially reassured by the words of sister Peace. I need a clear statement that she gives a place for accountability and action. Remember when Micah spoke of us. Love Mercy and do Justice he wrote. You must give place for me to come forward or truly you will not be fully born."

Peace responded on the heels of his last words. "Brother Justice, our lips will meet if we recognize that we need one another. Let not your heart of compassion fall into a bitterness that rages without purpose, and I will provide the soil for you to work and bear fruit."

The four were now huddled in a small circle. "And what," I asked, "is this place called where you now stand together?"

"This place," they responded in a single voice, "is reconciliation."

Then, suddenly without signal, they touched hands and danced. It was as if the dance came only rarely, like the weaving of lines and bodies around a May pole. You could hardly distinguish one from the other as they swung from the room. No one said a word. No music was in the air, only the images of the interwoven bodies of Truth, Mercy, Justice and Peace.

 

Conclusion


I learned a number of important insights about reconciliation from the Nicaraguan experience and from the years of reflection and experimentation with Psalm 85. As suggested in the story of Jacob and Esau, Psalm 85 reiterates the understanding that reconciliation is both a place we are trying to reach and a journey that must be taken up. However, the Psalmist provides new and deeper insight into the idea that reconciliation is a locus, a meeting place. In earlier stories we explored reconciliation as a place where we encounter ourselves, others and God. Psalm 85 suggests reconciliation is a social space where different but very interdependent energies are brought together and given a voice. If this is in fact the case, then the primary practical and operative task of those working for reconciliation is to help create the social space and the mechanisms by which Truth, Mercy, Justice and Peace can meet together.

Too often in the midst of conflict we envision these social energies as contradictory forces, voiced by different persons within the conflict. They are seen as pitted against each other. Those who cry out for Truth and Justice are seen, and often see themselves, as adversaries of those who plead for Mercy and Peace. The vision of the Psalmist is quite different. Reconciliation is seen as possible only to the degree that each sees the place and need for the other. This approach suggests that each voice and the social energy it produces is incomplete without the other.

What does this mean at a practical level? It tells us that we must pay attention and give space to the different energies represented in the voices of Truth, Mercy, Justice and Peace. When these four voices are seen as contradictory forces, we find ourselves mired and paralyzed by the conflict produced. We argue endlessly over which is more important, justified or legitimate. When we see them as contradictory, we are forced into a false dichotomy of choosing between one or the other, as if they were in a boxing match of winners and losers. Such a dichotomy does not exist. It is as if we were asked to choose between rain or sunshine. Each is different but needed for sustaining life and growth. Such is the case with Truth and Mercy, Justice and Peace.

Psalm 85 suggests that conflict has revelatory and reconciling potential when the four different energies are embraced. If we legitimate their concerns, provide them with voice, respond to their fears and needs, placing them in a dialogical rather than an adversarial framework, they are less likely to be driven underground or to extremes. If we create the social space that brings Truth, Mercy, Justice and Peace together within a conflicted group or setting, an energy is crystallized that creates deeper understanding and unexpected new paths leading toward restoration and reconciliation.