Newsletter #39

Newsletter # 39— February 5, 2021

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If we are to pursue reconciliation (or "unity" in President Biden's terms)
we must balance peace, justice, truth, and mercy.



In the last newsletter I introduced my notion of "prospective reconciliation" which involves looking ahead to figure out what a reconciled society would look like and then, in my reconciliation course, we talk about "retrospective reconciliation" which involves looking backward in time in an effort to heal past wrongs.  A useful way to think about both those issues, I find, is John Paul Lederach's concept of the The Meeting Place. This is an exercise that John Paul first developed when he was working in Nicaragua in the late 1980s. He was there as a Mennonite peacebuilder and he was working with the Monrovian and the Baptist churches, acting as a facilitator with their conciliation teams that were trying to resolve the conflict between the Sandinista Government and the East Coast Resistance. He writes up this story in numerous places--one of them is his book Journey Towards Reconciliati on which has a chapter called “The Meeting Place,” which is where I got the my name for the exercise (I don't know if John Paul uses a similar name or not.)

Lederach explains in Journey Towards Reconciliation that the conciliation teams almost always started their meetings with the reading of Psalm 85. "This is a psalm." he writes, " where the writer pleads to the Lord for for peace, righteousness, and well-being."  In the Spanish version, which is somewhat different from the English version, verse 10, Lederach says, reads “four voices are called forth,” and they say, “Truth and Mercy have met together, Justice and Peace have kissed.” Lederach goes on to explain that the psalmist treats the concepts as if they were alive.  “I could hear their voices in the war in Nicaragua," he wrote. "In fact, I could hear their voices in any conflict. Truth, mercy, justice and peace were no longer just ideas. They became people and they could talk.” (Ledearch, Journey Toward Reconciliation, p. 51.)

This is the fundamental idea that gave rise to the exercise that he used multiple times with the disputants in Nicaragua, and he's used it at many conferences among conflict resolvers and disputants in other countries. I have used it many times as well, as I think it is probably the best conflict resolution training exercise ever devised. In it, Lederach breaks people into four groups, one for each of the four concepts and he asks them "“What are you most concerned with in the midst of conflict?" He then asks them: 

  • what they need,
  • who they need it from,
  • how they know when they have it,
  • who could help them get it, and lastly,
  • which of these other people or groups are they most afraid of.

After the groups discuss these questions among themselves for about a half hour, he asks one representative from each group to come up and report on what they need.  Inevitably, the needs are conflicting and the "people" they need things from are not always eager to give.  For instance, Mercy and Peace usually want Justice to ease up.  If Justice pursues its goals alone, without including them, they feel as if they will not be able to exist. Truth usually says that it wants to generate an accurate accounting for the wrongs of the past,  but typically, students focus on the wrongs perpetrated by one side on the other. So Lederach asks "truth" why it looks so different to different people, and how one can reconcile those images.  Lederach then mediates between all the "people," getting them all to recognize how they impact the others, and helping them see that if they each "ease up" a little, they can get most of what they need, and so can the others.  This, Lederach asserts, is "the place called reconciliation." 

I wish everyone who is calling so loudly for "justice" here in the United States would do this exercise too, which would help them see why justice shouldn't be pursued alone, but rather, it should come in a package with Truth, Mercy, and Peace--at least if we want to get out of the hyper-polarized, continuously-escalating, and sometimes violent political conflict America is currently in.

When I do this exercise, I also stress that "Truth" has to encompass the harms done to both sides. Again in the U.S. context, it should explore harms done to Blacks, to Native Americans, members of the LGBTQ community, and to other oppressed groups, as is currently being advocated by many on the Progressive Left.  But It should also examine harms done to people on the political Right.  That doesn't mean "Truth" has to accept the narrative that the November, 2020 U.S. Presidential election was stolen (ostensibly a "harm" done to the Right).  That's not a truth; it's a lie. But "Truth" should examine the actual harms that the Progressive Left has inflicted on the Right--such as insisting that they uphold Progressive values, even when those values directly contradict their religious beliefs. Other actual harms suffered on the right include job losses caused by globalization, and the stigmatization of being called a "racist," just because they voted for Trump, or perhaps just because they are white. If these and other legitimate issues are not acknowledged as legitimate concerns, they will continue to fester and derail any "unity" or "reconciliation" processes.

All four of these elements (truth, justice, peace, and mercy) need to be balanced internally and externally.  Internal balancing means finding the right balance between retributive, restorative, distributive, and procedural justice, where retributive justice means punishing wrong doers, restorative justice focuses on restoring relationships, distributive justice gives everyone their "fair share," and procedural justice means providing due process and following decision-making procedures that are seen as "fair" by all parties. Balance must also be found between compensating for historic wrongs, and for contemporary wrongs.  A similar internal balancing must happen between positive and negative peace, where negative peace refers to simply eliminating violence, while positive peace means providing all the needs for a society's well being and stability. Likewise, "truth" must be balanced to look at wrongs perpetrated by actors on all sides, as well as benefits or "goods" performed by actors on all sides.  All of these factors must then be balanced with the other primary elements in Lederach's Meeting Place if true reconciliation is to be obtained.

And while many people may say "that's not possible," or "that's not worth it," I just want "justice [for my side]" or I just want "truth [for my side]" Guy and I argue (as we did in the last newsletter and have been doing for quite some time) that we no longer have time for such short-sighted responses. Our civic situation continues to become more perilous by the day. We might win a battle, but that won't win a lasting victory.  It will just escalate our conflicts more and make the preservation of democracy and the American way of life even less likely. 

Conflict resolvers, particularly, should understand the danger of pursuing truth, justice, peace, and mercy in an unbalanced way or from only one point of view.  We didn't do that when we were working abroad on "other peoples' conflicts." We shouldn't do it at home either, even though, now, they are "our conflicts."  And we need to do as much as we can to explain to others--politicians, civic leaders, citizens in general, why it is so important that we work together to solve our problems, not continue to battle each other as our problems continue to worsen, more people suffer or even die, and solutions become increasingly remote.

--Heidi Burgess


Recent Posts:


From the CCI Blog:


  • Living with Uncertainty in the COVID-19 Era -- An overview of common mistakes that people make when trying to deal with uncertain situations like COVID-19 (and strategies for avoiding them). -- Feb. 03
  • The "Two Taproot (or Fuses) Theory" of Social Unrest -- To prevent violence, you need to respond to more than the immediate incident. You need to look at the structures and processes that led to it. -- Feb. 02 
  • Theories of Change -- Expressions of anger and unfocused demands are unlikely to fix things. You need a workable plan and a strategy for building the needed support.-- Feb. 01
  • The Crane Brinton Effect -- The key to successful revolutionary (or evolutionary) change is a broadly agreed-upon vision for a better society in which most everyone would like to live. -- Jan. 31
  • Disproportionality Trap and Counter Trap -- Efforts to limit the disproportionate impact of social problems are more likely to succeed when you take an inclusive approach that tries to address the problem wherever it arises.-- Jan. 28
  • The Base-Mobilization Trap -- Neither party can now win elections without fully mobilizing their "base." This is being done by portraying the other side in the most threatening way possible, which has left us in a cycle of escalating hostility that we must find a way to escape. -- Jan. 27

From the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar: 

  • John Paul Lederach's "Meeting Place" -- This short video introduces one of the most widely used and cited exercises ever to come out of the peacebuilding field. Lederach offers a realistic way of thinking through the tough issues that plague deeply-divided societies-- Jan. 26
  • Types of Justice -- It is hard to fight for justice when you don't know what it means. This essay helps you decide what types of justice are worth fighting for.  -- Jan. 25
  • Morton Deutsch on Understanding and Overcoming Oppression -- For a time when it seems like everyone thinks they're being oppressed by someone, a comprehensive look at what oppression really is and what to do about it. #mbi_fundamentals -- Jan. 24

From the Colleague Activities Blog:

From the Beyond Intractability in Context Blog

All CC-MOOS Posts


About the MBI Newsletters

Every few weeks, we will compile BI/MBI/CCI news, along with selected the new posts from our various seminars and blogs into a Newsletter that will be posted here and sent out by email to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy on our Newsletter Sign Up Page and find the latest newsletter here on our Newsletter page. Past newsletters can be found in the Newsletter Archive. 

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