Reconciliation "Pieces" - Parts 2, 3 and 4: Truth, Mercy, and Peace

meeting place


Newsletter #214 — February 29, 2024



Subscribe to the Newsletter


by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

This is the third post in a series we began in December 2023, starting with Newsletter 184 entitled "Envisioning a Future (Almost) Everyone Will Want to Live In." That post introduced John Paul Lederach's notion of reconciliation being the "meeting place between justice, truth, mercy, and peace." The second post in the series explored the notion of justice more fully.  Here we do the same for the other three concepts, truth, mercy, and peace. 



As we explained in Newsletter 39, and more briefly in Newsletter 206, John Paul Lederach often conducted an exercise when he put people into groups representing each of the four reconciliation components (truth, justice, peace, and mercy), and then asked them to "personify" those components. In other words, he asked what Truth, as a person, believed.  What did they stand for?  What did they seek?  How did they try to get what they wanted?  Who (of the other components)  were their likely allies? Who were their opponents (or as he put it, "who are you most afraid of"?  After they deliberate for awhile, he brings one spokesperson for each group to the front of the room, and mediates between them, getting them to balance out their demands, so eventually they reach agreement about how to "get to the meeting place of reconciliation." 

I did this exercise with John Paul twice, and ran it myself many times.  Invariably, I found, the truth group quickly got bogged down in the same question:  "whose truth is true?" Often, at the progressive universities I taught at, the conclusion reached was that the progressive view of events and issues was "true," and other views were false.  But sometimes participants were skeptical of that assertion, claiming that "truth depended on who you are," in other words, was "relative."  So something could be "true" to one person or one side, and "false" to another, suggesting that there often (or perhaps never) is an objective, independent "truth."

This view has its problems too, of course. Pandemics really kill people and the way in which we respond matters. We need to be able to objectively assess the efficacy of various strategies for controlling the disease. Similarly, our future is likely to be quite dependent upon our ability to accurately assess the threat posed by climate change and evaluate strategies for limiting the threat. In addition to controversial questions about environmental threats like these, this principle also applies to acts of aggression. If the rapists' assertion that sex was consensual is just as true as the woman's assertion that it was forced, it would be impossible to ever prosecute sexual violence.  If Russia's claim that they "own Ukraine" is just as true as the Ukrainians' view that they are an independent state, we have no basis for taking sides in that fight. The same is true for the Israel/Palestine controversy, the controversy over China and Taiwan, Venezuela and Guyana — all over the world where territorial disputes are breaking out.

So, what to do about "truth" in terms of reconciliation? Is there one truth? Can it be found? How?  What should be done about people who refuse to believe the accepted version of the truth? Since I do this exercise in the context of peace and conflict classes, students usually decide that they should advocate for a truth-finding process, such as a truth commission, which would examine the evidence presented by all sides, and then come to some conclusion about what was true and what wasn't.  The assumption generally was that such findings would be binding, regardless of who disagreed with them, and acted upon in some way.  Wrongdoers might be held accountable (turning to retributive justice for that), they might be asked to make amends through some sort of restorative justice process, and/or they might be absolved of their guilt through some kind of amnesty program (which relates to the "mercy" concept to be explored below.) So "Truth," it usually was determined, was dependent upon Justice and/or Mercy to attain "fulfillment."  It could not stand on its own.  

Much less commonly raised, however, was the the fact that "true truth" is often unattainable — irreducible uncertainties commonly surround even the most principled and well-funded fact-finding efforts. That said, we can almost always learn enough to dramatically reduce uncertainties to the point where we have a much clearer image of what has actually happened or is happening.  And as we said before, even if we don't like it, facts often matter.


I once did the meeting place exercise at a Christian seminary, and they had a much easier time working with the notion of "mercy" than did students at most of the other places I taught, as "mercy" is an extensively discussed concept in the Bible; less so, it seems, in the secular world.  I often tell my secular students to think of "forgiveness," although I know John Paul sees a difference between the concepts.  In Journey Toward Reconciliation he describes one way his exercise might turn out as he "interviewed" the person personifying Mercy:

Mercy rose slowly and said, "I am Mercy." He seemed to begin with a plea, as though he knew that he, among them all, was under tight scrutiny. "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 [you] 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 into humiliation and agony with their imperfections and weaknesses. Our child Forgiveness was birthed to provide healing."

I could not resist posing an urgent question, “but Brother Mercy, in your push to accept, support, and move ahead, do you not abort the child? “

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

So, rather than being synonymous, John Paul sees forgiveness as the being result of mercy.  Mercy means loving everyone, giving everyone the "benefit of the doubt," and even if they perpetrated grievous wrongs. Mercy is the one urging that they be allowed to start over, that they should be able to start their life and their relationships with others, even the wronged, anew.

When I run the exercise, a common discussion topic about "mercy" is who should be forgiven, under what circumstances, and when? And what does "forgiveness" mean?  Does it mean that perpetrators won't be held accountable in any way for their past deeds — that they should be granted amnesty (as many people were in the South African Truth and Reconciliation process?) The offer of amnesty in that case was very controversial, but it was thought by the process designers that many more people would likely come forward to share the truth, if they thought they might be granted amnesty in exchange.  

Should perpetrators be required to make an apology in order to be forgiven?  Does it matter if this apology is sincere or pro forma?  And how can you tell?  The answers to these questions seemed to overlap a lot with the participants' sense of the other parties views, particularly Justice and Truth.  So they, more often than the others, tended to "jump the gun," and to begin to consider how all these factors played together before they were brought up to the front of the room with the others to explore those questions jointly. 


The Peace Group usually gets bogged down in a debate about whether peace is simply the absence of violence (referred to by sociologists and conflict theorists as "negative peace,") or whether it is much more than that — what sociologists and conflict theorists refer to as "positive peace."  Advocates of the "positive peace view" turned to ideas similar to those presented by The Institute for Economics and Peace's  "Positive Peace Index" which describes eight "pillars of peace," all of which are interconnected.  They include: 1) a well-functioning government, 2) the equitable distribution of resources, 3) the free flow of information, 4) good relations with neighbors, 5) high levels of human capital, 6) acceptance of rights of others, 7) low levels of corruption, and 8) sound business practices. So in that sense, Peace is sort of a "live happily ever after," ultimate state of "goodness." Sometimes the group questions the notion that Peace is a component of reconciliation, arguing, rather that reconciliation is a component of peace.  An alternative, more limited, and easier to attain view is that peace is simply a social condition in which there is an implicit agreement to forsake violence as people struggle to build the kind of utopian society implied by the above list.

Getting to "The Meeting Place"

The question of what is part of what, and which needs to come first, is also one that Lederach has his participants grapple with, by asking them who are the parents, the grandparents and the children. This usually leads to a lively discussion, and an amusing scene at the front of the room as John Paul shuffles people back and forth in a line, as they assert different positions.  Again, as he describes one such process in the Journey Toward Reconciliation,

Speaking to Justice, John Paul asked, "then whom do you fear?" [Justice replied] "My children." He chuckled, remembering years of experience." I fear that my children, Mercy and Peace, see themselves as parents." His voice carried a hint of gentle provocation. They are actually the fruit of my labor."

Peace burst into a glowing 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," said Truth" in a frustrated voice. "You see yourself as greater and bigger than the rest of us."

"Arrogance!" Justice pointed his finger towards Peace. "You do not place yourself where you belong. You follow us. You do not proceed us."

"True,"  Brother Justice and Sister Truth," Peace responded. "I am more fully expressed through and after you both. But it also is true that without me, there is no space cleared for truth to be heard.... And without me, [speaking to Justice, she said] there is no way to break out of the vicious cycle of accusation, bitterness, and bloodshed. You yourself, Justice, cannot be fully embodied without my presence. I am before and after. There is no other way to reach me. I myself am the way."

Another discussion that often emerges is whether there can (or should be) conflict in peaceful societies. Is "peace" not just the absence of injustice, but the absence of conflict itself? Given that I do this exercise in conflict and peace courses, the students are usually sophisticated enough (or they've listened to my lectures enough) to know that societies without conflict are not peaceful.  If they exist at all, those are most likely the brutal authoritarian regimes where no one dares take issue with the party line, for fear of being jailed, killed, or worse. Those societies may look conflict-free, but they are anything but. But my students also agree that peaceful societies should engage in conflict and conflict resolution in peaceful, constructive ways.  They should not demonize "the other" except in the most extreme circumstances, and they should not use coercive force to get their way. They should use collaborative conflict resolution tools to develop win-win solutions to problems wherever possible. 

Why These Concepts and Relationships Matter

As we look at the hyper-polarization driving hatred, fear, and distrust in the United States and so many other places around the world, we keep on asking ourselves, what is it going to take to "fix this" (or even start to try to fix this)?  It seems clear to us that it is going to take work on all  four of John Paul's elements. 

  • We need to pursue the truth about what happened in the past and what is happening now, and to the degree possible, come to some widely (if not universally) held notions about what that truth is. We need to reject the notion that there is no truth, and every narrative is as good as any other narrative and we need to debunk malicious, clearly false assertions. 
  • We need to provide justice — restorative, procedural, distributive, and, sometimes, retributive — to allow for reconciliation. 
  • But in the rush to provide justice, we should heed the cries for mercy. Most often, when I've run this exercise, the students decide the way to do that is to strongly favor restorative justice over retributive, and to some extent over distributive justice as well — arguing that if the relationships can be mended, all else can follow. 
  • Generally, my students (and we) agree that positive peace comes last but that negative peace comes first. (It's hard to imagine truth, mercy, or justice coming out of ongoing hostilities). Many of my students see positive peace as being more intertwined with the notion of reconciliation than are the other three —  it is their ultimate end goal.  Some argue, as we said above, that reconciliation is actually another "pillar" of peace and that positive peace, rather than reconciliation, is our ultimate objective.

But really, we would argue, the order doesn't matter.  We need to pursue all five goals simultaneously: peace, justice, mercy, truth, and reconciliation. And we need to pursue both positive and negative peace, all four forms of justice, mercy and forgiveness all at the same time. 

But again, as we've said before, we can't all do all of this.  We each take our own little "piece," and we do our best to pursue it in whatever domain we are operating in.  And when we put all our efforts together (as we suggest in our concept of “massively parallel peacebuilding” and “massively parallel problem solving,”) we can see how seemingly small and inconsequential efforts really can bend the arc of history in a much more positive direction.   Whether we call it "peace," "reconciliation," or just a better-functioning society — it will produce a much brighter future for ourselves and future generations than the one we seem to be heading towards now.

Please Contribute Your Ideas To This Discussion!

In order to prevent bots, spammers, and other malicious content, we are asking contributors to send their contributions to us directly. If your idea is short, with simple formatting, you can put it directly in the contact box. However, the contact form does not allow attachments.  So if you are contributing a longer article, with formatting beyond simple paragraphs, just send us a note using the contact box, and we'll respond via an email to which you can reply with your attachment.  This is a bit of a hassle, we know, but it has kept our site (and our inbox) clean. And if you are wondering, we do publish essays that disagree with or are critical of us. We want a robust exchange of views.

Contact Us


About the MBI Newsletters

Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week. We are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several shorter newsletters. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here or on our BI Newsletter page, which also provides access to all the past newsletters, going back to 2017.

NOTE! If you signed up for this Newsletter and don't see it in your inbox, it might be going to one of your other emails folder (such as promotions, social, or spam).  Check there or search for and if you still can't find it, first go to our Substack help page, and if that doesn't help, please contact us

If you like what you read here, please ....


Subscribe to the Newsletter