Note: the photos and text of this entry match only by coincidence in time. The photos show the process of painting the nursery; the text reflects the kind of thing I think about as I work on such home projects. I will not be offended if you choose only one as the focus of your attention here.
In the last few months, the Lord has made me especially sensitive to the problem of human reconciliation. This problem is, by definition, the quandary that arises when two parties once at peace with one another find themselves in conflict, and desire (or don't desire) to return to a place of peace. To "re-conciliate" is to return peace where presently conflict abides. And I have found, of late, the matter of returning to peace sticking in my side.
When I hear the word peacemaking, someone is usually associating it with some grand social or political problem such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or Muslim-Christian relations, or the negotiation of a massive strike in the automotive industry. To attempt reconciliation in these situations one must step into a wide quagmire or details and relationships while the bullets of rage and vengeance scream overhead. But I have discovered that the bullets fly no less speedily over the field of family or individual conflict.
Conflict pierces at the human soul. We were designed for what the Hebrew scriptures call "shalom," or peace in self and relationships. Offence, real or imagined, striking at us from within one of these relationships, threatens the peace in which we want to live. As physiologists have taught for decades, threats to self and self-interest produce a fight-or-flight response, born in the autonomous nervous system. We separate ourselves from places of conflict, or we attempt to defeat--directly or indirectly--that which threatens us. In the case of human conflict, we therefore cut ourselves off from other people, or make an effort to subjugate them with logic, influence, raw emotion, or gossip.
But even as we respond to conflict in that knee-jerk, animalistic way we know that doing so will not bring peace. Fight-or-flight brings a momentary safety, but it does not bring back the shalom in which we lived before. To remain in flight means forever having to avoid someone else--not so easy with a co-worker or family member. To remain in a fight means expending energy damaging another person at every encounter--an activity which while sating the blood-thirst of vengeance for a split second fills the mouth with bitterness that does not fade so quickly. Living life on the run along an endless track, or in the ring with no bell, presents a person with a horrid future. The Spirit, crying out in the depths of our souls, wants peace back. And this desire resonates with something deeper than our autonomous nervous system.
Humanity is fated to live within time; we cannot go back and change the past. Thus our actions have become set in stone. Re-conciliation cannot happen by erasing the past. The stained tapestry cannot be un-woven. We cannot make peace by pretending the offence never happened. Thus peace-making entails trudging back through the muddy wastes of the conflict, unearthing mines of impressions, thoughts, words, and grief placed by both sides of the war. To reconcile is to redeem; and land cannot be redeemed unless it is re-possessed; and land that no one's foot has touched is not possessed. So peacemaking means stepping into a minefield of anger and sorrow, stepping lightly but always wondering if the next footfall will unleash a world of hurt and fury.
I think it rare that in any conflict only one side bears all guilt. Wrongdoing seems to beget wrongdoing faster than possums populate New Zealand; with the haste of a spreading fire guilt consumes both sides of a conflict. Thus to enter the minefield means unearthing guilt and shame for things done and left undone by both sides. So pride whispers to those in conflict: "Do not enter there, for your sin will be exposed." And on the heels of pride comes fear, the most persuasive and ever-errant counselor of humanity, encouraging us to let bygones be bygones (as if any of us can separate from our pasts) and risk not the bald accusation of our own actions. Even as the peacemaker prepares with trepidation to bear the heat of conflict, the opposing parties look with dread upon the prospect of facing their own complicity in the war.
It seems to me that the first--and perhaps most difficult--task of the peacemaker is to instill trust in the conflicted parties. So she must hold out hope: hope that the conflict will not be perpetual; hope that each party will not be irreparably destroyed by the mines that have been laid; hope that the difficult work of reclaiming a war-torn field will actually produce peace. I have found this task to be daunting. Deep conflict engenders deep separation and anxiety, piled atop anger, vengeance and pride. Though I have a rich imagination and trust in the power of the Spirit, holding out hope--thinking it, speaking it, repeating it--taxes my reserves.
How I wish that clearing the minefield could be done by the third party, the peacemaker, the individual UN Task Force, while the opposing sides looked on! But alas, only those who have laid the mines--only those who have loaded the past with anger, guilt, and shame--can defuse these weapons of relational destruction. The peacemaker can say, "Look, isn't that a mine? Isn't that where anger bubbles up? Isn't it right there that a great grief lies?" But the technology of hatred and conflict is proprietary; knowledge of how the trigger works and which wire to cut rest solely with the one who made the mine. It is not work that another can do for them; it is work that the adversaries must do themselves--and perhaps together.
Overcoming fear with trust is the labour of the peacemaker. Only in doing so can people entrenched in conflict be brought to talk, learn, negotiate, and reconcile. "How can I ever forgive . . . ?" are words spoken by someone who does not hope. "I can't say I'm sorry," are words spoken by someone who does not trust. The peacemaker cannot command these words of sorrow or forgiveness, but the peacemaker can encourage trust and hope.
Trust and hope are intangibles, however. They do not have a concrete value like shares in the stock market; they cannot be proferred from a wallet in a moment of need. They come with time and words--lots of words. Like the rising trust that citizens acquire for a presidential candidate by hearing him speak again and again, trust in people and hope in their dreams come by much encouragement and many words. So the work of the peacemaker includes some grand tedium: think of how many times we've been told that international figures are having talks with Israelis and Palestinians--again. Why can't they all just get along--right now? Because trust takes time; hope requires ages to instill and even longer to bring action. The peacemaker must stand firm in hope through all that time.
People can be reconciled with each other. There is hope for all those in conflict. I shall not make the mistake of thinking that hope makes things simple. But hope engenders trust, and trust makes reconciliation possible. Thus hope makes things possible. The fracture of shalom, and the peace of our relationships, can be healed if we will have the courage to return to the Normandys of our conflicts and clear the beaches of barbed wire. We must meet on the Flanders Fields of our pride and put enmity to rest. We must unemploy the counselor of fear and bear the guilt in order that it might be released at last. And we must help each other to do so, for facing dark and painful pasts is not something to be done alone. Then again, how much richer the joy when we find ourselves at peace and have someone else with whom to celebrate it!
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God," from the gospel according to Matthew, 5:9.