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From table to termites: A conversation with Mennonite peacebuilder John Paul Lederach

6.10. 2019 Written By: Sarah Nahar and Jonathan Nahar 1,342 read

Photo: John Paul Lederach receives the Niwano Peace Prize. Photo (c) Niwano Peace Foundation.

Mennonite peacebuilder John Paul Lederach received the Niwano Peace Prize on May 8 in Tokyo, Japan. The Niwano Peace Foundation gives out the award annually to those who devote themselves to interreligious cooperation in the cause of peace.

Niwano’s selection committee recognized Lederach’s scholarly and practical work in “mediating conflicts, building peace and fostering international reconciliation.”

Lederach co-founded the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, is professor emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and is a senior fellow at Humanity United.

In his acceptance speech, Lederach shared stories from his 40 years of peacebuilding experience. He spoke of peacemakers he met in Colombia, Kenya and Nepal, calling them innovative “geniuses of survival” against the odds. He discussed how his Mennonite faith compelled his work, and how his interactions shaped his faith. “Over time,” Lederach said, “I discovered that interreligious accompaniment and an appreciative approach to spiritual wisdom strengthened my Mennonite vocation and faith.”

Shifting to the future, Lederach noted in his speech that peace scholarship is entering a new phase in which the most urgent issues – water scarcity, climate change, human migration – need a broader imagination than our current nation state model allows. “This planetary moment reveals that no nation on its own can assure the well-being of people within its borders without equal concern for the well-being of the most vulnerable beyond those borders,” he said. Rather than seeing migrants and the marginalized as challenges, he said, embracing the wisdom of these “geniuses of survival” will “allow us all to experience the blessing of diversity.”

“We need the courage of conviction that our global security is not determined by the size of our walls or the quantity of our weapons, but rather is found in the quality of our relationships,” Lederach said. He went on to call for greater engagement across historic divides and in particular for intergenerational accompaniment that facilitates a much needed in-between wisdom rising from mutual support and encouragement across ages.

As young adults and environmental justice activists, we are eager for the “in-between wisdom” that comes from speaking with our elders. We spoke with Lederach on the eve of the award, having flown into Tokyo on our way to Indiana after completing a three-month Rotary Peace Fellowship in Bangkok, Thailand. Overlooking a 250-year-old garden in Tokyo, we discussed Mennonite peace witness today. What follows are excerpts from 2.5 hours of conversation.

From left: Wendy Lederach, Sarah Nahar, John Paul Lederach, Jonathan Nahar and Josh Lederach. Photo provided by Sarah and Jonathan Nahar.

SN: We haven’t had a churchwide conversation about peacemaking in a long time. One day before MennoCon19, Mennonite Church USA’s convention this summer, peacemakers across the church will meet to reconnect and have some overdue conversations. It’s part of MC USA’s Journey Forward process. What words of encouragement do you have for us, or what thoughts do you have for us?

JPL: It’s good to know this convening is happening. I find myself encouraged by the younger generation. There’s a quest for something more meaningful in church, something that will transform the old structures. These times are going to require new forms of being church that are more relevant. I do worry, though, that we can easily get caught in too narrow of discussions, which has been a historical challenge of ours.

If we chose, our peace witness could be exemplary of new ways of linking rural and urban people, because we are rural and urban. We could be exemplary in having better ways of working very constructively across racial and indigenous divides, across the challenges of migration and human mobility precisely because we are a people who know the pain of exclusion and the challenges of displacement in our history. We can mobilize around the ethic of love for the other, care for the stranger, because it always has been the defining characteristic of our lived experience historically. Our challenge is how to envision this vocation for today’s patterns of exclusion, division and displacement.

I encourage your gathering to think of ways to be together differently in the future. To stay together as humanity we need people willing to have “improbable dialogues.” We used this approach in Colombia, and it was a key to peacemaking in communities there.

SN: Can you say more about what an “improbable dialogue” is? Are they dialogues across lines of difference, power and/or identity? Or something else? I’ve heard a number of pastors say their ministry has been enlivened by the sanctuary work they are doing, often in interfaith coalition. Since state forces try to keep us apart or fighting amongst ourselves, the dialogues that lead to peace seem improbable too.

Overlooking the garden where this converation took place. Photo by John Paul Lederach.

JPL: Improbable points toward intentionality. It simply asks people to move across and beyond what’s comfortable and have the courage to reach out toward those who have been perceived not just as different but as enemies and to then often discover they may well also be reaching  toward you. These divides can be theological, political, age. To take it deeper, a metaphor I’ve been using with my mediator colleagues is that we need to “move from tables to termites.” Having these “improbable dialogues” is more about circulating, going out to where others live, rather than convening around a table.

JN: Bringing people to the table may only go so far. Because the convener gets to pick who is at the table, how the table is set.

JPL: Yes, the “table” may be an inadequate understanding of how social change actually happens. Termites travel and drop a scent, which other termites then smell and come and build on. They rely on moving around a space. Circulating is very powerful in the evolution of raising up a collective consciousness and, in turn, collective power to engage change differently.

SN: So, for people, those who circulate are coming into contact with all sorts of folks – probable and improbable – having dialogue with them, dropping a scent of what positive social change and Christian discipleship smells like, and attracting people to start moving out of their comfort zone and circulating in the conversation as well.

JPL: The basic notion of moving around a space, hearing from everyone can take a great deal of time, but I think that’s one of the potential areas where a new form of church could emerge. In peacebuilding we often use a conversational circle. We don’t attach any spiritual meaning to it, but those experiences allow a spirituality to emerge and bring deep meaning for people.

JN: That space to share stories, to see and be seen, to grieve and experience joy together, is deeply spiritual, and builds the crucial peacemaking quality of empathy. And the more diverse the circle that your stories arise from, the wider your circle of care.

JPL: In our origins in the 16th century, there was always a fragility of formal structure and an agility of mobile conversations. Much later, through, for example, MCC and missions, Mennonites went out from our home communities. We saw things. We came back and reported on what we saw, expanding considerably what we understood as a wider family and a variation of how faith emerged and was expressed. A friend in Colombia used to say “si no vas no ves,” meaning “if you don’t go, you don’t see.” Circulating has this characteristic. When you go, you’re not seeing just from someone else’s eyes, you’re seeing from their location in society, in the world, in the community. You have a whole-body picture, a sense of collective empathy. What would happen if church was understood as structurally fragile yet relationally agile? Our emphasis would seem to require a more relationally mobile concept, that you actually were doing church most when you circulated around your community, around our wider world, and in a constant flow of improbable conversations.

JN: We’ve been doing some of that traveling. We spent the last month traveling through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia hearing from the people there about the ongoing effects of U.S. war and bombing, and celebrating the resilience of those people and their land. It has been a really powerful experience. We had a lot of help connecting to people through our networks with Mennonite Central Committee as well as with engaged Buddhists.

JPL: Yes, and here in Japan a Buddhist organization committed to interreligious understanding is offering me such a profound recognition. In turn, I want to offer back my deep appreciation for what I have learned from them, especially from their haiku tradition from Matsuo Bashó, which gave me poetic practices of mindful presence and a deep sense of awe for gift of nature.

JN: Could we finish with haikus? Here is one we wrote.

The past and future
Seek wisdom from each other
Over lunch with friends

JPL: Here is one I wrote.

old stone steps climb while
ancient mountain sits quiet
the sounds of patience

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