“The primary practical task of those working for reconciliation is to help create the space where Truth, Mercy, Justice, and Peace can truly meet and thresh things out…We need to recognize all their concerns as proper, provide them with voices, respond to their fears and needs, and place them in an open and dialogical setting”
We had just listened to a church leader from Burma deliver a riveting appeal for help to bring peace to his country. This was a high point for me while attending the first international Baptist peace conference held in Sweden in 1988. A Mennonite guest, John Howard Yoder, challenged us Baptists to get involved and not just listen to a good presentation. He told us of the Nicaraguan peace process and the work of John Paul Lederach. So the church leader from Burma and I met with John Paul. With his counsel we launched an initiative that was my first step in direct mediation.
The mob chased after the truck, pointing at John Paul Lederach: “There’s the gringo! Get him! Get him!” The windows were smashed by rocks. A two-by-four slammed into Lederach’s shoulder. His Nicaraguan companion and driver was bloodied from being hit in the head by a rock but managed to maintain consciousness and drive to the hospital. They had been trying to set up a speaking engagement as part of the Nicaraguan peace process. Miskito Indian insurgent leaders were coming home as part of a dialog process, but Sandinista sympathizers turned the event at a local stadium into a riot.
During the Nicaraguan peace process Lederach also faced threats of assassination, a threat to kidnap his 3-year old child, accusations of being a CIA informer on the one hand and a Sandinista spy on the other. Staying committed to peacemaking for Lederach is a spiritual journey, often dealing with one’s own anger and fear. He writes, “To pursue reconciliation, we must accept the long sleepless nights of fighting in ourselves with God before we can journey toward and look for the face of God in our enemy.”
Lederach is the Professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame. He also helped found the Conflict Transformation Program and Institute for Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He has written many books from the popular level to the highly technical. His career in part sounds like an ivory tower existence, but that is hardly the case. Not many academics find themselves at the center of a riot.
Lederach was born into the family of a Mennonite pastor, and he retains a deep commitment to the Christian faith as expressed in the pacifist Mennonite tradition. His spirituality has been a great source of direction and sustenance. For twenty years he was on the staff of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). He wrote many resources, articles and training guides. Some of his works were written and published in Spanish under the name Juan Pablo Lederach.
The effort to bring peace to Nicaragua was Lederach’s greatest mediation achievement. Representing the MCC, he worked with a team of Moravian and Baptist Nicaraguans to open contacts between the indigenous Contra insurgent groups from Eastern Nicaraguan and the Sandinista government. Most of the Moravians were from the same English-speaking Indian groups as the insurgent leaders, and they linked up with Gustavo Parajón, a Baptist leader on the National Reconciliation Commission who was trusted by the Sandinistas. Together they built the bridge of trust that could reach to the two sides.
Many rounds of talks took place between the mediation team and the two sides. Sometimes when Lederach was back in the U.S. he was making calls to various government officials, insurgent leaders or members of the mediation team, racking up the phone bills as he relayed messages and proposals between the sides. Everyone persevered through all the threats and disruptions, including the riot where Lederach was injured. In 1988 an agreement was reached that ended the war between the Nicaraguan government and the Indian insurgents. This was a major step, along with the Esquipulas II agreement of the Central American presidents mediated by Oscar Arias, in bringing an end to the decade-long war that had plagued Nicagrua.
Besides his work in Nicaragua, Lederach has participated in various peace-building and mediation efforts in Somalia, Northern Ireland, Colombia, the Philippines and Nepal. However, Lederach’s biggest impact has been in his ideas and teaching tools. He has combined theory and practice, with each informing the other. He likes to think of himself as a “reflective practitioner.” As one who combines reflective scholarship with peace-building action, Lederach has influenced a generation of peace-builders working around the world and touched many places of conflict far beyond his own direct involvement.
In one of his books Lederach states, “I have a rather modest thesis. I believe that the nature and characteristics of contemporary conflict suggest the need for a set of concepts and approaches that go beyond traditional statist diplomacy.” He sketches a pyramid of actors related to peace-building, with the top leadership at the narrow end of the pyramid, middle-range leaders in the center, and grassroots leaders at the bottom. Most attention in the press and writers of history is given to the top leaders, and that is where government diplomacy works. However, effective and critically vital peace-building also takes place at the middle and grassroots levels. In fact, it is at these levels that conflicts are often turned in positive or negative directions. Much of Lederach’s theory and training tools support and empower the work of the middle-level and grassroots peacemakers.
Much of the design of Lederach’s education methodologies is elicitive, helping people come to their own answers to the issues of importance to them. The trainer is a catalyst to help the participants discover their own creativity and create their own models for conflict transformation drawing upon their own cultural strengths and practices. A key example of Lederach’s elicitive process can be found in the training and dialog tool he developed out of Psalm 85:10, a verse that was quoted by Nicaraguan pastors before every mediation session during that peace process. The verse in Spanish literally translated back to English says: “Truth and Mercy have met together. Justice and Peace have kissed.” As Lederach listened to the various people in the peace process he said that Truth, Mercy, Justice and Peace came alive: “I could hear their voices in the war in Nicaragua. In fact I could hear their voices in any conflict…They became people, and they could talk.” So in training sessions he would form groups around each concept, then ask people to treat that concept as a person. They were instructed to ask, “What is Truth (or Mercy, Justice, Peace) most concerned about in the midst of the conflict?” Lederach would interview the spokesperson for each group, addressing them as “Sister Truth” or “Brother Peace.” Through the dialog many of the elements of the conflict could be examined from different perspectives, a process that Lederach sees as part of the journey toward reconciliation.
“Conflict Transformation” is the overarching concept for much of Lederach’s work. He sees this concept as going beyond and uniting the “revolutionary” camp of those engaged in nonviolent social change and the “resolutionary” camp of those engaged in mediation. Conflict transformation seeks to build construction relationship patterns to replace the destructive dynamics between people and groups. Those involved in conflict transformation seek “to maximize the achievement of constructive, mutually beneficial processes and outcomes.” It involves personal change as well as systemic change. It incorporates trauma recovery and building more justice and equality in social, political and economic systems. Lederach has provided a thorough and integrated understanding for what is necessary for building peace in conflicted societies and finding the way eventually toward reconciliation.
John Paul Lederach has been creatively driven by questions such as: “How do we move from merely talking about peace to actually building peace? How can we promote a concern for human life and justice in settings of devastating violence and oppression? How do we bring enemies together?” His answers have helped many people struggling to transform conflicts and build peace. He has also provided tools for others to work on their own answers and be stimulated to greater creativity in their own transformative journey toward reconciliation.