Peacemaking that works
Review: Practicing Peace: Theology, Contemplation, and Action.
Michael John Wood, 2022 Wipf and Stock
Peace-talk can be sentimental, in my view. The high-value rhetoric has a glow of truth, inspires us to believe we have a great vision even when we have no skin at all in the game.
My acid test of peace-talk is the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. Or the Mongolian invasions in 1200s that sacked and slaughtered ten percent of the world. What would I do then? Or in less military conflicts, how do I help when I witness the way the beneficiaries of entrenched organisational bias render their critics invisible, non-existent. What have I done that achieved change? Or when women must walk in a world where they may be preyed upon at any time: How do they live, practically, in that world? Words about equality don’t seem to work very well. Will the aggressor stop and realise?
It seems that in entrenched conflict there is no stopping to reflect upon the witness of pacifists. Peace making is a long and twisting mission.
Does Wood’s work offer actual practical help for being involved in real world conflicts? I have to say, from what I have seen, that it does. No pious wordiness here.
Perhaps you share his concern for the cracks and complexity of our times and the weight of defeat upon the church as it was. How did he come to this? He has sought out effective practices, experimented, networked and studied for 26 years. He is honest about his failures in ministry and shares his stories succinctly. I worked with Michael Wood as a colleague for seven years in university chaplaincy and so I confess that I have seen these practices in action.
What is Wood attempting here?
The first part presents four touchstones in a Christian theology of peacemaking leading to three descriptions of a theology of nonviolence. These are erudite surveys that cover and frame most of my issues without being caught in the labyrinth of theory. Don’t come here for a philosophical argument but come to find a soundly presented case, largely but not only indebted to Girard’s mimetic theory. I don’t exactly square with his position but I was often grateful to be challenged.
The second part of the book is about the genre (my word not his) of Contemplation, practiced both personally and collectively. Wood makes a good case for this genre as a way of Integrating Perception, not just ‘taking a break for some quiet time’. The inner work precedes growth in Loving God and loving Neighbor, and letting go of the shame, guilt, resentment and pride that clog one’s spiritual arteries. I felt freedom stretch out within me.
Part three is a remarkable handbook for action in peacemaking, both in the church and in the wider society. There are lots of stories here that easily convey their principles without selling them.
Foundational to Wood is the wisdom of how life actually grows, that is, Natural Living Systems. I would say it is equal in status to him as Redemption in Christ. Living systems grow the Shalom of Christ. Therefore instead of top-down hierarchies with faux consultation, the epidemic of my own institution, Wood offers multi-level practices that build peace, creativity, community through Collaboration.
I have seen Wood at work in most of these practices and seen the results. When he co-hosted Gospel Yarning twice at United Theological College, it was already by lunchtime on the first day being spoken as the best conference people had ever been to. From talking circles with cautious academics to congregations and whole synods, I have seen these practices work wonders. Debate and distress and the boredom of all the usual voices gives way to ‘Collaborative Emergent Design.’
It is important to learn well the theology in these practices, for I have often been dismayed to see how the passions that emerged helpfully say in Open Space Sessions were soon quashed by cultures of authority that merely used these practices as a consultative trick. Not only organisations but also in conversations, these are helpful principles.
Wood adds a few helpful questions in each chapter that move from awareness to learning, then a series of questions for a small group to explore the topic. It does a lot of preparation for you. It would be a very adequate small curriculum for a group on Peacemaking as an essential practice in community engagement and workplace participation. It addresses primarily the institutionalised traditions where parliamentary or hierarchic combat is the learned form of resistance to change but it is anchored in much wider peacemaking fields.
Wood’s book is a thorough curriculum on things that work. Wood takes us with him in manageable steps to join the dots that integrate Theology, Contemplation, and Action in the Practice of Peace. His bibliography was also helpful when I needed more context.
Rev. Dr Ian Robinson
United Theological College