Conversation is the True Work of Peacemaking

Last week I spent three days at a gathering of the leaders of the Religious Peace Fellowships in Stony Point, N.Y. There were representatives from more than a dozen Christian denominations -- from Catholic and Orthodox to Mennonite and Brethren -- as well as Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist peace fellowships. And me, from the Adventist Peace Fellowship. It was the first time such a gathering had taken place in many years. It was clear that while peacemaking in our increasingly violent world was an urgent priority for all of us, working together across denominational and religious lines was something we didn't understand as well.

A few days before going to New York I was at Pepperdine University with a small group from the Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative, modeling a conversation about Middle East issues, specially Israel/Palestine, in front of 100 college students. There were three Jews (two rabbis and an academic), two Christians and two Muslims. We have all been in relationship, having various forms of this conversation about Abrahamic peacemaking, for several years. What was different this time was that we were talking in a public forum. Our conversation was frank, but respectful. The students could tell that the Jewish and Muslim members of our panel, in particular, had a deep respect for each other, even when they had radically different viewpoints. One student commented that he had never seen anything like it. That's not surprising to me at all. I've rarely seen anything like it. Across this country, the vast majority of Americans have never seen anything like it.

Yesterday, I awoke to news of the bombing in Jerusalem. This follows directly on the recent escalation in violence along the Israel/Gaza border. An AP story yesterday reported that an Israeli air strike in Gaza killed four family members and wounded 13 others. The Saturday between my experience at Pepperdine and my trip to the Peace Fellowships gathering in New York, the horrific news broke of the murder of five members of an Israeli family as they slept in a West Bank settlement.

Each of these tragedies is followed by promises of reprisals.

And so it goes.

All this violence is playing out against the back drop of a the apparent failure, yet again, of the peace process. Where is the locus of peace work in Israel/Palestine now? How are people of faith, in particular, called to respond to this escalation and the perpetual failure of our elected leaders to create a lasting peace?

I've always placed a high value on conversation, whether in leading my congregation, engaging with my community or grappling with intense issues surrounding the prospect for peace in the Middle East. Some scoff at the notion of conversation, saying that "mere talk" is not the same as doing something. I'm moved by this critique. How many "peace talks" have we witnessed between Israeli and Palestinian leaders? As my mother used to say, it's like talking to a revolving door. My entire life I have watched these talks go nowhere. Now with the so-called Palestinian Papers made public, we have the evidence that seemingly no one is serious about creating a lasting peace in Israel/Palestine.

This critique has helped me understand the actual scarcity of real conversation. Thich Nhat Hanh diagnoses the problem when he writes:

Never in the history of humankind have we had so many means of communication -- television, telecommunications, telephones, fax machines, wireless radios, hot lines, and red lines -- but we still remain islands. There is so little communication between the members of one family, between the individuals in society, and between nations. We suffer from so many wars and conflicts. We surely have not cultivated the arts of listening and speaking. We do not know how to listen to each other. We have little ability to hold an intelligent or meaningful conversation. (The Fourth Precept: Deep Listening and Loving Speech)

Conversation is two-sided. Many of us, myself included, are better at talking than listening. Because peace is born of understanding and understanding only comes about by deep listening, the conversational skill most urgently needed in our world is listening. I am also far more interested in low-level conversations that spread, like rhizomes, across social systems, than high-level talks that pit power against power. Groups like the Parents Circle -- Families Forum that brings together bereaved Palestinian and Israeli parents, or the work of Dr. Abuelaish, seem like the the most important, and underrated, peace work in the world. Groups like the Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative, are having important conversations, not about how to broker peace in the Middle East, but about how we live with each other in peace, here, in Los Angeles and Orange County and the United States. Our peace process is here as much as there.

My sense is that in the face of deepening conflicts, people of faith must redouble their commitment to deeply listening to people who are different from the themselves. For each of our faith groups the most difficult work may be internal. And while conversation is not the whole work, it is, I have discovered, the actual work of peacemaking.