Peacebuilding is a Thing

Here's what it actually is ...



I have a friend who majored in sociology. This was back in the day when people were quick to ask, “Is it really a science? And what job will you do at the end of it?” To be fair, these are still questions, but its street cred has risen significantly. Today, most educators have heard of Pierre de Bourdieu and Jean Piaget, and people like Brene Brown are turning sociology into the pinot noir of the social sciences. However, the notion that reconciliation could be studied with evidence-based inquiry is naturally met with a degree of nose-scrunching, and because I’m a Christian (and a charismatic one at that), I took some convincing. Is peacebuilding really a science? Isn’t it a God-given gift? And what can this field of study add to what we already have in scripture? I first discovered peacebuilding education by ‘accidentally’ stumbling across it on the internet. I’d been working in a high school as a chaplain, and I was grappling with the questions that people in these roles typically face: how to build meaningful, lasting, credible, Gospel-ministry in a context that is ideologically atheistic, church-resistant, and in which it is very easy to be liked, but not so easy to lead. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to sit comfortably with the invisible subtext written under every compliment that came my way: “We like her, even though we don’t like her ‘mob’; even though we hate the church. But she’s nice.” The danger of sinking into that kind of spiritual quicksand was palpable. I could cruise on the natural high of being liked by others and somehow convince myself it was all for God’s glory, but I would starve on that kind of vain affection and it would be an arrogant betrayal of my Lord, as though I weren’t responsible to represent and honour the lives of the saints and martyrs, and my persecuted brothers and sisters around the world. I started praying fervently for God to move in this school. On His watch and not mine, He did. First, He kept leading me to scriptures about His heart to reconcile the nations. I then stumbled across the academic discipline called ‘peacebuilding’. As I engaged the literature, I realised that the deep-seated pain point for this generation is an absence of belonging, the increased fracturing of community and the evidence that racial and sexual violence is maybe as bad as it has ever been. The world hungers for peace but doesn’t know how to achieve it. Religion has failed. So too, has secularism. How could I communicate the Gospel as the answer to this longing, with the limited platform I had? I had to go to the cross. I began to connect with the unrest in my own identity and the feelings of exclusion in my own spirit, the place of my deepest sorrow, my most profound sense of helplessness, my dashed hopes, and my own fear of failure. This wounded place, this quiet ‘Your will, not mine’, becomes the unlikely throne on which Jesus takes up His Rule and reveals His Glory. From this vantage point, I started to properly listen to the pain points of Christian leaders today. And while there are differences in the way we live out our callings, so many of the struggles are the same: “Why have so many of my friends left the church? People who were once my role models, now ignore me or sneer at my faith, and why does it hurt so much?” “Why do I always feel like I have to work twice as hard as white men, just to get a seat at the table?” “How do we hold fast to everything we value about our traditions, without becoming inaccessible to the people we are called to reach?” “Why do we pour so much time and money into our church schools, and see such little return, and so few vocations?” “Why does my parish want me to run all these errands, but nobody’s interested in the music I write or the ideas I have, or the degree I’ve studied?” “Why have my children completely left church, even though we took them every week to Mass and sent them to a Catholic school?” “And why do I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere? Why do none of the ‘camps’ that exist between conservatives and progressives, ‘fit’ for me?” As I heard the unanswered questions and metabolised my own grief, I began to perceive a spectrum across the life of the Church, marked at either end by a different but related heartache: At one end there are those who deeply, and rightly, love God’s Church, organising their lives around the belonging and the beauty of her sacramental life, but who secretly ask, “Why hasn’t any of it helped with my ongoing mental health struggles, or stopped my marriage from breaking down, or my kids from ignoring me?” At the other end there are those who have encountered Jesus so personally and profoundly as to be set free of addictions, painful relationship patterns and personal traumas, but somehow never feel connected to the wider Body, and in their honest moments, find ministry to be increasingly isolating and lonely. Between these there is one constant thirst: to belong. Belonging, I am discovering, is everything. It is our deepest yearning and most basic need. It is the skeleton, muscle, and sinew of the Gospel-message. Whatever language we use, whether it is about ‘identity’, ‘intimacy’, ‘presence’ or ‘coming home’, that the remedy is the love of God is because the most painful human experience is that of separation. The greatest human suffering is to be excluded, divorced, othered, shut-out, ignored, rejected, ‘left on read’, ghosted, denied, danced-around, pushed away, belittled, demeaned, orphaned, aborted … and at the extreme end, persecuted, racially vilified, enslaved, objectified, abused. It is to be told, “You don’t belong. You aren’t worthy. You are less loveable than the rest of us.” And here’s what one of my new best friends, St. Francis of Assisi, has taught me: It isn’t enough to answer this fundamental human yearning with a personal relationship with Jesus. Just like the young people with whom I work, I also need to know that I am loveable to fellow humans. I need to know that someone will choose me. I need to be seen and known and loved for who I am, not just how I perform. And no matter how many mysteries are revealed to me in the Spirit, if I don’t have love, I have nothing. Let me quickly add, that I firmly believe that it is equally insufficient to be in communion with the Church, as though this alone will realise the relationship that Jesus died for us to have. God isn't the process or the outcome; He's a Father. And so it is possible to be turning up for family dinners, without developing the intimacy of personally knowing the Father's touch and voice and syntax. The Gospel is personal and corporate at the same time. One does not precede the other and neither is one more important than the other. Like Baptism and Communion; like masculine and feminine; like mother and child, we don’t exist without God, and there’s no point to existing without friends. What peacebuilding education offers is a refreshed model; a robust ministry formation experience which, operating at the level of both personal and corporate salvation, simultaneously engaged, will place into the toolkit of our students the skills to speak and enact the Gospel in their context, without being ‘hit and miss’. We will teach our students how to facilitate lasting cultural change, with long-term ministry fruitfulness. In practice, this will look like being able to minister the Gospel to broken hearts, and to fractured communities, such that we learn how to: Forgive and release those who have disappointed us along the way, so that our leadership isn’t reactive to subconscious pain or hidden regrets; Shift cultural contexts to be genuinely multicultural and celebrative of the complementarity of men and women as co-labourers; Develop culturally safe spaces for even the most ‘unlikely’ of people to encounter and receive the Gospel; Cultivate long-term pathways for young adults to move into service, both within and outside of religious life, or ordained ministry; Create new ministries that capitalise on the gifts of the entire Body, and not just the Senior Pastor; Bridge generational divides; and Minister to the underlying shame and fear that leads to polarisation and communication breakdown. I am confident that we can build a community of practitioners who are generating long-term outcomes. These are people who have skin in the game, runs on the board, battle scars to prove it, and who value the place of solid theological study as part of their ongoing formation. They work hard. They play hard. They pray hard. They are mature. And they are ready to go to the hill. Article by Heather Cetrangolo,

23 February 2021

Photo by Jacob Bentzinger