Conflict requires transformation not simply resolution

By staff writers
August 24, 2012

Peace cannot be separated from justice and wisdom, nor politics from relationships, a panel discussion on conflict as a positive source of change suggested. It requires transformation not just resolution.

The conversation at St John’s Church on 23 August 2012 was one of several on conflict, violence and non-violence that have taken place over the past few weeks at the Festival of Spirituality and Peace in Edinburgh.

Introducing the theme of the conversation, the Rev Ewan Aitken, a senior figure in the Church of Scotland who has also been an Edinburgh City councillor, drew a connection between the personal and the political in addressing conflict.

He also drew a picture of the different ways people of faith might engage with conflict. “It has been said that ‘religion’ is for people who are afraid of hell, but the spiritual journey is for those who have been to hell and come back” and who have developed an approach to suffering and death which is based on costly experience.

Maureen Jack spoke of her work in Israel-Palestine with Christian Peacemaker Teams, which was founded in 1984 after a powerful appeal by Mennonite theologian Ron Sider at a Mennonite conference - challenging Christians to show the same sacrifice for peace as armies show for war.

CPT aims to “get in the way” of violence and injustice by putting small teams of trained non-violent activists in situations of conflict, said Maureen Jack, who has been involved with the organisation for over ten years.

She spoke of the small village of Al Tuwani in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where a whole community has embraced non-violent resistance to oppression, including the violent rejection of them by settlers.

“You can’t work at resolving conflict just at one level, you have to work at a number of levels”, Ms Jack said, “not simply the largest scale.”

Malcolm Stern, a practising psychotherapist, former Greenpeace worker and co-founder of Alternatives at St James’ Piccadilly in London, has looked deeply at the nature and stages of human conflict.

The first is unease, the second is looking for allies, and the third mobilising people for action. Then there is the transition to war.

At that point the options for a way through are truce, which can disguise or suppress the underlying conflict while leaving it untreated; annihilation, taking out ‘the enemy’ altogether; or transformation, changing the agenda altogether.

It is transformation, embodied in difficult but necessary attempts at change like Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (in South Africa and elsewhere) that gives some indicators of the way forward.

“The great challenge of conflict is facing it, staying in relationship, moving forward,” Stern suggested.

A discussion opened up about boycotts as an alternative way of pursuing a conflict in the search for justice.

The Iraqi boycott imposed by the West before the war was not right, it was suggested, because of the immense damage it did to the victims of despotism.

The call for boycott of goods from the Occupied Territories is different, however, because it is coming from Palestinians themselves, and is part of a wave of non-violent resistance in a violent situation.

There was also discussion of the way Israelis and Palestinians have built both friendship and solidarity links, for example in the coalition against house demolitions.

Ewen Aitken asked if only ‘wounded healers’ can be involved in handling conflict. Not necessarily, said Maureen Jack. But there is a danger that people bring either their anger or their need to cry ‘peace’ and impose their own agenda on the situation.

We need wisdom and discernment for engagement, Malcolm Stern said. “We think we know what is right and wrong, but we have to keep the dialogue going longer to achieve deeper understanding.”

He spoke of his own transformation in a Greenpeace campaign against seal culling, when he realised that those doing the harm were not evil but living in a different setting and with a different understanding, albeit one that needed challenging as well as listening to.

Issues of structural violence, taking sides, conflict transformation rather than simple ‘resolution’, and accounting for injustice in the context of power misuse and imbalance also came into a rich and nuanced conversation.

“We have to be careful how we define peace. It is not just about the absence of conflict and war, but about relationships and justice,” Maureen Jack declared.

"It's not about being a saviour, it's about humility, being alongside people and empathy," she concluded when asked what it meant to go into a situation of conflict as a peacemaker. "We should never forget that people in the situation are often in much more danger."

The Festival of Spirituality and Peace, now in its twelfth year in Edinburgh, features 400 cultural and discussion events across 21 venues. Its theme this year is ‘Cooperation for Change’.

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