Let’s get this out of the way first: If Dan Brown wrote a book about conflict resolution it would come out looking something like The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict. If that sounds like an endorsement to you, you’ll love this book. If, like me, you threw The DaVinci Code across the room sometimes out of sheer frustration with its cardboard characters, forced allusions, wooden writing style, and overall smugness, well, you’re not going to have a good time getting through this book. The author is listed as the faceless Arbinger Institute but I suspect a member of the Institute is, in fact, Dan Brown.
Whew. That said: I came to the book at the recommendation of the Rev. Tom Berlin, one of the most gifted (and un-Dan Brown-like) communicators in our United Methodist connection. Berlin, pastor of Floris UMC in northern Virginia, is a member of the Commission on A Way Forward, the 32-member group appointed by the Council of Bishops to craft proposals for maintaining the unity of the denomination in the face of divisions around questions of human sexuality. The Anatomy of Peace is being used by the Commission to help them grow closer to one another as they confront their own differences.
Berlin has led the Virginia clergy delegation at the most recent sessions of the General Conference, the global gathering of United Methodism held every four years to rewrite The Book of Discipline, the denominational rule book. In that role he has seen the sad way that such gatherings devolve into the same rancor that plagues our national political dialogue. “When these topics [e.g. ordination of LGBTQ clergy] are discussed,” he told the Virginia Annual Conference last summer, “the hearts of many delegates are at war rather than at peace.”
Berlin chose that phrasing purposefully. It comes right out of The Anatomy of Peace and its unusual choice to use the Era of the Crusaders as an analogy for developing a ‘heart of peace.’ The conquest of Jerusalem by Christian crusaders in the Middle Ages was bloody, a character tells a group of parents who have been united by a desire to help their troubled teenaged children. He goes on to describe how the Crusaders plundered and murdered in the wake of their victory, seeing their foes merely as objects to be eliminated.
By contrast, the Muslim sultan Saladin’s reconquest of the city was marked by acts of mercy towards the defeated Christians. “The secret of Saladin’s success in war,” one of the leaders of the parent group says, “was that his heart was at peace.” (28) Thus, he concludes, “there are two ways to take Jerusalem: from people or from objects.” (33)
If you can accept your history flat and unambiguous, this analogy might work for you. Similarly, if you can accept the repeated interpretations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as offered by the pair of leaders (one of each nationality) at face value, you may be able to see through to the point of the book more easily than I could. I found these attempts to use one of the most complex international situations of our day as a simplifying and clarifying tool misguided at best. I’ll chalk that up to Mr. Brown again. But I digress.
The point of the book is very simple. The heart of conflict is seeing people either as people or objects. When we see our opponents as people we can have hearts at peace. When we see them as obstacles or objects, our hearts are at war.
The book goes on to show how that plays out in any number of situations, from dealing with family conflict to business relationships to international relations. The journey towards peace, as in most journeys with a spiritual dimension, is first an internal one. When we address our own “way of being” it begins to have an impact on those around us. “As important as behavior is…most problems at home, at work, and in the world are not failures of strategy but failures of way of being.” (39)
There are some good psychological insights here. The book addresses how we collude with those we oppose in producing the very things we say we’re fighting against. There is a long section on self-justification and how our own preferred methods for doing it serve to perpetuate conflicts. And there is a pyramid of actions that emphasizes personal work and building relationships before attempting anything like correction.
There is no doubt that our relationships and institutions would be better if we approached one another with hearts of peace. Given our tendency toward anxiety and the belief that we can only lose in conflict, we need some practice in the art of engaging with those we regard as enemies. That’s just what Rev. Berlin suggested to the Virginia Annual Conference last summer. Noting his own congregation’s attempt to start some conversations on human sexuality, Tom said, “The church hasn’t fallen in.”
I’m grateful for Tom’s encouragement to keep trying. We all know the deadly taste of cynicism and despair in our mouths. We are thirsting for something more.
Whether this book, beyond its flaws, holds out hope for United Methodists is an open question. I know that others are reading it as well and earnestly seeking a new day. The hope Berlin talked about as a result of reading it seemed to be that we Methodists, by “walking together loosely” instead of seeking to come to conformity or agreement, might be able to concentrate on the mission objectives of the church rather than its divisions. In the year to come, as we see the Commission’s work come to the form of proposals, we’ll all have a chance to sound our hearts to see what’s there. I’m praying we find hearts of peace.