It has been a busy week and a half at Central Seminary where the Buttry Center has been hosting an intensive 10-day Training of Conflict Transformation Trainers (TCTT) led by Dan and Sharon Buttry, and assisted by Stephanie Parham. Participants came by plane, train, and car from as far away as South Africa and as close as Kansas City, and from many places across the United States. They brought experiences of repression and conflict in Myanmar, the hardness of life in Thailand's refugee camps, oppression under apartheid, racism and discrimination in the United States, kidnappings near family in Nigeria, evacuating from Russia with the start of the Ukrainian war, and many kinds of conflict in congregations, communities, and work places. It is a wonderfully diverse group of participants who have formed relationships of trust and learned how to transform conflict from being destructive to being a force that brings about constructive change.
Conflict is a part of life everywhere, since people are all unique with different perspectives and needs. Many of us may feel like conflict is bad, particularly in churches where unity and love are emphasized. Some may try to deny it or avoid it, pulling into themselves like turtles. Others may approach conflict like a rhino with aggressive determination to have their own way. Accommodation, compromise, or collaboration are other approaches to conflict. TCTT participants looked at these various styles of responding to conflict and reflected on their own typical approach. They also learned ways to deal with conflict such that everyone can win by having some needs met, rather than approaching conflict as if there must be winners and losers.
Participants looked at many Scriptural passages where conflict was present, analyzed the dynamics, and identified approaches taken. This brought new perspectives and learnings from both familiar and frequently overlooked biblical texts. For example, both in biblical texts and in our own lives, during group conflicts there are people in the mainstream who interests are recognized and privileged, and there are people on the margins whose voices are not heard. Attentiveness to differences, being empathic towards another's experience, listening deeply to their concerns, and making needed changes are all important in situations where conflict emerges in the context of mainstream/margin differences. This perspective helped participants see with new eyes the Acts 6 conflict about whether widows of different communities were being cared for equally.
Many conflicts are related to larger systemic inequities and injustices, so participants learned to analyze the power dynamics involved and discuss what to do in such circumstances. The teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are a model for using creative transformative initiatives in response to oppressive injustice. Through role plays, enacted scenarios, and other "games," participants learned through an experiential educational process ways to respond that are nonviolent but effective for addressing entrenched systemic injustice or abusive power.
Often conflicts involve violence and trauma. Therefore it was also important to talk about the effect of trauma on both victim and oppressor and the cycles that keep violence going. Breaking that cycle of violence through the healing of trauma was powerfully portrayed in the enacted story of Rizpah in 2 Samuel 21. The bold and truthful actions of this woman led to healing and reconciliation for herself, others, and between communities of people.
While this 10-day training was happening, in the East African country of Kenya one of our Central Seminary alumni and a graduate of previous TCTT trainings was busy putting to work what he had learned. When Wilson Gathungu was a student at Central Seminary, he expressed concern about the violence between different ethnic communities that had often occurred around Kenya's elections. In the 2007 election, over 1200 people had been killed after politicians stirred up such animosity. Wilson formed PRARI (Peace, Reconciliation, and Rehabilitation Initiative) as an effort to bring conflict transformation training to his people. In the months before the hotly contested presidential election of August 9, 2022, he has focused on training community leaders and youth in the peacebuilding and conflict transformation skills he learned at his TCTT, held peace conventions, and sent out messages that called for peace and "victory without victims." Thankfully, so far the election has occurred with minimal violence. However, as counting of the votes continues in this close presidential race, many wait with bated breath. Will the peace hold?
During each TCTT, a tree for peace is planted. The day we planted our tree in front of Central Seminary was extremely hot with a predicted heat index of 108 degrees. The hard work of digging a large hole in the dry ground was a reminder that working for peace can be difficult. We planted our tree with care, watering it and pouring on root stimulant. We carefully examine it each day, watering it frequently during these overly hot summer days. We are doing our best and hoping it will live and thrive despite its hard beginning. If this tree doesn't make it, we will plant again. Just like planting a tree during a heat wave, when conflict is hot, peace may be hard to attain. It will require tenacity and ongoing effort. But we continue this work, anticipating that peace, like our boomerang lilac tree, will someday blossom into fragrant beauty.
The Buttry Center has invested much in the training of the participants of this TCTT. We have done so with the hope that as they return to their communities they will take what they have learned and use it to help transform conflicts so as to bring about greater justice and peace. Their communities await them, needing help to manage the conflicts that are pulling them apart. We send them home with our hopes and prayers.
Director of the Buttry Center
August 11, 2022