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Spring 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 1 · pp. 117–20 

Book Review

From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to International Peacebuilding

Cynthia Sampson and J. P. Lederach. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 316 pages.

Reviewed by Larry A. Dunn

Reading From the Ground Up, even those most familiar with Mennonite peacemaking efforts will be impressed by this documentation of on-the-ground involvements compiled by contributing editors Cynthia Sampson and John Paul Lederach. Though covering only a relatively short time span, the significance of the accounts presented here cannot be overestimated, either for the field it represents or for the Mennonite tradition from which they have emerged.

Joseph Miller introduces the volume and traces the roots of the three entities which provide the institutional context for Mennonite peacebuilding: Mennonite Conciliation Service, International Conciliation Service, and Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). This is a lot of ground to cover, but it is done well, showing the interrelatedness of all three agencies as present-day manifestations of the historic yet constantly shifting Mennonite commitment to peace.

In the two other introductory chapters, Ron Kraybill and John Paul Lederach pick up where Miller leaves off by describing the personal pathways which led them to this work. The accounts they provide, rich with detail about overseas encounters and serendipitous circumstances which steered them more deeply into peacebuilding involvements, also allow them to reflect on themes which have become salient for each over the years.

Robert Herr and Judy Zimmerman Herr lead off the second section {118} with a reflection on the challenges of engaging the struggle over apartheid in South Africa. The complexity of the situation, combined with the difficulty of gaining access to the country (fewer than thirty Mennonite workers in more than twenty years), means that much of the chapter surveys South Africa’s shifting tide of conflict over three decades and is more limited in its discussion of Mennonite activity. Nonetheless, we get a good feel for both the intensity of the conflict and the practical dilemmas involved in pursuing justice, reconciliation, change, and healing in a violent context filled with ethical challenges.

Joseph Liechty makes an insightful contribution in describing twenty years of Mennonite involvement in “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland. He assesses Mennonite involvement there as important both practically and symbolically, linking the way in which peacemaking, carried out in the context of individual and collective relationships to Irish colleagues, is related to other Mennonite commitments such as that of community. Liechty sheds new light on old questions of “effectiveness vs. faithfulness” in settings where long-term results are infrequently seen. Ireland native Joseph Campbell’s subsequent chapter on his work with the Mediation Network addresses the important role Mennonites have played as outsiders, supporting and partnering with the efforts of local peacemakers.

Mark Chupp describes the broader context for MCC involvement in Central America in discussing various facets of the “Peace Portfolio Project” there. Chupp’s primary focus is on his assistance in the process of disarmament and demobilization in the years following U.S.-sponsored wars throughout the region. There he assisted with mediation, conflict resolution training, and the “accompaniment” of Nicaraguan peace commissions and individual peacemakers. His concluding reflections on being an outsider are contrasted with Colombian Ricardo Esquivia’s account of his peacemaking efforts in his own war-torn country. Describing the circumstances of his encounter with the Mennonite Church in Colombia, Esquivia speaks personally and passionately about the way in which his life is completely immersed in the conflict there. Having equally embraced Anabaptism, he describes Mennonite involvement in peace and human rights work as deeply rooted in his own personal experience and embodied in the activities of the organization Justapaz. Throughout, Esquivia combines vision, opportunity, and the urgent need to resist violence as giving direction to his work.

In his chapter on MCC efforts in Somalia, Lederach asserts the significance of pre-war programs (in health and education) and, more importantly, the relationships nurtured through them for establishing {119} new opportunities for peacebuilding. Lederach identifies six “tracks” of MCC involvement, ranging from its original relief and development work to in-country conciliation and disarmament efforts, again concluding with several principles which have guided past efforts and promise to provide direction for the future. His more analytical chapter is nicely complimented by one of only two contributions by women in this section. In chapter ten, Bonnie Bergey gives vitality to MCC’s role in Somalia by documenting the circumstances of her work and life there and in recounting her ability to pursue meaningful involvement while making sense of the chaos of bullets around her. Never quite clear about what precise peacebuilding role she was playing, Bergey’s approach admittedly has the appearance of being without direction. However, the reader comes away with an appreciation for the necessity for peacemakers to carefully and cautiously navigate the ever-shifting terrain of opening and closing pathways, both small and large. For these lend themselves to appropriate peacebuilding by both insiders and outsiders.

In another account from the African continent, Barry Hart describes his participation with a trauma-healing and reconciliation team in post-war Liberia, an increasingly necessary role which was then on the cutting edge of international peacebuilding efforts. Of the nine, Hart’s chapter works most extensively at integrating the theory and practice related to intervention models, methodologies, and other concepts having to do with the analysis and understanding of peace related work. This makes it a slightly more academic approach but still maintains its feel as a personal narrative.

Kathleen Kern’s chapter on “The CPT Experiment” serves as the final on-the-ground account by an active peacemaker. While Kern locates the CPT approach within the spectrum of wider peacebuilding efforts presented in the volume, she clearly distinguishes it as an activist model intended to place the organization and its practitioners alongside “victims of institutionalized violence.” However, similarities come through as she notes the mundane nature of much of the work and the extensive range of everyday activities necessary for establishing the foundation for any kind of sustainable peacebuilding efforts. As with the other stories, the more compelling nature of CPT’s work becomes evident as she recounts various interventions confronting situations of potential or real violence in Haiti and Hebron. Understandably, given its more tenuous acceptance within the Mennonite world among other peacemaking approaches, Kern seems more eager than others to provide the rationale behind CPT’s efforts and to document both its effectiveness and rightness as a viable peacemaking action. {120}

The concluding section is taken up by three persons outside of, but familiar with, Mennonite peacemaking. Sally Engle Merry provides a “cultural analysis” intended to “describe the fundamental concepts and practices embedded in Mennonite peacebuilding as revealed in the accounts” of the book. In his chapter, Christopher Mitchell locates Mennonite efforts in the larger scope of international peacebuilding involvement, comparing and contrasting Mennonite “models” with “track two” approaches. Finally, Marc Gopin assesses the “religious component” of Mennonite peacemaking, identifying several themes and critical issues that challenge Mennonite efforts as well as the general field of conflict resolution. These three chapters, and Sampson’s concluding assessment, provide a helpful lens through which to examine past, present and future Mennonite involvements in international peacebuilding, frequently naming those things taken for granted by, and hidden to, Mennonite peacemakers. Including this section in the volume is not only a useful exercise for the student and reflective practitioner, but also for those taking seriously the emerging and ever-changing role facing those within the Mennonite church who are committed to meeting the challenge of transforming violence in all its forms in the new millennium.

Whether seen by the reader as an introduction to, or a more careful analysis of, Mennonite peacemaking efforts, the rich accounts and insights provided in this volume establish the emerging contribution of Mennonites in international conflict settings. Though not absent of local actors’ accounts, this book does not give adequate voice to those who often find themselves at the center of violent conflicts. Unfortunately, continued conflicts around the world may provide that opportunity, and those who have read this book will not be surprised to find Mennonites there on the front lines of peacebuilding efforts.

Larry A. Dunn
Faculty, Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies
Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, California

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