"Elusive Peace": enriching our multi-faith engagement and peacemaking processes

An increasing number of evangelicals and other Christians are interested in and involved in various forms of social justice, including peacemaking. This has never been an easy process, and the divisions, tensions, and conflicts of the 21st century make this even more difficult. Because of this the Christian peacemaker needs to have the best understanding and be equipped with the best tools in order to best deal with the challenges before them.

Douglas Noll provides us with perspectives that can deepen and enrich peacemaking by Christians. He discusses this in his book Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts (Prometheus Books, 2011). His basic thesis is set out early in the volume with the idea that we are using outdated understandings of human nature that inform ineffective approaches to diplomacy. This is perhaps best summarized in a paragraph in the first chapter.

One of the major assumptions of this view of international negotiation is that the “head of state” knows how to resolve conflicts. This implies that the head of state is an effective problem solver; knows how to build trust; understands the cognitive, affective, and motivational triangle of cognitive neuroscience; can manage high emotions; knows how to create a deep empathic connection with disagreeable people; has appropriately informed assumptions about human behavior; can effectively de-escalate people; and can close out a negotiation into an agreement that will work. My thesis is that most heads of state and ministers may be highly skilled politicians, but, as a class, they do not have even the most rudimentary of these conflict-resolution skills. They simply are not trained for it. Unfortunately, on the job experience does not suffice.

In Noll’s view, many professional diplomats are not sufficiently trained in the skills necessary to make them efficient in their task. This includes “conflict theory, behavioral economics, cognitive neuroscience, social psychology, and a host of other skills.” Over the course of eleven chapters Noll discusses these missing skills and connects them to theoretical and actual scenarios of conflict resolution to help the reader understand how the peacemaking process can be more effective.

A few of the items he discusses were of particular interest in my own ongoing research and practice of multi-faith engagement and peacemaking. This includes:

Cognitive biases: Rather than being objective, rational thinkers, the human reasoning process is always biased. In conflict negotiation Noll writes that “people are entrenched in cognitive and motivational biases that prevent them from listening to reason, from objectively evaluating evidence, from seeing other perspectives, from constructively problem solving, or from collaborating to find workable solutions.” Evangelicals working in diplomacy and peacemaking must account for cognitive bias in their own thinking as well as their conflict and conversation partners.

Social identity: Noll reminds us of the significance of social identity to our understanding of ourselves and its place in conflict resolution. He says, “Social identities regulate our behaviors as members of groups. These behaviors may include conformity, stereotyping members of out-groups, favoritism toward members of in-groups, and discrimination against members of out-groups.” In the late modern or postmodern period people maintain multiple social identities that must be taken into account as they influence the diplomatic process.

Fear and decision making: Related to the idea of cognitive bias is the need to recognize the significant role emotions play in our thinking processes, particularly the emotions of fear and anger. Noll states that “the emotions of fear and anger distort ‘rational’ decision making.” He provides examples for the U.S. where “fear led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, restriction of personal freedom, and the torture of captured ‘enemy combatants,’ to name a few misguided and expensive policies. Anger also led to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to covert operations around the world.” Evangelicals might reflect on how their fear and anger distorts perceptions of and interactions with adherents from other religious traditions, particularly those considered enemies.

Power of stories: In Noll’s view many mediators fail to draw upon storytelling, but he says there is a power in this. “Every person has stories to tell, and every human is attracted to the stories of others. Skilled mediators help the parties draw out their stories for all to hear. Storytelling, although simple, is very subtle.” Evangelical peacemakers need to tell the stories of churches and individuals involved in positive multi-faith engagement, and listen to the stories of others so that a foundation for understanding, relationships and conversations is provided.

Readers of a variety of religious or irreligious perspectives will benefit greatly from Nolls’ book. As an evangelical involved in multi-faith engagement and peacemaking, I found his discussion of the significance of neuroscience and conflict resolution skills very important for incorporation into Christian theology and practice.

John Morehead