17 Pieces of Peace

The Mennonite Church has often been stylized as an historical peace church, Dr. James Jakob Fehr say

When I was a child, I thought like a child. When I was a hippie, I thought like a hippie: Why can’t everyone live in peace? Growing up was painful. I learnt that when you bump into sharp objects, it hurts. And I learnt that when you bump up against other people, they sometimes have sharp edges.

The Mennonite Church has often been stylized as an “historical peace church”. And yet we too quarrel amongst ourselves. How reassuring it would be to believe that conflict exists “out there” in the world, whereas we enjoy the blessings and comforts of harmonious faithful living in our peace communities. How reassuring, how naive. Community life is full of great joys and surprises. It is full of laughter and wonder. It supplies friendship, emotional support, meaningful work, intellectual challenges, divine inspiration. But you cannot live in community without difficulties, duties, rules, restrictions and – dare I say it? – personalities.

When we confess that our faith community is the foretaste of the ultimate Kingdom of God, why does it sometimes have a bitter flavour? Are we missing the right ingredients? Perhaps we should simply gloss everything over with sugar. But no. There is a more honest, life-affirming and godly approach that has taken hold in some of our Mennonite communities. One example among many is the work of Bridge-Builders at London Mennonite Centre, which offers courses on conflict transformation in various churches in England. We begin by confessing that we are conflictual and prejudiced, but that this situation is not in itself evil. It depends on how we deal with it. When we react to dispute with gossip, when we react to divisions by building alliances, the seeds of greater strife have been sown. But when members of a community are able to speak their mind directly to one another and are prepared to hear what their “enemies” have to say, a great deal has been won. It is an important starting point. Without such communication, the community cannot proceed on the way to forgiveness and healing.

A good friend of mine recently confessed to me his dissatisfaction with the attribution “peace church” for the Mennonites. He has witnessed so many unresolved disputes among us that he would prefer we set aside this appellation for a few decades. We have not arrived at a place of peace.

I do not claim to have the solution for this disarray. But I will make two observations that are equally true for any efforts at achieving peace on the larger political stage. First, we adopt the individualist spirit of our age all too often and leave the broken potsherds at the feet of the warring parties. We set aside an essential element of our humanity: that we are responsible for each other. The work of peace is seldom possible without a third party who is disinterested and yet keenly interested in achieving reconciliation. Second, we need to be clear about goals. There is no place of peace. In a broken, displaced world, peace should not be idealised as a enduring state. Peace is like all goodness in the world ephemeral. It consists of discrete deeds of reconciliation in a warring world. Our community may never be “peaceful”, yet it lives in its peaceful deeds.

I once purchased a clay sculpture of four figures with their arms flung around each other. Three minutes after I bought it, it shattered into 17 pieces. The patient work of gluing it back together was an exercise in rebuilding; the sculpture with its visible cracks has become a symbol of peace.

James (Jakob) Fehr is the newly appointed Director of the German Mennonite Peace Centre. He has served as an academic researcher and a Pastor in the Mennonite Church in Germany (AMG)
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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.