Waging Peace – A Post-Conflict Forgiveness and Reconciliation Model for Religious Conflicts
Waging Peace – A Post-Conflict Forgiveness and Reconciliation Model for Religious Conflicts
Darrell Puls, PhD
Peacebridge Ministries, Richland, WA
Religious conflicts are the most intractable conflicts, and religion plays a leading role in most armed conflicts of the
There are two primary types of conflicts where religion plays a major role:
1. Those conflicts where religion is used as a mask justifying violence while hiding true motives. These
conflicts are tractable and are by far the most common.
2. Those conflicts that truly have religious foundations and are based on religious dogmatics and doctrine.
These conflicts are mostly intractable, meaning the dogmas at play are in opposition and nonnegotiable.
These conflicts are also much less common than is generally thought.
"There's nothing going on there but a lot of noise." Martin Lagronsky
True religious conflicts are marked by a number of factors:
1. The parties cannot talk to each other in a rational way – it’s just a lot of noise.
2. Dehumanization is deep enough that each side sees all of the other sides as less than human.
3. The other side must be forced to capitulate – or be annihilated.
4. Each side sees the other side(s) as evil (wrong) and itself as good (right).
5. Compromise is intolerable.
North American Religious Conflicts are Most Often Centered in Churches
Of 400,000+ churches in North America, 80,000 are experiencing internal conflict today.
While positive outcomes were reported, the negatives were more prevalent: damaged relationships
(68%), sadness (58%), declines in attendance (32%), and leaders leaving the church (32%).
Normative Interventions do not bring forgiveness or reconciliation.
Without healthy forgiveness and reconciliation, the conflict lives on in the woundedness of the people.
Individual forgiveness is a decision or sequence of decisions to release internal feelings of anger, resentment, fear,
and the desire for revenge against someone who has harmed us, whether they deserve forgiveness or not. It
acknowledges that what happened was real and undeserved; forgiving does not necessarily mean pardon, though
that is an option; and forgiveness does not forgo justice, though the process of forgiving tends to make justice fluid
and highly creative.
Corporate forgiveness is a process that joins moral truth, mercy, compassion, and commitment to repair torn
relationships by intentionally release feelings of anger, resentment, pain, and the desire for revenge. The process
requires a truthful examination and turning from the past that neither ignores past wrongs or excuses them, that
neither overlooks justice nor reduces justice to revenge, that insists on the humanity of opponents even in their
commissioning of inhuman deeds, that values justice that restores above justice that destroys, and that restores
trust through merciful justice and mutual restoration.
There is no way to peace. Peace is the way. There is no path toward love except by practicing
love. War will always produce more war. Violence can never bring about true peace.
~ Richard Rohr, 1999.
Crucible: A container in which metal ore and other elements are subjected to high pressure and heat, resulting
in the refining of pure metals by separating them from dross materials.
This process assumes that a significant portion of the groups or congregation desires healing from the conflict and
is willing to devote an appropriate amount of time and energy to the process. This process further assumes that a
competent Peacemaker experienced in group conflict resolution processes has worked with the conflicted
congregation and leadership for sufficient time to have:
interviewed a statistically significant portion of conflict participants from each major group;
o This is not about the conflict per se; it seeks to understand how they have wounded each
other and the depth of those wounds by describing their physical and emotional symptoms:
anger, depression, digestive issues, fear, headaches, sleep problems, etc. You need a
o You also need to know their intentions if this intervention fails and if it succeeds.
2. analyzed and understand the conflict behaviors;
3. intervened directly in the conflict as a neutral (if possible);
The process neither precludes nor requires prior settlement of the issues, although prior settlement is preferred.
The process may uncover unanswered issues that require further negotiations and modification of prior
The preferred space is one large enough to place all participants in a circle or series of concentric circles so they
can see each other as much as possible. The room is moderately lit, but subdued. At circle center is a table
adorned with a tablecloth, a large candle, as many smaller candles as there are groups in the conflict, their holy
text, and (in Christian settings) communion elements in their customary form for this group. Items may be added
or deleted, depending on the desires of the leaders and as appropriate for their religious praxis.
Liturgical banners emphasizing peace and unity may be placed around the room if desired.
The mood is quiet and meditative with non-obtrusive music in the background.
Staff, elected, and lay leaders must attend (they will be conspicuous by their absence). Prior agreement to attend,
participate, and support the process should be reached (if possible) between the leaders of the various conflict
factions prior to the actual process. In those cases where faction leaders have decided to end their relationship
with the church, an invitation to participate should be extended to them. In most cases, it is not possible to require
attendance. An invitation should be made to all who desire healing from the conflict, the repair of wounded
relationships, and a new path to the future. The assumption is that those who attend will form the core of healing
that will be carried throughout the congregation.
Processional and Opening
The church leaders enter in a processional. The ceremonial entrance lends gravitas to the proceedings. The
entrance style should be determined by the participants and may include liturgical banners, symbolic candles, etc.
The Peacemaker should be at the end of the processional to show authority and unity in the leadership.
All participants stand and join hands as the senior pastor or other major authority figure as appropriate for the
circumstances. (I will use “pastor” for this paper) The pastor assumes leadership by opening in prayer, asking
simply for God to join the participants as they seek healing and renewed relationships. Everyone sits.
The pastor lays out the plan for the time together. The leadership and key conflict group leaders ask for everyone
to participate actively.
The senior pastor introduces the Peacemaker, thus passing power and authority. The Peacemaker assumes the
role of the wise and caring outside healer. He or she briefly explains the religious and empirical reasons for
forgiving (see below). This includes information as to what forgiving really means and dispels the various myths
and objections that people may hold about forgiving. He or she also includes clear information about the
consequences of unforgiveness on both individual and congregational levels.
The Crucible is designed to show the commonalities between the factions in how they reacted to the conflict,
which starts the rehumanization process and allows empathy to enter into them. The Peacemaker is now in charge
and moves about the inner circle.
The Peacemaker describes:
the results of the conflict, but does not ascribe blame;
behaviors that hurt people, but without identifying details;
the various physical and emotional manifestations of the conflict felt by the congregants, e.g.,
headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, anxiety, fear, digestive problems, hurt, grief, etc.;
the woundedness of relationships and the confusion and fear that occurred when friends turned on
the economic impact on the church from the conflict and the general estrangement that has
enveloped the congregation; and,
the likely outcomes for the individuals and group if the conflict is not healed.
The Peacemaker prays once again for the spirit of God to enter the room and hold each participant close as they
begin the journey to healing.
The Peacemaker describes the process for the remaining time. The ground rules are stated and each participant is
given a copy. The following is an example:
We will only describe our own experience.
We will not accuse or attack others, no matter how strongly we feel about what they have done.
We will speak in ways that draw us together.
We will listen for understanding, trying to place ourselves in the other person’s shoes.
We will not assume that we know what other persons intended by their deeds or words.
We will ask questions to clarify, not accuse.
We will earnestly seek Gods guidance.
The Peacemaker then explains that it will be a time to:
Examine what each has done that may have made things worse and hurt others (Mt. 7:3, Luke 6:41).
Describe how the conflict has damaged relationships and wounded the people.
Own and say what each has done and pray for each other so that they may be healed (Jas. 5:16).
Listen deeply for how they may have hurt others.
Express sorrow at the conflict in general and what it has cost each in terms of personal pain and
Express sorrow for how each action contributed to the woundedness of all.
Express one’s own woundedness.
Describe how the conflict has changed them, what they have learned, and how they will behave in
the future (2 Cor. 7:10-11).
Seek ways to repair relationships by making amends (Mt. 5:23-24).
In order to use a crucible, one must first have the container, fuel, oxygen, and raw materials. The Crucible process
provides all of these.
Why forgive? is the first and often greatest obstacle. While some argue for all sorts of ethical and moral
reasons, most people respond much better to personal benefits, which include:
A. forgiveness has psychological healing properties for both forgiver and forgiven; forgiving can result in
psychological healing and improved mental health; higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of
anxiety and depression; death anxiety was significantly lessened in elderly people; ” adolescents
experiencing divorce experienced statistically significant greater hope and decreased anxiety; a
significant reduction in anxiety, anger, and grief following abortion; making amends (apology) was useful
in ending feelings of self-blame, thus promoting recovery from bereavement; forgiving “decreased levels
of anger and hostility, increased feelings of love, improved ability to control anger, enhanced capacity to
trust, and freedom from the subtle control of individuals and events from the past;” inpatient
adolescent drug abusers had significantly more improvement in “total trait anger, depression, total and
trait anxiety, self-esteem, forgiveness and vulnerability to drug abuse;”
There is a strong positive correlation between the role of forgiveness and physical health: forgiveness
served as a buffer against stress in a study of traumatic stress and forgiveness in post-9/11 New Yorkers;
cardiovascular health is proved; men effectively reduced their hostility by learning to become more
forgiving; forgiving resulted in lowered blood pressure; and there is “. . . greater synchronization of
immunological and cardiovascular functioning.”
The past . . . has an embarrassing and persistent way of returning and haunting us unless it has in fact been dealt
with adequately. Unless we look the beast in the eye we find it has an uncanny habit of returning to hold us
hostage.” Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness, 28.
The Acrostic: T.R.U.T.H.
If we do not remember and examine the past honestly, there is nothing to forgive and no reason to seek
forgiveness. However, this examination must be done very carefully. We seek to arouse empathy between the
parties, are many are afraid that revisiting the past will just bring more pain. Revisiting that past and its pain is the
portal to healing.
Simply ask the participants to examine silently for 3-4 minutes what they did, said, thought—or did not do—that
may have made things worse in some way. Have them write it down and place the folded papers in a basket on the
center table. All of this is done silently. This begins the process of self-examination.
The Peacemaker controls the process by enforcing the ground rules. No one is allowed to challenge the statements
of others, e.g., “That’s not all you did!”
We do not use the term “confess” as some will rebel automatically. To confess is to make admissions against one’s
own interest by taking ownership of an action that injured another or was morally wrong. While wrongdoing is
usually associated with such actions, this may not be the case in that the action may have been damaging but also
well-intentioned and neither morally nor legally wrong. The key is that the action injured another in some way and
that the actor is taking ownership and acknowledging both the act and injury, validating what happened.
The effect of confession and its voluntary vulnerability both strengthens and validates the confession itself in the
eyes of the victim, thus increasing empathy and easing the process of forgiveness. Acknowledgement of
wrongdoing may be sufficient grounds for forgiveness if one empathically understands the world of the offender
and it improves how the confessors are seen by others.
Simplicity works best. We simply ask for verbal statements of “I did this. . .” NO REASONS! In not giving reasons we
avoid the temptation to give excuses blaming others for what we have done.
Group memories are always distorted in favor of the member group and against the opponent group. That is why
we focus only on actions and thoughts of the individual. It is also why we have them make simple ownership
statements of “I did this…”
Telling truths against the confessors’ interests, appears to be the single most important factor in confession, what
Graybil terms “redemptive memory”, noting that in order to forgive, one “must know what and whom one is
forgiving; hence, remembering that past is vital” (Emphasis in original). This simple truth-telling must be
perceived as authentic. Both victims and offenders distort their memories in self-serving ways through
exaggeration Offenders are more likely than victims to emphasize details that minimize their actions, but
conversely, victims are more likely to exaggerate the severity of the event and its impact. Interventions that
reduce attributions of responsibility for the conflict while at the same time finding ways of mitigating the damage
will be more successful than those interventions that focus on one or the other.
Offenders who are seen as not having stated the full truth give their victims good multiple reasons not to forgive.
The failure to make the human connection through confession simply adds insult to injury. Though knowing the
truth and truth-telling do not imply a promise of forgiveness, it clears the way for the victim to “go on with his or
her life” as it “redefines one’s trauma into language that can be understood.”
Conversely, when victims feel that truth has been buried, they are more likely to engage in retribution and
revenge. Without truth, then, confession is hollow and may escalate tensions rather than de-escalate them.
Bar-Tal states that collective memory has several characteristics: (1) it is shared by the group and seen as an
accurate depiction of the past; (2) it tends to be biased, selective and distorted; (3) it is a unique, distinct and
exclusive telling of the groups past; (4) it is used to justify societal actions in the past, present and future; and (5) it
serves to form, maintain and strengthen social identity. In changing collective memory, “The new narrative
emerges through negotiation in which the owned past is critically revised and synchronized with the past of the
We have now reached the heart of forgiveness: locating and expressing remorse at how we have been injured and
how we have injured others.
Again, it is a matter of carefully orchestrated statements. In Christian settings, I ask them to pray for the healing
and well-being of their enemies for about 3 minutes. I then ask, “Who prayed for you?” The cognitive dissonance is
jarring. They have only thought of the “others” as enemy; things brings home the reality of how they have acted,
and been perceived, in the same ways—they, too, have been seen and feared as “enemies.”
Stating, without blaming, how they have been physically, emotionally, and spiritually wounded during the
fight reaches across the room and people begin to understand the depth of the wounds they have
received and inflicted.
They will now locate and express their sorrow at how they have wounded others.
Activity: The participants are asked to meditate 3-5 minutes on their own woundedness and how they feel about
how their actions affected others. Participants may identify specific individuals and their feelings about how they
have wounded others by writing them on a piece of paper (provided).
By prior agreement, faction leaders state their regrets at having hurt their friends, identifying specific individuals if
they wish. Others are encouraged to follow.
Strong emotion is expected during this phase, but reassuring them that this is positive will allow former
combatants to begin comforting each other as they begin to mutually see the destruction they have created and as
they express their regrets through apology.
Closing: The Peacemaker gives thanks to God for the courage the people have shown in expressing their own
woundedness and need for forgiveness. He or she prays for godly forgiveness and asks for human forgiveness
throughout the room.
Major Break (30-60 minutes): The participants will need time to decompress. Food and drink should be provided.
It is expected that the apology process will continue throughout the break as people begin to reconnect and repair
their relationships. Others, not yet ready to forgive, will also probably There are two parts of this stage:
There exists a very strong relationship between confession, remorse, and empathy leading to forgiveness.
McCullough states, “Sincere expressions of remorse might be the most potent factors under the offender’s control
for influencing the likelihood that an offended relationship partner will forgive the offender.” An apology by its
very nature cannot stand alone—it requires at least two people, the offender and the offended. Further, he says
that apology is a three-part act: (1) naming the offense, (2) the apology itself with a centerpiece of sorrow and
regret, and (3) the response of the injured party. Tavuchis offers that apology has “thaumaturgical” (miraculous)
properties in that it is a “self-abnegating act of speech” that may result in forgiveness of terrible debt.
Self-abnegating speech is tied to a sense of honor as well as the concept of “face.” Augsburger states, “Dishonor is
a loss of face in the community, a loss of self before the ideal of being human.” Facilitated dialogue can address
face concerns by operating within a dialectic of politeness. In this vein, facilitators generally control dialogic
processes by establishing speech norms through basic ground rules that foster civility. Katz argues that fostering
politeness during conflict in turn fosters increased collaborative language, resulting in lowered tensions.
Gobodo-Madikezela states, “Naming the deed, owning up to responsibility without any rationalization, clarifying
what was involved, and showing regret allow victims to process their emotions about their trauma.” The very
nature of apology, by dropping all defenses, results in a loss of face as a form of public humiliation, but the process
of relinquishing honor restores it. This loss of face by the offender fosters empathy in the victim. However,
maintaining various defenses to save face while apologizing not only negates the apology but creates a conundrum
where the act of trying to save face results in deeper face loss than if no defense were mounted in the first place,
and without an increase in empathy towards the offender.
This section is upbeat and positive. The Peacemaker thanks and congratulates the participants on their courage
and hard work, but cautions them that they are not done. He or she describes the next section as one of describing
what they have learned and how they can change for the better when conflict next arises. It is a time for
commitment to change as they become transformed by the renewing of the mind through the Holy Spirit (Rom:
12:103). He or she then prays for the continued transformation of the people in the room from what they are to
what they can be.
How does one rebuild broken trust? By acting in a trustworthy manner over a period of time.
Strong conflict changes us – we cannot come through it unscathed and unscarred. In the pain of learning how we
have been seen by other and how we have hurt both them and ourselves, it becomes possible to change. We
“learn a lesson,” and we change.
Once again, this is a solitary act, one of stating lessons learned and commitments to behave in different ways made
before the entire group. Making these commitments before enemies and friends alike holds one accountable.
Activity: a 5-10 minute meditation focusing on how the Lord wishes them to act the next time they find themselves
in conflict, with a resolution to change in a godly way by imitating Christ (Eph. 1:17-19), and how they have already
changed in their actions.
Reconvene: By prior agreement, faction leaders describe the lessons they have learned and how they have
changed or will change their behaviors in the future. They announce previously negotiated behavioral protocols
that will help them avoid future conflict. Participants are then asked to describe ways that their new
understandings of the impact of the conflict have changed them for the better, with commitments for future
The Relationship of Mercy and Justice
The senior pastor resumes the leadership position. The pastor, with prior consultation with the Peacemaker,
describes both justice and mercy. The Peacemaker remains present to assist, but control has clearly transferred
back to the senior pastor.
Justice finds everyone guilty, and requires them to make things right again. Justice requires everyone to be open to
whatever is necessary to repair wounded relationships. Mercy says, “I forgive you. Let us work together for the
future.” Mercy requires finding ways of rebuilding trust between persons and groups.
The pastor describes the following activity as one of changing the focus away from the past towards the future.
Individuals are to seek out those they have hurt, asking what they can do to make things right between them, and
committing to making things right. Since everyone is guilty, the focus must be on the future and reaching
understandings and specific agreements with each other on how to build that future together.
The human condition dictates a desire for revenge when wronged, as revenge is informed by anger. Anger
demands strict justice, and strict justice demands that the penalty be equal to the crime. The desire to inflict at
least as much pain as that which was received is normal human behavior. However, healing requires telling the
truth, even this painful truth. To deny a desire for vengeance is to practice hollow love that leads not to
reconciliation but to repressed bitterness and hatred. It is difficult to forego vengeance, yet Jesus told his
followers to not only forego revenge or even repay evil equally, but to endure ill treatment by stepping beyond
ones’ normal comfort zone in what many would term as assisting the enemy (Mt. 5:43-48).
The contextuality of justice is biblically acknowledged when believers are required to administer justice with
mercy: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one
another.’” (Zec. 7:9, cf Mt. 18:33, Lk 10:36-38). Mercy melds with justice, making a more slippery concept that is
open to creativity and nuance.
Therefore, love informs justice through mercy. Justice says, “I must punish you in equal measure to what you
did.” Mercy says, “I value you above what I have lost; I value our relationship above what you took from me. I
forgive you.” Thus, justice and mercy are no longer separate but combined into an intimate relationship which
some have described by paraphrasing the Psalmist to say, “[J]ustice and mercy have kissed” (Ps. 85:10). In this
intimacy is a dance of opposites coming together to create a restoring love, whereas justice without mercy is a
return to the law of revenge, and mercy without justice fails to restore. Justice when mixed with mercy becomes a
dynamic, even fluid, process whose direction one cannot predict but whose outcome will probably be both
creative and beneficial. As Volf states, “If we see human beings as children of the one God, created by God to
belong all together as a community of love, then there will be good reasons to let embrace—love—define what
How: After describing justice and mercy, how everyone has been tried and found guilty, we all find ourselves
craving for mercy that we know we do not deserve. After another short preparatory prayer or meditation, the
pastor asks each participant to approach those whom he or she has seen as enemies, to apologize, and to ask this
one question: “What can I do to make this right between us?” The most common answer? “You just did it.”
Ending: The senior pastor and staff pastors reconvene the group. Each person ceremonially destroys the pieces of
paper with their confessions of wrongdoing and their emotions of regret and sorrow written on them. They sing an
appropriate song, and communion is served in a manner appropriate to the congregation and the specific
situation. It is suggested that the participants serve each other as a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation
Postlude: A Celebration
The congregation joins in a celebration of reunification.
NOTE: It is possible that follow-up sessions may be desirable to assist the congregational leaders during the
ensuing six months as they examine and act on any structural / policy / procedural issues recommended by the
It is also possible that various groups within the congregation may wish to go through the process as specific
subgroups, and between specific groups, e.g. Board of Elders and Board of Deacons.
This paper is a short synopsis of the background research and process described in the book, The Road Home: A
guided Journey to Church Forgiveness and Reconciliation (Cascade Books, 2013) by Darrell Puls.
For clarification, more information, or just to talk,:
Darrell Puls, PhD
1153 Gage Blvd.
Richland, WA 99352
Office: 509-627-1109 ext. 109
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