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Interview: Sue Haslehurst, mediator, trainer

22 December 2023

‘There are non-violent ways of standing up for what’s right and trying to make peace’

At this time of year, we talk about Jesus as the Prince of Peace. But Christians understand this differently. Some argue that the violence of war is justifiable as an unfortunate necessity on the way to justice, though I believe that’s a difficult case to make today, with weapons that cause mass carnage.

Most Mennonites would not take part in war,
because of Jesus’s teaching about loving our enemies, and would probably say that war is never effective as a way of bringing peace: you just sow seeds of further violence.

I think there are non-violent ways of standing up for what’s right and trying to make peace.
If that doesn’t seem to be effective, it’s in God’s hands. There’s an Anabaptist word, Gelassenheit: the idea is that I’ll do everything I can do for justice, but I’ll leave it in God’s hands how that plays out.

I first encountered mediation 20 years ago,
when attending training offered by Bridge Builders — which grew out of the London Mennonite Centre and their sense of call to peacemaking and reconciliation. Mennonites are a historic peace Church.

I saw how, with a clear structure and someone to guide them,
people with different perspectives and apparently different goals — church leaders and members — are able to speak and listen carefully to each other, and build mutual understanding.

Bridge Builders is now an independent charity.
It offers training, often commissioned by churches, regional teams, or ministerial training programmes, as well as consultancy and mediation. Our goal is to equip people to approach difference creatively and generously, showing the world a Christian way to deal with our disagreements, tensions, and conflict. We run a certain number of open courses each year for anyone to sign up to, and there’s a richness in that, because you get people from all the different church traditions, or other faith-based community and charity projects, working alongside each other.

In mediation, we use a tried and tested process
to create space for people to understand each other and find their own way forward. Training to take people through that structure is important, as is space to think about the values, ethics, and limitations of mediation. But anyone who’s willing to listen calmly and remain connected to both sides can make a positive difference.

Mediation doesn’t always work out.
But it can be magical when people suddenly see each other not as monsters, but as humans, reach a little bit of common ground, and find a way forward.

Conflict is a sign that people care.
I mentioned that in one mediation, and it was a light-bulb moment for one person. It’s when people care that they’ll invest energy in disagreeing.

It’s then a case of spotting some common ground.
Two people can shout at each other from the tips of adjacent icebergs: “Contemporary music!” “Traditional hymns!” If you look below the waterline, you see that both want to worship God, and invite people who are important to them into the life of the church. It’s about human needs of mattering, belonging, connecting, and having a safe home for friends and family.

Fear and anxiety drive patterns of behaviour in groups.
It’s an anxious time for the Churches, the world, society; and anxiety can focus in places where it can get a bit of traction, such as worship style, leaders, relationships. Sometimes, the pressure to find answers and put things right encourages a culture where you rush straight from nought to 60 without an informal conversation. Matthew 5.23-24 says that if someone has something against you, first go and sort it out, one to one; and Matthew 18.15 is the mirror image of this. How you live out the call of the gospel when there are so many competing pressures is very tough.

In the Bridge Builders’ model of mediation, there’s often an agreement
— made in good faith, not as a legal document; but our main goal is to increase understanding and reconciliation. Some of these approaches were in the Radio 4 series Across the Red Line (Radio, 9 July 2021), exploring why things matter to those involved, sometimes inviting participants to summarise what they’ve heard from the other.

In conflict, it’s tempting to assume the worst of each other:
“They’re doing that deliberately to wind me up.” In mediation, people can explain and hear the impact of each other’s actions, and understand the routines and pressures behind behaviour.

Digging beneath the surface to understand the needs,
vulnerabilities, and hopes expressed as strident demands above the surface can unstick things and encourage creative ideas for ways forward. Ultimately, it’s always about the willingness of people to speak honestly for themselves, listen generously, and change their mind and/or their behaviour.

It’s often hard just to get people in a room together.
When they do come together, the early stages can be challenging for everyone: a bit like having to swim out through the surf and breakers as you enter the sea, before you get out to calmer waters.

I’m surprised and moved when people have the humility and courage to listen carefully to the other,
and to look at their own contribution to a difficulty — and when they are willing to start thinking the best of each other, and change the direction of the relationship. These are the “magic moments” of mediation, but they ask a lot of the participants, and are not guaranteed.

I remember two neighbours who had both complained about each other to their housing officer, and met for mediation.
When they left, one offered the other a lift home. And I’ve seen a group-conflict transformed, as the congregation recognised their repeating pattern of dealing with times of disagreement and tension by splitting.

I had a sense of God from an early age,
though not a numinous sense — more along the lines of a police officer, though I loved the Christmas story, and carols sung in country churches, and I was intrigued and puzzled by Easter.

I chose to be confirmed as a teenager,
and attended church for some years; but faith became more real for me as a student, and now I can’t really imagine life or the world without God. That can be both comforting and uncomfortable: now it matters how I live.

Like Bridge Builders, Wood Green Mennonite Church grew out of the London Mennonite Centre.
We tried, sometimes falteringly, to live out a shared commitment to justice, peace, and joy, to working out how to be disciples and grapple with difficult questions. I was one of several elders, and the only paid one. I left in 2013 to move for my husband’s study and work, and now belong to a Baptist church. The Wood Green congregation closed in March 2016, but there’s an extensive archive of sermons online [at wgmc.wordpress.com].

Someone who’s unable or unwilling to see how they have contributed to difficulties in a relationship makes me angry,
because this lets them off the hook of recognising the choice they have about how to behave in future. But I know I do this, too.

Family gatherings,
a long day’s walking, catching up with close friends, make me happiest.

I love the wildness of the call of a curlew,
and knowing that, at least for now, some survive in spite of what we are doing to the earth.

There are good people of all generations
who pay a personal price to be kind, to be activists and leaders, to nurture nature and reach across divides. That gives me hope.

As I listen to the news
— or turn away, unable to bear it — I’ll pray: “Lord, have mercy.” I pray for my extended family, and that each generation would happily outlive their parents, and die “in the right order”.

I never met my grandfather on my father’s side,
and would love to hear more about his life, if I had to be locked in a church with someone. His parents were first-generation Jewish immigrants to Edinburgh. Or maybe Jacinda Ardern, who seemed to have the gift of leading, reaching out to those traumatised by the 2019 mosque bombings, and working hard to keep people together and resist divisive language.

Sue Haselhurst was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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