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How to achieve peace when it seems impossible? Try rethinking conflict

How to achieve peace when it seems impossible? Try rethinking conflict

Evening in Jerusalem

Inclusivity Missions and Outreach

Human history is replete with conflicts that seemed impossible to resolve. Hatred, history, and distrust are at the core of most disputes.

The only hope to achieve peace and unity is if both sides make an honest and sustained effort to understand the other. It takes time, patience, and an earnest desire to break that cycle of hate.

It also takes more than government leaders to eyeball each other across a table. It takes individuals willing to engage. It takes the church.

It takes all involved to seek ways to rethink conflict.

That was the impetus behind a recent trip by 12 members of The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church to Israel and Palestine as part of the Marcy Cohort program. They spent more than a week learning from key leaders and cultural influencers involved in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

But it was more than just studying unrest in a far-off land.

Members of the Marcy Cohort team arrive in Tel Aviv (photos courtesy of Rev. Magrey deVega)

“Though the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is set in its own cultural context, it was clear to us how their disputes over land, religion, and identity apply to the growing ideological divides in our own country, particularly in the area of racism and our legacy of slavery,” said Rev. Magrey deVega, Senior Pastor at Tampa’s Hyde Park UMC.

“The most inspiring moments, then, came from grassroots agencies working to foster mutual understanding, empathy, and an affirmation of human dignity between Israelis and Palestinians, as a model for how we in the church might nurture similar conversations in our contexts.”

A different approach to achieving peace

Rethinking conflict is the brainchild of the Rev. Dr. Gary Mason. He is a longtime United Methodist pastor in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The people there lived through a civil war between Catholics and Protestants that lasted more than 40 years, resulting in death, destruction, and a belief by many that peace was unachievable.

Rev. Dr. Mason, however, refused to give in to that. He spent more than 30 years on the front lines of trouble, working for peace, conflict resolution, and transformation. He was instrumental in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that ended most of the violence.

If peace could be achieved there, why not use similar methods in other seemingly hopeless situations?

“I’m looking at lessons from the Irish peace process, some of them relative through a religious framework, a political framework, a psychological framework, at some other trouble spots within the world,” he said.

In 2015, Rev. Dr. Mason formed a nonprofit known as Rethinking Conflict.

Rev. Clarke Campbell-Evans, the Director of Missional Engagement for The Florida Conference, became acquainted with him through a program designed to help pastors address high-profile issues such as public the mass killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the Pulse nightclub, white supremacists, and the death of Trayvon Martin.

“How do you address the topic of racial reconciliation and develop partnership across racial lines and introduce people to Jesus’ love for the world,” he said. “Where is the voice of the church to speak up?”

That preaching program was funded by the Susan H. & Wilbur H. Marcy Trust, founded in 1979 to benefit the Florida Conference, First UMC in Winter Park, and Emory University.

But as other programs emerged to duplicate the preaching mission, then-Bishop Ken Carter asked if money from the trust could help fund Florida clergy and laity learn to rethink conflict.

That was the impetus for the trip to Israel and Palestine. It was life-changing for those involved, and they can share what they heard and saw with congregations that may not fully understand what’s at stake.

A long, troubled history

Israel was born as a nation in 1948, quickly triggering the first Arab-Israeli War. After Israel won a year later, 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from what had been their homeland.

Sunset over the Meditteran Sea

The question of Palestinian self-rule remains unresolved through multiple clashes and battles over the years.

Mistrust abounds on both sides. Polls show that 85% of Israeli citizens mistrust Palestinians, and 86% of Palestinians mistrust Israelis.

“Most of our time was spent analyzing the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians from sociological, political, and religious perspectives,” Rev. deVega said. “We met with over two dozen individuals and agencies, from high-ranking government officials, to academic and religious authorities, to persons working on peacemaking initiatives.

“We heard many heartbreaking stories from Palestinians. We toured a Palestinian refugee camp and saw the substandard living conditions imposed on them by an ineffective Palestinian authority and increasing Israeli occupation. We heard about the misery of traveling between cities, even within the West Bank, due to the preponderance of security
checkpoints and the growing number of occupation walls.”

The Israelis, meanwhile, say they live under the constant threat of attack.

“We heard about their fear of missile attacks and waves of violence, with memories of the first and second Intifadas (the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip} still fresh in their minds,” he said.

“Both groups are suffering ongoing trauma, with very little hope of structural peace in the intermediate future, due to the dysfunction of both governments.”

Rev. Cambell-Evans is blunt about the situation. 

“It was definitely an eye-opening and challenging trip for me,” he said. “We met this rabbi in Israel. He and a Palestinian man have built a relationship that honors the history, the pain, and the violence they have both experienced.

The Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust Museum. Thousands of lights symbolize the 1.5 million children who were murdered, and are the only illumination throughout a walk in the darkness, as each child’s name is spoken aloud.

“The prospects for peace at the moment are dim. Things have gotten worse recently. “Israel needs security, but it’s also true the Palestinians need a homeland. Israelis remember when six million people died during the Holocaust, and they fear they’ll wind up in the gas chamber if they’re not in charge. The tensions run very high between these two groups that call this place home. But then you have this rabbi and Palestinian talking together. It was inspiring to see people get more engaged.”

Dim prospects? Maybe.

But peace has to start somewhere. As a young missionary, Rev. Campbell-Evans spent three years in South Africa during apartheid. That situation, too, seemed hopeless—until it wasn’t.

Rev. Dr. Mason helped his country end a decades-long stretch of violence many thought might last forever.

And beyond the question of Israel and Palestine, what could the participants in this trip glean that will help them speak out against bigotry, oppression, and hatred at a critical time in the life of The United Methodist Church?

It comes down to faith in the mission to which we are called as Christians.

“It may take time, but we have to keep working to end oppression in whatever form it takes,” Rev. deVega said. “Remember, there is no wasted effort in the kingdom of God.”

Joe Henderson is the News Content Editor for

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