My Thesis: Introduction Chapter

Tenative title is “Imagining the Ethics of Diaspora: Interferences in Theology, Sociology, and Philosophy.”

I am just about done the first chapter at this point and it is pretty close to the introduction but the latter might need some tweaking later on. This is one of the few times I have begun a piece of writing with an introduction. They usually come at the end.

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV

Notions of exile and diaspora have received increasing attention in the humanities over the last decade.  Scholars from political theory to religion are drawing on historical and current states of exile to inform their work.  In the field of conflict resolution,[1] however, the influence of diaspora as a resource for thinking about peace and violence has been minimal.  Mainstream conflict resolution is heavily analytic in its understandings of social phenomena such as conflict, violence, and peace, and its methods for resolving conflict emphasize theory and strategy.  The contributions of sociology, anthropology, psychology, and politics are indispensable for contemporary discussions of peace and conflict but they are also insufficient, precisely in their analytic approaches and prescriptive methods.  I turn, therefore, to two discourses that are known for eliciting critical dissent and for pushing the margins of thought—namely, theology and philosophy.  These two discourses are dotted with prophetic voices calling convention into question and institutional powers to accountability.  It is not accidental then that the words of the prophet Jeremiah above will frame and guide the questions raised in this paper.

The notion of diaspora I am working with is grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition and has been taken up by a number of Christian theologians over the years to inform ecclesiology, eschatology, ecumenism, and ethics.  The context for the Jeremian exhortation above is prophetic counsel for the people of God living in exile, as foreigners in another city.  Living in exile is perhaps an unimaginable notion for much of western Christianity.  We tend to think ourselves quite at home in the world, relegating, as a result, the prophetic word above to its particular place in history; while acknowledging it as part of our Christian story, it is clearly irrelevant for us today. But on what grounds, really, can we consider ourselves anything other than strangers in the world?  Our North American cities are built on land that belongs to people who lived here before us. We were guests, foreigners, whose domiciliary relationship with this land is a result of war, conquest, and colonization.  Another way in which we are strangers in the world has to do with the eschatological tension in which the church lives.  We believe that the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ has already inaugurated a new world order but that it has not yet fully arrived.  We live in this world with anticipation for a transformed and new creation.  In a sense then, we are not at home in this world because things are not the way they should be, or will be.

Furthermore, our ways of living at home in this world have proven destructive, violent, and at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus we profess to follow.  By making ourselves at home, by seeking to overcome our exile, our strangeness, we have habituated what one might call a colonial ethic.  We have convinced ourselves that our welfare – our peace, freedom, and well being – is secured through domination, control, and coercion.  Our resources for conflict resolution and peacebuilding have likewise been limited to such a colonial approach.  Where we were first guests and foreigners, who used the hospitality offered to us for our own ends and own advantage, we have now become hostages to our habits of thought and life.  I submit that the exilic character of the people of God, the Christian church, has important resources for thinking about ethics, and more specifically approaches to conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

John Howard Yoder, John Paul Lederach, and Jacques Derrida, are all critical of mainstream ethics.  Coming from three different disciplines (theology, sociology, and philosophy) each provide their own particular evaluation of problems with current efforts in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, as well as offering new and different ways of thinking about ethics.  The approaches of these three figures can be characterized as post or non-colonial.  Both the substance of their messages as well as the style or method of their critique, engage in ways of thinking and forms of life that effectively renounce domination, control, and coercion, preferring instead postures of servanthood, vulnerability, and non-violence. They help us move from a colonial ethic towards a non-colonial or diasporic one.  This paper will examine the contribution of each of the three figures to contemporary ethics and more specifically their resources for diasporic approaches to conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

John Howard Yoder was perhaps the most prominent Mennonite theologian of the twentieth century.  His influential work The Politics of Jesus suggests, contrary to conventional ethical debate (even within Christianity), that the Gospel of Jesus is not only relevant to political and ethical thought but that Christ on the cross inaugurates a new political and moral reality that is comprised of those who proclaim His Lordship.[2]  Yoder’s major contribution to ethics is not, however, that Jesus was political, but rather, his arguments for how, in what way, Jesus was so—that is, the character of the politics of Jesus.  The focal point for this discussion is Emperor Constantine.  Yoder uses the term ‘constantinianism’ to name a shift in the ecclesiology and eschatology of the Christian church from Constantine to the present.  This shift is historically marked by the amalgamation of the church with the Empire in the 4th Century under Constantine.  Prior to this shift, the church was a persecuted minority, whereas it had a handle on imperial power thereafter.[3]  This notion of constantinianism is lifted out of its historical setting and functions further as a name for the church’s continuous and multifarious tendency/ temptation to collude with and support imperial powers.  This is problematic for Yoder because it is at odds with the Gospel Christians proclaim—that is, the Lordship of Jesus in the world.

The story of Babel in Genesis 11 is another occasion in the Christian narrative where the people of God seek to absolutize their community and take control of their history.  Yoder’s account suggests that while the idolatry of the builders of Babel is sinful, their subsequent dispersion (galuth) is not only punitive but also missional.  The confusion of languages is a diversification that is a gift.  Such diversification “is “confusion” only when measured against the simplicity of imperially enforced uniformity.”[4]  Jeremiah’s advice for a scattered and ‘confused’ people calls for a new way of being (ethics) in the world that is enabled and characterized by exile and strangeness.  It is a model for how the people of God are to live under imperial power.  Diaspora names an ecclesial and ecumenical alternative to the imperial ethic of Babel.  Both Babel and constantinianism name temptations to absolutize a community under one univocal language and to take control of history in order to move it forward.  In such a community ecclesiology becomes homogenous and exclusive, and ecumenism is imposing and coercive at best.  The prophetic voice of Jeremiah calls the people of God out of Babel, identifying the subsequent diversity and multiplicity as a blessing and a mission.

Fundamental to mainstream conflict resolution is the assumption that conflict is unequivocally bad.  It is additionally believed that conflict is caused, at least on some level, by irreconcilable differences.  As a result, conventional approaches concern themselves with resolving conflicts by resolving differences.  The most common method for this (widely upheld as the best approach) is to begin by seeking common ground among multiple perspectives, beliefs, and practices in order to establish a foundation on which to build peace.  In the paradigm of conflict resolution, peace names the overcoming of differences.  I want to question the necessity of establishing a common foundation in order to build peace as well as the belief that conflict and difference are inherently un-peaceful, or violent, and must therefore be redefined within a common identity.  The alternative to Babel is diaspora and the alternative to constantinianism is the wisdom of the cross.  Both diaspora and the wisdom of the cross (as outlined in Yoder’s work) name ways of being that are characterized by vulnerability, weakness, and the renunciation of control for the peace and welfare of the city.  Diversity and multiplicity constitute the people of God seeking the welfare of the city.  Difference is not an obstacle to peace; rather, it is a gift that enables a non-colonial, a non-violent, ethic.

Yoder provides an important critique of contemporary ethics but his constructive material for an alternative to conflict resolution remains minimal. The work of John Paul Lederach in a sense takes up where Yoder leaves off.  A particular way in which one can think about seeking the welfare of the city is in terms of peace and conflict transformation.  Lederach sees in contemporary peacebuilding approaches the same kind of residual imperialism as Yoder describes with constantinianism.  As a peace practitioner and trainer, Lederach has observed a variety of training models and is critical of certain training trends that are aligned with imperial ethics.  The various characteristics of training are described by two models, a prescriptive and an elicitive model.  The difference between the two models turns upon the question of knowledge.  In a prescriptive approach the trainer functions as an expert whose knowledge both of the nature of conflict as well as the methods of resolution are transferred to the trainees.  The trainer has mastered a set of strategies and techniques that are prescribed to the trainees in a given conflict situation.  This creates an epistemological divide between the trainer and trainees in which the former possesses the necessary knowledge and the latter receive and master it.  While this approach is not disembodied per se, insofar as it still teaches skills, knowledge has been separated from its location; knowledge is given to bodies in order to be acted upon.  The elicitive approach, in contrast, sees the group of trainees and their real experiences of conflict as the primary source of knowledge for developing models and skills of peacebuilding.  The role of the trainer is to elicit and facilitate knowledge about understanding the conflict and imagining ways to build peace.[5]  While it is important to remember that these two models name extremes on a spectrum of approaches, it becomes evident how the elicitive approach might embody a non-colonial ethic.  While he does not call it diasporic, Lederach’s elicitive approach can be read as a fleshing out of the Jeremian model of living in the world, of seeking the peace of the city.

As an elaboration of the elicitive approach, Lederach conceives of conflict transformation and peacebuilding as the cultivation of a moral imagination.  This particular kind of imagination is formed through four disciplines: “the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence.”[6]  These disciplines are rooted in the lives of those who experience a particular conflict while imagining ways to transcend the cycles of violence.  In other words, the moral imagination names “the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.”[7]  This is essentially the task of Israel: to seek the welfare of their oppressors, their enemies, while living under imperial Babylonian rule.

Understanding conflict within a paradigm of transformation (instead of resolution) allows for a corporeal epistemology, i.e., ways of knowing, understanding, and imagining that are rooted in particular landscapes of violence.  Disciplines, contrary to technique, cannot be abstracted from the space and time in which they emerge and are exercised; they are embodied rather than mastered, practiced instead of applied. To this extent they are also non-violent.  I will explore how the disciplines of the moral imagination name concrete ways of being in the world that are derived from particular settings of conflict and are not universally applicable or a priori transferable to other peacebuilding locations.  Insofar as conflict transformation is characterized by an elicitive (rather than imposed/prescribed) approach and various disciplines (rather than mastered techniques) it can be understood as part of the Jeremian model I have been sketching.

The work of Jacques Derrida helps us to think about the prophetic notion of return in which the diasporic community hopes and how their understanding of eschatology, their future in God’s world, shapes their ethic.  The prophetic word cultivates a particular kind of understanding of and relationship with the eschaton.  It is significant that it was the false prophets who preached imminent return and restoration.  Any attempt by the exile community to re-establish itself as a nation among other nations is interrupted or postponed by the insistence that this is the work of the Messiah who is to come.

Derrida’s notion of différance helps us to understand the way in which the constant delay of the return, the messianic, forms a particular kind of ethic that resists the imperial/idolatrous temptation that exiled Israel faced.  Différance names both phenomenological difference (spacing) and deferral in time (temporization).  Derrida takes issue with what is known as the metaphysics of presence.  The difference of the ‘a’ in difference or différance is only apparent in writing, the difference between the words is hidden in speech.  Because the difference remains written and can never enter speech it does not enter the order of presence.  The absence of the ‘a’ in speech reminds us that difference is never fully present; it is non-phenomenological because we constantly fail to present it immediately in speech. Saying différance never presents the difference of the ‘a’; the phenomenological appearance of the ‘a’ in speech is deferred and only a trace of it remains in writing.[8] Derrida’s thought here quickly becomes obscure without an illustration of différance at play.  His most lucid work with différance and most pertinent to our endeavour is on forgiveness and reconciliation.  He argues that forgiveness is constantly deferred in space and time because its phenomenological presence never arrives.  In other words, in processes of reconciliation the finality and closure that forgiveness names is not reached.  Forgiveness is therefore impossible; it cannot be achieved.  However, it is precisely the impossibility of forgiveness that makes the work of reconciliation possible.  The deferral of forgiveness effectively enables the continuity of reconciliation, lest we think we have arrived at the final solution.[9]

Likewise, in the effort of the diasporic community to seek the welfare of the city, any understanding of arriving at Zion is deferred, lest Israel think that it has achieved its final purpose in history.  The arrival at Zion is impossible, and yet it is that very impossibility that for Derrida makes the ethics of Zion, the welfare of the city, possible.  This is the aporetic relationship between welfare and Zion, reconciliation and forgiveness.  It is impossible to arrive at Zion (Israel’s ultimate vision), and yet it is precisely the hope in the welfare of the city (and of all the nations) that enables them to “marry their children, buy land and eat its produce, build houses […and to] make a virtue and a cultural advantage of their being resident aliens, not spending their substance in fighting over civil sovereignty.”[10]  Diaspora and Zion are irreconcilable but indissociable.

In international conflict resolution efforts the prominent language of peace accords tends to replicate the metaphysics of presence.  The promises for peace by top level actors, who are often far removed from the effects of violence, are held up as ideal solutions capable of bringing about an end to conflict.  Derrida’s notion of différance puts the primacy of top level peace agreements within conflict resolution paradigms into question.  Instead of accepting such accords as the achievement of peace, they are re-inscribed as the work of reconciliation among many other forms of reconciliation.  That Derrida pushes us to assert that peace is impossible is not a cry of cynicism and an annihilation of ethics; rather, when peace functions as a transcendental placeholder, a vision whose arrival is constantly deferred, the very practices of conflict transformation are given room to play in space and time.  This renders peace-building a continuous (temporization) and dynamic (spacing) work.

John Howard Yoder, John Paul Lederach, and Jacques Derrida represent the traditions of theology, sociology, and philosophy, respectively.  They are also voices of dissent in each of their disciplines, straying from convention, rendering the world strange once again in order to open up spaces to imagine new ways of thinking and being.  Although Lederach is the only figure who finds himself explicitly in the field of conflict resolution, Yoder and Derrida’s concerns with ethics provide illuminating interplays with the field.  This thesis is particularly addressed to those interested in questions of peace and conflict whether they find their primary foothold in the discipline of theology, sociology, or philosophy.  Readers will notice that the categorical rigidity of these disciplines becomes blurred as I meddle with their margins.  Interlocking the three figures (and their disciplines) is the theme of diaspora, and its multifaceted ethic of living well as strangers in the world.  This thesis is therefore perhaps best read as an exercise in imagining the ethics of diaspora: interferences with theology, sociology, and philosophy.


[1] I intentionally use the term “conflict resolution” here instead of “conflict transformation” to designate a paradigmatic difference between the two that will become clearer later on.  The former term and paradigm are predominant in the mainstream.

[2] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[3] Yoder’s use of the term ‘constantinism’ is contested, most recently in Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010). 

[4] John Howard Yoder, “See How They Go with Their Face to the Sun,” in For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 63.

[5] John Paul Lederach, Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 64. Emphasis mine.

[6] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: OUP, 2005), 5.

[7] Ibid., ix.

[8] Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

[9] Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (New York: Routledge, 2001).

[10] Yoder, “See How They Go,” 65, 71.

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