Friday, June 17, 2011

Reading Reflections: Justpeace Ethics by Jarem Sawatsky

One of my goals this summer is to read. More specifically, I am reading the books that I wanted to read during the school year but did not have the time. The best thing about this project is that the stack of books on my desk all fall into three familiar categories—peace studies, biblical studies, and theology. That the books I choose to read in the summer reflect the disciplines in which I spend the academic year means that I am studying what I love. I am thankful for the opportunity to do just that.

One of the first books I read this summer, which was a quick but worthwhile read, was Justpeace Ethics by Jarem Sawatsky. The title caught my eye, and the book presented a solid ethical framework for peacebuilding. I would like to reflect on two concepts that I found particularly helpful in the book:

1. Ethics as common ground.

Sawatsky argues that “if it is true that common virtues are a potential meeting place for different traditions, then ethics (the dialogue of which guides action) could provide a powerful meeting place for different disciplines or even different religious traditions that are interested in peace and justice work” (12). He points out that while the actions and narratives of groups may be very different, the virtues of the groups often overlap. A good example of this would be two different faith traditions that share a commitment to nonviolence; this shared virtue may be informed by different narratives, and it may lead each tradition to act differently, but the central virtue of nonviolence is at the core of both groups. Building peace on ethical common ground both embraces the particularity of each group and points toward the possibility of a shared future—both of which are necessary for sustainable peace and reconciliation. For this reason, I agree with Sawatsky that ethics has the potential to be a powerful space of common ground in the work of peacebuilding.

2. Responsibility > Guilt.

While this was not one of the central points of the book, I found it to be a significant one. Sawatsky briefly contrasts guilt and responsibility, explaining that “guilt is an inward self-orientation that paralyzes the soul” while “responsibility orients the heart toward the other” (80). Too often, I have experienced efforts for peace and justice that are rooted in guilt rather than responsibility. For example, making the choice to shop more ethically out of a sense of guilt rather than a sense of responsibility. Guilt-motivated decisions are made not out of love for others but out of fear for one’s own feelings. While I have felt this tension in my own life, the life of the church, and beyond, Sawatsky’s reflections on guilt and responsibility helped me articulate the problem with and the alternative to guilt-motivated thinking. Further, his ethical framework pairs responsibility with empowerment, serving as a reminder that true responsibility can only take root when people are empowered to actively participate in the struggle for justice (76). After all, “responsibility without empowerment is like living with a dictator” (84).

On the whole, Justpeace Ethics helped me clarify the virtues that inform the ways in which I think about and act for peace. By naming the virtues that shape the broad and diverse field of peacebuilding, Sawatsky helped me identify many virtues that I did not realize shape my understanding of peace. And perhaps most importantly, I began to understand that by identifying the virtues that inform my identity and work as a peacebuilder, I am unearthing the fertile soil of common ground—the foundation not only of a justpeace ethic, but of justpeace itself.

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