By Gregory Khalil
Photo by Robert Jewett
Some self-proclaimed peacemakers bemoan “politics.” “Politics is the problem.” “We just need to focus on peoples’ hearts.” “There’s just too much division. “I just want to help people and work on reconciliation.”
Some of these sentiments come from a genuine desire to do good, while making the most use of our skills and passions. And these sentiments also acknowledge a truth: Our political process and culture now feels hopelessly broken. “Let’s work around an unjust system,” we feel, “and instead work with the people who really need help.”
But there’s a danger here. One that every peacemaker must consider.
Sometimes, with the purest of intentions, when we aim to help, we harm.
Take Israel/Palestine, for example. There is incredible humanitarian need there. Millions of Palestinians, including millions of children, are largely severed from the rest of the world. Largely living without full agency over their lives.
Building schools, delivering life-saving medicine, and securing access to clean water are all necessary and noble interventions. But Palestine’s crises aren’t caused by natural disaster. Palestinians are educated and industrious. Their immediate and basic needs derive from their political framework. Palestinians could be prosperous and independent. The humanitarian problems we see instead primarily stem from Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian lands and the denial of their basic human rights. Only addressing the symptom—without also addressing its political root cause—can in fact entrench the status quo. Here, if we are not careful, we can indeed do good for a few suffering people while also reinforcing the machine that keeps churning injustices to many others. In short, our good works can cause even greater harm.
This unholy dynamic hits particularly close to home when the people we “serve” suffer in part because of the decisions of others over whom we have some influence—like our politicians, business leaders and even our friends and family. Our “service” then must include wise stewardship of our influence. To affect the root cause of the problem, which lies with the opinions and behaviors of those we know.
Even if it is uncomfortable. Even if we see little chance of success. Even if we don’t fully appreciate our power to influence. Abolitionists fought and risked their lives for generations to dismantle slavery without any credible hope for systemic change in their lifetime. Yet it was the sacrifice they made, in addition to the solidarity they gave, that built the foundation for the successes of future generations. And, beyond that, it was the right thing to do.
Our voices—voiced in varied ways—are essential to any credible and relevant version of peacemaking. And the practice of politics is the realm that carries the most potential for real-world change. For good or for bad.
After all, politics is the way we—who claim such different worldviews—hold a shared conversation about how we use our common resources. Hundreds of billions of tax dollars. Weapons and technology. Influence. The lives and livelihoods of our armed forces.
Changing entrenched political dynamics without changing hearts and minds is typically a lost cause: Culture, after all, is upstream from politics. Our politics, as messy and ugly as they are, often reflect the divisions within our own communities.
But changing entrenched justice issues without changing politics is impossible.
Failing to act and speak in a way that can influence our broader cultural and political conversation, then, can actually perpetuate the injustices we say we seek to remedy.
We must, then, be shrewd. We must also be brave. This means we must, as reluctant as some of us might now feel, be “political.”
That discomfort can soon turn to real gratitude when we see lasting, systemic change for the real people we have come to know and love.
Here are 3 reasons why politics matter and 3 ways how you can step-up your peacemaking game for real-world impact:
One: Why: Politics is Everywhere :: How: Open a “Political” Conversation at your Kitchen Table
Okay, bear with me. This may sound like a nightmare to some of you. But this might just be the key to unleashing your agency and influence.
Consider this: Politics is everywhere. It’s even at your kitchen table.
Again, politics is a conversation about how to allocate shared resources. “Politics” comes from the Greek “polis”—often translated as “city-state” but primarily referring to a “body of people.” On the most local level, we often have different opinions about how we use the family’s limited budget or time. The same is true for the community, or polis.
We can check out from these conversations—within our family or our nation; but checking out doesn’t mean that our decision to disengage is without political consequence.
We all engage in politics, everywhere, all the time. Whether we like it or not.
If you’ve ever had a major family decision in which different folks have different perspectives, you’ve politicked. Voicing your concerns, listening to others, and advocating for a particular position. “Politics” at the community, city, national and even international level involves similar processes of learning, confrontation, and negotiation.
As Americans, we’re citizens of the wealthiest and most powerful country on the face of the planet in the history of humanity. Our “conversations” about how we use tens of billions of dollars at home and abroad have enormous impact. Often, whether there’s war or peace. Which communities or countries prosper and which struggle. Which peoples’ quests for freedom might be heard or ever ignored.
Our opinions, and the opinions of those around us, carry incredible influence—whether or not we see it. Especially when our community has outsized influence on a particular issue, like Israel/Palestine. For Telos, many of you hail from communities that actively support politicians, policies and theologies that drive the crises affecting people you have come to know and love. Standing with your Israeli and Palestinian friends must also mean helping your American friends, neighbors and families change their often unwittingly harmful ways.
Of course, remaining silent is easier. It saves uncomfortable and risky conversations. But we must be honest with ourselves: Our silence might actually aid and abet the very injustices we supposedly decry.
To riff on Martin Luther King, Jr., peacemaking isn’t about an “absence of tension”; it’s about the “presence of justice”.
Peacemaking is dangerous and radical, seeking to disrupt an unholy status quo. By definition, peacemaking will be uncomfortable—and often unpleasant. But if we truly believe in the equality of those around us, we know we cannot allow our discomfort to turn us from what we know to be true.
So peacemaking necessarily means helping those you know learn what you know. Even if they don’t want to know. Even if they think they know all there is to know. This is the primary and radical act of the peacemaker.
To invite or force true dialogue, which will often be tense. And, which, by definition, is political.
In this way, it’s just as important for us to be present and active in our own communities as it is to be on the front lines with those suffering. A different conversation in our own communities often carries the power to eliminate the need for humanitarian assistance elsewhere. For our vulnerable friends to enjoy the basic human rights they yearn for: Freedom, dignity and agency. Not more handouts.
Sparking uncomfortable conversations, then, carries the possibility for real transformation. Inviting tension into relationships you otherwise cherish can catalyze real growth. If we truly are who we say we are—if we truly wish to seek peace and pursue it, as the Psalmist intoned—there is no other way.
Don’t fret. This is a skill you can learn. And even become good at. Here’s our Telos conversation guide to get started learning to excel at and even enjoy having difficult conversations that matter.
Two: Why: Being “political” is a privilege :: How: Vote and/or gift your vote or campaign dollars
Most people around the world don’t have the choice to be “political.” They are subjects of their governments; not owners and co-creators. But we do.
While our voices can feel comparatively small to the will of the uber wealthy or massive corporations, individually—and especially together—we have real potential to change hearts, minds, and even systems. But only if we organize, mobilize and speak up.
So, obviously, at the very least vote. And learn more of these skills before the next election.
But also hold the power of your relative privilege front of mind. For many Pro/Pro/Pro peacemakers, we can choose to stay comfortable. We don’t have to have that difficult conversation. We don’t have to seriously worry about our safety. We can keep going on with our relatively comfortable lives without constant fear and insecurity.
Having choice, or agency, is the very definition of privilege. To decide whether or not we need to take on a particular burden.
Vulnerable people don’t have the same degree of choice. Whether it’s the right to vote, to avoid a tense confrontation, or do more with their day than fight for clean water or food. We, however, can choose to “not take sides”—even though the whole purpose of peacemaking is to take a very clear side: Firmly against the injustice of the current reality and squarely for the future mutual flourishing of all. But we can’t skip ahead to mutual flourishing without working to remedy and heal the very real injustices some of us endure today.
Yet because we have choice, it’s easy to rationalize why our silence ultimately serves a greater good. “It’s not the right time.” “Speaking up will do more harm than good.”
While effective peacemakers must be “wise as serpents”—meaning strategic and innovative—we must still always hold our relative privilege to account. Otherwise, we become complacent—or worse, complicit.
Talk to any of the most vulnerable people you know. If they’re American or feel impacted by our politics, ask them how they would vote and why. Who they would donate money to and why? Ask them how long they’re willing to wait for freedom, justice, or basic rights.
Chances are, while your friend will be quite gracious—they probably love their lives and their families while having learned to carry burdens we can scarcely comprehend—they don’t want to wait another second for those in power to finally awake. Even if they believe that will never happen. While they have learned to navigate an impossibly difficult reality, chances are they won’t say that the way things are is okay. They will never accept that their fundamental human rights should be preconditioned on anything or anyone. Just as you wouldn’t if you were forced to trade places indefinitely with your friend.
So exercise that valuable privilege and vote. And—especially if you haven’t really given much thought to your vote—consider “gifting” your vote or your voice. Call your peacemaker friends in Israel/Palestine. Or, if you’ve been on one of Telos’ recent explorations of the American South, one of your new friends in Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama. Or simply talk to someone who hails from a traditionally marginalized community here in the States. Listen. Without judgment or debate. For understanding. Ask them how they would vote. Who they would donate money to? Consider amplifying their voice—even if you strongly disagree—by voting and donating according to their wishes. Again, without judgment or debate. But with the awareness that their lived experience is legitimate and that you might see the world totally differently if you were forced to carry their burdens.
Three: Why: When we stay on the sidelines, we gift corruption a win :: How: Assume a leadership role or even run for local or national office
We know this to be true, instinctively: When good people step away, bad things happen. Then, we too are to blame.
But this dynamic doesn’t begin in Congress; it begins in our homes and schools and houses of worship—when we consistently avoid difficult conversations about topics that matter.
Ask yourself this: How strong are my relationships if we can’t talk about issues that matter? How superficial or broken are these relationships that I seek to “protect” from discord?
And consider this: Might these relationships in fact ultimately become deeper and more meaningful if I learn how to have difficult conversations? Could this process not only invite tension and discomfort, but also healing and transformation?
The good news here is that the answer is a resounding yes—both on an interpersonal level and on a national level.
Yes, many of us may indeed stumble. We will cause relational harm, some of which may take a long time to repair. But we will have embarked on a necessary journey towards becoming an effective peacemaker. One our community and our world so desperately needs.
And, as you’ll find, you’ll actually begin to draw closer to many more people around you. You’ll learn more about your deepest commitments and biases in the process. Rather than weakening the communal bonds around you, you’ll strengthen them as you find greater depth and even shared purpose.
Telos recently highlighted this brilliant analysis of the current polarized dynamic here in the United States. In it, we learn that two-thirds of Americans constitute an “exhausted majority” while only 14%—on the ideological far left and far right respectively—drive much of the political debate in our country.
It would be foolhardy to assume that most Americans will become as politically active as the highly-motivated margins. But many more desperately do want to be engaged. What’s lacking is a compelling vision coupled with sound leadership to re-energize and motivate many who wish to see our national experiment as more than an “us v. them” zero sum game.
This is where “we” step in. Radical peacemakers and pro/pro/pro activists. Whether on our relationship to the Middle East, or any other myriad set of supposedly intractable issues, “we” are a missing ingredient.
We don’t need to hold ourselves accountable to this tyranny of the margins. Instead, we should recognize that the posture and voice we’ve been sowing and growing is exactly what so many now-exhausted neighbors, friends and political representatives would so desperately welcome. If we spoke up.
Rather than fearing the inevitable backlash from the strident few, we should turn our attention to the gratitude, warmth and solidarity waiting to be gleaned from an otherwise confused and frustrated many.
There is no center without a left and a right; perhaps paradoxically, ideologues on the far left and right create the space for a new and vibrant center to emerge.
But for that new, vibrant and mobilized center to blossom, we must embrace the challenge. It won’t happen on its own. And that means owning “politics” as part and parcel of peacemaking, too.
So seek out board membership with non-profit organizations, faith institutions and advocacy groups. Run for local or national political office. Start a new initiative in your school, business, or world. Yes, if we want to challenge our systems to change, after all, we must be willing to challenge ourselves to change. The personal rewards of leadership often include more criticism and scrutiny than credit or praise; but the costs to those we love of staying on the sidelines can otherwise be catastrophic.
If we truly care about the dignity of all human beings—even those we vehemently disagree with. If we truly believe that we have some measure of responsibility in this world. And if we recognize we have agency, privilege and influence, we must then marshal our energies to do the best we can with whatever we have.
From tough but important conversations with those we love. To how and where we spend our money. To how and with whom we spend our time.
For some of us that could include taking on more formal leadership roles. Perhaps you are the voice your community desperately needs right now, but has yet to hear from? Or are you the worker bee who has time, energy and skill to provide next-level support to an organization or movement you believe in? Don’t sell yourself short.
Whatever you do: stay strong, even when it feels impossible; embody hope, even when we know times are dark; and project your voice, even when you fear you have no chance of being heard.
Become “political,” because using all your gifts and influence for the causes and people you believe in should be worn as a badge of pride, not of shame.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”